In For a Penny: Flex Time

Charles Lewis III, not over yet.

Harry Potter - Fat Lady copy

“Quien canta, sus males espanta. (He who sings frightens away his ills.)”
Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote

I was recently cast in a musical. This surprised me more than anyone else.

Not because I have anything against musicals – quite the contrary, I love them. That’s why I audition for them so often. But since there isn’t a great demand for baritones, I’m the least likely to be cast – especially not in a lead. (Someday, Sweeney. Someday…) No, this is a world that values an off-key, near-castrato Timberlake over a deeply resonant Vandross.

But that hasn’t stopped me from trying. In fact, I was nearly cast in one several years ago, but I declined the role. The last time I performed in a proper musical was, incidentally, the first-ever Theater Pub musical: 2011’s Devil of a Time. Earlier that same year I was in a staged reading/singing for Cutting Ball Theatre. Other than that, it’s just been far-too-few karaoke sessions and a compliment from an opera singer that just made my day: as a supernumerary, one of the tenors sang a note to me. Without thinking, I sang the note back in my natural baritone. He was taken aback, complimenting me and wondering why I was just a super instead of a chorus member.

As such, when the folks behind Philia said they needed to find a replacement baritone for their soon-to-begin rehearsals, I went to the audition expecting nothing more than a courteous “Thanks for coming in” and to never hear anything more until the show opened. Next thing I knew, I was signing a contract for a month-long run and rescheduling auditions and directing jobs around my new rehearsals. After countless auditions for everything from rock operas to remounts, I find myself once again taking to the stage on the basis of a muscle I rarely use.

And that’s when the worry sets in.

As much as I love musical theatre, I’m not at all surprised when people say they hate it. In fact, the reasons they hate it are often the very reasons I love it. It’s true that most people aren’t likely to break into song during the crucial moments in their lives, but as theatre folk we spend our entire lives playing Make Believe – verisimilitude is our stock and trade. To me, words spoken in harmony are no less believable than those spoken in common prose. Or in verse, for that matter.

But perhaps the feeling comes less from an inability to believe the story turns and more from an inability to properly recreate those skills on their own? Any ham in a torn t-shirt can recreate Stanley Kowalski screaming on the stairs; it’s not a simple to hit the right notes for the song “Maria”. Anyone can fake a Southern accent and plead sex from their closeted-gay-husband-with-the-broken-leg; not as many can pull off “On My Own” in a way that leaves everyone around them in tears. I’m willing to bet a lot of us got into theatre after watching a musical at a young and impressionable age, but swore off musicals forever upon finding out singing is a skill all its own.

Admittedly, this anxiety grips me every time I audition for a musical, let alone be cast in one. Just as I lack a university degree, I also lack proper training as a vocalist. My experience in that area is entirely from mimicry and informal “lessons” by trained musicians. I’d like to think that I’m good enough to hold my own – I must be if I’ve gotten this far – but I have no illusions about how my skills compare to those honed by my co-stars. I imagine the audience leaving the theatre praising the show, humming the songs, and lauding all of the performers, “except for that one guy.”

“Presented without comment.”

“Presented without comment.”

Still, I found it a real confidence-booster to be cast in a musical. Sure, I don’t have proper training in it, but I have very little proper training in… well, anything. As I said, I don’t have a university degree, so I don’t have the professional theatre training of my peers. But the thing about training is that anyone in the world can do it; all it takes is practice. That’s what machines are for. The ability to bring something beyond the rote training means you’ve moved toward, dare I say it, talent. And I may engage in a brief self-indulgence (in place of my usual self-deprecation): it’s quite possible that I’ve been getting by on talent, something I would be the very last person to admit.

And I have been training my voice for this role, primarily with the show’s composer/musical director. I’ve mentioned before how importantly I regard exercise, and vocal exercise is no different. Even when I’m not in a musical, I’ll go through as many pre-show physical and vocal warm-ups as I can in the time allotted. The voice is as much a muscle as any other part of the body. I might not be Paul Robeson in either regard, but I don’t have to be. It was Paul Robeson’s job to be Paul Robeson. How I compare is a decision I leave to you.

Maybe it’s the fact that it’s been so long since I’ve properly flexed this particular muscle that I felt such trepidation about working it again. Eagerness yes, but also trepidation. My voice has always been one of my defining traits in theatre. I was always cast as an orator or some authority figure whose voice was meant to be heard in the back rows. Hell, my role in Pastorella this past Autumn featured a crucial scene in why my character’s voice goes from a mouse’s whisper to a lion’s roar in the space of a single monologue. This role might not be the vocal equivalent of me winning Mr. Olympia, but it’s proven that I’m still in damn-fine shape for someone with a voice like mine.

But seriously, we need more musicals for baritones. I’m dyin’ here, people.

If you’d like to hear Charles Lewis’s voice (amongst many other lovely voices) and see his wicked kazoo skills, watch Devil of a Time on the official Theater Pub YouTube Channel.

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Theater Around The Bay: Year-End Round-Up Act 1

Well, we’ve made it- the end of 2014! It’s been a tremendous year of learning and change, tragedy and triumph, and our eight staff bloggers are here to share with you some of their own highlights from a year of working, writing and watching in the Bay Area Theater scene (and beyond)! Enjoy! We’ll have more highlights from 2014 tomorrow and Wednesday! 

Ashley Cowan’s Top 5 Actors I Met This Year (in random order!)

1) Heather Kellogg: I had seen Heather at auditions in the past but she always intimidated me with her talent, pretty looks, and bangin’ bangs. Luckily for me, I had the chance to meet her at a reading early in the year and I immediately started my campaign to be friends. She also just amazed me in Rat Girl.

2) Justin Gillman: I feel like I saw Justin in more roles than any other actor in 2014 but I was completely blown away by his performance in Pastorella. What I appreciated so much about his time on stage was that underneath an incredible, honest portrayal was an energy that simply longed to be; there’s something so beautiful about watching someone do what they love to do and do it so well.

3) Kitty Torres: I absolutely loved The Crucible at Custom Made and while so many of the actors deserve recognition for their work, I really wanted to commend Kitty for her part in an awesome show. She had to walk the fine line of being captivating, but still and silent, while also not taking attention away from the action and dialogue happening around her in the play’s opening scene. And she nailed it. I met her in person weeks later in person and my goodness, she’s also just delightful.

