Monday, September 29, 2008

Ne travaillez jamais

"Never work" -- Anonymous graffiti, rue de Seine Paris 1952

An artist is a person who watches the world crumble and smiles at the horizon of rubble left behind.

Happy Monday, Dow!


Monday, September 22, 2008

Block Par-Tay!

So there were some last minute adjustments this weekend. I was informed late Friday afternoon that I had won passes to Hideout's Block Party. There was a moment's hesitation while I considered the fact that not only did I have a show each night, I also had tickets for a matinee each afternoon. But only a moment, because the second I checked the lineup and saw Ratatat's name, it was no contest. By the time I noticed Tim Fite, Hercules and Love Affair, Mucca Pazza, and Dan Le Sac vs. Scroobius Pip, the deal couldn't have been more sealed. And that's not even counting the headliners that I couldn't see because of Dracula.

So I gave away my Dr. Egg ticket and let my Threepenny reservation go to waste in favor of a weekend that proved to have just as many if not possibly more theatrical lessons. No one that I was looking forward to disappointed, but I was especially pleased with Ratatat after rushing straight from my show to catch the last half of their set, and Tim Fite, who's urban backwoods meld of hip-hop and autotherapy had me wanting to nod my head in busted beat agreement, if only I could figure out what exactly that entailed. And everyone got free watermelon (some more airborne than others), as if we even needed an added bonus...

But, naturally, the best part was the discoveries. And in particular, the band that stole the weekend (except maybe for the zombie Thriller dance party, which I hear I would have loved, had I not been Draculating): Monotonix, the loudest band in Israel. Setting up in the parking lot among the crowd, the trio literally threw themselves headfirst into their set, lighting pieces of their equipment on fire, crowd-surfing in a trashcan, leading the audience on stage until it reached the point of near collapse (believe you me, I can verify this), standing atop a large hardfoam elephant on multiple occasions, playing atop an audience-built human/bass drum pyramid, sitting atop said bass drum hoisted by the crowd while playing drums hoisted by other crowd members, leading an anti-rain dance that may be the most chaotic thing I've been a part of lately, and often dousing themselves and others with beer grabbed from random bystanders. Also, this all took place in the span of a twenty minute set, the first five of which was spent trying to figure out just what the fuck was going on by all but the most rabid and prepared fans. It was the most joyous maelstrom in the world, constantly two inches from going completely south, but held together by the scotch tape and popsicle sticks of everyone having too damn much fun to fuck it up.

It wasn't until later, when me and my friend were discussing the set on our way to Dracula that I realized that the whole thing only appeared to be ready to run off the rails because we were weighing it against how these things work in polite society, and that a level of enjoyment that rampant is so much more adhesive than I had given it credit for. Anyone within the 20 foot radius that was striking distance for the band were ready, and more likely eager, to be involved in the Monotonix live experience. The group (musical and audience) was so chaotically gleeful that it would have taken serious effort to actually piss them off. It was, as we termed it on the drive, a happy riot. Sure, the whole things was said and done in twenty minutes, and while people would have taken more, everyone tacitly understood that twenty minutes was about right -- that these things end as soon as they begin, and the wisdom is in accepting that and enjoying the full twenty as they pass. And then we scattered. But we were all smiling.

The natural progression is why not theatre? Where is the theatrical equivalent to Monotonix? Or Ratatat, who while less frenetic, inspired just as much dancing and joy with nary a lyric and the sparsest of stage banter? And as I formulate those questions I realize what I'm actually asking for isn't the actual crowd ebb and flow; that music is by its very nature a more physical art form and will more likely result in these guttural reactions. No, what I'm seeking is a theatrical equivalent which can bring an audience to the same point of abandon. What I want to see is an audience who is completely unabashedly reactionary to their enjoyment of a work, despite or even compounded by the fact that those reactions are every bit as influential on the tone of the show.

The stumbling stones to this atmosphere are obvious: we've set up and thus made concrete the idea of the performance as a place of right and wrong choices, a place where not only is there a correct series of events, but even worse, the performers have, through weeks of browbeating the right path, trained themselves to glide over 'mistakes' and unexpectancies as if they don't occur. As this renders the gaffes no less noticeable, it also serves to entitle the audience to condemn the work, which isn't a problem until the realization that the condemned are the ones writing the laws by which they are being hung. And that, by embracing uncertainty, they could be exploring the rules instead of working in fear of them.

