Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Which Show Am I Paying To See?

And by that, I'm referring basically to two shows:  the one behind the proscenium arch, and increasingly the one in front of it.  And by that, I'm referring to the increasing narcissism of theater audiences, as expressed by their use of that most ubiquitous of modern conveniences, the cell phone.

Lest I leave myself open to a charge of hypocrisy at the start of this post, I'll make it clear that I am not an opponent of cell phones, especially smart phones.  I own one (an iPhone 6), am happy to both have it and use it, and appreciate the role they play in making many aspects of modern life easier and faster.  But one of the most disconcerting things about the way in which cell phones are now used is that, more and more, people use them to have private and often intensely personal conversations in public places, to the detriment of everyone who is attempting to enjoy the experience of being in a public place.

Such as a theater, for example.

Recently, Broadway veteran actress Patti LuPone generated news--and plaudits--for snatching a cell phone from an audience member who had been texting throughout a performance of "Show for Days," in which she is currently appearing at Lincoln Center.  This is not the first time LuPone has dealt with mid-performance cell-phone users, nor is she the only actor who has done battle with them.  Brian Dennehy famously stopped a performance during his run in "Death of a Salesman" on Broadway because of a cell-phone user in the audience.

LuPone's willingness to stand up to cell-phoning in the audience has generated a significant amount of positive publicity for her.  As it turns out, however, not everyone feels that why.  Recently, an article posted on the Internet site The Clyde Fitch Report suggested that the real problem was not with modern audiences, but with modern theater.  The author suggests that theater was more interesting and more vital back in the days when audiences were allowed to be more rambunctious in their interactions with performers.  The audiences, by being allowed to respond more openly, made theater "better" in some sense by providing a form of instant feedback.  Accordingly, if modern plays rose to the challenge of being more interesting than cell-phone callers, the whole problem would just solve itself.


Honestly speaking, I have to wonder if the author if this article, a self-professed "theater historian," has ever had to sit within several seats of someone deciding to usurp a public space to have a private conversation about his/her investments, affairs, colonoscopies and Lord only knows what else.  You could pack the Lunts, Arthur Miller and Rodgers & Hammerstein in a show (with special appearances by Robert Morse, Angela Lansbury, and a Jerome Robbins ballet), and it still wouldn't be impervious to this sort of annoyance.

And, in some sense, that's not even the real point.  When I go to the theater, I am paying $100-plus dollars to experience the work of artists at the top of their respective professions, and to do so in the company of others who share that desire and enjoy sharing it in the company of others.  I am not, repeat NOT, doing it so that I can be an involuntary witness to some self-absorbed cretin using modern technology to give his or her ego a hand job.  Because that's what cell-phone use in public places is all about, increasingly.  Not about a need to respond to unexpected emergencies, and certainly not about giving "feedback" to the artists trying to overlook the rudeness to which their efforts are increasingly being subjected.  It's about narcissism.  It's not about surrendering yourself to a larger experience for a few hours; it's about making yourself bigger than the experience.  Look at me, look at me, I'm making a call at a Broadway show!  I must be really hot stuff!

Narcissism is addictive, and the Internet (and cell phones) feed that addiction.  It has reached the point at which we can't feel unplugged from the Matrix we have created for ourselves, even to the point when some moron feels the need to break the fourth wall in reverse by plugging his phone into an outlet on a set.  On a set.  I can just imagine what theater owners will do with this one; they'll install outlets throughout the theater and slap an "outlet surcharge" on tickets for seats next to the outlets. It's such a bad idea, I'm disclaiming royalties for it right now.

More than anything else except art, theater is about community.  Being part of an audience is the public's vehicle for joining that community.  Using a cell phone in the audience is simply an attempt to turn that community into your living room and hijack the rest of us into that space.  If you like your living room, please do all of us a favor and stay there.  Let the rest of us enjoy a shared experience untrammelled by ego.  And don't worry, Mr. Walters.  We'll provide feedback, just as we have for centuries.  We'll laugh.  We'll cry.  We'll applaud.  And, when it's all over, we'll feel better about having given up "me" time for a little bit of "us" time.

And guess what?  We'll still have our cell phones.  Then we can call our family and friends, and tell them to go do the same thing.

