Farewell to Theater

Traditional big-box theater in America is at an extreme disadvantage when it comes to reforming its structure. Even though the relevant numbers have been crunched as tweaks, gimmicks, and roll backs have been accepted, there still is the implicit resolve among the old school that “Beyond this point we can go no farther.”  This barrier to change affects how the content of plays speaks to the non well-off (which is increasing) and under 60 theater goers.

After 50 or so issues of American Theater Magazine it is clear that your group has highlighted all attempts at tech, finance, and education innovations without changing theater itself. Your roots go to the past and significant change is in constant negotiations with several generations of what has worked in the past. When writing about how theater is done in other countries, I have nothing but good things to say. But other countries do not share our past. In any event, Americans may not be able to duplicate their success.

Since it all comes down to money, I would like to offer my two cents about why reform is limited when working from the top down. An approach of creating from the bottom up would look very different than trying to pinch pennies out of multi million dollar budgets. I include the 99 seat theater class that appears to be bargain versions of that same form and substance.

Don’t get me wrong. I saved several valuable articles that the magazine has printed that would also be valuable to those thinking (and working) outside the three-walled box. More of those type of articles have not appeared for some time. Maybe you’ve said all you have to say on what we both have in common.

But serious core reform seems to be hampered by what remaining traditional sponsors and aging subscribers expect, even as building and operation costs escalate and attention spans plummet. Because this is not where I’m going, maybe theater isn’t my end all be all. Maybe I should be traveling the multimedia road. Of course, TCG incorporates multimedia while refusing to yield the center. But a true multimedia approach has no structural bias. It is a true bottom up, continually changing experience.

I’ve been part of other genres that refused to yield the center when their time had passed. Cable public access TV refused to make a full transition to internet multimedia platforms so is withering away without a replacement. Public poetry readings rarely have more people in the audience than readers waiting their turn to bore, I mean read. Meanwhile the slam poets on Button Poetry are getting between a hundred thousand and a million views. These changes are not a passing fad.

It would not surprise me to see several structures and genres working in an ever changing flux together. Those who have been big fish in the traditional theater pond and ignore this change are going to find that their pond will be getting smaller and smaller until it is just a mud hole.

This head in the sand attitude about structure spills over into content offerings as well. For content cannot be isolated from current events and the broader experiences of the public. Likewise, current events cannot be separated from the real people that make up the public. The public is not always well informed and often overstocked on fear, anger, and class bias. But they are the public. Who is your audience?

I couldn’t help notice that several of your magazine issues have been obsessed with thinly disguised shock and disbelief about Trump being President. Since the Orange One never attempted to fool anyone about who or what he was during his campaign, I can only conclude that the motivations of a large segment of the voters are irrelevant to the official theater establishment. I know many people personally who voted for him and why. No, I wasn’t one of them. But I am not out of touch either.

In an effort to seem more broad minded, the rather forced ‘Enter Stage Right” article was printed. What was called “conservative theater” was mostly a reaction against things in the status quo that weren’t working. Bernie Sanders offered an equal popular solution against things in the status quo that weren’t working but he was shut down by the DNC, not the forces of Trump. The non ideologues who were so done with the status quo saw themselves stuck with Trump. I see the same fallacy of false alternatives in American Theater.

The irony is the “99 seat theater” class has aped the big theater gang instead of breaking away on a separate course. My recent experience was last years “Nittany Theater” contest which bent and twisted the terms of a small grant to do pretty much whatever the Hell they felt like doing. The writers who were sucked in by the advertised noble theme of the contest were just nobodies in some insipid Summer Stock’s ruse to get some free publicity. The message is, small is sometimes even smaller.

The bottom line is I will not be renewing American Theater since I would be reading more obituaries of people I never heard of than inspiring innovations in the performance arts. I’ll be finding my way to the future in other places.

Well Prepared for the Trump Era

When I moved to Lake County in 2002 little did I know that I was going to undergo a rigorous conditioning to living under a fascist regime. While the 2016 Election left millions of people dazed and bewildered, I looked at the horror unfolding and could only see that the Nation had caught up with Lake County reality. There are several elements to this reality. If I thought deep down most of the Trump vote was anything more than fear and ignorant rage I would not bother writing this.

I happen to like details, check facts, and I follow thru. This made me immediately suspect to the self serving paranoids that ruled the backwater of Lake County. The first thing I learned is that “the public” does not include me. A full description for “the public” in this former frontier of Napa County is “the old landed families”, the real estate industry, right wing fundamentalists, retired police, corrupt civil servants, opportunists pitching Lake County’s low development requirements to out of County interests, and small town, small minded, mean spirited Republican business men who would never survive in a dynamic market environment.

