Sunday, January 11, 2009

Different Strokes For Different Folks

The other day, as I was riding on a MUNI bus, I overheard a young man describe his father's favorite treat. "He likes peanut butter and mayonnaise sandwiches!" he told a friend. "I can't stand the smell that comes from even having those two jars open at the same time -- I have to leave the room --  but he just fuckin' loves it!"

Although I'm not a vegan, I shudder at the sight of an entree which features an entire fish (head, tail, and skeleton) looking up at someone from a plate.  And yet there are certain foods which I heartily enjoy (chopped liver, prune whip yogurt, fried cauliflower) that are anathema to others. 

Chacun a son gout!

Just as a restaurateur tries to appeal to various tastes by experimenting with "fusion" dishes, arts marketers have long been aware of the risks and benefits of over- or understimulating their audiences. On one hand, they want to keep long-time supporters happy.  On the other hand, they must continually break new ground in order to challenge their artists and attract new ticket buyers.

On April 25, 2008, the San Francisco Film Society tried an interesting experiment aimed at broadening its outreach. As part of the 2008 San Francisco International Film Festival, its programmers scheduled a screening of The Golem (a 1920 silent film considered by many to be an early masterpiece of horror cinema) to be accompanied by live, original music composed by Black Francis -- the former lead singer and songwriter for The Pixies.  

Although the event filled the 1,400 seat Castro Theater, it brought together two diverse groups of filmgoers with markedly different tastes in entertainment. Rock fans and friends of the band came to the theater ready to party. Many were busily text messaging their friends during the screening. Some even held up their cell phones the way people used to hold up their cigarette lighters at performances of The Rocky Horror Picture Show

For older members of the more traditional and staid audience that religiously attends events promoted by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival there were some pretty uncomfortable moments -- like when Black Francis proudly interrupted the music to inform the audience that "This clip got over 3,000 hits on YouTube!"

Earlier this year, the Shotgun Players unexpectedly received a $10,000 grant from The Tournesol Project, which claims that the main purpose of its Tournesol Workshop Initiative (TWI) is:
"... to provide financial support for the pre-production developmental process of new, universally themed plays that have already been calendared for premiere. Funding can be used for workshops, readings or other activities designed to enhance the development and ultimate success of the new works once they are premiered. New works eligible for funding under the TWI are only those already included in the theatre’s schedule for the current or coming season."

For a relatively small arts group like the Shotgun Players, this was a major breakthrough in arts funding. Shotgun Players was already in the process of developing a new approach to Beowulf that became a co-production with New York's Banana Bag and Bodice.  Their TWI grant has since led to other funding that will help Shotgun Players take its production of Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage to New York (where it will be performed from April 1-18 at the Abrons Arts Center, a part of the famed Henry Street Settlement).

Because I had been unable to catch the Shotgun Players' production of Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage when it was first produced on the Ashby Stage, I was eager to attend a special sold-out benefit performance hosted by the Berkeley Rep in its 587-seat Roda Theater. Before the performance began, Shotgun Players' artistic director, Patrick Dooley, took to the stage and, bursting with excitement, described pacing and measuring the new area during the show's load-in that afternoon and discovering that the entire Ashby Stage Theater (where Shotgun Players usually performs) could comfortably fit on the stage of the much larger Roda Theater.

He then described how the Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage project had first developed, how Shotgun Players had received extra funding, how the artistic staff at Berkeley Rep had asked what they could do to help nurture the work so that it could continue further along its creative path, and the absolute thrill that awaited the company in bringing this new piece to audiences in New York.

Playwright Jason Craig as Beowulf (Photo by Jessica Palopoli)

With such a buildup, I was shocked to discover that Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage was clearly not my cup of tea. Written by Jason Craig with a kind of Visigoth-klezmer rock score composed by David Malloy (that includes a solo for saw performed by Andre Nigoghossian), this "songplay" aims to skewer the overanalytical academic approach taken by literary scholars to an epic poem about an inherently amoral, violent and stupid warrior who simply likes to smash stuff and kill things. 


