Monday, July 31, 2006

Commercial Attributes II: Steven Gridley and Supply & Demand

I had a bit of a hunch that I would have to go a little further with my thoughts on commercial attributes, since one of the pitfalls of the blog format is that you can really only write about 1,000 words or so before your reader's eyes roll to the back of their head (reading more than 1,000 words on a computer monitor being substantially harder than reading 1,000 words printed on paper).

Steven Gridley, resident playwright for Spring Theatreworks, made some excellent points in the comments section for my previous entry. He wrote:

"I'm afraid of what would happen if the criteria for artistic success was based solely on commercial viability. Look at how Hollywood is working. It is 100% commercial... It's a fine line. Once you become bored as an artist it's hard to image an audience becoming excited. So where does high and challenging art fit in with commercial art? That's a good question. I feel both have their merits and their drawbacks and, as such, are both respectable and necessary. Just because commercial is where the money is doesn't mean that high art should be done away with."

Very well put, Steve. This is a huge danger when only trying to create work in the hopes of being commercially viable and marketable. I can't think of a worse scenario than art being valued only in terms of how much money it made. I also hope that everyone reading this realizes that's not even close to what I'm advocating (i.e., the more money an artwork makes, the more artistically valuable it is). I mean, blech.

Here's part of my response:

I realize it's a bit tough to define "commercial" without provoking very negative connotations, especially in the realm of theatre. I also realize I'm being very James-centric with this entry. I don't think all companies should be engaged in making their work commercial (or accessible), but for me, it's important that my scripts appeal to more than just other theatre artists and friends and family members.

Now, this doesn't mean that I deliberately try to write something "popular." I have no idea how to do that. (I tried it was a complete disaster. Never again.) I think if you end up trying to write/create "populist" drama you end up finding yourself in a special sort of hell: you end up second-guessing what People (title case intended) want, which never works, so you end up writing stuff you don't want to write about for people who aren't buying it.

(The fact of the matter is it's a complete and total mystery as to what creative endeavor will be a success and what won't. No one's been able to figure out the secret and no one will [witness big budget action movies tanking at the box office]. Going into a project going, "This will be SUCCESSFUL" is being engaged in a new breed of self-delusion.)

I would add that it's a bit tough to define "commercial" at all without providing a number of caveats, exceptions and exemptions. (In a private discussion over email, Steve and I talked about this more at length. He asked me if I thought Joyce's Ulysses was commercial. I said, since a publisher bought the manuscript and decided to publish it, Joyce got paid for it and the book has enjoyed international acclaim, yes, it was, even though Joyce's primary motivation for writing it was not to make money. Steve then pointed out that if my definition of commercial is this broad, then Anne Frank's diary is commercial, since the thing has been selling like hotcakes for decades.)

Steve also pointed out that another big red flag in thinking of art in terms of being commercially viable is that, once in the mindset that having commercial attributes is important, it's very easy to look down on art works trying to achieve the status of "high art" (i.e., those disinterested in making money). I would very much agree. I pointed out that this hadn't occurred to me, since I genuinely find works of high art fun and entertaining (i.e., I enjoy looking at Degas's paintings, I have fun reading Ulysses, I find Hamlet extremely entertaining).

Having said that, I think we theatre artists should at least acknowledge the one thing we desperately evade acknowledging when engaged in these theatre discussions in the blogosphere:

The concept of supply and demand.

I'm not saying if there's no large demand for a work, it shouldn't be made. I am saying, however, as theatre artists, when we stage a show, and the response is akin to the sound of one cricket chirping, we should ask ourselves the hard questions we don't want to ask ourselves after the show closes:

Did nobody come because we didn't promote it enough? Possibly. The way to assess that is easy, though. You just check the number of publications you've been listed and/or reviewed in, the number of postcards you've sent out and the number of emails you've sent out and compare/contrast those numbers to previous efforts.

Is it because it's too ahead of its time? That could be the case, although I must say if you walk away from a project thinking that's the answer to lackluster audience turnouts, you're more arrogant than I (if such a thing is possible).

Was the timing off? Quite possibly. Doing a play in midtown in (say) mid-August (opposite The Fringe) is definitely a subprime time and location to be putting on an indie show.

Were we in the wrong location? The performance location has been known to at least hurt indie productions, but by how much?

Did we just put on a show that would be of interest to nobody except ourselves? We rarely ask this of ourselves and give ourselves an honest answer, do we? I'm not even pointing fingers here. We here at Nosedive Central have been guilty of it in the past, being unable to see the forest through the trees and not realize (until it's way, way too late) that we staged a show for which there was no demand.

Now these questions (and answers) are different for every single theatre artist (I'm mainly addressing the self-producing theatre artists here). But I do think we should ask ourselves these questions, and constantly assess and reassess and re-reassess what went right with a production, what went wrong, how important (if at all) it is to have sellable attributes, how to define "commercial" and how important the concept of supply versus demand is when staging a new work.

Again, I ask this primarily of self-producers. I realize directors being brought on board another company's production or writers being invited to submit scripts to another company don't have to worry about this since, in a way, that they've been asked to participate in another company's season/production shows that they have some commercial viability. Right?

