Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Third-Grade Recital

First off, a big (belated) congrats to Shay Gines, Nick Micozzi, Jason Bowcutt and everyone else involved in the NY Innovative Theatre Awards. From what I hear, the first annual ceremony was a huge success.

Also, congratulations to Harold Pinter for winning the 2005 Nobel Prize for literature (on the off-chance he peruses the Internet and reads Jamespeak to compensate for his missing the past few Nosedive shows). I think Mac Rogers is right on the money when he refers to Mr. Pinter as “Playwriting 101,” and cites Dominic Drumgoole’s line of Mr. Pinter and his work being "the aircraft carrier almost everyone else's plane takes off from." I really can’t put it any better than that, considering I actually find the viewpoint that Mr. Pinter merely writes acting exercises downright perverse and never considered that a strong defense for his work was needed (it’s pretty self-evident and speaks for itself, I always thought).

I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Mr. Pinter, having played James in a high school production of “The Collection” my junior year and reading The Homecoming shortly thereafter. Pretty much since then I was hooked; as silly as it sounds, his use of the pause was (and is) pure genius. Like Mac, who admits that he believes his first few plays are Pinter knock-offs, my interest in writing scripts came from ripping off Mr. Pinter’s use of pauses and silences. I learned a lot about using pauses and silences, the difference between a pause and a silence (and between a slight pause and a long silence), how to use them and how they affect meaning and pacing from Mr. Pinter’s work.

Reading his work also taught me about subtext in theatre and deriving meaning from what is explicitly not said. For some reason, as frustrating and confusing as I found his plays (and I do always get the feeling when seeing or reading a play by Mr. Pinter that there’s a crucial scene or dialogue exchange missing from the text), the confusion was what always drew me to them. I believed the characters more the more they ended up evading answering questions and responded to confrontations with silence or non sequiturs. As Charles Isherwood wrote in the New York Times:

“Mr. Pinter even demands that his interpreters analyze the relative weights and measures of different kinds of speechlessness. In a play by Mr. Pinter, a silence is never a mere pause, and a pause is never to be confused with a silence. Each has its own presence and purpose, and it is the actor's job to unlock and communicate to the audience the secrets of the empty spaces in the text.”

Well put.

* * *

As for what’s been going on at my end of the barnyard, I’ve just finished my rewrites for A Very Nosedive Christmas Carol and we’re rounding up the cast for it as I write this (many cast members from last year’s production have stayed on, although a few have changed). I’m pretty happy with the updates (there aren’t that many; I’ve changed maybe a quarter of the dialogue) and am looking forward to seeing what Pete and the cast bring to the table this year.

Right now I’m working on writing a short script for Vampire Cowboy’s upcoming “Revamped” fundraiser on the origin of their company. With luck, people will find it fun and funny (hey, it’s making me laugh, but then again I’m a giggling simpleton).

* * *

As for my pretentious and grumbling musings about the state of independent theatre in New York, I guess I’d like to talk a little bit about professionalism and unprofessionalism that is seen in this sector.

What brought this up for me recently was mainly two things: one, my attendance at the last Dish meeting and an issue brought up during the session and two, watching an episode of New York Noise.

Upon going to my first Dish meeting in several months (I had been absent for various reasons; helping Pete move was one excuse, seeing a show was another, simply not feeling like going was another), the subject of commenting and discussing each other’s plays came up. In general, I really don’t think this is a good or bad idea. As much as I enjoy hearing what audiences of my plays think, I’m not really in the need for them to provide a “book report” or have them give me “notes.”

Of course, when the idea was brought up, there were so many terrified caveats and reservations from some of the directors and managing directors from companies. If people were to make comments about shows, only a certain (small) number of “talking points” should be allowed on the table. Only say constructive things. Don’t’ act as an editor or co-writer. Only say what you liked or didn’t like. Make an articulate case. Don’t make comments the director wouldn’t want to hear.

And so on, and so on.

(My opinion, which I expressed at the meeting, is that if the companies really wanted to hear comments and criticism from their peers, there really should be no criteria at all. In other words, if you want your audience to talk, let them talk, and say whatever they damn well want about the show, even if it’s “That fucking SUCKED!”)