4) Vince Faso: I knew of Vince but we officially met at a party in February of this year. I enjoyed getting to know him both in person and on stage but it was his roles in Terror-Rama that made me realize that Vince is like a firework; while the sky may be beautiful on its own, when he walks on stage, he naturally lights it up in a new way.

5) Terry Bamberger: I met Terry at an audition and she’s the opposite of someone you’d expect to meet in such an environment. She was incredibly kind, supportive, and while you’re hoping you get into the play, you start to equally root for her to be in it too. And after seeing Terry in Three Tall Women, it’s clear that she’s also someone who deserves to be cast from her range and skills alone.

Barbara Jwanouskos’s Top 5 Moments in Bay Area Theater Where I Admired the Writer

This year has been one of momentous changes. I spent the first five months completing the last semester of the Dramatic Writing program at Carnegie Mellon University and receiving my MFA. I moved back to Bay Area and since then, have tried to become enmeshed in the theater scene once again. I haven’t had the resources to see all the performances I would have liked, but this list puts together the top five moments since being back that I’ve not only enjoyed the performance, but I found myself stuck with an element of the show that made me appreciate what the playwright had put together. In no particular order…

1) The Late Wedding by Christopher Chen at Crowded Fire Theater: Chris is known for his meta-theatrical style and elements – often with great effect. I have admired the intricacy of Chris’s plays and how he is able to weave together a satisfying experience using untraditional narrative structures. While watching The Late Wedding, I found myself at first chuckling at the lines (I’m paraphrasing, but…), “You think to yourself, is this really how the whole play is going to be?” and then finding a deeper meaning beyond what was being said that revolved around the constructs we build around relationships and how we arbitrarily abdicate power to these structures. Then, of course, I noticed that thought and noted, “Man, that was some good writing…”

2) Superheroes by Sean San José at Cutting Ball Theater with Campo Santo: I was talking with another playwright friend once who said, “Sean can take anything and make it good – he’s a phenomenal editor,” and in the back of my head, I wondered what types of plays he would create if behind the wheel as playwright. In Superheroes, there is a moment where the mystery of how the government was involved in the distribution of crack unfolds and you’re suddenly in the druggy, sordid, deep personal space of actual lives affected by these shady undertakings. Seeing the powerlessness against addiction and the yearning to gain some kind of way out – I sat back and was just thinking, “Wow, I want to write with that kind of intense emotional rawness because that is striking.” I left that play with butterflies in my stomach that lasted at least two hours.

3) Fucked Up Chronicles of CIA Satan and Prison Industry Peter and Never Ending Story by Brit Frazier at the One Minute Play Festival (Playwrights Foundation): Clocking in at under a minute each – these two plays that opened the One Minute Play Festival’s Clump 6 after Intermission were among the most striking images and moments for me of that festival. Brit’s two plays were hard-hitting, pull-no-punches, extremely timely works that I just remember thinking, “Now that is how to tell a whole story in just one minute.” I was talking to a friend about the festival and he said, “Even though they were only a minute, it’s funny how you can tell who really knows how to write.” I totally agree, and the first plays that I thought of when he said that were Brit’s.

4) Millicent Scowlworthy by Rob Handel at 99 Stock Productions:
I was only familiar with Aphrodisiac and 13P on a most basic level when I decided to apply to Carnegie Mellon, but, of course, training with a working playwright and librettist, you can’t help but be curious about his other work. Though I hadn’t read Millicent Scowlworthy, the title alone was something that I figured I’d enjoy. Seeing the production this summer, I had another “So grateful I got to train with this guy” moment as I watched the plot swirl around the looming question that the characters kept on attacking, addressing, backing away from at every moment. The desperate need for the kids to act out the traumatic event from their past and from their community felt so powerfully moving. I understood, but didn’t know why – it was more of a feeling of “I know this. This is somewhere I’ve been.” And to me, what could be a better feeling to inspire out your audience with your writing?

5)
Year of the Rooster by Eric Dufault at Impact Theater: I’d met Eric at a La MaMa E.T.C. playwriting symposium in Italy a number of years ago. We all were working on group projects so you got less of a sense of what types of plays each person wrote and more of their sources of inspiration. I have to say, going to Impact to see Year of the Rooster was probably THE most enjoyable experience I’ve had in theater this year – just everything about it came together: the writing, the directing, the space, the performances… There was pizza and beer… But I was profoundly engaged in the story and also how Eric chose to tell it and it was another moment where I reflected, “where are the moments I can really grab my key audience and give them something meaty and fun?”

Will Leschber’s Top 5 Outlets That Brought You Bay Area Theater (outside of a theater)

5) Kickstarter: The Facebook account of everyone you know who crowd-funded a project this year. Sure, it got old being asked to donate once every other week to another mounting production or budding theater project. BUT, the great news is, with this new avenue of financial backing, many Bay Area theater projects that might have otherwise gone unproduced got their time in the sun. This could be viewed as equally positive or negative… I like to look on the bright side of this phenomenon.

4) Blogging: San Francisco Theater Pub Blog- I know, I know. It’s tacky to include this blog on our own top 5 list. But hey, just remember this isn’t a ranking of importance. It’s just a reminder of how Bay Area theater branches out in ways other than the stage. And I’m proud to say this is a decent example. There, I said it.

3) YouTube: A good number of independent theater performances are recorded for posterity. Theater Pub productions of yesteryear and past Olympians festival readings are no exception. I’d like to highlight Paul Anderson who tirelessly recorded this year’s Olympians Festival: Monsters Ball. Due to his efforts and the efforts of all involved, the wider community can access these readings. For a festival that highlights a springboard-process towards playwriting improvement, that can be a very valuable tool.

2) Hashtags: #Theater, #HowElseWouldWeFollowEachOther, #MyNewPlay, #YourNewPlay, #Hashtags, #KeywordsSellTickets

1) The Born Ready podcast: Each week Rob Ready and Ray Hobbs tear into the San Francisco theater scene with jokes and, dare I say it, thoughtful commentary. Looking for a wide spanning podcast that touches on the myriad levels of theater creation, production, performance and all things in between? Crack a beer and listen up! This is for you.

Charles Lewis III’s Top 5 Invaluable Lessons I Learned

This past year was a wild one; not fully good or bad. I achieved some career milestones AND failed to meet some goals. I got 86’d from some prominent companies AND formed new connections with others. With it all said and done, what have I got to show for it? Well, here are five things that stand out to me:

1) “Be mindful of what I say, but stand by every word.” I said in my very first official column piece that I had no intention of trolling – and I don’t – but when I start calling people “asshole” (no matter how accurate), it can run the risk of personal attack rather than constructive criticism. I’m trying to stick to the latter. And believe me, I have no shortage of criticism.

