A very nice review of my latest directorial project:
It’s been a long, crazy, productive, wonderful week. I wanted to write something brilliant and pithy. But I’m just too tired. So I’ll just post some links instead.
Before I settled upon a vaguely mathematical reinterpretation of an Oscar Wilde quote, one of the titles I considered for this blog was “Half sick of shadows.” And while I ultimately decided that the phrase just seemed a little too negative/whiny/angsty/emo, its source is still one of my favorite poems. Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott” has certainly inspired countless works of art. Of all kinds. Not to mention inspiring the title of an Agatha Christie novel. Here’s a lovely reading of the poem, with an image of just one the J.W. Waterhouse paintings it inspired. Other artists who were inspired to illustrate/interpret the poem include Hunt, Grimshaw, Rosetti, Meteyard and, far more recently, Shelah Horvitz Higgins. And many more.
But what I’d really like to focus on here are two utterly different musical interpretations of the poem. It’s been nearly 20 years since I first heard Loreena McKennitt’s gorgeous musical rendition of The Lady Of Shalott, but it never fails to to delight. Ms. McKennitt’s simple, lyrical approach to the poem is lovely and haunting.
And then, a few years ago, I discovered Emilie Autumn’s Shalott, from her 2006 album Opheliac. (Yes, I was behind the curve on that one.) I was both delighted and stunned: delighted that another musician chose to interpret the poem; stunned by the power and impact of Ms. Autumn’s version, despite all the theatricality (and yes, artifice) of its presentation. Or perhaps because of it. 🙂
One of the joys of art is to discover the endless reinterpretations of timeless themes and archetypes made new – made unique, made their own – by so many artists. Shakespeare… Michelangelo… Eliot… they all “stood upon the shoulders of giants,” as Goethe so eloquently stated. And speaking of Eliot, here’s a quote that not only sums up the point of this post, but puts the lie to the apocryphal “good artists borrow, great artists steal” nonsense that’s been attributed to him (and to Picasso):
“One of the surest tests [of the superiority or inferiority of a poet] is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.”
At the end of October, I had the privilege of attending the 2011 National Alliance for Musical Theatre’s Annual Festival & Conference. I saw cut versions of eight new musicals (in various stages of development) and attended two days of conferences, guest speakers and panel discussions. I loved every minute. The weekend left me with lots to ponder, about the state of new work, the business, audience expectations and what my “job” is in the grand scheme of it all. And where I want to start is here: as I wrote summaries of the various new works I saw, I often ended them with words like “We have not cultured, nurtured or educated an audience for works like this.” Very few theaters do, actually. And yet, this type of work is what was chosen by the Festival committee, over and over again. This is the type of work that is encouraged and supported by the National Endowment for the Arts. New work… work that pushes the boundaries, work that surprises with its language, form, subject matter and modalities.
So how do we remedy this situation? How do theaters that are just trying to keep their doors open and get butts in the seats generate interest and support for projects that deviate from the tried-and-true? Because I think that we’ll all have to embrace that eventually. It’s what’s being written and produced now. Of the three Broadway shows I saw in October, Sister Act was the most traditional in its form and staging. The Mountaintop required a bit of an intellectual leap from the audience. It was unpredictable, it surprised. I suspect there were more than a few moments when the playwright intended to shock. Interestingly, The Mountaintop has – believe it or not – a lot of similarities to Duck Hunter Shoots Angel, which we produced in 2010 and again in 2011. The Mountaintop was funny, it had a “magical realism” element and of course it had a message. Some of the language shocked. Could we produce it my little corner of the world? I highly doubt it… primarily because the language is shocking. Which is a shame.
Jersey Boys posts a warning about “authentic Jersey language” (and loud gunshots) next to each entrance to the auditorium. The language, the frank sexuality, the narrative style and the staging itself all felt very “contemporary,” yet still very much within the context of a “traditional” musical. The audience loved it… especially the tourists with their teenagers. Even here, at a traditional, family-oriented theater in a very conservative region, Jersey Boys is one of the most frequently requested titles I’ve heard over the past few years. It’s easy to understand why: the music is phenomenal, the rags-to-riches American success story of its plot is iconic, archetypal. And as it says on the billboards (and in the script) “the crowd goes wild!” But will it sell here without backlash? Will some of the same people who wouldn’t think twice about the “controversial” elements of the show in New York or on tour balk at hearing and seeing those same things on our stage? As strange as that idea seems, it’s entirely possible.
These realities aside, what I really wonder about is the material that’s challenging without containing the red flags of extreme language, hot-button subject matter and flagrant sexuality. How does a producing organization educate an audience that will appreciate shows that step outside of the box, works that require the audience to think and be actively engaged? I had the opportunity to discuss our programming and our perceived responsibilities with a couple of local volunteers last week. When we got around to discussing what sort of titles made them want to buy tickets, the response was pretty predictable. They liked comedies, they liked musicals, they wanted to laugh and be entertained… and yet as the conversation progressed, one of them said that the show that she remembered most vividly was The Diary Of Anne Frank – and she wished we’d do it again so that her teenage son could experience the play. And I’ve had many other conversations in recent years that began with “Oh, I just loved The Foreigner,” (or Smoke On The Mountain or whatever) “you should do more shows like that.” But when you give the same people a little time to keep talking, they eventually get to the “one production I’ll always remember,” or “the one show I loved the most.” Then I hear titles like Amadeus or Romeo and Juliet or The Trojan Women. Their most memorable experiences in our theater were almost never the titles they initially said they wanted to see. So the audience exists for the type of theater I’m talking about. But have we presented it consistently enough for them to be confident that there’s merit in challenge? That there’s more to the theatrical experience than mere entertainment? How do we jump the hurdle and get them to take what some might consider a risk?
I don’t pretend to know the answer, though a possibility occurs to me. Perhaps producing organizations need to be far less cautious in programming choices. People don’t necessarily define entertainment as “fluff’.” People like their drama, their suspense, their thrills, right? When we’re talking about film, television and books they do. Why are we continually worried about “safe” when we produce theater? Why not focus on giving them something they’ll remember, on committing ourselves and our energies to bold, daring, creative choices? Bold and new are concepts that are working in New York, Chicago, London… An example: in October, other than The Book Of Mormon (which wasn’t on my list), the only show I couldn’t get a ticket to – on any of the days I was in New York – was Sleep No More! That doesn’t apply in the provinces? I wonder. Just 30 miles away from the sleepy little country town where I work is another sleepy little country town where a recent production of The Vagina Monologues played to sellout crowds. And has for several years. Ditto for Dead Man’s Cell Phone. And Assassins. And Bat Boy. I simply can’t believe that our local audience is so different. And even if they are, why aren’t those other audiences coming here? And would they if we presented more challenging fare?
My projects for 2012 are now locked, even if two of them can’t be announced yet. They are interesting, balanced, varied, diverse… and, well, safe. And now, even before 2012 has officially begun, I wonder about 2013. Can I – should I – consider even trying to push the envelope? Is that my responsibility as an artist? Or am I merely rationalizing to accommodate my personal tastes?