Thursday, December 29, 2011

Open Mic Night: Act II, Scenes 2 and 4

Open Mic Night: The Conversos of Venice
Pictured: Ron Pullins as Capitano Spavento, John Geoffrion as Shylock, and Corianna Hunt Swartz of Flat Earth Theatre as Gessica. Not pictured: Diana Durham who read stage directions. Both Diana and Ron also presented work that night.

November 21, 2011. The Small Theatre Alliance of Boston's Open Mic Night, this time hosted by Fort Point Theatre Channel presented a scene and talk back for my work-in-progress, The Conversos of Venice.

I had presented an earlier scene at the inaugural Open Mic Night and the misgivings I had afterwards did not manifest this time around. Indeed, of the times I have heard actors read my words since I began, this was the time where what I heard was exactly what I had hoped to hear and we had some lively discussion before we moved on to the next playwright's work.

Still there's the rest of the play to write, and ever more research to be done!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

And Now For Something Completely Different: A Unicorn in a Bank

It was a very strange gig for this unicorn, who was led around the town of Brookline one November evening to appear at one boutique, three banks, and a crêperie. Let me tell you: three hours of wearing a unicorn head is a lot of stress on one's shoulders, but little girls and middle-aged women just love the beast.

Mask and costume by Eric Bornstein of Behind the Mask. Unicorn wrangling by Ashley Yarnell, who provides vocals.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Savyon Liebrecht's "The Banality of Love"

The Arts Fuse has published my essay on Israeli playwright Savyon Liebrecht's The Banality of Love a play about the romance between German philosopher (and card carrying Nazi) Martin Heidegger and his Jewish student, the political theorist Hannah Arendt. I attended a reading of the play last month at the Goethe Institut as part of Israeli Stage's series of readings of contemporary Israeli plays in Boston.
[...]Liebrecht does not address Arendt’s rationalizations or the reasons for her dedication to Heidegger, though the dramatist’s title suggests that it is the banal truth of the irrationality of love. This neglects both Arendt the theorist and Arendt the public intellectual. Is her portrait of an innocently banal Heidegger merely the flip side of her portrait of Adolf Eichmann as a ghostly bureaucrat?[...]
Read the rest on The Arts Fuse.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

November 28: "Arlecchino Am Ravenous" at Stone Soup

Monday, November 28 at 8pm at the Out of the Blue Art Gallery:

Just as you are recovering from Thanksgiving feasting Stone Soup Poetry will feature my performance of my one-man play, Arlecchino Am Ravenous a tale of slapstick blasphemy and auto-cannibalism.  Arlecchino is so driven by hunger to ravage both the heavens above and the hells below in search of a meal.  The piece developed out of a series of improvisations inspired by a reading of Italian Nobel-Laureate, Dario Fo riffing on Shakespeare, commedia dell'arte, and Dante. It was last performed at Stone Soup in March of 2009.

The Out of the Blue Art Gallery is located at 106 Prospect Street, Cambridge MA.

A poetry open mic will precede the performance. Stone Soup Poetry is hosted by Chad Parenteau.

Facebook users may choose to RSVP here

"The Conversos of Venice" at Playwright's Open Mic Night

Monday, November 21st, The Small Theatre Alliance of Boston once again presents Playwright's Open Mic Night, a bimonthly presentation of works-in-progress by Boston-area playwrights. This edition, I will be presenting a scene from my play The Conversos of Venice (a response play to Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice (another scene had been presented at the inaugural Open Mic Night.)

Also presenting new work will be:

Monica Raymond: Four Riffs for a Sailor: Calypso

Diana Durham: Perceval and the Grail

Ron Pullins : Ice Dancing

Adam Baratz: Two songs from a musical.

This time around, Fort Point Theatre Channel plays host at 10 Channel Center Street, Boston, MA

Actors interested in reading scripts are invited to show up at 7pm. The event begins at 7:30pm.

Facebook users may RSVP here

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Review: "One Man, Two Guvnors" in The Arts Fuse

My review of London's National Theatre Live's presentation of Richard Bean's One Man, Two Guvnors a modern adaptation of Carlo Goldoni's The Servant of Two Masters, is up at the The Arts Fuse.

Earlier this summer, I reviewed Shakeapeare and Company's production of Goldoni's The Venetian Twins for The Fuse.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

How I Spent My Summer, Part 1: OpenAir Circus

This was my seventh summer teaching at OpenAir Circus, a youth circus based in Somerville, MA, working with many of the same students, parents and fellow teachers as in previous years, teaching mime and commedia dell'arte.

Maschere e Bottacio
Masks and bottacio (slapstick). Photo by self.

Clown on Tent StakesI have been asked not to do this anymore since I am supposed to be a role model for young clowns. Photo by Victoria Wolfson.

Arlecchino in Clown AlleyDemonstrating the lacing technique on my Arlecchino costume. The design is based on the clothing of late-medieval Italian peasants, before belts, buckles, and buttons were common fasteners. Costume by Cherie Konyha Greene. Photo by Victoria Wolfson.

Commedia dell'OrreryPart of the challenge of this year's theme of "OpenAir Circus in Space" is how to make it work with the commedia dell'arte segment of the show. I opted to have the Dottoressa give a lecture on the solar system with the commedia characters arranged a working model of the planets, essentially a living orrery. Here she is with the sun and the moon. Photo by Victoria Wolfson.

Commedia dell'OrreryRotalinda (either the wife of, or female equivalent of Pulcinella) interupts the Moon in his orbit within the Dottoressa's orrery. Photo by Victoria Wolfson.

Ian Thal,Self-Portrait

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Gulliver's Travels

One of my gigs this summer has been as a teaching artist at Riverside Theatre Works in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Boston, where I have been teaching and choreographing puppetry for a troupe of young actors and puppeteers who will be performing in Don Fleming's stage adaptation of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels. Maggie Diller directs.

Showtimes are Friday August 19th at 7:30pm, and Saturday, August 20th and Sunday, August 21st at 3:00pm.

Friday, August 5, 2011

This Weekend: Open Air Circus in Space

This is my seventh summer teaching at the Somerville-based youth-circus, Open Air Circus. My mime and commedia dell'arte students will be performing alongside jugglers, unicyclists, stiltwalkers, and other assorted young performers, in Nunziato Field in Somerville, MA.

Show times are Friday, August 5th at 7pm, Saturday, August 6th at 2pm and 7pm, and Sunday August 7th at 2pm. Suggested donation is $3.

The theme is "OpenAir Circus in Space" and yes, there will be a commedia dell'arte scenario about the solar system.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Review: "The Venetian Twins" in The Arts Fuse

Last week I took a road trip to Lenox, Massachusetts to review Shakespeare & Company's production of Carlo Goldoni's The Venetian Twins for The Arts Fuse. Goldoni, of course, had an interesting relationship to the commedia dell'arte tradition:

As a playwright, [Goldoni] saw himself on a mission to replace the commedia with comedy that proffers a more classical form: Instead of actors improvising upon a loosely sketched scenario, Goldoni wrote three-act scripts that adhered to the Aristotelian unities and even wrote librettos for the emerging genre of opera buffa. Still, though he rejected improvisation, Goldoni preserved many of the iconic characters of the commedia for centuries.
The Venetian Twins runs through to August 27th.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Federalist Society and the Trial of Shylock

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011, I attended the eleventh annual staged readingand symposium on Shakespeare and the Law jointly presented by the Boston Chapter of the Federalist Society and the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company. I did not know what to expect : last year's reading and discussion of Henry V had been little more than alove-fest for John Yoo and his legal arguments on behalf of George W. Bush's more controversial war-time decisions that inadvertently exposed Professor Yoo's intellectual poverty. However, since the play under consideration was The Merchant of Venice, a play that has been in my thoughts in recent years, I felt the need to attend. By coincidence, the Cutler Majestic Theatre, which hosted the event was the very same room in which I had seen Darko Tresnjak's Theatre for a New Audience production of Merchant of Venice

As with the previous year's presentation, the affair was a highly truncated reading by non-actors (in this case a cast made entirely of judges) that clocked in at about an hour, followed by a panel discussion on the legal themes. It was a pleasant surprise that this year featured as more sober, less partisan discussion than last.

