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Bigger Drama

Philly Drama Queen is moving on to a larger castle soon, and you’re all invited. This blog is being picked up by ArtsJournal.com, a sort of clearinghouse for arts journalism with its own in-house and affiliated outside blogs. The site has lots of exciting plans for the future, and is picking up where traditional news outlets have failed the arts–and those who cover them. 

I wanted to blog for the Inquirer, I really did (and to be fair, they are allowing me to occasionally contribute to ArtsWatch, Peter Dobrin’s blog). But consider this: they asked me in February for a bio and photo so they could post it on the website. Like a fool, I ran around telling everyone they could soon subscribe to my RSS feed, they could just go to my page if they wanted to read my reviews, that if they wanted to access any of my other work, I’d be able to link it to that page. Now, winter has turned to spring and though the nest of mourning doves outside my office window has sprouted hatchlings who have gone on to become birds in their own right, I still don’t have a page on the Inky’s website. 

Some of you may recall the Suburban Love Songs piece I did last month and wondered what I was thinking. I was thinking that it would be a fully complimentary multimedia feature, where its virtual online spirit is inextricably linked to its corporeal print body. Alas, not only was the video placed on a separate page from the online feature, it was not at all what I’d imagined. The videoographer was none too happy about the assignment, complaining that shooting news was no problem but this, editing something, was a pain. Initially, I offered to film it myself–but since my experience is, shall we say limited, a pro was sent in who was told nothing about the project and cut off the end of the performance (though the stuff that made it to video was quite nice). On several feature pieces I’ve offered to include boxes with relevant links that could be printed or posted on the Inky site. Often, they don’t appear, or if they do, the links are broken.

It’s a sad state of affairs and one that will send my venerable and much-loved Pulitzer winning newspaper careening into the iceberg, rather than navigating safely around it (Since I spend a lot of time in Leadville, Co, hometown of the Unsinkable Molly Brown, please indulge me this metaphor). Anyway, I’m forced to be a Molly Brown in this enterprise, taking the oars in my own hands and demanding an explanation for what has transpired.

titanic sinking

I’ll keep fighting for the survival of Philly arts coverage via my Inquirer writing, but ArtsJournal allows me to take this blog and focus on national issues critical to drama queens like myself and to add on all the add-ons my black critic’s heart desires. I hope you’ll come visit me in my gorgeous new digs. Keep checking back in this space for the official move date.

The Word of the Day is: Postracialism

I’d like to give big props to the Philadelphia Inquirer and my editor, Becky Klock, for including two full-length theater features (one of them mine) and a theater review in today’s Magazine section of the paper. It’s not often we get so much space, but when it happens, it’s a glorious thing.

That said, I’d also like to take up a discussion of Howard Shapiro’s article on “color-blind casting,” since this is the third time this season the Arden Theatre’s production of Sleeping Beauty and its casting of Nako Adodoadji–an African American actress–in the title role, has been a matter of editorial observation (and apologies to Ms. Adodoadji in advance for using her as an unwitting example throughout this post). Also, please don’t take this as a knock on Mr. Shapiro’s article either, as I obviously found it compelling enough to devote a whole morning to its analysis.

A little history: I was sent to review the show and loved everything about the production… Everything, that is, except the level of Ms. Adodoadji’s performance, charming though she was.

[Costume designer] St. Clair’s sole miscalculation is Briar Rose’s (Nako Adodoadji) act one outfit, which is too bright and too modern–particularly unfortunate, as it directs attention to the fact that Adodoadji is the weakest of the actors. Luckily, the others are strong enough that her inexperience scarcely matters, and the Arden can deliver all the magic promised in this classic fairy tale. 

Arden\'s Sleeping Beauty

Anyway, that’s all I said about her. Nothing about her race, or the Arden’s choice to cast her with white parents in a traditionally white role (though why that’s so, I can’t say, it’s not like it’s Snow White or something–stay with me here, I’ve got a point). 

