Monday, October 27, 2008

October 27 is the busiest Monday of the far

What is it about Monday Oct. 27? It has got to be the busiest theatre day of the fall. Check out these invitations I received, all for the same evening:

1) Bill Irwin, Andre De Shields, Heather McCrae and cast members of the Broadway-bound Public Theater production of Hair are scheduled to appear in a 90-minute anniversary benefit for the Workshop Theatre. The party begins 5:45 pm at the Zipper Factory, 336 West 37th Street.

2) Chris Noth (of "Sex and the City Fame"), Bebe Neuwirth ("Cheers"), Anthony Rapp, Christian Hoff (Jersey Boys), Andrea McArdle and Bobbie Eakes rub elbows today in the residence of Ron Pubuda in Central Park South. Laughs, songs and surprises are promised in this "Salon: Six Degrees of Broadway Cares," an evening to benefit Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. 

3) Marylouise Burke leads a cast that includes Greg Keller, Alex Alioto, Cynthia Silver and Janne Emig in a reading of the Alex Plays by Sam Marks, described as a series of episodes chronicling the deterioration of a troubled young man. Though it's part of Partial Comfort Productions' Welcome Mat series, the reading takes place at Teatro Circulo, 64 East 4th Street.

4) Jordan Beck and Jonathan May are inviting industry people to see their musical Top 8 at the Kirk Theatre on Theatre Row today and tomorrow (Oct. 28). Eight strangers meet in cyberspace. Visit to hear some songs and check out the developmental process.

5) As reported earlier, Jean Claude van Itallie's Tibetan Book of the Dead is getting a one-day only performance at the LaMaMa Annex Theater. The director is Kim Mancuso, with Court Dorsey, Kermit Dunkelberg and Susan Thompson in the cast. Show starts at 8 PM.

6) Playwrights Julia Jordan and Sarah Schulman are gathering a group of female playwrights at the New Dramatists on West 44th Street to discuss what to do with the under-representation of women playwrights in mainstream commercial and nonprofit theaters. It starts at 6 pm.

7) The Polish company Theatre of the Eighth Day presents a short excerpt from The Files and screenings of their past work at 6:30 PM at the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center-Graduate Center, CUNY. The Files is a 2007 work based on actual secret police reports kept by the Communist state apparatus on the theatre activity of this company during the period from 1975 to 1983. 

Woven into the story are the private thoughts of the actors during the time these reports were written as well as excerpts from the performances to which the reports referred. Under the sponsorship of the Polish Cultural Institute, The Files is part of a festival of new Polish plays taking place at 59E59 Theaters through Nov. 9. In addition to The Files, the Play Company is producing a U.S. version of the Polish play Made in Poland. And the Immigrants' Theatre Project is presenting a double-bill of Sandbox and The First Time.

What's a conscientious theatre person to do?

Friday, October 24, 2008

LaMaMa E.T.C. Hosts "Tibetan Book of the Dead" Benefit, Oct. 27

Jean-Claude van Itallie needs your support. 

The legendary Off-Off-Broadway playwright wants to rebuild the ruins of his barn in Rowe, Mass., into a theatre and community center for retreats, healing and meditation. 

Once upon a time, the barn housed Shantigar Foundation, a nonprofit center, founded in 1977 and named by van Itallie’s Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Unfortunately, the cathedral-like barn burned down in 2000. 

Since then, workshops and performances have to be held in a big white tent, a wooden shed serving as office and dining space, and a large stone Buddha amidst the woodsy sanctuary’s old stone walls. “The barn is only temporarily invisible,” van Itallie says. 

The immediate need is to construct a commercial kitchen, eating space and bathrooms; the long-term plan is to build some 30 dwellings for visiting theatre artists.

To help raise funds for the barn’s reconstruction, Pilgrim Theatre, a Grotowski-trained troupe founded in Poland by Kim Mancuso and Kermit Dunkelberg, is reviving van Itallie’s 1983 stage adaptation of Tibetan Book of the Dead or How Not to Do It Again Oct. 27 at La MaMa E.T.C. Jun Maeda, La MaMa’s resident designer, has recreated the ethereal skull, built of saplings, which serve as scaffolding for the set. 

The day after the benefit, on Oct. 28, the newspaper Soul of the American Actor and City University of New York’s Martin E. Segal Theatre-Graduate Center have put together a free, daylong event, “The Theatre of Jean-Claude van Itallie,” featuring screenings and readings of van Itallie’s major works. At this event, I will be moderating a 2 PM panel discussion on America Hurrah and The Serpent.  It is free and open to the public.


Presented by the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center, The Graduate Center, CUNY in collaboration with Ronald Rand and The Soul of the American Actor.

THE THEATRE OF JEAN-CLAUDE VAN ITALLIE is a daylong event that features Jean-Claude Van Itallie, Preston Dyar, Wayne Maugans, Angelica Torn, Bill Coco, Lil Malinich, Ron Faber, Cynthia Harris, Joanna Rotté, Kermit Dunkleberg, Rae C. Wright, Judith Malina, Peter Goldfarb, Rosemary Quinn, Barbara Vann, Tina Shepard, Randy Gener, Marcia Jean Kurtz, Evangeline Morphos, Alex Gildzen, Mark Hall Amitin, Ruth Maleczech, Lisa Shubert, Court Dorsey, Susan Thompson, Kim Mancuso, Lois Walden, Steve Gorn, David Lewis, Didi Goldenhar, Jake Robards, Angelica Torn, Laila Robins, Grant Kertchick, Brian Murray, Lauren Bond, Alex Glizden and Lorraine Grosslight.

NEW YORK CITY, Oct. 28, 2008, 2:00 pm + 6:30 pm
Martin E. Segal Theatre Center, The Graduate Center, CUNY
Proshanksy Auditorium, 365 Fifth Ave. at 34th St.
For More Information Click HERE.

