December 2008 Archives

Theatre in the Bay Area took another hit this week, as the renowned Magic Theatre announced it is on the verge of closing.

This follows the closure of American Musical Theatre of San Jose earlier this month.  Shakespeare Santa Cruz also threatened to close in December, but managed to stay open after a successful drive to raise $300,000.

The Magic says it needs to raise $350,000 by January 9 to continue its 43rd season.  The staff there is now working without pay, and managing director David Jobin has left.  Artistic director Loretta Greco told the San Francisco Chronicle that the company has a $600,000 accumulated debt, some of which "we didn't realize we had." 

In its 42 years, the Magic has nurtured the work of four Pulitzer Prize winners, including Sam Shepard and Nilo Cruz, as well as local actors and marquis stars like Sean Penn and Ed Harris.  If the second largest theatre in San Francisco were to shutter its doors, it would be devastating for the arts community and the 200 artists it employs annually.   

That includes yours truly, whose next acting contract is at the Magic.  Luckily, it looks like this west coast premiere of Tough Titty will occur.  Written by the late actor/playwright Oni Faida Lampley, Tough Titty is a smart, funny inspiring play that chronicles a woman's battle with breast cancer.  

Now we can only hope that the Magic will be able to continue presenting the rest of its season and the groundbreaking new work for which it's become known. 

It's a desperate time for the arts, as manifested in the Facebook group "One Percent for the Arts Campaign!"  The group is asking people to sign a petition to ask Congress to assign a mere 1% of the federal stimulus package to the arts.  The group's tagline is "because artists and writers are also part of the economy," a fact people seem to have forgotten. 

One can only hope they start remembering.  Here's to 2009!

To help save the Magic Theatre, donate here.
December 31, 2008 12:00 AM | | Comments (1)
Could it be that in gauging the worth of journalists readers take their cue from the cavalier way in which we treat one another? 
How many times have you misspelled a colleague's name in an e-mail because you were too lazy to look it up? How many times have you guarded your beat -- and Rolodex -- from a fellow reporter whose coverage dared to butt up against yours? 
How many times have you reached for the phone or keyboard to find out how a laid-off associate is faring in his/her new life away from daily newspaper-ing? 
To one degree or another, we're all full of ourselves. It comes with the turf, no? J-school instilled that. Taught us to be driven, persistent ... self-obsessed in the pursuit of the scoop. 
The word "collegial" surfaces occasionally, but it comes off as flat, foreign-sounding when uttered by an editor. It's usually reserved for the dreaded performance review. 
These sentiments were sparked by the passing of a dear friend named Eirik Knutzen. Eirik, 64, was one of the brave ones. While the rest of us needed the security of a weekly salary and benefits, Eirik, being a singularly independent fellow, flew without a net. He freelanced for almost his entire career. 
At one time, he occupied an office in the old Bank of America building in Westwood. That's where I visited him when in town covering this or that press junket. Among his clients, the Copley News Service and Toronto Star, which published his TV dispatches and columns for 17 years. His celebrity profiles -- of everyone from Johnny Carson to Jim Carrey -- ran in most of the papers in this country and, before the advent of Internet thievery, many overseas. 
Like most of us in this business, Eirik wasn't a "name," but he was a respected writer who never took himself or the entertainment scene too seriously. It repaid him in full. When he died last month in Rancho Mirage of complications from a long battle with heart disease, his passing went all but ignored by colleagues. (Life partner Lani Young published a lovely remembrance in The Desert Sun.)
The Toronto Star -- which dropped his byline when he needed the paper most -- assigned someone to the obit who obviously didn't know, or care. The story was about a longtime Star fixture named Eirik Knudsen. A setrec on the misspelled surname ran a day later. 
"I was very embarrassed by this particular error," said entertainment editor Douglas Cudmore. "We've spoken to those involved and run a correction. Thanks for writing." 
Eirik, one of the great iconoclasts, would have managed a pained smile, and then remarked, "You can't fault them for being inconsistent."
December 21, 2008 4:23 PM | | Comments (0)
Bewailing as we do here the shaky health of arts journalism, I was shocked to solicit an assignment from the online-only Barnes & Noble Review, which had a good rep with a few contributors I knew, only to be offered not just an assignment but a monthly column. I was so shocked that at first I didn't know what to say--since leaving the Voice in 2006, all my paid writing had been short, and I'd gotten out of the habit of conceiving essays.