Daniel J. Kelly, Chairman for the Boston Chapter of the Federalist Society, in his role as moderator, established the themes under consideration as "contract, equity, justice, and judging" as such, the scenes that were featured in the reading were those that focussed on the three types of contracts that appear in the play and their related trials: infamous bond of the pound of flesh between Shylock and Antonio and Act IV's trial scene, the will that stipulates the "obtayning of Portia by the choyƒe of three cheƒts" and the oaths regarding the wedding rings and comic early morning trial in Belmont. Helen M. Whall, professor of English at College of the Holy Cross, opened the after-play discussion, offering some of the scholarly insights that were lacking in last year's far more partisan presentation.

I am unable to account for all of the speakers and their insights but I will sketch out some notable comments as well as some general points of consensus.

Whall noted that prior to the incorporation of the first professional theatre company in England in 1576, the primary theatrical experience had been that of morality plays (a genre satirized in Launcelot Gobbo's monologue cut in this version) and thus Shakespeare's audience were accustomed to having such concepts of law, mercy, and justice allegorically dramatized on the stage. Most importantly, Whall underlined that from the Christian perspective of the 1590s, the forced conversion of Shylock from Judaism to Christianity that so upsets the sensibilities of those of us who live in countries that guarantee religious liberty would be seen as a favor (indeed, an act of "mercy.") As this theological perspective is central to my thoughts regarding the play, I will return to it later.

Judge Andrew Grainger of the Massachusetts Appeals Court, who had played the role of Shylock in the reading, was very quick to point out that despite the literary worth of The Merchant of Venice that not only was there a problem of overlaying our 21st century legal sensibilities upon a 16th century play that there were also limitations to how a literary and dramatic presentation can be seen as representing the operations of the law. This was a theme that several of the judges brought up (in fact, Gabrielle Wolohojia, also of the Appeals Court, who played Portia, expressed a strong distaste for Portia's legal practice): Portia's courtroom behavior would at the very least allow Shylock the right of appeal in a modern, western court. Besides impersonating a judge and entering the court under false credentials (not mentioned by the panelists) she has a number of conflicts of interest: the defaulted loan was taken on her husband's behalf, combined with her money being offered in settlement presents her with both a personal and financial stake in the outcome of the trial. Portia also, on a whim, changes roles from judge, to defense attorney, to prosecutor and back, while simultaneously turning what is essentially a civil trial of Antonio into a criminal trial of Shylock.

Daniel Kelly would point out that Portia reads all sorts of conditions into the bond that were not already in the bond in such a way that undercuts the rule of law (indeed, it is precisely by her reading in of conditions that she flips the trial of Antonio into a trial of Shylock.) Of course, several of the Judges present pointed out that whether Shylock was willing to accept a settlement or not, the conditions of his bond (the forfeit of the pound of flesh) were legally absurd and "void as against public policy"-- i.e. the contract would be dismissed because it required an illegal act for its fulfillment. Relying on Jean Favier's history, Gold & Spices: The Rice of Commerce In the Middle Ages it appears that courts did have the power to dismiss bonds of usury if it was determined that the contract placed too onerous a burden upon the debtor (such as something that would be otherwise illegal)-- in which case, the usurer might be subject to a small fine (but never one so harsh to keep the usurer from returning to the business) so despite even Antonio's claims that

The duke cannot deny the course of law:
For the commodity that strangers have
With us in Venice, if it be denied,
Will much impeach the justice of the state,
Since that the trade and profit of the city
Consisteth of all nations…
(Act III, Scene 3, 26-31)
--the "course of law" did then, as it does now, provide an escape from the bond. It is precisely this principle of "void as against public policy" that allowed my parents to purchase the house in which I grew up despite a deed specifically barring "Jews and Negroes" from residing within; such restrictive covenants had been rendered unenforceable by Shelley v. Kraemmer (1948) even if the deeds continue to exist.

The point being that while Portia demands Shylock be merciful, rather than doing to merciful thing which would be voiding the bond (and perhaps returning Shylock's stolen property), she threatens Shylock with death.

We do see that Portia is quite willing to manipulate the law to further her own agenda not just in the Venetian court (where she is called in a judge, not as an advocate) but in regard to the trial of the three caskets: she is willing to play by the rules, but she also actively schemes to ensure that the suitor that pleases her choose rightly and the suitor that does not choose wrongly:
Therefore, for fear of the worst, I pray thee, set a
deep glass of rhenish wine on the contrary casket,
for if the devil be within and that temptation
without, I know he will choose it. I will do any
thing, Nerissa, ere I'll be married to a sponge.
(Act I, Scene 2, 91-95)
Or in this song to Bassanio:
Tell me where is fancy bred,
Or in the heart, or in the head?
How begot, how nourished?
(Act III, Scene 2, 63-65) [Emphases mine own; they all rhyme with "lead" as in casket.]
• • •

This of course, does beg the question as to what causes Portia to threaten Shylock's life, humiliate him, and force his conversion when there was a legal means of voiding the cruelest provisions of the bond and compelling a settlement by which Shylock would be paid the capital, as well as the secondary question as to what made this a pleasing resolution to an Elizabethan audience. First of all, we must follow Grainger's warning not to impose our 21st century sensibilities upon this 16th century play. Whall was correct to note that the forced conversion that is so offensive to 21st century American sensibilities, was, to the at least nominally Christian audience of the 1590s, an act of mercy. Not in the sense that he only had to change his house of worship to avoid the death penalty, but (as I have argued elsewhere) Christian theological positions with regards to Judaism.

As I have noted in my essayregarding the Theatre for a New Audience production, Darko Tresnjak did an excellent job of bringing The Merchant of Venice into the 21st century, and used the play to show how antisemitism can continue to thrive in our age, but in doing so, he lost sight of the anti-Judaism of the 1590s and how that informs both the language and ideology of the play and failed to explain why Jew-hatred is so atavistic: it is rooted not in simple doctrinal misunderstanding, but in folklore and in Christianity itself.

Until Shylock insists on collecting his pound of flesh, he commits no act of villainy. All crimes are committed by Antonio (who is proud to own up to kicking and spitting upon Shylock) and his gang of Bassanio, Lorenzo, Salerio, and Solanio who rob Shylock's house after Antonio lures him away from home. Why does Shylock demand a pound of flesh? When asked, Shylock can only answer:
You'll ask me why I rather choose to have
a weight of carrion flesh, than to receive
three thousand ducats: I'll not answer that!
But say it is my humour, --is it answer'd?
Act IV, Scene 1, 40-43)
The answer is that it is simply what Jews do in European literature. The tale of the Merchant of Florence, Bindo Scali, from Ser Giovani Fiorentino's Il Pecorone (Composed in 1378 though published in 1554), also has a Jewish money lender who demands a pound of flesh, as does the titular Jew of The Ballad of Gernutus. Indeed the story appears throughout European folklore. While storyteller, theatre artist, and folklorist, Diane Edgecomb has informed me that she has come across older versions of this story in Kurdish folklore, in which the money lender is a Christian, it should be noted that the "pound of flesh" dovetails with the blood libel. In short, while it takes an injustice to motivate Shylock towards revenge, the particularly grotesque nature of his vengeance conforms to European prejudices of how Jews behave.

The sentence is also grotesque by Venetian standards. While other Catholic nations allowed the the Universal Inquisition free rein, The Republic of Venice granted Marranos, Jews who had been forcibly converted to Christianity and their descendants who continued to practice some form of Judaism in secret, the right to revert to Judaism without persecution by the Inquisition (see either Cecil Roth's 1932 classic A History of the Marranos or Jane S. Gerber's 1993 The Jews of Spain: A History of the Sephardic Experience.) In other parts of the Catholic world, both in Europe and New World colonies, these Marranos were subject to imprisonment, torture, and execution. Forced conversions may have been the norm elsewhere in Europe; but not in the Serene Republic.

Leaving aside Portia's afore mentioned ethical lapses, it's a theological imperative that results in the sentence against Shylock. The law that is operative in Shakespeare's courtroom, isn't the law of the Republic of Venice, but scripture and its Christian interpretation. Furthermore, when Shylock defends his lending of money at interest as a profession, he does not reference a major trade empire's needs to acquire liquid assets with which to invest in a new venture or deal with an unforeseen setback (something a merchant prince like Antonio would understand) but with reference to scripture, using the story of Jacob tending the flocks of Laban to justify the practice. The question is not economic necessity but the status of Jewish scripture in Christian Europe.

