Friday, January 30, 2015

Winner and Losers: How We Fight, Why We Fight, What We Fight

With the exactitude and agony of flaying skin off of another human, Winners and Losers goes to work on the layers of humanity, painfully peeling back privilege, class, education, experience, politics, art, and sex by putting friend against friend in a battle for labels. Never has the designation winner or loser been wielded with such consequence.

Couched in the terms of a game between two performers and friends (the performers are credited as the creators of the show with Chris Abraham as director) the topics debated are sometimes heavy, sometimes glib but mostly global--Mexico, Pamela Anderson, NFL, First Nations.  As the battle becomes more personal the stakes do too. The performers share their personal narratives (or mythologies) about themselves. James Long, a working class guy, is married with a young family. Maybe he's the winner of the street smarts competition.  Marcus Youssef, the child of an Egyptian immigrant and wealthy banker, is common law married with older kids. Probably he's the winner of the "worldly wise" competition.

Like Gym Party the battles are a little irrational. It's all harmless fun until it's not--until it becomes a psychological battle waged between what our privilege, experiences, desires, actions, and existence means to the other.  Ultimately Winners and Losers shows how the baton of privilege is passed back and forth between us all.  Depending on the situation and who you are with, you may be the person of privilege in one scenario and the person without it in another.

The piece ends up looking at not only what intelligent, educated people can fight about, but also how those fights are staged and exacted on each other. Sure I happened to go see this show the same day some people who don't know me called me a "stupid cow" on the Internet because I expressed a vitriolic opinion about a Broadway musical.  But in a world where we are increasingly fighting battles of authenticity, validation, and personal rhetoric in these anonymous spaces, it was even more searing to see it exacted live, face-to-face, between friends. 

How much time do we aggressively try to get the world to see our point of view and never once stop to see how privileged we are in our point of view.   It is hard to stomach watching a friend question another as to whether his acceptance of his privilege is enough or the other, with more wealth coming his way, challenge the other on his excessive spending over an expensive pair of blue jeans.  As dramatically staged, these questions and inquiries cut at the soul of each of the men and their visions of themselves and watching a "friend" call each out on their behavior, beliefs, and version of the truth is rough. It's not about blue jeans. 

And again like Gym Party the audience's reaction bears mention. When James is physically wrestling Marcus he pins him down and then starts slapping his face and his ass. It goes beyond "winning" the match to an aspect of humiliation and bullying. The audience laughed. The more it went on the more  sadistic it felt.  Though it never quite felt like the show called out the audience on this wrestling scene, I think it would be hard to watch this show and not spend some time seeing connections to your own life or how you may relate or not to the characters in the show. 

The language and style of argument was also fascinating.  James tried to use aggression and anger to stop conversations. Marcus constantly "acknowledged" his own feelings and his role in things as he tried to gingerly steer James to see his point of view.  The way in which they tried to move the conversation said as much about them as the content of those conversations. 

Power, powerlessness, survival, and success are often wrapped up in very emotional experiences. Why couples don't talk about money and why couples need to talk about money is part of this.  It's not about dollars. It's about the entire way you see the world, yourself in the world, and what you can make from this world. It's loaded with personal history, emotional baggage, privilege, and a lifetime of formative experiences. This play blows up that conversation to its most dramatic potential and the audience is left to pick up its own emotional pieces from when the lights come up.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

A Beautiful Day in November on the Banks of the Greatest of the Great Lakes

I once met a man who just kept saying the word "wackadoo."  This thought popped into my mind as I was watching Kate Benson's colorful, kooky, and truly wackadoo play A Beautiful Day in November on the Banks of the Greatest of the Great Lakes.   Staged as sports commentators calling a Thanksgiving dinner like it was a sporting event this is an absurdist and inventive approach to the traditional family squabbles.  Considering most Americans probably have a room full of relatives watching sports during any major holiday it's an apropos hybrid.  Often funny and very creative, it was an unusual gambit that ran out of steam for me before the play took an additional bizarro turn.

This production directed by Lee Sunday Evans has moved from a successful run at Dixon Place downtown, to the Women's Project uptown.  

