Thursday, February 24, 2011

Seattle Theatre Round-Up--From a Safe Distance

Greetings, snow-bound Seattle, from sunny (though chilly) Santa Fe! I'm at a writer's retreat organized, operated and funded by me, though props to my Mother for providing the cozy condo where I sit and think and write.

Mostly what I've been reading are mysteries to give me some insight into a new play. And mostly what I've been thinking about is how ridiculously blessed, and maybe cursed, we are in Seattle to have so much theatre going on.

Santa Fe's reputation as an arts community is certainly justified. If you're in the mood for visual art, opera and lots and lots of tango (why tango?), this is the place to come. It's also got a theatre scene that seems...well, I'd call it proportionate. There's a good-sized venue for visiting companies (The Lensic), a couple of mid-sized companies with an interest in new work (Santa Fe Playhouse, TheatreWorks), some companies connected to local colleges and universities, and a scattering of fringe companies. That's pretty good for a town this size, and from what I read in the local media, audiences considered themselves pretty fortunate.

But Seattle has SO much theatre going on ALL the time. In the past couple of weeks I went to no less than half a dozen shows at venues ranging from the gargantuan (The Paramount,
Rock of Ages) to the very large indeed (Seattle Rep, The Brothers Size) to the mid-sized professional (Taproot, The Odyssey; Seattle Shakespeare, Cymbeline, Second Story Repertory, Much Ado About Nothing) to the fringe (Theater Schmeater, Crooked; Man Alone, Three Screams). I had invites to three or four other shows that I simply couldn't make it to, despite my best intentions.

During my years as a critic, it was routine for me to see three or four shows a week, and still receive complaints from companies that I was ignoring them. While there's not as many productions going on now as in those glory years of the late '90s, there's still more theatre going on than any sane person could expect to see--though I appreciate the bloggers out there who, following in the footsteps of the legendary Seattle theatre collector Joe Boling, post gargantuan lists of all the shows they've seen in a month or in a year.

Every time I get out of town for a few days, it becomes clear to me that the story we all too easily forget is that Seattle is one of the most theatre-rich communities in the country. Even after the multi-species extinctions of the past 10 years (most notably the Seattle Fringe Festival and The Empty Space), the variety of live performance offered in venues across the city is astonishing, and I'm a fortunate man to get a chance to see so much of it. As an audience member it's exhilarating
, and as a theatre artist it's the best continuing education in how to write, produce and direct that I could ask for.

But since I'm no longer a critic, what do I say about these shows? The way that I experience theatre these days is so much more about particular moments that fascinate me, not a whole production. What I look for and often find are ways of engaging an audience that are different and unexpected. Sometimes this lasts an entire production--from the moment the lights go up on that big stack of tires and that slab of concrete in
The Brothers Size, I was aware that I was watching something performed in a wholly original theatrical language. Tarell Alvin McCraney has a confidence and fluency in not only his dialogue but his themes that is little short of gorgeous, and raises what seems a small story of the conflicts between two brothers into the realms of dream and myth. At other times it's a fleeting observation in a well-known script--why, I kept asking myself in watching Second Story's Much Ado, did Shakespeare create a clever and witty character like Mary, Hero's serving girl, but then make her silent when she surely realizes she's been tricked into the machinations of the evil Don Juan against her mistress?

At other times my delight and exasperation with a work continue their argument long after the show's over. How can an author create characters so real and with such subtle insight as
Catherine Trieschmann does in the Schmee's Crooked, whose mother and daughter spar in ways that are as authentic as a transcript, yet seemingly lose interest in these same characters three quarters of the way through her own script? Or what was it about Three Screams that seemed so even-handed on the page, where three different monologues fit together with the detailed intent of a triptych, yet felt so oddly lopsided in performance? (Although hats off to all three actors in the show, particularly my past comrades-in-arms Brandon Ryan and Erin Ison, and big smooches for presenting a World Premiere by a gifted Seattle playwright.)

And can a man who owned every Styx album truly give an unbiased report on the merits and demerits of Rock of Ages? (Oh lord the book was a mess, oh my the performances were uneven, and oh yes I had a smile on my face through practically the entire three hours.)

I was a theatre critic once--a paid professional, and according to people I trust, I was good at my job. But these days I feel like that mechanism is broken. Maybe I've seen too many shows, or written, directed and produced too many of them. All I know is that while I know what I like and usually even why I like it, I no longer believe I know what you will like or why. My objectivity is out the window. And really, is that a bad thing? In the blogger age, not only is everyone a critic, but everyone now has the means of publishing. What I hope for a theatre-stuffed town like Seattle is that we could actually receive coverage of everything that's out there. It won't be as easy to sort through the blogs, postings and reviews as it was when there were four papers in town and maybe five critics. But the effort might sharpen up the reader's own critical opinions a bit. And when you become a critic of criticism, you're on the way to a deeper understanding of the art itself.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Intiman and Its Critics--Which For Once, Ain't Me

Seattle brews its schadenfreude potent.

For a city that has a reputation of being overly nice, I'm often taken aback by how mean the dialogue can get here. Take for example the current blogging frenzy over the report from Intiman Theatre that they're a million bucks in the hole and need to raise some cash fast or they're going under.

Here's Misha's take over in the Times:

Now, I'm not a true blue fan of Intiman. In truth I was never all that crazy about Bart Sher's work (which generally struck me as intellectually slick but empty), and I haven't seen enough of Ms. Whoriskey's productions to really give an opinion, though it sort of seems as an administrator she's probably in over her head. Since I've been in town they've had the worst track record of any of the mainstages when it comes to local hire, and as for their present woes it's clear that there has been financial mismanagement, even if it's not at all clear as to who mismanaged what--though I'm guessing there's plenty of blame to go around.


Every day seems to add yet another blogger exuberantly cavorting around to their own version of the "I told you so!" dance. Comparisons to police shootings, banking bailouts, and practically every other contemporary villain are evoked, usually with a few potshots reserved for poor programming choices or the age of Intiman's audiences. Occasionally there's also a gruff line of social Dawinism included to the effect of "I'm glad they're dying. Now there will be space/audiences/funding for a
real Seattle theatre."

What's really tiresome about all of this is that it's the same ridiculous line that was being voiced when the Seattle Fringe Festival went down in 2003 and the Empty Space in 2007. And neither of these valuable institutions have in any way, shape or form found a replacement.

The reason's simple: artistically, financially, and in all other ways, it's a LOT harder to start a theatre or a theatre festival than it is to maintain one.

When a theatre dies, in this town anyway, there's not some sort of magical opportunity to "recreate Seattle theatre." The goods are sold off, the staff are laid off and a good number leave town, the Equity contracts evaporate, the audiences head elsewhere (and not always to other theatres), and what was, for all its flaws and faults, an actual operating non-profit theatre company becomes another unnecessary rental.

So if you don't want to support Intiman's attempts to pull itself back from the brink, fine. No one is demanding that you do so. But really, is it too much to ask for an end to this unseemly gloating? This isn't good news, friends, no matter how bitter you might be that you didn't get asked to audition for Bart or that they never got around to reading your play. And your kicks at an institution that's already on its knees don't reflect well on you.