10 questions: Don Hall

1) What the fuck is going on?
Oil production has peaked while the consuming of it increases so future generations are fucked; the President of the United States couldn’t beat me in a game of Scrabble; the WGA is on strike so there will soon be nothing but Who Wants to Give a Rich Guy a Handjob? and Project Air Traffic Controller and America’s Next Top CPA on the air; someone, somewhere, is adapting a Paulie Shore film into a Broadway musical and I want them hurt; and the population is in a constant state of fear-motivated consumerism.

On a personal level, I have a day job that I completely dig, my wife is a sexy genius, and I’m physically in better shape than I’ve been in since college. So, apart from the planet going straight to hell in the fast lane, life is Disco.

2) How do you feel about Chicago’s contemporary theatre scene?
I have mixed feelings about our scene.

On the “Glass is Half Empty” side, the municipality is embracing the Broadway “Big, Splashy, and Kind of Stupid” model in efforts to boost tourism at the expense of the Off-Loop scene that is the heart of Chicago Theater. The theory from some is like Reaganomics – if people come to see Wicked and Jersey Boys then they’ll get a taste for theater and some will naturally trickle down to patronize the smaller, smarter artists. Like Reaganomics, that’s just a bunch of wishful horseshit.

The reality is that the City spends millions on the downtown structures and ignores any physical plant needs of the vast, overpopulated non-Equity scene and that scene has to keep moving further and further from the geographic center of what folks consider “Chicago.” On top of that, the City continues to underfund arts education and, as a result, the arts are not a regular part of most kids’ daily life. They then fund theater companies who spend much of their creative energies replacing the basic arts educational programs with often sub-par plays and hokey performances by groups who, in the large part, aren’t representative of the quality of work to be found in the city.

And, whether our city wants to admit it or not, Chicago is a fucking “Sports & Bar” Town. Theater is a once-a-year treat because you gotta spend those bucks on getting shit-faced and puking at a Cubs game.

On the “Glass is Half Full of Rosy Liquid” side, while we have far too many wannabe artists in the city, we likewise have a higher-than-average brilliance quotient – playwrights churning out superior work every day, some of the best actors, improvisers, stand ups, sketch comedians, and musicians on the planet are honing their crafts right here in Chi-town.

With a constant stream of mid-sized festivals (The Rhino Fest, the Around the Coyote) and large showcase festivals (Chicago Sketchfest, Bailiwick Director’s Festival) combined with the relative ease of putting up a show anywhere and a (unfortunately dwindling) history of excellent theater journalism, Chicago may not have replaced New York as the theater capital, but we’ve narrowed the gap considerably.

3) Why do you identify your skin colour in the name of your blog: An Angry White Guy in Chicago?
There are two answers to that one.

First, years ago, I created a show (that Jen directed) called An Angry White Guy Reads the Paper. In essence, it was a combination of an Armando Diaz long-form and The Living Newspaper of David Shepherd.

I was a character (the AWG) who came out on his porch to get his Chicago Sun-Times and have a beer and a smoke before going to work at the scotch tape factory. The audience was my illiterate neighbor, Phil. I would read random items from the paper to Phil, rant and rave about the state of the world and then an ensemble of six improvisers would riff off of my vitriol. We went back and forth like this for an hour. It was a blast and we had a pretty decent following of regulars come week after week. When I started my blog, it seemed natural to use that character as a launching point.

Second, the image of an angry, white American male is steeped in the stereotype of the hyper-conservative, NASCAR-loving, redneck gun-lover. I like tricking those guys into coming over to my blog and being surprised by my leftist, artsy point of view. I’ve received a fair number of hate emails because of that.

Also, I don’t think there is anything wrong with identifying your race. I’ve been accused of being racist for simply pointing out that I’m white, which is plainly stupid. Racism is the belief that other races are inferior in some way – stating my own race isn’t pejorative to anyone.

4) What are you angry about?
Stupid. Stupid makes me angry.

Voting for a president who you’d like to have a beer with? Stupid.

Banning smoking because Communism fell and we all needed another enemy is stupid.

Dumbing down our educational system by making it more about taking tests than learning and then complaining about how thuggish, drunk and vapid kids are is stupid.

Legally Blond The Musical? – stupid.

Doing NOTHING about Global Warming? Myopic and stupid.

Not impeaching our corrupt Executive Branch but investigating Baseball? S-T-U-P-I-D.

Defining basic sadness as clinical depression in order to boost anti-depressant sales – stupid AND corrupt.

There’s a lot of stupid out there. All you have to do is open your eyes and be amazed.

5) How do you feel about the idea that American theatre has – to its detriment – become centralized around New York City?
It’s always been centralized around NYC – that has never really been to our detriment. NYC is a great town with great artists. The focus on bigger and bigger houses, more and more money, has done the damage and NYC is also the capital of “Selling your Mother for the Highest Price” as well.