Cheesecake (Brooke Ishibashi) is hosting four generations of the family for dinner.  She and her sisters Cherry Pie (Heather Alicia Simms) and Trifle (Nina Hellman) go about setting up the temperamental family table.  Once their adult children and spouses start arriving named things like The Twins, Republican's Wife, and Smilesinger (all played with specificity by Jessica Almasy and Christian Felix) with the family elders GrandDada (Gerry Bamman) and SnapDragon (Mia Katigbak) and all the grand babies in tow, things start to reach full pandemonium. An unexpected extra family member, Gumbo (Kristine Haruna Lee), shows up and throws off all the best laid plans. Everything Gumbo touches turns to disaster.  The sports commentary meanwhile is full of mixed sports metaphors and criss-crossed references to golf, baseball, and football.  They turn family lore into sports lore ("The year of the fumble.").  The set looks like a junior high gymnasium and the actors move in almost basketball like gestures, pivoting and positioning as their activities are described by the sportscasters (Ben Williams, Hubert Point-DuJour) in a booth above the action.

Behind shiny, happy plastic smiles, colorful costumes, and high energy direction, there is a lot of sniping and stabbing between family members. As things start to get more out of control so do the jabs.  Then not unlike another downtown play full of surrealism, family, and something a little strange, The Debate Society's Blood Play, ABDINOTBOTGOTGL takes a dark turn.

But well before we got to that point, I found myself enjoying the droll wit and excellent comic delivery of the sportscasters over anything else.  There is tension between the commentators and they are not immune to what they are reporting on.  The rest of the cast does an excellent job with their plastic-people routine (which starts to crack as disasters start to mount) but I never quite warmed to the style over substance absurdism.

Even if done well as it was here, I tend to lose interest in surrealism because it never feels like I have much to engage with. This genre's never been my bag.  I left this play (as well as Blood Play to be honest) just a little too baffled and wondering what the point was. 

I received a complimentary ticket to attend.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Wyoming: Memories and Secrets

"Your family's the only place where time is dense...where age is compressed."

Photo by Hunter Canning
A family keeping secrets is not new territory in the theater but Brian Watkins's Wyoming by Lesser America is a moody addition to that oeuvre looking at memory, family, and how we cope with the past. With a killer performance from the always impressive Sarah Sokolovic, colorful underscoring from Robin Pecknold and Neil Morgan, and just enough tension to hold the happenings together it's a solid if sometimes uneven effort.

Part memory play, part origin story, part Thanksgiving showdown, this family explores their memories of the definitive moment in their lives--when their eldest brother Adam (Roger Lirtsman), age 16 at the time, killed their father (Carter Hudson). Twenty years have passed since they have seen Adam.  Their mother Maggie (Laura Ramadei) never talks about what happened that night.  But recently the youngest brother Grant (Nate Miller) tells his brother Tom (Daniel Abeles) that he thinks he's seen Adam in a nearby diner. Oldest sister April (Sokolovic) is a hard-drinking, single mother of six year-old Sarah (Layla Khoshnoudi). April is soon to host Thanksgiving for the whole family and she has been keeping secrets about what she saw that night as well.

The play is staged by Dayna Taymor with multiple scenes in the same large open space. When the parents are spoken of a light rises on the couple as they were when they first met in their twenties.  When Adam is talked about a light rises on him in the diner, now a man in his thirties.  Otherwise the actors remain frozen in the dark.  Seeing the characters in these glimpses of flashbacks and recollections doesn't add the punch that it should. Rather than be misty, water colored memories the moments feel a bit flat.  Perhaps it was the slow lighting cues or that the action recreated isn't all that interesting to look at, but the collective feeling that this family is trapped in their memories is more academic than evoked by the staging. I get that that was what they were trying for, but I didn't feel the impact of that.  That said, there's a beautiful sense of place with Edward T. Morris's set design of corrugated walls and projection design of family slide photos. Pecknold (of the band Fleet Foxes) and Morgan provide an evocative score that ratchets up the tension and provides a colorful layer to the emotional content.

For all the heavy issues at hand, Watkins's play itself is quite funny.  But the cast seems to still be working on the pacing and energy.  Sokolovic is the exception as she sort of arrives like a hurricane and never stops.  She jolts the plays energy by 200% and its a welcome respite.  Her character is more showy than the taciturn men but things become a lot more lively when we shift from the recollections of the past in Act I to the Thanksgiving in 1995 in Act II.  Though I did like Miller's performance as the baby brother who's always playing catch up on family lore as well. 