But that's a different discussion. The whole thing relates to the topic of audience inter/reaction in the fact that, by placing an entirely too strict magnifying glass on our own slip-ups, we render the average theatregoer (even those otherwise involved in the industry, most definitely including other actors) petrified to become a part of the show. Not only is the audience aware that there is, in theatre, a right and wrong answer, they also know that they don't have the slightest idea where to find that answer. Heaven forbid they fuck up, or even worse, cause a performer (someone who has been spending weeks on this!) to fuck up because of the inability of the audience. After all, everyone is watching. And they'll know if a mistake is made.

By crucifying ourselves by the side of the road, we're also serving as a warning to all passersby to not make the same mistake, which is why audience interaction is such a dreaded concept to many audiences.

So how do we fix this? What can we do to making the theatrical environment more inviting for play? There are a number of companies trying approaches to a certain degree of success -- WNEP's DADA work, the promenade style strongly embraced by Sean Graney and others, the mega-promenade of Dog & Pony's As Told By The Vivian Girls, the self-aware uncertainty of Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind (I imagine, that is. As I was reminded in my chance run-in with Bilal this weekend, I still haven't gone.) They each have their weaknesses, too, of course (i.e. DADA's tendency to magnify the "I don't know what to do" factor for those not comfortable with the form; the amazing ability of an audience to instantly reconvene behind a fourth wall en promenade), but at least there're some barriers being broken.

Perhaps the secret is in the concert experience, at least until we can build up a large enough base of audience members who see the theatre as a place to go be a part of rather than watch. When I saw Pavement Group's Lipstick Traces, the curtain call seamlessly and with almost no urging evolved into a stage-filling dance party. But it was closing weekend and I am fairly certain I just happened to attend the same night as a planned event. But what if all curtain calls became dance parties? Or just parties in general?

In a separate concert-themed approach, I seriously think the Q Brothers' Funk It Up About Nothin', which I already loved, would have been served tremendously by shifting the upstairs of Chicago Shakes into a general admission, barrier in front of the stage style concert setting. Yeah, the Shakes' audience base isn't necessarily age-appropriate to stand for a show, especially in a G.A. environment, but get a crowd used to the set up in there and I guarantee there would be healthy combination of dancing and crowding the stage.

(Random thought sprung from that last sentence, to be saved for later: Is/Should theatre be an event that requires undivided attention? No one would accuse someone dancing of not being able to appreciate the music they were dancing to. Could you dance to something like Funk It Up and still be fully appreciative of the work?)

All this is very interesting to me as I plan The Nine, especially those conceptions that allow for or intend to acheive a direct audience connection -- SubUrbia, Caesar Antichrist, and The Performers in particular. Event-based art should be closer to Party than Classroom. What can welcome that level of comfort?


So that was a little bit of an unplanned ramble. Gotta love it when those just kinda happen. I'm reading Dave Hickey's Air Guitar and cultural crit. of that kind just puts me in that mindset. I've already got a whole 'nother topic on how I am suited as a director vs. as an actor, which delves into the purpose of each in our modern theatre set-up. We'll see when I find time to fully set that one down.

I fully intend to still catch both Dr. Egg and Threepenny before they close, which means my viewing schedule just got even tighter still. But this weekend marks yet another Chicago visit by Mama and Papa Rekk, so family time prevails. Although, I am taking them to Circle's Escanaba In Love on Sunday -- they'll enjoy it, and it'll also work as a good counterbalance to Dracula.

Speaking of which, Chris Jones mostly approves, Justin Hayford approves, Venus Zarris doesn't approve at all, and the big question on everyone's lips is WWHD*? And what about you? What will you think? Only one way to find out! There's still Goldstar, and I, as always, can get you 10% off. (And, added bonus, anyone at the show this Saturday or Sunday will also have a chance to meet Ma and Pa Rekk. And you know you're curious as to what combination could have possibly created this hot mess.)

Good talk, everybody.


*(What Will Hedy Do?)

Friday, September 19, 2008


Dracula opens tonight!