2) “Lucid dreams are the only way to go.” There are some projects, mostly dream roles, that I now know I’ll never do. What’s occurred to me recently is that I shouldn’t limit the creation of my dream projects to just acting. Lots of venues opened up to me recently, and they’ve set off cavalcade of ideas in my head. They might not be what I originally wanted, but it’s great to know I have more options than I first thought.

3) “It’s only ‘too late’ if you’ve decided to give up.” I don’t believe in destiny (“everything is preordained”), but I do believe in fate (the perfect alignment of seemingly random circumstance). I kinda took it for granted that the chances of me making a living at performance art had passed me by, then this year I was offered several more chances. Which ones I take is still in flux, it’s made me reassess what’s important to me about this art form.

4) “Burn a bridge or two. It’s nice to see a kingdom burn without you.” This year someone (whom I shall call “Hobgoblin”) tried to put a curse on me. Nothing magical, but more along the lines of a “You’ll never work in this town again” kinda curse. Years ago I might have been worried, but I knew his words were just that. Instead I threw back my head, started laughing, and said “Oh, Hobgoblin…”

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5) “If you EVER have the chance to work with Alisha Ehrlich, take it.” If I had to pick a “Person of The Year” for Bay Area Theatre, she’d be it. I acted alongside her in The Crucible this year and when some of us were losing focus, she brought her A-game Every. Single. Night. Most of us can only hope to be as dedicated to our work.

Anthony Miller’s Top 5 People I Loved Working With This Year

There were way more than 5, but I just wanted these people to know how much I appreciated everything they did this year!

1) Colin Johnson: This fucking guy, he was a huge part of my year and the success of Terror-Rama. He’s a fantastic Director, resourceful as hell a never ending source of positivity and enthusiasm and a swell guy .

2) Alandra Hileman: The courageous Production Stage Manager of Terror-Rama. Smart, unafraid to give an opinion or tell an actor, designer director or producer “no”, in fact she’s fantastic at “No”.

3) Brendan West: Brendan is the Composer of Zombie! The Musical!, we had our first conversation about writing the show in 2007. Since then, it’s been produced a few times, but never with live music. Working with Brendan again to finally showcase the score live in concert was incredible.

4) Robin Bradford:  In the last 3 years, when no one believed in me, Robin Bradford believed in me. This year, I was lucky enough to direct staged readings of her plays, The Ghosts of Route 66 (Co-Written by Joe Wolff) and Low Hanging Fruit. I love getting to work with the amazing actors she wrangles and incredible work she trusts me with.

5) Natalie Ashodian: My partner in life, devoted cat mother and so much more, this year, she has been my Producer, Costume Designer, Graphic Designer, Film Crew Supervisor, Zombie Wrangler and Copy Editor. She is the best. The. Best.

Allison Page’s Top 5 Moments That Made Me Love Being A Theater Maker In The Bay Area

1) The Return Of Theater Pub: I just have to say it – I’m thrilled that Theater Pub’s monthly shows are starting up again in January. It’s such a unique theater-going experience and encourages a different type of relationship to theater which is essential to new audience bases who maybe think that it isn’t for them. It infuses life and a casual feel to our beloved dramatics and welcomes any and all to have a beer and take in some art. I look forward to seeing what the new year will bring for TPub and its artistic team! And obviously, we’ll be here with ye olde blog.

2) Adventures At The TBA Conference: That sounds more thrilling and wild than it actually is. What happened is that I found I had a bunch of opinions about things! WHO KNEW?! Opinions about things and shows and companies and ideals and art and the conference itself. Conferences aren’t a perfect thing – never will be, because they’re conferences – but it does shine a light on what it is we’re doing, and that’s a biggie. Also I had a lot of whiskey with some new and old theater faces before the final session so that was cool.

3) The Opening Of The New PianoFight Venue: This is clearly getting a lot of mention from bay area theater people, because it’s exciting. No, it’s not the first theater to open up in the Tenderloin (HEYYYY EXIT Theatre!) but another multi-stage space is really encouraging. This next year will be a big one for them. Any time you’re doing something big and new, that first year is a doozy. Here’s hopin’ people get out to see things in the TL and support this giant venture. I will most definitely be there – both as an audience member and as a theater maker. It’s poised to be a real theatrical hub if enough people get on board. GET SOME!

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4) Seeing The Crucible: Seeing Custom Made’s production of The Crucible was exciting for a bunch of reasons, starting with the fact that I’ve never seen a production of it filled with actors instead of high school students. IT WAS GREAT. Yes, surprise, it’s not a boring old standard. It can be vital and thrilling and new but somehow not new at the same time. It was so full of great performances in both the larger roles and the not so large ones, and it really felt like everyone was invested in this big wrenching story they believed in – thus getting the audience to believe in it, too. Maybe that sounds like it should be common, but it’s not as much as it should be.

5) Everything That Happens At SF Sketchfest: Man, I love Sketchfest. Not just participating in it, but seeing everything I can (you can’t see all the things because there are so many, but I do what I can do). It’s this great combination of local and national stand up, improv, sketch, tributes, talkbacks, and indefinable stuff which takes over the city and points to the bay area as a place able to sustain a gigantic festival of funny people. And audiences go bonkers for the big name acts who come to town. The performers themselves get in prime mingling time with each other – something funny people can be pretty awkward about, but in this case we all know it’s going to be weird and we just go for it.

Dave Sikula’s Five Theatre Events That Defined 2014 for Me

1) Slaughterhouse Five, Custom Made Theatre Company: I’ve previously mentioned the night we had to abort our performance because of an actor injury. (I insisted at the time that it was the first time that it had happened to me in 40 years of doing theatre. I’ve since been informed that, not only had it happened to me before, it happened at the same theatre only two years ago.) Regardless, it marked for me a lesson about the magic, and hazards, of live performance. The idea that, not only can anything happen on stage, but that, if the worst comes to the worst, a company of performers will do all they can to come together and make a show work even in the most altered of circumstances.

2) The Suit, ACT: A touring production, but one that provided an invaluable reminder about simplicity. In the 80s, I’d seen Peter Brook’s nine-hour production of The Mahabrarata, and what struck me at that time was how stunningly simple it was. Brook’s faith and trust in cutting away pretense and bullshit and concentrating on simple storytelling – in a manner that is unique to a live performance; that is to say, acknowledging that we’re in the theatre, and not watching television or a movie, was a lesson in stripping things down to their essence and letting the audience use their imaginations to fill in and intensify the story.

