Thursday, August 31, 2006

Au Revoir, Mes Chéris

I just want to let y’all know that I’m heading off to Maine tonight, where I’ll be for the next week (sans computer).

There will be no posting of any kind until Sept. 11 (Monday).

Until then, I hope to do very little, aside from drinking blueberry beer (tastes like freakin’ blueberries, people) and staring at the ocean.

In the “Very Happy News For This Freakin’ Guy” Department, Martin Denton will be publishing The Adventures of Nervous Boy as part of the 2007 edition of Plays and Playwrights. I’m pretty damn happy about this.

Anyway, I’ll natter at y’all when I get back.

Votre putain,

James “Uh, I’m Sorry, I Don’t Speak French” Comtois

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Wednesday's Post

Here are two wonderful posts by Lucas and Josh that should be read.

From Lucas:

"What baffles me is the amount of energy people will expend justifying off-off-B'way theatre, rather than just making good work. Why complain? The surest way to prove wrong that theatre is dead is to make work that is alive. I don't care if I am designing for a 60 seat black box or a 700 Seat Opera or a small regional theatre. What I care about is that I am doing my best work."

From Josh:

"I think I've hit upon what it is that really bothers me [about theatre].

"It's become a luxury item of the elite.

"It's like caviar, fur coats and health insurance, something reserved strictly for the wealthy citizens of this land of ours.

"That's the problem. And I hate it." (Emphasis his.)

This is a subject I've written about way back in the day and have been circling around a lot recently (particularly with my "Entertainment Value," "Commercial Attributes" and "Theatre as Junk Food" entries), but Lucas and Josh really hit the nail on the head with their respective entries.

Now, granted, a lot of what Josh James is talking about is the actual ticket prices for plays, which are usually too high to allow people with lower- to middle-class incomes to see theatre on a regular basis (although the ticket prices for first-run movies and Off-off shows are getting to be neck-and-neck, at least in New York). But he also acknowledges that in addition to plays being too expensive (i.e., elitist), plays are also becoming jargon-based, exclusionary and disinterested in connecting with audiences (i.e., the other form of elitist).

Theatre is often regarded as a dead, insufferably pretentious drain on one's time and money. And (let's face it, folks) that criticism is not without merit.

A while back, Qui Nguyen and Robert Ross Parker from Vampire Cowboys actually addressed this problem in an interview with In the interview, Robert and Qui said:

Parker: At our school, 20-year-old kids from Ohio were doing Hedda Gabler scene study. And I thought: "What connection do they have to this work?" We felt that these kids had never seen a real piece of theater....

Nguyen: A piece that they really connected to, that was about them and for them, and about this generation....

Parker: That was hot and current and real and not some stodgy old dusty thing....

Nguyen: They were being trained that theater was always these recreations of old plays.

Mac Rogers, in our online dialogue a couple months back, also came up with a possible reason for why theatre artists have such a tough time connecting with audiences:

"When you create student or indie or Off Off Broadway theater, your rehearsal process is just as intense and exciting as it is for people doing Broadway or West End. Having an intense, interesting rehearsal process doesn't cost any money. However, the actual run of the show is a very different experience from Broadway or the West End. The audiences are tiny. Press attention is marginal or nonexistent. There's a feeling of anticlimax. What grows out of this, quite naturally, is a sense that the rehearsal process, being the more exciting part, was the whole point all along. And this is what I strenuously disagree with.

There are a couple dangers, it seems to me. One is that the artists end up spending too much time away from the audience. I'm of the opinion that theater artists need regular contact with audiences. Too long a period of time without that contact dulls your instinct for communion, for what reads, for what manifests in the public arena vs. what you feel inside your head."

Both of my fellow bloggers Lucas and Josh ask what can be done about this, and the only answer I can give is the one I've been giving myself for the past six years, which is to simply write (or direct, or act) the best that you possibly can, produce your work to the best of your abilities, see as many shows as you can, repeat.

My rule of thumb for my own work when I try to look at it as objectively and dispassionately as I can is: is this a show I would want to watch as an audience member?

That's really it.

Although this isn't always the case, the worst shows I've seen are often created by people who wouldn't be able to answer "Yes" to that question above.

(Again, this isn't always the case, since I've seen some pretty inept productions helmed by very passionate people and have also seen very good shows created by people who really didn't want to be there [Air Guitar apparently being the most obvious recent example of the latter]. But in general, this seems to be the best "rule of thumb" that I've been able to find.)

I actually don't have a whole lot more to say on the subject right now. I usually do when I see a string of shitty shows and start to fear that this is all there is.

Anyway, you should check out the two posts.

Hangin' by his thumbs,

James "Luxurious Elitist" Comtois

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Vice Girl Confidential (Fringe '06 Experience #6)

Right after seeing Air Guitar, fellow Nosedivians Steph, Tai and I bolted from the Lower East Side to the Cherry Lane Studio in the West Village to see Vice Girl Confidential, a mock "film noir for the stage" written by Todd Michael and directed by Neal Sims.

And featuring Nosedive's Resident Alien, Christopher Yustin.

The show has been getting a lot of good press and response, enjoying a damn near sold out run at the Fringe and winning the Fringe Outstanding Ensemble Award. Finally being able to see the show, I immediately saw its appeal. It hits the right notes and is at just the right length (an hour) to be fun and funny without wearing out its welcome.

What's the show about? It's a typical noir story done in a camp vein, opening with a stern voiceover about how this show has been made to expose the dark ugly truth about the "white slavery" known as the vice racket. The play takes place in New York City in 1942 where the chief of police and the D.A. want to put a crime boss in the electric chair and abolish the whorehouses while the local madam wants to stay in business and free herself from said crime boss and a hooker with a heart of gold trying to save her sister from...well, you know the story.

A seedy city with seedy characters doing seedy things where justice triumphs in the end.

Zany antics ensue.

Todd Michael (who plays a role in drag as Stella Duvall, the madam of the local whorehouse) clearly had fun writing the Raymond Chandler-esque dialogue (i.e., "Hey boss, y'want me to slap her ears off?") and the cast clearly had fun speaking it. His writing (for this play, anyway) most resembles that of Charles Busch's and the production itself reminded me of previous productions by TOSOS II. Having said that, this isn't just a knock-off of Mr. Busch's and TOSOS II's style.

Director Neal Sims (who also plays mob boss Duke Craigie in a way that reminded me of Albert Finney's role in Miller's Crossing) keeps the pace tight, which is crucial for a show that depends on lightning-quick timing and dialogue. The cast is pretty much all-around excellent, hitting their respective archetypical roles spot-on. Christopher Yustin (not a surprise to me, considering he's been involved in eight of 11 of Nosedive's shows) takes to this type of rat-a-tat dialogue (with such lines as, “The only sweating I want to is the sweating Duke Craigie does while he's walking up those 13 the electric chair!”) like a duck to water in his role as D.A. Slade. Walter J. Hoffman, who plays two roles (Muggsy Regan and Edgar Baldwin) looks and sounds like one of those smug stoolies straight out of a Howard Hawks or John Huston movie (or a Simpsons episode featuring Fat Tony's mob, whichever).

In short, Vice Girl Confidential earns its popularity and audience appeal.

I'm really glad that I liked the two shows I saw back-to-back; otherwise I may have killed myself. Or at the very least thrown up.

(Christopher apologized afterwards that he felt he gave an "off" performance, since he was horrifically hung over and sleep deprived. Since I, too, was horrifically hung over and sleep deprived - we had gone out the night before together - I didn't notice there being anything "off" about him or the show, since I could easily have been described as an "off" audience member).

After leaving the theatre and congratulating Christopher, I went home and went to sleep.

I didn't care that it was only six in the evening.

All Fringed Out,

James "Zzzzz" Comtois

Monday, August 28, 2006

Air Guitar (Fringe '06 Experience #5)

UPDATE: Co-author Sean Williams writes in almost painstaking detail the problems he, Mac and Jordanna had in putting on the show.

I have to say I couldn't disagree with Martin Denton more about Air Guitar, particularly his assessment of Jeff Hiller's portrayal of Ulrich.

I can't say I'm surprised, though. On Saturday, Several Nosedivians went to the Harry de Jur Playhouse to see the new rock musical written by Nervous Boy himself (Mac Rogers) and Sean & Jordanna Williams and directed by Stephen Wargo. We took up a row, and Mr. Denton sat nearby. The bulk of us bobbed up and down with glee, giggling and clapping throughout, while I noticed that Mr. Denton didn't look like he was having a particularly fun time.

It's too bad, since Air Guitar is very much a fun time.

(I should add that, considering I was horrifically hung over and not exactly thrilled to be not only awake, but out and about by 1 p.m. on a Saturday, me enjoying myself is a real testament to the show.)

I was fortunate enough to see the show when the crew was able to fix the problems with its sound system (reports — from Mac himself — indicate that the sound on opening night was an absolute mess, with microphones not working and lyrics being completely drowned out by the band). Sure, there were still some mic snafus (particularly with the opening song), but for the most part I could hear the singers pretty clearly.