2:00 pm 
War, The Hunter and the Bird
America Hurrah (excerpts from Interview and Motel) and The Serpent

3:00 pm 
Panel Discussion 
on America Hurrah and The Serpent
moderated by Randy Gener

3:45 pm 
Bag Lady, Struck Dumb (Video excerpt with Joseph Chaikin), The Tibetan Book of the Dead and Mila, a new musical

4:30 pm 
Panel Discussion on "The Art of Collaboration": Tibetan Book of the Dead and Mila, moderated by Lois Walden

6:30 pm 
Excerpts from translations of 
Anton Chekhov’s plays by Jean-Claude van Itallie: The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters, The Cherry Orchard
War, Sex, and Dreams (Video with Jean-Claude Van Itallie); Light

7:30 pm 
A Dialogue with Bill Coco and Jean-Claude Van Itallie
Reception and book signing to follow

Jean-Claude van Itallie was born in Brussels in 1936, emigrated to America with his family in 1940, graduated Harvard in 1958, and was a central force in the explosive New York off-Broadway theater movement of the sixties. 

His acclaimed America Hurrah, considered the watershed anti-Viet Nam war play, received numerous awards. He was one of the original playwrights at Ellen Stewart's LaMama, and for Joe Chaikin's Open Theater he wrote the ensemble play The Serpent

Van Itallie's more than thirty plays include War, Bag Lady, Almost Like Being, The Traveler, Struck Dumb and Ancient Boys. His translations of Chekhov (Chekhov, the Major Plays, Applause Books) have been widely produced in major theaters across America. 

A student of Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa since 1968, van Itallie wrote the play Tibetan Book of the Dead (premiered at LaMama, NYC 1983), published as The Tibetan Book of the Dead for Reading Aloud (North Atlantic). As an actor-writer in Guys Dreamin (Boston Center for the Arts; LaMama, 1997), van Itallie was well reviewed in The New York Times and Los Angeles Times for his one man show, War, Sex, and Dreams (Highways, Santa Monica; LaMama, 1999). 

In 2002 he received the New England Theater Conference's Special Award for Outstanding Achievement in American Theatre. His play Light (a love triangle between Voltaire, Frederick the Great, and Emilie du Chatelet) premiered in Pasadena at Theatre at Boston Court, 2004 and received several LA Critics awards. Retitled Lumieres, it is to be produced in Paris. In 2006 van Itallie's play Fear Itself, Secrets of the White House opened at Theater for the New City in New York.

Van Itallie has taught playwriting and performance at Princeton, NYU, Harvard, Yale, Amherst, Columbia, Middlebury, University of Colorado, as well as “Writing on Your Feet” and “Healing Power of Theater” workshops at Naropa, Esalen, Omega, New York Open Center, Shantigar, and many other places. He's the author of the playwriting text, The Playwright's Workbook (Applause Books). Van Itallie has transformed the farm in Western Massachusetts where he lives into Shantigar Foundation for theater, meditation, and healing (

The Martin E. Segal Theatre Center (MESTC), The Graduate Center, CUNY, is a non-profit center for theatre, dance, and film affiliated with CUNY's Ph.D. Program in Theatre. Originally founded in 1979 as the Center for Advanced Studies in Theatre Arts (CASTA), it was renamed in March of 1999 in recognition of one of New York City's outstanding leaders of the arts. The Center's primary focus is to bridge the gap between the academic and professional performing arts communities by providing an open environment for the development of educational, community-driven, and professional projects in the performing arts.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Ellen McLaughlin Sings

The first time I truly met the actress and playwright Ellen McLaughlin, we were having lunch at a diner near the Classic Stage Company when David Esbjornson was the artistic director.  I was interviewing her for a Village Voice article.  Ellen was in the midst of rehearsals for her play Iphigenia and Other Daughters.

As Ellen has delved deeper into playwriting over the years, the subject of war consistently haunts her work.  Yes, Ellen has stood on the shoulders of the extant Greek classics which are nothing if not violent and war-mongering.  Ellen's tough-minded, lyrically charged dramas have tackled subject of great relevance and astonishing invention.

Take for example her latest project: New York University's Gallatin School is hosting a workshop presentation of Penelope, a new music-theater piece featuring the author herself and a string quartet, With original music by Sarah Kirkland Snider, the presentations take place at NYU Gallatin School’s new Labowitz theatre, 715 Broadway, on October 29, 20, 31 and November 1st at 7 PM with a 2 PM matinee on November 1.

A plot description: "A woman's ex-husband appears at her door after an absence of 20 years, suffering from brain damage. A veteran of a modern war, he doesn't know who he is and she doesn't know who he's become. While they wait together for his return to himself, she reads him The Odyssey, and in the journey of that book, she finds a way into her former husband's memory and the terror and trauma of war."

First produced in 2008 at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, Penelope will be directed by Lisa Rothe. The string quartet will be: Olivia De Prato and Amie Weiss on violin; Beth Meyers, viola and Lauren Radnofsky, cello. The lighting designer is M. L. Geiger with set design by Eliza Brown and video design by Marilys Ernst. 

Tickets for this 5-performance engagement are $10 with fee admission to NYU students presenting valid ID. Tickets are available online at and can be purchased at the Ticket Central Box Office in the Kimmel Center, 60 Washington Square South, on the day of performance. Students must present ID at Ticket Central (open Mon-Fri 12:30 to 7 PM) to obtain free seats. Tickets will not be sold at the door.

Penelope will will also be presented at Princeton’s Taplin Auditorium, Washington Road, on November 4 and 5 at 8 PM. These performances are free and open to the public.

Another example: Earlier this October, Ellen premiering at the American Repertory Theatre/MXAT Institute for Advanced Theatre Training her latest play Ajax in Iraq under the direction of Scott Zigler. Inspired by Sophocles's Ajax, Ellen took on the current U.S. war in Iraq and grappled with some important questions: "How does the experience of war affect the common soldier? What do veterans bring home from war? How have female soliders been affected by the war in Iraq?" states a prepared statement.