Digging himself in deeper,

James "Mouthfoot" Comtois

Friday, July 28, 2006

Commercial Attributes

Frequent Nosedive collaborator (and, before he cut his hair and shaved his beard, Nosedive's Resident Jesus) Scot Williams (part of the ensemble in Nervous Boy) and I had a long drunken conversation at Tai's birthday about Nosedive's place in the theatrical cosmos. Particularly, we talked about just how in the hell any of us can make money in this field (even though none of our names are Tyler Perry). During this drunken talk we brought up the subject of grants, which, to date, Nosedive Productions has never received a single one (which comes as a surprise to no one).

Now, Nosedive rarely applies for grants. It's just too much of a waste of time. Why? Because of our mission statement (or lack thereof).

We talked a bit about how the few times we tried to apply for grants, we would hit the huge brick wall of a.) not having a mission statement and b.) not being able to come up with one that would be within the ballpark of explaining or describing what Nosedive is all about.

Now, to be fair, there are almost no good mission statements for theatre companies (seriously, they all sound alike, something along the lines of, "Fostering creativity with bold new emerging artists and innovative blah blah blah." Don't believe me? Play this drinking game: go find 20 or so mission statements from theatre companies, do a shot every time you come across any of the following words or phrases: foster, creative, emerging, innovative, daring new works. You'll be too drunk to walk before you're halfway through the list). But even knowing this, trying to come up with an even passable excuse for a mission statement been our Achilles Heel here at Nosedive Central, which has always hurt us on those rare times we get ambitious and try to apply for grants.

After this drunken symposium, Scot wrote this to me:

" seems like [Nosedive's] purpose is to create commercial theatre that is of a more 'downtown' sensibility. These guys want money, fame, and the ability to do whatever the hell they want in a theatrical context. They're not interested with any ideas of 'community' in the abstract sense, but they are very interested in making friends. They are not overtly political, except that they tend to bristle at the idea of any infringement on their artistic freedom. Their tastes tend toward the distinctly middlebrow - comedy, horror, movies, pop culture, but they are also interested in the human condition - alienation, relationships, [and] attempts to connect." (Emphasis mine.)

What's interesting is that Scot managed to come up with a mission statement for Nosedive, something no one (either in the group or outside of it) has been able to do since we put on our first play in February 2000.

"To create commercial theatre that is of a more 'downtown' sensibility."

I really don't think Pete or I could have put it better ourselves.

Scot and I have been going back and forth over email today about the rest of his assessment (I disagreed with the "middlebrow" line, which he agreed was probably the wrong word choice, and I'm not 100% sure about the "fame" line, since frankly, the level of "fame" [if you can even call it that...I sure can't] we achieved with Nervous Boy is about as "famous" as I'm comfortable with), but it seems like a good starting point in trying to define Nosedive Productions as a company, which is very bizarre to do.

(This is especially true when you think of other theatre companies in the city that have their mission statement written before performing their first play. We've known for a while what a Nosedive show is and what a Nosedive show typically looks like - as do most people who come see a show of ours - but to try to describe our company in "grantese" has been something that's been nothing short of an impossibility.)

Now, I do want to ramble on a bit about commercial viability. As always, I ask that you bear with me for a moment.

Having some sense of commercial viability has been important for me as a writer. It's very easy to say (while rolling your eyes), "Oh, I want nothing to do with mainstream theatre," when no one involved in making mainstream theatre has any interest in your work and you don't have a snowball's chance in hell of being hired as a professional writer (or actor, or director, or whatever). I do think that if only other theatre artists like my stuff, than I have failed in my job as a playwright.

This goes back to Chris Rock's line about smart comedy: "...if only smart people like your shit, it ain't that smart. If a guy drives a truck and he doesn't get your jokes, something's wrong there."

To make sure we're all on the same page, when I talk about being commercially viable, I don't mean, being a sellout or ostensibly writing derivative sitcoms for the stage. I mean being able to create something that Joe Theatergoer can see, understand and enjoy and having a snowball's chance in hell of being employed or employable by professional outlets.

Commercially viable.

John Cassavetes and Dave Sim - two independent artists in different media (film and comics, respectively) - opted to work within their creative fields independently, even though they had very commercial and marketable talents, demonstrated by their ability to find work in the mainstream ends of their fields (Cassavetes had been tapped to direct four or five movies for the major studios as well as act in major Hollywood movies and Sim was not only given an offer to sell his independent comic book Cerebus to DC Comics [he declined] but given some freelance work from Marvel every now and again). They chose to go the independent route, but it was most certainly a choice, since they were considered employable by mainstream outlets.

Like my friend Tom Penketh (Web editor at, I've always admired those artists who have managed create both popular entertainment and highbrow art (Shakespeare being one of the original masters of this).

It will be interesting to see where this line of thought takes Nosedive (if anywhere): if we're at all able to use this as a usable model to make the company profitable (we've made our money back on Nervous Boy and a few other shows of ours, but we've never [big surprise] made a profit).

Then again, none of our names are Tyler Perry.

I am curious, how many other theatre artists find being commercially viable important, and if so, to what degree?

Making commercials downtown,

James "Tyler Perry" Comtois

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Entertainment Value

Before I begin, I just wanted to point out that today is Tai Verley’s birthday (she played the latexed stripper and other ensemble roles in The Adventures of Nervous Boy), so we here at Nosedive Central will be celebrating that with her this evening.

