Stepping Out From the Chorus

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Back in late September, as I headed into the Grand Army Bar in Brooklyn, I wondered if I’d remember what Isaac Butler—writer, long-time theater blogger, and director—actually looked like.

The first and only time I’d met him had been more than four years earlier, on July 11, 2011. At that point, I’d been writing for Culturebot for about a year and Butler’s blog Parabasis was a must-read. While it’s true Parabasis has always leaned toward the more conventional, mainstream theater than what Culturebot covers, it’s nevertheless a crucial part of the national conversation (in fact, I was introduced to it by the Seattle playwright Paul Mullin). But despite the fact we lived in the same city, I’d never met Butler, having only communicated online. So I proposed we get a beer to put faces to names and chat.

The day of, Butler suggested we meet in Fort Greene, then head over to BAM for a special event: Jason Zinoman, then still a regular theater critic for the Times, was celebrating the release of his first book, Shock Value, which covered the rise of ‘80s horror films. Not only was there to be a book release, but Zinoman was also introducing a screening of the seminal 1979 sci-fi/horror film Alien.

Anyway, went we did, and after the film and remarks from screenwriter Dan O’Bannon’s widow, we retreated to the lobby for an open bar. Drink in hand, I found myself in a circle of Butler’s old friends, people who were for me just intimidating bylines: Zinoman, prominent theater critic (now comedy columnist) for the Times; Rob Weinert-Kendt of American Theatre magazine (now editor-in-chief); and Time Out’s Helen Shaw.

For someone still fairly new to working as a critic in New York, it was a pretty exciting circle to be part of. But rather than discuss theater—or even horror film, which I also love—the entire group collectively lost their cool when Shaw revealed that her local bookshop had sold her a copy of A Dance With Dragons over the weekend, several days before the official July 12 release date. The fifth novel in George R.R. Martin’s series that is the basis for HBO’s Game of Thrones, she was already a couple hundred pages in the day before it was supposed to come out.

And I’d barely even heard of them. I was the odd man out in a crowd of theater critics and bloggers at a cinema, who were gushing about soap opera fantasy novels.

“Yeah, that’s right,” Butler recalled, chuckling. “Man, if an explosion had happened at BAM or something that night, there would have been no critics left in New York.”

Isaac Butler CollageDespite my fear that I wouldn’t recognize him four years on, as soon as I stepped in the door and scanned the room, I spotted a man at the end of the bar with a distinctive shock of hair that (and I can’t claim credit for this comparison) more than passingly resembles the iconic image of Jack Nance from the Eraserhead poster. Butler stood, recognizing me in turn, shook my hand, and we retreated to the bar to order beers and oysters.

Isaac Butler emerged in the early-to-mid 2000s as one of the first-wave of theater bloggers in New York, part of a crowd that included the likes of George Hunka, Terry Teachout, and Andy Horwitz in the early days of Culturebot. A director of new plays, Butler’s career followed a stereotypical trajectory: struggling to make work, get attention, survive critical failures, and then–as soon as you think you’ve gotten where you want–realizing it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. All of which was recorded and explored with insight and sometimes painful honesty on Parabasis. A survivor of New York’s often unforgiving theater scene, and today a respected commentator, journalist, and director (whose Real Enemies, a multimedia musical performance by Darcy James Argue, is at this year’s Next Wave Festival), I wanted to meet with the 36-year-old Butler to talk about his experiences on the same road we’re all traveling down.

Butler is the scion of a wealthy family with a history of arts patronage. As he explains it, in the mid-twentieth century, his grandparents “ran a catalogue show-room—basically a department store—and they would trade appliances to artists for art work.”

“Most of them you’ve never heard of,” he pointed out. “But Andy Warhol’s first television they traded him for—that’s how they got to know Andy Warhol.”

