Friday, February 27, 2009

Closer to Fine

Well, I'm nearly off to spend a week with my close pals Amy Ray, Lyle Lovett, Shawn Colvin, John Hiatt, etc. I'll miss you all and, due to my absence, the shoddy updatedness of the "Now Showing" section will be even worse than usual. Sorry, peeps.

Also, I won't be around to approve comments but don't shy away from making them anyway. The comments-on-web-sites discussion continues below and your opinions are just as valid and interesting whether they see the light of website today or a week from now.

I look forward to getting back and seeing gobs of theater in March. See you at the theater -- I'll be the sunburned one in the front row...

Thursday, February 26, 2009

I Respectfully Disagree

I always enjoy it when Rick posts something here (or anywhere, really. You should check out his blog at AGL sometime). I think he is consistently one of the smartest, thoughtful, and informed people in theater that I know.

But on this whole posting-on-reviews thing (see comments on previous post), while I concur with the spirit of at least some of Rick’s statements (see David Denby’s “Snark” to read some thoughts on what the Internet is doing to our national conversation), I respectfully disagree with the letter of it.

First of all, regardless of whether you think it is a terrible practice or not, it is where we are. The Internet brought many amazing things to us all and one of those things is the ability to make us a more truly interactive society. Readers now expect to have the ability to interact more immediately with written content – whether it’s through embedded hyperlinks, complimentary video/audio, or the ability to post comments. One of the reasons print media is dying is because consumers now demand the immediacy and interactivity that the Internet provides.

Beyond that economic / functional reality, there is a democratization involved in this interactive media that I believe is overall a good thing. How many times have I decried (or heard other decry) the “imperial reviewer” in the past? The concept that the reviewer is some peerless “expert” just because his/her words and opinions are the ones that get published is still regularly complained about. For years, people have argued that their opinion is worth as much or more than the one in the Times, Style or the Times-Dispatch. So yes, now, everyone can be a critic if they want to be and post their comments or write their blogs. Power to the people!

The problematic aspect of this is that the ability for us to be truly interactive does not automatically or magically elevate the level of conversation. Yes, there is a lot of anonymous snark and mean-spirited knuckle-dragging and mindless babble. But is that the fault of the website that allows it? No. You open up the place for interaction and you get whatever interaction comes your way. People used to argue against universal suffrage because the average person is too stupid to make an informed choice. But Democracy won out in America, and we see the results in our leadership (good and bad), and these days we see it in the Comments sections of our websites.

So we are all subject to gobs of drek online now. However, having said that, I have found a LOT of value in the comments I have read, both on this blog and on the Style website. Yes, I have to filter out the babble and the snark – and the well-meaning people who manage to infer that I lack class, even as they are trying to be productive (thanks, Andrew!) I don’t believe the answer is to shut down the process. I believe it is imperative on us to raise the level of the conversation when we can, be more discerning of the garbage and snark, and if possible rescue the pearls out of the muck.

For example: the whole underwear debate about Amadeus. The initial commenter cared enough about what was said in the review to do independent research and then write something about it. As a reviewer, I wouldn’t feel undermined by that; I would feel appropriately challenged. With the Children of a Lesser God review, someone impugned Ms. Seigel’s ASL ability. Surely, this person had an axe to grind but it also made me think that I really didn’t have any basis to judge her ASL ability and that, to a deaf person watching the show, that ability would have been crucial to their enjoyment of it. Important insight embedded within a snarky comment.

So even if the bulk of anonymous commentary is drek, I’d rather have the comments (for the percentage of value derived however small) than not to have them just because they can be irritating. If the reviews I write can be undermined by someone who has an axe to grind against me, then I should consider (or my editor should consider) whether I should be the one writing those reviews. And if someone just wants to say, “your review SUCKED,” fine, that’s someone’s opinion and they’ve got a right to it. If an actor / director / designer is annoyed to the point of distraction by some snarky comments on the Internet (or by simple or frank criticism), they should get out of the business. In my reviews, I don’t normally say – “hey, that aspect of the production sucked” – but you can bet sometimes I’m thinking it. If an anonymous commenter says the same thing as I would only more bluntly, it doesn’t necessarily make it wrong in my book.

After all, in the olden days, didn’t they bring rotten fruit to the theater? Yes, digital rotten tomatoes are annoying, stupid, ridiculous, etc., but they are only the latest vehicle for audiences expressing their opinions.

