Saturday Night Live
Re “The trouble with Saturday Night Live”—
Brett Harrison’s commentary on SNL’s political satire raises some creative questions. What are the elements of good comedy? Certainly, being funny would seem to be one of them. And I would quarrel that Seinfeld would have readily sacrificed any of his character’s qualities for a good joke. One rarely thinks of the ability to tell a story as a prime asset– yet the story (commentary, lesson, observation) has launched many a comedic career— primarily that of Philadelphia’s own Bill Cosby.
Three of the ingredients that SNL has had and I think Tina Fey did so well with Sarah Palin are impersonation, commentary and character. We know who the politicians are, so being able to look and sound like them is part of the wonder. The big difference between Tina Fey and most other SNL portrayals was that with the wardrobe and glasses and hairdo Tina Fey looked exactly like Sarah Palin. The resemblance was just uncanny.
The problem with playing characters “as stupid” is that, by definition, it eliminates the commentary. Ms. Fey made up for that with a “read the teleprompter” view of Ms. Palin and her overemphasis. What was spot-on, in addition to the physical resemblance, was the character study. The raison d’être for voting for Sarah Palin was her “folksy” appeal. When she approached the Joe Biden character before the debate and said, “Is it OK if I call you Joe, because I have a few zingers where I call you Joe,” that was a classic strike at Palin’s faux folksiness in the same way that Dan Aykroyd demonically struck at Nixon’s need to succeed.
William Penn (yes William Penn) may have said it best: “Where wit has wisdom to express it, now there’s the best orator.”
The problem with SNL’s current political routines was pointed out (I think) by John Cleese a long time ago. A key element of satire is that it goes against the grain. When satire becomes the norm— and SNL political satires have now become the norm— they lose their punch.
February 18, 2009
Re the three reviews of Theatre Exile’s production of Blackbird—
You and Jim Rutter seem to have thought better of Blackbird than I did. If it had been my play, I don’t think I could have resisted giving Ray some backbone— even some nastiness. When Humbert Humbert catches up with the grown Lolita, what devastates him is to discover that she is perfectly conventional, and seemingly unaffected (for good or ill) by her experience with him. That’s an artist surprising us, not treading around political correctness.
Bala Cynwyd, Pa.
February 18, 2009
Sizwe Bansi vs. The Rant
Jim Rutter misses the lasting theme in Sizwe Bansi Is Dead: the role of the media in the construction of self-identity— in this case, photography. Think only of the personality as it is captured— created? falsified? broadcast?— by a photo, print media, film, radio or documentary.
Fugard’s enchanting passages re the fictive representation through a photo of one’s self, especially one’s success, is very much with us, even more urgently now than when this play was first performed.
Mary E. Hazard
February 18, 2009
George Tooker retrospective
Re Anne R. Fabbri’s review of the George Tooker retrospective at Pennsylvania Academy—
I am glad she wrote this article, as I felt the same. The only point I would add would be that pictures that are obviously sized for intimate domestic settings should not be displayed in long lines on 50-foot white walls. It diminishes the pictures unfairly. Perhaps smaller groupings in more intimate spaces would have kept the dulling repetition down.
On the other hand, when an artist achieves what Tooker achieved in Subway or Waiting, the rest has to be a letdown. Those two pictures are such high-water marks for how figurative art can engage in contemporary life and culture, don’t you think?
February 19, 2009
Editor’s note: The writer is an artist and printmaker whose Abu Ghraib portraits have been exhibited across the U.S.
Zaller reviews the Cleveland Orchestra
In “Cleveland Orchestra plays Mozart and Shostakovich,” Robert Zaller offers in his final paragraph, “The Leningrad resonated deeply with the Kimmel Center audience. The last chord was greeted with something I don’t think I’ve ever heard from a concert audience, not a roar of release but a deep collective groan. Then it rose for something more conventional, a standing ovation.”
Now, a standing ovation suggests that the audience was quite entertained and thrilled with the experience. (I have been to many a very enjoyable concert where no standing ovation was given, so that at least is my interpretation of a standing ovation).
Yet, since Zaller’s prose often first serves up his “suggestions for improvement” prior to acknowledging what he found good in the performance, it seemed to this reader (who was not at the concert) that the writer’s overall tone favored disapproval of the event much more than approval.
While not wanting to reignite a heated discourse on the “function” of the critic, this once more illuminates the juxtaposition of how a general audience member receives the experience versus how the voice of the critic often stands alone.
Which raises a question:
If the critic is also the de facto reporter of the event, does he then have a responsibility to report (or in this case, shape his prose to reflect) a more accurate view of how most people experienced the event? After all, if the Cleveland Orchestra were to return and do a repeat performance, I might not feel from this review that it would be a good event. And yet, there was that standing ovation…
February 11, 2009
Editor’s comment: Maybe Zaller’s reaction or taste differed from that of the audience, or that of other critics. You may prefer the old notion of the critic as cultural high priest; I don’t.