(As a side note: given that loaning at interest a normal business practice in Europe at the time, especially in northern Italy, the fact that Antonio would be seeking a loan from the despised Shylock implies either a desire to set Shylock up or that Antonio has bad credit with all the Christian money lenders.)

As I have argued previously (most recently in my notes on Tresnjak's production) the issue of mercy in Act IV is a theological proposition of the superiority of Christianity over Judaisim: Shylock, the Jew, may have the Law, but he only receives God's mercy by becoming Christian; conversely, the Venetian and Belmontean characters all commit sins: they are accessories to theft, they break oaths, impersonate court officials, yet are recipients of God's mercy on account of being Christians.

This has long been, in the eyes of Christian theologians, the dividing line between Judaism and Christianity: Judaism is presented as a religion of strict laws while Christianity is the religion of mercy (again note Whall's point that Shakespeare's audience was familiar with the allegorical morality plays as well as the sermons of any number of Christian sects, both Catholic and Protestant and as such Mercy and Law could be real characters to them) so not only have we Shylock defending his profession through reference to scripture, but in the courtroom scene he proclaims:
My deeds upon my head! I crave the law,
The penalty and forfeit of my bond.
(Act IV, Scene 1, 202-203)
Note that this adherence to "the law" is in the same breath as a line that echoes the "blood curse" from Matthew, 27: 24-25 "His blood be on us, and our children" -- in short, the very passage that Christians had used to place the blame of Jesus' crucifixion upon Jews of subsequent generations.

"Law" in The Merchant of Venice is not merely civil law or criminal statutes, but also scripture. Consequently, this dichotomy between mercy and the law is also one of Christianity and Judaism as imagined by Christianity. Christianity has long had the ambivalent position of both insisting that Jewish scripture, the Tanakh was the proof that the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth had fulfilled messianic prophecy, and thus validated the new religion over the old, while also having to contend with the continuing existence of Judaism in the Christian era. The question became one of "if Jews know the prophecies, how could they deny Jesus?"

This question came to a head for Christian theologians during the late middle ages, when in 1230s, the Inquisition, whose mission had up until then to regulate the beliefs of Catholics, intervened in a theological dispute between rabbis over Moses Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed. While in 1240 Pope Gregory ordered the mendicant orders of the Dominicans and the Franciscans to seize and burn any copies of the Talmud and other Jewish texts a containing doctrinal error. Rabbis were summoned by the Inquisition. This continued under subsequent Popes. The belief was held that the Talmud and other interpretive commentaries had not only strengthened Jewish resolve to reject Christianity, but that exposure to Jewish texts would result in Christian heresy. In short, the Inquisition, with papal backing, decided that it had the authority to determine orthodox versus heterodox Judaism using the weapons of imprisonment, torture, and execution.[Note: I am greatly indebted to Jeremy Cohen's The Friars and The Jews: The Evolution of Medieval Anti-Judaism (1982) regarding the role of the Dominican and Franciscan orders in the persecution of Jews and the formulation of an anti-Judaic ideology.]

By the time of the Barcelona Disputation of 1263, Dominican Friar Pablo Christiani (a Jewish convert once named Saul) had gone so far as to argue that the Talmud reveals that Jewish sages were not merely misguided but that they believed Jesus to be both God and Messiah while also refusing to reject Judaism and adopt Christian rites and beliefs out of sheer wickedness. Rabbi Nachmanides' (who had been forced to defend Judaism in a court whose rules were determined by the Inquisition) response ultimately was that Christiani was presenting a heretical interpretation of the Talmud as well as misrepresenting the canonical status of Talmudic texts. The dispute was largely an aporeia, in part because Nachmanides was barred from presenting certain counter arguments at the very outset of the disputation. Both sides claimed victory, but ultimately the disputation failed to convert Spanish Jewry.

So by the time of Franciscan Hebraist Nicholas of Lyra (c. 1270-1349) composed his Quodlibetum de adventu Christi, he had actually argued that the sole reason the Hebrew text of the Tanakh provides enough ambiguity for Jews to deny that it validates and foretells Jesus' ministry, and his status as both God and Messiah, was that rabbis had deliberately altered the text to deny the Christian truth:
[The Jews] here pervert the true text and deny the truth just as they deny the divinity of Christ. This might best be done from ancient Bibles, which were not corrupted in this and other passages in which there is mention of the divinity of Christ, if they [these Bibles] can be had. In this way our predecessors used to argue against them [the Jews] over this and similar passages. Yet although I myself have not seen any Bible of the Jews which has not been corrupted. I have faithfully heard from those worthy by reason of their lives, consciences, and knowledge, who swear on oath that they have seen it thus in ancient Bibles
[Translation found in the aforementioned work by Jeremy Cohen.]

In short, after reading the Tanakh in Hebrew, Nicholas argued that since it did not actually state what his Church wanted it to say that the authentic Hebrew scripture had been suppressed, and that all extant copies (excepting those that he knew of through rumor) had been deliberately altered.

Despite England having recently become a Protestant country, these medieval Catholic views regarding Jews continued to be influential (Nicholas of Lyra's work was very influential on Martin Luther's 1543 polemic On The Jews and Their Lies) indeed it offers historical context to Antonio's response to Shylock's interpretation of the story of Shylock and Laban:
Mark you this Bassanio,
The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose,--
An evil soul producing holy witness
Is like a villain with a smiling cheek,
A goodly apple rotten at the heart.
O what a goodly outside falsehood hath!
(Act I, Scene 3, 92-97)
I have more than once noted the usage of diabolic rhetoric regarding both Shylock and Jews in general throughout The Merchant of Venice but what is notable here and perhaps chaffing to the 21st century audience is that to Shakespeare's English audiences, the Bible is not a shared text common to both Christian and Jew, but a source of division: at once both holy word in the mouths of Christians and diabolic law in the mouths of Jews and simultaneously affirming both the Christian notion that that same law is superceded by Christianity.

So while I am inclined to view Shakespeare, the author, as a humanist, sensitive to the irony and ambiguity of human experience, the courtroom shenanigans of Portia, like the folkloric and literary sources he relies upon, effectively provide a theological trump to his humanism.

Friday, June 24, 2011

"Be like Ian Thal"

The CoLab Theatre's Kenny Steven Fuentes responds to a recent discussion on the StageSource blog by citing my gonads and their contribution to the Boston theatre scene:

Self produce. Organize. Stir up controversy. Be like Ian Thal or Thomas Garvey, and HAVE SOME BALLS! Nevermind what you think about their opinions, these dudes are heard and people take them seriously.
Kenny has realized that I am so utterly shallow that the mere mention of my testes results in a link. Seriously? People take me seriously?

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Photos from Pico

[N.B.: Yes, I realized after I pressed the publish button that I had missed the opportunity to title this post "Pictures from Pico."]
Daniel Bourque, who had directed me in Ron Pullins' Pico for F.U.D.G.E.'s ten minute play festival in May, snapped some photographs during tech rehearsals. Here are a few:
Pico (after borrowing his clothes from Arlecchino) presents a relic (a prop Vulgate from a Teatro delle Maschere show.)
Moss (Shelley Wood) didn't order entertainment.
Pico presents the fairy tale of the man and the woe-man. Masks and puppets by yours truly.
The bums (Thomas Collins and Sally Nutt) watch the show.

More photos can be found in Daniel's photostream.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

New Play Map Source Code Released!

NewPlayMap1Back in January, I presented my initial thoughts regarding the New Play Institute's New Play Map, a platform for an open-source, user generated, map of the new play sector. The Institute has since continued work on developing the code for the map, while I have noticed that in my greater Boston metropolitan area, more "generative artists" (a term that embraces both playwrights and collaboratives), and presenting organizations have slowly begun to appear on the map. Locally, the playwright development organization, Playwrights' Commons has even launched a campaign to map Boston area plays and playwrights.

On May 19th, the New Play Institute announced that the source code for the latest version of the New Play Map has been posted to GitHub.

Of course, the immediate question is: what could be done with this code now that it has been open sourced? The Institute asks:

We're dying to find out what you could imagine doing with it.

(Theatre organizations in other countries: Why not take the source code to map the theatre infrastructure of your own country? That would be the simplest and easiest adaptation of this project.)

