1) What the fuck is going on?
Man, I’ve been hoping you’d ask me that question for just about forever. Doesn’t that make me pathetic? Yeah, that makes me pathetic, but I love your blog. What was the question? Oh, right—well, gearing up for the New York International Fringe Festival, actually. I’m reviewing 22 shows and contemplating trying to find post-show cocktails via IV drip. Funny thing is, I’ve been using that IV-drip joke for years and then I heard about the Clinic Bar in Singapore, so there goes that idea. Anyway.
2) What’s your favourite image from your new book and why?
That’s a very difficult question to answer—and I’m not saying that by way of evasiveness. There are 240 images in the book and many have never, or only very rarely, been published—maybe a third to half of them.
When I was researching the images, I’d come across something seemingly unique or unusual and I’d just sort of leap out of my skin with excitement and fall head over heels in love with it (and sometimes heels over head for the ones that really flipped me). But then, you know, research goes on and the moment would pass and I’d stumble upon some other image and then I’d fall in love with that one.
However, if you were to put a gun to my head and demand I pick just one image as my favorite, I might choose Laurette Taylor in The Glass Menagerie, page 205. There are a number of other images of Taylor from Menagerie that are well known and have been published a lot, but this particular one blew me away—the way Julie Haydon, who played Laura, is looking at Taylor makes me wish, just as so many others have said, that I could have seen that play the first time around, live and in person.
3) Aside from information about the productions themselves (costume, sets, cast), what do the photos reveal about the spirit of the times these people were living in?
Depending on the photograph, sometimes they reveal a great deal about contemporary American mores. That’s totally too much responsibility to place upon a mere photo, but here are a couple of examples of what I’m getting at:
Early in the book there’s a shot of Lydia Thompson, who was—pardon me for being sort of reductive about it—the founding queen of what we think of today as burlesque. In the photo, she’s poking completely bare-shouldered out of a wicker basket. This is the late 1860s and early 1870s—revealing a hint of leg or ankle was, you know, evidence of moral degeneracy and whatnot. But there she is: “Look at me, boys!”
There’s also a photograph of Henry E. Dixey, who starred in a “burlesque extravaganza” called Adonis. And he’s standing beside a pillar looking, well, terribly Greek (but not really), and, for lack of a better phrase, terribly faux-neoclassical. Just as the image of Lydia Thompson—and also a photograph elsewhere in the book of another Rubenesque diva, Lillian Russell—tells you something about 19th century Western ideals of female beauty, the image of Henry E. Dixey tells you something about how male beauty was perceived, as if the idea of something called Adonis doesn’t imply that anyway.
There are also quite a few images of men and women in staged scenes that play upon, in subtle and unsubtle ways, the battle of the sexes. You look at them and you think, “Wow, she couldn’t vote.”
Another element that conveys “the spirit of the times” is the use of light and shadow. There are some awesome ones in that vein: a shot of Burgess Meredith (today remembered for playing the Penguin in the 1960s TV series Batman and the various Rocky movies) starring in a Maxwell Anderson play called Winterset; and also an image of Eddie Cantor, his eyes bulging in that over-the-top, comic way he had, his foot half off the floor, daring the photographer to click the shutter.
4) Why is it that theatre seems to resist easy iconography?
Yikes, that’s quite a presumption, hm? I’m actually not sure it’s true, but it’s a curious argument. I guess I’ll approach the question from a variety of POVs. I could argue that, in fact, there are many iconic images from theatre: the gold lame-wearing A Chorus Line kick-line; Cats’ glowing eyes on a pitch-black background; the vomit-inducing, ubiquitous mask for Phantom. Although all of these, for good or for ill, are, um, vomit-inducingly commercial and obviously more topical, more current than what I think you mean by iconographic.
So if you’ll let me, I want to take your question out of the strict realm of commercialism and look at iconic theatre images in terms of culture on a macro level—to get us away from any discussion of logo design and saturation marketing, blah blah blah. Have you ever seen the cover of Frank Rich’s memoir Ghost Light? I’d say the ghost light is tremendously iconic—people know what it is, even if they don’t necessarily know what it’s called, what it’s used for, or what the superstition and lore around it is. I’d even go a bit further and suggest that marquees—that dreamy old saw about seeing one’s names in lights—is an icon of theatre, or at least it connotes it.
I know from your Praxis blog that you’re taken with the idea that the image of Shakespeare connotes theatre, and that’s impossible to disagree with. But then again, we’re talking about a Western idea of theatre in the first place. What would an iconic image of Noh be?
One last thing—I think stage iconography might be tied to geography. If we’re talking about the West, there’s Times Square, say, or maybe the West End. Or maybe that’s just the obnoxious native New Yorker in me doing the nationalistic shimmy.
5) In your role as national theatre editor for Back Stage, have you come across any overarching characteristics or aesthetics that seem common to a “national American theatre”?
Sure, though these are things that weren’t necessarily driven home to me by my work at Back Stage. There’s kitchen-sink drama, for one. I mean, below this question I see you have a question about groan-inducing clichés, so maybe this discussion belongs there, but it’s a pretty constant and fairly exhausted aesthetic and yet a lot of American playwrights turn to it, again and again and again. There’s also the epidemic of one-person plays—my book has this really great photo of Ruth Draper, which is the person and the time to which a certain amount of our solo-show-itis can be traced.
