Wednesday, November 6, 2013

How to Not Offend People (Intercultural Edition)

Just two snakes hanging out. Nothing strange at all...

The other week, I traveled to the exotic land of New Jersey (exotic to me because I have never been there except that one time where I needed to rent a car and didn't want to drive out of Manhattan). I wanted to catch a matinee of Mary Zimmerman's "The White Snake." This was my first Mary Zimmerman production, so from her reputation, I knew what I was getting into: fairy tales, puppets, intricate costumes and a general sense that the entire thing was a magical fable rather than a naturalistic play.

"White Snake" was based on an ancient Chinese fairy tale, about a magical snake who can turn into a woman. She then falls in love with a man. Like other fairy tales/myths about inter-species relationships, you can probably guess that it doesn't end well. But you don't come to a Mary Zimmerman show because you want to be preoccupied with plot. You go to a Mary Zimmerman show for the same reason you go to a Julie Taymor show, because it looks so damn beautiful. Just look at this picture:

I want costume designer Mara Blumenfeld to make me a Halloween costume.

Yet what "The White Snake" also showed me was how an artist of a particular background, in this instance a white woman, can represent a background different from her's, ancient China, and do it respectfully without stereotyping or exoticizing the people in it.

How did she do it? Inspired by the recent protests around a touring production of "Miss Saigon" (a musical that is a textbook example of how not to write about a foreign culture), I've developed an easy list of 5 bullet points, inspired by "The White Snake" about how to successfully play with another culture and not offend the people in that community.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Bringing Back Faith

It's all fun and games until Michael Cerveris makes you cry.

This past Saturday, I took a friend to see “Fun Home” at the Public Theatre. It’s based on Alison Bechdel’s comic book, about growing up in a funeral home, discovering she was a lesbian and, around the same time, finding out that her father had been secretly gay. It was alternatively heavy and hilarious stuff, the kind of things that make people with daddy issues cry. Michael Cerveris played Alison’s father and gave one of the most nuanced performance I had ever seen on the stage. It was a performance that was all subtext. Here was a man that had lived in the closet his entire life, and could only step a foot out of it when he thought no one else was looking. He was both an attentive father and a dismissive one, who both saw things and didn’t see them. It was masterful, where you could see a glimpse of the real man underneath but you had to first wade through all of the surface in his character.

It was one of those times where I was really happy to have been there, to say, “I saw that and it was awesome!”

Whenever people talk about live performances, they talk about how nothing can replicate it, how TV and film can’t compare to being in a room and sharing the same space with both performers and the other audience member in the room. How the sense of community both informs and enriches the viewing experience.

I think they’re wrong.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Blurred Lines (Theater Edition)


This past Saturday, I caught the theatrical equivalent of a double feature: seeing two plays in one day. With a Shake Shack break in-between. And the more I thought about it, the more I realize these two plays shared a very common (and I do admit, slightly arbitrary for the sake of this post), thread: they cross boundaries.

I started my day by waking up at noon, having cereal, and then heading into Manhattan for "Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play" by Anne Washburn at Playwrights Horizons. It deals with a post-apocalyptic world, where immediately after, a group of people act out old episodes of "The Simpsons" from their memories to keep themselves entertained.

And with "The Simpsons" becoming oral history, in the style of "Othello," it becomes something like a Greek drama in the second act (set 75 years after the apocalypse). It's a powerful concept: At the end of the world, after the power goes out, "The Simpsons," a work originally presented in the most philistine of mediums: sitcom television, have become the new classics: a Grecian-style tragedy with chorus, masks, and overtones of morality.

Low art has become high art. Or maybe it has always been high art and it just took the lights going out to realize it.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Summer? What Summer?

So I've been thinking about my New Year's Resolutions. What? You may ask. It's only fall, isn't it a bit too early to think about resolutions? Yes, it would be if I was thinking about 2014. Instead, I'm thinking about 2013. One of my resolutions was to blog more this year, for no other reason than I think people (mainly arts-loving people) would benefit from hearing my opinions. Or at least, I like to think so. Not really, I just like to bitch and moan online like a majority of the populace.

