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More Seven Jewish Children

Oh I’m sure you’re tired of talking about it, there’s a pretty quick turnaround on topic-weariness these days, but the Guardian has released a video reading of Seven Jewish Children here, and I wouldn’t mention it except that, well, I think that they got it terribly wrong.

This isn’t just a bid for you to watch my take on it at CambiareProductions.com (though of course I will wait while you compare and contrast) it’s an honest matter of artistic choices serving the text.

The Guardian has a single woman reading the text off of cue cards locked  looking off camera on a black background with interscene pictures attempting to provide context.

This does the piece and the discussion a disservice.

In most ethical debates I am against “teaching the debate”, because you either have a debate or teach the facts, teaching the debate is a mealy mouthed compromise that neither teaches nor debates. In the case of Sven Jewish Children however, I am convinced that it is the best place for the piece to live.

I felt from the outset that the balm to the outcry against the presumed anti-Semitism in the piece was to show the conflict in the unnamed and textually undifferentiated characters; and show the evolution of the debate up to Operation Cast Lead in January when Ms. Churchill asserts that the voice that was winning was was of oppression and disproportionate response.

The Guardian’s video has no debate. The reader delivers the entire thing straight, which leaves the trendline towards Ms. Churchill’s conclusion as the ONLY point of the piece.

That renders the piece inert, removing conflict, and leaving us with a stranded performer with no one to appeal to in terms of what to tell or not.

The Artists’ Way

There is a very active discussion going on at Scott Walter’s Theatre Ideas about the artist’s responsibility. It is a broad ranging discussion spawned from a discussion on Offending the Audience.

I didn’t hop into the discussion because it got hostile quickly, and because honestly? I’m not sure I don’t reject the premise.

What is the Carpenter’s responsibility?
Start with: What kind of carpenter?
Aesthetic or framer?
Boutique or KB Homes?

What kind of artist? Where? When? Constituency?

I’m not arguing that artists don’t have a responsibility.
They do. I’m saying that there is no general catchall Responsibility that we need to adhere to aside from not sucking. If you want me to swear a Hippocratic Oath to not suck? You’re on.

What I offer instead is what MY responsibility is to my theatre community, and the broader Austin community (aside from not sucking).

I have a responsibility:

  1. To make the best theatre I can.
    Not the best theatre I can for the money, not “Don’t Suck”. To make the highest quality professional level theatre I can make, regardless of pay or resources. 
    a.) Don’t cut corners
  2. To be a good steward of the resources I have.
    Human and financial. Do not take advantage of those who choose to work with me.
  3. To provide value for my investors.
    Whether that’s City grants, corporate investors, or individual donations. Though you’re not traditional business investors, I have a responsibility not to squander what I’m given.
  4. To maintain and increase my knowledge.
    If I am a professional continuing ed is a given.
  5. To connect to the Austin community
    What is my/our place here in the broader sense?
  6. To connect with and support the Austin theatre community.
    To better fill the gaps that I can in what this community is producing, to not replicate effort (or dear lord – programming), and to allow my skills to be used to their “full-out extent”.
  7. To pursue my goals without ego.
    (As little ego as possible, I’m human)
    Recognition comes from quality and consistency.
    Do the work.

I don’t know about content, not so far as specific responsibility. The audience votes on my content every time I open a show. I think I prefer that to me  making content decisions based on what I think they want.

But you said…!

Oh beautiful, beautiful internet, you are a blessing and a curse.

One of the joys of the internet is the always on, at my convenience, content delivery.

One of the banes is asynchronous experience in general, and the asynchronous conversation in particular.

This weekend saw the dawn of the Throwdown between Mike Daisey and Tim Olson over Mr. Daisey’s How Theatre Failed America. Mr. Olson took the piece to be a personal affront, and challenged Mr. Daisey to perform his Artistic Director’s job in a put-up-shut-up move.

It’s been over a year since Mr. Daisey blew up the theatre blogosphere with the monologue and the attendant piece in Seattle’s Stranger. A year since we all beat each other over the head with whining about, and solutions to the prevailing business model in American Theatre.