When the family who always tries to avoid difficult things gets thrown together at Thanksgiving the tension mounts and each sibling deals with the awkwardness, just-below-the-surface-feelings, and their reluctant mother in turn. The play calls for the mother, Maggie, to be played by an actress around the same age as her children.  I'm sure this is to make the difficulties that she went through as a young woman a little more connected to her children who are now that age but it's a big ask and Ramadei struggles to portray this older character (though she's right on key as the younger woman flirting with the man who will become her husband).  

When Lirtsman (who looks like he could be a cousin of a beardy Bradley Cooper/Michael Cera love child) gives voice to all the years of this family's pent up struggle, it should be the big catharsis--and it almost is--but for some reason Watkins opts to deal with these messy parts of this family's life in a neat and pat way.  The denouement ends up being both on the nose and a little bit confusing. The final epilogue did not leave me with a sense of deeper understanding of the family, time, or memory.  Frankly, I strained to see the action in the dim light and felt that the impact would have been the same had it ended on Adam.

The play and production may have their hiccups but there's a lot of interesting work being done. 

I received a complimentary ticket to attend.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Andrew Schneider's Shirtlessness: 9 Theories

Andrew Schneider's show YOUARENOWHERE has closed but we hope it gets a second life in New York.  I've also maybe promised most of the United Kingdom that it would probably tour there even though I have no power to make that happen.  But I'm confident it will. 

Anyway....Schneider performs the show without a shirt on.  This is not a spoiler.  But I don't wish to spoil anything.  So only read this if you are really invested in the mystery of shirtlessness AND have seen the show.

I was left to wonder why he is shirtless in the show when he's wearing pants with a belt on (not pajamas, or leisure wear, or something casual, because he is wearing a belt--I'm really fixated on the belt).  There has to be a narrative reason for it.  But I have been so overwhelmed by the show whilst seeing the show that I could not process the reasons for it when I saw it.  So I was left to wonder in the aftermath and wildly speculate. I've got some theories ranging from the "plausible" to the ridiculous.  Here are 9 theories why Andrew Schneider is shirtless in this show:

1)  For technology reasons he needed the wires and controls to be on his skin and wearing a shirt interfered with the signals for the controls.  He could have worn a wifebeater as a compromise but who wears a wifebeater on stage?  No one except Stanley Kowalski.  That's not the tone he was setting, so he chose shirtlessness.

2)  Without a shirt on, he can make the audience feel like he's not hiding anything up his sleeves.  Which is a lie because he wears sleeves of technology which he uses to control the show.  So this is probably not it but I like the idea of him pretending to be "honest" with the audience in this way.

3)  By being shirtless he has entered into a intimacy contract with the audience.  What is that?  I don't know I made it up.  Frankly it sounds kind of gross.  But in my fake definition it's a subconscious way to lull the audience into trusting him in a show which depends upon such trust.  A shirtless man can be trusted more than a shirtful man.  This is also probably a lie.  When have you ever trusted a shirtless man walking down the street?  Never.

4)  He convinced his gym to give him a free membership if he performed shirtless and demonstrated his fitness to his audience.  He did this very well.  If I was his gym I would put him on a poster.

5)  Maybe he sweats a lot and this is a low-budget project and they didn't have the laundry budget to wash a lot of shirts so he's keeping costs down by going shirtless.  Similarly if he didn't want to drip anything on the costumes he HAD to go shirtless for further laundry reasons.

6)  He spent the laundry budget on a gym membership.

7)  He spent the laundry budget on stunt CDs.

8)  His character required some sort of medical treatment and they removed his shirt.  This one is so boring but maybe the only one even close to plausible.  But Lindsay thought this was stupid because he was still wearing pants.  But it's my ludicrous theory and I'm sticking with it.

9) Allergies.  He's allergic to shirts.  I've never seen him wear one.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Honeymoon in Vegas: It's a Bad Day for Musical Theater

The rest of the critics are going to talk about Honeymoon in Vegas as a classic boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-tries-to-get-girl-back story.  They'll rightly celebrate the effervescent cast (Brynn O'Malley and Rob McClure for every show!) and maybe even talk about the music or staging.  But I can't write that kind of review.  I can't embrace mindless entertainment when it's oppressing people.  I won't qualify my tolerance for racism or misogyny by deigning to say it's "just a little bit" problematic.