Fortunately, there was this blog, where I do conceive essays of sorts, but execute them off-the-cuff because I can't afford the time through thought and through composition require. And in fact I'd been thinking about a post celebrating a book by NAJP Fellow Tom Moon: 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die. The initial conception was pretty sketchy, just an eleborated birth announcement, but as I paged through the book the ideas started popping and I didn't know what I would do. B&N answered that question: for a longtime specialist in capsule record reviews to describe Moon's compendium would be a perfect way for said writer to introduce himself to a new audience.

So, herewith a link to the inaugural Rock & Roll & at its new home. And herewith some commentary from Tom:

as you know better than anyone, books like this rarely get reviewed, and when they do, it's usually in a single paragraph, a mention in a gift guide, etc.
this is the first real appraisal we've had. it means a ton.
Isn't it nice when professional writers can get paid to talk to each other in public? Being a critic and all, I couldn't resist doing my share and maybe slightly more than my share of criticizing--ideally, the shape would have been a little different, maybe 5-10 percent more laudatory. One thing I would have said that maybe someday when I have the ear time, I'm going to pull out the classical list I generated and stream some of that stuff. Thought the Martha Argerich, especially the Ravel, sounded pretty good.
December 20, 2008 8:26 AM | | Comments (3)
In response to Laura Collins-Hughes entry "The Critic vs. His Paper":

What a relief.  I thought publishers forcing writers to slant their articles a particular direction was just a problem in China.  When I worked as the editor of a Hong Kong-based English publication in Shanghai, the publisher often asked me not to write negative reviews out of fear that we would lose advertising revenue.  My arguments that sales and editorial were separate entities fell upon deaf ears.

How comforting it is to know that American publications, which pride themselves on being more "free" and "objective" than publications in the PRC, are just as guilty. 

Perhaps publishers aren't only at fault.  As John Rockwell says in his response, we journalists often succumb to self-censorship.  I've often noticed book reviews written by an author's peers who don't want to offend the critiqued author.  The results are at worst glowing or at best neutral.  If a book is bad, why not just say it's bad?      

Perhaps the American press should come out from their facade of objectivity and no censorship and allow journalists to accept payment for certain pieces.  Politicians take money from their corporate constituents.  Why can't we? 

In China, people pay journalists to write positive articles.  I am NOT calling this payola, mind you, because payola is defined by Merriam-Webster as "undercover or indirect payment (as to a disc jockey) for a commercial favor (as for promoting a particular recording)."  In China, it's neither "undercover" nor "indirect."  Journalists go to a press conference, and when they leave, there is cash in their gift bag.

Maybe orchestras (if they actually have any money) will start doing that here, too.  Two free tickets, along with two free bills, in your holiday gift basket.  Now, that's an excellent Christmas idea.   
December 18, 2008 4:19 PM | | Comments (0)
Idolator just posted an IM interview with an online record reviewer who, toilers in other fields should note, make just about zero money (plus what sounds like a promo CD or two a day, if that) for his arts journalism. This is a valuable undertaking; I'd read a dozen more, and recommend it to anyone who cares enough about arts journalism to visit this site. But I'd like to register three  . . . call them observations, don't want to say something judgmental like quibbles.

1) I can see no reason why this interview in particular (maybe not others in what seems to be a series) needs to be anonymous (or as the header has it, anonimous). The observations about the editorial process are general and, I'd say, quite mild--milder than one would wish, since who's a relatively responsible editor and who isn't it valuable info (though were he naming names the interviewee's desire for anonymity would make sense).

2) Interviewer and interviewee agree without further comment that the desire to be on "the vanguard of something" is an important reason to do this work. I would say that the desire to tell people about good music they're unaware of is one important reason to do the work. But so is elucidating the known. Kneejerk vanguardism is an important reason so much online record reviewing sucks. There's brief mention somewhere in there of the pleasure and profitability of enjoying and presenting music in the communal space of the club. And then somewhere else both guys brag that their year-end top 10s include almost nothing in anybody else's top 10. There's an unexamined and probably altogether unconscious contradiction there

 3) Guy's a professional writer. Maybe he doesn't have the taste or a knack for the somewhat ridiculous jewelbox concision almost all print record reviewing now requires. But most of the editors I work with keep an eye out for fresh talent. The right person doesn't always have to make $20. Makes me curious. Makes me wish I had just a sample of Windupbird's non-IM prose.
December 18, 2008 10:20 AM | | Comments (1)

Laura Collins-Hughes had an interesting posting recently asking if anyone had been pressured by his/her editors to be positive about some local institution (cf. the Cleveland Orchestra vs. Don Rosenberg).