People who find themselves stuck here, but are not members of the club, are only valued if they have brought money with them that can be siphoned off by the tight knit cabal of reactionaries to keep the black heart of the past beating on. The poorer sorts who retreated here from more expensive areas are alternately vilified as the reason progress has bypassed Lake County and exploited as State and Federal grant bait. This grant money is either used to hire more do nothing cronies and unemployable relatives or used for programs that attack people in a class war that the money was supposed to help.

Those who meet in the usual gatherings for “the right kind of people” to hatch schemes for excluding or crushing “the wrong kind of people” are found even in decent localities. Only in Lake County it is all out in the open, for all to see, with neither shame or denial – just like Donald Trump. There are no cover stories, rationalizations, or excuses. The law is not important except when it benefits the right kind of people or some fancy lawyer gets involved to muck things up. Coalitions of diverse interests and future thinking are strategies for losers.

Remember, Lake County was the scene of the Dinius trial that caused a National sensation, resulting in the ouster of both the District Attorney and the Sheriff. Fast boats, corruption, and death on the water. Its only a matter of time before Clear Lake gets their big Hollywood movie. The Chamber won’t like it.

Myself, I’ve experienced numerous instances of freedom of speech and search warrant violations. But so have many other residents. Even in the 21st Century reefer madness still justifies the most absurd and egregious assaults on our civil liberties in the land of Clear Lake. In the rare instance where someone can get a lawyer, and of course win the case, the attitude is “So what. The taxpayers will pay for it.”  No actual presence of devil weed is seen as necessary. They are on a mission from God who over rides the Supreme Court.

My first experience as the subject of civic minded mob action was when I decided to produce a video parody of local politics for the public access station. I was not considered part of “the public.” The City Manager of Clearlake was outraged. When it leaked out what I was planning the former Chamber head and a right wing minister organized a howling mob of their buddies, retired policemen running for local office, businessmen, even one of the founders of Clearlake to storm the  PEG meeting to intimidate me. The Chamber guy kept saying he wanted to punch me out. I challenged him to a chess game. He declined.

After years of attacks on the station everyone was finally driven off, leaving TV8 nothing more than a government channel with some internet filler. But all three governments still use its public forum status to extort money from cable users as a fee for public access. No shame. No shame whatsoever. And why should there be? After all, they are the right kind of people taking from the wrong kind of people, like me and you. When people like Trump aren’t born rich they are called bullies or thugs. To me, Trump is just one of these Lake County goons in a better suit with bigger guns.

As someone who has made a habit of showing up to places I’m not supposed to be at and reading documents I’m not supposed to read, I understood the Trump mindset right from the beginning. I see millions wringing their hands in disbelief that the short sighted, unapologetic arrogance I experience on a local level is now on display in the Presidency for the World to see. I had hoped that after another generation of goobers had died off Lake County would finally join the civilized world. Instead I find that the Nation has decided to become Lake County. It won’t be pretty but I’ve seen it all before.

Grumpy Reviews

I have a general grumpiness about the state of playwriting. Looking through the American Theater Magazine and the TCG Publications catalog is depressing for what is not being written or produced. Everything that is deemed worthy by official pundits seems pointless, trivial, or ordinary. Especially ordinary. I hate ordinary and if I wanted pure entertainment I’d go see a movie. Unlike plays, movies are pre chewed, partly digested, and fortified with quick edits and special effects.

Plays that are painful, frightening, or confusing – that is, plays that should be written and experienced, are best categorized as surrealist. Other terms that work for me are “theater of the absurd”, dadaist, commedia, and deep satire. These genres can be entertaining but can also leave audiences wondering why they were entertained since often the material is very dark. Its stick to your ribs stuff.

I do support local theater in Lake County, or rather Lake County writers and actors. But I go steeled for a product pitched to local tastes. I don’t expect to be enlightened. What I do expect is reasonable technical proficiency.

A couple weeks back a friend and I went to see a local rock musical done to Elton John music called “Good Bye Yellow Brick Road.” Obviously the band played Elton John music. A local person wrote a thin story that interspersed with the songs. This is what we expected. We are supporting local theater so that maybe it will evolve into something quirky and relevant.

Unfortunately, the show’s producer, Michael Adams, dropped the ball in the sound department. The performance was at the Soper Reese Theater so sound wasn’t going to work by itself. Someone had to make it happen. The producer selected separate stage and music directors. However the band was autonomous as far as being responsible for their own miking and amplification.