There was a time when I thought I could let some things slide.  I even tried to convince myself that oppressing women via musical theater is just "as per usual" so really what do I have to call this show out on.  It's like every show--women are objects, pawns, and demanding shrews who just want to get married.  But then I decided nope.  This is a new musical on Broadway.  It's not laden with a historic book a rights owner won't tinker with.  It's not a product of another era.  It was made for today's audiences with a living creative team who I suspect know some women and may even from time to time like women.  So no matter how much I loved Brynn O'Malley and Rob McClure, the show lets all of us down. 

Jason Robert Brown has written the music and lyrics.  Andrew Bergman wrote the book.  Gary Griffin directed. So we know who the buck stops with.

To set things up, I never saw the movie so this was my first exposure to the story.

Jack (Rob McClure) and Betsy (Brynn O'Malley) are in love. He sings a song about being in love with her.  She sings a song that's like a sequel to How to Succeed In Business's New Rochelle about wanting/needing to get married. For five years they have not gotten married because of a curse Jack's mother (Nancy Opel) put on him on her deathbed. He's scared to commit and his mother's ghost continues to haunt him every time he gets close. Finally Jack and Betsy get on a plane for Vegas to get married.  Fine.  Women just want to get married.  Men are scared to get married.  I'm mostly just bored at this point in the show but my blood hasn't started boiling yet because I am so conditioned that this isn't really a big deal.

But Jack gets sidetracked again while in Vegas by a gambler Tommy (Tony Danza). Jack loses to Tommy big and Tommy makes an indecent proposal. Jack's debt will be paid if Betsy spends the weekend with Tommy.  Betsy just happens to look a lot like Tommy's dead wife and he has an instant attraction to her.  AND SO JACK AGREES.

The entire plot of the story hinges on a woman being given to another man to settle a gambling debt.  There's some family friendly language about how their won't be any "funny business" or some other coded language that means she doesn't HAVE to sleep with Tommy.  This is a family show on Broadway after all.  But make no mistake, she has been sold to a man by another man for a $58,000 debt.  Her willingness to go along with that gets played off as spite to begin with but then when she thinks about what she has done and cools off from the situation and tries to challenge Tommy he becomes threatening. Good family entertainment.

So this is the premise and the plot requires this.  But my question is why do we need this material now? Why do we need this story now?Is this is your idea of light escapism, well I don't want to go on vacation with you.

To double-down on the issues of female trafficking and female dis-empowerment, the creative team then decided to add a layer of racism to the show which is where I really lost all ability to engage with the show. 

The story shifts to Hawaii.  There is a subplot about trying to get Jack to be unfaithful with a girl named Mahi.  Mahi is not doing this of her own free will.  She's forced to "play" a character (though the fact that she's playing a character is murky and unclear for most of the show).  But the character she plays is an Asian girl who rubs her breasts on Jack and in pidgin English asks for "Friki-Friki." I feel disgusting even writing those words.  I don't know how an entire song got written and tried out without anyone raising a hand to question this.  At this point in the show, I started to look around.  Was I the only person seeing this?  Was this playing at a racist frequency only I could hear? Nope this audience totally thinks it's funny and fine for this to be happening. They are laughing at this girl.  Whether she's a character in the show putting on a character or not, her accent and her sex-crazed nature are the point of the joke.  It's lazy and insulting and the audience is laughing at it. It's gross and I want to die.

I mean putting aside the massive feminist problems here with poor Mahi (again another woman with no agency) there is no reason why she needed to speak pidgin English.  Frankly she could have just asked him to get "freaky" with her like a person without resorting to caricature accents.  I can't even believe I have to say this.  I can't even believe this is the kind of song someone is writing in the 21st century. I can't believe no one looked at Jason Robert Brown told him to put this song in a drawer and burn it. 

There's a whole other scene with poor Mahi and a secret spiritual place that she takes Jack to that is filled with Polynesian-esque statuary.  There's no reason this point in the story needed to use anything besides a non-denominational ghost to resolve the plot point this scene attempts to address. 