I can't recall any such incident, but self-censorship is as repressive, maybe, as censorship. At The New York Times, everyone is painfully aware of the paper's all-powerful role in New York/national culture. Any editor would bridle at the thought that he might be pressured from even further up the food chain to ease up on some particular institution, and indeed the Times has run reporting (and certainly criticism) unfavorable to many of them.

Yet there is a prevailing ethos that we carry a big stick and should wield it lightly. I agree with that, but Gray Lady gentility can easily slip into avoidance. When the previous publisher was chairman of the board of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, at least some of the Culture staff automatically gave that institution more play in the listings or felt nervous about sidewiping remarks against it ("gratuitous" sideswiping remarks, they might have said).

Me, I disliked meanness or unfairness, so in that sense (and many others, like the use of "Mr.," which I always loved, even to the point of deliberate parody, as in Mr. Pop or Mr. Loaf), I fit right into the Times mold. What got me was not the pressure to be positive but, sometimes, especially in the dreaded Howell Raines years, to be negative.

I remember a piece I wrote about Joni Mitchell's CD of orchestrally accompanied versions of some of her finest songs. I hated it: I thought it was pompous and leaden. But an editor came up to me eagerly after he'd read what I turned in and pushed me to expand it and sharpen it. Being negative, in his eyes, was equivalent to being sharp and controversial; it would boost buzz and readership. In other words, go easy on the institutions but hard on the artists.

I am embarrassed to admit that I went along with his suggestion, and the piece ran as a wildly over-played full-page blast against an artist whom I had long admired (with the inevitable caveats). A few months later (why so long, Joni?), Mitchell called me up out of the blue and expressed her outrage. I thought she was way over the top, as well as tactically foolish. But I respected her for making the call, too, and felt even worse that I had gone along with cheap journalism.

December 16, 2008 3:11 PM | | Comments (1)
The NEA's sparkling-new brochure, "All America's a Stage: Growth and Challenges in Nonprofit Theater," manages to feel dated even on the day of its release.

Take this paragraph from Dana Gioia's generally upbeat preface:

Has the nonprofit theater sector expanded too quickly? Seemingly not. Despite the broad and rapid expansion of nonprofit theaters, these organizations have generally healthy finances. Their balance sheets are strong, with assets growing and liabilities remaining flat. Nonprofit theaters have also effectively diversified their sources of support. Individual patrons have collectively increased their already high levels of giving, providing over 40 percent of contributed revenue.

Since strong balance sheets are transparently no longer the status quo, I can't help wondering if the paragraph that follows was shoehorned in so that the report wouldn't appear completely irrelevant, not to say delusional. It reads, in full:

The only area for concern in the healthy financial profile of the nonprofit theaters is their historical vulnerability to large economic downturns. During both of the last two major recessions, total revenue and contributions fell markedly. This vulnerability could create issues for the nonprofit theater community in the current recession.

Oh, that.

Briskly moving on, Gioia grimly identifies "one significant and persistent problem facing American theater--attendance for spoken theater has steadily deteriorated." (The shrinking audience may be due in part to "lower media coverage," he says.) But there's good news! "These audience declines do not seem primarily dependent on high ticket prices. Audiences appear willing to pay higher prices for events they want to attend."

Uh, a pair of predictions: In future research, the audience for musical theater will be found to have declined around now, too -- as will cash-strapped theaters' ability to produce musicals. And ticket prices will be found to have been very much an issue.
December 15, 2008 9:48 AM | | Comments (0)
My post about Lexy Benaim's Kings of Leon review got a comment from Joe Levy that alarmed me more than it probably should have. Whole thing's worth reading, but here's what got  me.

No one listens to music on a sound system anymore. This gross generalization (I have a million of 'em, including "no one watches television on TV anymore") is an overstatement meant to reflect a generational truth, which is that stereos are no longer in fashion. A five-speaker surround-sound rig for your TV (which is used to watch DVDs and play video games, not -- as I've previously stated -- to watch television; that's what Hulu and Torrent are for), that's worth having. But big speakers for music? No thanks.

Now, I have long been well aware that MP3s and their various players have privatized music listening, as Joe goes on to explain and my post mentioned as well. But for some reason--even though my own daughter stopped using her boombox years ago, inspiring us to remove it from our perpetually cluttered living room--I'd never made the leap to Joe's gross generalization. As a critic, I depend on earphones to expand my listening time--crappy little ones, though I now own a decent pair for travel. But beyond the occasional self-evident Dud, where the act of criticism is putting the name of an album in a list, I find it very difficult to write about a record without having heard it over my perfectly adequate but hardly high-end sound system. Partly the issue is sheer audio--depth and presence more than detail. But more important is that for me music doesn't fully become music until it approximates a social fact by existing outside of my head.