Air Guitar is about a guitarist named Drew (Stephen Graybill) who is pretty much at the end of his guitar-playing career. Seven years ago he had a band, now he just plays guitar to the same 12 bored "fans" (one of them being his wife, the other his roommate) every Sunday. With his musical career going nowhere and his marriage falling apart, Drew enters the world of competitive air guitar playing (yes, air guitar playing), and is dismayed to find himself achieving a success from not playing an instrument that eluded him when he was.

The Gods of Fire, a real heavy metal band, provided the live onstage music for Air Guitar.

I will say right off the bat that regrettably, the female performers — Becca Ayers as Drew's wife Celeste (from Avenue Q) and Renee Delio as Drew's air guitar rival (from Hail Satan) — were not quite up to snuff. I don't know if it was because the show was a Saturday matinee or what, but neither one of them seemed to want to be there.

Despite this, a few performers really stood out in the show, such as Michael Poigand, who played Drew's best friend Steve, once his fellow band mate and now (almost) a doctor, who ended up getting most of the show's best lines. Clayton Dean Smith, who played Jammin' Bread, the judge and promoter of the Air Guitar competitions, also showed that he has some game (particularly with that heavy metal vocal squealing).

But it was Jeff Hiller who really stole the show as Ulrich, the reigning champion of Air Guitarists working as both Drew's imaginary source of self-doubt and driving force. Wearing a wig of locks reminiscent of glam-metal band frontmen, torn jeans and a leather vest, every time he showed up on stage (or up in the balcony, giving Drew warnings about entering the competition), I was laughing (as were the rest of the Nosedivians). Mr. Hiller has amazing comedic stage presence as well as remarkable improvisational skills.

Mac, Sean and Jordanna could have easily written a musical to cash in on the tremendous success and acclaim they garnered with their last Fringe show, Fleet Week. But instead of writing Fleet Week 2: Shore Leave In Vegas, they created something equally as ambitious yet not nearly as commercially viable (musicals about gay sailors have much more of a built-in audience than musicals about people who play air guitar), which is commendable.

I do hope they make a habit of making annual musicals for the Fringe, even if Mac has made noise about Air Guitar not being nearly as fun to create as Fleet Week. Again, it's unfortunate that neither Mac nor Martin Denton seemed to have much fun with Air Guitar, 'cause I — as well as the folks at Nosedive Central — had an absolute blast.

Rockin' with nothing,

James "Air Blogger" Comtois

Eye Candy (Fringe '06 Experience #4)

Well, even though the Fringe is over and done with, I'll still be posting three entries on my last three Fringe experiences. Then I just may natter on about nothing in particular for the next couple days before I take off for Maine for the week (I guess I'm missing Dorothy by about nine days).

Yes, this means you'll be Jamespeak-less for 10 days. Can you guys handle it?

I'm guessing yes. Yes, you can.

* * *

On Friday night, I went to Dance New Amsterdam to see Eye Candy, a dance show about...well, mating, presented by MariaColacoDance. Choreographed by Maria Colaco and written by Ms. Colaco and the cast, Eye Candy features several vignettes (some conventional modern dance pieces, some conventional theatre/monologue pieces) about first loves, unwanted romantic feelings, the need to get married and the hell of dating, performed by dancers who wore pastel colors, each with shirts that would say things such as "Diva," "Flirt" and "Pimp."

Some pieces that really stood out to me was the one parodying speed dating, with a very funny introduction by Billy Keiffer, reminding the speed-daters to "not be too honest," and above all, offer no eye contact ("that's too scary"). Another has a tearful bride throwing to her guests not just the bouquet, but non-stick pans, spatulas and whisks (to the tune of "Chapel of Love"). Towards the end, Pamela Ralat performs a very honest and heartfelt monologue lamenting her body type ("I know what you're thinking: 'She's got a pretty face.'") that, though sad, manages to be performed with a great deal of confidence.

Other performers relay stories about their first crushes, first loves and first breakups that range from funny to painful (all of them in the "Ah, Crap, I've Been There" Department).

Am I making this show sound too self-absorbed and pretentious? I hope not, because it isn't. Although the pieces display a lot of honesty about the hell that is the mating process (or should I write The Mating Process), the show is very light, fun and unpretentious. It never loses its sense of humor.

The entire cast/ensemble is solid; there were no weak links that I could find throughout the performance. It's clear that the members of Ms. Colaco's company are very comfortable with one another (and they should be, since they had performed this piece — in a slightly different form — last year).

I was relieved that Eye Candy didn't fall into the trap that many other modern dance pieces fall into of being exclusionary and jargon-laced (i.e., a show that only other dancers can appreciate or understand). It is a rarity to see cohesive storytelling in a modern dance performance (true, I have seen a handful of modern dance pieces where the dancer would be reciting a monologue as they moved, but usually it's quite jarring when it's done). I'm admittedly more or less of an absolute novice when it comes to analyzing modern dance (I used to go to modern dance shows with some frequency when I first moved to the city, but it's now been a few years, with the exception of perhaps seeing bluemouth's What The Thunder Said last month), so my opinion on this should be taken with more than the usual "grain of salt" (working on the assumption that my opinions on other matters matter at all).

Still, Eye Candy was not only a fine piece of modern dance, but also a fine piece of theatre.

Okay, now I need to write about Air Guitar.

And hit on Ms. Ralat some more.

Now all self-conscious about how he looks,

James "Look But Don't Touch, Ladies" Comtois

Friday, August 25, 2006

Pre-Weekend Roundup

This isn't much of a coherent or cohesive post. This is just, as the title of this entry states, a roundup of what's happened and what will happen in my schedule before I log off for the weekend.

As I said I would, I ended up renting The Devil's Rejects, Rob Zombie's follow up to his directorial debut, House of 1,000 Corpses.

My short review: The Devil's Rejects is better than House of 1,000 Corpses, but that's not saying much. Rob Zombie has got the look and style of the grindhouse exploitation horror movies of the '70s down (it's obviously a genre he loves), but he hasn't figured out suspense yet. For suspense, not only does one have to give the sense that there's at least a chance that the characters in the movie will escape/survive, but also create characters the audience gives a shit about (as in, at all). Unfortunately, he hasn't managed to do that with either movie.

(You may be wondering why I would go out and rent the sequel if I didn't like the first film. Not entirely an out-of-line question. The reason why I did so was because, like Rob Zombie, I absolutely love the genre and saw enough in House of 1,000 Corpses [such as Sid Haig's Captain Spaulding character] to make me want to give the guy another chance [it being his first movie and all]. To give him credit, he has improved with his sophomore effort.)

Oh, well. Maybe next movie.

* * *

I'm seeing Eye Candy tonight and Air Guitar and Vice Girl Confidential Saturday, and it looks like that will be it for my Fringe 2006 experience (six plays, as I had predicted). I offer apologies to anyone I know involved in a Fringe show I have not seen. Again, due to time and money constraints (I'm paying full price for tickets to these shows, plus the online service fee, so it's starting to add up), I wasn't — and won't be — able to get to everything.

Oh, well. Maybe next year.

* * *

About ten minutes ago I finished a short pantomime script for an upcoming project, spearheaded by Nosedivians Pete and Patrick, to be unveiled at a later date. Pete seems pretty happy with it, so that's a good sign. I'm looking forward to seeing it get staged. I may be writing two more pantomimes for them, depending on whether or not they want to write them themselves (which may be the case, since it seems as though Patrick may not need a "script" per se) or have another writer come on board.

Intrigued? Well, you better damn well should be.

But again, details for this project will be unveiled at a later date.

Anyway, have a fun weekend, folks. I'll be back on Monday to write about my three weekend Fringe experiences (or whatever else of note happens between now and Monday).

Offering information in piecemeal,

James "Suspenseful" Comtois

Thursday, August 24, 2006

24 is 10: The Best of the 24 Hour Plays (Fringe '06 Experience #3)

Okay, I'm now back on track (which is odd that I'm particularly fussy about this, considering that the theatre blogosphere has been pretty mum about the Fringe this summer).

Yesterday evening Pete and I went to go see 24 is 10: The Best of the 24 Hour Plays at the Lucille Lortel, which featured: Deliver Me, written by Teresa Rebeck and directed by Kelley O'Donnell; Cuba, written by Michael Wynne and directed by Joe Ward; Sizable Town, written by Mike Doughty and directed by Angie Day; Be Still, written by Stephen Winter and directed by Sturgis Warner; and That Other Person, written by David Lindsay-Abaire and directed by Howard Fine.

The deal with the 24 Hour Plays, not surprisingly, is that a number of one-act plays are written, cast, directed and performed within a day. Although originally intended to be a one-night-only event, the concept (created by Tina Fallon) has gained enormous popularity and momentum. Since this was started 10 years ago, the company decided to bring back what they (and their audience members) thought were the cream of the crop.

It's pretty much impossible to write a review/assessment of 24 is 10, since each night presents a different batch of plays. So the show I saw has already gone off to that Great Production in the Sky, and if you choose to go see this Fringe show, you'll be seeing a completely different group of shows.