The following week, Inquirer columnist Annette John-Hall, herself an African American woman, took up Adodoadji’s cause in a column devoted to the joy children of color feel when they see this particular Sleeping Beauty onstage. (Hey, she’s a columnist, not a critic, it’s her prerogative.) She also mentioned that she saw the actress’ picture in the paper, which meant she’d read the review, which led me to believe that she just might have been annoyed by it. At the time, I remember thinking, “Did I miss the boat here? Should I have at least called attention to this aspect of the production in my review?”

But I didn’t, and here’s why: I took both of my kids to see the show and neither of them seemed to notice. This was children’s theater, and “non-traditional casting” sure didn’t seem to be an issue for its direct audience–just for its parents. I even remember tentatively asking my kids if they liked the actress playing Sleeping Beauty, because, as their mom, I dread writing reviews of shows they attend with me and hope maybe they’ll say something critical, though they never do and always love everything they see (I’ve been told my job is “kind of mean”). They liked her, thought she was pretty, an important quality for a princess, but never mentioned how unusual or notable it was that the princess in question was African American. Maybe it’s because they’re so used to having friends of other races, or having friends with interracial parentage, or adopted friends who are different races from their moms and dads, or integrated Barbie collections, for goodness sakes. For whatever reason, it hadn’t even occurred to them that something momentous was occurring in their midst. However, John-Hall notes the difference for the children of color in the audience,

When teacher Ana Ozuna Donofrio asked her fifth graders from Independence Charter if they were surprised that Sleeping Beauty was black, everyone raised a hand.

“Because Sleeping Beauty is white in the storybook,” said a 10-year-old with the fairy-tale name Ariel.

Sure, they were surprised. As little Ariel pointed out, it was because they’d seen her image before in a book. Perhaps they’d be just as surprised to see a blonde Dorothy in place of Judy Garland. It’s not that I’m diminishing the importance of seeing oneself reflected regally onstage. (Though I have yet to hear of Jewish princesses showing up anywhere besides the punchlines of sex jokes, and I managed to get past it. Sort of.) Just that maybe constantly reminding kids that something like casting a black princess is unusual does more harm than good. I’m too young to have watched anyone perform in blackface, but do I know all about it? Sure. Do I find it repulsive? Of course. Do I need to be reminded about it every time I see Othello? Hell no.

Jolson in blackface

I find myself returning to this issue during the run-up to the presidential race as well. I remind my kids that they are experiencing a historical moment in American history: a white man, white woman and biracial man all running for president, all at the same time, all with equal chances of being elected. But really, if I didn’t mention it, I don’t think they’d have noticed anything unusual, and I often wonder whether calling attention to the historic nature of this election doesn’t just create the problem all over again. Sure, this all sounds very Stephen Colbert (“I don’t see race”) but honestly, things just might be changing enough that, I don’t know, maybe kids–or at least kids living in integrated neighborhoods and schools–see race, but don’t care. Maybe the ideal of postracialism is actually not just an ideal anymore.

I find it kind of depressing that “nontraditional casting” merits an entire feature in 2008. Of course, something like Broadway’s all-black Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a different story. Its casting choice is a statement in itself and merits attention on that fact alone. But just calling out race mixing because it happens onstage? Aren’t we past that yet? Aren’t we?

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Alive and on ABC

Gibson/Stephanopoulos

One thing I did not get to discuss on Ellis Henican’s show yesterday was the way Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos were Rosencrantz-and-Guildensterned during the Philly debate. Sent on a fool’s errand, they concerned themselves with trivialities and minutiae (lapel pins), inflated with self-importance (regarding time, Gibson announced, “I’ll be lenient, but not permissive”), blind to the fact that they were mere cogs in a political machine. They’ve since been chewed up by that machine and spit back out. Yesterday the AP released a feature on the pair’s misguided role in the debate, as did seemingly every other news outlet. And mirroring the careers of R&G, they’ve gone from minor players in a larger story to the subjects of their own little drama. Congratulations fellas, you’ve been sacrificed for a greater purpose.