Happy birthday, Tai!

Also, the members of Slow Children at Play, who are currently scattered all over the continent, have been emailing each other back and forth writing new sketches and finalizing our set list for the August 12 show. I’m getting pretty excited about it.

* * *

I have to say, although the year is far from up, 2006 is shaping up to be a great year for New York theatre.

When seeing Pig Farm on Saturday, I invited Steven Gridley, a friend and fellow playwright along. Before the show started, he had commented on how much more entertaining theatre was becoming to him over movies. See, the way Steve saw it, movies were what you went to see to be entertained and plays were what you went to see to be enlightened or educated. For some reason though, he was finding the plays he was seeing of late to be far more exciting and entertaining than even the big budget blockbusters (which, to him, felt quite dull).

I knew what he meant.

I’ve been genuinely more excited about seeing new plays I’ve heard about than, say, Mission: Impossible III or X-3.

What’s surprising about this (for me, anyway) is that I’ve always said (and meant) that I’d rather sit through the latest shitty Ashton Kutcher vehicle than through a shitty indie play. This is because the act of simply going to the movies was fun for me, regardless of what I was watching. Sure, I could tell when a movie sucked and when it was good, but being in the air conditioned theatre eating my popcorn and hearing that Dolby surround sound made watching even the lamest of lame movies enjoyable. It wasn’t until I was in my early-20s that I needed more than just the outing in-and-of-itself to enjoy the experience.

That really hasn’t been the case this year. My response to most movies coming to theatres (of course, with some exceptions) has typically been “Ho, hum.” Is this because movies have become shittier? I don’t think so, since shitty movies have always been around (although now shitty exploitation movies have such large budgets and enjoy such large publicity campaigns that any guilty pleasure potential to be derived from them get sucked out). Is it because the film industry has acknowledged its unequivocal defeat from television as the mass medium people care about and therefore given up on trying to offer a fun movie-going experience? Maybe, and although I’ve not had the horrific movie-going experiences that others have, there are opinion pieces everywhere about how unappealing going out to the multiplexes has become to support this theory.

(My best guess is that since movies have become so expensive — cracking the $100 million mark has now become commonplace — that the most expensive ones have just become even more “by-the-numbers” than they were six, seven years ago and again, any sense of “fun” to be gained from these middle- to lowbrow movies are leached out.)

[Update: although for the most part I find his articles and film reviews to be snide, obnoxious and insufferable, Charles Taylor wrote an excellent piece for Salon a few years ago giving his assessment on why big budget action movies have become so dull. I think, for the most part, he hits the nail on the head.]

To be fair, I’ve seen some really good movies this year (I Am A Sex Addict, United 93, Superman Returns). And I still find some appeal in simply going to the movies. For the most part, however, I have been getting more pleasure from going out to see plays in a way (usually reserved for going out to see movies) that I haven’t in a long while.

Pete and I were talking a little bit about this last night, and in our conversation we realized that one thing to note is that a number of plays debuting in New York this year — Broadway, Off-Broadway and Indie — feature violence. The Lieutenant of Inishmore, Pig Farm, Abacus Black Strikes Now, Living Dead in Denmark, even Nosedive’s own The Adventures of Nervous Boy, to name a few, have physical violence playing crucial roles to them, something that didn’t seem quite so common last year or the year before.

Is this actually the start of an actual aesthetic movement or simply a trend or fad? It’s way too early to tell, but if it is only the latter, it’s hardly a trend you’ll hear me complaining about (seriously, give me theatre featuring violence over the leftist agitprop that seemed to dominate the Indie landscape for the past few years any day of the week).

Stephen Kelsey, Pete and my former high school theatre director and now artistic director of the Columbia, S.C.-based Imperfect Theater Co. summed up the problem with theatre perfectly in his company’s mission statement:

“For me, as an audience member, too often, going to theater is like taking medicine, something that one endures just because it is, somehow, good for us. By the same token, an endless diet of empty diversions also quickly loses it charm.” (Emphasis mine.)

So far this year, there have been very few plays I’ve seen that have made me feel like I’m “taking medicine.” With some exceptions (which is, of course, inevitable), the plays that I’ve seen so far this year have been honest-to-Gorsh fun. More fun, I must say, than the movie version of V For Vendetta. Is this because I’ve just been in a really good mood staging Nervous Boy? Is this because I’ve been very lucky to have been led to shows that are worth my while? Or is this the start of something bigger and better for the world of theatre?

Again, it’s too early to tell.

Regardless, I’m pretty thankful that seeing plays of late haven’t felt like the endurance test. Maybe I shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth and just enjoy that I’ve been enjoying myself seeing plays this year in a way I haven’t in a long time.

But who knows? I could be singing a different tune after the Fringe starts and I see a string of shitty plays made by people who should have been plumbers.

Then I’ll be wishing I had stayed in and rented Mission: Impossible III.

Just Wantin’ to Have Fun,

James “Cyndi Lauper” Comtois

Monday, July 24, 2006

Pig Farm

At one point in Pig Farm, the new play written by Greg Kotis, directed by John Rando (who previously collaborated on the hit musical Urinetown) and presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company, Tom (played by John Ellison Conlee), the owner of the titular pig farm, talks about having to dump a truckload of "fecal sludge" into the Patomac. It was then that I realized, after seeing both Urinetown, a musical about a town where it's no longer free to pee, and Pig Farm, a play where the protagonist has to secretly remove fecal sludge from his property, that neither Mr. Kotis nor Mr. Rando are above the scatological.