Having said that, I'll still offer my proverbial two cents on the Wednesday evening performance (i.e., the one that I saw).

The batch I saw was a bit hit-or-miss, although the misses were far from atrocious (they were all too short to be painful) and hey; they were written in less than a day, so a little slack can of course be cut. In between each piece, Matthew Brookshire performed some David Grey/James Blunt-esque music (i.e., Sensitive Male Music), which frankly, I could have done without (this is a subgenre of music I'm getting pretty sick of).

The first two plays, Deliver Me (about a delivery crew trying and failing to move a large unmovable desk out of a stairwell) and Cuba (about an older British woman being asked by a man to dance for the first time in her life), were very..."shmeh." The former was vaguely funny, the latter was vaguely touching, both were pretty forgettable.

The third play, Mr. Doughty's poetic and absurdist Sizable Town, about a guy and his girlfriend wanting to move to a, well, sizable town in order to break into show business and fight crime, was pretty much worth the price of admission alone. Silly and funny as all hell and reminiscent of Tom X. Chao's more esoteric pieces and Kevin Smith's short film The Flying Car, though...not really. It's virtually impossible to describe to give an accurate explanation of the experience (i.e., at one point, one of the characters dies from sheer disillusionment yet gets brought back to life after the Cowboy of Happiness serenades her). As Mac Rogers stated, "I don't even know how to describe, but we went nuts for it when I saw it." Yes, indeed.

Julie Wright, the female lead of Mr. Doughty's play (she's billed as "Carlette" but is really only ever referred to as "Girly-Girl" and other pet names), was fantastic. Every word that came out of her mouth made me lose it; sort of a cross between Carol Burnett's "Old Lady" character and Becky Brooks's on-stage presence with Cars Can Be Blue.

After intermission, we got Be Still, the second-best show of the evening that's completely different in tone, theme and content. Be Still is a very good, very touching play about a woman having to bury her lover (Joe Lattimore), for whom she has ambivalent feelings. Of course, how can you be anything but ambivalent for someone who's told you that they want to be with you, "every other day for the rest of your life?" The captivating René Alberta plays the narrator and protagonist with the perfect combination of disdain, frustration and pain as she insists on organizing the funeral.

The final play, That Other Person, features Elizabeth Berkley (yes, that Elizabeth Berkley) as the once outcast fat girl from high school running into (well, she was actually spying on them and they caught her, so "running into" is not the right phrase exactly) her former high school alumni, who all happen to be undergoing marital crises. This one was pretty funny, albeit more than a little frivolous. The standout performance came from SNL alum Rachel Dratch as a jilted wife wanting a divorce from her cheating husband.

Despite half of the plays simply being metzo-metzo, the experience of going to the show was overall fun, because even the weaker links were just in the "inoffensive" rather than "draining" vein (you really can't go wrong with a play that's only 10-15 minutes long; even if it sucks, you only have to wait a few more minutes before it's over and the next one comes up). And again: hey. You're watching shows written and rehearsed in less than a day, which is in-and-of-itself a cool theatergoing experience.

I believe I'll be taking tonight off from the Fringe (I'm not getting free or discounted tickets for these shows, so Fringe-hopping is starting to take its toll on my bank card), and most likely renting something lowbrow and offensive (like The Devil's Rejects). Tomorrow is my date with Eye Candy and Saturday is when I double-dip with Air Guitar and Vice Girl Confidential.

For tickets to 24 is 10: The Best of the 24 Hour Plays, click here.

A sizable playwright,

James "Cowboy of Grumpiness" Comtois

Ps. Mac Rogers has posted his script Karla Says, which will be playing at tonight's batch of 24 Hour Plays, here.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Slight Change of Plans

Okay, so I ended up not seeing Eye Candy last night. Why? Because I just didn't. So, I've bought my ticket for Eye Candy's Friday night show, which means I'll be talking about it on Monday (in case you haven't noticed, I don't post on weekends because I don't have Internet access at home. Besides, shouldn't we all take a break from the computer at least a couple days out of the week?).

This of course completely hamstrings me, since I had been set to write exclusively on Fringe shows for the week (and therefore haven't come up with anything to rant about in my typical vitriolic-yet-endearing fashion). So much for that plan.

Ah, well.

At any rate, I've purchase my ticket for tonight's roundup of 24 is 10: The Best of the 24 Hour Plays (forgive me, Mac; I know you have a short play of yours going up on the Thursday batch, but I'll be seeing Air Guitar on Saturday) and will do my best to write something coherent about the experience tomorrow.

In the meantime, you should read these disparate essays on the craft of writing, brought to my attention courtesy of Mr. Joshua James:

An excellent (albeit lengthy) speech by screenwriter John August on the difference between the professional and amateur writer can be found here. (I'll give you a hint: the difference has nothing to do with getting paid or not.)

A blog entry by screenwriter Paul Guyot about the importance of discipline can be found here.

Another blog entry by novelist and teacher Tod Goldberg about whether or not someone can teach another person how to write. (I'll give you a hint: they can't.)

Dragging his feet,

James "Ditherer" Comtois

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Deepest Play Ever: The Catharsis of Pathos (Fringe '06 Experience #2)

UPDATE: The Deepest Play Ever won a Fringe Award for Outstanding Playwright (Geoffrey Decas). Congratulations to Geoffrey and everyone at CollaborationTown!

I'm becoming more and more convinced month after month that we really have zombies on the brain.

My second Fringe experience marks my second CollaborationTown show of the year. Their show, of course, is the third I've seen this year (not including my own) that features zombies.

The group that came up with the excellent They're Just Like Us and 6969 (which I haven't seen and therefore can't comment on), both presented earlier this year, is staging The Deepest Play Ever: The Catharsis of Pathos, The Post-Post-Apocalyptic Allegory of Mother LaMadre and Her Son, Golden Calf; or, If no Industry See My Silent Scream Does it Make a Sound?; or, Zombies Will Eat Your Brains! Play 1 of an 800 Play Cycle Deconstructing Violence, written by Geoffrey Decas and directed by Ryan Purcell, at the Village Theatre.

For the rest of the entry, Let's just call it The Deepest Play Ever.

What's the play about? Well, the incarnation of Time (Phillip Taratula), dressed in tights and clown makeup, serves as the play's (deliberately ineffectual) narrator and shows the audience a post-post-apocalyptic world (as one of the subtitles implies) where New Europe has been decimated after World War V. An Evil Empire rules whatever remains of a land plagued with the walking dead (yup, zombies) and is on a mission to destroy all the remaining works of art (so people can be more easily manipulated).

A band of "anti-heroes," led by Mother LaMadre (played by Chinasa Ogbuagu), travels through the scorched land in search of lost works of art in order to preserve and protect them. Meanwhile, a failed hack artist, Dalvador Sali (Mr. Decas), with the help of Yvette La Guerre (Jessma Evans), is also hunting down lost artworks in order to destroy them (hell hath no fury like a pedantic hack artist). Their paths cross, then separate, then cross again, know what? This is about as close to coherent-sounding as I can make it. If I go any further, this'll just be a mess (there's among other elements a character that has a giant albatross tied around his neck, a heroic knightly character who keeps ripping his shirt open, a visit to the underworld and an absolutely adorable Satan puppet) that I won't be able to piece together (more on this in a moment).

Through puppetry, multi-media, musical numbers and fight sequences, CollaborationTown has put on a damn fun show despite that it doesn't quite add up to anything. (One of the subtitles' jokes that this is the first of an 800-part play cycle. I guess when there are theoretically 799 other plays to come [heh, heh] you don't have to worry about a resolution to the first one.)

At one point in the second act, Time-As-Narrator loses his train of thought and is accused by another character of losing the story's thread. Although a funny scene, there's more than a kernel of truth in there that pinpoints one of the play's problems. (Time-As-Narrator: "Back and forth these scenes go. I'm getting tired.") And true, I wish there was more fighting with zombies, but of course I always wish there was more fighting with zombies.

Despite all this, we're just supposed to go with the flow and not add all the pieces up, which is fine by me. As CollaborationTown has described the show:

"The [characters] navigate all the pitfalls of self-important Epic Theatre: puppets, projections, prostitutes, prophecies, the angel of death, blood, deconstruction, rapidly-approaching fate, soliloquies, singing, dancing, zombie battles, and actors trying to out-Brecht each other. Featuring irony more ironic than irony, satire more satiric than satire, and sardon more sardonic than sardon."

So there you go.

Although indebted to a number of plays and playwrights (the works of Brecht, Shakespeare and Marlowe being the most obvious), the play that I was most reminded of with Mr. Decas and Mr. Purcell's show was the National Theater of the United States of America's Abacus Black Strikes Now: The Rampant Justice of Abacus Black, which played at PS 122 earlier this year. Although CollaborationTown's show is not quite as impressive as the N.T.U.S.A.'s, it's still a damn fun time and obviously in the "Right Up My Alley" Department (yeah, a play featuring zombies and puppets is one of the closest paths to my heart, in case you haven't noticed).