But apparently this has only just come to Mr. Olson’s attention, and apparently he didn’t Google any of the attendant discussion, blog posts, parodies, flame wars, round tables, Teresa Eyring’s 3-part response in American Theatre, the 497 responses to her response…

I mean it’s not like this went unnoticed or that the theatrosphere was shy on this topic.

But Mr. Olson wasn’t plugged into all that and it went ignored. Enter the blind man and the elephant.

Is Mr. Olson responsible for having some idea of what he’s tackling before he throws out a challenge like that? Sure. Does he have a responsibility do something more than react before the first time I hear about his theatre he’s offering the budget to a monologist he’s never met? I obviously vote yes.

I have previously been called out by the lovable Colin Mitchell for my cowardice in pulling my punches in this space, but this is exactly why I do that. Mr. Olsen’s is exactly the sort of response that I endeavor with all of my being to avoid.

Do my posts lack some of the obvious passion that Mr. Olsen shows due to their deliberateness? Absolutely. But I hate being wrong more than I hate the New York Yankees, and in taking that extra beat before I uppercut some imaginary internet foe I avoid leaving myself open to the criticism he’s going to receive over the next few days and weeks.

On the larger topic?

Mr. Daisey is heavy-handed in his calling out of Mr. Olson’s perceived bias, but it’s hard to not see it in the continued lumping of us vs. them with the line item for artists being on the opposing side.

It’s the first thing that needs to go.

And arts admin’s need to do a self check before they get defensive about it. It’s not a crime to be defensive for the people you work in the office with every day. It’s not terribly unusual that you would side with them against the people that job in every couple of months and walk around like they own the place. But recognize that it happens when we’re talking about business models, or we’re never going to be able to talk about this in rational tones.

And Mr. Olson, to allow myself an intemperate moment:

Before you go off speaking for All of American Theatre Artists I want you to take your heap of problems, galling (and real) as they are, and realize that you are America in this metaphor, and you have more resources than 98% of your colleagues.

Further, and listen closely, American Stage Theatre Company and companies of similar size and larger are not the primary producers of live theatre in the country. For every one of you, there are twenty small independent producers, and fifty community theatres. Maybe we don’t matter to you. Hell maybe you don’t even consider us your colleagues, but we are very real. And when you start listing numbers and programs and acronyms rather than talking about what art you produce? You are proving Mike Daisey’s ACTUAL point, not negating it.

Thoughts on Humana Fest

As promised, my thoughts on the plays at the Humana Festival:

Slasher! by Allison Moore

Immediate reaction (as posted to twitter): Hilarious. Script needs to be streamlined towards the end, kinda cliché but that’s the point, overall very fun.

After a bit: I think I like this piece more after being away from it for a little while. It fits within its genre very well. There isn’t a whole lot of depth to the piece, but it doesn’t need it. I tend to like my theatre a little bit heavier, but that’s my own personal taste. I’ve heard that the ending has been reworked quite a few times, but its still the weakest part of the show. If Allison figures out the right ending, the play would hold together a lot better.

Brink! by Lydia Diamond, Kristoffer Diaz, Greg Kotis, Deborah Zoe Laufer, Peter Sinn Nachtrieb and Deborah Stein

Immediate reaction: I wish every show could be that much fun!

After a bit: One of the most fun shows I’ve seen, pretty much ever. There was so much energy and dedication from the cast that I couldn’t help but be sucked in and have a great time with all the performers on stage.

The play is a series of scenes about characters on the “brink” of something.  Birth, bar mitzvah, going away to college, going to war, etc. My absolute most favorite moment of the Festival came during  a scene of a young woman about to leave for Cincinnati to become an accountant. The twist being that she grew up with parent who were clowns in the circus. As she is about to leave, she receives a taste of what her life in Cincinnati will be like…  as a 6-8 minute dance dream sequence. AMAZING.

There are about 3 scenes that are unnecessary, and I think the play would benefit from their absence. However, I’d caution any future director’s of the play: PLEASE cast an ensemble that has an unlimited amount of energy. This show requires it.

Under Construction by Charles L. Mee

Immediate reaction:  All over the place. Very disconnected. Some beautiful moments, but no through-line.

