Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Topic That Wouldn't Die



It’s the damnedest thing.

I don’t know what it is about this line of inquiry, but this series of posts has garnered more clicks – and even Facebook shares – than anything else I’ve written. As far as I can tell, though, this will be the last entry for now on the topic. (We’ll see what happens in about 800 words when I realize I still have more to say and don’t want to strain your patience.)

Let me deal with the Arthur Miller reference I made in the last colyum. I need to preface that, though, with some background on Sydney’s Belvoir Street Theatre. 

If I won't link to it, I should at least show it.

Looking at their website, it seems like they’re a company dedicated to screwing around with other people’s creations while relentlessly patting themselves on the back for doing so. Consider this blurb for “Miss Julie:” “August Strindberg’s masterpiece has been hovering in the wings at Belvoir for a while now, waiting for the right people: Leticia C├íceres and Brendan Cowell both know how to combine tender and brutal to devastating effect. Simon Stone joins them with a rewrite of the play in the fashion of his The Wild Duck.” Note the “his” there, which refers to Mr. Stone, and not either the late Mr. Strindberg or the late Mr. Ibsen. Pretty much every description of the plays they produce refers to an “adaptation” of this or “a contemporary version” of that. Not content to adhere to the intentions of the playwright, they’ve decided that their only responsibility is to themselves. 

Mind you, I'm not saying this would be Ibsen's opinion of Stone, but ...

In 2012, Mr. Stone decided to produce Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” – or, at least, some of it. According to Terry Teachout’s report:

Not only did he cut the play's epilogue, but he altered the manner in which Willy Loman, Arthur Miller's protagonist, meets his death. In the original play, Willy dies in a car crash that may or may not have been intentional; in Mr. Stone's staging, he commits suicide by gassing himself. On top of that, Belvoir neglected to inform ICM Partners, the agency that represents Mr. Miller's estate and licenses his plays for production around the world, that Mr. Stone was altering the script.

Since rewriting dead playwrights seems to be Stone’s stock in trade, I can see why he didn’t feel the author’s representatives were worth notifying. I’m actually surprised he was did something as boring, traditional, and mundane as casting a male actor as Willy. They’re currently doing “Hedda Gabler” (a play that’s dismal enough) with a male actor playing Hedda. Because A) it’s supposed to make a statement about gender roles and B) apparently there aren’t any women in Sydney who are capable of playing the part. 

Hedda Gabler, ladies and gents.

Mr. Stone’s defense of his bastardized presentation of Miller’s play was “"Until recently we accepted the Broadway or West End way of treating their classics, now we are bringing to them an Australian sensibility and technique. The world is responding." Since the “Australian sensibility and technique” seems to involve violating copyright and ignoring a writer’s intentions, it’s no wonder the world is “responding” mainly by refusing him the rights to do anything. A look at their current season shows rewrites of “Oedipus” (two of them!), “The Inspector General” (“inspired by Nikolai Gogol” – who only wrote the goddamn thing), “Nora,” (“after ‘A Doll’s House’ by Henrik Ibsen”), “A Christmas Carol” (“after Charles Dickens”) and “Cinderella.” They’re also doing “The Glass Menagerie,” but I’d imagine the rights-holders are keeping a close watch on them.

This kind of conduct goes to the heart of how the Facebook discussion about the Mamet case went. The opinions ranged from the conviction that the writer owns his or her words and has every right to determine how they’re presented to an audience, to a belief that since plays are more intangible things than physical, they should the property of any director or actor who wanted to do anything they wanted with them. One poster tried to make his case by saying that if I bought a shirt, he was free to do whatever he wanted with it: cut off the sleeves, dye it, or whatever. Never mind that he’s not buying that particular shirt; he’s borrowing it from someone who probably won’t appreciate the alterations.

"Here's your shirt back -- or at least all the pieces."
 
I think I’ve made it pretty clear which camp I fall into (the former, in case there was any doubt), but I can almost see the point of the latter – IF (and it’s a big “if”) they’ve talked to the creator of the work they want to tag with their graffiti. In my experience, most writers are willing to at least listen to a director or producer who has an innovative idea on how to recreate their work. They may not agree to the changes, but they’ll listen. But if they say no; that’s it. If you want to innovate, create your own work and do with it what you will.