This woman is dangerous
Steve Antinoff’s brilliant analysis of Keely Garfield’s Limerence (and it did need analysis— maybe ten years’ worth) explains the psychosis, if not the movement, of her dance. My take was that Ms. Garfield spends too much time in rough, drug-littered neighborhoods — London’s East End, Avenue C?
Following Headlong’s pointed and hilarious parodies, in which the movement matched the mood, Garfield’s dance was all the more grungy, humorless and pathetic.
You had to wonder: Is this her inner world or her take on the world outside that surrounds her?
February 13, 2009
Sizwe Bansi is Dead
Re the reviews of Sizwe Bansi is Dead by Dan Rottenberg and Jim Rutter—
Just for the record, Sizwe Bansi is Dead was co-written by Athol Fugard and the two original actors, John Kani and Wintson Ntshona. Fugard himself says it was a collaboration, though many people continue to credit Fugard.
February 11, 2009
Excellent analysis by Dan Rottenberg. Much better than you-know-whose, which wasn’t all that bad this time.
Lafayette Hill, Pa.
February 11, 2009
Editor’s note: The writer is not to be confused with Charles McMahon, founder and artistic director of the Lantern Theater Company.
A Scandal in Bohemia
Re Tom Purdom’s review of A Scandal in Bohemia by Orchestra 2001—
Brilliant. What an excellent idea. And excellently reviewed.
February 10, 2009
The case for cantankerous critics
Re: “The case for cantankerous critics”—
I feel Jim Rutter is re-directing the argument away from the principal issue of a broken trust between a theater, the critic and the public, who understand when a review will happen. Placing it into the mainstream prematurely puts out an incomplete, unfair and misrepresented impression about the play that causes damage to the play, the writer, the theater and, therefore and eventually, the audience. Not because artists are fragile, but because people read reviews to decide when they will see shows, and if they decide not to see a show based on a review that came out while the play is still in workshop, real actual economic damage is done to the writer and the theater, and so they are less able to produce in the future.
However, the heart of Mr. Rutter’s argument, that the artist should just be able to “take it,” displays a deep disconnect from the nature of creation. He cites the artistic growth of Asher Lev as taking place under siege, but the difference is Asher’s one and only critic was his master teacher, under whose tutelage he willingly placed himself. He worked in a studio, largely isolated from the world. He did not have random people shouting in things from the window as he worked.
Mr. Rutter’s article describes a very dangerous view of the creative process. A safe environment to work is not a touchy-feely, hugs and kisses cute way of going about things. It is a pragmatic and essential way of working. I think anyone who is serious about creating art will tell you that the way they go about creating it is maximized by a particular set of circumstances, and usually the creation itself is a necessarily private and protected act, because the artist is doing something vulnerable, akin to birth.
This tradition of trust between artists and critcs— staying away from public criticism until opening— has existed in modern theater for at least the last century, and has a corollary in every established artistic discipline. Mostly it is an economic concern, but it also shows respect for the artist. The argument that “Artists should whine less, and just shut up and deal” displays a great disconnect from the nature of the creative act.
February 9, 2009
What Gary Garrison and others overlook in this teapot-sized tempest is that the playwright wasn’t in attendance at the Wilma reading and the play was already being produced elsewhere --meaning that this was not a script in its mewling, puking infancy as Garrison assumes, but a reading of a largely finalized script being tested with a local audience. That one reaction appeared in print hardly seems like a serious threat to the writer’s fragile psyche or the imperfect process of play development. Why offer something for public response and then complain when they respond?
Maybe I’m just another cantankerous critic, but if playwrights and theaters don’t want responses, why are they advertising public readings? (All the readings I’ve ever attended invite audience reactions, as this one apparently did.) Stay home with friends and family who will only offer polite praise, if that’s all you want.
I’m with Jim: Real artists leave the kiddie pool and plunge into the deep end, even if it’s scary.
Ridley Park, Pa.
February 10, 2009
It is a rule (whether written or unwritten) that plays are not reviewed during previews. A reading should fall into this category even more so. What a sanctimonious prig you are, Jim Rutter.
Many theatergoers, myself included, loved Roy Smiles’s Schmucks. You are not my arbiter of what is worthwhile in the performing arts!
February 9, 2009
Editor’s comment: You dare question the judgment of Jim Rutter? Guards! Seize her!
Jim Rutter imagines playwrights who don’t want works-in-progress exposed by critics as whining lapdogs afraid of any whiff of criticism. Early criticism has nothing to do with the writer, everything to do with the work-in-progress, which, during development, is generally ugly and unfinished, with all the charm of an embryo in utero. Exposing this blind creature to public scrutiny works against critic and writer. You don’t take a sonogram of a fetus and determine if the child will have a high IQ or not.