3) The Farnsworth Invention, Palo Alto Players: I’ve written at extreme length about the controversy over our production. I’m not going to rehash it again, but I mention it as another lesson; that, in the best circumstances, theatre should provoke our audiences. Not to anger them, but to challenge and defend their preconceptions; to make them defend and/or change their opinions.

4) The Nance, Century at Tanforan: Something else I’ve written about is my frustration at how, even though we’re finally getting “televised” presentations of plays in movie theatres, they’re almost always from London. I have nothing against British theatre (well, actually, I have plenty against it, but nothing I want to get into here …) I realize American producers don’t want to cut into their profits if they can help it, but not only did film versions of Phantom and Les Mis not seem to hurt their theatrical box office receipts, is there any reason to believe that shows like The Bridges of Madison County or even Side Show wouldn’t have benefitted from either the extra publicity or extra cash that national exposure would have given them? Similarly, would broadcasts of the Patrick Stewart/Ian McKellen Waiting for Godot or the Nathan Lane/Brian Dennehy The Iceman Cometh do any harm? I’ll stipulate they don’t have a lot of title recognition, but did The Nance or Company other than their star leading performers? And let’s not limit it to New York. I’d like to see what’s happening in Chicago or Denver or Ashland or San Diego or Dallas or DC or Atlanta or Charlotte or Louisville or Portland or Seattle or Boston or Cleveland – or even San Francisco. The shortsightedness of producers in not wanting to grow their audiences at the expense of some mythical boost to the road box office (and even that, only in major cities) is nothing short of idiotic.

5) The Cocoanuts, Oregon Shakespeare Festival: Another one I wrote about at the time. One of those frustratingly rare occasions when a production not only met my high expectations, but wildly surpassed them. Hilarious and spontaneous, it was another reminder of why a live theatrical performance is so exciting when the actors are willing to take chances in the moment and do anything and are skilled enough to pull them off.

Marissa Skudlarek’s Top 5 Design Moments in Bay Area Theater

1) Liz Ryder’s sound design for The Crucible at Custom Made Theatre Company: Mixing Baroque harpsichord sounds with the frightening laughter of teenage girls, it created an appropriately spooky atmosphere. The friend who I saw The Crucible with went from “What does a sound designer do, anyway?” to “Now I see what sound design can do!” thanks to this show. I also want to honor Liz for the work she did on my own show, Pleiades, composing delicate finger-picked guitar music for scene transitions and putting together a rockin’ pre-show/intermission mix.

2) The Time magazine prop in The Pain and the Itch at Custom Made Theatre Company:

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This play takes place on Thanksgiving 2006, and the subtle but real differences between 2006 and 2014 can be tricky to convey (after all, clothing and furniture haven’t changed much in these eight years). But the November 6, 2006 issue of Time, with President Bush on the cover, takes you right back to the middle of the last decade. Even better, actor Peter Townley flipped through the magazine and paused at an article about Borat. Since Townley’s character was dating a broadly accented, bigoted Russian, it felt just too perfect.

3) Eric Sinkkonen’s set design for Wittenberg at the Aurora Theatre: This clever comedy takes place in the 1500s, but features puns and allusions of a more recent vintage. The set design perfectly captured the play’s tone: sure, Martin Luther nails his 95 theses to the church door, but the door’s already covered with flyers advertising lute lessons, meetings of Wittenberg University’s Fencing Club, etc. — just like any bulletin board at any contemporary university.

4) The whirring fan in Hir, at the Magic Theatre: I am, somewhat notoriously, on record as disliking this show. But the holidays are a time for generosity, so let me highlight an element of Hir that I found very effective: at the start of the play, the sound design incorporates a whirring fan. (The monstrous mother, Paige, runs the air conditioning constantly because her disabled husband hates it.) You don’t necessarily notice the white noise at first, but the whole tone of the play changes when another character turns the AC off at a dramatic moment.

5) Whitehands’ costume in Tristan and Yseult, at Berkeley Rep:

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Technically, I saw this show in late 2013, but it ran into 2014, so I’m including it. Whitehands (played by Carly Bawden) is Tristan’s other, less-famous lover. Her little white gloves were a clever nod to her name – and, crooning “Perfidia” in a yellow Fifties suit, pillbox hat, cat-eye sunglasses, and handbag hanging perfectly in the crook of her arm, she made heartbreak look impossibly chic.

What are your top choices, picks, experiences from the last year? Let us know! 

In For a Penny: Label-mates

Charles Lewis III, breaking his own format.

“I wonder if anyone ever notices the cross and Virgin Mary in my hand?”

“I wonder if anyone ever notices the cross and Virgin Mary in my hand?”

“Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined.”
– Toni Morrison, Beloved

This is about race. You don’t wanna read about it, click on something else. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way…

In all my years working with the SF Olympians Festival, I can’t recall a year where there were so many divisive; plays that made the audience grateful for the imaginative power of theatre alongside many plays in which the audience felt their lives ending by the minute. I didn’t catch every single play this year, but if there’s one that still positively resonates with me weeks later, it’s Half-Breed, Veronica Tjioe’s one-act based on the myth of the Minotaur. It’s about a mixed-race (half-Asian/half-White) woman coming to terms with her ethnic identity after a none-too-pleasant encounter with her White father.

Lots of thoughts went through my head watching this reading. It reminded me of my own Olympians one-act from Year 3 (also centered around a mixed-race individual coping with his identity). It reminded me of how some of the best works in the festival can be ones that eschew the grandiose nature of the original myth for more intimate character studies. Most of all, it reminded me a lot of bullshit questions I’ve gotten all my life, like “What do you call yourself?” It’s never enough to just exist, some people need to have some frame of reference (read: “stereotype”) in which to fit you; otherwise you don’t exist.

I’ve never been too keen on the term “African-American”. I was an ‘80s kid/‘90s teen, so I was around when the term first came into vogue. It’s always struck me as too clinical and too broad to describe me. It’s a term that describes nationality in such a way as to avoid specific ethnic phrasing. Charlize Theron was born in Johannesburg, South Africa and later became a citizen of the United States – that is an African-American. I’m a Black man. That’s the way I’d be described in almost any other country in the world, so that’s the way I’ll describe myself in my home country. I was born in San Francisco, raised both there and Daly City. I grew up around a lot of Filipinos and a great many of them described themselves as “Pacific Islander” – a term the US Census uses for those of Hawai’ian/Samoan origin. My category isn’t as complex: Black American – end of story.