We Get Letters:

Eric L. writes: “How do you think this incident compares to the Beckett's objection and legal action against Akalaitis's production of Endgame?”

Thanks for asking, Eric. As expected, though, I’ve reached my daily limit and will return to this topic next time.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Just Because You Can Do Something Doesn't Mean You Have To ...



Continuing our discussion of Directors Gone Wild …

So, you may recall that I was reminded of this whole thing by a question from the “Farnsworth” audience about whether we could have just written a prologue or an epilogue contextualizing Sorkin’s play. And while I suppose we could have, it would have been pushing the boundaries of our contractual obligation.

 "Now that our curtain call is over, may we tell you the true history?"

Not that that sort of thing stops other directors – and we’ll open that particular can of worms once I give this context. (I’m apparently all about “context” right now.)
Earlier on the Sunday on which the question above was asked, I’d read a story online about the Alchemist theatre in the Milwaukee are getting a cease-and-desist order that shut down their production of David Mamet’s “Oleanna.” 

I'd have shut them down just for having lousy publicity photos.

“Oleanna” is a play that had a relevance for about five minutes in the late 90s. The plot concerns a male college professor who’s accused of sexually harassing – if not downright abusing – a female student. I acted in the play back in the late 90s, so I know it pretty well. My experience with the play was not a happy one; the director was the kind of guy who would give notes like “I didn’t want you to stand there; I wanted you to stand here,” while pointing at a spot about a quarter-inch away. Plus, his daughter was playing the woman. (She was good, but still …). My understanding of the play – and I hate to ascribe motives, but Mamet is famously closed-mouthed about the meaning of his work (to the point where he even refuses to reveal what the play’s title means) – is that he thinks he’s written a Shavian dialogue that examines power relationships, with both sides getting fair treatment. In reality, the professor is pedantic and clueless (my long-suffering wife was of the opinion that it was a role that was tailor-made for me. I offer no comment on that opinion ...)  and the woman is written as something of a simpleton who’s acting at the behest of her “group” (a sinister cabal of feminists).

The Alchemist Theatre decided to cast to cast two men in the play, not only muddying the issues and the gender politics, but incurring the wrath of Mamet. In Mamet’s early days, he wrote some brilliant plays, but in recent years, he’s become something of a crank. Politics aside, he hasn’t written a very good play for a couple of decades. (Let me say here that I mind his turn to conservatism. I’ve often said that I wish conservatives had more of a presence in the theatre, if only to force me to defend my own positions.) 

He’s stated his conviction that there are no characters in plays; there are only words on a page, and it behooves actors in his plays to merely recent the words; not to give meaning to them. Anyone who’s suffered through the films he’s directed will know exactly how that comes across. The “performances” given by (in particular) his wives have been wooden enough to restore the Brazilian rainforest to their full splendor.  Regardless, he’s notorious for watching over who does his plays and in demanding that his plays be done only in the way he intended. (I recall about a decade ago, someone I was working with wanted to do something of his, and they were turned down flat, for no apparent reason.) In short, if you screw around with Mamet’s plays, you’re just asking for trouble.

Given his litigiousness, I'd never dare say that 
Mr. Mamet looks like a self-important tool here.
  
The good people at Alchemist must have known this, in that (according to reports) they kept the all-male casting a secret until the show began previews. From the local reports, it sounds like they knew they were going to get into trouble, but decided it was better to ask forgiveness than to seek permission.

In a statement issued Friday evening, Erica Case and Aaron Kopec, owners of Alchemist Theatre, said: "We excitedly brought this story to the stage because even though it was written years ago, the unfortunate story that it tells is still relevant today. We auditioned for this show looking for the best talent, not looking for a gender. When Ben Parman auditioned we saw the reality that this relationship, which is more about power, is not gender-specific but gender-neutral.

This strikes me as disingenuous at best. As a director, if I know I’m casting a play that is written for one man and one woman, I’m not going to go into auditions seeking to do gender-blind casting – and I can’t believe that, in the greater Milwaukee area, there weren’t actresses who were capable of performing the role.