The problem with all of this (and, regrettably, the problem I’ve seen the Dish have) is that these people want to simultaneously raise the profile of the Off-off companies involved and bring them closer to the level of the “Major Leagues” (i.e., raise attendance numbers, receive grants, get more press coverage, etc.) and foster a level of thin-skinned insulation and isolation (i.e., disregard harsh criticism, evade hard truths about the causes of diminished attendance levels and diminished interest in press coverage from major press outlets, etc.).

Receiving harsh criticism is very much is very much one of the “rules of the game” if you’re an independent theatre company and want a place at the “big kids’ table.” To be perfectly frank, if you can’t shrug off (or learn to shrug off) the occasional “You suck!” and “Go fuck yourself, asshole” comment or review, you should either be making theatre as part of a fun, private insular club (solely for close family and close friends) or not at all.

(This thought process was compounded after talking to a theatre critic who told stories of receiving copious amounts of hate mail from directors and writers after writing negative reviews of their work. I was really floored, since I genuinely believed — and still believe — that to be a purely amateur mistake. In other words, I can see someone writing a “Fuck you, critic” letter after staging their first play. A bad idea, but hey. They’re new and everyone makes mistakes. But after that first play and that first bad review, you grow up and get over it. I mean, yes I’ve received some shitty reviews and have been hurt by them, but the idea of attacking the reviewer that wrote it or the paper that printed it is fundamentally alien to me.)

What struck me (both after hearing some company comments about this peer review idea and hearing the critic’s horror stories) is that there really are a number of people who want to have their cake and eat it, too, and are shocked that they can’t. In order to be taken seriously in the independent theatre scene, you have to develop — or at least want to develop — thick skin.

Or, as my theatre critic friend said, “If you want papers to come see and review your show, you have to put up with what they choose to write.”

So that was Point One.

As for Point Two, one thing I had noticed, after watching an episode of New York Noise (kind of a local “MTV” for New York-based indie musicians) on Channel 25, was that watching Off-off theatre, like listening to unsigned rock groups, can either feel like watching something quite fun and innovative, or like sitting through a third-grader’s recital. And I don’t (necessarily) mean that in a pejorative way. I mean it quite literally. The sound of certain actors’ voices, the production values, the acoustics of the room brings me back on a visceral level to watching third-graders sing Christmas songs in an elementary school auditorium.

(Unfortunately, I can’t remember the name of the band that specifically triggered this feeling/revelation, I just remember it being one band in particular that made me think, “Shit. They might as well have taped a nine-year-old singing a show tune in a cafeteria, because this looks and sounds exactly the same.”)

Now, sometimes this can have a certain camp or kitsch value. That is, I have had fun seeing performances from groups that clearly don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of attaining any sort of mainstream (even alternative mainstream) success and play with that (the early “Grindhouse a-Go-Go” at Surf Reality is a perfect example of this, which was why I was mildly dismayed when they started trying to make it a little more professional and bring it down to an “R-Rated” musical comedy show from its original unapologetic reviled X-Rated trash).

And obviously, when a group does not go for this third-grade assembly feel (but succeeds in said feel), you hope they have an intermission so you can bolt the hell out of there.

Again, Nosedive is in a weird situation where (in my assessment) we don’t fit in with the downtown underground comedy scene (i.e., Zero Boy, Tom X. Chao, Red Bastard, et al.) or the conventional Off-off-Broadway scene. This has sometimes worked in our advantage (when we produce something that appeals to both audiences, such as Evil Hellcat and Other Lurid Tales and A Very Nosedive Christmas Carol), sometimes to our disadvantage (when we produce something that appeals to neither, such as Dying Goldfish). Ultimately, my personal preference as a spectator leans toward the former (given a choice between seeing, say, Bex Schwartz and an Off-off restaging of Ionesco’s The Rhinoceros isn’t much of a choice at all, to be frank) while my personal preference as a writer leans toward the latter (although I do enjoy writing what could be regarded as underground grindhouse schlock; The Adventures of Nervous Boy could very well be regarded as reviled X-Rated trash, which would be completely fine by me).

Anyway, I just wanted to talk about this for a bit. I now have to get back to writing this damn “Revamped” script for Qui and Abby.

Eating peanut butter at the big kids’ table,

James “Crying Little Bitch” Comtois

October 18, 2005


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