Ajax in Iraq is the result of a 2007 residency grant from Theatre Communications Group and the National Endowment for the Arts to develop a new play with the A.R.T. Institute for Advanced Theatre Training class of 2009. Over 16 months, McLaughlin spent time with an ensemble of acting students at the institute. After doing interviews and independent research, the students brought back materials dealing with civil war letters, Korean comfort women, homeless veterans, military recruitment and soldiers’ blogs. They also wrote scenes, monologues, dance pieces and created performance pieces.

A year after the workshops began, McLaughlin wrote Ajax in Iraq to fit the students who participated in the project.  Integrating what she learned from the students, who felt that the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are becoming our modern-day Vietnam, the play also re-tells a version of Sophocles’ play with a modern-day tragedy about a female soldier serving in the current Iraq war.  Some of the choral elements are based on oral interviews.  The goddess Athena narrates the evening.

War has definitely been on Ellen's mind lately.

Bonnie Marranca Unplugged

Performance Histories
By Bonnie Marranca

Performance Histories is a new collection of writings by Bonnie Marranca, co-founder of the Obie Award-winning PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, which she continues to edit. The essays and interviews in this volume cover a wide range of current issues such as performance and ethics, art as spiritual practice, the theatre of food, and avant-garde legacies in theatre and visual art performance. There is also extended commentary on Wallace Shawn, Maria Irene Fornes, The Wooster Group, and Robert Wilson and Gertrude Stein. Also featured are the author’s interviews with Susan Sontag, Robert Jay Lifton, and Peter Sellars.

Performance Histories is the author’s third collection of critical writings. Her volume entitled Theatrewritings received the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism. Reviewing the book in the New York Times, Mel Gussow wrote: “In a critical field that is itself burdened with special interests, she is a free spirit.” The playwright Mac Wellman stated of her Ecologies of Theatre “she has articulated a whole new landscape. “ Edited volumes include: Plays for the End of the Century, American Dreams: The Imagination of Sam Shepard, and The Theatre of Images, one of the seminal books of contemporary theatre. The author’s writings have been translated into fifteen languages. Performance Histories is her fourteenth book.

Bonnie Marranca is a Guggenheim Fellow and Fulbright Senior Scholar who has taught and lectured in many universities here and abroad, including Columbia University, Princeton University, New York University, Duke University, the University of California-San Diego, Free University (Berlin), and Institute for Theatre (Barcelona). She is Professor of Theatre at The New School/Eugene Lang College.


ISBN: 978-155554077-7    $18.95
Published by PAJ Publications
P.O. Box 532, Village Station
NY, NY 10014 
tel/fax: 212-243-3885
Distributed by Theatre Communications Group (

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Kabuki star Sakata Tojuro earns "Nobel" for theatre/film

At a formal ceremony in Tokyo this past Oct. 15, the kabuki legend Sakata Tojuro was honored with a Praemium Imperiale international arts award. The prestigious prize, which comes with 15 million yen (about $150,000), also went to Zubin Mehta, former music director of the New York Philharmonic, painter Richard Hamilton, sculptors Ilya & Emilia Kabakov, and the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor.

Presented and sponsored by His Imperial Highness Prince Hitachi, honorary patron of the Japan Art Association, the Praemium Imperiale award considers itself the Nobel for the arts, since it is annually handed out to individuals who have shown extraordinary achievement in the fields of painting, sculpture, architecture, music, and theatre/film, all categories not covered by the Nobel Prizes.

Candidates for the Praemium Imperiale awards are nominated by a distinguished panel of International Advisors and selected by the Japan Art Association. The American advisor is William H. Luers, president of the United Nations Association who, eight years ago, succeeded David Rockefeller, Jr. (who now serves as an honorary advisor). Other honorary advisors are Jacques Chirac, David Rockefeller, Helmut Schmidt, and Richard von Weizsäcker.

In other words, the Praemium Imperiale is a big deal.

Last year, the prize in the theatre/film category was awarded to the great Ellen Stewart. The indomitable founder of La MaMa E.T.C., Ellen was twice honored--first in Paris, where the winners were announced, and the second time in Tokyo, where the actual ceremony takes place. Past laureates have included Leonard Bernstein, Ingmar Bergman, Willem de Kooning, Frank Gehry, Akira Kurosawa, Robert Rauschenberg, Jean-Luc Godard, Rem Koolhaas, Mstislav Rostropovich, Christo a
nd Jeanne-Claude, Norman Foster and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.

It is intriguing that not many people know about the Imperiale prize. The first time I got to know about it was in 2002, when I was invited to a special luncheon at the Japan Society to honor the late playwright Arthur Miller who won the prize in 2001. The award that went to Miller was quite unusual because for the first time, the ceremonyu took place in New York City (as opposed to Tokyo).

It was perhaps the first and only time that the Imperiale was awarded not in Tokyo or Paris. Because of the September 11 terrorist attacks, Miller could not fly to Paris. And then his late wife, Inge Morath, suddenly took ill, which kept Miller away in October. Morath later died.

At that memorable ceremony, Miller said, "When the cannons have stopped firing, and the great victories of finance are reduced to surmise and are long forgotten, it is the art of the people that will confront future generations. The arts can do more to sustain the peace than all rhe wars, the armaments and the threats and the warnings of the politicians."

Incidentally, Sakata Tojuro is a master at both onnagata female roles and tachiyaku males roles, particularly in the works of Chikamatsu (1653-1724). His real name is Hirotaro Hayashi. For many years he was known as Nakamura Ganjiro III and then as Nakamura Senjaky. In recognition of his achievement as a major kabuki actor, Ganjiro was eventually given the name Sakata Tojuro IV. He is the fourth person to take on this moniker since the first Sakata (1647-1709), one of the actors whom Chikamatsu had considered his muse.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Have you seen what John Leguizamo's been up to lately?

John Legiuzamo is appearing in a Broadway revival of American Buffalo with the stars Cedric the Entertainer and Haley Joel Osmet. The director is the phenomenal Robert Falls.