Well, as you can see from the lack of entries this year, I've failed miserably at putting my snarky thoughts to type. Instead what have I been doing? Writing for pay! Because I hate having free time.

Here is what I accomplished this summer, while everyone else was out of town. And this list does not include watching all 13 episodes of "Orange is the New Black" and the first three seasons of "Breaking Bad."

  • I filed a story for the July/August issue of "American Theatre" about the immersive theatre movement, which has gotten an insane amount of hits and also, one (that I know of) lovely response. And in that issue, I also wrote about my trip to Alabama, where I saw some new plays about bunnies and had a lot less fried chicken than I hoped to have.

  • I also wrote a 4,000-word piece about the TCG Conference (aka the biggest theatre conference of the year!) for the September issue of AT.

  • I did a podcast interview with my personal writer hero David Henry Hwang where I talked to him about "M. Butterfly," "Yellow Face" and YouTube videos. And this time, I was only moderately enthusiastic (as opposed to the first time I met him where the reaction was more "Oh my god, you inspired me so much and you are so important!"). Listen to it here.

  • I wrote three theater reviews at the New York International Fringe Festival, for "Time Out New York." My last review was in 2011 and I have to say, this time around, the snark came out much easier. I'm guessing that's just one of the side-effects of living in New York City, like knowing how to weave through crowds or ignoring the break-dancer spinning right in front of you on the subway. Though this little dance into criticism aside, I think I may leave it for the more seasoned professionals, because while it's fun, having this much power in my hands is unsettling. And then, because the Fringe refused to let me go, I did a small post for "Back Stage" about the best performance I saw at the festival. 

  • I wrote two pieces for "Stages," the theater magazine for Theatre Development Fund (who, coincidentally enough, works in the same building as TCG, the publisher of AT). One was about "King Kong" at SummerStage and the other was about "Monkey: Journey to the West" at Lincoln Center. Read the second one if you want to see a great example of how to take a 10-minute interview and turn it into a 600-word story. It wasn't David Foster Wallace-style of thumb twiddling, but it was still challenging.

And lastly, I went to Maine for my one mini-vacation, where I killed some lobsters, with a knife.

Now, with three shows this week and four next week (two of which will be in Chicago), I say: Bring on the fall. And the return of blazers and life-changing dramas.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Last Word (Or Is It?)

My reaction to most things these days.

It's officially at the midpoint of summer, and it's also around the time when the last thing I want to do is sit in front of a computer. Instead, all my brain wants is play with my niece, have sangria and make strawberry cake.

Which is why I have been meaning to write this post earlier, but then I couldn't quite wrap my head around what I wanted to say about the topic in question. Because the humidity makes 85 degrees feel like 100, I feel like my brain is one hop, skip and a jump away from melting into a giant puddle. Not to mention the fact that on Twitter, a lot of people had many things to say about it, some very emotional, others very astute, others all of the above.

But this past week has been an interesting one for criticism and it's made me ponder one question: Who has the last word these days?

First, let's recap. A critic named Lily Janiak for "HowlRound," a theatre blog that is read primarily by theatre artists, wrote a review of "American Nights" at California Shakespeare Theater. Criticism of said review came from staffers of the theatre (including the artistic director Jon Moscone), and other artists. Criticism of the criticism also followed.

And then editor Polly Carl posted up an apology, saying that, "There is a way that the tone of Lily's piece can be read as disrespectful. This is not a tone we want to promote on HowlRound." I initially saw the apology as an abandonment of the writer, because in the journalism world, to quote Mitt Romney, there are "no apologies," unless you spell someone's name wrong or report a false fact.

But in the ensuing hubbub, I now just see it as an editor's comments to her readers. And for those who read "HowlRound" regularly, this kind of clarification of intentions is common on the blog. Call it transparency.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Victim Blaming and Trayvon Martin

Jim Morin, The Miami Herald

A lot of artists use the term turning point when they talk about that moment where they knew they wanted to pursue being a painter, a director, a playwright. For me, one of the turning points of when I knew that a career as a reporter was the right one for me was this article, by crime reporter R. Scott Moxley for "OC Weekly" (where I interned for and wrote a couple of pieces back in 2009).