See, I dig good jokes about bodily functions. One could say I'm a connoisseur. So to me, it's a shame that the scatological humor trend never quite picked up in the Off- theatre world in the way it has in the field of cinema and therefore a relief to see it in Mr. Kotis's new play.

In all seriousness though, Pig Farm is a pretty funny show.

Aside from talking about fecal sludge, Pig Farm is about Tom (Mr. Conlee), an overworked pig farmer who ignores his wife Tina's (Katie Finneran) desire to have a baby and abuses his hired hand Tim (Logan Marshall-Green), a 17 year-old boy who works on the farm as a condition of his release from juvie hall. Tom, Tim and Tina are preparing for the arrival of Teddy (Denis O'Hare), an armed E.P.A. agent (hey, working for the E.P.A. is a dangerous job) whose job it is to get an official pig count for the farm.

There's some stuff about Tina and Tim having an affair and Teddy wanting a piece of Tina and Tim trying to steal some pigs and Tina trying to get Tom's attention and Tom trying to bribe Teddy and...okay, you get the idea. Zany antics ensue.

Although some of the humor was of the "hit or miss" variety, there were enough genuine belly laugh-inducing scenes throughout to make the show enjoyable. My personal favorite part of the play was Mr. O'Hare's role as Teddy, the armed E.P.A. agent. Maybe it's just me, but going from a "no nonsense" government agent to a spastic lunatic every few minutes, Mr. O'Hare as Teddy made me laugh without fail.

Many authors often use comedy as a means for social or political commentary. After seeing both Urinetown and Pig Farm, it appears as though Mr. Kotis is doing the opposite: he's using social-political commentary as a means for comedy. In other words, his plays appear to be making some statement (or rather, Statement), but ultimately their goal is to make the audience laugh.

This is what I couldn't understand about Charles Isherwood's review of Pig Farm in his review for the New York Times. In it, he wrote:

"Tom's simmering resentment of the federal government clues us in to Mr. Kotis's larger aim here. 'Pig Farm' wants to poke satiric fun at the dubious excesses of the United States government and what he sees as the sluggish-minded, fat-bellied populace who elected it."


"Larger aim?"

What the hell is this guy talking about?

Pig Farm isn't trying to take any "larger aim," beyond making the audience laugh. There is no substantive Statement About The State of The American Farmer or About The Federal Government's Oppressive Stance Against Blah Blah Blah, which is what makes the show so appealing. From my viewpoint, Mr. Kotis and Mr. Rando are making fun of The Big Statement (or at the very least, using the convention of The Big Statement as a way to have fun).

And Pig Farm is fun, despite Mr. Isherwood's snide (and frankly bizarre) assessment. The cast and crew just go with Mr. Kotis's frenetic script and make no apologies.

Then again, this is coming from a guy who digs plays that talk about fecal sludge.

Fryin' up the bacon,

James "Theatre Piggy" Comtois

Ps. The Roundabout is offering 35% off tickets to Pig Farm, from now through September 3rd. Those interested should call (212) 719-1300 or visit the company's Web site. Use code PFINTE. The offer is subject to availability and can't be combined with any other offer.

Pps. On an unrelated note, this is my 100th post on Jamespeak. Fweeee!

Ppps. To read what other bloggers thought/felt about the show, click on their names below to read their assessments.

Mark Armstrong

Isaac Butler

Matthew Freeman

Ian Hill

Joshua James

Dan Trujillo

Blogger Field Trip!

Through the efforts of Isaac Butler (author of the Parabasis blog), I along with several other theatre bloggers received complimentary tickets to see the Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of Pig Farm on Saturday. Mr. Butler’s reasoning for getting the bloggers together to see the show (written by Greg Kotis and directed by John Rando, the author and director, respectively, of Urinetown): because he loved it and the New York Times (specifically, Times theatre critic Charles Isherwood) did not. So, he wanted us bloggers to write about the show to counter Mr. Isherwood’s snide and dismissive review.

Well, why don’t I let Mr. Butler speak for himself? From his blog:

What is the Blogosphere Day about? It's simple. I saw Pigfarm. I thought it was hilarious. I thought that it got an incredibly unfair and dismissive review from Charles Isherwood in the New York Times (more on why I believe this tomorrow). I offered to organize a blogger night to attempt to get the word out about the show to the audience this show should have, namely people with an indie-theater sensibility.

So on Saturday, about seven of the theater bloggers I contacted and I went to see the show. We were given complimentary tickets and press packets. I asked them all to write about the show on Tuesday, and I'll be linking to the coverage then.

The idea here is not to stuff the ballot box but rather to democratize the process of opinion-making in theater. I believe that bloggers who didn't like the show should absolutely write about not liking it. And bloggers who want to respond to the show rather than straight-up review it should feel free to as well. My issue is, simply, that one paper has way too much power in this town. Regular readers of a blog (any blog) have a fairly good idea of the quality of taste of the person blogging, and therefore can have a more personal experience of the response piece written, and make a more educated decision as to whether or not to spend their money on a ticket to the show. It is, in a weird way, an attempt to appropriate the fundraising power of the leftist blogosphere, and adapt it to viewing plays. Hopefully, it will at least provide us all with an interesting "book club" for a day.