Since the introduction of the Map, I have considered what other art sectors would be well served by the platform. Plays are not the only works that can be tracked in this manner. My attention went to some of the other performing art forms: dance, opera, (and for a lack of a better term, "performance art"), are amongst a number of composed pieces that can be performed and presented in any number of venues, by various performers, presenting organizations, and can even go through a development process of workshops, conferences and festivals.

So why not a New Dance Map? New Opera Map? New Performance Map?

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

May 4th: Ron Pullins' Pico

While I have mentioned that I am rehearsing with Teatro delle Maschere for the Shakespeare Slam on April 30th, I am also in rehearsals for Ron Pullins' play, Pico, which I had the pleasure to read back in February at the Small Theatre Alliance of Boston's Open Mic Night where I was presenting a scene from my own work-in-progress, The Conversos of Venice.

I was so taken with Ron's script that I lobbied for the part!

My lobbying efforts paid off: under the direction of Daniel Bourque, I am rehearsing with Thomas Collins, Sally Nutt, and Shelley Wood, as part of F.U.D.G.E. Theatre Company's Second Annual Ten-Minute Play Festival, May 4th at the Arsenal Center for the Arts. 321 Arsenal Street, Watertown, MA. Showtime is 7:30pm. Tickets are $15 at the door.

Monday, April 25, 2011

IRNE Intrigue, Part II

Previously, I wrote an account of, as best as I understood it, the pressure campaign placed on the Independent Reviewers of New England (IRNE) to dismiss Hub Review critic, Thomas Garvey from their membership. IRNE, had refused to dismiss Garvey, but Garvey announced his resignation in order to take the pressure off of his fellow reviewers. More remarkably, after Garvey had announced his resignation, Director of Press and Public Relations for the American Repertory Theatre, Katalin "Kati" Mitchell, in a comment to the Hub Review, essentially admitted that she had co-authored a letter with Shawn LaCount, Artistic Director of Company One (along with contributions from unnamed individuals supposedly representing six other theatre companies) demanding Garvey's removal.

Leaving aside the fact that I am an avid reader of The Hub Review, this would be an outrageous situation in the case of any critic. Critics are an essential part of the larger theatre community. Even were we to consider a hypothetical situation in which a particular critic was a "bad apple" and needed to be removed from an awards committee, this is the sort of case that needs to be made in public to the theatrical community as a whole, free of threats, not behind the scenes by a select group that does not represent the theatre community as a whole in which IRNE critics are threatened with having their privileges revoked if they do not disbar one of their own. These machinations showed a disrespect for the theatre community. Mitchell and LaCount et alia still have not made their case to the rest of us as to why they believed theirs was the proper course of action (Mitchell had promised to share the letter she and her ad hoc committee had drafted, but no such letter has been forthcoming.)

Last month, I asked:

[P]ro-Garvey or anti-Garvey, this is being discussed on the telephone, by email, and in face to face conversations amongst theatre people, but no one in the local theatre press is covering this story either in print or online. Would the press be so quiet if something similar had occurred on the theatre scene in New York? Chicago? Washington, D.C.? Seattle? Minneapolis?
Art Hennesey followed up and asked "When Will Boston Know It's A World Class Theater City?" Boston Globereporter Geoff Edgers, in response to my prodding, did mention the spat at the Exhibitionist blog only to dismissively ask "All right, Ian. We give. Does this count?"

Yesterday, Larry Stark, IRNE member, editor of The Theatre Mirror issued the following Open Letter to the ART:

Regrettably, until further notice, I shall not be attending any productions by the American Repertory Theatre (A.R.T.). Let me explain:

I have frequently been critical of other critics. In some cases, this has been my "internal editor" quibbling about style; at other times, it has been an attempt to let critics feel the personal pain that damaging criticism can cause in people who must get up before another audience knowing that critics' comments have shaped what at least some in that audience might thus believe.

But, even admitting these opinions, I believe even the harshest of critics, deep down, really love theater --- that creators and critics are really "on the same side". Sometimes it may look as though a critic Loves Theater To Death; still, in an austere era many of my colleagues are continuing to write critiques without being paid to do so, their love is that strong. And they try to apply their personal standards in as impartial a manner as possible, though it may not always look that way from outside. That, I think, is the critic's job.

The job of a Public Relations Coordinator for any particular theater company, though, is necessarily biased. The goal there is to get that same potential audience to view the company's shows in the best possible light, to see and appreciate what is there, and to come back again and again for more. And it may seem that P/R people and critics are at war --- especially when they disagree, with one seeing only negatives while the other must accentuate the positive.

But those on both sides operate in what is called "The Free Marketplace of Ideas" --- and audience-members may decide for themselves which one is right. This, at least, is how I assume the game should be played.

Lately, I have heard rumors that a vicious "kill the messenger" attitude threatens this entire structure. I have often voiced my opinions privately or written them publically, but deliberate attempts to disgrace or disbar or silence someone's free voice I cannot tolerate nor condone. I therefore sent the following letter to the producer at the American Repertory Theatre protesting what I see as disgraceful behavior, stretching back over many years, that has no place in that "Marketplace of Ideas" which I fervently hope will remain free.


Dear Ms. Borger:

Of late I have heard astonishing stories and rumors of the antics of a person in your employ referred to as "Catty" by those who have had contact with her. I undertstand that Public Relations work necessarily involves some sorts of manipulation; however, if even half of what I've been told is true, this person has no ethical standards whatever. I am astonished that you continue to employ anyone who so totally misunderstands her profession, and mine.

You must realize that in the climate created by her actions, any positive reviews of your company's work can be construed as written out of fear of this woman's power to ruin the reputation of anyone voicing opposite opinions.

I cannot believe you are ignorant of this situation, but you must be aware that continuing to employ her in such a sensitive position can only be construed as approval of such behavior by the American Repertory Theatre, which I fervently hope cannot be the case.

But if you condone such actions, I cannot.

I cannot in good conscience continue to work with anyone who behaves with such vindictive misunderstanding of her job, and mine. To do so would suggest that I myself condone such behavior, which is decidedly Not the case.

Should there be a change in personnel in future, I would appreciate your notifying me.


===Larry Stark
of Theater Mirror

Tonight is the IRNE Awards. I generally don't concern myself much with awards ceremonies, but tonight, I am interested.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

A Scene From A Rehearsal


Good even, good Master What-ye-call't;

[TOUCHSTONE and JAQUES exchange bows.]
How do you, sir?

[They bow again]
You are very well met.

[And again.]
Goddild you for your last company.

[And again.]
I just split my pants. I am very glad to see you.

[They bow a final time.]
Even a toy in hand here, sir. Nay; pray be cover'd.
William Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act III, Scene 3

Teatro delle Maschere does the Shakespeare Slam

On the afternoon of April 30th, Teatro delle Maschere will be performing a commedia dell'arte inspired version of a scene from As You Like It at the Shakespeare Slam, part of a day's worth of festivities presented and curated by Actors' Shakespeare Project and Orfeo Group but featuring contributions by a number of area theatre companies. It all starts with a parade at noon! (a full schedule is listed on ASP's website.

This time around, Teatro delle Maschere will feature Rachel Kurnos as Audrey, James Van Looy as Jaques, and myself as Touchstone, (all reimagined as commedia characters) with a surprise guest as Sir Oliver Martext! (It will be the first time James and I have worked together since Cosmic Spelunker Theater.)

The Shakespeare Slam will begin at 3pm at Redline at 59 JFK Street in Harvard Square, Cambridge!

Here's a scene from last year's Shakespeare Slam. And yes, there I am amongst the crowd of Juliets:

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Notes on Darko Tresnjak's "Merchant of Venice"

Last week I attended the a matinée performance of the touring production of The Merchant of Venice. The production, starring F. Murray Abraham as Shylock, was a revival of director Darko Tresnjak's 2007 mountings with Theatre for a New Audience and the Royal Shakespeare Company. I make no secret of my obsession with this play (in fact, I'm so obsessed that I'm writing "response play") and so there was little chance that I would have missed the performance, but in this case I attended as part of a group outing sponsored by Prism, an initiative of the New Center for Arts And Culture which was offering a post show talk led by Worcester Polytechnic Institute professor, Michelle Ephraim (whose Reading the Jewish Woman on the Elizabethan Stage sounds fascinating.)

What follows is not a review of this particular production. Thomas Garvey at The Hub Review has already written one with which I largely agree, and Rick On Theatre recently reposted a review of the 2007 production. Rather, these thoughts are a response to both the performance and the post-show discussion.