Listen I'm thrilled that the story moves to Hawaii and Asian actors are characters in a musical.  Yay for employing diverse casts! But this is not a musical from 1946 and we could all live with a musical that treats Hawaiian/Polynesian culture with more sensitivity than our racist grandparents or a Brady Bunch episode from 1974. These racist tropes did not need to be used.  The second act could have just been slapstick absurdities keeping boy and girl apart.  There was no need to drift into weird cultural appropriation unless your purpose is to use that culture and othering to make fun of it.  WHICH IS WHAT YOU ARE DOING. 

And you cannot ignore a long history of insulting caricatures of Asian characters in our stage, film, and television history.  This feels like it is just participating in that for some of the cheapest laughs possible.

I know it is easier to let things slide and to say it's just a dumb musical.  It's light entertainment.  Relax.  But I'm less and less willing to ignore things that really upset me and in a world where there are still representation and visibility issues for performers of color I can't just let this go.  Kids could be watching this--kids who might think it is ok to laugh at people's accents.  Having grown up in a family where English was not everyone's first language I'm going to be sensitive to this.  Moreover, when it's on the biggest stage we have in theater and it's perpetuating racist attitudes I'm troubled.  I know I am not alone.  Others have written about this too because it's not okay.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

YOUARENOWHERE: YouAreNowHere, YouAreNowhere, yoUarEnoWherE, yOuArEnOwHeRe, youarenowhere

"Time really does just go away."

Early on in YOUARENOWHERE I was mad that it was going to end. It had hardly begun and already I was lamenting that at some point I would have to leave this delicious theater bubble. I didn't want to. I wanted to curl up in a ball and refuse to leave the theater until it was performed again. And that was well before the show bent everything I thought I knew out of shape. It's rare for me to be so easily won over so soon in a show but I fell hard for this one.

Basically I want to tell you to go see this show without knowing anything about it. Read nothing. Just go. Talk to me after.


For posterity I needed to write this paean to an unusual show about time, physics, and an understanding of self. It's rare for a show to genuinely surprise me anymore and to do so multiple times within the show such that I wasn't sure what had happened to me but I was keen for it to happen again.

Andrew Schneider's work starts with some admin. Maybe the sound isn't working. A false start. A restart. Is this the show? Is this actually happening? My theater skepticism was on high alert.  A loud sigh from the performer after the music cue re-started made me wonder.  It got a big laugh.
You can't fool me Andrew Schneider!  Oh but you can.  It's cute how wrong you were, Nicole.

The show starts in earnest. Schneider is shirtless, wearing a head mic, and with wires coming from packs on his biceps.  Schneider starts talking about time. It's a topic often explored in theater--how can we look at a moment in time, the physics of time, and what it means to us. There's something sexy about theoretical physics that makes it a good match for artists.  What is the present if time is racing by us? Recently I've seen work by Greg Wohead, Daniel Kitson, and even something like Constellations which just opened Broadway that look at various aspects of this.

Schneider's performance piece is both a physical and emotional exploration of those ideas.  On the surface, there are clear manifestations of time.  A clock appears.  As Schneider speaks to us sound drifts in and out.  Words speed up and slow down.  The clock spins out of control as the sound cracks and the lights flicker.  We have all these cues we use to feel ourselves in relation to time.  Most of the time we are unaware of them.  But here Schneider shows them to us and we cannot not think about them.  He's trying to say things and we cannot hear him.  At other times we hear him but cannot see him.  He's hurled through the space and this interaction with his environment is hostile.  He is struck down to the ground by sound or light.  We're in an unstable, shifting world and there are not too many landmarks.   But I cannot look away.

In all this we start to consider what does time look like, how does it feel to experience time loss, time travel, or just time.  Time is after all a construct.  For this work, time becomes an object and the space Schneider is in.  But his battle with time is what we experience as well.  At moments he's romanticizing time, joking about it, and then being fucked with by it.  And it's charming and disarming.  The writing and staging is funny and self-aware.  There is something wistful and romantic about his script--where he sings along to Lonesome Town with Ricky Nelson and talks about missed connections, and the "map of ourselves."   The sonic reverb, strobes, layering and repetition of voices, music, and light somehow is entirely engaging.  It doesn't feel like a technological crutch (say like Broadway's love of projection in the place of a set).  The technology (advanced and quaint--I was handed a CD at one point as a music prop) is a necessary aspect of the "theater."  I cannot look away.