As for Patti, you go girl!  And don't give up the stage!

Never Forget: A "Pure" Politician Is Still A Politician

Case in point, and (as Rod Serling would say on "The Twilight Zone), submitted for your consideration:  one Bernie Sanders, up until now an obscure socialist from Vermont, most recently the only openly socialist member of the United States Senate, and currently the Great Progressive Hope for a "totally pure" candidate to succeed Barack Obama as the President of the United States.

Funny thing, for those of us (e.g., your humble and obedient servant) with relatively decent memories.  Not so long ago (2008, to be more exact), Barack Obama was the one--excuse me, I guess I should say the One--who fulfilled this role for progressives.  His principal opponent, Hillary Rodham Clinton?  Feh, as my mythical Aunt Sadie would have said.  Spouse (and First Lady) of Bill Clinton, that well-known triangulator, always willing to cut those deals with Republicans that gave away the progressive legacy inch by inch (and still getting impeached in the process).  But not our Barry.  He could be counted on to never retreat, and always move forward for us.  He would be the one to usher in an age of undiluted progressive achievement.  He was the one with untarnished, unquestionable progressive principles.

Or was he?

Let me be clear.  I was not a fan of Obama's at first, preferring Hillary as a more experienced veteran of the political wars.  I came around to support him after it was clear that he would be the Democratic nominee, and after he showed that he could take a Republican punch and return it without embarrassment.  But I never, for a minute, doubted that Barry from Hawaii by way of Chicago was a politician of the first magnitude.  For starters, I'll repeat one of those words for you:  Chicago.  Hello, anyone?  You need a lot of things to succeed in Chicago, but purity isn't one of them.

And then, there were the words and deeds of ol' Barry himself.  Anyone remember this, for example?  It would be hard to imagine a more progressive principle, or set of principles, than those relating to Fourth Amendment rights.   But, when it comes to FISA, and those "grave and gathering" threats to our shores (like the still-missing WMDs), there was ol' Barry, triangulating with the best of them, reaching out to the other side in the ways that make the legacy Washington media shriek with joy.

I'm not arguing against bipartisanship.  Progressives need to understand that nothing good happens in our society without people from both sides of the fence being on board with it.  The Supreme Court's recent decision in favor of marriage equality would almost certainly not have happened without the change in public opinion favoring marriage equality.  And a big part of that change came about because of Republicans coming out of their party's closet (Dick Cheney's daughter, for example).  But that is all the more reason to abandon the Diogenes-like quadrennial search for Mr. or Ms. Purity.  We live, thankfully, in a political system where it is impossible for a "pure" anything to be in control of our government.  That system ultimately requires cooperation--like Republican governors accepting Obamacare's expanded Medicaid money, for example.

For that matter, Obama, who is arguably the most progressive President since Franklin D. Roosevelt, should lead progressives to question whether a "pure" progressive even exists.  But Bernie Sanders should lead them to question it even more.  Guns?  Bernie's anything but progressive.  Immigration?  Bernie's anything but progressive.  Race, perhaps the ultimate litmus test, especially in a post-Obama world?  Bernie's anything but progressive.  None of this should be surprising:  Bernie's a Senator from a state with lots of guns and very few immigrants or minorities (albeit one with a major immigration service center).  Up until now, he's had few incentives to be progressive on these issues.  But again, Bernie's a politician, responding to the way in which our system works.

Those are the facts.  And, as a consequence, my challenge to progressives is this.  If you want to support Bernie over Hillary because a reasoned, comprehensive consideration of their respective views and experience leads you to believe that Bernie is the best person for the job then, by all means, knock yourself out supporting him.  But if you're doing it because you've convinced yourself beyond reason that Bernie is that mythical progressive unicorn you've always hoped to find, you're no better off than the average Tea Partier when it comes to looking at life--and our political system--honestly.

My 25 cents?  Hillary and Bernie are politicians, and good ones at that.  Hillary and Bernie both have credentials that make them fit for national leadership.  Personally, I'm supporting Hillary because she combines Bernie's legislative experience with unprecedented experience as both Secretary of State and the knowledge of White House life that comes from having been First Lady for eight years.  And, as that last credential implies, she would make history for the majority of our population from the moment she is elected.

