Do Critics Matter Today?

There’s recently been some discussion and complaining after John Simon remarked that bloggers are “the vermin of this society.” After attempting to write a post, I found that the best way I could discuss this was through a comic. As a result, I drew the following comic. Please remember: I don’t draw comics or cartoons, so this is a first for me.

I present, “Do Critics Matter Today?: A Cartoon”

Do Critics Matter Today? Page 1

"Do Critics Matter Today?" Page 2

(Click to enlarge)

Not the Big Evil Corporations

By now, you are probably sick of this Chase Community Giving thing. For those of you unfamiliar, it’s currently being done on Facebook where non-profits try to get you, the Facebook user, to vote for their non-profit to receive at least $20,000. The annoying thing about this if you are Facebook friends with people that are ensemble or staff members at a theater or are a “Fan” of a theater company, particularly in Chicago, is that you end up getting your wall spammed with pleas for votes.

I will be honest, I have voted for some theater companies to receive money. However, the theater companies I voted for I would give money to and they did make a good case as to why I should vote for them other than, “Hey, we did [show x] last season and it was awesome.” I even donated money to one theater, Strawdog Theatre, long before I voted for them.

And there are problems with this approach to funding. By asking on Facebook “walls” for votes and sending messages, you can eventually alienate potential artists and patrons because someone like me might be a “fan” of several theater companies competing for this. Some have suggested that by just asking for a vote you’re not actually making a connection with the audience. (Kris Vire wrote a piece for last week’s Time Out Chicago about the pros and cons of the Chase Community Giving.)

You need money to do theater and grants help provide that money. But is it worth participating in the social media equivalent of a student council election to get that grant? I can’t deny that $20,000 is a lot of money and sometimes you wouldn’t get that with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, for example. But with a grant proposal from an arts council or from the NEA, you have to write grant submissions and try to prove to those overseeing the grant awards that your theater deserves the money. Ultimately it is up to a theater company to decide if it is worth their time to participate in this.

But while there are the theater artists that look at the Chase Community Giving as a possible nuisance to audiences, there are others that are upset because Chase is a BIG EVIL CORPORATION! (I also realize that the blog I linked to no one should be shocked by the writer making those remarks.)

First of all, everyone that is virulently opposed to this really needs to be quiet or calm down because I keep hearing about theaters trash talking those participating in the program, even referring to those theaters as “whoring” themselves out. If you have a problem with this, which a lot of artists do, including myself, that’s fine. But bashing other theater companies is not cool and when you do that, my respect for you as a an artist and/or a theater administrator significantly decreases.

Now that is out of the way, I would like to get to the main point. I realize that Eastern Iowa theater and Chicago theater are vastly different things, but in Eastern Iowa, it is not that uncommon for a production to be sponsored by a corporation with local ties. The first play I was in, Nate the Great, was sponsored by John Deere, who has plants in the Waterloo-Cedar Falls area. Still Life With Iris was sponsored by Quaker, who has a plant in Cedar Rapids not far from the Iowa Theatre Building. I believe a production of The Music Man I worked on was sponsored by Wells Fargo and while it might not have major offices in that area, it still seemed appropriate that Wells Fargo would sponsor that show. Target, who has two distribution centers in Cedar Falls, has sponsored quite a few productions at the Waterloo Community Playhouse and Black Hawk Children’s Theatre. Sometimes local businesses are at least one of the producers for a play. Hansen’s Dairy in Hudson, which produces dairy products from the family cows—and operates my favorite ice cream shop in the Waterloo-Cedar Falls area, Moo Roo—sponsors productions at the Cedar Falls Community Theatre, where one of the Hansens has performed in productions.

As a result of doing theater in Eastern Iowa for 7 years, I used to think that in order to do a play you had to have a company sponsoring the show. Does this mean that the sponsors were awkwardly worked into the play? No. They’re usually acknowledged in the curtain speech and on the posters. Sometimes at the Waterloo Community Playhouse, the sponsors will have tables set up in the lobby to let patrons know more about what they do.

And you know what? The theater companies in Iowa work really hard to get these companies to sponsor their shows. I know from first-hand experience that Danny Katz, who works for WCP, tries very hard to get sponsors and it’s actually pretty incredible to know how hard he tries.