Best Products, founded by Butler’s maternal grandparents Sydney and Frances Lewis, began in 1957 as a catalogue business; the company’s first show-room opened in Richmond, Virginia in 1958. The company grew through the ‘60s and ‘70s, leading the Washington Post to dub Sydney the “kingpin of discount catalogue merchandising” in 1982. (The company liquidated in the late 1990s.) In addition to various progressive measures taken by the company itself (Best Products commissioned nine pioneering store designs from James Wines’ SITE in the 1970s), the Lewises were art patrons and supporters. Frances crops up in Warhol’s diaries, and Warhol, along with other artists like Chuck Close and Alex Katz, produced portraits of the couple, which, along with the rest of their collection, were gifted to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in 1985. Sydney served on the board of the Whitney and the Hirshhorn. (A 1988 lifestyle article from the Post records some of this family history.)

Growing up in Washington, D.C., Butler was exposed to a wide variety of art and theater from a young age. “I grew up with parents and grandparents who saw everything,” he told me as we sought to avoid covering ourselves in various oyster sauces conveyed via dropper bottles. “My grandparents were board members of the Kitchen, and friends with Philip Glass. So I grew up in a family with broad tastes, and no real belief that there was a barrier between different genres of theater. When we would go to New York on trips, we would see things at MTC and stuff on Broadway, but we would also see stuff at BAM.”

“I mean, it’s not every kid who wants to do a show at BAM when they grow up,” he added.

Butler caught the theater bug through training and performing at D.C.’s Studio Theatre, today one of the city’s most venerable houses. Founded by Joy Zinoman (Jason Zinoman’s mother) in 1975 as an acting conservatory and expanded into a theater presenting space in 1978, the Studio Theater grew over Zinoman’s three decades of leadership into a cornerstone of D.C.’s cultural scene, along with the likes of Woolly Mammoth and the Shakespeare Theatre Company. After attending Vassar College, Butler moved to New York to pursue a career as a new play director, arriving in the summer of 2001.

The first act of Butler’s career begins then, and lasts through spring 2004, concluding in the disastrous wake of his first big directing gig, which he described at length in a 2013 essay published at called “My Epic Comedy of Errors.”

Butler first encountered First You’re Born, a play by Line Knutzon, one of Denmark’s leading contemporary playwrights, when he was asked to direct a reading. After a positive response, Butler and some of his fellow Vassar alums set about trying to get the rights to stage the US premiere with a “fervor for the play [that] was borderline religious.” It took nearly two years, as he wrote, but once they got their way, a variety of opportunities fell into place. Studio 42 lined up as a producer, arranging the show to go up at Playwrights Horizons’ Peter Jay Sharp Theater in May 2004. The Danish Consulate flew Butler to Copenhagen to meet with the playwright. It was a huge deal for a young director barely three years out of undergrad. The expectations had exploded.

First You’re Born was becoming a big deal,” he wrote. “A big enough deal, I thought, to push my career forward, a big enough deal to help me get—and please understand the wince with which I use this word—‘discovered.’”

In any event, that’s not how it panned out. “My Epic Comedy of Errors” reads mostly as a cautionary tale about losing control of your cast. (Butler politely uses pseudonyms for those who are the butt of the story, but it doesn’t take more than a single Google search to name-names.) The reviews were charitable at best. Writing at TheaterMania, David Finkle commented, “[T]his play sure looks like something towards which Vassar alums might be expected to gravitate. That’s not meant as a jibe. (Well, not entirely.)” At Talkin’ Broadway, Matthew Murray suggested the show “tends to vacillate between the enjoyable and the baffling. It’s as if a British adaptation of an Afterschool Special has been filtered through an episode of Friends.”

Perhaps mercifully, the Times records no review.

It wasn’t just the critics’ response that was disheartening. It was the grueling rehearsals and the painful lesson Butler was slowly learning in the process that wore him down.

“I was living in my apartment and I was pretty depressed, and I had no outlet for expressing myself other than the rehearsal room,” he recalled. “And you don’t want to spend all your time as a director expressing your deep thoughts about shit. You have the staging of the play to do. And I had read Matt Yglesias’s blog, and Terry Teachout’s blog, and I was just like, ‘I’ll start a theater blog. Why the fuck not? Are there really that many theater blogs?’”

The answer, in spring 2004, was “no.” By his own reckoning, Butler was the sixth in NYC that he was aware of: Terry Teachout was already a critic at the Washington Post and a year later would transition to the Wall Street Journal, and was blogging regularly at ArtsJournal; George Hunka was underway with his first blog, Superfluities; and then there were Dan Trujillo, Laura Axelrod, and Mac Rodgers.