"We stayed true to each of David Mamet's powerful words and did not change the character of Carol but allowed the reality of gender and relationship fluidity to add to the impact of the story. We are so very proud of the result, of both Ben and David Sapiro's talent, and Erin Eggers' direction."

Again, I’m calling "bullshit" on this. The dynamics and relationships between a man and a woman – which is what the show is about, one way or another – are vastly different from those between two men or two women, and altering that relationship alters the writer’s intentions.

Dramatists Play Service, which represents Mamet and which gave Alchemist the rights to produce the play, didn't see it that way. The firm sent the cease-and-desist letter Friday, the day that reviews of the show appeared online and revealed the company's casting decision a decision that the company went to unusual lengths to keep hidden before opening curtain.

And that, for me, is the final nail in the coffin. They knew they were doing something they felt they needed to hide from the licensors, the writer and the public. I know if I were involved with a production that had the potential to radically alter the audience’s perceptions of a play they thought they knew, I’d be shouting it from the rooftops.

I’d go on, but once again have reached what I assume are the limits of your patience, so another theatre’s attempt to make the late Arthur Miller turn over in his grave will have to wait until our next thrilling chapter.

"You can't kill me again, no matter how hard you try."


Thursday, June 26, 2014

Whose Play Is It, Anyway?



In our last thrilling installment, I’d been asked at a “Farnsworth” talkback why we hadn’t just added a prologue and/or epilogue debunking Aaron Sorkin’s presentation of the historical record.

As soon as that question was asked, I was immediately reminded of two stories I’d just read involving theatres and directors playing fast and loose with the scripts for their plays.

Now, before I begin this saga, let me state that I don’t think there’s a director working who hasn’t either altered the script s/he’s working with or, at the very least, thought about it. It’s not right and it’s not legal, but we’ve all done it. Most of the time, the changes are minor and banal, done strictly for logistical reasons. A character can’t be told to stand since he’s already standing, or is standing next to a table rather than the chair indicated in the script. It could even be something as simple as an actor's height or hair color differing from the one in the text. 

Me, directing. Looks exciting and glamorous, doesn't it?

But to the stories I’d read. The first story concerned a production of “Hands on a Hardbody” that had opened at Houston’s Theatre Under the Stars, or TUTS for short. The musical, by Doug Wright, Trey Anastasio, and Amanda Wright, is based on a documentary about a group of people who were trying to win a new pickup truck by keeping their hands on the car. The last person with a hand on the truck would take it home. The show flopped on Broadway (28 previews, 28 performances), but will probably have some sort of life in regional companies.

Doesn't look real enticing to me, but who knows?

TUTS was the first of those companies (as far as I know) to present the show. The director, Bruce Lumpkin, invited Wright and Green to opening night, but neglected to tell them he had made changes to the show, mainly involving cutting sections and reassigning lyrics and songs to the characters for whom they were intended.

To quote Howard Sherman’s recap of what happened:

Green described to me her experience in watching the show. “They started the opening number and I noticed that some people were singing solos other than what we’d assigned. As we neared the middle of the opening number, I thought, ‘what happened to the middle section?’” She said that musical material for Norma, the religious woman in the story, “was gone.”

When the second song began, Green recalls being surprised, saying, “I thought, ‘so we did put this number second after all’ before realizing that we hadn’t done that.” As the act continued, Green said, “I kept waiting for ‘If I Had A Truck’ and it didn’t come.” She went on to detail a litany of ways in which the show in Houston differed from the final Broadway show, including reassigning vocal material to different characters within songs, and especially the shifting of songs from one act to another, which had the effect of removing some characters from the story earlier than before

           …

Describing her post-show conversation with Lumpkin in Houston, Green says, “When it was over, I was flabbergasted. I had been planning to go to the cast party, but I couldn’t. Bruce came over to me and said, ‘I know you’re mad and I know you hate it, but you know it works better’.” Green continued: “He was pressuring me to make a decision and say I liked it. So I left.”

Amanda Green, in happier days ...

After much back and forth, Samuel French pulled the right for the show and made the company close down the production.