Many argue that of Shakespeare's plays, Hamlet is the greatest work of literature in the Western canon; I contend that while The Merchant of Venice may not be as fine a dramatic poem, it may very well be the most important; for the text is a disturbing portrait of European civilization; In many ways bridging the difference between medieval antisemitism based in theology and superstitions about Jews and the modern antisemitism that presents Jews as people, yet a dangerous people: it underlines that antisemitism is "the oldest hate" and intrinsic to Western civilization. By way of contrast: the literature of the Holocaust, while more horrific, allows Europeans a way of shifting the blame, pretending that horrors of antisemitism was solely the work of the Germans and a few collaborators, or just handful of extremists who had taken over a handful of governments. However, a text like The Merchant of Venice and its continued popularity over the centuries attests to the deep rootedness of antisemitism in European civilization.

This is not to say that Shakespeare is an anti-Semite, or that the play is anti-Semitic propaganda (though it has often been used that way); Shakespeare is too subtle, too prone to irony, and too curious about the sheer diversity of humanity to be so easily dismissed in that manner. However the play is the product of a culture that was anti-Semitic, and and is structured in such a way that it affirms the views of the anti-Semite: the irony only becomes visible to the anti-anti-Semite. This is precisely what makes the play disturbing to modern audiences: we want Shakespeare, the English language's greatest dramatist and poet, to be enlightened and liberal as we are, so we try to find the modern, post-Enlightenment liberal in the irony, but as much as we want the play to be an unambiguous condemnation of bigotry and affirmation of pluralism, the ironies simply will not allow it.

How does Tresnjak address these problems? Tresnjak, a naturalized American, is an ethnic Serb, born in the former Yugoslavia,
He is explicit that he reads The Merchant of Venice in light of his homeland's decent into savage tribalism:

Four years ago, when the first incarnation of this production took place, I thought a great deal about my childhood in Yugoslavia. For a long time, the relative economic prosperity had kept the social injustices and ethnic tensions under wraps. All that changed when the economy disintergrated. I remember my mother saying: "People are starting to turn on each other."
While some, such as Garvey, argue that the co-dependence of love and money is the central theme (see our friendly debate of a year ago for instance) while the more visceral theme of antisemitism is secondary; Tresnjak, like so many of us, responds more to the themes of antisemitism, and the co-mingling of tribe and money.

To this end, Tresnjak, sets his Merchant of Venice on Wall Street of "the near future": the Rialto is the trading floor; Portia is the sole heiress of an old money family. This setting does justice to the theme of love and money. So while Tresnjak makes clear that "the oldest hatred" still lurks in the religiously tolerant cosmopolitan America of lower Manhattan he glosses over the particularly Christian character of the antisemitism. Tresnjak's merchants and traders are nominal Christians who hate Shylock because he is a business rival; that he happens to be an Orthodox Jew just gives them an additional excuse to hate him more. In Shakespeare's Venice (which is a mirror to London of his era) these same characters hate Shylock not just because he is a Jew, but because it is their Christian duty to hate Jews.

This has long been my argument (sharpened, I admit by debate): The play affirms the victory of Christian theology over humanism. Shylock might love more sincerely than any character in the play: unlike either Bassanio or Gratiano he would never willingly give up his wife's engagement ring; in his first appearance, despite past experiences, he is willing to forgive all Antonio's past insults for a future in which both might be friends; he implicitly trusts his daughter, even if she sees him as humorless and oppressive. It is Shylock's heart that is most vulnerable to being broken. It is only when his daughter betrays him, his wife's ring is stolen and traded for a frivolity, his rivals arrange to rob his home under the pretense of a business dinner, does he truly lust for murder.

Though Shylock's "hath a Jew not eyes..." speech is so often seen as a statement of Shakespeare's humanism, it is also a preamble to Shylock's call for revenge, which affirms the Christian prejudice that Judaism is a religion of law without mercy while Christianity is the religion of mercy. So while Shylock loves more, and loves more sincerely, and is even willing to set aside old quarrels and love the gentile as a friend, he is unforgiven by the Christian God so long as he remains a Jew. Conversely, the Venetian and Belmontean characters may be insincere in their oaths, superficial in their love, and give their prejudices free rein, they are forgiven by nature of being Christian-- as such, Shylock's conversion, an unjust humiliation to a modern audience, was a happy ending for the Elizabethan audience ensuring the play kept true to the genre of comedy, much as with Duke Frederick's renunciation of his throne at the end of As You Like It.

In keeping with the theme of antisemitism, Tresnjak's casting of Jacob Ming-Trent as Launcelot Gobbo (he was played by Kenajuan Bentley in the 2007 production) is intriguing, as a black actor in the role (a courier in this 21st century setting) invokes the specter of anti-Semitic rhetoric in the African American community, however, it also necessitates the cutting of this exchange, a response to Launcelot's complaint that converting Jessica to Christianity raises the price of pork:
LORENZO: I shall answer that better to the commonwealth than you can the getting up of the Negro's belly. The moor is with child by you, Launcelot.

LAUNCELOT: It is much that the Moor should be more than reason; but if she be less than an honest woman, she is indeeed more than I took her for.
(Act III, Scene 5, 27-32)

Professor Ephraim noted in the post-show talk that essentially Lorenzo is saying "while I can make a Jew a Christian like myself, you can't make your baby white like yourself." Consequently, Launcelot's speech about in which he says:
Here's a small trifle of wives! Alas, fifteen wives is nothing. Eleven widows and nine maids is a simple coming-in for one man. (Act II, Scene 2, 125-127)
Which is partly a parody of the Biblical patriarch Jacob that begins with Launcelot's deception of his blind father Old Gobbo earlier in the scene is also cut. (As a clown, I also make no secret of my affection for the Gobbi, father and son.) Though, to be fair, I've yet to see a production staged where Old Gobbo isn't cut.

The 21st century setting of Tresnjak's Merchant, also obscures another aspect of historical antisemitism: the invocation of the Devil. Repeatedly, Antonio, Launcelot, Solanio, routinely compare Shylock (and Jews in general) to the Devil, if not stating that Shylock and Jews are themselves the Devil or at least intimately involved with the Devil. In 21st century New York: this is merely an insult; but in England of the 1590s, the Devil would have been a real thing to much of Shakespeare's audience. While this belief was not official Church doctrine, Joshua Trachtenberg's The Devil and the Jews well documents the widespread folklore by which the medieval and early modern Christian imagination linked Judaism with Satanism (a theme that I've given much consideration.)

In short, Tresnjak Merchant does succeed to showing that antisemitism continues to exist, while at the same time glossing over those elements of the text that show how deeply rooted antisemitism is in Western civilization, leaving the genealogy of "the oldest hatred" obscure. Thus a dramaturgical puzzle: how can theatre be simultaneously a mirror up to today while also being an archeological dig into the history that made today possible?

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

IRNE Intrigue

So what happens when Director of Press and Public Relations for one of the largest theatre companies in the Boston metropolitan area admits to spearheading an effort to exert pressure on the area's main theatre awards committee to remove a theatre critic from its membership?

The answer is: no press coverage.

On March 17th, The Hub Review's Thomas Garvey, the self-described "strongest, most versatile, and most prolific critic in town" (to which I'm inclined to agree, though I'll also add "provocative", and "polemical") announced that he had resigned from the Independent Reviewers of New England (IRNE) just a month before the Awards ceremony. According to Garvey, he did not resign over a disagreement with his colleagues, but because of campaign of pressure against the IRNE.

In Garvey's own words: Director of Press and Public Relations for the American Repertory Theatre, Katalin "Kati" Mitchell had:

[...]not only used to send me crazy emails in all caps after a bad review, but, believe it or not, she even penned the IRNE folks an angry letter declaring that the ART's failure to win more awards every year only made the IRNEs look bad.

However, Mitchell was not alone:

[Shawn LaCount, Artistic Director for Company One] claimed he would boycott the IRNE ceremony unless I left the organization, and would talk other companies into boycotting, too. He threatened that he would not allow his actors to accept their awards should they win. Which was pretty ironic, since one of those nominated actors - Becca A. Lewis - was on the ballot largely because I argued for her to be there. So it's also amusing to ponder that if she wins, and I hadn't resigned, LaCount would have ripped the award right out of her hot little hand. That's how much he loves his "collaborators."