And, lo and behold, almost every doubt I mentioned in the last entry has completely dissipated in the clutch. I think this is a pretty neat thing we got going on, and I certainly think it'll be much more of an experience than the other Draculas being offered this season. (Though I'm looking forward to this one.) We've adapted Stoker's original novel in a style most directly influenced by silent film and graphic novels. Tell me that doesn't sound cool. Come, come, my lovelies, and stick around and say 'hey' to Jonathan Harker afterwards!

There's a buncha tickets (some free w/ a $5 service charge) on Goldstar for select dates the first couple of weekends. I can also get you 10% off a regular ticket to any performance; e-mail me for details. And don't forget, this isn't a Halloween show -- you've only got until October 18th to see it!

See you there!


Monday, September 15, 2008

This American Wife

Odds are anyone who cares has already intimated this, but I am no longer with Per Diem, the theatre company that once found its origins on this blog. The gory details are unimportant and really aren't all that gory; it suffices to say that I have stepped down from the company to give my work its proper time and attention. It was a clean break; there's really no story to tell.

At their inaugural show, This American Wife, I was met by this blurb in the program:

"Per Diem was founded earlier this year by Co-Artistic Directors Bil Gaines and Lance Brett Hall. The new theater company was founded with the express purpose of introducing the relevancy and immediacy of artistic and cultural accomplishment into daily life. The best way to take up this lofty and important mission, the company decided, is to offer up a popular cultural accomplishment to laugh at."

As I mentioned, it was a clean break; and just as I am under no further obligation to the company, the company is under no further obligation to me. I have no ownership or influence in any matters in the current state or future of the company. Its past, however, is an entirely different matter. I don't really have anything else to say on the issue; I feel I said more than enough well over a year ago.

Lest anyone gets the impression that this post is born of bad blood, I want nothing but the best for Per Diem. As much as I no longer have any right to, I still do think of the company as my baby from time to time and I, naturally, want great work to come from it and to be met with equally great accolades. That's why it pains me so much that their first show is such an utter, dismal failure.

This American Wife is a parody (it bills itself as satire, but don't be fooled) of NPR's This American Life. Except it's a parody along the lines of a late-period Leslie Nielsen movie crossed with an episode of Family Guy minus the self-awareness. The host of This American Wife is named Ira Gwass. This is the humor we are dealing with. This is bad wig and leopard print boxers sight gag humor, mail-order bride won on a game show humor, insert a line (a line, not a joke) referencing Sarah Palin because it's topical humor combined with topical humor that has already been forgotten since the first draft (Remember this story? Good, now the long, protracted joke won't be in vain). It's the type of show where you feel awful because you can see the actors on stage formulating ways to avoid talking about this experience ever again. It's the worst show I've seen in Chicago this year, and I saw Nunsense. It avoids the title of worst show I've ever seen by the sole fact that it's a tediously scant 45 minutes long.

This American Wife is Hobby Theatre -- theatre because, gee, wouldn't it be fun to put on a show with my friends? That's not what Per Diem was about when I founded it, and, as much as "introducing the relevancy and immediacy of artistic and cultural accomplishment into daily life" is everything I hate about mission statements (using a lot of big words to say absolutely nothing), it's not what Per Diem is supposedly about now that I'm gone. It's a shame. That's what it is.


It's a pair of matinees for me this week: Redmoon's Dr. Egg And The Man With No Ear on Saturday and The Hypocrites' The Threepenny Opera on Sunday. And why is it only a couple of matinees for me, you ask? 'Cause I'm opening a muhfuckin' show on Friday, that's why! Let me tell you about it!


So, if you haven't figured it out by now, I'm in Dracula at The Building Stage. We open on Friday and I would be lying if I said there weren't a couple of pieces of the show that I'm not a little worried about right now, but it's been that sort of process where uncertainty and frustration are something we have been consistently pushing through to find the gold on the other side, so I have no fear that whatever you see on stage Friday night, it will be something we are proud to present. This ain't your momma's Dracula, neither, so come prepared to follow, not to be led. Our Dracula is an ensemble built adaptation and stylization of Bram Stoker's original novel that takes much influence from silent films and graphic novels and makes great use of found music in the place of text. And it's got perhaps the sexiest Jonathan Harker ever put to stage. I think you should all probably come.