“We all had a barbecue at George Hunka’s place so we could meet each other,” Butler told me. (He also pointed out that Culturebot was already in existence, having been founded by Andy Horwitz in 2003, though he was unaware of it for some time as they covered different portions of the theater scene.)

In the early days of the blogosphere, anonymity was the norm and discovery was the problem. With regard to the former, many writers (including Andy Horwitz from time to time, in the early days) were known only by their blogger handle—e.g., “culturebot,” “superfluities,” or “parabasis.”

Butler came across the Greek term “parabasis” reading a book on the history of comedy. “I was looking up things that had to do with the intersection of theater and politics and I came to this book, and he talked about this thing called the ‘parabasis’—parabasis being the moment in the Greek comedy in which the lead chorus member steps out of the play and explains to the audience its political meaning. And I thought, ‘Well, if I want to talk about theater and politics, that’s a pretty good name.’”

The anonymity “lasted like three months, because you can’t promote the thing,” Butler told me. “Once I met other theater bloggers it was sort of like, ‘What’s the fucking point? Is anyone even reading this thing?’ And then, a couple months in, I got an email from the composer Michael John LaChiusa, out of the blue, that said: ‘I don’t have time to have a long conversation about this, but I just wanted to let you know, I like your writing and I think you’re asking the right questions.’ And it was very weird, the idea that anyone was reading this.”

Getting readers in the days before social media was a big problem. In Butler’s own telling, it wasn’t until August 2004 that he achieved any real readership, when he wrote about his experiences attending the Lincoln Center Director’s Lab. Teachout—who had a much larger readership due to his platforms at the Post and the Journal—linked to Butler’s article.

“Like 2,000 people read it, and a few hundred of them became regular readers, and that’s how I developed a readership,” Butler said. “In some way, I still owe my entire writing career to Terry.”

The period during which Butler started Parabasis has long since become its own strange little chapter of the history of theater in New York. In fact, it’s even been written about as such, most formally in Elizabeth Hunter Spreen’s master’s thesis for San Jose State University, submitted in 2011, titled, “The New Playgoer’s Club: The Emergent Theater Weblog Culture and the Practice of Theater Criticism.” While some of it reads as predictably quaint (what writing about new media and technology doesn’t a few years on, aside from Walter Benjamin?), it nevertheless offers a fascinating window into a particular moment in the media that’s seen the rise of online publications displace the older traditions of print media, and threaten to take with them the more charming obligations to provide cultural criticism and writing irrespective of ad impressions and clicks.

Back in May 2007, it was Teachout himself who noted, in a go-nowhere proposal to launch a bloggers’ version of the Outer Critics’ Circle Awards, that: “The number of serious and committed stagebloggers reached a critical mass (so to speak) this season, and I now spend at least as much time keeping up with what they write as I do reading the reviews of my print-media brethren.”

In brief, it was a moment in which bloggers—like Butler, who did his own part to lead the charge—fought for legitimacy. Perhaps the seminal moment was the conflict over New York Theatre Workshop’s abrupt cancellation (or indefinite “postponement,” depending on one’s perspective) of My Name Is Rachel Corrie in February 2006, less than a month before the British production was to open in NYC. While Butler was somewhat quiet on the issue, mainly linking to others’ writings on the subject, it became a public relations catastrophe for NYTW. The organization had balked at the potential controversy over staging a play that could offend pro-Israel sensibilities. Bloggers leapt on the issue as one of free expression, and pummeled (sometimes unfairly) Jim Nicola and NYTW for weeks on end. According to Hunter Spreen’s dissertation, Garret Eisler at Playgoer published no less than 150 articles on the controversy in the course of some nine weeks.

Not only did the bloggers’ assault on NYTW make the issue national news, but it caught the theater’s PR department by complete surprise. The theater blogosphere had established itself seemingly out of nowhere, prompting the Times to point out on March 16 that, “Whether a misunderstanding or not, how the workshop, an artistically bold and popular company, found itself in such an embarrassing public jam still baffles Mr. Nicola [artistic director] and Ms. [Lynn] Moffat [the managing director], who said they did not know the extent of the public relations damage and financial cost.”