The thought that most young listeners feel no such need--that at best they hear music in an aural environment that consists of their desk (though admittedly computer speakers can be jacked up to boombox proportions, so music fills a dorm room or a bedroom)--so troubled me that I thought I should do some rudimentary research. So I sent out an email to three recent classes I'd taught and got responses back from 11 students in the Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music--obviously an atypical sample, since every one of them takes courses in sound engineering--and seven nonspecialist liberal arts types, all but one interested in arts journalism, six from Princeton and one from NYU.

Only one of the REMU students didn't have what I would call a good sound system, and even that student used a boombox at home. Three or four hooked high-quality studio monitors up to their computers, and three or four went more high-end than that--higher than me. Those who used headphones used good headphones, and several avoided them altogether to protect their ears. I thought a few rather heartening comments from these sound-conscious twentysomethings were worth quoting.

A constant music listener said he's "been known to save new, unheard music till I get home to my nice speakers, instead of instantly listening on the lower-quality iPod and its little earbuds." Reported another student of his communal living situation: "Between three other suitemates and two friends next door there are four good sound systems, all of which get louder than what my parents have at home. . . . I'm the only musician, there's one Spanish major, one English, two economics, and one Shaman (Gallatin lets you make your own major)." Said the most serious audiophile in my tiny sample: "It's fun to be with a small group of friends and actually put on a record. Rather than for quality, there's something comforting in the process of selecting an item to pay attention to for the next forty minutes with no constant interruption in sight." Finally, one monitor user had a somewhat less encouraging observation: "Around my house where 9 other guys live, listening from the atrocious MacBook pro speakers is very common, then tiny standalone speakers with a subwoofer is the next most common."

In a way, though, the liberal arts responses were also encouraging. Three of the seven did the heaphone-computer speakers thing, but only the one who's least interested in music limited it to that--one indiephile allowed as she sometimes played CDs in her home boombox "for nostalgia reasons," and a recent graduate who used to have a classical music show on the Princeton radio station waxed nostalgia about his family's '92 Nissan Pathfinder "with tremendously large speakers in the back": "the sound was awesome." (Here let me interject that I love to play CDs in the car, which becomes, I guess, a space simultaneously internal and external--especially in the dark, with nothing else to think about and my wife offering comments beside me.) But the other four had the modern version of the hi-fi--a Bose in one case, but more often good speakers hooked up to the computers where most students now store their music. What this says about CD sales proper is another matter. But at least in this sample of younger listeners with some sort of commitment to the arts, complete atomization and miniaturization is not yet the rule.

December 14, 2008 8:29 AM | | Comments (4)
Show of hands: How many of the writers out there have ever been ordered by an editor or publisher to back off "negative" coverage of a prominent institution that's pressuring your news outlet? (My hand is up.) How many of the editors out there have ever been pressured by higher-ups to fire a critic because of complaints from a prominent institution that's feeling persecuted by bad reviews? (My hand is up again.)

For anyone who's been in either of those infuriating, too-common positions, there's no way not to be heartened by former Cleveland Plain Dealer classical music critic Donald Rosenberg's possibly quixotic lawsuit protesting his removal from his beat. From today's Plain Dealer

Plain Dealer reporter Donald Rosenberg has sued the newspaper, the Cleveland Orchestra and the Musical Arts Association among others for what he called a conspiracy to oust him from a beat he held for 15 years.

In the lawsuit, filed Thursday in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court, Rosenberg charges that the arts association and other defendants launched a campaign to destroy his reputation as a music critic following a 2004 article that presented the orchestra's conductor, Franz Welser-Möst, in a negative light.

It's nice to see Rosenberg taking a stand, whether or not he has a leg to stand on, legally.
December 12, 2008 12:37 PM | | Comments (0)
After reading this week's Entertainment Weekly's "25 Smartest People in TV," I have to ask: Jon Stewart - No. 24?!  Really?!  He barely made it?!  Stewart ranked behind America's Top Model host Tara Banks, Gossip Girl executive producer Josh Schwartz, and a slew of studio presidents.  Perhaps EW needs to redefine the word "smart."

After this historic election year, surely Stewart deserves to be in the top ten of all time.  Night after night, The Daily Show host and executive producer saved our sanity from TV's 24-hour news dribble and high-tech distraction (including those absurd CNN holograms).  Stewart not only entertained us with campaign ridiculousness, he infused it with his signature sardonic brand of intelligence.  No other late night host captures that same brilliant blend of smarts and laughs.  