We open this Friday, September 19th and run through October 18th. (And to get it out of the way now, yes, that means we're not running through Halloween. I am aware.) We run Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 and Sundays at 7 at The Building Stage. Details and further linkage are available under the 'What Next?' section to your right. Tickets are $20, but if you're planning on coming, let me know at least a few days in advance and I can get you 10% off. I'm a nice guy like that.

Awesome. I'll see you there.


Thursday, September 11, 2008

No Darkness Round My Stone

One of the big draws of Trap Door for me is their ability to regularly pull shit that no one else seems to have even heard of out of thin air. I may not always end up, and somewhat frequently don't, feel the same way about the final product, but their season announcements are often among the more exciting ones in the city. And when they do hit on something, the result is not only the pleasure of a good show, but also the thrill of discovery.

They've unearthed two such thrilling discoveries in No Darkness Round My Stone: playwright Fabrice Melquiot and director Max Truax. Mequiot falls under that biggest heading that Trap Door has the corner on: contemporary European edginess. This young French surrealist is making sense of life and death and sex by refusing to handle them separately. The fractured and obtusely resplinted narrative tracks a family as they relive their carnal tragedy beyond the grave while a living soul looks on with growing and frightening envy. The most unsettling aspect of the play is that Melquiot has hoisted a world in which every character can reach two of those three, but only burns with necessity for the third. In this tomb, the living and the dead can be one in the same but do so with a torturous desire for passion. Or the living can have a love which is of no use as long as death stands in its way. And while the dead may repeat their passions, they cannot carry this desire to the endpoints they never reached before having been torn apart by both life and its conclusion. With Melquiot, however, the longing for cannot overcome the tragedy of the not having, and so the cycle is endless: the dead continuously recycling their sorrows which have no hope of changing while the living can only look on green-eyed to the inevitability that they cannot hope to find in their own existence.

This is all acheived through the guidance of the other discovery. Max Truax, a recent refugee from the West Coast, is, mark my words, about to be a name on everybody's Windy City lips. As far as I am aware, this is his second major production in Chicago, after Oracle's Termen Vox Machina, which, if not always entirely successful, was deliriously high effect via low budget. It seems to be Truax's m.o. -- take a little and make it feel that much more inclusive. From the overlap in cast & crew between Termen and No Darkness, I'm guessing he either came to town with posse in tow or is very rapidly going about forming one to call his own. Either way, he's picked good people: Sam Lewis and Jesse McCabe's sound combo of twisted standards and atmospheric murmurs firmly places the world into a flashback without a history and Ewelina Dobiesz's set gives Trap Door and even more pronounced tomb-like claustrophobia -- a feat I didn't think possible. And then there's Truax, who makes people disappear with the simple action of falling down; who brings our sympathies with the tragedy of and after death to a peak and then immediately tops it by underscoring the pathetic existence of those still living; who uses actors to block lights in the name of shadow but also in the name of darkness; who has a whirlwind rising from the empty well that is mortality right now at Trap Door.


I've already failed you on this week's updates. Dracula is going into tech, which means theatregoing will be cutting down: the only show this week was Per Diem's inaugural production, This American Wife, which I attended last night. Also, if you notice, with the closing of Lookingglass Alice, the Best of the Best section to your right is now empty. The calendar is extremely full, but Drac has Sunday evening shows, so I'm still hitting at least a Sunday matinee every week, more if I can find Wednesday shows or Saturday matinees. If there's anything I absolutely must see, I'm always partially open to suggestion.

Being watching for more detailed Dracula information to join my This American Wife entry, but in the meantime, buy you some tickets!


Sunday, September 7, 2008

Heroes And Villains

I never saw A Steady Rain. The first go around at Chicago Dramatists, it was one of those phenomena that I was aware of, but just never quite got around to seeing, and then by the time it had exploded enough for the Royal George run, I let the price stop me from checking out a two-hander police story, not something I tend to get terribly excited for, much less for fifty bucks.

After seeing Peter DeFaria in Collaboraction's Heroes and Villains, I've resumed kicking myself for that decision. This man is a treasure; the way he can work a verbal delay, shift tonality and intention mid-word, or turn something as simple as knocking on a bar into a years-old habit is really something to behold. Even more impressive is the fact that he is doing so with Daniel Janoff's Encyclopedia Brown a la the Lifetime Channel script.