Previews for the show begin Oct. 31. But those who might want to take a sneak peek backstage are being invited to visit the cast, crew, and creative team through the web series, American Buffalo: Backstage”.  

The online portals promises "a rare view of what really happens backstage, in rehearsal, and outside of rehearsal on a major production," says a prepared statement. On view every day are footage shot by the cast, interviews with cast, producers, and members of the production’s creative team."

Viewers may access the “American Buffalo: Backstage” series through the production’s official YouTube Channel. The videos will also be featured on American Buffalo’s MySpace page, and on its Facebook group. American Buffalo’s YouTube channel, MySpace profile and Facebook group are all accessible from the show’s official websitee.

David Mamet’s American Buffalo marks the Broadway debuts of Cedric the Entertainer and Haley Joel Osment. But for Leguizamo, one of the stage's most important actors. Using his signature rapid-style dialogue, Mamet regales us with a heist comedy about three small-time crooks conspiring to steal a rare coin from a neighborhood collector. 

American Buffalo begins previews at Broadway’s Belasco Theatre on Friday, October 31, and opens on Monday, November 17.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Report from Thessaloniki: 2008 Europe Theatre Prize

News quickly spread that the husband of German choreographer Sasha Waltz was right outside the auditorium of the Vassiliko Theatre. Since he appeared without advance notice, nobody had expected him to show up and collect his wife's 2008 Europe Theatre Prize for "new theatrical realities," which a multinational jury of European critics, theatre scholars and European Union bureaucrats had agreed to bestow upon her. Due to health problems, Waltz had to be a no-show at the annual award ceremony this past April, held for the second year in a row in the central Macedonian city of Thessaloniki in Greece.

The rules state, unfortunately, that winning artists must personally pick up the European Union Commission-funded prize, if they expect to take home the hefty money (about 20,000 euros) attached to it. Absent her physical presence, Waltz can only cop to having earned the symbolic part of the prize (a certificate plus bragging rights for being recognized as an exemplar of the new avant-garde in Europe). "For statutory and administrative reasons," prize officials stated in a prepared statement, the financial part of Waltz's prize "will be returned to the financing bodies: the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and the National Theatre of Northern Greece."

Perhaps "administrative reasons" is the key bureaucratic phrase to take note for those of us who failed to comprehend the rules of a seemingly uncompassionate game. (Wouldn't the prize money be more meaningful to an artist who has recently taken ill?) According to European observers, the organizers of the Europe Theatre Prize are beginning to be strapped for funds; it is not yet clear which ministry of what European city would be able to host and finance next year's five-day event (comprised of a ceremony, a symposium on the winners' works and their performances), if the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki eventually bows out. 

An air of finality and shrugged-off acceptance met this year's edition. Last year the German director Peter Zadek caused an uproad when a letter he wrote was read out, stating that rehearsal commitments had kept him away (one of his actors had cancer and had to drop out). Zadek was subsequently held to have forfeited his share of the top award, worth 60,000 euros, which he shared with the Canadian director and playwright Robert Lepage. This time, no scandal broke out. But irony and disappointment did surround this year's main winner, the French director Patrice Cheareau, feelings of disappointment that grew sharper during the symposia about his work. Celebrated in France, Germany and Italy for his effective use of dramatic spectacle in plays and operas (like Richard Wagner's "Ring" cycle at the Bayteurth Festival), Chereau did not present full productions, but was reduced to performing two script-in-hand readings of two plays, the best of which was "La Douleur," a text written by Marguerite Duras, read by Dominique Blanc and Chereau, and directed by Thierry Thieu Niang.

The true excitement of the 2008 Europe Theatre Prize, which was founded in 1986 to recognize individuals and organizations whose work has "contributed to mutual understanding between nations," issued out of the political stances evinced in the assorted other recognitions. The enormously gifted Polish director Krzysztof Warlikowski, who presented his raw, stunning interpretation of Sarah Kane's "Cleansed," generated tremendous heat for his onstage depcitions of violence, sexual identity and taboo subjects. The German theatre collective Rimini Protokoll charmed and intrigued with its "reality-based" brand of theatre (known in Germany as "theater der zeit"), as exemplified by the company's entertaining production of Stefan Kaegi's "Mnemopark," in which four 80-year-old bricoleurs (all regular people and no actors) sketch a portrait of agricultural life in the Swiss alps by means of minimcameroas and an actual 1:87 railway model.

The scene stealers were the members of the Belarus Free Theatre, which was given an honorable mention rather than a real prize, based on a recommendation by Vaclav Havel, Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard. The award was a recognition of the Minsk-based company's resistance against the oppression of the Belarussian government. Belarus is not a member of the European union, and it is, according to the U.S. State Department, the only dictatorship that still exists in Europe. The Belarusian actors have been harassed, imprisoned and held in constant check by the regime. So this recognition is where the complicated matrix of politics and theatre, dis-united Europe-style, came into clear focus.

Upon receiving their special commendation, the Belarus troupe flashed victory signs on behalf of all their friends still in prison and handed Jack Lang, the former French minister of culture, an EU flag bearing the word "Belarus" on it. Such huge political gestures did not go unnoticed, and they were measured against the artistic qualities of the three shows (the monologue "Generation Jeans," the excerpt-studded tribute "Being Harold Pinter" and the overly long three-acter "Zone of Silence") that the Belarus troupe presented. Many international critics felt that, although the Belarus Free Theatre is being rightly touted as political theatre, not everything they performed at Thessaloniki was of high caliber. Free speech defenders praised the Belarus artists' sincerity and chutzpah in confronting life-and-death matters. 

When Rimini Protokoll suggested that Sasha Waltz's prize money be transferred to the Belarus Free Theater, the British critic and high-ranking Europe Theatre Prize official Ian Herbert retorted that perhaps Rimini Protokoll should considering sharing its winnings with Belarus.

With all this backstage drama and political posturing, aren't you glad there is no such thing as a U.S. Theatre Prize?