Hence, blogger field trip. Thanks, Isaac!

A number of theatre bloggers were in attendance (sans Mac Rogers and George Hunka, who are justifiably busy as all hell with their respective upcoming projects and Adam Szymkowicz, who is still in DC), some I’ve met, some I hadn’t before Saturday: Isaac, Joshua, Ian, Matt, Mark, Dan and myself. I have to say, it was (is) interesting to get to meet a number of these people face-to-face after having the bulk of your interaction being solely online.

I’ve been asked not to post anything until Tuesday, so you’ll have to wait until tomorrow to read my take on the play.

I am very curious how this turns out: if this becomes a “regular thing” the theatre blogosphere can and will do, if it does indeed democratize the process of opinion-making in theater and offer alternative opinion sources to the Times or if it turns out to be just a fun “book club,” as Mr. Butler says. Either way, I had fun at the outing and look forward to reading everyone else’s thoughts and assessments of the show.

I suppose I should start writing mine.

Eschewing the buddy system,

James "Rebel Without an Assigned Seat" Comtois

Friday, July 21, 2006

Food For Fish

On Wednesday night, I saw Adam Szymkowicz's latest play, Food For Fish, playing at the Kraine Theater in New York. It is a very funny, bizarre and captivating show that's loosely based on Chekov's Three Sisters. Like his play, Nerve, about two endearing psychopaths on a first date, Food For Fish is a fine showcase for Mr. Szymkowicz's gifts as a playwright that should be seen before it goes up into the Great Production in the Sky.

The play Food For Fish is about...

Okay, hold on. It's going to take some time and effort to finish that sentence. Let me try my best.

The play Food For Fish is about three sisters living on Manhattan's Upper East Side hoping to move to New Jersey, their dead father decomposing at a rapid pace in their apartment, the oldest sister's husband facing a midlife crisis and an author who throws pages of his manuscript into the Hudson River and kisses random women on the street.

Are you with me so far?

Of the three sisters, the oldest, Barbara (played by Luis Moreno, a dude), serves as "man of the house." She is an agoraphobe and control freak that disapproves of the youngest sister ever leaving the house and refuses to bury their dead father (who lies in a coffin in the living room throughout the bulk of the play), despite the neighbors' complaints about the smell.

The middle sister, Alice (Ana Perea), is a scientist trying to isolate the gene in mice that causes them to love in the hope that she can remove it from people. She goes on many dates, none of which are fun for her. Her potential suitors sign their names on the lab's chalkboard to schedule a date and at the dates she requests DNA and blood samples to see if a second date is in the future.

The youngest sister, Sylvia (Anna Hopkins), is an aspiring journalist who is writing an article about lipstick, but is more interested in writing about a mysterious young man roaming Manhattan, kissing strangers.

The serial kisser is Bobbie (Orion Taraban), who is not only the play's Georgie Porgie but also a writer (specifically, the writer of the story we're watching) and narrator of the show. Cut off from the world and convinced of his genius, he writes the story of the three sisters and gets increasingly frustrated when Sylvia (she being, after all, a writer) decides to rewrite her own dialogue.

(Having met Adam a few weeks ago, I noticed numerous parallels between the character of the writer - and Mr. Taraban's portrayal - to Adam himself. He may deny that the writer in the show is his fictional alter ego, but that may be like me denying that Nervous Boy in my play is mine.)

The final main character is Dexter (Katie Honaker, a chick), Barbara's husband, who is depressed with how his life has gone. Unsure of his feelings towards Barbara and hating his job (that seems to keep demoting him without rhyme or reason every few weeks), his only relaxation is masturbating in the company bathroom to murder revenge fantasies about his new bosses.

(Another actress in the show, Caroline Tamas, plays several other roles throughout, both male and female. Some of the other actors also play other roles of either gender.)

I hope I'm not making it sound incoherent or frivolous. It isn't. The play is about longing, regret and being held back. It's one of the funniest plays I've seen this year about truly sad people.

I was hooked.

There was one point in the first act (I can't exactly remember when) where I had no idea where the show was going, but didn't care. Wherever it was going, I was interested.

What's impressive about Mr. Szymkowicz's show is that, as silly things get (and I realize that my description of Food For Fish makes it sound very silly indeed), it never feels forced or overwhelming. The laughs come naturally for the audience, and the absurdity ends up making its own internal logic. The most obvious example being the gender-reversed roles of Barbara and Dexter: after a few minutes of watching, you simply "buy" Barbara being played by a dude and Dexter being played by a chick. My guess is that Mr. Szymkowicz (unless this is the choice of director Alexis Poledouris) is showing how the gender roles in the modern-day world have been reversed (i.e., Dexter is literally emasculated and Barbara is a mannish controller). Mr. Moreno doesn't try to use a falsetto voice when playing Barbara, nor does Ms. Honaker try to adopt a faux baritone when playing Dexter.

It just works.

In her recent article about him and his work in The Brooklyn Rail, Sheila Callaghan described Adam Szymkowicz's plays dealing "a lot with whimsy and heartbreak," which sounds about right. "Whimsical" and "heartbreaking" would be two words that leap to mind when thinking about this play and Nerve.