Even after the election, Stewart didn't lose his edge (although some think he may once George W. Bush leaves office - who is he going to make fun of now?).  His comment on the auto industry bail out last week was spot on, and his interview segments retain their educated, yet improvised humor.  (I wouldn't be surprised if he actually reads many of the books he covers - something real news hosts don't even do.)


The Daily Show's regular epilogue "Moment of Zen" last night featured President Bush's questionable actions at this year's National Christmas Tree Lighting.  When Santa Claus held out his hand for his presidential hand shake, Bush instead presented his fist for a holiday bump.  Could this actually mean the President and Santa are... can we say it... terrorists?

If Santa really is a terrorist, I recommend you listen to Stewart's Hanukkah duet with Steven Colbert sung on "A Colbert Christmas."  It may just convince you that the Jewish holiday is better than Christmas... or not.

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December 12, 2008 2:17 AM | | Comments (0)
Former NAJP fellow Jerome Weeks -- who is also a former longtime staff book and theater critic for The Dallas Morning News, now a producer-reporter at KERA in Dallas -- reports this dismal devolution:

In the Dallas and Fort Worth daily newspapers, there will no longer be separate reviews of many cultural organizations and events. The two city papers, the Dallas Morning News and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, have begun running the same review by the same writer. It's the latest development in what has been a series of cutbacks affecting area arts reporting and reviewing. With newspapers across the country facing serous financial problems, maintaining an individual, local critic's voice is no longer a priority, even when the arts in question are locally based.

Here's the full story.
December 10, 2008 10:04 PM | | Comments (0)

There's too much stuff.

Ten years ago, you had a shot of at least being aware of everything that mattered. Five years ago, you had to be really selective about what you took in, but at least it was possible to know what you didn't know. Today, it's impossible. Today, you can't even read every article on a thin slice of a thin topic.

December 9, 2008 1:37 PM | | Comments (0)
Kings of Leon are four inbred-looking brothers and cousins from Tennessee whose 2003 debut album got US critics slightly excited. I was dubious; as so often happens, I thought crits were attracted to the novelty of a concept the band had yet to fill out with material--meaning tunes, lyrics, songs. By the time of their next album, which I thought was much better, crits here had moved on to the next concept, a shift facilitated by the band's accomplished stupid act. But in Europe, where in this century American bands have entered the market with an entire government's stupid act against them, they'd caught on--presumably as avatars of some stupidly conceived authenticity, I don't have the energy to investigate the details. Anyway, having concluded (provisionally) that their 2007 album was neither here nor there, I liked the 2008 one better and went casting about the web for orientation. Soon I determined that by Metacritic's stupid metric, they'd gotten 100 from the UK's Observer Music Monthly and a 38 and 20, respectively, from reigning US webmags Pitchfork and PopMatters. And there in the middle was a supposed 60 from this paper I used to read a lot called The Village Voice. And in that review, by a critic I'd never heard of named Lexy Benaim, I found the following sentence:

But "Closer," "Use Somebody," and "Be Somebody" could only work at giant festivals: Through headphones or computer speakers, Caleb's echoey vocals just don't ring credible.

Turns out Benaim is lead singer of the Harlem Shakes, a local band of minor repute and small but not altogether nonexistent formal similaity to Kings of Leon. No previous Voice appearances. So I'm not blaming him. Given the logistics of the current Voice review section, where lengths look to be 300-400 words, I'm not even blaming his editor, the estimable Rob Harvilla, though I prefer Rob's writing to his editing. What strikes me about the part of the sentence after the colon is that it's at once so momentous and so unexamined. In the review, it has a context--Benaim's thesis is that this KOL album, which he likes somewhat less than I do (though more than 60--who makes these asinine calculations?), is their "arena-rock" album. Fine, don't like arena-rock; I don't much like it much myself, though I try to imply why when that taste comes into play. But the idea that a piece of rock and roll has to signify through headphones or computer speakers, while it obviously reflects the way many on-the-go young people hear a lot of music these days (hope when he's home that Benaim can easily hook his laptop up to his home sound system, which I hope he owns), is clearly worthy of a little exploration. There really are a lot of gradations between iPod and convention center. Instead, the assumption is left hanging.