But either one of them would be better than any of the current occupants of the GOP clown car.  So, if Bernie slips by Hillary, I'll support him too.  Not for the sake of purity.  But because he'll have shown himself to be the politician we need for our future.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Does George Takei Have A Racial Blind Spot?

As a child, one who felt like an outsider in my middle-class, conservative, WASP suburban neighborhood in Baltimore, "Star Trek," and its multicultural, multiethnic perspective on the human race and its future meant a great deal to me.  It gave me hope that one day, I would be a grown-up in a world that tolerated and even celebrated our differences, and showed respect for people who valued brains over brawn.  Sadly, the world in which I operate as a grown up is not nearly as enlightened as the United Federation of Planets, and the starship Enterprise, were depicted on the show.  But it is a better world than the world of my childhood, and I believe that programs like "Star Trek" played a decisive role in making that happen.

So I was deeply disappointed, to put it mildly, when I learned a few days ago that George Takei, who played Hikaru Sulu on the show and in six films based on it, decided to attack Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas' dissenting opinion in Obergfell v. Hodges, which legalized marriage equality in the U.S., by way of a truly disgusting racial slur that obscured the legitimate reasons for his anger at Thomas.  I am generally a believer in the principal that the best way to deal with ugliness is to expose it to the light but, in this case, I would prefer not to be a direct channel for Takei's ugly choice of words.  If you need to know exactly what those words were, you can find out here.

If you've clicked on the link and read the story, or if you've otherwise read similar stories already, you know that Takei has attempted to unring the repulsive bell he chose to rung, by attempting to suggest that he was engaging in some sort of historical satire.  I'm sorry, George, but that explanation just doesn't hold water.  Ethnic caricatures such as the one you evoked, no matter how they are used, do nothing but perpetuate the racism that gives them life in the first place.  How would you feel if someone had described your "Star Trek" character with reference to similar stereotypes of Asians in popular culture?  You would be offended, and rightly so.

In effect, George, what you have done is turned Clarence Thomas into the thing Clarence Thomas loves being most:  a martyr who doesn't bow to "politically correct" liberals.  And, in the process, you have obscured the fact that Thomas' dissenting opinion, like much of his "thinking" on the bench, contains plenty of ugliness of its own.  That an adult anywhere in the 21st century, much less one on the highest court in the land, can actually believe and say that slavery and race-based internment does not destroy the dignity of its victims is utterly unbelievable.  It validates my theory about modern conservatives:  the only way they can tolerate what they say is to not listen to it.

And, on top of all of that, George, you have forced people with long memories such as mine to wonder if, when it comes to African-Americans, you don't have a bit of a blind spot in your thinking. Do I think you're a bigot.  No, I don't.  But that is not to say that racism, on some subliminal level, has not clouded your thinking about African-Americans.  Racism is such a pervasive force in American society, and such a subliminal one as well, that it is not always easy to see how it affects our cultural and personal attitudes towards people.  We blind ourselves to racism's effects, not wanting to believe that WE are capable of thinking and acting the way openly bigoted people do.  But, sometimes, those thoughts are there, beneath the surface, and they are more easily triggered than we think.

In your case, George, I'm thinking about your otherwise witty attack on NBA star Tim Hardaway, when he came out as being openly homophobic.  "Chocolaty," George?  Seriously?  You went there? Sadly, yes you did.

I hope that you come away from this whole experience with not only a deeper appreciation for the virtues and values of the "Star Trek" universe, but also an appreciation of how difficult it is, even with the best of intentions, to truly embody and share those values with others.  I hope that you take a hard look at your own attitudes toward African-Americans, and come away with a healthier perspective that better reflects the good work you do, and have done, in promoting tolerance.

And I think you should start, if you have not already done so, by calling Nichelle Nichols, your former fellow cast member, and apologizing personally to her.  She has, sadly, recently suffered a stroke, and may not be up to the conversation.  But, if she is, she can explain better than I can why what you did was wrong, and what you need to do to prevent it from happening again.