It is really nice and, frankly, really rare to see a New York-based playwright under 30 have his own "voice." After seeing both Nerve and Food For Fish (as well as reading a few of his shorter works, many of which are available on his Web site), I think it's safe to say that Adam Szymkowicz truly has his own distinct voice for the stage.

Of course, because the guy is slightly younger than me I hate him.

Despite this, I do recommend you all go see Food For Fish at the Kraine on 85 East 4th Street (between 2nd & 3rd avenues) before it closes Saturday, July 29.

Donning a dress,

James "Sally" Comtois

When Wonderful Worlds Collide...

In the interest of Serious Theatre Journalism (which is what you all come here for anyway), I figured I’d show you this little tidbit that puts hearts in my eyes.

Yes, apparently Katharine McPhee is producing a Fringe show. Seriously.

My guess is she’s sad about coming in second on American Idol, realizes this singing stuff is for the birds and wants to enter the land of self-produced Off-off Broadway theatre. Good for her.

(Okay, she really just heard all about Nervous Boy and this mysterious Comtois fellow who wrote it and wants to meet him. Hey, can we blame her?)

So yes. This telegenic beauty has entered our world now. Sigh…

All aflutter,

James “McPheever” Comtois

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Slow Children in Town

The Adventures of Nervous Boy hasn’t even been closed for two weeks and I’m already plugging a new project I’m working on.

Right when the NYC International Fringe Festival Begins (or, to be specific, the day after it begins), some B.U. alum friends of mine and I are “getting the band back together,” as Elwood (or was it Jake?) Blues would say.

The original members of Slow Children at Play, the sketch comedy group I helped form in college, is reconvening to put on a free show for one night only on Saturday, August 12 at 8 p.m. at the WorkShop Theater on 312 West 36th Street, Fourth Floor (at 8th Avenue).

Not only is the show free, but we’ll also be serving beer.

For free.

That’s right. A free comedy show with free booze. Can you dig it?

My guess is yes. Yes, you can.

I’ll be sending out more details about the show as they unfold and the closer we get to the performance date.

Tomorrow I’m seeing Adam Szymkowicz’s latest, Food For Fish, which has been getting some damn fine press of late (after getting some damn fine press off his play, Nerve, staged just last month). Since I had so much fun with Nerve, despite Adam telling me this new show is completely different, I’m pretty confident I’ll have a fun time with his latest.

Already plugging more of his crap,

James “Plug n’ Run” Comtois

Monday, July 17, 2006

Shoutouts and Whatnots

I’m gonna make this entry very short and scattershot, if only to move on from the previous entry (since I’ve been told the polls for the NYIT Awards have closed).

Thanks to an entry from playwright-blogger Jason Grote (and a response from playwright-blogger George Hunka), I was pointed in the direction of this little gem. It’s an open letter from comedian David Cross to comedian Larry the Cable Guy. It reminded me why I think Mr. Cross is one of the best and most honest comedians working today (his double-disc album, Shut Up You Fucking Baby being arguably one of the best stand-up comedy albums to come out in the past decade). Mr. Cross’s letter to Larry also reminded me of one of the more insidious things our current President, the Christian Right and the Republican Party (among others) are doing to gain popularity: pandering to the lowest common denominator in the South with a fraudulent “We’re Jes Like You!” persona. There are so many quotable lines from his letter there are too many to point out here. Despite this, I will point out this line that got me giggling loudly at my computer terminal at work:

“…[Y]ou are very mistaken if you think that I don't know your audience…I cut my teeth in the south and my first road gigs ever were in Augusta, Charleston, Baton Rouge, and Louisville. I remember them very well, specifically because of the audience. I remember thinking (occasionally, not all the time) ‘what a bunch of dumb redneck, easily entertained, ignorant motherfuckers. I can't believe the stupid shit they think is funny.’ So, yes, I do know your audience, and they suck. And they're simple. And please don't mistake this as coming from a place of bitterness because I didn't ‘make it’ there or, I'm not as successful as you because that's not it at all. Since I was a kid I've always been a little over sensitive to the glorification and rewarding of dumb. The ‘salt of the earth, regular, every day folk’ (or lowest common denominator) who see the world, and the people like me in it, as on some sort of secular mission to take away their flag lapels and plaster-of-paris jesus television adornments strike me as childishly paranoid.”

Anyway, check it out.

Over at Matthew Freeman’s blog, a conversation about the problems with the Actor’s Equity Association is continuing. I put my two cents in there for those of you who are interested. I’ll add another two more by pointing out (what a number of theatre bloggers are bringing up) that there is little to nothing that playwrights, producers, designers and directors (in other words, non-union folk) can do to change the Showcase Code. After all, we are — in the eyes of Equity — the Enemy. The Showcase Code can and will be only changed by people in the union (in other words, Equity actors).

Also, good luck to (wait for it) director-blogger Matt Johnston (a.k.a. MattJ) on his (temporary?) move from the Rotten Apple to my old stompin’ grounds, Boston. Have fun, Matt. I know you will. And again, check out the Pour House on Boylston Street for the cheapest burgers on the East Coast.