And I get that there’s a lot of – a Chimamanda Adichie recently called it – “baggage” associated with that term. It’s stifling. It’s myopic. It suggests that a particularly diverse group of people are capable of only one type of representation. As a performing artist, I’ve learned that such terms give audience members, critics, and whomever an easy frame of reference for what they’re about to see. At the same time I hate the idea of being handcuffed to any one particular performance category – especially “Black theatre”. I’m not the first person on this site to mention that this sort of specific theatre (Gay theatre, Asian theatre, women’s theatre, etc.) tends to be pretty damn awful, and Black theatre is no exception. Black theatre usually consists of over-the-top, stereotypical performances of plays that fall into one of two categories (broad comedy or overwrought drama – both usually ending with some awkward mention of Christianity) and spend their entire running time reminding the audience of what they already knew: that there are a bunch of Black people on stage. Film-maker Gina Prince-Bythewood recently told NPR that she’d love to eliminate the term “Black film” if she could. I get where she’s coming from.

It’s one of the reasons I’m also a writer and director in addition to being an actor. I don’t know what’s worse: terrible Black characters written by other Black people or terrible Black characters written by non-Black people. I’ve mentioned on this site before that one of the worst scripts I’ve ever auditioned for was one in which the sole Black character was so cringe-inducingly “perfect” that he lacked any sense of realism. The writer – a White woman – had clearly gone so out of her way to make him politically correct that she didn’t bother to give him a personality; he was just a list of statistics and accomplishments dumped into a Black man’s body. That’s just as bad as if he’d been the worst Stepin Fechit or gangsta caricature because you’re still thinking of them as a category, not as a person.

And God forbid you actually bring that up in conversation with a non-Black theatre professional. Even here in the “Liberal Utopia” of the Bay Area there can be some ass-backwards thinking (and speaking) in regards to race. After all, this is the epicenter of post-racial America under a Black president, where everyone is judged purely on their merits and the people who live here “can’t see race” (a claim that science has conclusively proven to be absolute bullshit. It sucks that I almost never get cast in shows with primarily Black casts (and the last time I was, the idiot director fired me anyway), but it’s equally frustrating that White directors and producers are clearly thinking “Where can we put the Black guy?” whenever I actually am cast. I’ve never gotten a romantic lead, if I’ve gotten a lead at all. I’m usually cast as someone’s father or other asexual authority figure. Having been on both sides of the audition table, I know that there are a million other mitigating factors contributing to such decisions. Still, it’s annoying to be thought of only as a Prospero or a MacDuff, but never as a Romeo or a Bassanio.

Still, when Norm Lewis can headline roles like Javert in Les Misérables and the eponymous Phantom of the Opera, then I think there just might be hope for me yet.

“My audition for Equus didn’t turn out the way I’d hoped.”

“My audition for Equus didn’t turn out the way I’d hoped.”

I understand the need for labels in both a practical and professional sense. Not only do I gravitate more towards the term “Black” because I feel it accurately describes me, but categorically it’s simple and direct enough that I’d like to think an intelligent person can give it the slightest glance and move on from it without being dismissive. I don’t prefer the term “African-American”, but I’m not offended by it either. I don’t equate it with the horrible epithets I could be (and have been) called. In a recent interview with Oprah Winfrey, actress Raven-Symoné put a lot of emphasis on the fact that she didn’t want to be labeled as “African-American” or “Gay”. I don’t know what the reaction was amongst the LGBT community, but Black people were pissed. Really pissed.

On the one hand, I get what she means about not wanting to be held back by any particular label. On the other hand, comments like this by her and Pharrell Williams (who recently dubbed himself – I shit you not “The New Black”) don’t suggest an evolved sense of thinking so much as a sense of superiority. These are the comments from people who have achieved enough money and fame that they can separate themselves from problems of people who look like them, but don’t have the money to make said problems disappear. That’s not the same as Neil deGrasse Tyson explaining why he’s not an atheist [/LINK]. This is a look into the thought processes of people who truly think the rules of the world don’t apply to them, and that’s dangerous thinking.

In fact, it can be outright deadly. As I write this entry – which I’d written, finished, and then re-written several times over now – we find ourselves in the aftermath of a legal decision that essentially regarded the life of a Black American as worthless. This is the second such decision in the past two weeks and the umpteenth one of my entire lifetime. As someone who regularly reads classical Greek and Shakespearean prose only to be “shaken-down” by the SF or Oakland police departments that same night, I can’t afford to forget lessons like that. Raven and Pharrell live in a world where racial profiling is unthinkable. For those of us not blessed with such ignorance, their dismissal is insulting, to say the least.

When I finally decided to become a regular columnist for this site, one thing holding me back was the thought that I’d be “the Black writer”. But I’m gonna be that no matter what I write, so I took on the role knowing that if my opinion on any theatre topic is shaped by the knowledge of me being a Black man, so be it. When I started writing today’s piece, it was supposed to be the entry that ran last time. As I mentioned in that entry, Allison’s piece had me in a contemplative mood and I felt more comfortable commenting on that. But I also didn’t want to let loose the angry stream-of-consciousness version of this entry which I was originally writing. In the time between then and now, the policemen who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner have gotten off and I’m starting wish I’d gone with my original version of this entry.

As I said above, I wound up rewriting this entry quite a few times before sending it in. I didn’t want it too sound too angry, because an “angry Black guy’s” opinion can be easily dismissed, but I wanted the seriousness to be felt in every word. I wanted a bit of levity to shine through, but I didn’t for one minute want the reader to think I was just trying to put a happy spin on a topic that doesn’t get enough attention. I wanted it to cover as much as possible without being a long-winded screed throwing in everything including the kitchen sink. Most of all, I wanted it to reflect the broad scope of my column and the specific goal of this entire website: theatre.

We are artists: we comment on the world in a way that makes sense to us in the hopes of connecting with someone who feels the same way. Do we simplify, exploit, filter, and manipulate in the hopes of getting our point across? Abso-fucking-lutely. That’s the great paradox of what we do: when we do it right, our simplified material will leave you with a complex emotional response. It might make you happy, it make you angry; but the point is that we were afforded this opportunity and this forum to make our voices heard and you chose to listen, so the least we can do is make it count. As much as I abhor the broad stereotypes that tend to pop up in a lot of Black theatre, I take a lot of comfort in the knowledge that a topic like this would most likely be able to find a home there. From Lorraine Hansberry to Lynn Nottage, no one reflects us as well as we do.