Friday, October 17, 2008

Industrial palace in Prague burns down

The left wing of the Industrial Palace in Prague has burned down. This past October 16, the ceiling of the left wing fell down. The right wing and the central hall did not catch fire. But there is a possibility that these two spaces were also damaged because of the steel construction that held the entire palace together.

No information has been given about possible reconstruction of the industrial palace, but there is a likelihood that 2011 Prague Quadrennial would be affected. The PQ team, however, is going to continue to call for applications in February 2009.

Located in the Holesovice district of Prague, the Industrial Palace was built in the Art Deco style in 1891. It is the site of many trade fairs and exhibitions.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Decision 2008: Boston Tea Party nixes arts-and-culture policy

Tom Knapp, the vice-presidential candidate for the Boston Tea Party, weighed in about this third-party's views on arts and culture. Charles Jay, the party's presidential candidate, was also asked to comment but did not reply.

AN IMPORTANT CAVEAT: This blog does not endorse any U.S. presidential candidate. It simply wants to investigate the arts and culture policies of the candidates in this year's election.

RANDY: Does the Boston Tea Party have an arts and culture policy?
TOM KNAPP: I find the idea of an "arts and culture policy" bone-chilling. The Third Reich and the Soviet Union were the kinds of countries that believe art and culture should be subject to government policy.

RANDY: What is the position of the Boston Tea Party in regard to the future of National Endowment for the Arts?
KNAPP: The primary purpose of the National Endowment for the Arts is to give conservatives a hook to hang their moral outrage on. It's absurd to hold that the NEA exercises any considerable positive influence on American arts. The 39 theatres comprising Manhattan's Broadway theatre district grossed ten times NEA's annual budget inticket sales last year. One single Sotheby's auction of a painting brought in three times the NEA's annual budget in bids. To put it bluntly, the art community itself could do what the NEA does, and ten times as much of it, by establishing a trust into whicha few of the industry's bigger players throw a fraction of a percentof the money they make. The NEA isn't about art, it's about politics. And the bottom line is this: It's not your responsibility to subsidize my tastes in art, nor is it my responsibility to subsidize your tastesin art. It's just not government's job to make that happen.

RANDY: Have you gone to see a play or musical recently?
KNAPP: Both. Here in St. Louis, I am more than happy to pay market price for tickets to Circus Flora, a show at the Fox or the Muny, etc., if that's what I want to see (and it often is).

RANDY: Have you ever helped improve the life of theatre artists in any way?

KNAPP: Every check I've written for a ticket has been cashed. Presumably some of that money found its way into the artists' pockets.

Decision 2008: views of an alternative presidential candidate (part one)

Frank McEnulty is running for U.S. president.

Never heard of him? That because he is not a Democrat or Republican but a member of the New American Independent Party.

One day prior to the McCain-Obama debate, McEnulty debated with Brad Lyttle of the U.S. Pacifist Party, Charles Jay of the Boston Tea Party, Gloria LaRiva of the Party for Socialism and Liberation, Darrell Castle of the Constitution Party, and Brian Moore of the Socialist Party. The debate of the alternative candidates took place at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

AN IMPORTANT CAVEAT: Other than making certain that independent or alternative people are offered the right to speak, this blog makes no endorsement of any political party in the U.S. But since arts and culture has been pretty much the lowest in the totem pole of priorities and issues in the current presidential debate, I did take the time to investigate the views of all the presidential candidates.

The Obama people pointed me to the official position created by the Obama National Arts Policy Committee. The McCain people never replied to my emails. A few third-party candidates did respond, and Frank McEnulty, a self-described "regular guy" with "two daughter" did reply to my questions.

Do you have an arts and culture policy or program?
FRANK McENULTY: No, I do not have an official policy or program at this time. However, I do believe that a vibrant arts scene is a very important part of any nation's well-being. I personally participate in the arts as a wood worker and wood turner. Wood-turning I find particularly artistic because I am able to allow the wood to somewhat dictate what it becomes as I turn it on the lathe.

RANDY: What is your position in regard to the future of National Endowment for the Arts?
McENULTY: I believe the National Endowment for the Arts is a very important part of what the federal government should be doing and an excellent example of what the federal government should be involved with on a national basis. In this age of continuing cutbacks throughout the nation of funding for arts programs, it is very important that the NEA continue to provide their very important funding support to state and local arts programs.

RANDY: Have you gone to see a theatre play or musical? What was the last theatre show that you saw? Did you like it enough to want to come back?
McENULTY: I thoroughly enjoy live theatre although it has been some time since I have been to a play or musical. With 2 teenage daughters who are heavily involved in both school and club sports my available time for other things is truly limited. The last live play I saw was last December, and it was called, "The History Boys." I will always avail myself of opportunities to go to live theatre.

RANDY: Have you ever helped improve the life of theatre artists in any way?
McENULTY: Only by going to their plays and promoting good things that I saw to those I know. In addition, companies I have run have in the past have owned three different concert venues, and we always went out of our way to make sure the talent had the easiest time they could hope for performing at our facilities.

Outtakes 3: a conversation with the French-African playwright and novelist Koffi Kwahulé

What follows is the last of three outtakes from a conversation I had with Koffi Kwahulé for a special section, "Africa Writes Back," which I curated, edited and wrote for the November issue of American Theatre magazine.

RANDY: How old were you when you changed your citizenship into French?
KOFFI: I became French again on December 13, 1995, so at 39. I say became French again because since I was born before 1960, the year of Ivory Coast's Independence (so during colonization), I was born French. So I asked for what is called a Reintegration.

RANDY: In an interview elsewhere, Koffi, you acknowledged that Sony Labou Tansi was your "mentor." Was Tansi truly a mentor who was a real-life friend? Or was he just an inspiration? There is a difference, you know, and sometimes they are blurred.
KOFFI: The interview where I'm supposed to have said that Sony Labou Tansi was my mentor is pure nonsense. I never met Sony while he was alive and I only read his plays after he had died. While I respect Sony's language, I don't really like the architecture of his plays, which I find too dated. In addition, Sony's work was, in my opinion, Francophonie's "thing" or alibi. Thus, all of Sony's plays were systematically produced by the Festival de la Francophonie de Limoges. It seems to me that this "comfort" didn't allow him to go beyond what the Festival expected from him, and to create much more ambitious dramaturgical work, which his incontestable talent would have allowed. As a matter of fact, since his death, his plays are not performed anymore. So, all this to say: I didn't know Sony, and he is not my mentor.