Now, bullying of Amanda Green aside, what Lumpkin did – and he’s apparently well-known for doing things like this with the shows he directs – was both hubristic and stupid. It’s one thing to make wholesale changes and hope you can get away with them. It’s another to do it and invite the creators to see how you’ve “improved their work,” which in Wright’s words, they’d “spent years building and honing … and had very specific character-driven moments. People didn’t just say things.”  But it’s in a whole other level to demand that those creators approve changes. As of this writing, Lumpkin still has a job, but I find it hard to believe that any licensor will rent him a show without, at the very least, keeping a close eye on the product in progress, let alone the final production.

As usual, I've hit a critical mass of verbiage before coming to a conclusion, so I'll leave matters here until our next meeting.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Whole Lotta Farnsworths Goin' On



Last winter and spring, the Palo Alto Museum of American Heritage had an exhibit on the history of television that was completely coincidental to our production. We approached them about cross-promoting each other’s events, and, through them, we learned that Philo’s nephew, Steve Player, lived in Palo Alto, just a couple of blocks from the theatre. We approached him and he agreed to not only share his memories (and some invaluable clippings and books) with the cast, but to also do a couple of audience talkbacks.

Steve talking about Phil at some other event.

Well, this act was seen as an apparent betrayal by another branch of the Farnsworth family to no end, and, so bothered, they denounced Steve as a publicity hound (in spite of the fact that we had approached him, not vice versa). The branch of the family we heard from – which is to say, some of Philo’s direct descendents – has no use for the play at all, so my guess is that any member of the family who chooses to associate himself with it – no matter the context (in this case, to help debunk it) – is just asking for trouble. Personally, I was delighted to have him on board, and would have welcomed the participation of the others, even if they seemed to have no interest in helping us spread their own message.

What ultimately happened at our talkbacks, though, was most unexpected.

At the first one – following the first Thursday performance – we had, as expected, Steve. This in itself was a point of contention. Steve was – and is – a great guy, with personal and family information that couldn’t be gotten anywhere else. Even though Philo died when he was relatively young – and Steve didn’t have a lot of interaction with him about television, he gave us an invaluable sense of how much we were dealing with a story about a real person, not just some metaphorical “character” created to make a point about capitalism and creativity. That he was working with us at all made that other faction of the Farnsworth family, well, “pissed” is probably the best word.

The Thursday talkback.

What we didn’t know until just after that Thursday performance that Steve had brought Philo’s grandson, Philo Krishna Farnsworth, an act which probably put Krishna at odds with some of his siblings and cousins. As a part of a “truth squad” dedicated to spreading the truth about his grandfather’s inventions, he was, if not happy to help us, at the very least, charming and informative. (And let me hasten to add, he didn’t seem in the least like he didn’t want to be there. He told us how much he liked the show and what we had done.)

Krishna Farnsworth; a heckuva nice guy.

Now, the thing that I’ve experienced about talkbacks is that very few people stay, and those who do aren’t always really engaged, preferring to let the people on stage talk amongst themselves, and being content to ask the stereotypical “I thought you were all terrific, but how did you learn all those lines?” type questions. Not our patrons, though. A large percentage of them not only stayed, but were active questioners and participants – even the usher who wanted to assure us – in loud and no uncertain terms – that he’d been an engineer and that he knew for a fact that no one person invented television. We also had people who had been investors in the Farnsworth Television Company, and those who had known of Farnsworth and his work in real time, or similar inventors (we are doing the show in Silicon Valley, after all …). All in all, it was a great experience, and went well over a half-hour, far longer than the 20 minutes I thought we might be able to stretch it out to. That said, it was nothing like what we had after the Sunday performance.

A Farnsworth television set.

While Krishna wasn’t able to return, we had one of Steve’s cousins, who is the daughter of one of the characters in the play, and a group of Farnsworths who knew they were somehow related to Phil and Steve, but who wanted to talk to the latter after the talkback to determine the exact relationship.

One of the questions – it was actually more of a comment – that came up in the callback struck a lot of buttons with me, though. The audience member wanted to know if it would have been possible to add a prologue or an epilogue to the show saying, in so many words, “none of this is true.”

And that sparks a piece that will take more words than today’s post can bear.

To be continued … yet again …