Indeed, both companies had denied Garvey the customary press passes that reviewers are given.

Now. I suppose that given the snarky tone, some readers might be inclined to wonder if Garvey isn't exaggerating for dramatic effect. However on March 18th a commentator claiming to be Kati Mitchell largely confirmed most of Garvey's charges:

kati said...
from the addled old bat:
- I only wrote to Garvey once, when he panned Gatz after leaving at intermission (and yes, it was all in caps)
- I have never met Shawn LaCount, so I could not have influenced him in any way. Though we did correspond recently during the exchange with numerous members of the theatre community, whereby a letter was written requesting Garvey's removal from the committee for his unprofessional and insulting behavior towards members of the artistic community (but never sent because he was removed from the committee before we sent it) and the 8 signing companies included Speakeasy and New Rep. Happy to share the letter with you if you wish.

This note only scratches the surface of the multitude of incorrect and false statements you make. But enough already.
March 18, 2011 3:04:00 PM EST

Mitchell admitted that such a letter existed, and named four out of the eight signers, but as of this writing still seems not to have shared the letter to either Garvey or to the general public. Of course, here's the rub: ART received over twenty IRNE nominations in 2011 and not only did Company One garner seven nominations, but Garvey states that he advocated for one of them-- so clearly Garvey's criticism of both companies is pretty irrelevant to either company's chances of winning at the IRNEs!

But the bigger story is: pro-Garvey or anti-Garvey, this is being discussed on the telephone, by email, and in face to face conversations amongst theatre people, but no one in the local theatre press is covering this story either in print or online. Would the press be so quiet if something similar had occurred on the theatre scene in New York? Chicago? Washington, D.C.? Seattle? Minneapolis?

Where's the letter that Mitchell promised?

[Nota Bene: Earlier today I erroneously stated that the ART had not received a single IRNE nomination. This error was mine and mine alone.]

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Just a Quick Note: Story Slam, March 21st

I'll be one of five judges for Monday's Story Slam, "Where I Am From" at Kennedy's Midtown at 42 Province Street, Boston, MA near Park Street Station. The Story Slams are presented by MassMouth. The event starts at 6:30.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Thoughts After The Reading

Staged Reading, February 21st, 2011
Left to right: Jesse Strachman, Chris Larson, John Greiner-Ferris, Kevin Mullins, and MJ Halberstadt, reading the parts of Il Capitano Spavento, Lorenzo, Antonio, Launcelot Gobbo, and Shylock in a scene from The Conversos of Venice as part of the Small Theatre Alliance's Open Mic Night at the Factory Theatre on the evening of February 21st. Photograph courtesy of the Small Theatre Alliance of Boston.

After grabbing a slice of pizza with CoLab Theatre artistic director Kenny Steven Fuentes, we headed to the Factory Theatre for an evening of staged readings. This was the first time I've participated in a reading where I was not actually running the show. That was left to Ron Pullins and Leslie Powell.

While in the past, when I have produced staged readings, I have often auditioned actors myself to make sure they were suited to the part (there's generally a smaller pool of actors to choose from for staged readings); this evening the actors were chosen at random from whomever came through the door with little time to review the scripts they were handed before.

I noticed over the course of the evening was the over-all high quality of the scripts. This is remarkable because I attend a lot of staged readings and though this was a completely uncurated event (hence, "Open Mic Night") the quality was better than what is presented at many companies' curated staged-reading series (which tells me that some companies playing in the "new play sector" are dropping the ball.) I will not be posting comments on anyone else's works-in-progress, especially since a number of them were only excerpts from longer works, though I will mention that I loved reading a part in Ron Pullin's short play, Pico.

Of course one of the ways we measure the value of a staged reading (despite what The New York Times says) is what the playwright learns about the play when it's read by actors in front of an audience.

I learned that I write in a style that necessitates the involvement of a dramaturg to keep the actors informed of cultural and historical context (the play, after all, is set in the Venetian Republic of 1601 and the scene in question has the characters referencing everything from religion to economics to folklore of the time while making allusions to both Shakespeare and the Bible.) In staged readings of Total War, which takes place in the far less alien world of an American university in the 1990s, I had been unwittingly playing the role of the dramaturg, figuring it was just my role as writer and producer. It's simply a tough piece to "cold-read" without rehearsal, even after I simplified the script by changing some Ladino, Veneto, and Italian words to their English cognates.

I learned that my predilection towards including clown characters when other characters are engaged in dramatic dialogue is a good instinct. There was also an interesting split in the audience that caught the various historical and literary allusions (often framed in jokes) those who did not, and those who were anxious because they were afraid that they were missing an important reference.

All I can do at this point, though, is get back to work!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Talkback: 2/21 Staged Reading: A Scene From The Conversos Of Venice

If you attended the Small Theatre Alliance of Boston's February 21st Open Mic Night at The Factory Theatre and did not have a chance to share your thoughts regarding the excerpt from The Conversos of Venice during the talk back segment or you found that you had further questions or comments, I invite you to continue the discussion:

I am particularly interested in the following questions:

1.) Knowing that the characters and situation are derived from another dramatic work, did you find that knowledge necessary to follow the action? Or did the scene operate independently?

2.) Did the world of Conversos come through in the dialogue and stage directions? Did the world building distract or did it flesh out the interaction between the characters?

Of course, if you have other thoughts you wish to share, feel free to ignore these questions!

You can make comments (anonymously, if you so choose) by way of talkbackr:

[N.B.: The Talkbackr page for this event has expired 3/1/2011]

email if you so care to engage me directly.

Monday, February 14, 2011

February 21st: Small Theatre Alliance of Boston's Open Mic for Playwrights

The Small Theatre Alliance of Boston just announced the line-up of playwrights for its Open Mic Night to be held on Monday, February 21st at the The Factory Theatre:

MJ Halbertstadt: Jick and Dane and Love

Ian Thal: The Conversos of Venice (Excerpt)

Ron Pullins: Pico

Lesley Moreau: Lowered Expectations

Kevin Mullins: A Southern Victory (Excerpt)

Emily C. A. Snyder: Cupid and Psyche (Excerpt)

The presentations will be in the format of a staged reading:

Playwrights [...] have the chance to see the work "on its feet". Actors, who will be randomly cast from those present, will be given the script and asked to read it at least one. Then the actors will read the work for the audience. The audience with then provide constructive feedback about the scene in a safe, nurturing environment.

The event begins at 7:30pm. The Factory Theatre is located at 791 Tremont Street, Boston in the back of the Piano Factory.

Actors who are interested in reading should arrive at 7pm. The event is free, though there is a suggested $5 donation. Space will be limited, so reserve a seat!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Small Theatre Alliance of Boston: Open Mic Night

February 21st: The Small Theatre Alliance of Boston is hosting its first ever Open Mic Night for playwrights at The Factory Theatre. let us understand that in this case, the "Open Mic" is a metaphor, as there will not be a microphone and playwrights were asked to sign up over a week ago.

More simply: it's an evening of staged readings of six short plays or excerpts by six local playwrights. I will be presenting an excerpt from my work-in-progress, The Conversos of Venice, which is my on-going response to Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice (Some readers might note that I have a bit of an obsession with said play).

I will update once I know who the other playwrights might be.

The event starts at 7:30pm. The Factory Theatre is located at 791 Tremont Street, Boston in the back of the Piano Factory.

Actors: Show up by 7pm if you want a part!

Event is free, though there is a suggested $5 donation. Space will be limited, so reserve a seat!

Monday, January 31, 2011

Outside the BCA

Outside the Boston Center for the Arts
I snapped this photo outside the Boston Center of the Arts last week. Bread and Puppet were rehearsing in the Cyclorama and I was catching a show downstairs. After the sidebar piece in The Burlington Free Press, and my response to some of Peter Schumann's statements, I suppose it would have been awkward had we crossed paths. The last time we saw one another was right before I broke off relations with the group.