Review lengths, which have been declining approximately forever, are a big part of this. In a 300-400 word review, assumptions are inevitably left hanging. And perhaps somewhere in the trackless expanses of web-based musical rumination, somebody--conceivably somebody worth reading--has done some version of this job. But even in Pitchfork, where writers are allowed to go on, I find very little of this kind of historical and contextual self and subcultural examination. After all, the privatization of music consumption that the iPod-computer speaker model assumes--and though I am a proud and stinky old fart, let me note that I have worn headphones around my neck daily for nearly three decades now--doesn't exactly encourage the mindset such examination requires. When people's tastes and judgments are atomized, idiosyncratic by carefully cultivated choice, they're much less likely to think outside their own aesthetic responses. They won't look for historical patterns because at some level they think they're immune to them even as they pursue the cutting edge just over the horizon.

Wonder if Rob Harvilla could figure out a way to write a column about this. Guy gets 1200 words or something. These days, that's Being and Nothingness acreage.
December 9, 2008 11:10 AM | | Comments (2)

Sunny von Bulow's death has triggered various disconnected memories. The night after I heard the news (on the Internet; it was in the papers the next day) I ran into Alexandra Isles, the actress and now acclaimed documentary filmmaker, who had played a key role in the Bulow trials and whom I once knew and liked and whom I hadn't seen for years. That reminded me of my one encounter with Claus von Bulow (whom Jeremy Irons nailed in the film "Reversal of Fortune"; asked how perverse he/Bulow really was, Irons replied, "You have no idea," in a line reading that has become classic Hollywood).

Ten or fifteen years ago I was on the train/bus from Victoria Station to Glyndebourne, and a friend introduced me to von Bulow, with whom I then had a long conversation. (The friend kept calling him Hans, the cuckolded conductor who championed Wagner and gave up Cosima to him, which finally prompted a gentle correction from Claus.)

I found him saturnine but charming in his way. In her ArtsJournal blog, Drama Queen, Wendy Rosenfield has jokingly suggested parallels between von Bulow and Ben Brantley, since von Bulow has been writing theater and other arts reviews in London. His father was a theater critic and playwright, as well.

Anyhow, von Bulow said he wrote his reviews for a Catholic monthly, I think it was. He added without encouragement from me that he enjoyed stressing the kinky sex angles in the plays he saw. I asked him if that posed any problems with the priest who edited the journal.

"Oh, no," he replied, or words to that effect. "He thinks that letting me get away with that proves how progressive Catholicism has become."

December 9, 2008 8:17 AM | | Comments (1)
The e-mail showed up in my inbox this morning, and I cringed as I read the subject line: "Support LAByrinth by joining THE 17 CAMPAIGN!" Another fund-raising pitch, this one from LAByrinth Theater Company, the innovative, guy-heavy troupe that boasts a long-term residency at the Public Theater and boldface name Philip Seymour Hoffman as co-artistic director.

A lot of excellent new work percolates at LAByrinth, much of it in the company's series of free staged readings, one of which operates under the spectacular name Live Nude Plays. So it wasn't the worthiness of the pitch that put me off; it was the seeming futility of launching a fund-raising campaign in this climate.

But LAByrinth, which is in its 17th year, is doing something rather clever here: It's asking for a mere $17 -- or, "if you can afford it," $17 per quarter, month or week.

If other arts organizations are willing to be this creative in their thinking, things might not get so bleak after all.
December 8, 2008 1:20 PM | | Comments (0)

At the risk of annoying John further, I want to spend a bit of time talking about Roger Ebert's column on the state of film criticism from last week. It contains, among other things, a helpful list of departed movie critics. But it also offers this argument for critics in newspapers:

Why do we need critics? A good friend of mine in a very big city was once told by his editor that the critic should "reflect the taste of the readers." My friend said, "Does that mean the food critic should love McDonald's?" The editor: "Absolutely." I don't believe readers buy a newspaper to read variations on the Ed McMahon line, "You are correct, sir!" A newspaper film critic should encourage critical thinking, introduce new developments, consider the local scene, look beyond the weekend fanboy specials, be a weatherman on social trends, bring in a larger context, teach, inform, amuse, inspire, be heartened, be outraged.

Here here. Unfortunately, many newspapers have long ago moved away from offering this. It's now replaced by:

At one time all newspapers by definition did those things on every page. Now they are lascivious gossips, covering invented beats. On one single day recently, I was informed that Tom and Katie's daughter Suri "won't wear pants" and shares matching designer sunglasses with her mom. No, wait, they're not matching, they're only both wearing sunglasses. Eloping to Mexico: Heidi and Spencer. Britney is feeling old. Amy is in the hospital. George called Hugh in the middle of the night to accuse him of waging a campaign to take away the title of "sexiest man alive." Pete discussed naming his son Bronx Mowgli. Ann's jaw was wired shut. Karolina's belly button is missing. Madonna and A-Rod might, or might not, spend Thanksgiving together. Some of Valentino's makeup rubbed off on Sarah Jessica. Miley and Justin went out to lunch. Justin and Jessica took their dogs for a walk.

