Archive for May, 2007

Arrogant Ass of the Week

Monday, May 28th, 2007

Pompous? Moi?
Photo by Paul Deards — Creative Commons License Some Rights Reserved

KadmusArts has bestowed several awards: the How A Genuine Artist Behaves Award to Tom Stoppard for his interaction with audiences during previews of a new play, covered awards, Lactation Station for the Canadian Art Council’s award grant to a healthy kind of bar, and our Standing Ovations for great pictures and stories from festivals around the world.

Everyone likes to receive awards, or at least some recognition for their work. So, I am sure the esteemed American critic Richard Schickel will be tickled to know that he has won the Arrogant Ass of the Week Award.

(The award can be granted with such regularity because each of us should be able to easily find a moment in the studio, an action on the street, or a response to an honest question, that would place someone in contention to win. One can even nominate oneself.)

As posted in our daily Festival News section, perhaps Schickel’s recent comments are a reflection of current cutbacks in his industry. Or, perhaps Mr. Schickel believes he just knows more than anyone else.

Writing in response to an article about bloggers and the publishing industry and the “inevitable transition toward a new, more democratic literary landscape where anyone can comment on books,” Schickel gasps, “Anyone? Did I read that right?”

That would qualify for only the Arrogant Award. He moves into the Ass category by continuing:

Criticism — and its humble cousin, reviewing [note: he is a critic, his lesser colleagues are reviewers — they are humble ones] — is not a democratic activity. It is, or should be, an elite enterprise, ideally undertaken by individuals who bring something to the party beyond their hasty, instinctive opinions of a book (or any other cultural object). It is work that requires disciplined taste, historical and theoretical knowledge and a fairly deep sense of the author’s (or filmmaker’s or painter’s) entire body of work, among other qualities.

He cites such well-informed and informative masters as Charles-Augustin Sante-Beuve, Edmund Wilson (who, by the way, did not think of himself as a critic; he chose the definitely most humble category of journalist), George Orwell, and George Jean Nathan. (Are you wondering if Schickel is placing himself in this pantheon of greats?)

The more critics, reviewers, audiences, and even artists, are talking, writing, and even blogging, about artistic work the better — don’t you think? How often have each of us found an audience member’s comment, or a colleague’s note more informative than what a daily reviewer wrote in a newspaper?

I, too, admire the writing, point of view, and deep context these critics brought to artistic work. Schickel is right that a critic’s job is to create serious engagement with a work of art. Although many do want engagement, not all of us take ourselves as seriously as he does.

How serious? Check out his resumé (which definitely needs that accent aigue for an American). What’s the first feature available? Why, you can download a high resolution photograph of him!

Even better, here’s how he begins his Introduction to his resumé: “The nicest words ever written about me [wow - someone is writing about him!] are these: ‘Mr. Schickel knows how to use his prodigious knowledge of cinematic history to…” (A quotation from a fellow critic. Is there a kind of Politburo conspiracy here?)

Schickel makes his main living from reviewing American movies. (And he takes himself so seriously? Isn’t that what critics call irony?)

I wonder: Has he had any affect on improving American movie making? To add a fourth responsibility to the Critic’s Job Guide: Does the critic inspire artists — and audiences — to create new work? That is the true critic’s legacy!

- Bill Reichblum

Interview: Cathy Weis

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2007

Photo: Cathy WeisCathy Weis has been making video and dancers perform together for the past fifteen years. A choreographer, dancer, and videographer, Cathy uses projected video and cameras handled by dancers as components of her explorations of the space of the stage, and how it is redefined by the bodies of the performers within it. Her projects have reached beyond New York’s dance scene to stages throughout the USA and Europe, including her recent presentation of Electric Haiku: Calm As Custard as part of the inaugural performance series at Boston’s ICA. Her creativity and innovation have been recognized with multiple awards, including a Bessie and a Guggenheim fellowship.

Cathy talks with us about how she came to be a part of the New York dance scene, the process by which she develops new ideas, and her new dance salon project.