The rest of the cast do a commendable job considering how much energy they have to expend to create characters so false as to be natural in this world; but they haven't a chance once DeFaria steps onstage and does just the opposite: creates a character so unfailingly natural that we have no choice but to believe in the world he's living. Janoff packs the script, from front to back, with a quarter ton of shaded backstory exposition and then fills in the rest with a comic book civilian love story -- a Lois Lane/Jimmy Olsen hook-up, perhaps -- that stands to serve as the second and final dimension for these characters. But whether he's bringing out the beauty in others (his own personal 'superpower') or wooing Lois Lane, DeFaria's just another guy, just like us but a little bit more like we wish we were. And that's a big feat with a script that can't find the -human in superhuman.


Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Plaza Suite/Trust

It's shows like Eclipse's Plaza Suite and Open Eye's Trust that make it really hard for me to write about every show I see. I keep a personal spreadsheet with details on every one of these shows to keep my own little brand of OCD at bay. Among those details is a one to five star ranking, and it's the three-star shows, like these two, that kill me. They certainly aren't bad, but they're far from amazing as well. It's fluff theatre, shows to entertain and then be forgotten. Well and good -- they serve their purpose and sometimes serve it well, but what do I write when a show hasn't inspired any actual thoughts for me to convey?

Even now that I know I'm going to be writing about them all, I don't take notes at shows; I very strongly believe that if it's not memorable enough for me to, well... remember, it wasn't worth writing down in the first place. So what do I remember about Plaza Suite? Jon Steinhagen and Cheri Chenowith's Looney Tunes toned third act made me laugh; CeCe Klinger's apple pie realism was horribly miscast in a Neil Simon piece; the third act punchline is something much less comfortable by today's gender politics. What do I remember about Trust? Dan Granata and Jill Schmits walk away with the show; costuming a rock star should not involve a Rolling Stones t-shirt off the J.C. Penney's rack; Ben Folds has reached the point of nostalgia. There -- that's something. I'll use Trust to segue into my long-delayed contemporary music post.

Trust is backed almost entirely by a Ben Folds/Ben Folds Five soundtrack. Anyone who knows me well knows that the use of contemporary music in theatrical design (or any design, really) is a major interest of mine. This is primarily because people so rarely do it well. The amount of music available at our fingertips in the digital age dwarfs any other art form. And, oddly enough, I'm constantly amazed at how the good:bad ratio seems so much higher in music than elsewhere. Pop around the obscure parts of iTunes for a few minutes and you'll end up tripping over great music everywhere you turn. And yet, people insist on defaulting to the soundtrack of their college years anytime they needs something to kick a scene in the pants. The problem with using (even relatively) well-known music is that the people who pick the music because it speaks to them so much rarely think about the fact that it's already spoken to many people in the audience in a number of different ways as well. I've never been a die-hard Ben Folds fan, but I did enjoy the stuff he did with the Five, so when "Smoke" came on during Trust, I instantly checked out and went back to my own memories of that particular album. It certainly didn't help that the songs were used as a soundtrack to set change. If you treat your music as filler, don't be surprised when it usurps what's actually happening on stage.

And there's that whole problem of trying to be on top of the game: I remember sitting down at Raven's columbinus and my first thoughts being on the pre-show mix, something along the lines of "Oh, they're trying to approximate today's youth. How quaint." I wish I could remember exactly what was in the mix -- the only thing I can distinctly call to mind is something by Bright Eyes, but Bright Eyes an album or two ago. And then the big interpretive "Bittersweet Symphony" section came (which I'm sure is in the play -- and will age horribly -- , so I can hardly fault the production) and I kinda rolled my eyes while the old people next to me kinda didn't know what these kids were talking about. Of course, it's not that a design always has to be on top of the curve, but in many situations it can be very helpful. But keeping on top of music trends is a job in and of itself, and unless you are someone who takes a preternatural interest in it, odds are if you're familiar with it, it's no longer on top of the curve.