After a bit: Still feel the same way. A little context: at the beginning of the show, the ensemble walks on stage and one actor addresses the audience, and tells us the idea of the play. I’m paraphrasing,  but the actor basically says that, the play is a series of scenes, and at this performance they will be performing scenes 1, 24, 57, 38, etc… And that this play will constantly be under construction and over it’s lifespan will continually be so. This is much like America which is constantly under construction and always changing.

If the actor had not told me that, I wouldn’t have understood the play at all. The scenes didn’t quite fit together. I like my through-lines. I don’t always need a story, but I want to see some type of connection between scenes. I know America is eclectic, but there’s gotta be something to tie it all together.

Given that, there were many beautiful moments throughout the play, but I wasn’t invested in any of them due to the lack of a through-line.

One moment I loved: The entire ensemble is laying flat on their backs on the stage. One character sits up and says (paraphrasing heavily) “I want a divorce.” It’s a short scene between only two of the actors, but it was incredible and powerful.

Wild Blessings: A Celebration of Wendell Berry adapted for the stage by Marc Masterson and Adrien-Alice Hansel from the writing of Wendell Berry

Immediate reaction: Didn’t post one. Cause honestly, I almost fell asleep.

After a bit: The play is based on the writings of Wendell Berry as the title lets you know. It’s a series of scenes/monologues, and while they fit together thematically, I was uninterested. The language was beautiful, mind you, but it’s a play without any conflict. I was bored and it’s not really my cup of tea.

The Hard Weather Boating Party by Naomi Wallace

Immediate reaction: Has some flaws, but I very much enjoyed it.

After a bit: This one is a tough one for me. I enjoyed watching it at the time, but after spending some time away from it, the flaws have become much more apparent. The concept and circumstances of the play are interesting and it kept me engaged throughout, but the constraints of the play make some of it unbelievable. The entirety of the play takes place in a hotel room, and there are only three characters. These three characters have never met before, but they share personal information with one another and it feels a little forced. I think this information is vital to the enjoyment of the play, but if the action was taken outside of the hotel room for a bit, the story can still remain, but there would be a variety of other circumstances that could move the action forward without any of the information feeling forced.

Absalom by Zoe Kazan

Immediate reaction: Traditional, best I’ve seen so far, could’ve had a better ending, some weak characters. But I liked it.

After a bit: Still feel the same way. I liked the play, but the ending feels forced and abrupt, and a few characters need more to do. One in particular felt like a device to move the plot forward. I think some tweaking to a few of the characters and finding a more suitable ending, Absalom definitely has some potential.

Ameriville by UNIVERSES

Immediate thoughts: Without a doubt, the VERY best play of the festival.

After a bit: I think Humana, may have intentionally scheduled this performance as the last one of the weekend, because well, it was by far the most engaging,  intelligent, and moving piece I saw all weekend. This piece was created by an ensemble, and their passion and dedication to what they do completely shown through in performance. If the play had been about squirrels I probably would have been engaged. It was minimal, a platform, two tables, four chairs and a projector. There are a few sections that need some work, but I’d love to see it again.

Overall, I had a fantastic time. I would much prefer seeing a new play over anything that has been previously published any day of the week. It’s refreshing to see so much new work. The entire experience of Humana has gotten me thinking about new work development, and I’ve been having quite a few discussions about it over the past week and a half. I was going to include my thoughts on that, but this post was reaching epic proportions, so I will save it for the next. I hope to have it up in a few days. However, I do have a little thing called Orestes that needs some of its own development time. More soon…

Use your active words

There was a very nice piece in the Guardian recently on not making boring theatre, and we all agreed and patted ourselves on the back for agreeing because, hey, who likes boring theatre?

Aside from telling me not to do boring theatre (and to allow my respiratory system to continue on autonomically) what does it accomplish? My boring is not your boring is not Anthony Neilson’s boring.

So I would like to retrench the sentiment slightly, and make it an actionable item. By way of doing so I would like to point out musician Amanda Palmer’s latest blog post. Ms. Palmer, aside from roaming in support of her stunning new album (Who Killed Amanda Palmer), is taking time to return to her high school and work with them in creating a new play.

But read the entry. She can’t get the words out fast enough to contain her excitement.

And that is my simplistic action statement. Match her. There is no way to ‘not make boring theatre’, any more than you can prove a negative. Make theatre that excites you. Make it as well as you can.