True. But so what? Ebert worries that:

The celebrity culture is infantilizing us. We are being trained not to think. It is not about the disappearance of film critics. We are the canaries. It is about the death of an intelligent and curious, readership, interested in significant things and able to think critically. It is about the failure of our educational system. It is not about dumbing-down. It is about snuffing out.

Okay - I'm a huge consumer of news, probably more so than most people. But did I see any of the stories Ebert listed above? No. Yes there's a lot of celebrity news, and if you're looking for it, you're like a pig in s... er slop. If you read your news indiscriminately, you'll stumble over more than a little of it. Ten or 15 years ago this would have been a problem if you were interested in movie reviews.

But it's actually easier if you're a movie fan to read intelligent movie reviews now than it was a decade ago. I can go to and find 112 reviews of Synecdoche, New York, and get a much wider range of opinion and exactly the kind of provocative criticism Ebert cherishes. I can follow Broadway or the travails of the LA art world much more easily than I could before. Yes, lots of this coverage is still being published in the daily newspapers. But increasingly

December 5, 2008 8:42 AM | | Comments (0)
The Bay Area theatre world is still recovering from news of the sudden closure of American Musical Theatre of San Jose (AMTSJ) - a shocking story that has repercussions for three theatres across the U.S.

AMTSJ announced Monday they were closing immediately and filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.   Although the Bay Area's premier musical theatre venue was carrying a $2 million dollar deficit, it seems another theatre precipitated its final demise.  

The San Jose company had plans to co-produce Disney's "Tarzan" with Atlanta's Theatre of the Stars and Dallas Summer Musicals.  The show was set to open in Atlanta in January and then arrive in the Bay Area the following month.  Both AMTSJ and Dallas Summer Musicals had given Theatre of the Stars an advance of $225,000.

But then, according to a statement made by AMTSJ CEO and executive producer Michael Miller, his company got a call from the Atlanta theatre saying "they had used all the funds that we paid them towards the production on other things.  In essence, they cancelled the show without giving us any warning, and we discovered that the funds we had paid for Tarzan were spent on another production of theirs, which lost a significant amount of money."  

Theatre of the Stars released a statement saying that it actually used the $225,000 from AMTSJ and the Dallas company for preproduction expenses on "Tarzan" and that it is "working with the other theatres on repayment plans for their pre-production advances."  But officials there refused to comment further due to the pending lawsuit filed by AMTSJ to recoup the lost funds.

The $225,000, however, is just a drop in the bucket.  AMTSJ estimates it will lose $1.7 million in revenue from the production, including $800,000 in tickets already sold.

The theatre had high hopes for "Tarzan," which was to be a new version revised by David Henry Hwang, who originally wrote the book in 2006.  "It was an extremely exciting project for us, because Disney was going to take a look at it and maybe purchase it back from us, so it was a really huge opportunity to mount the beginnings of a national tour between the three companies," Miller said.  The new "Tarzan" has been a major hit in Holland where it's approaching its second year.  Now that this production is cancelled, Hwang says he does not know of any other plans to produce it in the U.S.

The Tony Award-winning playwright had just finished worked with AMTSJ on "Flower Drum Song."  He says, "I was shocked to hear about the closing of AMTSJ.  It seems incomprehensible to me that an established, reputable organization like Theatre of the Stars could have engaged in, at best, gross negligence, at worst, outright deception.  It pains me to realize that my first experience [at AMTSJ] appears to have been my last... The loss of AMTSJ leaves a great hole in the Bay Area theatre scene, and serves as a painful reminder of the fragility of even established arts organizations; they all require our vigilant support."  

In this crumbling economy, theatres not only require our support.  They must do whatever they can to support each other, not commit fratricide.


AMTSJ's closure comes on the heels of another shake-up in the Northern California musical theatre world.  Last month, Scott Eckern, artistic director of California Musical Theatre (the state's largest nonprofit musical theatre company) resigned amidst criticism of his donation in support of Proposition 8.  Eckern donated $1000 to the campaign that helped pass the measure banning same-sex marriage.  Gay rights activists and theatre artists, including "Hairspray" composer Marc Shaiman, then led a boycott of the Sacramento theatre, which ended when Eckern resigned.      