But suddenly the audience (and Schneider) are thrust into a mind-melding scenario which upends any and all expectations. I don't mean theatrical expectations.  I mean my expectation for instance that there is gravity on Earth.  Somehow Andrew Schneider's work made it feel like we were in a place with no gravity and none of the rules I thought applied to this world applied anymore.  YEAH.  When was the last time that happened to you at the theater?

With a quick bit of stagecraft, I am agog. WHAT IS HAPPENING?  WHAT AM I SEEING?  WHO AM I?  AM I EVEN THERE ANYMORE? AHHHHHHHH.

I think I am catching on.  But I'm not.  The world that is created fractures and I'm totally adrift.  AND THEN THEY DOUBLE DOWN ON THE MINDFUCK.  For a moment I think I have a reprieve.  I'm shaken and confused and delighted and still totally disoriented. AND THEN THEY SURPRISE ME AGAIN WITH ONE MORE REVEAL.  Fucking hell.  I now just want to cling onto my seat for dear life because my brain has stopped functioning.  Am I dead?  Instead I feel everything.  I have never been so alive.

So much of the show's success comes from Schneider's earnestness and his generosity on stage.  I'm not sure what in his demeanor or his approach made me trust him implicitly, but I did.  Or how the dreamy, sweet, and delicate parts of the show still survived after all the seismic shifts.  But I hung on every word, rumble, and cataclysm.  The stagecraft is seamless to serve the thesis. And I never saw it coming.  I'm grateful.  As a 20 year veteran of going to the theater honest-to-goodness surprises are harder and harder to come by.  It was refreshing to live in the moment for a time.  Even if that moment is fleeting. Like all time.

I received a complimentary ticket to attend initially and purchased a ticket to attend a second time.

Monday, January 12, 2015

My Voice Has An Echo In It: Rock in a Box

 "Two remarkable eyes. We stared into each other's eyes without moving."
There's something incredibly liberating about durational installation work. Rather than the tight focus required of a play or a musical, it allows for flexible engagement. Sometimes three hours of fractured focus on something evolving and evocative is a lot more heart racing than 90 minutes of intense focus on something you're not on board with.  Temporary Distortion's durational piece My Voice Has An Echo In It allows for just this kind of ebb and flow.

Inside a large box with two-way mirrors all around it sit the performers. Headphones are arranged on the outside of the box. The main room is filled with ambient sound but there's music coming from the box that can only be heard through the headphones. The lights rise and fall in the box and there are video screens inside that, like the performers, get reflected infinitely as mirror bounces off mirror.  Often the images are of the band playing within the box at some other time (Video design is by Scott Fetterman).

The band (Kenneth Collins, Scott Fetterman, Jenna Kyle, John Sully) rocks out. Sometimes the music is lyrical and at other times electronic (composition, musical direction, and sound design are by Sully). There's a self-consciousness to performing in this fashion--whether there is an audience or not they don't know. But the performative nature of their movements remains regardless.

Kenneth Collins (designer, director, and text) plays the bass. When the lights go up in the box he puts on mirrored sunglasses. When the lights go down he takes them off. Every time he puts his headphones on or takes them off he looks in the mirror and adjusts his fauxhawk like a rock star. 
There's an elegant precision to his movement as he picks up objects and replaces them with the same deliberate care.  The sunglasses go back into the same place in the same way, every time. He seemed to fall into a trance with one song where he just barely strummed the bass, with a decidedly sexual flourish.

There's an incredible intimacy to the piece as you're staring into the faces and eyes of the performers who can't see you. I've never been so physically close to a musician as they are in their space of creation (short of my interactive experience with a vocalist during HUG). 

But even with such closeness there is a structured distance. As Collins reads text into a microphone it  makes him sound miles away--no matter that he's only inches from my face. I strain to hear him. Snippets of words carry through the distortion, music, and tone. I squeeze my headphones to my head in the hopes of capturing more. And I enjoy the layers.

Because as much as I am pressed up against the glass looking and trying to see everything, the performance is escaping me.  It is not revealing all to me no matter my leaning or straining.  There's distortion in the sound but also through the mirrors reflecting each other and bending lines.  All of this obfuscation creates a tension and I like it. 