Butler, for his part, is historically better known for having helped organize a series of “Blogger Nights” at Off-Broadway productions. Working with the theaters, a group of bloggers was granted something similar to critics’ access to show in exchange for an agreement to write about the show. Theaters in turn began embracing this new alternative media for their own purposes. The practice generated its own controversy in the aftermath of Charles Isherwood giving a predictably bad review to an Adam Rapp play, Essential Self-Defense in March 2007. (In October 2011, Isherwood would famously declare—on the Times ArtsBlog, in a sign of the times—that he would no longer review Rapp’s plays at all due to his consistent disappointment with them.)

In response to Isherwood’s take-down, the director of Rapp’s play, Carolyn Cantor, sent an email to subscribers pushing back on Isherwood and quoting a variety of unnamed bloggers with a more positive take (the theater had arranged its own bloggers’ night; Butler was uninvolved). The issue exploded when Culturebot’s Mike Dressel, endorsing at least part of Isherwood’s critique, accused Cantor of trying to manipulate public opinion by cozying up to independent bloggers with gifts and special benefits.

“Of interest, Cantor recognizes in her letter the handful of bloggers who’ve wholeheartedly embraced the show,” Dressel wrote. “A move we applaud. The blogosphere needs to make further inroads into theatre as it has in the areas of politics, pop culture and media, so inviting the blognoscenti is great. What Cantor neglected to mention is that they offered comps to the bloggers and discount tickets to blog readers as a marketing tool and feted them with a ‘kegger’ after the show.”

The controversy exploded when Time Out reiterated the claim, independently, the same week. Butler weighed in at Parabasis, strongly pushing back on Dressel, writing, “I think there’s an assumption that Bloggers, since they have no institutional support, are necessarily more ethically bendable than mainstream press. After all, we can’t be fired from anything, can we? But at the same time, I think there is something to be said for what I have seen in the blogosphere, which is a dedication from various bloggers to figure this whole experiment out, including its ethics that’s worth looking into.”

The better part of a decade on, the entire thing feels odd and old-fashioned. While debates about the objectivity of writers remains a constant issue, the idea that writers for upstart websites are somehow less legitimate than writers whose work is printed on the remains of dead trees is quaint. (For the record, in the end Dressel conceded that not all his claims about special treatment–particularly access to an invite-only party–in exchange for good press were so clear-cut, while everyone agreed that the threat of manipulation was real.) The issue at the time was a shit-storm, but the conflict inevitably pushed us toward the moment we find ourselves in today. True to their claims, the bloggers were making public the nuts and bolts of the industry, and willing to be as scathing about their own practices as those of their subjects. It was an up-by-the-bootstraps process of self-legitimization.

The blogosphere was also a competitive and combative space. While Butler can be aggressive, he’s rarely fallen prey to snarkiness or meanness-for-its-own-sake, but that hasn’t prevented him from gathering a committed group of critics. Sometimes this seems geographic—Los Angeles and Boston both seem to hate him—but more to the point it speaks to profound differences in outlook.

Butler is the sort of person who has a fairly moralistic view of what’s fair and what’s not, particularly when it comes to money. He only half-jokingly describes his ongoing critique of the Bats (The Flea Theater’s in-house company of unpaid interns, despite the organization’s ability to raise tens of millions of dollars for new facilities) as a “crusade.” But that, coupled with a tendency towards painful honesty, has occasionally led Butler into complicated debates.

Butler is, as mentioned, from a well-off family. He makes clear he’s not super-rich. (“I’m not Scrooge McDuck, swimming in piles of money,” he said—as we both laughingly admitted that the staging of us eating oysters, however cheap, probably wasn’t good optics; he added that at today’s prices, he certainly couldn’t afford his own neighborhood in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill.) The issue of wealth in the arts, and the privilege it can buy, is no secret. But it is something of a third-rail, something not to be commented upon unless you want to become an object of scorn. Butler has shown unusual willingness to do so. Most controversially, in the past, he’s acknowledged that he’s put his own money into producing his shows.

“I fight whenever possible for artists getting paid,” he said told me. “The few times I’ve produced I’ve largely funded it out of pocket, I haven’t asked people for money.”