I also have to extend congratulations to the Alick siblings, Claudia and Jesse; to Claudia, for a fine staging of her brother Jesse’s fine semi-autobiographical play, Come Back To Me, and to Jesse, for writing it. Also, congratulations to Isaac Butler and the rest of the Rapid Response Team for a very fun “Best Of” show.

Linking his day away,

James “Damn These Meta Tags!” Comtois

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Vote For The Adventures of Nervous Boy For the New York IT Awards!

Again, many thanks to all of you who came out and saw Nosedive's latest show, The Adventures of Nervous Boy (A Penny Dreadful), helping make it the most successful show the company has staged. We here at Nosedive Central love you all.

We'll now just ask one more thing of you.

For those of you who liked it, now's your chance to go to the Web site for the New York Innovative Theatre Awards and vote for it for Best Play (or Best Actor or Best Set or whatever).

Just go to the site, register (it's free), then vote on the "Audience Ballot." It's that simple.

Of course, if you didn't like it, and can't in good conscience vote for us despite this, forward this message to someone you know who either did dig the show or can at least vote for it even if they didn't.

A True Opportunist,

James "Mover-Shaker" Comtois

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Syd Barrett, 1946-2006

Also related to neither Nosedive nor theatre…

Roger Keith (Syd) Barrett, the original singer, songwriter and guitarist for Pink Floyd, died a couple of days ago (as of this writing, no one’s exactly sure when) of symptoms related to diabetes at the age of 60. In high school, Pete and I acted (as glorified extras) in a staging of Pink Floyd: The Wall in the Palace Theatre in Manchester, New Hampshire, which immediately got me hooked on Pink Floyd’s music (die-hard fans will note I became a fan of the post-Barrett band [i.e., the Waters-Gilmour incarnation], although I should point out that the character of Pink in The Wall is loosely based on Mr. Barrett).

Jody Rosen writes a very spot-on and interesting article about the musician and his place (or lack thereof) in Pink Floyd in Slate.

A Piper at the Gates of Dawn,

James “Crazy Diamond” Comtois


This entry is neither related to Nosedive nor theatre. This is a full-on Geekspeak entry.

Okay, as I've mentioned before, I recently became hooked to Joss Whedon's short-lived show, Firefly (much to the dismay of my friend Dennis Hurley, writer and star of The Albino Code). Of course, the unfortunate thing about being addicted to a show that's been cancelled after only 14 episodes is that once you finish, and then rent the follow-up movie (in this case, Serenity), you got nothing left to satisfy your new appetite.

For the Fourth of July, my sister came over to my apartment and brought the Complete Series DVD collection of Firefly. I had seen Serenity and had liked it, but my sister informed me that I would appreciate the movie much more if I knew the complete back-story to the characters and the world.

So, before the fireworks took place, we had ourselves a little mini-marathon viewing session and, man. She was right.

To explain to those of you who are unfamiliar with the show what Firefly is about, here's my best shot: Firefly takes place about 500 years in the future, where Earth is no longer inhabitable and people are scattered throughout the galaxy. A civil war took place between those who wanted to unify the colonized planets under central control (The Alliance) and those who wanted independence (The "Browncoats"). The Alliance won and placed the losing planets under its regime.

The central character is Malcolm "Mal" Reynolds (played by Nathan Fillion), captain of a small space freighter (a "Firefly" class spaceship called "Serenity") and former Browncoat, who travels the galaxy with a ragtag crew taking odd shipping/smuggling/robbing jobs that come his way in order to evade a life under control of The Alliance.

On one trip, the Serenity crew picks up a traveler with some contraband cargo needing to evade The Alliance. The traveler is Dr. Simon Tam (Sean Maher), and the cargo, his sister, River (Summer Glau), a psychic nutcase who's been experimented on by The Alliance. These two new additions to the crew add some unwanted risk to Serenity's jobs, since The Alliance is now in hot pursuit of Simon and River.

If this sounds contrived, it's not. Most of this exposition is doled out very slowly over the course of the series and film, and most of it is implied rather than overt. Mr. Whedon and his collaborators took time in allowing the characters' personalities, back-stories and relationships to grow organically and breathe. Details about the world unfold at a slow and natural pace.

(One particular detail I love, which isn't overtly explained, is that the two common tongues in the galaxy are English and Chinese, to the point that even the most redneck uneducated white guy is fluent in Mandarin. It's explained in the special features section - not in the series itself - that, when Earth became uninhabitable, the two superpowers that survived and terraformed the galaxy were, you guessed it, the U.S. and China. Little details that end up being self-evident [i.e., "Oh, right. If this scenario were to happen, U.S. and China would be the only superpowers still around."] like this one are what help make this show so much fun.)

Taking huge cues from Star Trek, including the main idea behind the show (outer space as a metaphor for frontier land in the American West, a.k.a. "Stagecoach in space"), Firefly got the concept right in a number of ways Gene Roddenberry's show didn't.

Yes, I will say this right now. Firefly was better than Star Trek.

Mr. Whedon's show is about all the worlds/planets that Mr. Roddenberry's show deliberately dismissed (i.e., indigenous and less civilized), which makes the metaphor/concept of exploring frontier land make sense. The crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise sought out new life and new civilizations. The crew of Serenity often went where there was little to no civilization (or at least, where civilizations were starting from scratch). Sure, there are ray guns in the show, but they're very rare; for the most part, the characters use old-fashioned six-shooters. Characters travel not only via spaceship, but also via horse and carriage.