Which brings out the audience factor. You can't write or direct musical choices for an audience, because you're guaranteed to alienate someone. The young 'uns are mostly going to mock you for being out of date while the old 'uns will mostly be very confused. You have to write or direct musical choices that are appropriate for the show, the characters and the situations. That means knowing what's appropriate. In James Sherman's Relatively Close which ran at Victory Gardens this summer, he has created a rebellious teen who is also a slam poet. Sherman also has this anti-establishment high schooler (who dresses like a half-hearted punk, although that may have been a costumer's mistake -- again with the rock star costuming, it's not really that hard...) name drop the tremendously rebellious Kanye West and 50 Cent. And his slamming, featured at the end of the first act, is more in the vein of third rate flowing. Of course, if Sherman was intending to make some sort of commentary on how this character's intentions are ineffectual, perhaps those would be good choices. Not so in this play: he's just writing a stock character in a stock which he is terribly out of touch with. The matinée I was at had a mean audience age of 80, so the majority of them had no clue who the jokes were referencing and I'm sure a wide swath of the few that did laugh were doing so primarily because they understood that 50 Cent = crazy youth. If that latter half was his goal, he slightly achieved it. Of course, if that was his goal, his goal was for crap.

The punk costuming was a whole different thing. Aside from the name dropping, the character seemed to (and for much of the show appears to) fit the punk persona, but apparently Sherman, unable to decide between crazy punks and pop star names that people would recognize, mashed punk kid and hip-hopper together, he himself remaining none the wiser. It's not even that I care which direction it went: the kid could've been a punk and mentioned anyone from the Dead Kennedys to the Casualties or he could have gone the hip-hop route and name dropped anywhere in the gamut between Public Enemy and WHY? and it would've been fine, but there needs to be a sense of reality, not just a glance at the latest album sales. There was so little time put into any sense of a three-dimensional character that the top of the pops was the only way to go and the character died completely.

Not everyone is utterly clueless, though. Strange Tree Group's The Mysterious Elephant had a pre-, intermission, and post-show mix that was not only esoteric, perfectly setting up the audience to enjoy it simply as atmosphere if they so chose, it also matched the tone of the show to a tee. Pavement Group's Lipstick Traces was the type of show that lives or dies by its soundtrack. It lived gloriously. And Theatre Wit's Feydeau-si-deau has one of the most inspired intermission mixes I've ever heard and a perfect example of how to properly use well-known music: bank on the fact that it's well known. When the lights came up at intermission to French dubs of Avril Lavigne and 50 Cent, I laughed out loud -- and with the designer, rather than at.

My default rule for the use of contemporary music isn't actually my rule at all; it's Greg Allen's. The Neo-Founderist has a list of 25 Rules for Creating Good Theater on the Neo-Futurists' website. The whole list is worth reading; I find myself referencing it quite often. But one of my favorites is #21:

"Rule #21: Include music. There’s nothing better for introducing new music to people than having it accompany stage action. Take the opportunity to re-contextualize known music through performance."

Well-chosen music can make itself contextually inseparable. For a perfect example, break out your copy of The Pixies' Surfer Rosa and skip to "Where Is My Mind?". For those who think they don't know what I'm talking about, jump to the very end of Fight Club when the skyscrapers are crashing to the ground. Never again will you be able to hear that song without hearing Ed Norton's voice in the background. This is what properly used music can do.

And if you or someone you know are attempting to attach contemporary music to a theatre piece and aren't quite sure what you want (or, inversely, keep finding yourself saying "Oh yeah! I LOVE that song!"), please get ahold of me. Honest to god, I'm not even playing here. I've reached my limit of poorly selected contemporary soundtracks. There is a wealth of music completely untapped that will fit far better than whatever you have in your decade old CD collection. I'll meet with whoever you want me to meet, I'll watch however much of the rehearsal process you want me to watch, I'll mine whatever genre or tone or intended demographic or whatever else that you want me to mine, and I'll get you a soundtrack design, be it pre/inter/post-show mix or full on scene accompaniment, that doesn't suck. Cause I can only cringe so many times before I get stuck that way, and I feel my limit coming on.


You see? There're still things I feel strongly about! It's just really hard to find a way there from three star shows...

On a positive note, I've taken full advantage of the late summer theatre lull to completely catch up on my To See list, to the point that I'm finally able to see things on opening rather than closing weekend! Just in time, too; Dracula opens on the 19th and I gots to get my Harker on, meaning my show intake will be cutting down drastically enough to get me just as far behind as I was before. As for this week, on Friday it's Collaboraction's Heroes and Villains, and Saturday is Trap Door's No Darkness Round My Stone. What did I tell you? That's two, count them, two opening weekends!