Thursday, April 24, 2008

Critiquing the Critics, a guest spot.

I'm not entirely enamored with Tony Adams' "Critiquing the Critics" project, but I do agree with holding criticism to standard as much as criticism is trying to hold theatre to a standard. And since Tony is otherwise engaged and has temporarily suspended the project, I feel the need to step up and address what appears to me to be a critical injustice in Tom Williams' recent Not Recommended review of 18: A Year With Footnotes, penned by Michael Burgan.

In the interest of full disclosure, Michael Burgan is a friend of mine and I have seen the show. However, the injustice I perceive is not because I am friends with Michael, or even because the show is Not Recommended -- the show certainly has its problems, Michael Leslie's performance being a large chunk of them -- but Williams's position as a critic demands a degree of accuracy and reason that I fail to see in this review.

Jean Cocteau, in his preface to The Eiffel Tower Wedding Party, wrote, speaking of new work:

"[Critics] forget that they are at a performance which must be followed as attentively as a "popular success." They think that they are watching a sort of street carnival. A conscientious critic who would never think of writing, "The Duchess kisses the Steward" instead of "The Steward presents a letter to the Duchess" in his review of one of these "legitimate" dramas, will not hesitate, reviewing Wedding Party, to make the Bicycle Girl or the Collector come out of the camera - which is absurd enough."

While I am a friend of Michael's, I met him since I have moved to Chicago. Prior to seeing this show, I knew as little about the past presented in 18 as Tom Williams did. Yet, reading through the review, I can point out a number of factual errors in the plot, from simple timeline errors to shortchanging an entire lovely and complex relationship by referring to Jaime as "the only girl he knows" -- a ridiculous statement for anyone who has ever been 18.

Now, I understand that you only get one go around and it is impossible to get a show's plot down word for word. Mistakes are bound to happen. And in an instance such as Faster, for example, where it wasn't uncommon to have a review refer to the play as set in Chicago or an unnamed suburb (it was very specifically Joliet) or referring incorrectly to my character as the older of two brothers, I can understand the mix-ups. The play doesn't revolve around these facts and if you miss an expository line or two in an already fast moving show, you've lost your one chance to get them straight.

But this is an autobiographical one man show. There's no weird elliptical plot structure going on, no spiderweb of interlocking character studies, no red herrings or MacGuffins. It's a straightforward story of the events in this man's life. Meaning getting the events straight is pretty important. Compound this with the fact that the glut of almost all of Williams' reviews consists of him retelling the plot in detail and it becomes very important. Compound this with the fact that this is a self-produced one-man show running off nights in one of the smallest venues in the city, meaning the show will get zero press and that even a review on is a big deal, and suddenly it becomes essential that Williams provide a portrayal consistent with the show being produced.

But questionable accuracy is one thing; questionable reason is a whole new ballgame. From Williams' review:

"Burgan’s life story doesn’t contain enough compelling events to sustain a 90 minute play."

Those events, as listed in Williams review, include: a near fatal sledding accident, skipping Senior Prom to drop acid with "the only girl he knows", virginity-driven suicidal thoughts in Venice, a sexual relationship and eventual marriage to his high school teacher, a stint as a roadie for a rock group, and his friend ("the only girl he knows") self-destructing into a whirlwind of drugs. Now, I ask any playwright in the blogosphere, because I know there are many: given an outline of the above events, do you feel you could create a compelling 90 minute play? And a question for the entire class: How many 90 minute (and longer) plays have been sustained by less?

If Williams doesn't find the play compelling, that's perfectly valid. But I shudder to find the person who's life story doesn't contain enough compelling events to sustain a 90 minute play. Or the audience who judges the value of the story by the extremity of the events therein (and has a bar set as high as Tom).

And that closing line? I don't have the time or energy to deconstruct the term "vanity project" and how it at once applies to all and no theatre, but suffice it to say that anything being called a vanity project on smacks of deep, deep irony.

I don't know if Michael will read this or not, but for the sake of honesty, it's not an amazing production. The acting is limp and, as will be the case with small self-produced one man shows, the staging is bare-boned in a less than appealing way. But it is an bracingly honest show, and the words, if not always played compellingly, are much more often than not grounded in a stark emotional nudity -- a nudity at times gleeful and others shameful -- which is always compelling no matter the story being told.

Working on Tom's scale, I would probably only give is a Somewhat Recommended. I can understand a critic giving it a Not Recommended. But in doing so, especially when the critic is likely the only outside authority available to a potential audience and one who only tends to give out a small percentage of Not Recommended ratings, the critic needs to be able to represent the show, not the scribblings on his notepad after. Not an easy task and not one I envy -- I much prefer my opinion to a representative one. But that's why I don't pretend to be a critic so much as just plain opinionated.


Unrelated offshoot:

Despite not, as of yet, having a Don Nigro convo with Ronan (and now Slay), I have continued delving, as I am wont to do. Anima Mundi utilized a formal tarot element that I had been toying with myself and contained some beautiful moments towards the conclusion, but was all in all much less inspiring than Ardy or Armitage. But Glamorgan is treating me well and starting to fully set in place Nigro's stylistic and thematic leanings and why they are clicking with me (and some I wouldn't have expected to click with me.)

Rockin' dude, that. I'm definitely on a kick.


Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Don Nigro? Anybody?