As an artist, I’ve learned that the only thing worse that the labels put on you is when you fall into the trap of letting those labels define you and everything you do. Very little of the theatre work I’ve done in recent years would easily fall into the category of “Black theatre”, but there is a self-assured Black man behind each and every one. I’d never let my race be the sole defining factor of my work, but I won’t shy away from a piece where it’s vital to the outcome (I’ve recently started writing a full-length in which race plays a considerable role with the characters). Most of all I’ve made a certain amount of peace with labels others use for me – whether I like them or not – because I know that it’s based on their frame of reference, not mine.

Besides, if there’s one thing the world is starting to get wind of, it’s that “African-American” isn’t the worst label that could be placed on someone like me.

Photo by Pamela Moore

Photo by Pamela Moore

Charles Lewis is a celebrity look-alike. He’s often been told he “fit(s) the description of a suspect”.

Theater Around The Bay: Adaptors Are Artists Too

Stuart Bousel talks about how adaptation is an often undervalued skill in the theater industry.

For almost a year now I have been working on a stage adaptation of Kristin Hersh’s memoir, Rat Girl, which is a project that began when I read the book and knew I wanted to turn it into a stage play. There were a number of reasons for this, not the least of which is my own love for the music of Kristin Hersh, but it fundamentally came down to believing that Kristin’s story was one that could be serviced greatly by live performance, centered as it was on a live performance art, and that the things which I connected to were the kind of things other audience members would connect to. I found her portrayal of herself and the people in her life charming and believable, and I liked that she openly stated at numerous points throughout the book that while everything “had happened”, she was not an entirely reliable narrator, especially considering she was suffering from undiagnosed bi-polarity for about half of the book, and undergoing treatment for said mental condition for the remainder.

reason #7,000 to love Kristin: you have got to have a sense of humor about yourself to choose this image for the cover of your book about how you went insane.

reason #7,000 to love Kristin: you have got to have a sense of humor about yourself to choose this image for the cover of your book about how you went insane.

As a playwright rather notoriously known for plays that employ a lot of first-person, direct-address narrative from somewhat questionable narrators, and a penchant for alt-culture music and lifestyles, the book and I just seemed like a natural fit. Luckily, I was able to convince Kristin and her management to give me a chance to prove myself, even if only for a single production. Equitably lucky, the Exit Theatre, where I have been putting up work since 2005, was willing to take on producing the show and before I had so much as typed out a title page I had an opening date, a production schedule, a budget, half my cast, and a little less than a year to write a show. Now, most people would probably consider this a win and it was, but it also meant I now had to put my money where my mouth was, in a situation where people I greatly admired were watching and would be holding me accountable for the results, and a clock was ticking the whole time.

“Piece of cake,” a friend tells me when I express joy at the commission, and fear at being able to pull it off in time, “I mean, it’s basically already written for you anyway, right?”

“Well, actually…”

“Oh, you know what I mean,” he brushes me off, and the troubling thing is, I do know what he means.

Cut to many months later, I’ve finished a first draft of the script and we’ve had a reading and everything, and I’m sitting down with the producer and the director and we’re tossing around billing for the press releases and posters which are now only a month away from coming out. Obviously we want Kristin’s name as prominent as possible, because the show is being produced as part of a women-centric performance festival, and oh yeah- she’s famous, and a new play needs all the cachet it can get. Still, I’m a little alarmed (and kind of hurt) when the proposed title is, “Rat Girl, by Kristin Hersh, adapted for the stage by Stuart Bousel.” I mean, sure she wrote the book (and lived the life the book is based on), but I’m the guy who spent the last six months of his life reading it three times and trying to turn a charming, smart, but at times barely coherent, kind of rambling diary, into a dramatically paced story with a beginning, middle, and end, not to mention playable characters and discernible themes. In other words, I’m the guy who wrote the play, which is what we’re talking about here- not the book- and while of course the play wouldn’t exist without the book, it’s important to point out that the play (at least in this form) wouldn’t exist without me.

Because Kristin is both alive and in communication with me, the billing debate is easily ended by sending her an email with a couple of options and, to my relief, she goes for my proposed “Kristin Hersh’s Rat Girl, adapted for the stage by Stuart Bousel”, but before we get there, my producer, bless her, says in passing, “Well, it seems that all we’re doing is adapting the book anyway,” which, I know, isn’t meant to come off as, “you’re not doing all that much here anyway,” but it kind of does. With no disrespect to my producer (who is lovely), it often seems to me that in the minds of most people who don’t write plays (or films), there is a real big difference between an adaptation and an original work, and of course there is, but that difference is often construed to be that original work reflects a greater, more substantial, more creative, and thus more worthy effort on the part of the writer than an adaptation does. I’m here to tell you, as an author with an accomplished resume of both original works and adaptations, that this is simply not true.

Fact: Turns out the Oscar for Best Screenplay and the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, are BOTH mostly made out of tin.

Fact: Turns out the Oscar for Best Screenplay and the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, are BOTH mostly made out of tin.

Rat Girl is my sixth straight up adaptation, though you could argue at least three of my other plays are adaptations of famous myth cycles (the Trojan War, the Epic of Gilgamesh, Jason and the Argonauts), and I technically adapted an HP Lovecraft story (“The Thing on the Doorstep”) into a screenplay in college, though the less we talk about that the better. I’ve adapted a collection of short stories by Peter S. Beagle (“Giant Bones”), a play by Jean Genet (“The Balcony”), a novella by H.P. Lovecraft (“The Dunwich Horror”), three plays by Shakespeare (“Henry IV part 1 and 2, Henry V”), and two more works I kind of can’t talk about because I signed contracts saying I’d never admit to the work (ghost writing is a probably a blog worthy of itself). I’ve written in the past about my adaptation process (you can read about it, in regards to my Shakespeare adaptation, “The Boar’s Head”, on this very blog), but the adaptation process for RAT GIRL has been especially interesting since it’s technically based not only on previously written work, but actual historical events and people.

Don’t be fooled by the hats; Dave, Kristin, Tea, and Leslie are all real people

Don’t be fooled by the hats; Dave, Kristin, Tea, and Leslie are all real people

That said, Kristin’s book is not a straight-forward historical account of what happened, but a collage of 1) her diary from the time, 2) song lyrics spanning her entire career up to the present and 3) memories and anectdotes of events that occur both before and after the principal time line of the book, not to mention 4) told from the perspective of someone who is admittedly (and diagnostically) even more unreliable than the average human being (and most human beings, unless gifted with photographic memories and impeccable honesty, are at least somewhat unreliable narrators). Needless to say, this makes an adaptation a daunting task in and of itself as one attempts to create a story an audience can follow, but Rat Girl is further complicated by two more things, neither of which are a given in every adaptation, but further illustrate my general point that adaptors (particularly of memoirs) have their work cut out for them.