Someone may find it boring. Folks may hate it. But you will have fulfilled your larger duty to capital T Theatre. If Neil Simon excites you? DO IT. Do it well. If zombie rock operas excite you? DO IT.

Qui Nguyen is the gold standard for me in this regard. He and the Vampire Cowboys make the show they want to make in a style that excites them. It took time but finally that joy in production won out and Soul Samurai kicked the asses of everyone who came to see it. Despite being what would generically be defined as a niche show.

So, too many words again, but that’s it.

Do theatre that excites you to the best of your ability.

A Clanging Cymbal, a Noisy Gong

On Wednesday Will and I hoofed it down to the Paramount Theater on Congress after work to take part in a Candidates Forum on the arts in Austin. The mayoral candidates and a handful of the city council candidates showed up.

I haven’t found a way to write about it, because I have’t really understood my reactions to it. I was disappointed of course, because that’s my default reaction to any event that promises anything. No political event a month out from an election is going to do anything other than get the candidates over, and in an electoral process that will see 12-15% of the eligible voters participate? Maybe pick up some votes and some word of mouth. Hell, the format of the event didn’t even allow for audience Q&A though the candidates later broke protocol.

So yes I was bound to be disappointed. There were very few moments throughout the night where anything that even rose to the level of interesting happened. I list them now:

David Buttross (#4 of five in my current mayoral race chart) continued to run his incubator space concept up the flagpole. Which is a wonderful thing ($200 a month with all utilities including wifi) but honestly it was a night for the candidates to preach common sense, so I leave you with: “We need to stop putting out a wish list of arts ideas on the table and paying 20% of all of it. We need to sit down with the arts community, say here’s how much money we have how can we spend it most productively.”

Amen and Amen. Until a patron comes along for Austin Arts to give each independent group and artist grants, we need to behave ourselves, and sometimes sacrifice for the greater good.

Brewster McCracken, one of the three actual possible Mayors, kept trying to use the Armadillo World Headquarters site, “THAT THE CITY ALREADY OWNS!” for a variety of things, I think the night ended up with it being a multilevel parking / performance / incubator / display space. But on a more rational, physically possible, level he also talked about VMU on Congress Avenue to add performance and gallery space, along with parking. The treatment of North Congress in this town is bizarre. There are a handful of anchor restaurants, but in general, North of the river rolls up at 5:00. We can fix that.

Now the third thing that got me excited, and the only one that has legs so far as I’m concerned, was a throw-away from Brewster Mccracken after the evening had vaguely devolved into nothingness. I paraphrase “I would have the City, rather than grant to companies directly, purchase tickets from them and give those tickets away to the community.”

Read it again.

Rather than a flat out grant, the proposal would have the City  buy tickets, and then give them away through some central location.

Money would still come to the group, and the City would funnel folks who wouldn’t necessarily come see our work anyway our direction. Let me say this as clearly as I can: Cambiare Productions would donate tickets to the City to make such a program work. We need attention more than we need money. With attention we could be self sufficient. I need a 50% match to make it on 200 paid per show, I can break even on 400 paid, I can pay people for 600 paid.

So YES to this solution.

But I want to close by explaining my post title for the Biblically challenged. It’s from 1 Corinthians 13: The Love Chapter, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.”

The single biggest thing you can do Council members, future Mayor, civic leaders to help the arts in Austin? Show up. We need the imprimatur of respectability. We need to not be compared to 3rd grade art class, and as important as arts education is to the growing of our future audience, you need to not lump current practitioners of the arts in with 3rd graders doing ballet.

I know you were doing it to be funny and charming. I don’t care how self-deprecating you want to be. We’re doing this now we’re not developing, we’re here. Attend the opening of Grapes of Wrath at Zach Scott and talk about it. Then move down the street and see something at the Vortex or at Salvage Vanguard, and talk about it.

Playing Mother Ginger at the Long Center isn’t ‘love of the arts’, it a photo op. That one time you saw Stevie Ray at Antone’s when you were 12 isn’t ‘love of the arts’ it’s a kickass concert.