Curiously, after previous press releases in which Bread & Puppet linked its touring production of The Return of Ulysses presented the story as an allegory of how "we" use "our Judeo-Christian sky, occupied by a divine air force and permitted by the in-god-we-trust court system, to justify our atrocities in Afghanistan, Palestine and elsewhere." the more recent statements to the Boston Globe where Schumann says "We wanted [to link] the atrocities that the opera after all is about to modern atrocities, so we chose this WikiLeaks exposé of a helicopter of US soldiers going on a hunting party." It's pretty minor revision coming from a political artist who consistently obscures the fact that he grew up in the Third Reich.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

New Play Map

A few weeks ago, The New Play Institute at Arena Stage launched the New Play Map an open-source, user-generated, collaborative project to map the American new play sector. The purpose is to make visible – for the first time ever – all the organizations, activity, and generative artists that comprise our yet unknown infrastructure for new work.
Essentially, as the map becomes better known, theater companies, conferences, and festivals that present or develop new plays as well as generative artists (which could be either playwrights or collaboratives) can add themselves and the organizations with whom they work. The idea is that much like various projects of the WikiMedia Foundation, the more users providing information, the more useful the map.

I admit that when I first placed myself on the map, I did not fully grasp the utility of the tool, and shared some concern with Dan Rubin at Dark Knight Dramaturgy that the system could be "overwhelmed" and I even expressed concerns that only an early adopter would reap the benefits, but I'm beginning to see that my understanding of the potential was limited.

Trisha Mead, writing on the New Play Blog, suggests a number of uses:

• An easy visual snapshot of the new play work happening nationally, helping playwrights, funders (and possibly journalists) identify hot spots as they emerge

• A research resource for literary managers and artistic directors to discover new projects in development and join the group of institutions helping to bring them to fruition.

• Built in documentation for funders of a given project, creating a public and verifiable reference for each step in a play’s development.

The more obvious use for me, as a playwright, is that of identifying organizations that might wish to present and develop my work. As Mead suggests, for those attempting to identify how the new play sector actually functions, as opposed to how we imagine it functions, there's a place where empirical data is being compiled:
For instance, were one to investigate how I operate (and I still haven't put in all my data points) one would notice that much of the time, I tend to either self-produce in, or have my work presented by, non-traditional venues. Someone could ask: Is this a viable strategy for playwrights developing and presenting new work? Am I unusual in that regard or are there a number of playwrights out there using similar strategies? Should more traditional presenting organizations adjust their policies to take in account that this is going on? Alternately, does being entered into the map provide a potential opening for a similarly operating artist to "go mainstream?" Will the map show us models to be adopted or show us where initiatives are needed?

How do I work this?

(Yes, I did once describe the Talking Heads' major accomplishment as being "letting a generation of geeks and nerds know that it was okay to dance." Dancing is cool. I highly recommend it.)

Friday, January 21, 2011

NYT Misses The Point Of Staged Readings

New York Times writer Erik Piepenburg enthuses on the topic of staged readings of plays and while not exactly missing the point that staged readings are primarily for play development, seems to regard play development as an afterthought:

NEW Yorkers love nothing more than to boast, “I was there first,” whether it’s getting a reservation at a buzzworthy restaurant, snatching up the latest handbag or seeing a new film before the rest of the country.


One way to catch the next potential It play or musical is to attend a reading. Before a show gets a full-fledged production, it has to start somewhere.

So the whole point of a staged reading is to give bragging rights to the audience members? Piepenburg actually spends the first three paragraphs making this argument.

[...] they allow playwrights, directors and troupes to put a work in front of an audience and gauge the reaction with little expense and relatively few risks. (Critics aren’t invited to weigh in.)

Actually, I do invite critics. Should any attend, I do expect them to keep to ethical standards of not publishing a review, but the feedback of a critic (or indeed any professional or semi-professional) who is only motivated by their personal standard of good theatre is invaluable. Actors, playwrights, directors, designers, techies, critics, and audience members all want the same thing: good theatre. So if the aim is to identify flaws within the script so that they can be corrected in a later draft, why would I not invite a critic? Not only have I invited critics but after they come I have invited them back when I'm ready to present a subsequent draft.

Although readings don’t promise quality, in some cases they guarantee star sightings. The actor Philip Seymour Hoffman and the playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis were both in the audience last month at the LAByrinth Theater Company’s reading of Mr. Guirgis’s new work, directed by Mr. Hoffman.

Why would anyone be remotely surprised that the playwright should be in attendance at a reading of his own play, especially when he is co-artistic director of the presenting organization, or for that matter, at the presence of the play's director who also happens to be on the board of directors for LAByrinth. This is not a "star-sighting" because Messrs Guirgis and Hoffman are at work, and whatever past arguments I have had with Mr. Guirgis, I have no doubt he takes his work seriously. It simply is not a "star-sighting" when one views a notable individual precisely where one should expect them, doing their job.

This is like somebody being amazed not by the artistry of Marcel Marceau, but Marcel Marceau showing up for his own gig.

It is only thirteen paragraphs into the article that Piepenburg actually has a playwright discuss the value of a staged reading to the writer who is serious about doing his or her job:

Andrew Hinderaker [...] whose play has been produced in Chicago, said readings give him a chance to see his own words with fresh eyes. “Part of what you’re looking for is the audience response,” he said. “I’ll probably tweak things a little bit to some degree. What’s great about a reading is that it’s an opportunity to really hear your work again and focus on any changes.”

Now to be fair, Piepenburg does eventually describe the value that a staged-reading might have to a dedicated theatre goer: the excitement of seeing a work-in-progress, but to sensationalize this experience into being one of bragging rights does not contribute much to theatre journalism.

(Thanks to Matthew Freeman for bringing this to my attention!)

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Playwright Laureate? A Response to Lauren Gunderson

Recently in her Huffington Post column, Lauren Gunderson asks the question "Why Are US Literary Laureates Only Poets? Why Not a Dramatist?":

The position of Poet Laureate started officially when in 1616 King James I of England gave the title to Ben [Jonson] -- a noted poet and playwright. In 1937, the United States established a similar position that, while at first a title-only kinda gig, is now a lauded (and paying) appointment.

Not to crash the poet party, but why can't the Library of Congress's appointments include playwrights, fiction-writers, or creative essayists? Why only poets?
Of course, Jonson would never have called himself a "playwright": he viewed his plays and the plays of those he considered rivals (like a certain man from Stratford-on-Avon who happened to pass away that same year) as poetry. He reserved the title "playwright" for those with less literary gifts, comparing them to wheelwrights or shipwrights: mere artisans, not artists; "rude mechanicals" if you will.

Still, Gunderson makes a great point. The relative high profile of the post of U.S. Poet Laureate which in recent decades had been held by such poets as Rita Dove, Robert Pinsky, Stanley Kunitz, Billy Collins and Charles Simic amongst others, has not only increased the visibility of poetry in the American cultural landscape (for example, through Pinsky's "Favorite Poem Project") but has had a snowball effect in recent years: Indeed, most states of the United States now have Poet Laureates. While Massachusetts, where I live, does not have a state Poet Laureate, individual cities, like Boston, or Gloucester do, and Cambridge, being Cambridge, has a post of "Poet Populist." (My friend, Doug Holder, has been lobbying the city of Somerville to create a Poet Laureate post.)

Of course, many American Poet Laureates have written plays even though they are by no means most widely recognized as playwrights. However, I have to ask, as much as I would like to see theatre receive greater recognition within American culture, how would a the post of Playwright Laureate work? Not just on a national level, but on a state or municipal level? Would a Playwright Laureate be charged with composing new plays for public occasions? (Jonson and his contemporaries composed court masques.) Promoting the idea of reading scripts as literature? (Students frequently get their first exposures to Shakespeare not through performance but by reading the script in English classes, often with a teacher who has minimal theatrical experience.) Promoting theatre in general? (In which case, why specifically a playwright, when a public spirited actor or director might do?) Theatre is a collaborative artform, so while many plays can be read as literature, they are ultimately meant to be performed. Would a Playwright Laureate have access to a federal (or state, or municipal) stage? What about access to actors, designers and techies?

Now while I share Gunderson's desire for "raising the status of poetic and dramatic literature in the everyday conscience of the American public" her proposal leaves me with more questions. Would this get more people attending live theatre? More interesting plays on stage? Free up more spaces for performances? Give "emerging playwrights" a better shot at being produced? Make it easier for playwrights to make a living on their writing? Get more playwrights interviewed on National Public Radio?

Is the Library of Congress really the agency best suited to this work?