Otherwise, George, live long and prosper.  And focus not on Clarence Thomas' ugly thoughts, but Anthony Kennedy's beautiful ones, as expressed at the end of his majority opinion.  Those latter thoughts express the "Star Trek" universe as well as any words could.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

It's Time For Theater To Have Its Own Network

I realize that it's been several weeks since "Broadway's Best" were honored.  But, as this Independence Day winds down, I have a modest proposal--well, maybe not so modest--for a declaration of independence, of sorts.  It's time for the Broadway League to declare the Tony Awards ceremony independent of CBS.

Why?  Because, for most of the past 20 years, the Tony broadcast, which CBS allegedly deems to be important in maintaining what's left of its Tiffany-network status, has been less and less about theater and more and more about ridiculous production numbers, stupid sight gags, and plugs for shows from previous or future seasons.  These intrusions into what is supposedly an event honoring the best of the most recent season on Broadway have had the effect of pushing much of that season off of the telecast altogether.

You may recall that, in 2014, the necrology was deleted from the broadcast altogether, raising an Internet-based outcry that the Tony folks tried to paper over by saying, well, there is an expanded version of the necrology on the Tony Web site.  But that just sounded to most of the protesters (including me) like the deceased heroes and heroines of the theater were somehow having their well-deserved recognition "shuffled off" to a less-desirable neighborhood.  This year, however, the Tony folks showed that they got the message; the necrology was not only restored to the broadcast, but was beautifully presented, culminating in all of the nominees and presenters singing "You'll Never Walk Alone."

Would that the rest of the broadcast lived up to that level of inspiration.  Instead, we were treated to the sight of Kristin Chenoweth coming on stage in an E.T. costume so that Alan Cumming could turn around and say "No, it's 'Fun Home,' not 'phone home.'"  Literally so funny I forgot to laugh, unlike the audience at Radio City Music Hall, which forced itself to laugh in an embarrassed way at the sight of two real stars being forced to make fools out of themselves.  Worse yet, this sort of non-humor was, as has been the case for the past 20-plus years, deemed more important for your viewing pleasure that most of the actual awards.  As Entertainment Weekly noted, history was made this year when the Tony for best musical score went to two women--and that history was reduced to a 30-second "Earlier this evening" segment.  Apparently, the E.T. sight gag meant more to CBS and its Tiffany reputation than showing history being made.

Well, CBS, if that's the way you're going to treat the theater, then to hell with you.  And, as far as I'm concerned, to hell with the Tony broadcast.

It's time for not only Broadway, but theater as a whole, to stop apologizing for the fact that somehow, in an era when entertainment is as close to everyone as their smart phones, people are still willing to spend significant amounts of money to sit in the dark with a group of total strangers and watch real people use words and movement to tell stories.  And it absolutely is time for the best-known event honoring theater in this country to stop letting a television network that pretends to care about its reputation sully both its reputation, and that of the theater, with a substandard telecast.

In short, it's time for the American theater community--Broadway, regional theater, even community theater--to have its own network.  A network that could either be cable-based, or Internet based.  A network that provided news, features, and special events--such as a Tony Awards program that skipped the lame attempts at mass entertainment, and actually focused on honoring the theater community and its best work.  A network sponsored by companies that value the theater audience, in part because, unlike CBS, they actually understand who composes that audience, and value the tastes and purchasing power.

To be sure, in order for such a venture to work, it may be necessary to make it a premium service, one that would require viewers to be paid subscribers, as is the case with HBO and Showtime.  But why should that stop this from happening?   Theater has never been more expensive than it is today, and yet people who love it still spend money on it.  Why couldn't those people be expected to spend a little more on a network that provided real value when it comes to something they cherish?

And it could provide real value in many ways.  Not only could it provide a Tony Awards presentation that didn't seem to be embarrassed by the actual Tony Awards, but it could also served as a resource in other ways.  It could be a source of information about local theater across the country, giving exposure to events and productions that might not receive it from local broadcast stations.  It could even create its own original programing, and market that programing through secondary channels such as DVDs and even broadcasts in movie theaters, along the lines of what the Metropolitan Opera is doing now.

It's time for America's theater community to come together with the understanding that no one but itself is going to stand up for its interests.  Form the American Theater Network now.  Not only for the sake of a better Tony telecast, but also for the sake of an artistic community that deserves its national place in the sun.