Go see something besides ballet and opera. Get out among the unwashed doing this for free and see what the soul of this City is all about, and maybe then I’ll feel better about having to vote for one of you. Attend one locally produced arts event for every 3 Longhorns sporting events you get comped to. As it is? I’ll have to vote knowing that the candidates couldn’t name the top 5 groups in my field. And that’s more than enough reason to be disappointed.

I Live Here Too

First off… No, Travis’ blog hasn’t been hijacked. He told me that I need to blog. So here I am.

Allow me to introduce myself to those of you that don’t know me. I’m Will, the other half behind Cambiare Productions.

The reason for my sudden emergence is that I’m currently visiting Louisville, KY for the Humana Festival.  With encouragement from Travis, I’ve decided to offer my thoughts on what’s going on at Humana this year. I’ve wanted to visit Humana since my early days of college. I first discovered Humana when I came across a collection of the Festival’s plays during my search for a ten minute play to direct for my first Directing class. I ended up choosing a play from one of these collections, What She Found There by Jon Glore. If you have not read it, I highly recommend picking it up.

I’m here through Sunday and will be seeing quite a few shows. The first of which starts in about 1 hour.

On tonight’s schedule: 

Slasher! by Alison Moore, and Brink! by Lydia R. Diamond, Kristoffer Diaz, Greg Kotis, Deborah Zoe, Laufer, Peter Sinn Nachtrieb, and Deborah Stein

I’ll be offering my thoughts on the plays I see throughout the weekend, and if you are interested in my immediate reactions to what I’m seeing here, follow me on twitter: @willhollis (Disclaimer: May contain many other non-sensical thoughts of mine, not even remotely theatre related.)

Through Another’s Eyes

I also wanted to take this opportunity to post AustinLiveTheatre’s write up of the evening:

All words AustinLiveTheatre.com

The speech for World Theatre Day written by Brazilian author Augusto Boal was read by Robert Faires of the Austin Chronicle. Boal’s comments are brief, but they sum up a lifetime of theatre, political activism and teaching, following his arrest by the Brazilian military government in 1972 and twelve years in exile. Boal’s principal concept is expressed immediately in the opening:

All human societies are “spectacular” in their daily life and produce “spectacles” at special moments. They are “spectacular” as a form of social organization and produce “spectacles” like the one you have come to see.

Even if one is unaware of it, human relationships are structured in a theatrical way. The use of space, body language, choice of words and voice modulation, the confrontation of ideas and passions, everything that we demonstrate on the stage, we live in our lives. We are theatre! . . . .

One of the main functions of our art is to make people sensitive to the “spectacles” of daily life in which the actors are their own spectators, performances in which the stage and the stalls coincide. We are all artists. By doing theatre, we learn to see what is obvious but what we usually can’t see because we are only used to looking at it. What is familiar to us becomes unseen: doing theatre throws light on the stage of daily life.

About 30 persons came to the Dougherty Arts Center for the Theatre Day commemoration, the staged reading of Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children, and the discussion of the play. The group was diverse. By the end of the event we’d encountered students, actors, a playwright, the organizers, a Jewish couple in their late 60s, a Palestinian man, a Frenchwoman and two women from Palestine.

Seven Jewish Children is a stark piece of only about 170 lines, divided into seven sections of unequal length. Playing time is hardly ten minutes, and one can scan the text in far less than that. The .pdf version available on-line from the Royal Court Theatre contains no stage directions, other than the comment that the piece may be read or performed without fee anywhere, by any number of people. The text used by the actors and director Travis Bedard of Cambiare Productions contained the stipulation that no children are to be visible onstage.

Each of the sections consists of imperatives, principally "Tell her. . . " or "Don’t tell her. . . ." and it becomes evident that the sections deal sequentially with recent Jewish history. No speakers are assigned. Earlier sections do not mention place names or, in fact, any proper names. Churchill crafted them to represent the debate within families about what to say to children during, successively, times of pogroms, the period immediately following the Holocaust, departure for Israel, early days of a family’s settlement, the first Arab-Israeli war (a section of only five lines), conflicts and clashes in recent years between Jews and Arabs, and the 2009 Israeli attack into Gaza of late December, 2008.