Broadway is a bloated, celebrity-driven whore overtaken by Disney and Sony. Somewhere along the line, the money-lenders realized that if you dressed up a high-concept turd with enough flash and dazzle, enough stage gimmickry and had a Hollywood star perform in it, they could make the fast turnaround buck. NYC has given birth to so many good things for American Theater but the good things are now being over-shadowed by the money-grubbing greed factories looking to shill the tourists. When the accountants become the producers and the artists, in a drive to create “mass art,” write plays that are increasingly less complex but highly entertaining, the art as a whole suffers.

The truly unfortunate thing is that it works and everybody wants to get some of that golden pie. So you get Cirque du Soliel in Vegas and Broadway in Chicago and the Guthrie “Megaplex.” The big glitzy horseshit that passes as theater in these monstrously large organizations obliterates the new and the original. When originality is stomped on and buried, the outlook gets pretty grim for all but the hacks responsible for “destination shows.”

It is easy, however, to throw blame at the snake-oil salesman of Broadway and thus paint all of New York with that broad brush. New York has a rich history of great theater and deservedly so. There are also scores of New York artists that are not a part of that system, churning out countless plays and musicals that don’t buy into the corporate model of Deadly Theater. Most importantly, New York has a culture of theatergoers – it is a part of the population’s regular list of “Things to Do” and that can’t be said of most places west of the Apple.

6) How have your experiences as a theatre blogger influenced your ideas about theatre?
The experiment that began as my blog was mostly to give myself a reason to write every day. I tried the private journal route but I found I needed a sense of urgency and obligation to write as well as I could AND to generate things to write about that were more interesting than my daily grind. So, I started the blog.

Since then I have opened up a world for me that was surprising – I correspond (in one form or another) with theater cats from all over the globe and get some insight into what’s going on artistically in regions thousands of miles away.

As for how it has influenced me – it has given me the opportunity to try out some of my underlying ideals on the computer screen and get feedback from those who are either getting ready to walk the same walk as I, are currently on the same road, or have been where I’m at and have insight to where I’m going. That sense of universality and community is invaluable. I can’t say that it has changed much of my own artistic output, but it has made me a bit less knee-jerk when contemplating something I’m involved in.

7) What kinds of stories does American theatre seem to consistently neglect telling?
Stories that legitimately reflect the lives of every day people.

Why is Law & Order so fucking popular? I think it is because it reflects the things that are happening around us every day. Documentaries have exploded in recent years. Why? Because they address the things right in front of our faces. The Office is so compelling because it pretty accurately reflects the people in our lives (and is blisteringly, painfully funny).

Theater is mired in history and fantasy and the stories of the elite and the downtrodden but rarely deal with meat and potatoes life. Where are the Clifford Odets of today? In this way, Scott Walters has it right in that the only characters we see that hail from Middle America and the South are either spoofed yokels, noble savants amidst the close-minded townfolk, or serial killers. Where are our John Steinbecks?

8) What are some of the more common marketing and PR mistakes you see being made by other theatre makers in Chicago?
I’d say the most common mistake is using the existing corporate model as a basis for which to operate. That model was created 50 or 60 years ago and is in big trouble. Cookie cutter marketing is lost in the shuffle – to effectively market something within the din of advertising and promotional noise, you gotta do something out of the ordinary or be relegated to “one more fucking thing being sold to me.”

Think big, think creative, think about *almost* breaking the law to get the information to the people you want in your audience. Specify and conquer. Anything less is just tepid noise that will promptly be ignored.

9) Why is Michael Moore a true American hero?
Whether you like his methods or not, Moore uses the nominal pulpit he has to champion those who have no voice. He speaks the truth as he sees it and, in doing so, attempts to shed light on our decaying and near-dead Democratic Experiment in hopes of reversing the cancer of complacency and self-interest that fuels our apocalypse. And he almost single-handedly reinvented the documentary film genre to meet the demands of the YouTube generation – you think we’d be seeing Alberto Gonzalez heckled online or The Daily Show without Roger & Me?

10) As a writer, what are you better at now than you were when you were younger?
Believe it or not, I think more before I commit something to screen or paper. I’m also a bit more skeptical of my own bias when launching a diatribe.

10 thoughts on “10 questions: Don Hall

  1. Hey Don,

    I have a couple of questions:

    You write that:

    “New York has a culture of theatergoers – it is a part of the population’s regular list of “Things to Do” and that can’t be said of most places west of the Apple.”

    Yes I agree. Having lived there, it is probably the saving grace of the whole place despite the fact that “Broadway is a bloated, celebrity-driven whore overtaken by Disney and Sony.”

    So, my questions:

    1 Is theatre on Chicago’s “To Do” list? How/why?

    2 It is not on the list in Toronto, yet, despite the fact that demographically it should be. Any ideas on what we ought to be doing up here?