Outtakes 2: a conversation with the French-African playwright and novelist Koffi Kwahulé

The second of three outtakes from a conversation I had with Koffi Kwahulé for a special section, "Africa Writes Back," which I curated, edited and wrote for the November issue of American Theatre magazine.

RANDY: In December 1999, the Ivorian army overthrew the government. Although a common event elsewhere in Africa, this was high drama for the Ivory Coast. It was the country's first coup d'etat since independence in 1960. A major reason for the unraveling of the national fabric, embodied by the concept of Ivority (Ivoirité), was the weakening political grip of Houphouët-Boigny, the country's founding father. What, in your opinion, is his legacy?

KOFFI: First of all, I would like to specify that although I belong to the same ethnic group as Houphouët-Boigny, I feel no clemency for him; I was even censored during his rule. But today, I think he is the best thing that has ever happened to Ivory Coast. Although the Ivory Coast, unlike most African countries, had no mining resources to speak of, he managed to turn it into a promising place by opening its territory, then underpopulated and lacking qualified executives, to the arms and brains of other countries. In addition, Houphouët-Boigny’s dictatorship—it was a dictatorship—was less overtly bloody than the ones we still see today in Africa. It was a dictatorship we could describe as “soft,” in the sense that it was based on the corruption of souls, not on the corruption of bodies.
In any case, Houphouët-Boigny’s dictatorship, with the crisis helping, is generally seen today as a prosperous time in Ivory Coast. He is the father of the Ivorian miracle and the pedestal of Ivory Coast. The solid structures inherited from him have prevented the country from blowing up into pieces during the worst of the crisis. Unlike most African nations, which can’t look back at their recent history without being confronted with a series of failures and disillusions, Ivorians, faced with the current problems, know from the example left by Houphouët-Boigny that failure is not inevitable. That’s an invaluable asset for a nation.

Outtakes 1: a conversation with the French-African playwright and novelist Koffi Kwahulé

This year, Étant donnés is funding a new translation, commissioned by the Lark Play Development Center, of a play by the French-African playwright and novelist Koffi Kwahulé. The 2009 hotINK International Festival of New Plays at New York University, curated by Catherine Coray, is also throwing its lot on Kwahulé, who is originally from the Ivory Coast. The translator is the playwright Chantal Bilodeau.

What follows is the first of three outtakes from a conversation I had with Koffi Kwahulé for a special section, "Africa Writes Back," which I curated, edited and wrote for the November issue of American Theatre magazine.

RANDY: Do the French still exert a constructive influence on Ivorian arts and culture?
KOFFI: Despite a strained relationship since the Ivorian political crisis, the French's role is still prominent. For example, in all of francophone Africa and even Portuguese-speaking Africa, without the French Cultural Centers and the Alliances Françaises, there would be practically no viable cultural centers. Most festivals are sponsored by France. As for the Ivory Coast, for a few years already, this influence has become relative. Since Ivory Coast seems comparatively more wealthy than its neighbors, cultural programs are redirected toward other countries.

RANDY: Can you elaborate on the nature of this Ivorian political crisis?
KOFFI: Since 1999 and the horrifying concept of Ivoirité, there has been a coup followed by a civil war that has split the country in two: the North half controlled by the Rebels and the South half controlled by the Loyalists (government). It's this whole period that is referred to as "the Ivorian Crisis." But fortunately for a few months now, this crisis has started to look like it might be ending and the country is considering having elections in February 2009 at the latest.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Independent opinions of a jury member

I speak here as someone who has never been to Belarus. The 30-minute distance of my place of residence, a youth hostel called Raketa, from the centre of Minsk, where the performances took place, proved dispiriting to me. This made it impossible for me to seek out the theatres and churches of Minsk in a way that was independent of the other jury members. Their professions make it possible for them to return to Minsk. For me, this felt like a once-in-a-lifetime shot.

The festival's main winner was a Russian student production of "Cyrano," in which Cyrano's famous monologue, which Steve Martin transformed into a stand-up comic routine in the film "Roxanne." No one particularly thought the actor who played Roxanne gave a performance that was special, and yet the show won the hearts of the public anyway (in a tally of the audience's vote). Its professional qualities, heavy use of multimedia and large cast swayed most jury members; in the first tally, it garnered the most nominations and therefore took home a special prize. I thought it touristic and schlocky, with qualities that would fit right in a Broadway show.

My sentimental favorite was "Jakob," the Dutch entry about a young man who is seduced by her older teacher. I thought the best production was the Estonian production of Sarah Kane's "4.48 Psychosis."

One highlight of my stay in Belarus (from a professional standpoint) was visiting Sergei, the new artistic director of the Maxim Gorky National Russian Theatre. We were introduced by the playwright and screenwriter Andrei Kureichik. Sergei was an amazing force, a frank talker and a shot of fresh vibrance in a long-standing theatrical institution whose previous artistic leader retired only last year after almost three decades of stewardship.

I wish I had time to meet the folks behind the Belarussian National Theatre.

Lenin's statue

Few buildings in Minsk survived the wars. Among the ones that did survive were Orthodox and Catholic churches. Many older buildings had been recently restored to their pre-war state. Others were built from scratch in the same styles and on the original sites. (In this latter respect, the restoration of Minsk resembles how the older palaces of Seoul were returned back to their original glory. The only difference is that Minsk is not marred by the crowded skyscrapers and riots of neon billboards in South Korea.)