So far, I'm pretty relieved that I'm two-for-two now with the Fringe (in terms of seeing things that I found to be worth my while). Tonight I'm going to attempt to see MariaColacoDance's Eye Candy (I say "attempt" because I haven't bought my ticket and will have to do so at the door). Let's see how that fares.

Pushing his luck,

James "Pedantic Hack Artist" Comtois

Ps. For tickets to The Deepest Play Ever click here.

Monday, August 21, 2006

The Pumpkin Pie Show: Les Petites Mortes (Fringe '06 Experience #1)

Fortunately, I did get into The Pumpkin Pie Show at the DR2 on Friday, my first Fringe show of the year.

What was also fortunate was that the show was actually good.

The Pumpkin Pie Show, created by writer Clay McLeod Chapman, is (according to its Web site) "a rigorous storytelling session amplified by its own live soundtrack."

That is to say, its shows consist of performers telling short stories over music.

This latest collection of stories written by Mr. Chapman, entitled Les Petites Mortes, are five disparate tales loosely centered around love and death, relayed/performed by Daryl Lathon, Ronica Reddick, Abe Goldfarb and Mr. Chapman himself.

As the performers tell the stories, a brass band (The Praise of Folly) plays accompanying music written by Joseph Keady (think a cross between Morphine and John Lurie's Lounge Lizards and you've got a kinda-sorta idea of the band's sound).

After Ms. Reddick performed a song concerning cannibalism, Mr. Lathon performed "Product Placement," a story about a man finding a picture of his wife's corpse in the newspaper alongside pictures of women shilling aspirin and clothes. The following story, "Throwing Golem" (performed again by Ms. Reddick), was about a pottery-maker lamenting the death of her six-year-old son named, coincidentally, Clay (the author of the stories and of course a pun on her profession). Mr. Goldfarb played a worker at a crematorium who would pilfer the gold tooth fillings in the dead bodies that showed up to his work in "Fillings." In "Oldsmobile," Mr. Chapman played an old man finding out the perks (and pitfalls) of having a wife with Alzheimer's. The final story, "Giving Head," had Ms. Reddick retelling the Biblical story of Judith in a more graphic way than those familiar with The Bible are used to.

Some of these stories are funny, some are sad; some are a deft hybrid between the two.

Overall, the show was a fine evening of good old-fashioned storytelling, something very rare nowadays in theatre (apart from children's storytelling theatre). Mr. Chapman clearly has a talent for writing short stories in a time when the market for short stories is sadly going the way of the dodo (although collections of his short stories are available on Amazon).

This makes for an original evening of theatre. As Gothamist writer Krissa Corbett Cavouras aptly described The Pumpkin Pie Show in her March 2006 essay on Mr. Chapman: "The genre is difficult to describe - it's not a play, and it's not a reading. It's simply Chapman's mind, set to actors and music."

The best stories by far were "Oldsmobile" and "Product Placement," both of which were able to find the right balance of silliness and tragic (i.e., that, "That's So Awful You Can't Help But Laugh" feeling) without going too far overboard in either direction. Daryl Lathon is able to relay in "Product Placement" both the horror of seeing a photo of his wife's dead body in the newspaper and the absurdity of how she looks like just another model selling some sort of product. (Right next to the photo is a picture of a woman selling a brand of pain-reliever. Sure enough, the guy has some pain he needs relieving.) Clay McLeod Chapman explains in "Oldsmobile" (nyuck nyuck nyuck) the joy in being able to get his senile wife to fall in love with him all over again and see him for the first time yet realizes that she's fading further away from him day by day.

The cast is also excellent. I should point out right now that, with the exception of Mr. Chapman, I personally know the actors involved in this show and know them to be superlative performers. None of them let me down or made me waver on this opinion.

Now, I must comment that I wasn't really sold on the music. Much of the accompanying music didn't seem to correspond with what the performers were saying. This isn't meant to be a slight on the abilities of the musicians (the music itself was good), but much of it was too disconnected with that was being said on the stage. Despite this, the music wasn't actively distracting, so I won't belabor the point.

Anyway, it's pretty damn good. Check it out if you can.

The Pumpkin Pie Show: Les Petites Mortes has one more performance in the Fringe on Saturday, August 26 at 2 p.m. You can buy tickets here.

Dying a little inside,

James "Pumpkinhead" Comtois

Friday, August 18, 2006

I Got Nuthin...

Well, the Fringe has been up for a week now, and I still have yet to see a single freakin' show.

It's not entirely my fault. Honest.

I tried to see Vice Girl Confidential on Wednesday, but because the Fringe doesn't let you buy tickets less than 24 hours before a show (bullshit, says I), it ended up being sold out by the time I got to the theatre. I'm going to try to see The Pumpkin Pie Show tonight, but I'm not optimistic about my chances since I can't buy tickets online (again, bullshit).

I've so far bought tickets for two shows, Air Guitar and Vice Girl Confidential, both for next Saturday. I'm going to try to see Eye Candy tomorrow, but again, I'm just going to have to show up at the door and hope I'm not waiting around indefinitely to be told I can't get in.


Yeah, I'm pretty frustrated at this. I had a list of bout six shows I was planning on seeing, and they all conflict with one another (I have a day job, so shows that take place during the weekday are out of the question). I was able to meticulously fit together a potential schedule that would allow me to see all the shows on my list, but with VGC selling out, it threw everything out of whack.

That I can't buy tickets online the day of is also an added piece of unnecessary frustration that makes me not even want to bother seeing any goddamn shows.

Who knows? I may end up only able to see the two shows next Saturday, and that being it for this year's Fringe experience for me. Gah!

The Pumpkin Pie Show better not be sold out tonight, or I'm a-gonna be pissed.

Goin' nowhere fast,

James "Shut-Out" Comtois

Bruno Kirby, 1949-2006

Veteran character actor Bruno Kirby, born Bruno Giovanni Quidaciolu, died on Aug. 14 at the age of 57 in Los Angeles due to complications from Leukemia.

"We are incredibly grateful for the outpouring of support we have received from Bruno's fans and colleagues who have admired and respected his work over the past 30 years," his wife Lynn Sellers said in a statement Tuesday. "Bruno's spirit will continue to live on not only in his rich body of film and television work but also through the lives of individuals he has touched throughout his life."

Film credits include The Godfather Part II, When Harry Met Sally, Good Morning, Vietnam, City Slickers and Donnie Brasco.

Along with his wife and father, Kirby is survived by his stepmother Roz Kirby, brother John Kirby and stepbrother Brad Sullivan.


Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Shadowing the Process

Writer Matthew Freeman and director Isaac Butler* have started a very interesting project. They're collaborating on a future production of an adaptation of Hans Christen Andersen's story, "The Shadow," to be staged at a time and place to be determined.

But that's not necessarily the interesting part.

What's interesting is that Matt will be writing the play in installments, and posting said installments on his blog.

The story behind this project can be found here, here and here.

Matt's first entry of the play is here.

Matt's explains that he's working on the project in the open because it not only has the potential to be a new and exciting challenge, but it could aide in promoting the future production (since nothing works better in promoting a show than audience awareness and word of mouth).

He writes:

"...I've never done anything remotely like [this] and I think, because of the nature of the technology we're using, it's not something that could be done in this way before, well, now. So there's an appeal to 'new ground' I think ... there is something that appeals about getting people interested and knowledgeable about a project from its inception. As I've said in the past, audience building is what I feel is a key component to most of our concerns about the health of theatre. I'd love to see increased interest in a project simply because the project has been opened up to the scrutiny of its intended audience."

Isaac explains that keeping the process open for public scrutiny is mainly Matt's idea (since Matt, not Isaac, is the one writing the damn thing, I can't imagine Isaac would feel any need to put any sort of kibosh on Matt's methods).

Isaac writes:

"I have wanted to adapt 'The Shadow' for the stage for some time. There's just one problem. Outside of Rapid Response Team work, I'm no writer. So I approached Matt, after having read a few of his plays, thinking he had the right sensibility to adapt the work. He really loved the material, and agreed to adapt it. ... Matt and I met and he's starting to churn out pages, and we were e-mailing back and forth about them, just kinda riffing and he suggested that we start to document our collaboration on our blogs, really open the whole thing up. I thought this was a great idea."

I'm very curious to see how this unfolds.

This is not something I would be ready, willing or able to do. Although I have been known to show members of Nosedive Productions and other friends copies of works that have yet to be completed, it's usually when the story and play itself at least exists in skeletal form. That is to say, outside comments won't ruin my train of thought and change the way I'm shaping the work (because, even though it's incomplete, it's at least shaped). In general, however, I rarely show people incomplete works and I never show them to the general public (i.e., more than just a select number of my close friends). I wish I could. It's a talent and ability I just don't have. This is probably why I could never write a serial novel. Or a TV series, unless the series was an anthology, like The Twilight Zone, or I had at least written and/or mapped out the first season before the pilot was aired.