 Interview: Cathy Weis [11:59m]: Play Now | Play in Popup | Download

Critical Boiling Point

Monday, May 21st, 2007

Daumier: An Influential Critic's Promenade

Producers and artists having a go at critics is nothing new. After all, critics make their livings from having a go at producers and artists. Recently, however, two stories have caught our attention. Each is from a different critical boiling point, and each is from different sides of the Atlantic. Yet, both are about what happens before the critic even appears at the performance under review.

In London, Nicholas Hytner, director of the UK’s National Theatre, wondered aloud whether all the main British critics were able to appropriately review performances directed by someone that was different than themselves — that is, someone who does not belong to the category of white, male, and dead. (One assumes, the latter characterization is of a more subjective point of view from Hytner.)

In New York, Theatre for A New Audience publicized shoddy treatment from the New York Times over whether their newest production would be reviewed, and by whom. (Disclosure: one of my first jobs in the theatre was the associate artistic director at TFANA. Even aside from this brilliant bit of hiring, TFANA is considered one of New York’s great producing organizations, especially for their Shakespeare productions. They have also created one of the most enlightened school programs in the country. Soon they move into a beautiful new space, designed by Frank Gehry and Hugh Hardy.) Obviously, the New York Times give more prominence to productions reviewed by its more prominent critics. The Times ended up sending a low level critic, and the theatre received a low level review.

TFANA’s cause was taken up by one of the great American critics (and significant artist in his own right), Robert Brustein. In a piece in The New Republic, Brustein turned his critical eye to the hubris and sanctimoniousness of the New York Times. Brustein is part of a distinguished line of theatre creators and critics, such as Lessing, Shaw, and Clurman.

Is part of the problem that non-Brustein-like critics must position their career’s based on how much attention they can get from readers, and editors? Why go out of your way to find an interesting work, or write with delicacy and integrity, when you can build-up, slam-down, and make a lot of noise about a lot of noise?

Is the other part of the problem that few critics perform the task assigned? Sly, sniveling, snarky writing might feel good, and even at times look good, but frankly has nothing to do with reviewing a performance.

How to judge the intentions of the publication and reviewer? To determine if a critic is doing his or her job, here’s a quick and easy guide:

    1. Does the critic provide a clear and objective summation of what takes place on stage?
    2. Does the critic provide a clear and objective context for the event — the artistic choices embedded in the work’s theme, and the style of presentation (directing, acting, design) of the performance?
    3. Does the critic provide a clear and subjective point of view of the value of these choices — in crass summation, should one go see it, and why?

If publications and their critics met these three simple responsibilities, there would be less boiling about the process and more heat where it should be — about the work itself.

- Bill Reichblum

Interview: Sara Katzoff

Wednesday, May 16th, 2007

Photo: Berkshire FringeSara Katzoff is the Co-Artistic Director of the Berkshire Fringe Festival. Her introduction to theatre came via Simon’s Rock College and a stint at the Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theater. She has toured nationally with Landis & Company, regionally with A Mixed Company, and along the Pacific coast with The Dell’Arte School. Some of her recent performance credits include My Children… My Africa! (Rattler Productions) 900 Dreams (Spencertown Academy), Othello (Infamous Genius Theater Company), and Shotgun Wedding (Dell’Arte Company). In 2005, drawing inspiration from the Mad River Festival, she co-founded (with Timothy Ryan Olson and Peter Wise) the Berkshire Fringe Festival as a home for new works in the Berkshires.

Sara talks with us about the origins of the Festival, the role of serendipity in the creation of new programs, and a preview of plays to come this summer.

 Interview: Sara Katzoff [11:57m]: Play Now | Play in Popup | Download

No Smoking While Naked

Monday, May 14th, 2007

Smoking Man
Photo by emdot — Creative Commons License Some Rights Reserved

Week before last, the blog highlighted the dishonest system of the Motion Picture Association, which favors a certain kind of artistic expression (big studio, bigger technologies, and biggest violence) over art that is on an intimate human scale. For a quick reference, you can see the list of What Jack Valenti Has Taught My Children. (Valenti, who as the former chief of the Motion Picture Association was responsible for their ratings system, recently passed away.)