Unlike some other durational work I've seen the band here rotates. They don't perform every song. They step out of the box.  At one point I turned around and Kenneth Collins was behind me watching me watch them. The peep-show privacy I felt, turns out, is temporary. The rules of the piece are not fixed. It made me self-conscious but ultimately felt more just.

The performers are not art objects. They are observed when in the box but still maintain some control. The flexibility goes both ways for audience and performers. It's not an endurance test. It's not meant to be. The music rises and falls and is more absorbing in some movements and less absorbing sometimes too.

And I gave in. During a long drum solo I stopped watching and just listened as the drums made less and less sense. They became total abstraction. Like metal being sculpted rather than music being made. When the full band rocked out I got absorbed in the beat. When it was a quiet piano ballad I forgot I was at an installation and it felt like a great song on the radio. Stepping back from the box and seeing it from afar, without being able to hear it, it felt shiny and bright--a glittering box of musicians and instruments filled with possibility.

I received a complimentary ticket to attend.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Opening Plenary Panel at APAP: The Creative Act

The APAP conference has put together some dynamic and diverse panels showcasing artists who are breaking down barriers, working across genres, and using art to bring the world together.  Many of these panels are available for livestream through HowlRound and are being archived on the HowlRound website if you cannot watch them live. 

Lemon Andersen, Misty Copeland, and Jason Moran were the artists in the spotlight for the opening plenary panel at APAP this year.  These performers of color have demonstrated extraordinary success in their respective fields.  They each discovered the arts as children.  That laid the foundation for their later careers in the arts.  Because of this there was some lamentation over cuts to arts education today which might prevent kids today from having the same opportunities that these artists had.  But each seemed cognizant that the work they were doing was in some part intended to be inspirational for others out there.  That focus on the next generation was a concern present in what they do every day.

Andersen, a Latino spoken word artist and playwright, spoke of wanting audiences to look like the characters he creates on stage.  He was concerned that theater spaces were not always welcoming to the larger community.  He believed that artists and institutions should make an effort to get beyond inviting school groups to theaters and go as far as to the classroom to connect to young people.  He argued that "theater has to be a lifestyle for people of color."  He revels in going to the ballet and watching other patrons look at him askance as he slumps in his chair just being himself.  Little do those ballet patrons realize that although he started out as a street dancer he got invited to train in ballet as a child.  He hilariously demonstrated a plié for Copeland. Andersen was adamant that the message that "the community is welcome here" has to happen.

Copeland is African-American and a soloist at the American Ballet Theatre.  She insists on talking about race when people try to tell her she should just refer to herself as a "dancer" because she feels strongly that her visibility as a black artist and a "black dancer" is a very important part of what she does.  After hearing from many people on this point, she knows her visibility is critical.  She wants young people to see her in this place so that they can even dream of a such a career.  She thinks that ballet has only really just begun the conversation of inclusivity.  She found that ballet made her a complete person and even if it's not the career path for everyone she believes it is important that young people be exposed to the arts.  She also feels that it is important for artists to give away their secrets--that they should be giving away what they have learned so the next generation can take that knowledge and do even more with it.

Jason Moran is a jazz pianist, composer, and now the artistic director of Jazz at The Kennedy Center.  Moran had a lot of support early in his life as an artist.  But he spoke about trying to break down some barriers to the way in which certain art forms are presented. Moran noted that "music doesn't just sit in concert halls and jazz festivals." To demonstrate his belief in the intersection of form, he did one concert where skateboarders skated on stage while his band played.  He also talked about his love of opera, which he called "the great collaborative form."  Collaboration was key to his work scoring the film Selma.  In devising a score, he was cognizant that they were navigating a historical story but in context of the present time and his music was a part of that.  Notably he said it was important that the music did not resolve anything in the movie  As he put it, "I keep it on the edge."

APAP Kicks Off

You may be wondering why suddenly in January you start hearing about all sorts of small theater festivals around New York City.  The reason these festivals exist is because of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP) conference which takes place every January in New York City.  The main purpose of the conference is to bring together presenters and artists, agents, and producers.  The theater festivals were created to offer more showcase opportunities to put new work before presenters but the festivals are ticketed events and open to the public.