I was in the library doing my darndest to find some American playwrights I both enjoyed and was unfamiliar with and came across a bevy of stuff by Don Nigro. Who is this man with a name out of 18th century Italy, I thought, and grabbed a couple of his works. I've read Ardy Fafirsin and Armitage in as many days and am in awe by almost every aspect of his work. I have a lot of plays in my head that I want to see on stage, but I'm one of those (playwright-hated) conceptualists; it's very rarely that I want to see a play onstage exactly as written. Don Nigro's already chalked up two to that small list.

After some oh so brief Googling, I've mainly discovered that the man is insanely prolific and rarely produced in Chicago (although WNEP did put up Grotesque Lovesongs -- any input, Don?). Who's got Don Nigro insights to share? Maybe just recommendations of where to go next or similar 'wrights?


In an unrelated footnote, things I believe:

I celebrate artists that are able to forge a deep and vibrant connection to me through their work. The manner, intent, history, and outside opinion of the work is encyclopedic claptrap for press agents, historians, and theorists. It is of great use when studying art but only serves to water down and distract from the actual experience of the piece.


Monday, April 14, 2008

What is and is not substantial...

Art is useless if the artist doesn't come out with as many questions as the audience.

Art is useless if the artist doesn't come out with as many answers as the audience.

Art is useless if the artist and the audience are asking the same questions and getting the same answers.

What is valuable to me is valuable to me, I cannot speak for anyone else. What I create is what is valuable to me, I cannot create for anyone else.


Friday, April 11, 2008

This Week's Props

I applaud the bike messenger I keep seeing with the intricate facial tattoos. It's a strong person who can make life work around their decisions rather than making their decisions work within life.


Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Wednesday morning snippet

"Deserve" is one of the ugliest words in the English language. The sum of what people "deserve" is unfailingly more than what exists.


Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Am I that transparent?

It's my blog. Let's talk about me for a second.

No really, though, let me ramble a little bit on what I want, what I believe, and where I'm coming from. Because there may be some confusion.

Don's got me pegged (sorry to single you out, Don -- well, a little sorry; these things are good for my readership, dontcha know): from the comments on my last post:

"I get where you're coming from - "Leave me alone to do MY thing, man" and as far as any of this is concerned, no one seems to be stopping you from doing just that..."

And, in a comment from his blog about actors jumping ship on shows, also dated yesterday:

"Bottom line, PR, you couldn't give two shits about any of this and just wanted to put on your rebel-hairshirt and cry "Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me!" I get that - my rebel-hairshirt is worn and likely older than you are."

Now, I'm not posting this to prove myself to Don, or to anyone for that matter, so much as to get incoherent streams of what feels true to me onto paper (cyberpaper, that is). This is really the only appropriate place to do that.

*knuckles cracking*

When you boil me down to the very simplistics as an artist, the first things that get stripped away are the outside concerns - commercial, social, economical, environmental, anything that is outside the form. I create because there are things in my head that I want to see that I have as yet been unable to find elsewhere. It's as simple as that. Not everything that I have been unable to find is something that I want to see and not everything thing that I want to see have I been unable to find. As an artist, I'm not concerned with those two sides of the Venn diagram. What I revel in is where Column A and Column B meet.

It never fails that the first question I get asked when talking about a project boiling around in my head is some variant of "Why?". And everyone gets asked that question. Endlessly. I realize I'm not alone, but no three letters bristle me more. The why is irrelevant. Why implies a greater purpose. Art requires no greater purpose. Art is a greater purpose. Why do I create what I create? Because it doesn't exist and it should. Why should it? Because it will be good. Why will it be good? Because I and doubtlessly at least a few others will take pleasure from its existence. Why should others care? What else can I say but because it will be good, because it will be something that they have not experienced before, because it will be a more expansive choice than not caring?

My art likely isn't going to feed starving children in Ethiopa, provide world peace, change a Bears fan to a Brecht fan or sell more laundry detergent. And if it does do any of those things, it still doesn't matter, because that's not its purpose. Art is art. Art needs to exist, and only needs to exist. There's no reason to expand beyond that. That is gift enough. And I have art in my head that does not exist. My mission statement, and my only mission statement, is to change that.

And so I can't get passionately behind all of this up-with-theatre social action on the blogosphere. I'll support it, sure, but it all mumbles together for me. And while I am in a similar position as Bob, it's also not the same call that he's making -- it's not that I want to see less talk and more action. The whole shebang just seems superfluous to me. On the one hand, art and its effects on us are inexplicable, but, at the same time, it seems to me that we're making the process more complex than it needs to be. Making art is a one-step process. In fact, Bob, here's my recipe for your collection:

A Recipe to Make Art

Step 1: Make Art.

That's it! It's that easy! Yeah, if one has other goals, then the process is a little more complex. But then it's about the other goals, not the art. And there's my problem, I guess. I'm not interested in these other goals. Artistically, I'm mainly concerned with art.

Everything else on here, as Don would say, it part rebel-hairshirt. But only part. It's also part philosophy. Most discussions I have on the blogosphere don't have much of anything to do with art, as far as I'm concerned. I'm cool with that -- I also enjoy challenging thoughts and having my thoughts challenged. That's one of the greater purposes of the blogosphere for me. But everything I argue I truly believe. Contrarianism is only a fault if it is a goal. "I meant what I said and I said what I meant" -- Dr. Suess knows his shit.

There. Make of that what you will.