Finally, as a big fat caveat to all of this, I think commentary submitted to websites, blogs, etc., should be edited and culled based on the appropriateness of the content. The wide-open commentary that I allowed on this blog at first provided a quick study in how people can cross that line from snarky or stupid to damaging and potentially libelous. I’m pretty sure there is some approval mechanism at the Style site for comments, but I’m not sure. Since I started putting comment moderation on this blog in response to a couple particularly mean-spirited comments, I have only felt compelled to deny one comment. Have all the comments been pearls of wisdom? Not exactly. But the benefit of the conversation – regardless of how insightful – clearly outweighs the disadvantages. At least, that’s my opinion.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Whatever a Spider Can

I’m assuming my infrequent posting has reduced my readership to just the 4 or 5 of us. Or maybe everyone is just busy commenting over on the Style site. The comments in response to this week’s reviews have been particularly intriguing, I think. The Amadeus comments make me sad that I’m going to miss the show (see details below) and not just because I’ll miss Ms. Blake’s underwear. The Children of a Lesser God comments make me wonder who is so close to Ms. Siegel and yet so spiteful. Hmmm…

Anyway, I’m taking the drop-off in readership as an opportunity to be more freewheeling with my commentary. Or maybe just a little more up-close-n-personal with what I post.

To whit: here’s a personal tidbit I’ll throw in: my wife and I are leaving town for a while. We’re trading our stripes as theater-lovers for one of the other sets of stripes we sometimes wear: music-lovers. Starting Saturday, we’ll be aboard the Norwegian Dawn for the Cayamo Cruise. While touring the Caribbean, we’ll be treated to concert performances by the likes of the Indigo Girls, Lyle Lovett, and Shawn Colvin as well as some of our favorite smaller bands like Girlyman and Over the Rhine.

Feel free to hate us if you like but it’ll be the longest vacay the lovely Mrs. and I have taken alone since before our first little one popped out more than 15 years ago. I’m a little tenuous about the whole enterprise – particularly given the state of the economy and the scary drop in the value of our savings. But I’m weighing that against the costs – both emotional and financial – of estrangement and divorce and thinking prevention is the best medicine and in fact a relatively prudent course.

The trip will mean I’m going to miss opening nights for two shows I am particularly curious about, “Rabbit Hole” at the Firehouse and “Mona’s Arrangements” out at Hanover Tavern. But I will make it to both of these shows eventually, as should every other responsible theatergoer in town. I mean, Jan, Audra and Scott in one cast? How can you miss that? Unfortunately, I will not be able to see Amadeus before it closes.

Missing shows I want to see is always disappointing – sometimes downright tragic – which is why I may just go ahead and make arrangements now to go see the planned Spiderman musical. Whether it is wonderfully good or spectacularly bad (I’m kinda betting on the latter), this seems like the kind of cultural event that it’d be just criminal to miss.

Speaking of which, I will be back in town for the opening of “Watchmen.” I’m pretty psyched about that one.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Reviews? Here's a few!

Style's "Children of a Lesser God."

Style's "Amadeus."

Times-Dispatch's "Steal Away."

The Emotional Toll

The emotional stability of actors was discussed on this blog many, many months ago (if I can recover a link to that juicy conversation, I’ll re-post it). But regardless of innate stability, one thing that must take an incredible emotional toll on actors and all others involved is the closing of a show. I’m going through the withdrawal process right now with the closing of “Children’s Letters to God” last night and it sucks. And that’s after being only very tangentially involved with the whole enterprise – mostly just drove children to rehearsals and saw the show a half-dozen times or so. But seeing such a great group of folks – performers, crew, parents and families – on a regular basis had me spoiled. I never left the theater sad no matter how I was feeling when I got there. That is, until last night, when the realization sunk in that it was really over.

I don’t really know how actors cope with going through this process on a regular basis. I’m sure I’ll see some – if not all – of the people associated with the play again but the specific joy of being even a small part of this one production can’t exactly be recaptured. It seems almost like a love affair ending – and I expect for many people involved there’s at least some period of wondering how exactly you find the emotional fortitude to go on. I mean, if I’m feeling that way in my capacity largely removed from it all, I can’t imagine how people more intensely involved get past it.

I will replay in my memory my favorite moments from this show for weeks to come – Eric hitting the note at the end of “Like Everybody Else” without fail every night; Lillie’s great “turtleneck” line that never failed to make me laugh; Sean’s “Silly Old Hat” that never failed to choke me up; my dear son’s emphatic, desperate “Dear God” at the beginning of “An Only Child” – the line-reading that may most distinctly typify his off-stage attitude; and Makenzie’s clear, strong voice rising above the rest at the show’s climatic reprise of “I Know.”