As a result of this, if I was going to start a theater company in Eastern Iowa, I realized that I would have to court companies to try to donate money or sponsor a show. Does that mean I’m “whoring” myself out to corporate America or to even small businesses? No. It means that I’m trying to keep my theater company running. And most corporations and businesses want to do philanthropic acts. In essence, Chase Community Giving is philanthropy, even though the mechanics of the act are a bit debatable.

But as far as I know (and most of my knowledge comes from talking to Katz), these theater companies don’t just send out a Facebook message. They’re out there, meeting with businesses or at events in their city to try to get more audience members to at the very least see their shows.

Ultimately that is what theaters need to do: they need to make a face-to-face connection to get money or donations or an audience. Facebook is not a cure-all for our problems as non-profit theaters.

Theater Ransom Notes

It was recently announced that the Iowa City Community Theatre is in debt and needs $20,000 by the end of May.

ICCT has known for a while that they were in debt; this is not news to them, they almost canceled their production of Wonderful Town because of their debt.

I don’t remember when their production of Wonderful Town was, it might have been while I was still living in Chicago. Their production of Wonderful Town went on because of some last minute fundraising. An email that was sent out by board member Kehry Lane says this:

This past year has been a struggle. We nearly canceled Wonderful Town (due to lack of funding), which was saved by the extraordinary fund raising efforts of it’s production team. Due to their hard work, ICCT was able to proceed with the show, and make some money in the process.

Unfortunately, the money made on WT wasn’t enough to bring us out of the hole. We still find ourselves in need of a substantial amount of money, or we should seriously consider closing our doors. The target is $20,000.00 by the end of May. We’re hoping for 200 theatre lovers to contribute $100.00 each. If we meet this goal, we’ll be able to retire our debt, and start next season with some cash on hand.

So, they only did fundraising to put on Wonderful Town? They didn’t raise money to pull them completely out of debt?

The email continues:

We’ve assembled a line-up of shows (and directors) for next year that we believe will enchant and delight audiences. We’re planning on pursuing grants to help us sustain ICCT over the long term. We’ve got a strong slate of candidates for next year’s board. We’re moving in the right direction, and we need some brave, generous folks to contribute.

So they’ve already planned their new season and have a line-up of both plays and directors. I would like to know why they’ve planned a season if they’re so deep in debt that they can’t go on if they don’t have $20,000 by the end of May.

I then read Kris Joseph’s post on this same issue. This is brought about by a production of Blood Brothers at Gladstone Theatre that might close two weeks early due to slow ticket sales. (Which, I do have issues with.)

From what Kris has written, it’s being made out to be that if Blood Brothers closes early, it will be because YOU didn’t buy tickets. Which is blaming the public and a future audience and only pushing them further away.

DO NOT DO THIS.

This is what ICCT’s plea sounds like: We didn’t pull out of debt because not enough people saw Wonderful Town. (I didn’t even know it happened; I must have still been living in Chicago at the time.)

That is, of course, not my biggest problem with this. My biggest problem is that ICCT has known that they are in debt for quite some time and this is the first time that they’ve really done something major about this. Someone, a managing director or a board member, should have seen this coming and said something.

I do realize that this occurs with some theaters; some theaters are genuinely caught off-guard by lost revenue from a show or a project, especially with bad weather. But if a theater does this, they have to prove to me that they will stay out of debt. If you get press and you get attention and people donate, does that mean they will come and see the plays? Not necessarily. What will you do to keep this from happening again?

Theater is a business; money has to be earned in different ways to keep the theater afloat. I can personally say that fundraising is something that genuinely terrifies me when it comes to running a theater, but I realize that by courting businesses to sponsor plays or to do joint projects, it can keep my theater open.

There is a certain urgency to saying, “We need $x by this date.” It is, as Travis and Kris put it, a ransom note. But when you provide the facts, people that don’t have bleeding hearts might seem a bit skeptical.

Ultimately, it’s not over until the artistic director chains himself to the stage door.

If You Didn’t Like This Play, It’s Because You Didn’t Understand It

That’s a summary of what Chris Jones says in the Tribune.