While it’s certainly not the case that Butler funded highly expensive, large-scale productions (like First You’re Born) out of pocket, others have taken the opportunity to accuse him of privilege and bias. On the other side of the coin, he’s gotten plenty of grief for arguing vehemently that artists deserve compensation. A case in point was the controversy over Los Angeles’s Equity Showcase Code in winter 2015.

The details are too arcane to go into here, but in general the issue revolved around the Actors’ Equity Association’s (the actor’s union) local “showcase code” in LA. The showcase code—popularly known as the “99-seat rule”—permits for productions to include AEA members in productions without paying union scale, provided that certain conditions are met (most obviously, that the house have 99-or-fewer seats for sale). The rules for such productions depend on locality; in New York, they’re well-established and highly restrictive, limiting not only the number of seats but the number of shows, as well as capping the annual budget for companies employing it, and so on. In LA, they were more liberal, and AEA after more than a decade decided it wanted to change them, leading members of LA’s vibrant theater community to cry foul. The problem was, as Butler discovered, that the issue was more complicated than New Yorkers, used to their own code, might expect.

“Like many New Yorkers (and non-LA people) following this issue, I had assumed … that these companies were similar to the kinds of companies that produced under the showcase code in New York,” he wrote in February. “But it turns out, this isn’t the whole story. Many of these companies are neither small nor scrappy. Many of them have been around for decades. Some have their own dedicated spaces. And at least one has an annual gross income of over a million dollars.”

Butler’s critical comments and analysis made him an object of scorn for many in LA’s independent theater community, who rallied against AEA’s proposed changes (the members themselves eventually voted against their own union’s requirement that they be paid at least minimum wage for their time). Numerous critical articles were published on one of LA’s leading theater sites, Bitter Lemons.

Butler’s career as a director didn’t track to his rising influence as a blogger. In fact, in 2010, he decided to call it quits, ironically after what he considered the success of his career.

“It was really, really huge,” he told me. “For the few weeks it was open, it was the best reviewed show in New York City. Lines around the block. We had international tourists who’d read about the show in Time Out. I remember closing night, there was this gay German couple and I let them in because they’d come further than anyone else.”

The show was Josh Conkel’s MilkMilkLemonade, which Butler directed at the Theater Under St. Mark’s in fall 2009. “Critic-O-Meter,” the one-time review aggregator that Butler helped found, listed the show a solid “A-“ based on multiple reviews. It was the perfect confluence of the makers loving the show, audiences loving it, and critics loving it, as Butler put it.

“And then nothing happened,” he continued. “We couldn’t extend the show, because there were renters coming into the theater. Who I offered to buy out, but that didn’t work. We tried to move it to a bunch of different venues. I remember this really painful email conversation with Ars Nova, who liked the show but they told me because they hadn’t developed it they couldn’t produce it. And I was feeling like I can’t do this anymore. It was actually having a successful show that made me feel like I couldn’t do this anymore.”

By 2010, Butler was publicly calling it quits on his blog. Responding to Todd London’s Outrageous Fortune, the 2009 book that tore the lid off many of the failings of the institutional theater world, Butler wrote:

This past year, I took a big running elbow-first leap (Freeman, what’s that move called?) at that wall.  It was called MilkMilkLemonade. And I feel like with that leap, I loosed one brick in the middle of that wall. And it fell out, and I got a little glimpse of what’s on the other side of that wall, and thus got to a point where I could make a choice: keep beating against this wall until I loose enough bricks to bust the fuck through, or find another way to live my life.

Entering his thirties, Butler was married, frustrated, and the entire dismal affair hardly seemed worth the effort. His wife was planning on pursuing an MBA, and Butler decided to take the plunge and turn to writing as a vocation. They both applied independently to grad school, he for a writing MFA, and both got in—to the University of Minnesota. So theater was done, New York was done, and that was that.

Except it wasn’t.

Nearly as soon as Butler was ready to throw in the towel, he heard from an old friend–composer, musician and bandleader Darcy James Argue–looking for directorial help staging an ambitious music-based performance piece, Brooklyn Babylon, at the 2011 Next Wave Festival. It was something of a personal achievement for Butler, who–as mentioned–had grown up with a dream of directing a show at BAM.