I also think there is clearly an emerging political-theatre aesthetic. There hasn’t really been anything like one since the 1930s or maybe the 1960s or 1970s, but there’s a real explosion going on. In America, I think there has be a quality of unresolved, unaddressed social fury to spur on political theatre—although there are always powerful isolated examples, as someone like Tony Kushner might suggest. America is such a disaster in terms of social and foreign policy and class and income stratification that finally it’s generating enough heat to manifest itself on stage.
I think one other overarching characteristic of a “national American theatre” is an over-reliance—in the commercial marketplace—on realism, the Method, and such. American actors, if they want to be successful, have to position themselves to act on film and on TV, and for obvious reasons there’s a real premium placed on “in the moment” awareness. Not that there’s something wrong with the Method, blah blah blah, but it is kind of annoyingly and often boringly American.
Oh—one last thing: I’d argue that the national American theatre is the nonprofit system, despite all its icky and awful dysfunctions as Mike Daisey has been saying. It’s a mess, but it’s ours.
6) What are some of the most groan-inducing cliches of contemporary American theatre?
My publisher will hate me for saying this, but the biggest one is that Broadway is the be-all and end-all of the American stage. Maybe it was at one point, but it really isn’t in terms of aesthetics. It is in terms of marketing, though, which is a shame.
7) How do you feel about the quality of theatre criticism in New York City, generally?
You expect me to answer that? I’m screwed if I answered that and screwed if I don’t.
8) Do you have any unifying theories about the artist-critic relationship?
Yes! Do you know for how many years I’ve been hauling out this quote from Peter Brook’s The Empty Space? It’s really very simple: critics have a responsibility to consider being practitioners from time to time. The absolute worst thing in the world is a critic who has never once even tried to do the thing he or she is criticizing. That’s lazy and dumb and backward and imbecilic and it’s basically pretentious and hypocritical and it totally undermines their authority, if you want to use that word, although a better word might be credibility. In 2002 I wrote a feature for Back Stage in which I interviewed a slew of critics, including Robert Brustein, who work as practitioners. Here’s what I wrote at the start of the piece:
At the same time that revolution hung in the air during the turbulent political year of 1968, a revolution no less potent was being advocated by Peter Brook in his book, The Empty Space. As part of his well-reasoned list of cavils and concerns about the theatre, Brook chose to examine the most despised and derided theatre person of them all—the critic.
He didn’t denounce the critic. Instead, he articulated a philosophy that some considered daring and others attacked as heresy. He said the critic should be “part of the whole, and whether he writes his notices fast or slow, short or long, is not really important. Has he an image of how a theatre could be in his community and is he revising this image around each experience he receives? How many critics see their job this way?”
Then he answered his own question: “It is for this reason that the more the critic becomes an insider, the better. I see nothing but good in a critic plunging into our lives, meeting actors, talking, discussing, watching, intervening. I would welcome his putting his hands on the medium and attempting to work it himself.”
9) What can theatre bloggers do to make better use of the form?
Act like critics and stop willingly and deliberately segregating themselves from everyone else. This whole nonsense about marketing departments of nonprofit theatres inviting certain bloggers to see early, early previews—I’m talking weeks before press openings, long before the actors are ready to be reviewed—is crass and demonic and totally destructive to the art form and the flimsy justifications that some of these theatre have for what they’re doing is full of more bullshit than a steaming pile of poo. They know which bloggers are or act like real critics—or could be if they had the balls to stop fashioning themselves renegades or whatever badge of honor-bashing they think they’re up to. They should press to be on press lists, they should demand acceptance from the rest of the critical community, and in certain cases they should be given tickets for the same first- or second-night performances I’m invited to, and they should take themselves and the criticism they write more seriously. Of course, not all theatre bloggers write criticism, and that’s fine, too.
My issue is with the bloggers who are like, “Oh no, those are professional critics and I’m just little old me with my little blog.” Please. Bloggers create and develop terrific and important platforms—and they’re going to become more important as time goes on and they know it and I know it and you know it. Bloggers who act like critics should be expected to comport themselves by the same professional standards that everyone else is expected to meet. Not doing that isn’t just a question of amateurishness, by the way. It’s a question of why some of them are engaging in a process that hurts the life and work of people who ought to be considered their fellow artists? Mind you, they’re not going to listen to me, which is fine.
10) As a whole, how well are American theatre artists dealing with the country’s major political stories (for example, the Bush administration, terrorism, and the war in Iraq)?
Mixed. There’s a lot of awesome documentary theatre out there—I think it’ll be the dominant alt-genre of the next 10 years. So in that sense American theatre artists are dealing with it head on. If we elect McCain, there will probably be even more of it because everyone will be unspeakably demoralized. The only thing worse than McCain that could happen to America—and its theatre artists—is another catastrophic terrorist attack.
Read more from Leonard Jacobs at his blog: The Clyde Fitch Report.