The first complication is that the book is written first-person, entirely from Kristin’s perspective, which means NONE OF THE CHARACTERS EXCEPT HER ARE GIVEN A FIRST PERSON PERSPECTIVE, and while we get more than 300 pages of Kristin’s thoughts and views and ideas, all we get about the other people is what she tells us about them, and what hints we can glean from their dialogue (which to Kristin’s credit, she has an excellent ear for dialogue). When you’re reading the book, this isn’t something that really bothers you, but transferred to a dramatic form, you become quickly aware (as we all did in the first reading) that everyone in the story but Kristin has very little in regards to internal reflection or interior monologue, and thus, despite some fun details or moments, comes across flatter than we tend to prefer characters to be in modern American theater. Especially since a massive chunk of Kristin’s internal monologue, describing these folks to us, hits the cutting room floor because this isn’t a one woman show, even if Kristin is the leading role, and having her talk about the other people completely defeats the point of including them as actual characters in the play. Bottom line, solving this problem required me to dramatize relayed situations where characters could actively demonstrate who they were rather than passively be described, and that in turn often entailed expanding or adjusting their dialogue from the book, or in some cases collapsing the actions and traits of several smaller characters into more prominent, important ones in an effort to provide more dimensionality.

Do you think Kristin’s saying, “If I’m ever turned into a character in a play, I will have just as many monologues as Hamlet”? Because that’s kind of how it fell out.

Do you think Kristin’s saying, “If I’m ever turned into a character in a play, I will have just as many monologues as Hamlet”? Because that’s kind of how it fell out.

The second complication to Rat Girl’s adaptation process was that while many things happen over the course of Kristin’s story, and there are many dramatic moments (including the decision, at one point, to attempt suicide by slitting her wrists), the book, being based on life, mimics life’s amazing ability to evade dramatic structure because of that whole thing where dramas have an arc and a point, while life is essentially a series of vaguely connected events that frequently only have relevancy to one another because we retrospectively see them that way. This is perhaps even more apparent in Rat Girl because the central conflict in the book is really Kristin vs. herself, engaged as she is in a battle to keep her fragmenting mind and personality together as she first becomes a rock star, and then a young mother. Though her band’s almost-too-easy-to-be-true rise to prominence in the indie rock scene and the course of her pregnancy provide a throughline to the events of the book, the “two steps forward, one to three steps back” nature of coping with a mental health crisis results in a series of twists and turns that are interesting to read about, but dramatically feel like a series of confusing anti-climaxes, particularly post suicide attempt. The major aspect of Kristin’s story that appealed to me and I wanted to bring to the stage was her struggle to learn to live with a mental health condition that can never be truly cured, but that struggle is fundamentally internal, and dramatic structure requires progress and action. Or to coin a cliché: in the book Kristin tells us what she goes through, but in the play we have to show, not tell, the story, and this meant cutting and re-arranging a long, meandering road of small but distinct events into a shorter sequence of more impactful events that moved in a definitive and climactic direction. Which also meant, once again, generating some material of my own, including crafting whole scenes based on a handful of lines in the book, or sometimes just an implication. This made me nervous as all get out, but the alternative would have been either a story full of holes, or an actor playing Kristin, standing center stage, telling us everything, and thus essentially just reading the book to us.

I imagine that would look like this, only the band is being way more forgiving than I suspect the audience would be.

I imagine that would look like this, only the band is being way more forgiving than I suspect the audience would be.

It all this comes down to this: it is hard to adapt a story from one medium to another, and as much as I get why people might think it’s easy because “you’re not telling a story from scratch”, the truth is, you still kind of are, because the way we tell a story in prose is vastly different from the way we tell one on the stage and you, as the adaptor, have to come up with your approach and make it work- even if you do opt to include a bunch of direct address monologues (which, by the way, only really work outside of Greek theatre when a character is describing their feelings and thoughts- not the events and people of the play). It’s arguably even harder to adapt something because it’s often exactly what works or appeals about the pre-existing material that complicates your attempts to turn a narrative form into a performative one. This will be exceptionally irritating if, like me, you really love the material because of the way it was written, because style is almost impossible to preserve from one medium to another. Also, if you’re really into the subplots, or little details of characters, it’s going to be a heartbreaking process as early and late drafts will both be about cutting, cutting, and more cutting, usually of the stuff you loved the most. Sadly, the backstory and exposition that give great books scope frequently become overwhelming when brought to the stage in all but the most subtextual fashion, and every book ever written is going to contain more details than you can put on stage within the confines of a running time that audiences can actually endure.

You think this is long?

You think this is long?

Try this.

Try this.

A good adaptor has to be so much more than just a good writer. They have to be an editor and a conceptualist, a researcher and a puzzle solver, a plot and character surgeon- and assassin. They are tasked with having to capture the spirit and substance of the original material while simultaneously boiling it away down to the bones, picking it apart even as they are putting it together. It’s a juggling act, very different from the pure generation process of creating original work, but in no way inferior, for in that conversion of one voice by another there is the potential to strike a chord otherwise impossible. If adaptation and original work have anything in common, it’s the potential to fail is equitably present, but when the adaptor fails they fail not only themselves but also the source material and that material’s generator. Then again, greater stakes often make for better drama, both on and off the stage… and the page.

Stuart Bousel is a co-Founding Artistic Director of the San Francisco Theater Pub, and a prolific writer, director, producer and actor in the Bay Area. His website, http://www.horrorunspeakable.com will tell you all about it. His adaptation of Kristin Hersh’s RAT GIRL opens at the Exit Theatre on May 3rd. You can find out more about Kristin’s music at http://www.throwingmuses.com

Everything Is Already Something Week 7: On The Importance of Happy Theater

Allison Page wants you to get happy.