However, since the play is based on an already-written story, that skeletal frame is, in a way, already in place. Matt won't have to worry about fending off comments telling him what to write. He now only has to worry about fending off comments telling him how to write it.

But then again, Matt writes:

"What frees me of [worrying about public scrutiny] is that I feel involved with and passionate about the piece, but it's not a play that I feel is so precious and personal to me that I don't think it can't take on this little experiment. Also, I'm getting stubborn as I get older... so I figure I'll write it the way I write it and everyone will get a chance to see two young artists hashing their shit out. Will blogging the process change it? Undoubtedly. But hey, that's part of the ride."

So I guess when push comes to shove this won't be too much of a problem.

Anyway, good luck, guys. I'm looking forward to seeing this unfold.

Keeping to himself,

James "Shadowy Figure" Comtois

*Or should I write, "Director Isaac Butler and writer Matthew Freeman?" I don't want Isaac to feel like even more like an inert servant. (Ah, I'm just joshin' ya, Isaac. Ya big lug.)

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Ole' Man and Playwright

"Ole' Man and Playwright"

By James Comtois

(An upscale New York restaurant. OLE' MAN, in his 50s, and PLAYWRIGHT, in his late-20s, early-30s, enter and sit down at a table.)

PLAYWRIGHT. Wow, this is a nice place.

OLE' MAN. Yes, well, Heather brought me here last time I was in town.


OM. I'm assuming you can't afford to eat at a place like this?

PLAYWRIGHT. Not too often, no.

OM. Well, don't worry, it's on me.

PLAYWRIGHT. Thank you.

OM. You'll be pleased to know that they do have hamburgers here.

PLAYWRIGHT. Well, I think I'll be going for the steak, but thanks.

OM. All right. (Pause.) So your director couldn't make it?

PLAYWRIGHT. No, he has to go see a show downtown.

OM. What show?

PLAYWRIGHT. I have no idea.

OM. I see. Your play was very good.

PLAYWRIGHT. Thank you.

OM. Very commercial.


OM. Yes. You two tapped into some universal themes that a lot of people could relate to.

PLAYWRIGHT. You think?

OM. Loneliness is something people understand.

PLAYWRIGHT. Yeah, I guess so.

OM. So what are you working on next?


OM. Is it as commercial as your next play?

PLAYWRIGHT. How the hell would I know?

OM. How many characters?

PLAYWRIGHT. Well, the director and I have broken it down to a cast of seven.

OM. How many scenes?


OM. That's because you're writing movies.


OM. How many female parts?


OM. (Incredulous.) Two? What's wrong with you?

PLAYWRIGHT. There are only two roles for actresses.

OM. No, no, no...look at it again, and see where you can change the roles to be suitable for women.

PLAYWRIGHT. (Having no intention of doing so, it reflecting in his voice.) All right.

OM. You do this too often. You only write in the masculine voice, you need to write more roles for women.


OM. I've noticed this with your work.


OM. Now, I know this is none of my business, but I've noticed that much of your work seems to suggest a bitter resentment about your failures to make a meaningful connection with others, particularly in the area of romance.


OM. Yes. There are two things that shine through your writings that give me pause for concern. First, is that going out and getting drunk seems like a complete activity rather than something you do while doing something more productive or diverting.

PLAYWRIGHT. Oh, well, uh...

OM. I guess self-loathing is a reasonable theme for drama but I worry that it is something that you might carry into your personal life.

PLAYWRIGHT. I mean, sure, a little bit, but I don't think it's something you have to worry about-

OM. -Second, there is an underlying misogyny in the dialogue of a lot of your plays. Even women that are meant to be sympathetic are thought of as "chicks," "skanks" and women just looking for some sucker to buy them their drinks for free or to tease but not to "put out" seems to be a running theme.


OM. is your love life?

PLAYWRIGHT. Uh...heh. Heh...uh...there isn't one.

OM. Do you think that's why you have such a tough time writing roles for women?

PLAYWRIGHT. You don't like my roles for women?

OM. You write from a very male point of view.


OM. But even the women in your shows are perceived from a masculine viewpoint. Is this because of your failings in real-world romance?


OM. I think this may stem from your inability to understand what women want.

PLAYWRIGHT. I don't think so.

OM. (Unconvinced.) Oh, no?

PLAYWRIGHT. No. I have been in relationships, and long-term ones. I'm pretty convinced that I'm just not cut out for them.

OM. (Baiting.) Because you're a misogynist.

PLAYWRIGHT. (Not taking the bait.) The whole thing just seemed like an unnecessary...ordeal. I was making the person I was with unhappy and changing for the worse, and being with her was making me not like who I was becoming. It just seemed that, in a relationship, two people who are reasonably intelligent, nice and interesting, once together, become this one unit that can't function. (Pause.) And, added to that, I really don't mind being alone. It doesn't frighten me the way it frightens others.

OM. I hate being alone. I can't stand it.

PLAYWRIGHT. See, I actually prefer it. (Silence.)

OM. Have you ever thought about writing about your childhood?

PLAYWRIGHT. Not too much. There've been a couple plays that go into what I was like when I was six or seven, but I don't think-

OM. -When my father died, I decided to write about a section in my life when I was very young and my family moved around a lot. I couldn't remember huge chunks of that period, but I did remember moving from one place to the next and having to take our father to various hospitals for his various health problems. As I was writing this, huge pieces came back in place, and I was remembering years of my life that I had blocked out for decades. It was a very good way for me to revisit my childhood and remember my early relationship with my father and mother.


OM. It was very therapeutic.


OM. You should try it sometime.

PLAYWRIGHT. I should. I mean, I sort of have, in some ways. I did a play a couple years ago that had a six-year-old in it...

OM. Never cast children.

PLAYWRIGHT. Well, I probably won't for a little while. I mean, the kid we cast was fine, but...anyway, although it wasn't about my childhood or anything, the kid's dialogue was mainly based on how I talked when I was that age.

OM. Okay.

PLAYWRIGHT. So, I've done a little bit with it, but not much.

OM. You write about "The Lonely Boy" very well.


OM. I'm just very curious to see how this lonely boy snaps out of it, or moves on.


OM. I mean, it does make for good drama, but you can only write about the same subject for so long.


OM. You should write about someone entering a relationship, and it doesn't have to be sappy. You can have the relationship fail in the end, but you should write about a character at least trying to maintain a meaningful relationship with someone from the opposite sex.

PLAYWRIGHT. I'll see what I can do.

OM. Of course, this means you may have to interact with women and not be so misogynistic.

PLAYWRIGHT. I'm not a misogynist.

OM. (Not buying it.) No?

PLAYWRIGHT. No. A misogynist is someone who hates and fears women. I don't hate or fear them.

OM. (Still not quite buying it, but conceding the point.) But you're not very patient with them.


OM. You're actually not very patient with anyone else's shortcomings, I've noticed. That may be the key to getting in and maintaining a relationship.

PLAYWRIGHT. Perhaps. But then again, I don't mind being by myself.

OM. (Acknowledging the dig.) All right. But you should try to write about someone entering a relationship, and be sympathetic to the woman's point of view.


OM. And you should also at some point write about an old man in his fifties or sixties who still sees himself as a wise old sage to a professional adult who was once a student of his. (Smiles.)

PLAYWRIGHT. Heh. Well, yes. I'll keep that in mind.

OM. Okay.

PLAYWRIGHT. Thanks for taking me out here, Ole' Man.

OM. My pleasure. Your play was very good.

PLAYWRIGHT. Oh, thank you.

OM. Our waiter's coming. You getting a hamburger?

PLAYWRIGHT. I'm getting a steak.

OM. Okay.


© 2006 James Comtois

Monday, August 14, 2006

Slow Children, Fast Drinking

Well, from what I understand, the bulk of the East Coast theatre blogosphere, myself included, is horrifically hung over from Saturday night's Slow Children at Play show (and Dave's Tavern afterwards).

Aside from the resulting headache, I had an absolute blast.

Not only was it fun seeing, and later drinking with, George, Joanne, Matt, Josh, Lucas, Isaac, Zay and MattJ, (meeting the last two on the list for the first time in person Saturday night), as well as many members of the Nosedive gang and old friends from the BU days, but it was great to get back together with my old Boston University sketch troupe (one of whom I hadn't seen since graduation, many of whom in several years) and putting on a silly sketch comedy show.

A few hours before the show, I was definitely feeling stressed about the show, considering we Slow Kids had "rehearsed" the show over email (the members of the group are spread out all over the U.S., many of whom not being able to arrive in the city until the night before the show).

At about 4 p.m. on Saturday, it dawned on the group that this wasn't just going to be a fun reunion for the group, but yes, we would actually be putting on a show for a large number of people. Not only that, it also dawned on the group that we were more than a little shaky on our lines for a number of bits (considering it had been as much as ten years since we had performed many of the sketches).