Throughout much of the performance the lyrics were unintelligible. The music did not grab me. Indeed, I was shocked to see the work get such an enthusiastic reception. Only in the second act, when Beowulf crossed over from a fictional character being deconstructed by vacuous intellectuals into a genuinely threatening physical creature, did the piece achieve some real dramatic tension. 

As someone who attends a great deal of theater, it is rare for me to react so negatively to a new work. On such occasions I try to remind myself that, while I may not be the target audience for which the show has been created, many people in the theater are enjoying themselves immensely.  There are fans out there for such work and, if you bill it, they will come.

Some audience members had already seen the production several times and could point to details of the music and staging that had changed as a result of an additional workshop process following the show's initial run at the Ashby Stage. Others were deeply into the music. 

Personally, I found Craig & Malloy's writing to be horribly juvenile. I thought Rod Hipskind's stage direction was sophomoric and pretentious. But as the old saying goes "Opinions are like assholes, everybody's got one." 



* * * * * * * *

San Francisco's Contemporary Jewish Museum, which opened its doors to the public on June 8, 2008, includes a new performance venue (the 225-seat Richard and Rhoda Goldman Hall) that can be used for film, lectures, chamber music, comedy and theater.  To coincide with its exhibition entitled Warhol's Jews: Ten Portraits Reconsidered, the museum commissioned a performance piece from Josh Kornbluth, the Bay area playwright, performer, stand-up comic and television talk show host who juggles almost as many hats as Jan Wahl. Here's Kornbluth's trailer for Andy Warhol: Good For The Jews?


The ever cuddly and huggable Kornbluth, who is well known to Bay area audiences from his autobiographical monologues Love and Taxes, The Mathematics of Change, Ben Franklin: Unplugged, Citizen Josh, as well as his filmed versions of Haiku Tunnel and Red Diaper Baby, scores another well-deserved hit with his new show. Because this a commissioned piece, Andy Warhol: Good For The Jews? starts off with the requisite plugs for the new museum. But soon after describing how the piece began to come together, Kornbluth does something quite remarkable. 

By explaining his own process as a writer trying to come up with material about an artist he knows very little about -- and whose work he finds strangely alienating -- Kornbluth delivers a model lesson in how to explore art, discover the artist's process and how it relates to the viewer's own history, and find meaning in a work which might seem impervious, imperfect, or irrelevant. As Warhol's painting of Gertrude Stein is projected onto the ten screens lined up behind him, the audience sees how closely the bone structure and geometry of Kornbluth's face matches that of Gertrude Stein's. It is a moment of unintended magic which, when I brought it to Kornbluth's attention, caught him completely off guard.

Having experienced several of Kornbluth's monologues, I'm always struck by the intelligence with which he shapes his arguments, the sheer craft of his writing, the lovableness of his transitions, and the warmth and humanity which rest at the core of his performance style. As he has done with taxes, mathematics, love and Communism, Kornbluth's struggle to find the entry point to understanding a difficult topic engages the audience, comforts it, and humanizes the experience of finding a way to appreciate something which may feel like it came from another planet.

Plans are afoot to release a DVD of Andy Warhol: Good For The Jews? at some point in the future.  While it will obviously be of great interest to hardcore culture vultures, modern art and Warhol fans, there is an important secondary market for the DVD that should not be ignored. 

Kornbluth's latest monologue is an invaluable teaching tool for arts educators, gallery owners, and potential museum docents that can show them how to communicate their passion for art in such a way that the average person is drawn into the thrill and mystery of art rather than being repulsed or threatened by the often fetishized, overly precious pseudointellectualism that runs rampant throughout the art world.

1 comment:

elliott said...

Your comments about performances I've seen invariably deepen and broaden my own experience of them. And, unlike the vast majority of reviewers, you add wonderful and interesting context, rather than simply giving your opinion of what you saw. The links you add are an invaluable bonus. Thanks!