February 11, 2009
As long as theaters charge admission to readings, they are and definitely should be the fairest of game. As to tradition, how about the tradition of “You pays your money and you takes your choice”?
America seems to be embarking on a new tradition of wanting to have much of life both ways, and life doesn’t work that way, especially the arts. If artists aren’t tough enough to withstand criticism, they aren’t artists and they indeed belong in those whiny cribs.
February 11, 2009
All this nonsense can be summed up fairly easily. Critiquing a reading is good. Publishing a review of a staged reading is not. How long have you been doing this?
February 11, 2009
I do not agree with Rutter. He has a forum that most artists rarely have access to. PR depends on luck, not necessarily talent, especially in Philadelphia.
In the age of limited arts funding, a bad review kills the baby before birth. The artist does not have the chance to rebut or to advertise with enough exposure to counteract a bad review. It’s an unfair playing field, and for Rutter to move in for the kill before the play was ready for prime time gives him too much power.
Joan Myerson Shrager
Elkins Park, Pa.
February 11, 2009
Editor’s comment: This forum to which you refer— Broad Street Review— is actually open to anyone who cares to avail him/herself of it, as Rutter has.
Editor’s note: To read another response, click here.
Theatrical readings: The playwrights respond
Re: “Are theatrical readings necessary?” by Dan Rottenberg—
When I started out as a playwright in New York, I joined a group called “In Vitro,” which existed specifically so playwrights could bring their works-in-progress and hear them read by fellow writers and actors. Sometimes there were only five or seven of us sitting together in someone’s tiny living room, but even with an “audience” that small, these readings proved invaluable in helping shape a scene or play. And they taught me the importance of pulling a script out of my computer sooner rather than later to hear it read.
Then, when I went on to write for HBO’s “Sex and the City,” I discovered the same principle at work in the form of “table-reads” for every episode. And again, the chance to hear each script read aloud proved the single most useful tool in the writing and revision process.
I once compared the table-read to an X-ray because, invariably, it revealed exactly what was fractured or broken in each script, and what was in good, strong health. Scenes that read beautifully on the page often died a slow death when read aloud. And, as my boss and the head writer on SATC, Michael Patrick King, often said: “The audience is never wrong.”
This doesn’t mean we tailored scripts to please those who were present for the table-reads. (In fact, the writers always reconvened directly following the readings, before hearing anyone else’s thoughts.) And it doesn’t mean we treated these readings as some kind of “focus group” (a term that’s rightfully become a dirty word in this discussion). It means we were able to hear the script read in a room with living, breathing people. And for whatever reason, that alone can often provide the writer with a distance and clarity that’s otherwise unattainable.
Also, I want to add how often an actor’s interpretation of a role at a reading has helped shape and develop that character far beyond what I might have originally envisioned. Theater, unlike painting (to address your Picasso example), is a collaborative process, and readings are the first step in bringing that collaboration to life.
February 5, 2009
I did several readings of a piece I worked on recently, before presenting it. And still, given the chance, I would do more.
I also take exception to your assertion that you know how Shakespeare developed his plays (especially since we barely know who the man was). What we do know is he changed his plays between performances. I can’t imagine audience reaction didn’t have something to do with that.
You say: “Great theater— not to mention great art, music, literature, philosophy, whatever— usually derives not from audiences but from brilliant and creative artists.” However, in some form or another, nearly every playwright will make changes after a play makes contact with an audience. Theater does not exist until an audience is there. All the work up to that point is hypothesis.
(You mention O’Neill— there is a center in Waterford, Conn., named after him dedicated to the mission of play development, where staged readings are the norm.)
The most disappointing and ill informed assertion you make is that if a playwright discovered an audience was adversely affected by his play, he would water it down. If a playwright is worth his salt, he will use the incredibly powerful, valuable, essential tool of a reading or preview to improve his play to challenge the audience more substantially.
I have searched my soul, as you suggested, and while there is economic gain to selling tickets to previews, and PR momentum generated, the reason that previews exist is to fine-tune a piece as much as possible. If rehearsal is the laboratory, readings and previews are the test runs.
Contrary to your statement, other art forms have their own versions of readings and previews. Frank Lloyd Wright, in addition to consulting with clients on plans before construction, made changes to buildings as they were being built, and even after people lived in them. Politicians adjust their stump speeches after the first crowd, and improve their delivery of them.
Dance companies invite people to works in progress all the time, maybe disguised as a treat for friends and patrons, but I assure you they make changes based on the reaction of the audience. Movies do test screenings for audiences.
Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room has opened in Berkley, to good reviews. But even given that, I’m sure there will be notable if not significant changes to the script between that production and the one we will see, hopefully, at the Wilma. I know there were changes to A Clean House between Yale Rep and the Wilma. That was after Ruhl was nominated for a Pulitzer. And she still changed it. Because she is a great artist.
“Art is never finished, only abandoned”— Leonardo da Vinci.
February 15, 2009
Editor’s note: For other replies to this article, click here.
Opera at the movie theater
Re “Live opera vs. high-definition screenings,” by Steve Cohen—
Great marketing, opera producers. I had no idea operas at the movie theaters are live. Duh. Until I read Steve Cohen’s article I believed they were reproductions.
I did think the operas were spaced rather far apart, several months. But it never occurred to me these were live. Double duh. My culture veneer is very thin.
Now I will go, if. If I don’t have to wait in line. Doesn’t look good for impatient klutz as the ticket queue was very long here in Campbell, California, for the last one.
February 4, 2009
Re Dan Rottenberg’s review of Resurrection—
I clearly couldn’t have said it better, and I was sitting behind you nodding off. Your review was right on-target.
February 4, 2009
The Orchestra’s problems
Re “The trouble with the Orchestra,” by Nathan Sivin—
Mr. Sivin’s impression of Ormandy “conducting in his sleep” is correct, but his other surmise is wrong. Many fine conductors came through as guests in Ormandy’s day. The Orchestra’s list of guest conductors was as strong as any other American orchestra of the time.
Muti and Sawallisch were two of the very best, in different ways. Muti gave performances an energy and commitment I have rarely seen from other conductors. A recent chat with several players from the Vienna Philharmonic revealed that they and most of their colleagues feel Muti is the single best conductor working today.
Muti had the patrons’ support and indeed that of the musicians because he gave the music his best. He held multiple important musical positions elsewhere the entire time he was here. I consider that evidence that he felt an obligation to the global musical community that he would not limit himself to Philadelphia. He always had the rehearsal time he wanted and needed, the same as any other conductor of orchestras of this nature (vide Simon Rattle in recent years).
He did not get or need more rehearsal time for operas. Perhaps because the music is all of one genre in opera a more homogeneous result was achieved.
Sawallisch was such a fine scholar and podium commander that performances of his specialties had a richness of understanding and depth that is becoming a real lost art. The dubious performances of Gershwin, Bernstein, Copland and the like came from management pressure to perform them. They did not fit comfortably in his idiom.
Sawallisch’s work holds up to the highest standard. The Chamber Orchestra is an OK part-time/freelance outfit, but with many inferior talents. In what class is it near the top?
The Orchestra’s board does care about its “sovereignty.” This is probably a good thing for boards to do, while not treating anybody like serfs.
Helping select the best available music director is paramount. That person should be reasonably young, but with real conducting skills. This is crucial to help the board raise money, as much as possible, to make sure there is a future for the Orchestra, and to provide independence from wealthy ignoramuses and part-time, second-guessing patrons.
January 27, 2009
Editor’s comment: To read a response by Dan Coren, click here.
More adventurous music programming
Re “A few words about adventurous programming, ” Tom Purdom’s response to my article, “A classical music lover’s plea“—
Thanks for the reply. It is nice to have an online forum with such an interesting level of discussion, as opposed to those free-for-all forums that often degenerate into name-calling and ALL-CAPS rage.
I see Purdom’s point about finding a balance in concert programming, and that concert sounds great. But I have a general response to his points:
I haven’t heard everything Brahms wrote, and I’m sure I’m missing out on a lot when I say that I’d rather hear a composer whose music I never heard before. Nor do I want to say that once you’ve heard Brahms’s symphonies and most of his major chamber music and songs, you have the gist of Brahms.
Of course, I’m not saying that if you’ve heard one, you’ve heard it all (God forbid!). But there is a faint grain of truth in that aphorism. That doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy reveling in an old favorite. But for my dollar at a concert, I want to be challenged with new viewpoints, new languages, new approaches. I get the most out of a concert when I come out feeling puzzled, intrigued, provoked, inspired to investigate further.
I don’t want to just sit there and hear beautiful chords. To me, that perpetuates classical music’s stereotype as elevator music. If I want predictable joy, I’ll go to Disneyland.
Palo Alto, Calif.
January 28, 2009
Re “Christoph Eschenbach returns,” by Robert Zaller—
Another possible factor in Eschenbach’s quiet acceptance of his ovation after the Bruckner might be the size of the audience. Verizon Hall seemed barely half full.
January 28, 2009
Robert Zaller replies: True— I saw ushers papering the orchestra level. But that’s a story for another day.
Re “Obama’s inaugural: I was there,” by Beeri Moalem—
Excellent thoughtful, article. No hype. No partisanship.
January 28, 2009
Respond to this Article