Now the MPAA has gone one step further. Movies distributed in America can receive restricted ratings if there are “depictions that glamorize smoking or movies that feature pervasive smoking outside of a historic or other mitigating context”

So, from the MPAA’s perspective, what’s the most dangerous image for our children to see? Clearly it would be a naked man smoking.

The anonymous rating’s board that previews all films and gives them their designation - which affects advertising placement opportunities, distribution and showing times, and box office - will now add smoking to their current up-periscope views on drug use, profanity, nudity and violence.

One of the trade groups behind this push wanted a film to automatically receive an R rating (restricted - no one under 17 years of age without a parent or guardian) if a cigarette was shown. Even Jack Valenti was against adding smoking to the smoke and mirrors of ratings. Valenti told a congressional panel in 2004 that he was concerned if the board added smoking to the list they would soon receive pressure from similar groups on the environment, alcohol abuse, and obesity. (Obesity??? Maybe he was concerned about pressure from films that featured abnormally thin people? Where’s the botox pressure group when you really need them?)

How stupid does an audience have to be to think that when a movie takes place in the 50’s and a character is smoking that’s ok because it is historically accurate, but when a movie takes place today and a character is smoking, that’s bad and could force you to start smoking on your own. Isn’t there such a thing as being “historically accurate” about our own times?

Perhaps, this is where the MPAA and politicians become one and the same: both work their hardest to make sure that we don’t see the reality of our own time. No matter how you slice it, or smoke it, it is about control — control of art.

There are festivals on that provide useful and complete information about their presentations. Letting an audience know the context helps them decide whether they want to bring their own children, to be prepared for issues of violence, language, and theme. There is a difference: festivals here inform an audience; the movie industry scolds an audience.

Good art reflects our times. Great art reveals our times.

Now I am all for convincing children not to take up smoking, especially my own. But isn’t this silly? Isn’t it a bit, well, provincial?

After all, I am pretty confident that my son won’t take up humping horses after seeing Equus on stage, nor will my daughter be running around the house naked after seeing Titian at the Louvre.

Maybe, Hollywood should get out more — go see a play, museum, or festival. All have had audiences for centuries. Maybe, they could learn something.

- Bill Reichblum

Just Say No

Monday, May 7th, 2007

Finally, finally a group of brave, courageous, forward-thinking politicians and bureaucrats have come together to address a problem that has plagued arts audiences for years, generations, maybe even millennia.

To move with such unaccustomed speed, determination, and collective agreement the complaints from audiences around the EU must have been overwhelming. There must have been millions of letters, petitions, emails, faxes, and staged protests.

As covered in our festival news story this week, the European Commission has banned extracting words that misrepresent a reviewer’s overall point of view. Yes, the EU has brought to bear their mission and the international rule of law to rid the globe of — exaggeration.

Covering the news of the “Unfair Commercial Practices Directive,” Stephen Castle of the Independent wrote from Brussels, the goal is to “make it illegal to extract a positive word or phrase from a theatre review if that paints a misleading picture of the article as a whole.”

How can anyone say that the EU is not living up to its latest motto, “Working for You”?

According to Helen Kearns, European Commission spokeswoman on consumer affairs, the new edict will be “policed on a case-by-case basis by the Office of Fair Trading.”

Maybe it is in honor of May Day that one can chant, Critics of the world - unite! No longer do critics have to rely on the power of newspapers, television, radio, magazines, and the Internet for providing a platform for their especially informed, enlightened, and important points of view. Now, they also have the power of the EU courts when their work is misinterpreted for someone else’s profit!

Gee. I bet there are a lot of artists who see the truth in reverse: Critics can misinterpret the artists’ work for critics’ own profit.

Take a moment to think about the staff needed to cross-check the adverts, marquees, and publicity materials against the original published reviews for shows throughout the European Union. You can’t say that the Brussels-based bureaucrats aren’t hard at work to make a better world.

Or, can the police process begin simply with a critic complaining? Do you think a critic would ever have the motive of exaggerating their own victimization merely for their own publicity?

Here’s a thought to equalize the equation, and keep the willing-to-do-more-work-EU in step with reality: The next Unfair Commercial Practices Directive would be to ban getting paid for writing reviews that misrepresent an artist’s work.

Now, that would be “Genius!”

- Bill Reichblum