“My plans to quit did not go well,” Butler jokingly noted. “Because within a year I was directing workshops at the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis, and I was working on this BAM show. So I quit, and then I moved to a different plateau in my career.”

His writing also advanced in fits and starts. He worked on memoiristic non-fiction, and continued blogging about the theater and culture. A couple years later, masters’ in hand, he and his wife returned to New York, where they live in Brooklyn with their one-year-old child. Butler spent some time as a writer for the Perception Institute, a think tank that explores the relationship between, as he put it, “automatic subconscious mental processing and discrimination,” with special interest on discrimination against African-American males. This permitted Butler to combine writing with his passion for civil rights, as the issue of discrimination against blacks hits close to home (Butler was raised with two older, adopted African-American siblings).

Darcy James Argue's "Real Enemies," part of BAM's 2015 Next Wave Festival

Darcy James Argue’s “Real Enemies,” part of BAM’s 2015 Next Wave Festival

Today, he continues as a writer and theater-maker. Currently, his second collaboration with Darcy James Argue, Real Enemies, is playing the 2015 Next Wave Festival at BAM. For a director and theater artist so closely associated with institutional theaters and new plays, I couldn’t help but rib him that he was now creating and directing elaborate, multi-media performances with no actors speaking onstage–Culturebot’s territory, in other words, the pair of us having had more than a couple heated discussions about the differences in outlook over the years. (For his part, he politely reminded me that he was raised in an environment that never recognized those divisions and that he only became aware of the barriers between those “scenes” when he moved to New York to work. A fair point.)

Real Enemies is inspired by Kathryn Olmsted’s book of the same title, on the history and development of contemporary conspiracy theories in the US. A jazz-based musical performance by an 18-member band directed by Argue, the theatrical element consists of a multimedia display developed and structured by Butler, organized in a pseudo-script he composed which he refers to as “the spine.” The real star of the show may in fact be the stage manager, who has to call more 1,000 cues during the performance, timed to a musical score for a concert with constantly changing time signatures and several wholly improvisational moments.

“We did it at Virginia Tech and they sent us two versions of the video—one is the show, and one is the show with the audio of the stage manager calling it,” he explained. “And it is shocking! She is a genius. She’s like the 19th member of the band. And there’s no script, so she just sits there watching video of Darcy and counting. And it’s changing time signatures every couple bars, and there’s other parts where it’s roboto and everyone’s improvising and there’s no conductor, and she’s just sitting there following the score going, ‘Lights go, lights go, tab go, lights go.’”

As a writer, his output has slowed. Blogging, in the style it began with, is more or less dead. The rise of countless websites and the think-piece industry has minimized or eliminated the original impulse bloggers like Butler (and myself) started with: frequent, brief pieces as part of an ongoing online dialogue. Instead, as Butler noted, “The conversations I used to have in the comments on Parabasis I now have on Facebook. And it’s easier to block the trolls.”

Instead, social media serves as a sort of testing ground. A couple months ago, when reviews of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet started rolling in out of the UK, Butler took issue with a comment by the Guardian‘s Michael Billington that Cumberbatch “has many of the qualities one looks for in a Hamlet,” most objectionably, in Butler’s view, that he’s “lean.” Linking to the article on Facebook, Butler simply stated (referencing a long-standing debate in Shakespearean circles) that “Hamlet is fat.” A widespread discussion unfolded online, inspiring Butler to write a thoroughly researched article for Slate. (General conclusion: Yes, Hamlet is supposed to be fat.)

That sort of engagement is more Butler’s speed these days.

“What I earned through blogging was a really sanguine eye as to how the funding works and how the industry works,” Butler said. “And so now that I’ve reentered that industry, I feel like I understand it better than I used to. That’s the thing that was of real benefit to meet. I don’t really have to work on projects that I don’t want to work on. If I read a script and I’m like…enh. I don’t have to feel those same pressures. And I’ve been through this enough times to know what to expect. Everyone’s working really hard. I understand that everyone’s doing this project–in this case it’s Real Enemies–everyone’s dedicated to doing this project for its own sake, and everyone’s hoping to get something out of it.”

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