The actual rehearsal period (i.e., the three or four hours before we opened the doors to the theatre) was a bit of a train wreck. A few of the sketches (mainly the shorter ones) ran smoothly, but several of them...not so much. The weird thing about the group (which was also true back when we performed in college) is that there's no directorial or executive oversight; there's really no one to go, "Okay, listen up, this is how we're doing this." Since there was no one person to go, "this has got to go," it took a lot longer for the group to realize that certain sketches needed to be cut from the set list.

When 6:30 rolled around, there was enough panic from everyone to finally agree that some judicious cutting was needed (nobody could remember "Middle-School Prison" or "The Batman Sketch," other than that they were kind of intricate and required a modicum of tight timing and the entire 7-person group to make it work), which made us relax a bit.

Picking up the beer and hard booze (and indulging in said beer and hard booze) also helped take a bit of the edge off.

At about 7, people started to show up (George, Joanne and Lucas being the first to arrive). I remember sputtering some panicked words to Joshua James when he showed up, something along the lines of, "Oh. Oh! Hi. Uh...uh...look. Uh...thanks for coming, but, but...uh...I, I, I hope you're not, uh, expecting, like, you know, an, or, or or, uh..."

Joshua politely stopped my blathering: "James, relax. I'm just here to have fun."

I calmed down a bit more.

When Dan performed his opening stand-up monologue, I realized that my panic was unfounded. The crowd was clearly on our side, well into their cups and in good spirits. In other words, they all had the same attitude as Mr. James. We remembered our sketches, and didn't embarrass ourselves too badly.

Doing the show with the original members of the comedy group formed back in 1995/1996, it wasn't just our lack of discipline I was reminded of. I was reminded of why we ended up getting together in the first place and why we always had fun performing together. When push came to shove and when it was show time, we were very comfortable and relaxed performing with one another. We knew each other's timing and comic sensibilities and didn't step on each other's toes.

In other words, performing with these six other guys was very fun and relaxing, even after ten years.

(Now, please don't think I'm suggesting this was highbrow, classy, sharply-timed comedy performed by professional or professional-minded writers and actors. No. This was a night of dick n' fart jokes done by and for drunk people.)

Anyway, the show was a lot of fun for both myself, the other performers and (from what it seemed) the audience. After the show, a bunch of us went out and drank heavily (like ya do).

Again, many thanks and much love to everyone who came out to the show (and to those who had the stamina to come out with us to the bar afterwards). Also, thanks, Pete for directing the "Banana Split For My Baby" sketch and Patrick for running lights and sound.

To the theatre bloggers: I was (am) powerfully impressed with your drinking abilities. Anyone who thinks that the theatre blogosphere doesn't know how to party has been gravely misinformed.

And to my fellow Slow Children: seriously, guys. We should do this more often than every ten years.

Enjoying wearing women's clothing,

James "Pretty He-Bitch" Comtois

Ps. Many thanks are also in order for Steve and Mike, a.k.a Uncle Funk, for performing as the musical act during intermission.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Scott Walters II

Mr. Walters has posted an apology for the weirdness this past week.

Thank you, Scott. Apology accepted.

I'm sorry for calling you a fraud.

Burying the hatchet,

James "Humbled" Comtois

The Fringe, Mostly

In my previous entry talking about junk food in media other than theatre, I can't believe I completely forgot about Road House, both the brilliantly awful movie and the recent Off-Broadway play (which may or may not be brilliantly awful but is more likely to be tongue-in-cheek camp rather than genuine junk food). What the hell is wrong with me?

(Please don't answer that.)

At any rate, I've rectified the situation in the comments section of the entry.

* * *

In other semi-news, it seems as though we are completely full on reservations for Saturday's Slow Children at Play show, which is super-cool. A free show with free beer apparently sells. Who knew? I would suggest to everyone I know coming to see this to show up super-early and snag as many seats as you can. With luck, this may be a standing-room-only free-for-all.

We'll see if I remember all of my lines.

(Again, if I don't, who cares? There'll be free beer, so I don't want to hear any complaints. I'll be funny, dammit, I swear.)

* * *

Okay, now onto something at least remotely related to theatre...

The 10th Annual New York International Fringe Festival begins tomorrow, which means I have a number of shows I'm getting ready to see. It's too soon right now to see which play will be the "Hot Ticket" even of the festival (word on that usually gets out after the first weekend), but regardless, there are already about a half-dozen shows or so that I plan on seeing (I've already purchased my ticket for Air Guitar and will buy my ticket for Vice Girl Confidential - starring Nosedive regular Christopher Yustin - sometime next week).

For some, the Fringe marks a time of excitement, where hundreds of indie shows (217 this year, to be exact) in all shapes, sizes and colors play downtown. For others, it's the beginning of a grueling endurance contest.

My attitude changes from year to year.

Ultimately, the way I see the Fringe, for good or for bad, is as a crash course in the Off-off theatre world; the downtown scene in microcosm. Although there's no way of knowing for sure (it being an impossibility for someone to see all 217 shows this year), my guess is the ratio of good-to-mediocre-to-awful would be roughly the same as the ratio for the entire year of theatre produced in the Off-off world. Also, the Fringe offers the average playgoer the same lack of quality control that the Off-off scene in total does (again, 217 freakin' shows, people. How can anybody make an informed choice as to which one to go to based solely on description [rather than recommendation]?).

Fellow playwright and blogger Adam Szymkowicz wrote something in the comments section of my "Entertainment Value" Jamespeak entry that really sums up the problem:

"I don't go to the Fringe anymore because I end up always seeing plays I hate. And I love theatre, and get to see a lot of good theatre but I have only seen one good fringe show and it involved people I already knew. Is that fair? No. But I rarely go to a show I haven't heard something good about. Because 9 times out of 10 if I go into something blind, it's not going to be good."

Sadly, I do know what he's talking about.

(I have noticed that this ties in - albeit tangentially - to the weirdness with Scott Walters' blog and Isaac Butler's entry on his pseudonymous friend "Zack" who doesn't like plays. Although I definitely love plays...I wouldn't write them if I didn't...I tend to see that the bad rep and stigma attached to theatre for those who don't regularly go is more than a little merited. Again, I'm reminded from time to time of the episode in The Simpsons where Homer goes to zoo and yells at the lackadaisical animals: "I've seen plays that were more interesting than this. Honest to God PLAYS!")

It also seems to tie in to my previous entry about theatre as junk food, our problem mainly being that few of us have much of a sense of humor when it comes to seeing really bad and inept indie/Off-off shows. The typical feeling I get after seeing a series of mediocre-to-awful plays is not one of amusement but of anger-meets-depression.

I try to keep my wits together by only limiting the number of shows I see at the festival to around six to 12. For reviewers, who often have to see 40 to 50 shows (or more) in the span of two weeks, I can see how it can be draining (to put it mildly). Of those half-a-dozen to a dozen shows I see, they're usually shows I have friends attached to them, or based on recommendations from people whose opinion I trust (hint, hint, Lucas).

Anyway, that's really all I have to say about the Fringe for now, since I haven't seen anything from it yet this year. When I start going to shows, I'll be giving reports.

In the meantime, it's time to go back to remembering sketches I wrote when I was 19.

Memorizing the funny,

James "Tao" Comtois

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Theatre As Junk Food

Now with all other silliness out of the way, finally, my entry on theatre-as-junk-food...

* * *

I was rereading my copy of Danse Macabre by Stephen King, his nonfiction book assessing the state of the horror genre in media from the 1950s through the early 1980s, and came across his chapter entitled "The Horror Movie As Junk Food." In this brief chapter, Mr. King rationalizes the (small) soft spot in his heart for really shitty horror movies (citing Robot Monster and The Prophecy). The ultimate argument is that when you're a big fan of something, regardless of the genre or medium, you end up developing a taste for really bad entries of said genre or medium.

He's absolutely right.

Part of this is because when you slog through the mire of dreck trying to find rare gems, you need a sense of humor about the whole thing. If you keep going into something believing every time you're going to find the masterpiece of all masterpieces, you're going to find your heart getting broken many, many times before becoming embittered and cynical.

As much as I like to flatter myself in thinking I have refined aesthetic tastes, I also love really delightfully bad movies (you know, those "so bad they're good" movies?), horrendous music (okay, come on. We're all friends here. Raise your hand if you had - or still have - Def Leppard's Hysteria album or even - God help us - Warrant's Cherry Pie), terrible comic books and God-awful television.

Christ, I absolutely love Billy Madison, despite being aware of how awful it is (and trust me, if you haven't seen it, it's really bad, even by the standards of an Adam Sandler movie). If it's playing on late-night television, I ain't going to sleep just yet (no matter how late/early it's on). I can't help but get pumped whenever I hear Whitesnake's "Here I Go Again" or even - stay with me - Steelheart's "I'll Never Let You Go." I still have a strong sense of nostalgia whenever I skim through my old Savage Dragon or Punisher comics.

And I think we're all familiar with my feelings towards that trashy TV show "elimiDATE," right?

So Bad It's Good.

As I contemplated this, I realize that what makes theatre unique from most other media is that there really isn't junk food in theatre. I mean sure, there's bad theatre, and sometimes the perverse fun of seeing a truly awful show is relaying the story to others about the nightmare that was said show. But those shows are not looked upon with fondness. They're not "so bad they're good," they're usually "so bad they're awful."