  2. 1. No. Theater is on Chicago’s “Things To Do Every Once in a While If I Have the Time Unless There’s a Game On” List.

    The “How/Why” is complicated, I think. It probably has a lot to do with the priorities of our municipal government and the focus in our schools on sports over arts.

    Chicago, for better or worse, is a cow town founded by the Polish and the Irish; NYC is a port town founded by the Jewish and the Italians.

    As for Toronto, I have absolutely no clue what makes that town click – I’ve only been there twice. From what I read, the work is strong, so I’m actually surprised to hear that the patrons aren’t dropping their dime. Maybe it’s just more a film town?

  3. The people at the Toronto Fringe just introduced a new juried festival called The Next Stage – I went to four of the shows last week and all of them were either sold out or nearly sold out.

    Festival theatre in January? Who knew.

    It tells me that the appetite is there, we just need to tap into it.

    You’re right Don. Toronto is a film town. We’ve got our big international festival. It keeps it in our blood.

    But if I could suggest one way to put theatre on more people’s dance cards (aside from more innovative and plentiful marketing, which we desperately need) it would be to ask our theatre makers to start thinking more about audiences at the beginning of the creative process – rather than as afterthought.

    Want more people to come to your show? How about writing a play for the community you’re trying to attract?

    I don’t see this as a compromise, I see it as storytelling.

    What do you guys think?

  4. hmmmmmm.. Yeah Don, there is a lot of strong work here, it just doesn’t frequently draw an audience. This confuses me as there is a well educated and moneyed population of 4 million with large disposable incomes. Toronto is a hog town settled by the British and the Irish (well actually the Huron and the Iroquois), but the real story is that we are now statistically the most multicultural city in the world. What that means, I don’t know.

    Yeah Ian, The Next Stage festival was a real boon. I was worried about an indie theatre festival in January drawing an audience and it is a good sign that it was such a success. I’m pretty sure that creating pieces that you think will attract the right audience (or an audience) is a smart move. How do you tell though?

  5. Mike,

    I guess I’m not thinking of a rule for all theatre, but more of a journalistic approach to making theatre: if we want more people to care about the shows we’re doing, maybe we should make shows that care about them, that investigate their lives and conditions (specifically) rather than searching for universality in the abstract.

    So, for example, let’s create a new show called “Queen and Ossington – life outside the asylum” – and the theatre makers make a real attempt to interpret and represent that community back on itself.

    I’m not saying this is the only way to make theatre, but if we’re wondering why our audience base seems thin, perhaps its because we’re not trying hard enough to tell stories that are about them.

  6. I’m not saying this is the only way to make theatre, but if we’re wondering why our audience base seems thin, perhaps its because we’re not trying hard enough to tell stories that are about them.

    I couldn’t agree more.

    A Steady Rain was about Chicago cops and was an honest piece about their flaws and virtues (it also had fucking great actors) and a huge portion of their audience was comprised of…Chicago cops.

    It requires that theater artists climb out of their own small worlds and become invested in the worlds of their potential audiences. It isn’t pandering for bucks if the interest is genuine and the stories compelling.

    I’ll add that national issues are super but the homegrown, right-here-in-River-City kind of issues will resonate more with the immediate audience and place theater back in the realm of a community must-see rather than the old, crippled uncle to the DVD.

  7. In regards to writing stories/theatre for your own community, I think it can be a double edged sword. In my first one man show, “Fairytales of a Pink Indian”, essentially I wrote what I knew. I wrote a 45 minute show about POWWOW LIFE from the perspective of a young man battling with his own identity, cultural dogma, and the expectations of his family. There were nights when the audience was mostly non-native, and I can say, not getting laughs where there were usually laughs is painful. It was not painful because I wasn’t getting laughs, but because the message of what I was trying to say was lost with people not ‘being in the know’.

    I’ve experienced great support from ‘my community’ (ya know, the Aboriginal one) each and every time I’ve mounted a show. The usual work had to be put into promoting, marketing, etc., BUT, it seemed a pretty easy sell to get the community to get the community to come out and see the shows.

    I never create/write/perform work that intentionally isolates some of the audience, though, I will never and have never, ‘dumbed it down’ for those not from ‘the community’.

  8. Hey guys,

    It seems like the trick might be in “writing to” a small enough community that it means something to them, but a large enough community that they can make a significant contribution to your box office.

    Either way, I think there are plenty of examples of wildly popular “local” art that hasn’t dumbed it down or pandered to some perceived lowest common denominator.

    I like to think that good artists can do interesting work even under extremely strict parameters (ever seen Soviet-era Russian films?). Many artists even thrive under such parameters. So the idea of thinking about your audience during the creative process seems to me like no compromise at all.

    I would have liked to have seen Don’s Steady Rain piece.

  9. Actually, A Steady Rain was a production of Chicago Dramatists that just recently got picked up for an Off Broadway run.

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