Thank you to the cast of CLTG and the whole crew at Stage 1 for making the experience such a positive one for my family. It’s clear to me that the most powerful – and personally transformative – aspects of theater magic work their wonders out of the spotlight and after the audience has left.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Sex Sells

In my ramble about marketing a few weeks ago, I left out one of the more infamous -- but no less tried and true -- tenets of marketing, that is, sex sells. And yet, I think this is another thing that theater tends to shy away from. Why do I think this? Because there have been two shows (both coincidentally at the Firehouse) in the past year or so that I'm pretty sure involved nudity (I didn't see either of them) but this didn't figure into the marketing at all -- even as a warning. For one of the shows ("The Late Henry Moss"), I had no idea nudity was involved (for "The Secret of Mme Bonnard's Bath," I wasn't so surprised).

OK, so theater is "art" and respectable and so no one would want a company to say "Hey, come look at the naked people!" (Well, RTP sometimes strongly implies that you should come look at the naked or near-naked people.) But I know when I see a warning that say "Adult language" or "nudity" or "adult themes," I think "grown-up play" which, beyond the dirty old man reaction, raises the possibility that it might be more interesting.

I go into all of this because of the recent review of Sarah Ruhl's new play called "In the Next Room," which is about a lot of things but clearly is a lot about sex. Which is an indication to me (given Ms. Ruhl's other awesome shows) that a show about sex has the possibility for being thoughtful and insightful and not just salacious and all T & A. You might think (and maybe justifiably) that there's a touch of desperation in going down the "sex sells" route. But I'm hopeful someone like Sarah Ruhl can demonstrate that sex is a nice juicy grown-up subject that can bring people into the theater. Musicals like "Spring Awakening" and even "Avenue Q" used sex very effectively; why not straight plays as well?

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Floppy White Flakes

I wish there was some punny subtext involving the title to this post but mostly it’s just indicative of what’s falling from the sky as I write this. And as I was raised in Cleveland, nothing warms my heart more than a sloppy, wet, snow-slushy morning. It’s like about 1,000 November mornings I experienced during my youth so I’m a happy little clam right now.

I guess one thing that does warm my heart more is the sudden flurry I’ve noticed (perhaps I wasn’t looking hard enough?) of video associated with theater lately. Theatre IV sent out a YouTube clip of “Sideways Stories” with one of their email newsletters, Stage 1 has a great video promo out of “Children’s Letters,” and Grant pointed me to some examples of video Shakespeare. So I am happy to report that I am wrong wrong wrong about theater peeps being wary of video. I’d hardly call this a cavalcade and am a little confused with Mr. Mudge’s assertion that Barksdale does “tons of video.” I can’t dispute that – maybe they do – but if they do, I sure as heck haven’t seen it. Given that I write fairly regular features on theater, shouldn’t I see this stuff if it’s out there? Anyway, I think embracing the new media is a great step.

Also, I’ve fallen behind in the follow-up review department but there is a link over there on the left to Richmond Shakespeare’s “Amadeus” and if you check this week’s Style, there’s an “Of Mice and Men” review. It was nice to see probably half the cast of “OM&M” at various CLTG shows this past weekend, still another heart-warming thing. This keeps up, I won’t need the snow.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Moore of the James

Hi all. I've been battling a nasty cold this week and so have kept all non-sleeping activities to a minimum. While stuck in bed, I did manage to finally read the February issue of "North of the James" that has a lengthy profile of Steve Moore in it. Steve's story is really fascinating. NOTJ doesn't have a web presence that I could find so if you want to read it you probably have to look in those racks outside the grocery stores. Hopefully the February issues aren't all gone by now.

'Amadeus' opens this weekend as well as 'The Chosen' at the JCC and 'Glass Managerie' at Theatre VCU. If I can stop making sounds like I'm coughing up a lung, I'm going to get to Children of a Lesser God this weekend.

I have a warm spot in my heart for 'Glass Managerie' because as part of the only kind-of acting class I ever took, I worked on a scene from that show. It's a great play and I believe I single-handedly sucked all of the greatness out of it during my scene.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Style online

Reviews hit the Style site big-time today. Here are links to reviews of "Altar Boyz," "Children's Letters to God," and "Sideways Stories from Wayside School."

And yes, for those who have already asked me, Cooper is 8 years old, not five. But hey, what's a few years here or there? ;->

Monday, February 09, 2009

Other Worlds

News from other realms of popular entertainment has my emotions all over the place. I just read that Billy Powell died at the end of last month. Powell, who played for Lynyrd Skynyrd for decades, was the best rock-n-roll pianist bar none and I will now feel a small twinge of sadness whenever I hear one of his killer licks in those old Skynyrd classics.