The Belarussian State University occupies a gray behemoth swathe of the centre, located on Sovetskaya street, a long stone's throw away from the popular landmark status of Lenin in front of the House of Government. In the evening, the building is very difficult to traverse from one end to the other; I got tired walking across the plaza in front of it, as I tried to reach the older part of Minsk. It did not help that the gates of the park were closed, so I couldn't cut through, as I was able to in the day time.

The BSU campus encompasses several nearby buildings. The rector's office is located at a red-brick structure across the garden. The Lyceum is about a 15 to 20 minute walk away.

Lenin stands tall in Ploshad Nezavisimosti. Erected across the wide avenue from the BSU colossus, Lenin has overlooked Independence Square since 1933. The seven metre high monument is by Aleksander Grube who designed the first public statue of Lenin in the USSR, which was erected in the Belarusian town of Krasnopole in 1922.

Minsk, a city at night

Minsk is a gorgeous city. Especially in the center, close to the presidential building which doubles as the leader's residence, the avenues are clean and wide and safe and grand-looking. The restored pre-war buildings echo the styles of older architectures (Classical, Baroque and Gothic), and they harmoniously hum with the park zones and the gargantuan concrete Soviet-style structures.

I found Minsk at night to be peaceful. It is walkable, if you have the leisurely time to do so and good walking shoes (I did). Otherwise, it will daunt you. As you go walk out the centre, the sameness of the Soviet-style buildings stretch out into infinity. If you head the other direction (to the older areas of the city, called upper Minsk), the sights are livelier, more eclectic and drop-dead charming.

If Minsk were a person, it would be a dark-haired, handsome but passive-bodied man. Dressed in a suit, he is sipping a cup of cappuccino at the News Cafe, not far from the president's residence. He's got a sophisticated style. His face is hopeful and unmoving.

What's Alexander Lukashenko's problem?

You can't take a photo of the president's residence in Minsk. It is forbidden. But it is not illegal.

When I approached his residence with my camera, the guards who patrolled all four sides of the building shooed me away. I tried to take photos of the residence from behind a metal fence in the park across the street, but I was spotted by a guard, and he looked at me with such anger in his eyes that it freaked out my interpreter who advised that we walk briskly away. He was afraid that the guard would cross the street and run after us.

Located in the heart of Minsk, Lukashenko's residence is at the intersection of the streets named after Marx, Engels, Komsomol (the youth wing of the Communist party) and Kirov (a senior Communist Party member and comrade of Stalin's, who was murdered on the latter's orders). It is supposed to be the most closely guarded place in the country, since all the roads leading to the area are said to be sealed off to vehicular traffic. True, there was no traffic nearby the residence, but cars did occasionally stop at nearby streets, and a few did cruise by visibly.

Unlike the White House, which is separated from the public by a huge park and garden area, Lukashenko's residence sits right on the streets. A sidewalk separates it from the streets. It is quite possible to walk on the sidewalk. I managed to take a few photos while hiding behind the column of a theatre building located from across the street. Okay, so I was a little obsessed, but I wasn't Michael Moore-obsessed.

A little bit of a reality check is important to state here. Visitors in Minsk ought to know, a Belarusian friend told me, that security matters are very important. After all, my friend said, with the residence's proximity to the streets, it would be easy for someone to plan an attack on the residence using the disguise of being a tourist.

A question of language

As Dennis, the Belarusian actor of "Dispirited Apostle" tells it, the Belarusian language was pretty much suppressed by the Soviets. Although many people of Belarus would rather speak in their own language, other people would look at them strangely if they do so, and so he speaks in Russian often without thinking about it. The influence of Russia is still strong. Russia is in his blood. "I love Russia, but..." was how he began his words.

In another conversation, Andrei (an esteemed playwright) told me that Belarusians are fighting to hold on to their language. Russia's influence is immense and dominates the scene. There is perhaps a quarter of Belarusians who would like their country to become part of the European Union.

About half would like the country to return to the Russian fold.

The rest are generally confused about their identity in the world.

Where are the foreigners in Minsk?

Three young Belarusian guys, in their 20s, chatted me up outside the theatre lobby of the Belarusian State University. Two remarked that although the love New Y0rk City, it is very difficult for them to visit the U.S. "You can't just go" one said. "You need an invitation before the government gives a visa.

I reply that the opposite is true as well. That if they thought the U.S. is too off-limits to them, Belarus has also reciprocated by effectively keeping Americans away. I, too, had to get a visa, which in turn could only be gotten if there is a specific letter of invitation from someone inside Belarus. And even then the visa dates are strictly controlled. It's not as if I could simply extend my stay in Minsk even on a whim; the dates are pretty specific. I wouldn't know how I could have visited Minsk in any other capacity other than being invited by the Belarusian State University.

And that quid pro quo between Belarus and Westerners is reflected on the streets. There simply aren't many Western visitors here, much less from the U.S. The usual visitors from Ukraine, Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and other Eastern European countries where Russian is spoken as a language. Almost everyone I met at the places of business (restaurants, shopping stores, the subway, and so forth) don't speak English. At least in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, signs in Cyrillic letters are accompanied by their Latin translation. Bilingual signs pretty much end after the airport. In Minsk, everything is in Cyrillic. If you want to know what's inside the big buildings, you literally have to open the door or look through the windows. In the evening, the streets of Minsk are largely bare and empty. Except for several bars or nightclubs, where lots of people congregate, most Belarusian streets are wide and empty. No Westerners, much less Americans, stroll by.

Jean-Marc Larrue, the Quebecois man who heads the jury of our theatre festival, has been invited to Minsk several times. He says, "Nobody comes to Minsk without a special reason."

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Random thoughts on Belarus

There are two images of Belarus.

There is the Belarus that the outside world knows. And there is the Belarus that the outside world doesn't know.

In a way, you have to be here to see it for yourself. Because the image of an autocratic police state can be at odds with daily life here.

If you talk to the residents, they will say, Everything is doing fine. Life here is good. They are not aware, for example, of how they are viewed in the world outside of Eastern Europe.