 

R&G coverR&G Hamlet

Arts Journalism Not on Display at Newseum

The brand new temple of free speech, Washington’s Newseum, opened Friday to less than enthusiastic reviews, most noticeably from the New York Times, who, along with the paper’s owners, the Ochs-Sulzberger Family, were heavy contributors to the museum. Such is the nature of a free and fickle press.

Aside from journalists’ naturally contrarian tendencies, there may be more to their naysaying than simply objective reporting. Perhaps there is no surer sign of your cause being equated with cataclysm than having a national monument erected in its memory. Native Americans and Jews endured wholesale slaughter of their people to get a museum; as we witness the wholesale slaughter of American industry, its loudest voices, the media, won’t go quietly. The first amendment is inscribed on the building’s marble facade like a tombstone erected to mourn a nation’s lost, outsized ideals.

Newseum Facade

Another New York Times article notes quotes Charles L. Overby, chief executive of the Freedom Forum, a nonprofit underwriting the project, with this frightening statistic:

“Our annual survey shows that 40 percent of the American public believes the press has too much freedom,” he said, adding that the museum’s job is to educate — in an engaging way.

It’s not the idea of the Newseum that gives me chills; after all, if no one’s actually reading newspapers on their own anymore, how else will we force schoolchildren to have contact with them? It’s elements like the Newseum’s oddball collection of journalistic ephemera–Wonkette’s slippers? Really? Perez Hilton’s hoodie wasn’t available?–that make it sound like a newsroom version of the Hard Rock Cafe. Even its Wolfgang Puck-helmed restaurant is named “The Source.” Perhaps it’s too much to expect the stuffed head of Hunter S. Thompson hanging over the bar, but Puck ought to, at the very least, offer a sampling of “deadline delicacies,” you know, creative vending machine fare, whiskey served in a metal file drawer, that sort of thing (I’m also assuming here that the Newseum Residences, apartments that rent from $1,700 to $6,500 a month aren’t tricked out to look like cubicles).

So what does any of this have to do with arts journalism? Well, judging by the exhibits on display, very little. Placing the Newseum in Washington, D.C. ensures its focus will be on all things political/governmental. And while arts journalists may not be decapitated in pursuit of our stories (though I can think of a few theaters who wouldn’t at all mind that outcome for some of us), we are certainly suffering a merciless thinning of our ranks as we soldier on mightily to interpret cultural semaphores from around the globe. Arts journalists are not the bastard children of the news, we are its interpreters, often sensing a change in the winds before bureaucracy’s cogs even begin to turn. (Weimar culture, anyone?) And though we rarely make the front pages, it would have been nice if the Newseum’s curators acknowledged the importance of arts coverage in journalism as well.

Right now we’re being outsourced, but I suppose once we’ve been fully eliminated, the voids in our culture and the chronicling of our cultural history will serve as our memento mori, and it will quickly become evident how important we were after all.

G.B. Shaw John RuskinKenneth Tynan

Pennsylvania Primary Primer and Arts Voter’s Guide

The Theater Alliance listserv has been inundated of late with rants about race, abortion, power, a Hillary/mommy complex, impassioned debate (to put it kindly) covering just about every aspect of this political open season except its impact on the arts. So before you step into the voting booth on April 22 and help decide for the country who you’ll be electing, Digg this entry, send a link to your friends, print it out, and make sure you support a candidate who supports the arts. 

I’ll begin with Barack and Hillary, since they’re the most similar. In case you’re wondering, I’m a registered Democrat, but veer weekly from one candidate to the other. Both have their official arts platforms up on their websites, but if you’re not up for slogging through those, here’s a quick summary of where they converge and diverge.

Arts Education

  • Obama and Clinton both favor the U.S. Department of Education’s (DoE) Arts Education Model Development and Dissemination Grants. This program gives grants to school districts for teaming up with nonprofit arts organizations. Obama says he will “increase” its funding, and Clinton says she will “double the number of students served.” 
  • While Obama says he will “publicly champion arts education,” Clinton says she will end No Child Left Behind, as it diverts money from arts education, and will “provide incentives to schools to offer arts programs.” A nice thought, since currently their only federal incentives are to pass standardized tests or else.
  • For teachers, Clinton supports the DoE’s Professional Development for Arts Educators program, which offers teacher training and enrichment. Obama plans to launch an “Artist Corps” of “young artists trained to work in low-income schools and their communities.” He does not say whether this corps will be composed of volunteers or paid workers, or how they will work with the teachers already in place. 
  • In addition, Clinton wants to launch the “Putting Arts in Reach Initiative,” a program to help schools acquire equipment used in arts programs: art supplies, musical instruments, etc.