I was ready to consider Broadway fare as the "junk food" of theatre, but that doesn't quite fit the bill, does it? Broadway theatre is too expensive and too extravagant to be considered a "guilty pleasure" and neither tourists nor regular theatergoers enjoy it in a "so bad it's good" vein.

So no, I wouldn't say that Broadway counts as the junk food of theatre.

How about gay camp theatre? Would that qualify as junk food? After thinking about it, I ultimately decided not really, no. Granted, I'm not its target audience, but still, I don't see audience members of its target audience seeing the works of (say) Charles Busch as "junk food." I don't think any gay man after seeing gay camp theatre is saying to a friend, "You've GOT to go see this! It's. SO. BAD."

Then again, I could be wrong (like I said, I'm not its target audience). At the very least, gay camp, like Broadway, is not junk/comfort food for me.

When I was telling Pete from Nosedive about this, he suggested two things. The first thing was that this might have to do with distribution. Junk food is often mass-produced, mass-marketed and pre-packaged in a way that eliminates any surprise. You know what you're getting when you buy a Snickers bar. You know what you'll taste when you buy a Big Mac. Since theatre is by its very nature not mass-produced, mass-marketed or pre-packaged (in fact it defies such things), the ability for it to be served up as some sort of unhealthy comfort food is contrary to the medium's nature.

Theatre simply doesn't have that Mass Appeal (Title Case Intended).

The second thing that Pete pointed out was that, for lovers of musicals, there is theatre as junk food; there are shows that musical-lovers go to simply because they're delightfully awful. The example he brought up was the huge popularity of the touring production of Hello Dolly in the '90s, which featured Carol Channing (who was in her seventies at the time) reprising the role that made her famous in the '60s.

A woman in her seventies playing a role for a woman at least 30 years younger to packed houses.

Theatre as junk food.

So good it's bad.

So, I will concede the latter point. There are some parts of the theatre world where there are cases of the medium being enjoyed on a junk food level. My confessed ignorance of this aspect is due to the fact that I'm not particularly inclined towards musical theatre (I mean, I'm familiar with them, I was known to have performed in one or two in high school, and I even like some of them, but for the most part, musical theatre has never been particularly "my bag," as Austin Powers would say).

Theatre-as-junk food is most definitely not found in the Off-off or indie scene. When's the last time someone suggested you go see a play because "it was really bad" (and offered to come along for a second time)?

Bear in mind I'm really not saying this is good or bad, right or wrong. I'm not suggesting we fix this or change this (and thereby suggesting we mass-market and pre-package theatre). I just wanted to point out a unique attribute of this medium many of us have chosen to focus the bulk of our efforts on.

I also realize this I'm talking more about the spectator, not necessarily the object itself. In other words, I'm not exactly saying there isn't bad theatre out there that can be seen with a fun sensibility, but that the typical theatergoer that sees said theatre with such a sensibility is rare, perhaps rare to the point of being nonexistent.

Now, those of you out there reading this, by all means, correct me if I'm wrong. If there's a show, author or genre of theatre you go to simply to relish in its awfulness, by all means, let me know. Unless, of course, this means hurting a close friend's feelings by revealing that you only like their work on a shitty, campy level.

Anyway, I need to chat with my fellow Slow Children at Play about Saturday's upcoming show. After that, I'm heading home (to my apartment which has mercifully gotten its electricity back) to watch Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.


Grabbin' a Snickers,

James "Winger Fan" Comtois

Monday, August 07, 2006

Scott Walters

UPDATE: Apparently Scott Walters is a bigger fraud than I thought, and ended up being more proud of himself than I expected. He explains in his follow-up entry that he didn’t mean it, he just wanted to provoke for the sake of provoking (to prove that provocation doesn’t work[?!?!]). Well, Scott. You’ve decided to be the Ashton Kutcher of the theatre blogosphere. Good luck with that. I must say, this was bizarre, absolutely bizarre.

A number of people have written about this, and I guess I will, too. (The "Theatre-As-Junk-Food" entry will again have to wait.) Be forewarned: full-on invective rant ahead.

Blogger Scott Walters, it seems, has cracked, and publicly (well, publicly in terms of the theatre blogosphere).

With his latest 1,700-word screed entitled "Bah!" he makes two separate arguments. In a nutshell, the first one is that the state of theatre education is abominable. The second is that the state of theatre itself is abominable.

I don't have much to say on the former argument. It's an old one that I've heard before. I'm always wary of theatre education, but it seems to work best when students who engage in it at least take what they learn with a grain of salt (my main collaborators, Pete and Patrick, have theatre degrees, as does my sister, and I think they put on good work, based in part on their theatre education, in part on their innate desire to be creative and in part on their ability to treat their training with a modicum of skepticism [guys, correct me if I'm wrong here]). As Jim Jarmusch said about film school, "about 70 percent of the things I learned there I had to unlearn, but 30 percent was really valuable."

As Mark Twain said, "Don't let school get in the way of your education."

The latter is, well, I'll let him speak for himself:

"I return to the theatre, where our radicals are more than half a century old, and where we spend our time worshipping at the shrines of long dead artists. Where are our innovators? Where are our new ideas? Brecht was the last real innovative thinker the theatre had. Since he died...we've been in a reactionary phase that is abominable, all the while thinking we were being revolutionary.

"Since then, we created Off-Broadway and the regional theatre movement, both of which started with new ideas, bot [sic] of which have become bastions of boring ideas. Season subscriptions to a "balanced" season (thank you SO much, Danny Newman), constant revivals of old plays, new plays relegated to readings and second stages, the artistic ranks filled with MFAs who have been trained to think that new ideas are at least 50 years old -- this is creativity? Meanwhile, over in the NYC OOB movement that started 30 years ago, we have come to define radicalism as being the power to yell fuck (or just to fuck) in an empty theatre. Well, hell, the Greeks were doing the first 2500 years ago, and the Romans did the second 2000 years ago. I refuse to get all excited about ideas that are two millenia [sic] old."

Where, you may be asking, has he been getting his information for this assessment? You'd think from seeing plays and checking out the "NYC OOB movement," right? Well, no. "For much of the summer," Mr. Walters writes, "I have been reading books and attending conferences about innovation."

Well, there you go.

That a cynical know-it-all theatre professor has his nose out of joint about "The Sad State Of Modern Theatre" is nothing new. If I got a nickel for every time a C.K.I.A.T.P. rolled his eyes theatrically (pardon the pun) I could buy a studio apartment on the Upper East Side. That said C.K.I.A.T.P. is willfully ignorant of the New York Off-off/indie theatre scene, yet feels compelled to complain about it publicly (and rudely) is also nothing new. What is new (and, frankly, appalling) is that it seems some people, even reasonably intelligent and creative people, are taking him seriously.

At first I didn't know whether or not to respond or to let the other bloggers just do so (especially since Ian Hill spanks him pretty hard), I just need to get this out in the open. I have no time or patience for people who sit on the sidelines and roll their eyes theatrically and pontificate on matters they know nothing about (while being rewarded for their "bravery" by creating false controversy).

This is fraudulent posturing, plain and simple.

Scott Walters obviously fashions himself a provocateur, a rabble-rouser, and apparently some do, too. I don't. He's a sideline sulker who has the audacity to "take people to task" without participating in or observing said task. He forgets that, when trying to rile people up, he needs to back up his thoughts and participate in the process.

(And, contrary to what Mr. Walters believes, just thumping your chest whining, "WE NEED NEW IDEAS! WE NEED NEW IDEEEEAAAAAAS!" is not a new idea, nor is it a gateway to creating new ideas. Also, what on earth does he mean when he writes that the system of staging work "ought to be razed completely?", we don't. Trying to re-invent the wheel solely for the purpose of re-inventing the wheel goes nowhere. You end up getting incoherent pseudo- avant-garde work solely for the sake of incoherent pseudo-avant-garde work. Personally, I always thought writers should "write what they know," but hey, what do I know? I'm just a guy who's written and staged 11 plays in New York in the past six years. I'm not a cynical know-it-all theatre professor fashioning himself as a provocateur.)

What's telling about Mr. Walters' attitude is that not only does he really cite any contemporary works or plays being staged in the New York Off-off scene (probably because he hasn't seen any in a long time), but he doesn't give the slightest hint of how the broken system should be fixed.

How many plays in a given year in the Off-off scene are useless pieces of shit? A lot. How many are inspired works of art? A lot.

How many has Mr. Walters seen this year? Well, considering he doesn't cite a single play in any of his previous blog entries, I'm going to assume none. (But then again, he doesn't have to. He's a cynical know-it-all theatre professor fashioning himself as a provocateur who's been "doing theatre for over 30 years" [whatever that means], so he's above, y'know, seeing plays.)

(So far, I've seen more plays than I can count on both hands that have been wonderful and completely disparate of one another in terms of style, content and tone, "radical" or not: Dead City, Trial By Water, Living Dead in Denmark and Food For Fish, to name a few.)