On the complete other end of the spectrum, I also read today that Shawn Johnson, that peppy gymnast whose positive and unpretentious attitude I found inspiring during the Olympics, will be the youngest contestant ever to appear on “Dancing with the Stars.” So that should be fun.

And the whole Chris Brown / Rihanna thing is just weird and disturbing. Brown is the pretty much the only contemporary artist who has emerged in the past 5 years whose concert I’ve been to, and, from what I saw, he’s a pretty phenomenal entertainer. I’ll be disappointed if he has fallen down the tunnel of “troubled teenage star.”

Just a little break from the “all theater, all the time” format. Back to our regular programming tomorrow!

Sunday, February 08, 2009


In case you missed them in the Sunday paper, here are links to reviews of AART's "African American Trailblazers" and "Children of a Lesser God" at the Barksdale. Tomorrow, expecting reviews to show up in the T-D for "Children's Letters to God" and maybe a couple on Style's website as well. I'll update this post when they show up.

UPDATE: CLTG link included now. Both the print and online versions have the funky thing with R. Cooper's name. I had always wondered if the middle-name-as-first-name thing would ever be an issue...never realized it would cause formatting problems. Nice review just the same.


Have you ever seen on heavily trafficked websites when someone posts a comment that just says “First” after an article is published, I guess to just stake their claim as the uber-geek who happened to get there first? It’s pretty annoying, IMHO.

So I’m going to be the annoying critic who posts “First” about “Children’s Letters to God,” since there is no way I could write a review for publication about this show. The show features a cast of five wonderfully talented kids, one of whom happens to be my son. So clearly I cannot be impartial when it comes to this show, not as much because of the actor who shares my last name but more because of the other kids in the cast. These boys and girls worked incredibly hard, had their already substantial skills amplified by the direction of Jimmy Hicks and Chase Kniffen, and are just nice kids besides being great on stage. I wouldn't be able to write a negative thing about any of them even if I tried.

Honestly, in cases like this, I tend to be more critical of my own, flinching at the nearly flubbed line or the slightly off note more distinctly than the average viewer. So the only thing I’m going to say about the young master Timberline is that I’m incredibly proud of him and his dedication to doing well in his role. It’s not often that a father has the opportunity or the honor to be impressed by the work ethic of his pre-adolescent son. I’ll let others analyze whether in the end he succeeds in his efforts or not.

But I will say this, in a cast that is uniformly excellent, Mackenzie Mercer consistently surprises me with her talent. Perhaps it’s due partially to having seen Sean, Lillie and Eric in other shows and knowing how good they are. But from the first line in the first song, “In the beginning…” the clear tone and unwavering strength of Mackenzie’s voice is just captivating. She’s like one of those people who you hear amidst the dozens of lame “American Idol” try-outs and go, “wow, this is someone with real talent.” And for a teenager to have the poise and clarity to make her role (that of a somewhat love-struck girl) real and not cliché impresses me a great deal.

And one last thing: for people who are writing off CLTG as “a kid’s play,” I would strongly encourage you to reconsider. Personally, I think it’s a show in the same league as Stage 1’s last offering, “tick, tick…Boom!” in terms of the issues it raises, the quality of the songs, and the sheer entertainment value of the evening. And it’s got a slew of laugh-out-loud funny moments. If you like musical theater, don’t miss this show. And don’t mind me: I’ll be the one flinching in the back.

Friday, February 06, 2009


After ruminating for over a week, I’ve concluded that I can’t posit anything even resembling answers to the broken LORT business model. I’m frankly too far removed from the details of how it works (or doesn’t work) to know why it’s broken or whether there is any realistic hope of fixing it. My feeling though is that there is more than a whiff of the same scent that dogs Detroit and the auto industry about LORT, that is, a sense that something fundamental needs to change or the whole structure might come tumbling down.

There has been a lot of spirited debate and well-considered commentary about government support of the arts, but even though the new President seems much more willing to consider greater support of the arts in general, an “arts bailout” as part of the current stimulus package being debated seems to me to be a fading hope. Even with a government boost of some sort, similar to other areas of the economy, I expect things will get worse before they get better.

From my removed perspective, most of the debate about LORT and government support concerns organizations bigger than most of the theaters in Richmond. My sense is that most local companies are not worrying about their shrinking endowments as much as they are concerned about scraping $5-$10K together to put up their next production, or securing a grant or sponsorship so they can pay to have any staff at all.