And yet even with the gray beauty that is Minsk and the contented calm that pervades life here, there are, in fact, some instances when you will encounter how the culture of the Soviet era has indeed permeated Belarusians completely. On my first night, for example, Putin and his entourage drove by the same highway as the car I was in. He was going the other way. He was leaving Minsk, after a series of meetings, while I had just arrived and gotten off the plane.

There are no borders, in fact, between Russia and Belarus; you can go to and fro freely and with no problem. You can also travel from Belarus and go to Cuba without needing a visa!

But then how does one add into this picture the stories told by the Belarus Free Theatre, such as the email I posted above? How do these stories complicate the picture?

An email from Belarus Free Theatre on actors being detained

Dear Randy,

Hope you are doing well. We are as usually running like crazy... I send you what just happened in Minsk. It could be interesting for the American Theatre. It is connected to the new project that we do. American playwright, director Aaron Landsman participate in it as a playwright and the American actress performs in it. Let me know if you need more details on the project itself. Best, Natalia

Europe - posted by FREE THEATRE on 06.10.08

Stephanie Pan, American actress and singer, and Esther Mugambi, Australian actress, came to Minsk on October 5 by invitation of the Belarus Free Theatre. During a week they were to rehearse the Free Theatre’s and Lund-2014 productions in the course of the “Eurepica” project that is done in cooperation with the municipality of Lund and ECF. However, after their arrival in Belarus they were held up at the airport “Minsk-2”.

Belarusian customs officers informed the actresses that they are on the list of individuals who are not permitted to enter the country and their visa applications were rejected. The actresses, who flew to Minsk from Amsterdam, Have never visited Belarus before. The staff of the Minsk airport didn’t explain the reason for prohibition to enter the country referring to the fact that “this is confidential information of the Belarusian Ministry of foreign affairs”. Belarusian customs officers informed Stephanie Pan and Esther Mugambi that they would be able to fly back home only at their own expense. The girls had return tickets for the flight Minsk-Prague-Amsterdam only for October 12.

The actresses were accommodated in the airport in the prison-type rooms, so-called rooms for the detained travellers. Their freedom was limited, they were locked up. For example, in order to go to the restroom the actresses had to knock on the door and ask to be accompanied. In total, there are 8 rooms of this type in the airport of Minsk. In the rooms next door to the actresses’ citizens of Bangladesh, Azerbaijan and Iraq were kept. Both actresses speak only English and communication with the airport staff appeared to be a problem. The Free Theatre directors Natalia Koliada and Nikolai Khalezin had to specially return to Minsk, from the airport which is located 30 km away from the capital, to buy food and water for the actresses, as all the cafes at the airport had already been closed.

Today Stephanie Pan and Esther Mugambi stayed at the airport until 16:00 and then finally managed to fly back to Amsterdam through Prague.

According to Nikolai Khalezin, the Belarus Free Theatre’s creative director, representatives of the Belarusian government came to the airport to negotiate with the Czech air company about the deportation of the American and Australian actresses. They finally managed to fly out to Amsterdam through Prague after 20 hours of custody within the walls of the Minsk airport. The actresses flew out of Minsk at the expense of the Czech airlines as a result of agreement between the Czech air company and pressure of representatives of the Belarusian authorities.

“We are very sorry that the two prominent actresses’ acquaintance with Belarus ended with the impressions of a day’s stay on the neutral line and the following deportation. Unfortunately, we will have to work on the Eurepica project only abroad. When yesterday we finally had a chance to talk to them through a glass window, they said: 'You were right, Belarus now is really the main challenge for Europe'. All the day we couldn’t help the feeling of a bad perestrojka-type movie, where the airport staff doesn’t speak English, customs officers are not capable of providing at least some kind of food supply to the detainees and none of the governmental structures is able to make any decision... The situations such as this can only cause one feeling – the feeling of shame for your own country” said Nikolai Khalezin in his interview to the Charter’97 press centre.

Nikolai Khalezin reminded that it was not the first case when foreigners are allowed to enter Belarus upon invitation of the Free Theatre. Last year 8 foreign actors who were to participate in a joint project with the Belarussians were refused visas by the Belarusian embassy in the Netherlands. Among them were the curators of the international school of arts DasArts who were detained in Minsk at the Free Theatre’s performance on August 22. That day special forces broke into the house where performance was going and arrested several dozens of actors and spectators, including the theatre’s guests from France and the Netherlands.

Natalia A. Koliada, General Director and Co-Founder of the Belarus Free Theatre
Nikolai N. Khalezin, Art Director and Co-Founder of the Belarus Free Theatre

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Why Belarus?

Partly because I was invited to be a jury member of the Fifth International Theatre Festival "Teatralny Koufar" in Minsk in the former Soviet country of Belarus. Katsiaryna Saladukha, the festival's managing director, first invited the playwright Caridad Svich to be on the jury but she couldn't go. Caridad suggested me. Next thing you know, here I am in the Newark airport waiting to board on a plane to Warsaw where I will change over to Minsk.

Partly because Belarus is really a very difficult place to visit. Even my Eastern European friends are surprised that I am able to go. Compared to neighbors like Poland and Lithuania, Belarus is considered the most resistant to social change. The country's human rights record is spotty. It is considered to have Europe's worst freedom of the press.

Partly because Minsk has been subject to less Westernization than Moscow or Kiev. It is the capital city of the last dictatiorship in Europe.

Partly because theatre artists from Belarus have hounded me as the senior editor of American Theatre magazine. Several times, I have had to deal with proposals to cover the state of theatre in Belarus in the magazine. I saw a Belarussian show at Under the Radar Festival by a company that was touted by Tom Stoppard and Harold Pinter as a defender of artists' freedom. I then saw the same group of Belarus theatre artists while I was in Thessaloniki in northern Greece to attend the Europe Theatre Prize. Those Belarussians were given a special commendation by the this European Union-sponsored prize, based on a recommendation by Stoppard and Pinter.

Except now that I am in the airport, waiting to board, now I wish I were at home in my clean, safe apartment, perhaps in bed. Wish me luck.