When asked, “What’s the best role you’ve ever played?” my impulse is to respond with whichever was the most grueling. The most grueling is easy enough to ascertain – it’s Lavinia in TITUS ANDRONICUS. Grueling to the max. She’s raped by a couple of guys and disfigured. Her hands are cut off, her tongue cut out, and then – just because, ya know, not enough has happened to her yet – her dad kills her. The particular production I was in was just completely exhausting. I wore a bloody straight jacket and scream-cried through a gag for what seemed like an eternity. The gag was soaked with fake blood, which I basically ingested every night and would cough-up or sneeze-out for weeks. It was really difficult and actually physically painful sometimes but I got a lot out of it, and because it was a horrifying thing to watch, naturally I was praised for it. Because it’s one of those things that sort of makes you feel sick. You leave the theater and it’s hard to sleep because FUCK, that was horrifying, right? That show really made me feel like the world is a pit of darkness filled with angry snakes and bees. Yay! We love tragedy!

Anthony Hopkins is having a GREAT TIME.

Anthony Hopkins is having a GREAT TIME.

Look at the Academy Awards some time. How often are nominated films deep, dark, sad pits? LES MISERABLES was nominated the last time around and it literally has ‘miserable’ in the title, in case that happened to slip by you.

It seems people tend to think (particularly creative people inside the various facets of the entertainment world) that the more grueling story is the more valuable. The more horrific, raw, heart-crushing, hope-squashing, wallowing in sadness stories are the most worth telling. Show us the lowest forms of humanity! Show us those huddled masses you’re always talking about! This seems to me accentuated even more so in the bay area. The more creative we think we are, the more creatively involved we are in the world, the more prone we are to want something to be wrenching in order to consider it real art. (Whatever ‘real art’ means.) Suck my soul out and spit it into a toilet full of other cast-off souls! That’s the only way to make me feel alive! Punch my heart out with the darkness of humanity! OMG let’s make Joseph Conrad’s HEART OF DARKNESS into a stage play!

I fall into that category all too often. If I’m doing sketch comedy or improvising or doing a stand up set – sure, let’s have a great time! But if I’m doing theater? Ohhhh it better be making you feel fucked up beyond measure or it’s not worth it! So you can imagine my surprise when, last night – opening night – of PRELUDE TO A KISS, I found myself feeling just…amazing. Happy to be alive. Happy to be doing this show. Happy to be HAPPY. Happy to be making other people happy. Stop the theater train, I want to get off! Where’s my required misery? Where are my MISERABLES? Why isn’t Julie Taymor cutting my hands off and shoving sticks into my arms? This isn’t art, this is…what is this?

In case you don’t know anything about it, PRELUDE is sort of a romcomdram, but one with real heart. You meet these two characters: Rita (that’s me, ya’ll) and Peter (played by the magnificent and dreadfully handsome Nick Trengove). They fall in love really quickly in spite of Rita’s fear of the world and all the bad things in it, the uncertainty of it all. They get married, and at the wedding reception an old man (Richard Wenzel) asks to kiss the bride. He does, and as the kiss happens, they switch souls. (Word is still out on whether it happened on a Friday and whether or not that Friday was freaky.) Peter then has to spend his honeymoon with someone who looks like the woman he loves, but he can feel that something is terribly wrong. SO WACKY, RIGHT GUYS? All of that is good fun, but shit really hits your heart-fan when Peter finds the old man containing the soul of the love of his life. Important questions are raised about life, love, perceptions, fear, illness and death. They still love each other, but she’s in an old man’s frail body. What does that mean for them? What does it mean for us? What does it mean for you?

Make no mistake, PRELUDE is here to make you feel good. I mean…REALLY good. Heart-swellingly happy and contented. Life is worth living, people are worth loving and though you will not always be alive, you are alive right now (if you’re not, let me know, I’d love to meet a ghost.) and you must not waste this. Do not waste this. It’s all you’ve got.

It was pointed out by the director during rehearsals that one really interesting thing about this play is that there aren’t any bad people in it. None of the characters are out to hurt each other. No one is evil, malicious, or war-mongering. They’re honestly all good people. How often do you see that? You might think that’s a red flag that the story won’t be interesting or engrossing but it absolutely is. It just also happens to have the side effect of making you feel really good about being alive.

sign

Maybe some of the big blockbusters are full of war, blood, pain, sorrow, murder, tragedy and constant strife, and there is definitely a place for that but maybe we need something else, too. Maybe we need to be reminded that we’re not here only to suffer through things and never see the light at the end of the god-forsaken tunnel, but that we’re also here to experience happiness, bliss, powerful love, complicated connections to other human beings, great sex, passionate embraces, a smile given and a smile received, a knowing glance, a hand to hold, and the knowledge that it cannot last forever, and so we must enjoy it now, because there’s no better time. It’s the type of story I think people really need. It’s a story that feels like coming home after a long journey. If that’s not art, I don’t know what is.

Catch Allison in PRELUDE TO A KISS at The Custom Made Theatre Co. Thursday – Sundays and/or follow her on Twitter @allisonlynnpage

Falling With Style: Ceci n’est pas une blog-post au sujet de Les Mis

Helen Laroche starts the new year off with some big questions.

A month or so ago, I learned that my childhood sitcom Boy Meets World was in talks to receive a spin-off entitled Girl Meets World, about the daughter of the original main character (Cory). Whenever I think of this show, I think of a particular conversation between Cory and Mr. Feeney. I remember the meaty part this way:

Cory: How do you know you’re good?

Mr. Feeney: How do I know I’m good, how do you know you’re good, or how does one know one’s good?

In hindsight, it doesn’t seem like something I should have remembered for so long. I don’t even really remember how Cory responded. But I think my middle school self had never entertained the possibility of choosing one’s own metrics for success, and so she thought this was worth hanging on to.

Fast-forward a decade: this short Boy Meets World exchange came to my mind again the other day after I posted my thoughts about the Les Mis movie.

I was unhappy about a lot of things, but most consistently and specifically, the attention to detail in the singing. I’m not just talking about the tone and style (which, yes, I disliked) but the backphrasing and general disregard by the performers for the way the music was written. Some people, mostly music majors, agreed with me, but the majority of the responses indicated that the music was “good enough” for people less picky than I. Some people went a step further and called me snobbish for bemoaning the things I did.

I bring this up not to incite more conversation about Les Mis, but to ask a question that I’m having trouble posing without sounding snobbish. Do we have an obligation to teach audiences what truly ‘fine’ art is, as opposed to something that’s just “good enough”? Are there circumstances where “good enough” is just that? My sense is that the marketing and artistic departments of a theatre would have different things to say about that, to say nothing of film companies.

What are your thoughts — not on the movie, dear Lord, but on the idea of elevating the audience to the level of the art vs. making something that the average Joe can enjoy?