The Digest: April 20, 2011

Race & “Contemporary Performance”: Last week, I published a long-ish piece wondering why, given the roadblocks in traditional theater, more black theater artists weren’t creating work in non-traditional modes. The response was actually extremely interesting–J. Holtham (99 Seats) offered a long and very thoughtful response over at Parabasis; Culture Future had a pair of responses (one and two); and in comments, African-American artist Daniel Alexander Jones politely pointed out that (as I kind of expected), I may just not know about the variety of artists making work in these veins, and gave me a host of people I need to check out. Part of the problem I encountered was defining what I was actually talking about, because in the end, “contemporary performance” is a pretty weak term. Still, I think it spoke to the text-centric bias of most theater artists; I was mostly aiming for a negative definition, modes of theater production that fell outside the normal tracks. But overall, all of it is very worth reading, and it’s a conversation that needs to be continued.

In Yer Face: Another fine and thought-provoking piece over at the Guardian‘s theater blog. Although it’s mostly framed as a piece on playwright Philip Ridley (with whom I’m only vaguely aware but now far more interested), what really caught my eye was the author’s almost off-hand analysis of Ridley’s historical moment in the early-Nineties, when a host of groundbreaking playwrights led by the likes of Sarah Kane and Mark Ravenhill (lumped under the name “In-Yer-Face Theater” by at least one critic) burst onto the scene:

That generation of writers was somewhat cast into shadow by two things. Periodically, British theatre is gripped by the thought that playwriting is dead and devising will save us all; these moments usually pass but before they do they tend to lay waste to a few promising writers. The early 90s was such a time.

Given the back and forth in several contexts I’ve had recently over playwriting vs. non-playwright-centric modes, I found myself mulling over this thought. The arts are prone to hyperbole, and we’re always going over why this or that is “dying.” However, I think it’s true that energy shifts around from mode to mode over time. Whether there’s a logic to it, I don’t know. But periodically playwriting seems to fall into a rut, at least in some places and circles, which may or may not be the same elsewhere (America in the Sixties, for instance), and energy and innovation shifts from one space to another. I wonder if my present exasperation with text-based theater has more to do with a sense that most of the major work I see coming out just isn’t that urgent, and that I might be turning a blind eye to the reality that there’s probably a new generation out there chomping at the bit and who will blow up in a few years’ time.

Seattle’s Intiman Theater Dying?: I mention this only in passing because it concerns me in a past life (when I covered theater in Seattle) and because I think it’s an interesting case study in funding, arts management, and so on. The Intiman, one of Seattle’s three major LORT houses, is shuttering its doors for the rest of the season. Why? Well, no one really knows because the backstory is convoluted and theater’s board and management has behaved with varying levels of incompetence and–it would seem–mendacity. The news broke several months ago when a playwright/blogger published as-yet unsubstantiated rumors of the company–formerly AD’d by Broadway darling Bart Sher and currently by Broadway darling Kate Whoriskey, of Ruined fame–forced their hand. Apparently for several years they’d been dipping heavily into the endowment, and declared they needed a million dollars in additional funds to keep the theater open this year. The fault was largely laid with an abruptly departed managing director, and the endowment was emptied to pay back union dues and rent on the theater’s home. Since the beginning of the year, the Intiman leant heavily on the community pony up half a million dollars before the first of several deadlines, and although the first deadline was met, they still recently announced they were canceling the rest of the season based on the advice of their new management guru. In fact, it seems like a standard playbook that was used several years ago to save Seattle’s ACT Theater, and the (largely accurate, with hindsight) rumor mill had it that they were only staying open to beg money off the community and planned to shut down for a while from the beginning. But that was always just a rumor. In fact, no one has any idea how bad things really are at the Intiman because information only comes out piecemeal, a nice reminder that non-profit arts groups are often not actually public trusts but, in reality, just businesses with a non-profit model, every bit as prone to evasion, deceit, and managerial and fiscal incompetence as any other.

Odds & Ends: East of Borneo with a great piece on the correspondence of Roberto Bolano and Enrique Lihn (yes, it involves lists) – Exeunt mag (UK) on the line-up of the 2011 Pulse Fest – Dance/USA’s e-journal’s continuing series on self-producing dance shows – TCG Circle on “transmedia,” complete with serious cultural biases – Critical Correspondence interviews the artists of MGM Grand, whose show opens tonight (April 20) at the KitchenBellyflop interviews Australian choreographer Rosalind Crisp.

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