Under the Radar at The Public Theater is the 11 year-old granddaddy of these January festivals but PS122's COIL is celebrating it's 10th year (Check out my interview with Artistic Director of PS122 Vallejo Gantner on Flavorpill where he gave me the scoop on this year's fest). Certain festivals have a particular focus--Prototype is an opera-musical theater festival--but many of the festivals are interdisciplinary and host all sorts of live performance styles including traditional plays and dance but also installation, durational, and new media work.  Have a listen to what festival shows I'm most excited about on the Maxamoo podcast.

Although the APAP conference is primarily for the performing arts industry professional focused on the business of "arts presenting" there are some activities open to the public.  Before the APAP conference officially kicks off the public is welcome to attend pre-conference events.  The pre-conference offerings involved discussions of jazz, classical music, world music, dance, and family programming.  I went to one presentation on festivals where speakers ran arts, culture, community, and music festivals in Ann Arbor, Asheville, NC, and San Jose, CA and heard about how festivals are integrating local communities into their events.  Another panel focused on how to use data collected on patrons with presenters from New York including 92Y and Roundabout Theater Company.  It's no doubt inside baseball but if you're like me and wish you understood why theaters do what they do it's a wonderful place to get some professional business context.  And in that instance it was great to see how Roundabout was trying to reach more under-served communities with their Access 10 program and how the data collected on the tickets sold has helped them focus their efforts on further outreach.

This year marks the first year APAP also offered live streaming of various events that the public could tune into on HowlRound (RSVPs are necessary but just fill out a quick form). Speakers at these live stream events include Ira Glass, Misty Copeland, and GRAMMY-award winner singer-songwriter Angélique Kidjo.  HowlRound has archived the events that have already taken place so if you were not able to watch live there's still an opportunity to view them.

A young performers classical music performance on Monday January 12th at Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall is free and open to the public as well.

The January arts calendar might be a bit quiet on the uptown Broadway front, but because of APAP it's a great time to check out new works from all over the world which have come to town.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

tears become...streams become...: Water and People Don't Mix

The black lake is so inviting.   Filling the entirety of the Park Avenue Armory's drill hall with a slick black pool of water, with two pianos in the middle, Douglas Gordan's installation "tears become...streams become..." is impressive.  It takes a while for my eyes to adjust to the light indoors and until it does it feels like this wave of blackness might swallow me up.  There is no railing around the pool and the density of the blackness is like a magnet.  The longer I look at the more I want to see if I can see into it. 

At first I think it is still.  But there are unexpected ripples in the water. They are not consistent. Their source is unknown. But they make the lights reflecting from the ceiling twinkle.  I see all sorts of variation. The reflection of a black doorway is darker than a black door frame.  The hanging lights on the ceiling become stalagmites in the reflection. The ceiling seems so much closer from the reflection.  It's a lie.

In the evenings, Hélène Grimaud is to play music about water.  During the day it is meant to be a space of quiet meditation where a player piano silently plays the performance from the night before.  There is of course no quiet meditation. Every New Yorker has come here to sit and talk. Nothing invites conversation like a peaceful space.  And the conversations around me cover boyfriends, lawsuits, and work.  Is anyone talking about the art?  I shove my earbuds deep into my ear canals and turn up Beiruit. Perhaps an accordion will help drown them out.  The man who has not stopped talking since he got here continues to talk.  2015. I still hate people.

People are leaning over the lake edge.  Some people are posing for pictures.  Literally EVERYONE is Eva Peron. Arms outstretched in the same position. No one is original. But it is only a few people who insist on inserting themselves into the narrative. Dicks.  I have always had a problem with this. 

I move away from the talking man.  Nothing has stopped him yet.  Though my hope for a sea monster to emerge from the black lake and swallow him whole is still on my mind. 

The water seems to soften everything.  The tough metal beams look more cradling than imposing.

The dampened silent player piano clicks and clunks in the distance.  Imaginary fingers race across the keyboard. Little flashes of white lights for every note.  A woman raises her voice to me, "Isn't there supposed to be music?"  "I believe it is meant to be silent for contemplation," I reply with a certain level of irritation because she has interrupted my quiet.  "But there's supposed to be music," she bellows.

Time to go.