American Theatre Critics Association Annual Conference
Playwrights, Presenters, and Panels
Friday June 15, 2012 and Saturday June 16, 2012
The multi-day American Theatre Critics Association annual conference feeds my arts gluttony in several ways — many theatrical presentations of course (and these are to be covered in a separate blog post), conversations with critics and theatre professionals from around the country, and individual and panel presentations. The individual speeches and panel discussions on Friday June 15th and a delightful one-on-one conversation on Saturday June 16th will fill this set of musings. Such riches.
ATCA awards a number of prizes in collaboration with several foundations, to honor playwrights or others who write about theatre. During this year’s conference we are joined by several playwright winners, and another winner is announced. In a beautiful meeting room at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater‘s lovely building at the end of Navy Pier, with an outdoor balcony space overlooking the harbor and Lake Michigan, we award the work of several contemporary writers and are honored to hear from them.
Darren M. Canady receives the 2012 M. Elizabeth Osborn New Play Award as an emerging playwright, for his play Brothers of the Dust. Canady, an assistant professor at the University of Kansas and native Kansan, frequently writes about the African-American Midwestern experience. This award has a lovely local feel, as Brothers of the Dust, the press release tells me, had its premiere in May 2011 at Chicago’s Congo Square Theatre Company. This award is intended to recognize writers not yet (but soon to achieve, we all expect!) national stature. The award was founded in 1993 and has been honoring writers annually since 1994.
Caridad Svitch speaks to us and sings to us of the wonders and sometimes puzzlement of being a woman playwright. New Yorker Svitch won the 2011 Francesca Primus Award for her play The House of the Spirits and traveled to Chicago in 2012 to be honored this year. The 2012 recipient of the prize, Tammy Ryan for her play Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods, will receive her financial award immediately and will be celebrated in person at a future ATCA conference.
My new membership in an organization that actively seeks out and monetarily awards new work by American playwrights continues to thrill my dramaturg’s soul.
Conversations and presentations also mark the conference. Friday’s agenda moves from playwright musings to the musings of a national critic who is also (we learn) a musician and a playwright himself. Since 1992 ATCA has held what it terms an “occasional series” of talks entitled “Perspectives on Criticism.” Today’s talk by Terry Teachout, Wall Street Journal theatre critic, provides self-effacing humor and tales of being a national and New York focused correspondent on the arts. He estimates that he reviews 100 shows a year, and now 50 of those are outside of New York City. His main message: “Don’t be afraid to be enthusiastic” and that the job of the critic is to “ring the bell for excellence.” He notes toward the end of his talk: “It’s not our job to be boosters …. It is our job to bang the drum when the drum needs to be banged.” Be a reporter (how is the audience responding, what’s going on around you), and be true and clear and strong in your stated opinions. Amen.
Simon Callow is in Chicago for performances at Orchestra Hall playing Beethoven, and at the request of local ATCA conference host Jonathan Abarbanel has agreed to speak with us (for us, to us) this mid Saturday in the delightful, modernist Museum of Contemporary Art performance space. We learn that he found his way into acting through a fascination with the “family” that Lawrence Olivier had created in London’s National Theatre. A self-described aimless university student (who considered, among several possible careers, becoming a barrister and a television personality ala David Frost) who some time working for a wholesale book seller, he went on to graduate studies in theatre, and to work in the National Theatre in the box office. His talk quickly becomes a kind of intellectual history of his own coming into theatre as well as his observations on the National Theatre in its early years. His perspective is of a dramaturg, an observer, a researcher. He notes of his adoration for this first theatrical home — “Even more than being in love with those productions, I was in love with the tone of the theatre” — from backstage to onstage, from ushers to coffee shop and book store employees in the building, “I had the impression that everyone was part of the company.” Olivier, he notes, “was the last of the actor managers, and they always created a family.” He notes that as a young man initially assigned to the box office who watched and felt this family atmosphere he thought, “This is the kind of family I’d like to belong to.”