(Okay, I'll just admit it. Another way Firefly is superior to Star Trek is that the ship's mechanic of the former, Kaylee [Jewel Staite] is much, much hotter than that of the latter, Scotty [James Doohan].)

It's also just plain fun and funny.

For any and all Star Trek fans reading this, I don't mean to be too disparaging towards your beloved show. The one very impressive and unique thing about the Star Trek universe is it's the only - and I mean only - major sci-fi creation that depicts a positive view of the future. Seriously, name one other sci-fi / fantasy world that portrays the idea of a "brave new world" and really means it.

Truth be told, I never got into Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the show Mr. Whedon is known for) the way a number of people I know did. I mean, I've seen a handful of episodes here and there and have (admittedly) enjoyed them, but I never found the need to start from Season One, Episode One and find out what I've been missing. My guess on this is because there was (is) a campy quality to that show that never quite sat right with me. It was just too...for lack of a better word...cheesy. Buffy fans will note that the campy quality is deliberate, and that Mr. Whedon was trying to emulate comic book dialogue with Buffy, and perhaps maybe I just didn't get that (or just got it too late). When the show started out I just couldn't get over the hokeyness of the dialogue, the fight scenes, the look of the vampires or the title itself.

It seemed that what didn't work for me with Buffy worked for me with Firefly. Where in Buffy I found the dialogue wincingly corny, in Firefly I found funny and witty. Where in Buffy I found the character development ham-handed, in Firefly I found subtle and fascinating. I can't say for sure if this is just because I didn't give Buffy a fair shake or if Firefly just takes place in two genres (science fiction and western) I have an affinity for, or if simply because I find Nathan Fillion a more compelling lead than Sarah Michelle Gellar.

Perhaps in the future I'll get over my mental blocks and give Buffy its fair shake.

I think it's truly a shame that Firefly did not get accepted into pop culture (and, since the movie tanked at the box office, it looks like it never will). It's also a shame that Fox (the network that aired the show) did everything they could to kill it (not all of the episodes were aired and those that were, were aired out of order). (It's also worth noting that Universal, not 20th Century Fox, was the studio that financed and distributed the film.) Still, you should all give this a shot. Or at the very least, give the movie Serenity a shot if watching 14 episodes is too much of a commitment.

Polishing his pocket protector,

James "Comic Book Guy" Comtois

Monday, July 10, 2006

Over and Done

Nosedive’s production of The Adventures of Nervous Boy has now gone up into that Great Production In The Sky, and it’s turned out that, despite this being our most expensive show ever, we actually made our money back on it (damn near unheard of in this weird little world of indie theatre).

This was by far the best run of a show Nosedive has ever experienced, something that came as a complete surprise (considering Pete and I were initially worried that the most people would get out of this show is, “Hmm…James must really enjoy killing strippers”).

Saturday night was the obligatory cast party chez Comtois, which was very fun. The really fun part, it seemed, was having some folks write and draw on Mac after he passed out on my couch. On one hand, I had nothing to do with the defiling of Mr. Rogers. On the other, I didn’t lift a finger to try and stop the culprits.

This show has marked a number of firsts for the company: the first time we extended a run, the first time we ran a show for more than a month, the first time we got recognition from Time Out NY, the first time we had more reviews than you can count on one hand (if you want to count the bloggers, at this point, more than you can count on both hands), the first time we sold out more than half of our performances.

Many thanks to everyone who worked on this and to everyone who came out to see this. I love you all.

(And for those who couldn’t make it to this, don’t worry. I’m not withholding love from you. There’ll be another Nosedive Production coming up before you know it.)

Still, I’m absolutely in awe of playwrights like Sheila Callaghan, Adam Szymkowicz and even our very own Nervous Boy, Mac Rogers, for closing one show then jumping right into another without any break. I know, I know, that’s how it’s supposed to be done, but I’m just about ready to take a nap (especially since I’ve just finished watching Firefly and re-watching Serenity and am super-bummed that there’s no more Firefly to enjoy).

Tomorrow I’ll start work on a new script. And next week, Pete, Patrick and I will meet up to discuss options for the future of The Adventures of Nervous Boy. Really.

Today I just rest.

Sleeping in,

James “Rested” Comtois

Friday, July 07, 2006

I'll Use This Space For Reasons Other Than Shameless Self-Promotion Very Soon I Swear...

This’ll be the last of it, I promise.

We’re in this week’s Time Out New York and Backstage.

There’s also a review/article in Hunter College’s The WORD about the show, featuring an online interview with yours truly.

Tonight and tomorrow are our last performances of this production before it goes up into the Great Production in the Sky. Then I go sleep for a month or so.

When I return, I take a break from the plugging and talk about important stuff, like about how awesome the new Superman movie is or my recent addiction to Joss Whedon’s Firefly.

You know, important stuff.

Almost getting sick of himself,

James “I Said Almost” Comtois

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

The Trailer is Up!

Shot and edited by Ben VandenBoom. Looks pretty cool, if I do say so myself...

Monday, July 03, 2006

Three More Chances

"Okay, Okay, I know a lot of you people probably like to wait until the last minute. Well, this is it! This IS the last minute!"
—Stanley Spadowski (Michael Richards), UHF
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