National Endowments for Arts and Humanities

  • Both candidates want to increase funding for the NEA. Hallelujah. Funding has increased under Bush, but not anywhere near Clinton-era levels.
  • In addition, Clinton vows to support increased funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

Arts Professionals

  • Both candidates are banking on their universal health care plans to take care of artists, but Clinton’s goes a step farther, building in a refundable tax credit to keep premiums at a specific percentage of income, and offering a 401(k) “with a generous federal match” for the self-employed or others whose employers don’t offer a retirement plan.
  • Both candidates vow to streamline the visa process for foreign artists looking to enter the U.S. Good news for Lily Allen and Amy Winehouse, I guess, but stellar news for all those Festival performers and organizers bound annually by reams of red tape.
  • Both plan to expand public-private partnerships that promote “cultural diplomacy,” by sending American artists overseas and bring foreign artists to the U.S.
  • Both support the Artist-Museum Partnership Act, which Clinton co-sponsored. Currently, artists who donate their work to cultural institutions are only able to deduct the costs of materials; this act allows them to also deduct its fair market value. Niiiice. 
  • Again, Clinton goes one step farther, promising to support programs that create live/work spaces for artists (again, niiiice…), and initiatives that “help artists promote and sell their work.” Though these promises sound vague, she cites a few forward-thinking examples on her website that she’s actually had a hand in creating.

This week, it looks like Hillary for me. Obama’s on the right track, but Clinton’s far more specific in her plans. Shen’s got the stats, the record, and New York state, which–when it comes to the arts–is no slouch… 

Tomorrow: John McCain and arts funding.

 

 

 

 

Karen Getz vs. Spike Jonze

In case you missed today’s Philadelphia Inquirer article about choreographer Karen Getz, the idea was to complement Getz’s upcoming 1812 Productions piece Suburban Love Songs and adapt it for real suburbanites. Getz makes choreography for non-dancers and the six of us who participated definitely fit the bill.

Why did I insert myself into the article?

You try coralling six middle aged to elderly people who don’t dance to appear on video dancing for the newspaper. Not so easy. 

Who Fossified the suburbs best? Watch both videos and you be the judge.

KAren Getz
Spike Jonze

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Karen Getz vs. Spike Jonze

Drinking My Milkshake

There is much hand-wringing these days among arts journalists about the death of arts criticism and journalism. As goes print media, so go its gatekeepers, reduced from comfortable staffers to itinerants, blogging for their dinners. The Philadelphia Inquirer has one staff theater critic left–and I’m guessing that’s because he still earns his keep as Travel editor–but I remember the days when Fine Arts editor Jeff Weinstein was prohibited from using freelancers. I knocked on that door several times, only to be rebuffed (and rightly so: union rules); now the barbarians are on the inside, the door’s been locked behind him, and the union… well, perhaps that rattling in its lungs isn’t fatal, but I’d still put my money on it for the death pool.

So what’s the problem with freelancers and why should you care? Freelancers can save newspapers money during tough times and still provide regular content, right? Wrong. Freelancers aren’t just itinerant, we’re mercenaries too. If the Inquirer has a milkshake and Vogue has a milkshake, but Vogue’s is bigger and tastier, I just might reach my straw all the way into theirs, and leave the Inquirer’s arts coverage to melt until I’ve finished. I’m the monogamous type, and busy enough in my personal life that I haven’t really been moved to check out any other flavors, but hey, a few more downticks in the economy, and I might just get hungry again. It’s a setup that’s bad for the arts, bad for readers, bad for writers, and suicide for the newspaper.