Shaiman also recently led a more light-hearted effort to protest Proposition 8 - a "Waiting for Guffman"-like online video called "Prop 8: The Musical."  Posted Wednesday on Will Ferrell and Adam McKay's, the video features stars like Jack Black, John C. Reilly, Margaret Cho, Maya Rudolph, and Neil Patrick Harris.  Black plays Jesus, who fails to get the two sides to find common ground.  It's Harris who coaxes the Prop 8 proponents to admit: "I can see America's calling me.  Yes, gay marriages will save the economy."  

See more Jack Black videos at Funny or Die

Movie theatre chain Cinemark is also getting flack for its CEO's donation to the Yes on Prop 8 campaign.  Alan Stock gave $9,999 to help pass the measure, prompting No on 8 protesters to boycott the cinemas.

Cinemark will actually open "Milk" at San Francisco's CineArts Empire Friday - a potentially hypocritical business decision.  The film chronicles the political life of gay rights activist Harvey Milk, who was the first openly gay man to get elected to major public office in the US.  After being elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977, he was later assassinated by fellow supervisor Dan White.  Prop 8 opponents are now urging people to see "Milk" at any cinema other than a Century, CineArts or Tinseltown theatre (


Cinemark theatre or not, go see "Milk."  Do not miss this incredible film directed by Gus Van Sant.  Van Sant infuses Milk's story with a realistic exuberance and gritty grace in a city where change is both palpable and passionate.  He celebrates Milk, the hero, but never loses sight of Milk, the man, who didn't start his political career until after his 40th birthday, when he proclaims, "I'm 40, and I haven't done anything I'm proud of."

The movie sets a prescience for America's present political renaissance; Milk starts as a community organizer, like Barack Obama; his fight against a proposition requiring schools to fire gay teachers parallels today's battle over gay marriage.  The cast is superb, especially Sean Penn as Milk.  Penn not only exudes Milk's charm, persistence, and fighting spirit, but he also embraces his dorky giddiness and complicated vulnerability.  The result is at once inspiring and tragic.  For days after, you'll marvel at the human potential for hope and change, and then crash upon the realization that one disturbed force could destroy it all in an instant.  

If you find yourself in the Bay Area, do what you can to see it at the Castro Theatre.  This beautiful, historic movie house, highlighted in the film itself, offers a uniquely complete experience - the film doesn't end when you walk out because you're on the very block where it takes place.  You'll find your own present reality merging seamlessly and uncannily with art and history.

December 4, 2008 3:14 AM | | Comments (0)
Variety offers this grim little roundup of what it calls the "mass exodus" of New York theater critics in recent weeks.
December 3, 2008 3:13 AM | | Comments (0)

Every week New York magazine divides a page into four quarters, filled with snarky squibs of text and bite-sized photos referring to cultural events or persons or trends as chosen by the page's hipper-than-thou editors. The further left you go, the range moves from "brilliant" to "despicable." From top to bottom, it's highbrow to lower brow.

This week, in the lower right corner of the upper left quadrant (meaning tending toward the despicable and pretty close to low from high), is the item: "Journalists pontificating endlessly about the future of journalism."

For "journalists," read "arts journalists," especially in this blog. We tend to navel-gaze, and there is lot to fret about. But excessive self-involvement is not likely to win sympathy or jobs or foundation grants.

Taking advice from the wit and wisdom of this page of New York magazine is a little like planning your future based on a fortune cookie. But we do have an inclination to whine, and the occasional corrective is always salutary. 

December 2, 2008 8:49 AM | | Comments (1)
... will arts coverage in general and arts criticism in particular be left behind? This is what I kept wondering as I read the New York Times piece today on CNN's new wire service.

Every time a newspaper I've worked for has considered cutting a wire service, fear has struck the arts staff. Newspaper managers are unlikely to do without a service that gives them national, international, sports, and business coverage, and CNN surely knows that. No doubt the network comprehends the indispensability of entertainment coverage as well; a recent ad for CNN Wire news editors seeks, among others, a "Los Angeles-based news editor, focusing on entertainment news." But arts coverage has never been a TV-news strong suit, and it's grown weaker and weaker in recent years. Arts criticism on TV is nearly nonexistent.

Unlikely as it is that CNN will grasp the importance of substantial coverage of the arts -- which both the AP, particularly in books and theater, and Bloomberg News, particularly in visual art, do offer -- it may be even less likely that those who call the shots at newspapers will demand it.
December 1, 2008 10:45 AM | | Comments (0)



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