It gets increasingly hard to be a Pollyanna about this kind of thing but the only way to avoid complete despair about the current economic situation, I think, is to consider the situation an opportunity. And what I see in the troubled economy are opportunities for a new insurgency in local theater. What it would involve – IMHO – would be new and aggressive forms of marketing. Here is a scattering of my ideas:

-- Opposition marketing. There was a stink a few years ago when companies started naming the names of their opposition in their advertising. But personally I think it works and I think theater needs to do the same. But not necessarily with other theater companies but other forms of entertainment. Movie tickets are near $10. Concert tickets can be $100 or more. Theater needs to place itself clearly in that hierarchy. “Why spend $50 to hear a bad band play too loudly when you can be enchanted by a new musical for half the price?”

Another opposition tack would be the local versus regional/national argument. “You’d love to go to Broadway, wouldn’t you? Well, you don’t have to spend the money. We have Broadway caliber theater right here!”

-- Cooperation and partnership. While I think theaters need to be place themselves in opposition to other forms of entertainment, they need to work more cooperatively with other theaters. Joint ventures double and triple the reach of a theater into new audiences. And all of the local colleges, universities, and high schools have theater programs. You don’t think they’d love to have more visiting artists, more workshops, more interaction with working professionals in the theater world? I think they would.

-- New media. I think theaters are way behind the curve in terms of utilizing new media to get the word out about local theater. I’ve been turning the idea around about doing a weekly podcast about Richmond theater for months. Why isn’t anyone in the community doing this? WRIR has “Wordy Birds” and Tim Bowring’s show about local artists. Why is no one arranging a meeting between someone with a mellifluous voice like John Porter and a local high school’s drama program and saying, let’s do a weekly podcast and try to get it on WRIR? At least.

And video / YouTube. Is it just my impression or do theater people have some aversion to video? Yes, I grant that a video of good live theater can’t do it justice but it can sure whet someone’s appetite. Hell, movies these days will give you almost the entire movie in a one-minute clip. And people still go see the film. A snippet of a musical posted on YouTube with links mailed out to everyone on Facebook and/or through their Constant Contact list would do a lot more to generate excitement about a production than current print / email efforts, IMHO.

The latest unemployment figures just came out and they aren’t good. Times are going to be tough for a while. Survival during the next year or two is going to be tough. But the theater people I know are creative, hard-working and persistent. I would hope that some of them (some of you!) will find the opportunities buried in the current heap of bad news.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Truth in Advertising

The darling young cast of “Children’s Letters to God” was pictured in the T-D today, which warms my proud papa heart. But I’m wondering whether the kind folks over at the Acts of Faith festival are happy about the indication that the show is part of their event. My understanding is that the show is not part of the festival and the T-D would know that if they just read my articles! I’m curious about how that mistake got into print or whether somehow the status of the show has changed??? Not curious enough to make a phone call, mind you, but still curious all the same.

I’m a day behind the news cycle that trumpeted Al Pacino’s casting in a screen adaptation of “King Lear.” I’ve certainly enjoyed Al in the past (though nothing that I can remember since “Sea of Love”) but I don’t see how this adaptation is going to compete with the Anthony Hopkins version that has a particularly knock-out trio of actresses playing Lear’s daughters.

This weekend is chock full of openings. There’s the previously mentioned CLTG plus CLTG’s titular doppelganger, “Children of a Lesser God,” over at the Barksdale plus AART’s return to the scene with “African American Trailblazers.” This last one is only playing for 6 performances over two weekends so don’t dawdle if you want to check it out.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Gender Jam

It's tech week for "Children's Letters to God" so life at our house is a bit on the over-wrought side, impeding the blogging process. I'll try to break through that tomorrow.

For now, check out Style for my ramble on the more female-centric shows coming up in the next few months.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Oh, and also…

I should mention that arguably the biggest living legend in musical theater is going to be in town tonight. Am I going to be there? I am moderately ashamed to say, no. The grueling middle school basketball schedule will be sucking up all of my spare time tonight. I’ll have to plan better for the next living legend who comes through…

Sideways Mice

Local stages are hopping! One indication is the two reviews in today’s paper, one for “Sideways Stories” at Theatre IV and for “Of Mice and Men” at the Mill. I brought my whole crew to “Stories” on Friday and will have a review in the next day or two. As is becoming an opening night tradition at Theatre IV, my youngest fell asleep in my arms as everyone else made their way through the autograph line. Luckily for me, this time there was no one around taking pictures so the moment wasn’t captured for posterity (and so won’t show up on Theatre IV’s website).

Potentially lost in the midst of all the mainstage openings around town is the debut of “The Penny Executive” at the Science Museum. This is professional theater for $3 people – can’t beat the price! Particularly if the weather turns cold again (which it’s bound to do), I’d suggest wandering over to the Museum sometime and catching that show. I’m planning on it.