So whose job was it to mike the singing? Ultimately this is the producer’s responsibility to designate someone. During intermission a band member made it clear it wasn’t their job. Nick Reid was listed as the music director but his reputation is as a voice coach. I have only seen him work with light acoustic back up. If there was a full dress rehearsal the lack of functional voice amplification would have been obvious. Only the seats up front could hear all of the singing. Everyone else had to wait for the occasional pumped up segments.

If this was some corny but charming assortment of local talent like Lake County Live that charged 5 dollars to get in I wouldn’t be writing this. But Yellow Brick was promoted as a serious production that charged a full range of ticket prices (I bought 2 of the 18 dollar seats). I expected a minimum of technical competence. If a producer charges for professional work they are obligated to deliver the product. Given that there was no original music, perfunctory writing, and an aging cast the very least one would expect is minimum sound quality.

I’m getting a little tired of local dilettantes who won’t put in the minimum of effort to create a quality product but expect the public to pick up their slack at the ticket booth. Remember, the Bay Area is always an option as a theater destination for Lake residents. When no one responded to our complaints during intermission that there was a sound problem we walked out. We felt a little abused. If Adams wants me to show up at another one of his music events he’s going to have to announce “OK, I get it. It won’t happen again.”

Fringe Festival Ideas

by Dante DeAmicis

Fringe Festival (San Francisco) play pitches  –  best of my ideas that I will write a one hour play from if commissioned by an interested producer and director

1 – “FIJA”   This is another jury room drama.  This theme persists because of the natural limited set and scene changes.  In this case the struggle is not over whether a criminal charge was correct.  Here the struggle is over whether juries have the right to rule on the law as well as the facts.  Most judges deny that juries have this power to decide when a law should be applied or whether a law was legitimate in the first place. This play focuses on a locality’s deceptive practice of using planning ordinances to functionally overturn California’s Medical Marijuana law.  A county has given the ordinance teeth by making violation a misdemeanor instead of the normal infraction.  However, this escalation also  guarantees defendants a jury trial where one informed and determined juror can bring proceeding to a screeching halt.

Characters: Judge, Prosecutor, defendant, four jurors

2 – “Unreserved”   Christians almost have a lock on the “passion play” genre. Not many subjects can produce a series of events and conversations where each one contributes to an outcome of sweeping significance over succeeding generations.  In fact, the events must stand alone as vignettes within the play.  The implementation of the Federal Reserve System has this kind of scope for people with an economic history bent.  During a period of distrust of big money interests a group has a series of secret meetings to plan a grand deception in plain view, binding politicians to their agenda and turning a population into subservient peasants for a hundred years and counting.

Characters: three conspirators, Congressman, a typical American family (father, mother, child), William Jennings Brian

3 – “Scabs”     A shadowy management group convinces a local government to let them run their bus to lower costs.  The out-of-towners turn out to be a front for union busters on steroids.   Their operating manual is a comprehensive list of unfair labor practices.  Short term goals include bust the Union and fire the remaining old drivers who remember what a fair contract was.  But rumors persist of a transit based final solution to the elderly and disabled base of the ridership.   Actors should be prepared to play multiple fast paced roles.

Characters: two scab drivers, two union drivers, evil transit manager, reporter, county supervisor, three passengers, anti union heckler, security guard

4 – “Tasting Room”    Two fashionable demons sit at a tall cabaret table with a built in wine rack (Yes, I have one).  They are preparing to sample the various vintages of pain and suffering created with practice and expertise by their fellow fermenters of misfortune.  Categories include, “personal”, “institutional”, and  “grand atrocities.”  Each cork they pop becomes a new vignette by the actors with following commentary by the sophisticated demons.

Characters: two tasters, two teams of three actors each

5 – “Dicey Spicy Madness”     An Italian Restaurant, famous for its pasta sauce, decides to market the sauce to the public.  The secret ingredient is a potent variety of sage that some think is the source of their lucid dreams.  Restaurant chains committed to sugary chemical sauces are not happy with the competition.  Political and religious opportunists see a chance to whip the lethargic population into a frenzy while garnering a ton of free publicity for their personal agendas.  Soon, all the problems of society can be traced to this pasta sauce ingredient calling for prohibition by pundits, politicians, racists, imbedded news journalists, and police spokesmen.

Characters: Italian restaurant owner, family of three customers, crusader, news reporter, politician, various institutional spokespeople in rapid succession.