Mr. Walters, I am not a radical. I am a playwright. My job is to write plays, and to get them staged. Period. It is insulting to have you tell me I'm doing everything wrong. It is more insulting to have you do so when you have not seen or read a single play I have staged or written. It is even more insulting to have you do so after not familiarizing yourself to my work or the work of my peers and colleagues and yet assume that I should give you a modicum of attention when you don't extend me (or anyone in my field) the same courtesy.

What's truly a shame is that he's probably very proud of himself right now for creating such "controversy" with his blog entry. Well, Mr. Walters, let me remind you that you have done nothing impressive. You have just insulted a group of people whose work you're unfamiliar with and inciting us to "change our ways." Bully for you.

Mr. Walters, what do you think will happen from this? Do you honestly believe for a second that we writers/directors/designers are going to be taking long, hard looks at our past and future works and figure out how to make them appeal to you (despite that you don't see our work)? Do you honestly believe (say) I'm quietly fretting about my upcoming play because you said modern theatre is no good, and that I'm wondering how I can fix it to please you?

Who do you think you are?

Ian summed this up his thoughts on the subject quite nicely:

"Are you a theatre artist, or just an educator? And I do mean 'just.'

"If only the latter, don't you fucking dare call yourself 'we' with me. I outrank you. I work on revolutions almost every day. You write blog-manifestos to no point other then 'tear it all down,' with no idea as to how to do so or what to replace it with. And without bothering to go out and attend the cell meetings, it seems. You will just bitch and kibitz from the side while we pass you by. ... I'm sorry -- I'm out here being Kirk Douglas in Paths of Glory, in the trenches and trying to storm the Ant Hill, and you are George Macready or Adolphe Menjou back at HQ complaining that we aren't really trying hard enough and deciding to shell me and my troops from behind to 'goose us on.'"

In short, Mr. Walters, you are way out of line with this, and I am unimpressed. If you're going to be blatantly insulting, at least get your facts straight. See some theatre, don't just read books and attend conferences.

And to those theatre artists who read this, I implore you: don't buy into Mr. Walters' Sour Old Maid posturing or his garbage.

Next time, I'll go back to writing things of importance. Like how much beer I plan to drink at this Saturday's Slow Children at Play show.

Yelling fuck in an empty theatre,

James "FUCK!" Comtois

Ps. To read what other bloggers thought/felt about Mr. Walters' blog entry, click on their names below to read their assessments.

Isaac Butler

Matt Freeman (very even-handed as always, God bless 'im)

Ian Hill (enraged, God bless 'im)

George Hunka

Matt Johnston

Lucas Krech

Friday, August 04, 2006

Heat Exhaustion and Agitprop

Well, the electricity has gone out in my hotter-than-all-hell apartment building for the second night in a row (just when it's time to go to sleep), so I'm in a crankier mood than usual right now. I was going to write something about the concept of theatre as junk food, but I'm afraid that, due to a lack of any decent sleep (seriously, folks, I live in a freakin' oven), I forgot my notes on the subject, so it'll have to wait until Monday.

For now, I'll point you in the direction of an excellent article by John Heilpern in The New York Observer that Matt Freeman has brought to his readers' attention on effective versus ineffective political theatre, a subject that I had griped about a couple years back (due to the glut of leftist agitprop theatre taking place in the Off-off world a couple years back).

Mr. Heilpern sums up my thoughts on the subject quite nicely when he writes:

"Who today remembers Tim Robbins' anti-war docudrama, Embedded? But then, who remembered it two minutes after the curtain came mercifully down? Mr. Robbins' smug sanctimony was enough to turn a liberal Democrat into a right-wing Republican [Emphasis mine] ...Remember, no Lysistrata ever stopped a war. No play or work of art ever changed the world. They change the way we perceive the world."

The line I boldfaced sums up my big problem with this kind of theatre. It not only preaches to the choir, it turns off and alienates said choir.

(Yes, I've seen a few leftist political plays pre-2004, which only succeeded in making me want to re-elect Dubya just to piss off the people who made the show. I'm not sure if this speaks to how ineffective this kind of theatre is or how much of a jerk I am, but I just figured I'd bring it up.)

Although it can be (and is) argued that all theatre is political, when I hear a play described as being "political," to my ears, I hear "agitprop," "didactic" or "activist," which I'm not a fan of. Considering that this type of theatre's primary goal is to change the voting habits of the audience, it rarely, if ever, works (Vaclav Havel notwithstanding).

(Lighting designer and fellow theatre blogger Lucas Krech has written about this in his blog. In his entry entitled "Risk and Failure," he succinctly writes:

"It is not enough to look at where we are. It is not enough to explore the status quo. And in a way this is why a lot of overtly political art fails (in a bad way) for me. It leaves no room for further exploration. There is no question. Didacticism is rarely interesting. Brecht is not interesting because he proved that Capitalism is bad. He is interesting because in each of his works there is a question."

I heartily agree.)

Anyway, give Mr. Heilpern's article a read. It's not all negative; he does point out how and where political drama has succeeded and can succeed.

I do hope the electricity in my place is back and running by the time I get home tonight, although I'm not exactly holding my breath. I guess I'll just be staying in air-conditioned bars all weekend. Join me?

Advocating getting my electricity back,

James "Provocateur" Comtois

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Back To Plugging

To make reservations, send an email to

Bringin' the funny,

James "Tao" Comtois

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Nielson Ratings

UPDATE: the blogosphere debate on this subject has been growing over at Matthew Freeman's blog. Check out the comments section. Good stuff.

I guess my main options for blogging today can be about either Mel Gibson or this story in the New York Times about Nielsen National Research Group (a corporate cousin of Nielsen's television-rating unit) and creating a new way to market Broadway shows. New, that is, for Broadway. The method in question is not too different from the way Hollywood has been marketing its movies for decades.

Since this is, I guess, mainly a theatre blog, I guess I'm going with the latter (although I could go for the third option of plugging my upcoming free sketch comedy show, but I suppose that could wait until tomorrow).

This is what's happening:

"Using Hollywood-style data mining techniques and the Internet to contact hundreds of thousands of theatergoers, Live Theatrical Events [the partnership between Nielson and] is changing the way shows are marketing themselves, on and off Broadway. And its managing director, Joseph Craig, who has a long history in the film industry, is quietly becoming a sought-after player in New York theater."

Yes, in effect, Broadway has brought in the Nielson Ratings that we know for TV to find out how to maximize profits.

My initial reaction: gross.

My reaction after thinking about it for longer than 30 seconds: feh.

I'm not without sympathy, nor am I particularly surprised. Since Broadway shows are so damn expensive (the Broadway budget for Wicked being $14 million), and since the goal of Broadway theatre is to make money, not to make an artistic statement, whatever producers and investors need to do to make back their investment, by all means, they're welcome do it (as I am about as disinterested in what's going on with Broadway as Broadway is with Nosedive, it's no skin off my back).

So far, a few bloggers have weighed in on this, including the Playgoer, George, Isaac and Matt Freeman.

From Playgoer:

"Whenever I see those yellow cards in an auditorium I can't help but think of the famous Fatal Attraction test screening that changed the ending. Imagine that with Ibsen-'Sorry, Henrik. Audience wants Nora and Torvald to get back together.'"

From George:

Re-branding off-off-Broadway as "Indie Theatre," live commercials from the stage, getting marketing ideas from Tom Peters books ... continuing symptoms of a disease. Theatre is no more in itself a high or low art form than music, painting or anything else. But its absorption into masscult continues, via masscult avenues.


I'm not concerned about this, a way, it's been happening for a while. In my mind, public readings with open talkback sessions and unending workshop sessions are the theatre world's equivalents of the "focus group," something I've griped about at length before in these pages (Playgoer asks, "Remember when post-show 'talkbacks' were educational, not a free focus-group to help producers' profits?" Honestly, no, I don't. I always saw talkbacks as the closest equivalent to "art-by-committee" in this medium and colossal wastes of time).

Again, my interest level in what Broadway is doing started out pretty damn low when I first moved to New York and has been declining ever since.

So far, I think Matt Freeman's assessment of the situation is probably the most pragmatic (i.e., if Broadway wants to waste tons of money on focus groups, let them; we should be able to use the tools of marketing without feeling like soulless corporate bottom-liners). He also points out that this trend may widen the already wide gap between Broadway and Off-off-Broadway (or Indie) theatre (which, of course, is fine by me).

(George despises the "indie" label because "it oozes ghettoization, self-congratulation and pseudo-radical smugness." Matt thinks it's a good and apt one because it separates what people like George, Matt and I do from what people in the Broadway world do and is a more accurate reflection of the type of theatre we make. Although both have valid points, I really don't care one way or the other about the name, since either moniker [indie or Off-off] usually elicits snickers when I use it to describe what I do to a non-theatre person.)

Anyway, you should check out the other posts on this.

Odd that this comes up right after I write about considering the pros and cons of an artist having commercial attributes.

Firmly on the fence,

James "Middling" Comtois

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