The play in question is A True Story of the Johnstown Flood, which is running at the Goodman Theatre and is directed by Goodman artistic director Robert Falls. Chris Jones wasn’t too thrilled with the production in his first review. None of the critics were enthusiastic about the show.

But in this piece, Jones says:

I think “A True History of the Johnstown Flood,” which deals with the horrific events of 1889 when a man-made lake washed away an entire town, has some significant flaws. But I also think some of the people who don’t like this play haven’t understood it. It’s not easy to understand. And as one of my shrewder correspondents observed, you have to sleep on it a bit. And now that I’ve stared at the ceiling for a few nights, well … I suggest you go and see what all the fuss is about. I’m not sure I made that clear enough in my review.

My immediate question from this is how is the average theatergoer in Chicago supposed to understand this play if the mighty Chris Jones says that “It’s not easy to understand” and that he had to reflect on the show? Yes, I like it if the theater challenges people’s minds, but if the most influential, most read and best known theater critic in Chicago has a hard time understanding a show that either says something about the play or about the critic.

I have other problems with what Jones wrote, like that he says that the Goodman is “our [Chicago's] flagship theater” and that “Falls is Chicago’s most essential director. It is inconceivable that this town would be without his work.”

Wait? The Goodman is Chicago’s flagship theater? Not that theater on the North Side that uses mostly Chicago actors, has Tracy Letts and many others in their ensemble and doesn’t open plays intending to transfer to Broadway? You know, Steppenwolf?

And Robert Falls is Chicago’s most essential director?! Not Amy Morton, Charles Newell, David Cromer, Mary Zimmerman, Sean Graney or Nathan Allen, but Robert Falls? (p.s., that was a shortlist of Chicago directors that are probably more essential that Falls).

I also find it interesting that he discusses the accusations of historical inaccuracy in a work of fiction. The only one that I’m immediately aware of is from Chicago Magazine (which is part of the Tribune Company), where it is discussed that an actor uses a zipper on his pants when the zipper wasn’t in existence at the time. I don’t care that it’s a work of fiction; that’s an error that a costume designer or a dramaturge, if it was in the stage directions, should have taken care of beforehand.

But ultimately my annoyance goes back to my original point: a critic should not need to write about a play a second time to clarify his point. And when clarifying a point, it is insulting to your readers and to your colleagues to say that they didn’t enjoy a play because they didn’t understand it. It is also baffling to say that a play is difficult to comprehend, that the critic had to think harder on it, and then suggest it.

Steppenwolf Theatre’s 2010-11 Season

I’ve missed writing about other season announcements, but I’ll write about Steppenwolf’s because I’m remembering to do so (I’ve been busy unpacking and dealing with angry mothers) and I was outrageously ebullient at 9 p.m.. (I didn’t read it when the Tribune posted it at 8:57, three minutes before the embargo was up.)

The theme for Steppenwolf’s 2010-11 season is the public/private self, which is a relevant thing to examine in the day of social networking. For more info, visit Steppenwolf’s website and/or the post on Time Out Chicago’s blog.

Steppenwolf has planned an interesting season that will, at the very least, make me visit Chicago regularly. A new play by Lisa D’Amour that Steppenwolf commissioned, a play by Lanford Wilson (their production of his play Blam in Gillead in 1980 was, er, landmark.), the transfer of a play from their First Look Repertory and a new Will Eno play. (I like Thom Pain (based on nothing). I’m not sorry.)

Oh, and Tracy Letts and Amy Morton in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? FTW! (See, Steppenwolf can get me to use FTW.)

Here’s the word from the Steppenwolf folks.

September 9 – November 7, 2010
Detroit
A new play by Lisa D’Amour
Featuring ensemble members Kate Arrington and Robert Breuler
In the Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre

Picture-perfect couple Ben and Mary fire up the grill to welcome the new neighbors who’ve moved into the long-empty house next door. Three barbeques later, the fledgling friendship veers out of control, shattering Ben and Mary’s carefully maintained semblance of success—with comic, unexpected consequences. Detroit is a fresh, off-beat look at what happens when we dare to open ourselves up to something new.