Stage and television and film performances followed this experience in the National’s theatrical family. My dramaturg’s ears perk up as Callow relays his truly intellectual focus on the people of the theatre, the lives of several performers that entrance him, and his own publishing career beginning with a piece about being a young actor (Being an Actor is in fact the title) then moving to biographies he self-effacingly describe as efforts he began when the objects of his fascination simply didn’t have good biographies to document their lives. His books now included biographies of Charles Dickens, Charles Laughton, and his current series of books on the rich legacy of Orson Welles. He was encouraged to tackle Welles, he describes, when interviews he did with Welles contemporaries urged him to write as they noted “we don’t recognize him in the books published.” Of his other writing, he noted that he has steered clear of play writing, an art form he greatly admires and has no idea how to tackle. He notes that he has written a lot of screenplays, “many of which have come terrifyingly close to being made.”
Callow muses on the role of reviews of his own performances and on whether to read them or whether they are of any personal value to him. He admits that he once read reviews with great eagerness, then determined that they are dangerous for the actor both when they are positive and and when they are negative. The negative ones can eat at you (and he is able to recite from memory some negative reviews from long ago — a lesson in parsing words of criticism carefully for this critic), and the positive ones have the danger of directing you to recreate some ephemeral moment a critic might have mentioned. Callow notes that while he has deep respect for the craft of good criticism, he can’t read it himself about his own productions. As he notes, “I can’t let all those voices be in my head.”
The first panel of theatre professions from which we hear on June 15 addresses the question of “Diversity at the Top” from their perspectives as Artistic Directors of Chicago theatres — Chay Yew at Victory Gardens, Bonnie Metzger at About Face, and Lili-Anne Brown at Bailiwick Chicago. They all have layered careers — Metzger has been an academic and teaches play writing, Yew is a playwright, Brown is an actress who has very recently assumed the AD position at her theatre. For a range of reasons they find themselves at the heads of newer or transitioning theatrical organizations. Their comments are full of wisdom and inspiration.
- Yew on what he wants to do as an Artistic Director. “Whatever I never had (as a playwright) I want theatres to give playwrights. How can I do that?”
- Metzger on the simultaneous paradigm shifts involved in planning for the future: rather than conducting traditional strategic plans with the Board alone, she brings her artistic associates into the room for the process, “inviting the Board to be more artistic.”
- Metzger on the realities of the AD hiring process: “We are hired as personalities and we are successful when we determine what is necessary in the moment.”
- Yew on the vision of fighting for arts funding. “I refuse to be the barbarian at the gate. You need to build your own home.”
- Metzger on community and old school coalition building. “If I care about your thing you gotta care about my thing. … You gotta plug into what they care about … and you;ve got to show up for them.”
- Metzger on criticism (addressing LGBT and racial and other themes): “You can read the comfort level of a critic with the subject matter …. Rather than the presumption of total knowledge [in criticism] we could move to the stance of comfort in lack of knowledge.”
The second panel in Friday’s intellectually packed afternoon addresses theatre-making that pushes boundaries. Moderated by ATCA member Kerry Reid, David Isaacson of Theater Oobleck, Greg Allen of the Neo-Futurists, and Jenny Magnus of Curious Theatre Branch address, often laughingly, the topic of “The Permanent Avant-Garde.” All panelists reject the word advant-garde and any single jingo-istic word to describe their forms of theatre making.
- Magnus on Curious Theatre Branch’s approach: “working class theatre, a sustained artistic way of life, and sustained artistic inquiry.” They develop works in which “narratives are told in a conceptual way.”
- Allen: Neo-Futurists presents “populist experimental theater” in which everyone who comes to the show is thrown off guard. “Our work is a new experiment every single week.”
- Allen: “My response to traditional theatre was people lying to me…. We don’t suspend disbelief , we react [in the shows] as ourselves [using a] non-illusory aesthetic of making human connection in a theatrical setting.”
- Isaacson on the Chicago way of new play development: “Plays get workshopped in Chicago by getting in front of any audience..”
- Magnus on their DIY aesthetic when they travel to Europe: they encountered issues when they moved their own set pieces and other simple details. “We were often stepping on toes we didn’t even know were there.”
- Allen: “People forget how simple theatre can be — a person on a stage telling a story.”
- Magnus: “We are living in a paradigmatic shift of permission” … in her world you just do it .. “make the thing you want to make.”
We are sent from these two panels out into Theatre Wit’s neighborhood for food, libation, and to prepare ourselves for various theatrical options for the evening. Inspired, energized, enthralled.
One last image, with fuzzy cell phone focus with internal light. From our final business meeting of the conference on Sunday June 17, 2012. Our leaders.
© Martha Wade Steketee (June 22, 2012)