Saturday, January 15, 2011

It's The Economy, Stupid!

During the 1992 Presidential election, Bill Clinton's campaign team hit on a slogan that was easy to pronounce and easy for people to understand:  "It's the economy, stupid!" By that time, the trickle-down economics of the Reagan era had proven to be a ridiculous theory. The fact that President George H.W. Bush had no idea what the price of milk was in supermarkets didn't help matters much, either.

As the Internet has grown and computers have taken on spectacular efficiencies in moving money, global economies have seen financial transactions increase in their speed and societal impact. Fraudulent practices like Bernie Madoff's exclusive pyramid scheme for the wealthy -- or the implosion of the real estate market due to wild gambling with credit default swap derivatives -- have caused the fortunes and financial security many investors and homeowners took for granted to evaporate into thin air.

Hope, however, springs eternal. Emerging sources of capital, fundraising tools and techniques (such as those recently demonstrated in the How To Make Money With Social Media seminar produced by David Perry & Associates as part of its New Media Made Easy series of workshops) point to a bright future for nonprofits that cuts way back on the printing, production, and postage costs of old media and points entrepreneurs down a path of building, seeding, and manipulating new contacts through evolving forms of social media. Whether one chooses to follow the Kiva model, explore or make use of the wealth of information offered by, there are new financial models, new ways to do business, and new tools for increasing productivity that can help any for-profit or non-profit business to reach its goals faster and with a greater level of efficiency than ever before.

When we think about economy in the theatre, however, some specifics quickly come to mind:
  • Economy of words: the ability of a playwright to clear the path for the audience to understand what he is trying to communicate by avoiding obfuscation and being a ruthless editor.
  • Economy of action: the responsibility of a stage director to prevent gimmickry from overwhelming the playwright or composer's intentions (this problem occurs more frequently in the opera world).
  • Economy of budgeting: this involves a producer's ability to prepare a budget and raise sufficient funding so that the creative team can accomplish its goals.
  • Economy of pricing: this involves the responsibility of the marketing department to make sure audiences can afford to buy tickets and that the pricing distribution provides a healthy return at the box office.
  • Economy of publicity: this involves generating as much positive publicity as possible through word of mouth which, in turn, will stimulate ticket sales.
Two new theatrical productions shed light on how the economy effects us in remarkably different ways. In one production, costs are minimal, the editing is fierce, and the text exposes the lies and fallacies that rule the international financial markets. In the other, an overly-indulgent creative team's undying passion for the subject at hand has forced its production costs way over budget.

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At its most daring, art is a subversive phenomenon which forces people to look beyond the safety of the status quo. Whether the art involved is Andres Serrano's infamous "Piss Christ" photograph, David Wojnarowicz's politically-charged "A Fire In My Belly," or the work of controversial photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, edgy art usually offends the people who most need to be offended.

So, for that matter, does cutting edge science. If you think the clinical use of stem cells can rock people's worlds, you should read up on Galileo Galilei's battles with the church in support of Copernicanism (the theory that the earth revolves around the sun rather than the sun revolving around the earth).

Neil LaBute's dramedy entitled "Fat Pig" rushes in where most playwrights fear to tread. Its protagonist develops feelings for an overweight woman who is the object of his best friend's withering scorn. There are straight men who will boast that, on rare occasions, they've ended up sleeping with a woman who their friends consider to be a real pig. Only Mike Daisey would actually sleep with a pig and then honor that pig by giving it real meaning in a social context.

Mike Daisey (Photo by: Ursa Waz)

Daisey returned to the Berkeley Rep this week with one of his most powerful and daring monologues: The Last Cargo Cult. In 2006, one of the most popular television reality shows named its ninth season "Survivor: Vanuatu -- Islands of Fire." Daisey's excursion to research the John Frum celebrations on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu proved to be just as challenging as the Survivor series. But none of those people were using Vanuatu as source material to research a monologue about world financial markets, tribal customs, the glories of IKEA, and the best way to survive an automobile accident in the Hamptons.

Few, if any of the contestants on Survivor could match Daisey's intellectual powers, creative talents, or skills as a performance artist. I mean, let's be honest. How many people do you know who can sit at a desk for two hours -- with a glass of water as their only prop -- and hold forth on the terrors of exploring the South Pacific in a puddle jumper that must land in wet grass as the natives emerge from the jungle, the gold standard, tribal coming of age rituals that involve a poor, porcine target, and what it feels like to stand on the rim of an active volcano?

In the following clip (recorded when Daisey was performing The Last Cargo Cult at The Public Theatre in New York), the actor and his wife and collaborator, Jean-Michele Gregory, explain what inspired them to create The Last Cargo Cult.

Daisey's kind of theatre requires that the audience pay close attention and follow carefully. His strengths as a storyteller allow him to take daring theatrical risks -- like telling the audience they don't really count because they'll be replaced by another audience the next night. Imagine an elephant seal as a prosecuting attorney, a moose capable of skinning and field dressing Sarah Palin, and you have some idea of what your evening's personal guide through mankind's follies is like.

As a performer who does not rise from his chair until the end of the show, Daisey is remarkable in his ability to paint pictures with his eyes, his jowls, his arms, and a voice that ranges from seething cynicism to shocked disbelief and near operatic bellicosity. As a writer with a sense of irony that vacillates between shock, awe, and disgust, his performances are remarkable for their probative analysis, the wealth of content they deliver, and the sheer entertainment value Daisey brings to each performance.