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Burlington Free Press on Peter Schumann's Palestine Controversy

On Friday, Burlington Free Press staff writer, Tim Johnson interviewed me for a piece that ran in Sunday's edition, entitled Peter Schumann's Palestine Controversy. There's a brief quote from me that sums up the argument that I have been making since my 2007 essay, Breaking with Bread and Puppet:

Ian Thal, a playwright and Schumann admirer who broke with Bread and Puppet over the spring 2007 exhibit in Boston, said he saw the wall comparison as "inflammatory." To liken Israel's wall, which was intended to prevent violence, to the Warsaw wall, which was a tool of genocide, was "a deliberate misrepresentation," Thal said.
There are several statements that Schumann made to which I shall respond in greater detail in another blog entry, but I will leave you with one to ponder:
Schumann was called a "Holocaust-denier," among other things. "Ridiculous," Schumann said recently. "Offensive and stupid." For anyone of German descent, he said, the Holocaust is "one of the most horrible things."
To which one anonymous commentator responded:
Let's not forget, it wasn't exactly a picnic for Jews, Gypsies or homosexuals either, Peter.

N.B.: I have posted a follow-up with a more in-depth analysis of Schumann's statements

Analyzing Peter Schumann's Palestine Controversy in the Burlington Free Press

As mentioned previously I had been interviewed by Burlington Free Press reporter Tim Johnson as part of a sidebar article regarding the controversial 2007 exhibitions of a series of murals by Bread and Puppet founder Peter Schumann in which he juxtaposed his stylized images of the West Bank with text from John Hersey's 1950 novel The Wall which is set in the Warsaw Ghetto.

At the time I saw the murals at the Boston Center for the Arts in February of 2007, I was preparing to rehearse with Bread and Puppet for the show The Battle of the Terrorists and the Horrorists as I had done for other Boston area shows with Bread and Puppet over the previous four years. The one thematic link in "Independence Paintings" was between the wall that surrounded the Warsaw Ghetto as a German effort to segregate, confine, starve, enslave, and in 1943, exterminate European Jewery and the West Bank wall that was built with the short-term goals of preventing suicide bombers from entering Israel and eliminating the need for Israeli Defense Forces to launch counter-terrorism efforts thus providing an opportunity for greater stability in the West Bank (arguably, this has worked.) I concluded that the comparison between conditions in the Warsaw Ghetto and the West Bank, likening an act of genocide (over a two-year period 500,000 to 600,000 Jews died from forced starvation and overcrowding in Nazi-run Ghettos (roughly 10% of the deaths in Germany's "Final Solution" to "The Jewish Question") to something that, however controversial, had actually saved lives in the middIe of a protracted conflict amounted to cynical trivialization of the Holocaust in order inflame anti-Israeli sentiment, if not a form of Holocaust denial. He was coy as to what he meant but most audience members, including his supporters, seemed to to understand this as an attempt to pin a genocide charge on Israeli. In fact, his supporters used the phrases "Zionist Nazi" and "Zionist Genocide" in order to shut down any critic. I could not morally justify continuing to associate with either Bread and Puppet or Peter Schumann and so I left after one day of rehearsals. I After being verbally harangued in public over my decision to leave, I decided to recount the reasons for my departure.

I did not see the subsequent exhibition in Burlington, but I followed press accounts. (Also see part 2part 3Part 4)

In the interview with Johnson, however, Schumann said:

"It wasn't meant as a comparison. I simply quoted from a famous book."
Then why quote from that book unless one wants to make a comparison?

At this point I wish to discuss Schumann's statements on the matter in the Free Press article:
Schumann's work was regarded as offensive by some who saw it as equating policies of the Nazis and of the Israeli government. "Independence Paintings" drew that reaction earlier the same year when exhibited in Boston, where critics saw the juxtaposition of the two walls, and their respective scenes of human suffering, as an odious comparison. Schumann was called a "Holocaust-denier," among other things.

"Ridiculous," Schumann said recently. "Offensive and stupid." For anyone of German descent, he said, the Holocaust is "one of the most horrible things."
I already noted one anonymous commentator's response. Let us unpack this statement further, Schumann describes himself as being of "German descent." In actuality he was born in 1934 in Breslau, Silesia. What Schumann ellipses is that the part of Silesia in which he was born and raised was at the time part of Germany (the remainder of Silesia would be seized by Germany at the outbreak of World War II.) This meant that for the first eleven years of his life, Peter Schumann lived as a child of the Third Reich. He saw his country's territory expand and then shrink as it was defeated in WWII. The Schumann family were amongst the millions of Germans who became refugees as a consequence of, amongst other things, Allied reaction to Germany's immoral earnings off of genocide, deportations, slave labor, and seizures. In a March 1, 2006 interview in Real Change News [N.B.: Real Change News removed the article from their website, but it is available on] Schumann stated:
I was born in Silesia, which was German. It became Polish in 1945, after the war. It was part of Germany that was given to Poland by the Yalta Conference. Ninety-nine percent of the population of Silesia was made into refugees at the end of the War and we were part of that 99 percent. We were all looking for a new life, so we live as refugees for a few years.
Indeed, I found it odd that Johnson, despite spending a few paragraphs of a feature length-article on Schumann's life before coming to America, also never mentions the Third Reich, only identifying Silesia as "a region in central Europe now part of Poland." (Note: I did mention this in my telephone interview with Johnson.)
"It's very hard in America to speak about that subject[the Israeli-Palestinian conflict]," Schumann said. "It needs to be said, but it's not being said."
Actually, it's very easy to speak about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There are a diversity of views on the topic, and I certainly have little problem finding such diversity. What Schumann's problem is that in America, there is a strong consensus that Israel is the Jewish homeland and that it has a right to exist within secure borders. There is also a consensus that the the desired resolution to the conflict would feature two states, Israel and Palestine, peacefully side by side. Within that consensus there is a heated debate as to how best to arrive at that desired goal and whether the involved parties are constructively working towards that desired goal, and indeed, whether that goal is reachable in the foreseeable future.

However a January 2008 interview with Schumann with Greg Cook, in the New England Journal of Aesthetic research is quite telling regarding Schumann's views on why "it's very hard in America to speak":
I think it’s awful that the Western community does not interfere with what Israel’s doing as an occupation force. The Western community does not do anything about it. They don’t even speak up against it. They don’t do anything. They basically serve as the Israeli propaganda for the events there.
Note that he shifts from arguing that the "Western community does not interfere" to arguing that the "Western community" is actively serving Israel. This is the old anti-Semitic canard of Jews or Zionists controlling multiple governments and the international media.
He said the shows often draw picketers, as have talks by other "friends of mine" -- such as Noam Chomsky or the late Howard Zinn
In our telephone interview, Johnson had mentioned to me that Schumann had complained about picketers. It is hard for me to fathom how an elder statesman of "radical" theatre would complain about being the subject of protests. My work has also been picketed. Perhaps this is a cultural difference, but growing up in a democracy where I was permitted, before attaining adulthood, to read books by Mark Twain, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, J.D. Sallinger, Yevgeny Zamatyn, Franz Kafka, or Harlan Ellison, attend plays like Candide, view films like A Clockwork Orange, or The Great Dictator, to listen to comedians like Lenny Bruce, the idea of being picketed is a badge of honor. Perhaps for somebody who grew up in Nazi Germany (though he avoids mentioning it) where dissent could send one to a concentration camp, disagreement is to be feared, and being confronted with disagreement is threatening. I write material which is intentionally controversial, I expect criticism, and I have experienced protest. The price I pay for my freedom of expression is having to acknowledge others' freedom of expression.

It's also a badge of honor because when I look at the small handful of picketers, writers of email invective, abusive visitors to this blog's comments section, I see several consistencies: anti-intellectualism, anti-Semitic rhetoric, conspiracy theories, and ad hominem attacks. I am proud that these are the sorts of people who feel threatened by the words I write. Schumann is upset that his critics are, in his own words, "a faction of the Jewish community."

It seems quite odd that an elder statesman of "radical" theatre and his supporters are shocked that his work is viewed as controversial, to the point of his supporters routinely white-wash his biography on Wikipedia.

If Schumann can not handle being called to task for trivializing the Holocaust by either minimalizing the Nazi "Final Solution" or by making insinuations that Israel is pursuing a genocidal program; if he cannot handle the fact that Jews have the same free speech, free press, and free assembly rights as "anyone of German descent"; if his only explanation for the reason why his views are not more widely accepted are because the "western community [... serves] as the Israeli propaganda [apparatus]" then Peter Schumann is an anti-Semite.