December 2, 2010 – February 6, 2011
Edward Albee’s
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Directed by Pam MacKinnon
Featuring ensemble members Tracy Letts and Amy Morton
In the Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre

On the campus of a small New England college, George and Martha invite a new professor and his wife home for a nightcap. As the cocktails flow, the young couple finds themselves caught in the crossfire of a savage marital war where the combatants attack the self deceptions they forged for their own survival. Ensemble members Tracy Letts and Amy Morton face off as one of theatre’s most notoriously dysfunctional couples in Albee’s hilarious and harrowing masterpiece.

January 20 – May 15, 2011
Sex with Strangers
By Laura Eason
Directed by associate artist Jessica Thebus
Featuring ensemble member Sally Murphy with Stephen Louis Grush
In the Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre

Ethan is a hot young writer whose online journals of “sexcapades” are the buzz of the blogosphere. Olivia is an attractive 30-something whose own writing career is fizzling. They hook up, sex turns into dating and dating into something more complicated. A break-out hit at Steppenwolf’s 2009 First Look Repertory, Sex with Strangers explores how we invent our identity – online and off – and what happens when our private lives become public domain.

March 24 – May 29, 2011
The Hot L Baltimore
By Lanford Wilson
Directed by ensemble member Tina Landau
Featuring ensemble members Alana Arenas, K. Todd Freeman and Yasen Peyankov
In the Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre

The Hotel Baltimore used to be the swankiest place in town—now it has a date with the wrecking ball. Eviction notices just went out to its residents, who live on the fringes of society and call the seedy hotel home. This acclaimed play from the author of Balm in Gilead is filled with everyday humanity—unexpectedly intimate and moving. Helmed by visionary director Tina Landau, Hot L Baltimore reveals the private lives of an unconventional community about to be turned inside out.

June 16 – August 14, 2011
Middletown
A new play by Will Eno
Directed by Les Waters
Featuring ensemble member Alana Arenas
In the Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre

Mary Swanson just moved to Middletown. About to have her first child, she is eager to enjoy the neighborly bonds a small town promises. But life in Middletown is complicated: neighbors are near strangers and moments of connection are fleeting. Middletown is a playful, poignant portrait of a town with two lives, one ordinary and visible, the other epic and mysterious.

I Finally Went to See a Play at Steppenwolf

Last night, I went to see American Buffalo at Steppenwolf, which is really odd because it took me ridiculously long to finally get over there and see a show because a). It’s not that far from where I live and b). it’s the freaking Steppenwolf Theatre. I’ve been wanting to see a show at Steppenwolf since I lived in Iowa.

Nonetheless, I had been psyched for American Buffalo since the season was announced and finally got around to seeing it last night. (I had been really busy the past few weeks and I was also in St. Louis before then.)

I can say that at least with this production, which is directed by Amy Morton, it has the energy, fast-paced dialogue, wit and profanity that have become atypical of David Mamet’s plays. But unlike Mamet’s newer plays, American Buffalo is an interesting and engaging work because it isn’t a bloody lecture. There are actually characters that drive the plot, not sock puppets to convey Mamet’s political views.

The play, which focuses on a heist involving a buffalo nickel, takes place in the a junkshop in Chicago in the 70s, run by Don (Francis Guinan). Between discussions with Bob (Patrick Andrews) and Teach (Tracy Letts), there are things that may or may not be true, things that are misconstrued and plans that are set in motion.

The trio of actors all give great performances because they’re constantly on their feet and they work together to create a great work of art. Guinan’s Don is almost a hard love parental figure to Bob, who Andrews manages to make a suspicious but sympathetic character. And Letts is unbelievable as Teach; he is the force that drives the play. Upon Teach’s first entrance, he goes off on a rant about running into a lesbian couple that all of the characters know. While delivering this speech, he started to go red in the face at the performance I was at. His timing and emotion, particularly at the climax is almost terrifyingly incredible.

So, yes, if you haven’t seen it, go see it. Now. (Okay, tomorrow) Also, you might have the benefit of not having Mike Nussbaum yelling George Michael lyrics into a banana as your memory the first performance of the “telephone scene.”