Churchill wrote this piece in February, 2009, as the violence continued in Gaza, and it was staged by The Royal Court Theatre. Controversy was immediate and extensive, further fueled when the BBC declined to broadcast the work, deeming it to be a political statement that, for fairness, would have to be rebutted.

The debate continues. This morning’s Wall Street Journal carries an op-ed by "Global View" columnist Bret Stephens titled "The Stages of Anti-Semitism," in which he calls the piece a manipulation of history, a mockery of Jewish claims to statehood, "an obsessive criticism of Israel that seems to borrow freely from the classic anti-Semitic repertoire," and "trite agitprop, a cultural blip on the vast American stage."

Hmm. The words of the text must have been the same, but Stephens’ terms do not describe the piece that we witnessed at the Dougherty. During the discussion afterward, the woman of the Jewish couple seated next to me raised her hand: "I thought this was supposed to be anti-Semitic. What’s anti-Semitic about it?"

That reaction served as a reminder of the power or staging, performance, and interpretation.

Bedard placed his actors in a line in the semi-dark at the back of the playing area and brought them forward, usually in pairs, to address a woman of child-bearing age seated at a table. Lit candles suggested ceremony; the insistent, often contradictory imperatives of advice or admonition entered an intimate space.

The actors came at her in insistent single-line exchanges, in the powerful dramatic technique of stichomythia, recalling the formal staging of Greek tragedy.

The mother sat silent and impassive, listening to the well-meaning, worried, angry or confused advice. The brief lines concerning the Arab-Israeli War look harshly triumphant on the page. In this production they were delivered quietly by a young man who kneels next to her, evidencing instead a sense of loss for the girl’s brother, a soldier killed in battle.

The actors formed a semi-circle about her in the final scene, concerning the then-ongoing attack on Gaza, with advice ranging from the banal ("Tell her she can watch cartoons") to the horrific ("Tell her the Hamas fighters have been killed"/"Don’t tell her about the family of dead girls"). The mother rises and in visibly contained fury replies with the only lengthy speech of the piece.

She addresses her interlocutors, one by one, refuting advice. She is terrible in her rage:

– – Tell her, tell her about the army, tell her to be proud of the army.

– – Tell her about the family of dead girls, tell her their names why not, tell her the whole world knows why shouldn’t she know?

– -Tell her there’s dead babies, did she see babies? tell her she’s got nothing to be ashamed of. Tell her they did it to themselves. Tell her they want their children killed to make people sorry for them, tell her I’m not sorry for them, tell her not to be sorry for them, tell her we’re the ones to be sorry for, tell her they can’t talk suffering to us.

– – Tell her we’re the iron fist now, tell her it’s the fog of war, tell her we won’t stop killing them till we’re safe, tell her I laughed when I saw the dead policemen,

– – Tell her they’re animals living in rubble now, tell her I wouldn’t care if we wiped them out, the world would hate us is the only thing, tell her I don’t care if the world hates us, tell her we’re better haters, tell her we’re chosen people,

– – Tell her I look at one of their children covered in blood and what do I feel? tell her all I feel is happy it’s not her.

The concluding replies to her are inept, dithering and wishful:

– – Don’t tell her that.

– – Tell her we love her.

– – Don’t frighten her.

The words of that concluding speech are horrible, and we in our safe homes and offices reject the hatred and inhumanity contained in them. But the director and actors in this staging provide action and motivation that explain them. They use Churchill’s words to depict human confusion, adult duplicity and wishful thinking, and the many possible reactions to horror, threat and trauma. This production, to my eyes, was no indictment of Israel or of the Jewish people. It was principally an exploration of rationalizations that any family will make in the effort to shield, save and protect their innocent children.

Churchill plainly had a political goal as she wrote the piece, and to the extent that it has spurred controversy and debate, she has succeeded in that political goal. She stipulated that funds collected at performances are to be donated to Medical Aid for Palestinians.

Augusto Boal is quoted as saying, "Oppression is a relationship in which there is only monologue. Not dialogue." By co-producing this potentially controversial play, the Austin Circle of Theatres took the risk for dialogue. That dialogue occurred in a post-show discussion moderated by Robert Faires that brought thoughtful, measured, cordial and expressive comments from spectators, actors, and sponsors.