Whenever I have seen Mike Daisey perform one of his monologues, I've been amazed by the amount I've learned, the magnificent editing in his work, and the sheer theatricality of his presentation. This is one of the rare artists who gives 150% to his audience and leaves them wanting more.

Daisey also is one of the few performers brave enough to challenge an audience to let him know what the experience was worth to them. As the audience enters the theatre, each person is given a bill of one denomination or another. Whether or not they return the money at the end of the show is a stunning test of the true nature of each member of the audience and whether or not such people can honestly put a value on Daisey's art.

Daisey will be performing The Last Cargo Cult in repertory with The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs through February 27 at Berkeley Rep. The following clip offers some key moments from The Last Cargo Cult. Imagine two hours with this man and then click here to buy tickets while there are still some left.

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I wish I could be as enthusiastic about Boxcar Theatre's well-intentioned and high-spirited production of Clue but, alas, I cannot. The promotional blurb for the show reads as follows:
"A play based on a movie based on a board game. The 1985 cult classic is adapted for the stage with every side-splitting joke intact and even a few new ones thrown in for good measure. Peering over a life-sized board game, the audience watches from six feet in the air as six guests and a bumbling butler navigate square by tiny square searching a mansion to find out who killed Mr. Boddy. Was it Colonel Mustard in the billiard room with the wrench or Ms. Scarlet in the lounge with the candlestick? With secret passages running underneath the seats, and multiple different endings, this completely ripped off production is the most original yet. Clue - It’s not just a game anymore… or a movie."
If, like me, you haven't spent long hours playing Clue (my game of choice is Scrabble) or watched the 1985 movie over and over, one's lack of emotional investment in this production makes it easier to notice its glaring faults. Without doubt, a great deal of love and devotion went into Boxcar's effort. Unfortunately, there are several problems that undermine the evening -- one of which is constantly referred to by Colonel Mustard.

Whenever one of the characters questions why an important piece of information has been omitted from the proceedings, the answer is a sarcastic "Editing."  The sad truth is that a good editor could easily have sliced 35 minutes off this production without agonizing over a single cut. Because there are some distinct physical problems with the production, let me first take note of the actors involved.
  • Taking a brief break from one of his many alter egos (Katya Smirnoff-Skyy), J. Conrad Frank is a total delight as Mrs. Peacock.
  • As Professor Plum, Justin Liszanckie cuts a dashing figure, lending a suave masculinity to the proceedings.
  • As the closeted homosexual, Mr. Green, Peter Matthews once again demonstrates his physical grace and deft comic timing.
  • As the manipulative Wadsworth, Brian Martin works feverishly to manage the action (and deserves extra credit for his ability to stay on top of his convoluted and rapidly delivered passages of text).
Others in the cast included Michelle Ianiro as a very black Mrs. White, Nick A. Olivero as Colonel Mustard, Sarah Savage as Miss Scarlet, Linnea George as Yvette (the maid who is busting out all over), and Adam Simpson as Mr. Boddy. While the play (which has been co-written and co-directed by Boxcar's co-artistic directors, Peter Matthews and Nick A. Olivero) had the full commitment of Boxcar's cast, the imaginative unit set designed by Olivero -- who has often worked wonders in this tiny blackbox theatre -- raises some serious questions that probably didn't enter into Mr. Olivero's original design concept.

The cast of Clue (Photo by: Peter Liu)

In order for the actors to be able to move quickly behind the set's four walls, the audience has been seated on raised platforms that are nearly 10 feet above the stage floor.
  • Because heat rises, as the play progresses in a fully-lit theatre space, the slowly increasing temperature  can induce a certain level of drowsiness in the audience.
  • With the audience unable to make any eye contact with the performers, it becomes much easier for the audience to detach from the action and lose interest in the proceedings.
  • The gimmick of having an audience looking down on a set built to resemble the original board game means that -- no matter where one is seated on the periphery of the stage (which resembles a surgical operating room theater) -- entrances and exits on your side of the set will be difficult to see. 
  • Offstage moments projected against one of the theater's upper walls may be invisible (and thus confusing) to a majority of the audience.
The real problem at hand, though, relates to matters of audience safety. In order to get to my seat in the North section, I had to pass through an area of steps painted black which are just begging for someone to take a fall. In compromised lighting (whether ascending or descending these steps) there is an element of physical danger that has nothing whatsoever to do with the play. A good natured member of the production crew offering spoken reassurances to audience members groping their way through the dark is not sufficient.

While the numerous lengthy blackouts during the play are great for adding suspense to the proceedings, the total blackness served as a painful reminder that Olivero's set design had covered up the theater's emergency exit signs (a move which is really testing his luck with the local fire marshal). In the event of a power outage, I'm sure the young audience would have had plenty of cell phones at hand to light their way out of the theater. Unfortunately, all it takes is one misstep for a serious problem (such as a medical emergency in the audience) to rapidly escalate into a crisis.

Over the years I've seen numerous productions whose sets posed a significant hazard to the actors. Rarely, however, have I seen a set that reeked of potential danger for theatergoers. Following the show, Olivero informed his audience that the production had gone way over budget and, as usual, asked attendees to be generous with their donations.

At the risk of sounding like a total party pooper, let me stress that budgeting for the safety of the audience is every bit as important as budgeting for the ingenuity of the set. The cost of putting down tape to mark the edge of each blackened riser isn't even minimal, it's microscopic. Nevertheless, it is the kind of precaution that should be treated as a necessity rather than a luxury.

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