It was a profile of Gunnar Jay Lindberg, who, with an accomplice in 1996, brutally murdered the 24-year-old Vietnamese-American Thien Minh Ly in Tustin, CA as he was rollerblading on an evening in January. What the story told me was that, 1) unfair things happen, especially when you're a person of color, and 2) journalism can be a way to bring light to that kind of injustice.

What brought this old case to my head again was Travyon Martin and George Zimmerman, and how Zimmerman, despite killing Martin, was acquitted of 2nd degree murder and manslaughter. This isn't 1996, it was 2013 and injustice is still alive.

Of course it's false to equate a pre-meditated hate crime with manslaughter, but the reason Thien Minh Ly came to me now was because of the racial motivation. Zimmerman followed Martin because he was black. Lindberg targeted Ly because he was Asian.

But I'm not going to go into whether I think Zimmerman's acquittal was the right decision or not (it wasn't), or whether he had the right to shoot a teenager (he didn't). Instead, I want to go into discourse, or whether, the state of discourse in this country about race and victim blaming.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Why I Want to Be Lois Lane When I Grow Up

"Man of Steel" Lois Lane, hard-hitting investigative report
who is not fooled by a pair of glasses.

When I was little, I wanted to be many things. I wanted to be Belle, I wanted to be Snow White, I wanted to be the Yellow Ranger in Power Rangers, I wanted to be Hermione and, I wanted to be Lois Lane.

She's the female comic book character I looked forward to seeing at the theaters when the superhero films started making a come-back in the early 2000s. Superman was an inevitability and the only thing that made me bite my nails was seeing who would play her. And Amy Adams was my perfect Lois Lane.

I am a big geek, which means I grew up watching the DC Comics cartoon versions of "X-Men," "Spider-Man," "Batman," "Batman Beyond" (which I believe is next to "Gargoyles" and "Animaniacs" as the best cartoon show ever written) and "Superman." And out of all the superhero girlfriends, I wanted to be Lois Lane.

The main reasons were two-fold: she was a writer, I wanted to be a writer, and she was female. Considering the utter lack of female heroines who were not princesses, I took what I could get. Side note: I never wanted to be Mulan, because even at that age, I could see that me being a Chinese warrior was a little too on the nose.

Friday, June 14, 2013

World War Z Takes Me Back

If you haven't noticed, either from reading my blog, chatting with me on Twitter, or stalking my Facebook page, I am a geek. Well, I write about theatre for a living so there's the artsy geek, but the other day, my editor-in-chief called me an "aficionado" of geek films, when I told him I was seeing "Man of Steel" (aka: "Henry Cavill's Abs"), tonight.

But one of the things I love about summer, and what I've always loved about summer, were superhero and fantasy films, which takes that human pathos and realism that you see the other days of the year, and adds in superhuman strength and dragons. What I'm looking forward this summer is the movie "World War Z," about the zombie apocalypse and the ensuing war, adapted from the book by Max Brooks.

Judging from the reaction from my brother-in-law to the trailer, it's not quite clear that the movie is about zombies. He thought it was about a virus (a la "Contagion"), because the trailer never hones in one blood-thirsty individual zombies, instead utilizing wide, tracking shots of zombies as a virus-like hoard, as you can see in the poster below.

I love this poster, I think it's both striking and horrifying, as well as very old-school cinematic. And that last part may be because it references, I don't know if it's conscious or not, this iconic photograph by Hubert van Es of the end of the Vietnam War, taken in Saigon at the American consulate of the CIA evacuation.

I may be reading too much into a summer movie poster.

While I don't enjoy the jump-off-your-seat-horror, "Night of the Living Dead," "28 Days Later" type of zombie films, I do enjoy zombies as an allegory, such as in "The Walking Dead." That show is similar to "World War Z" (or what I know about it), which focuses on living characters reacting in a hostile post-apocalyptic environment, rather than running and shooting zombies Milla Jovovich-style. And when it seems like civilization is ending (which was the fall of Saigon seemed like to a large number of people), the ones still standing turn into a mindless hoard focused on one thing: survival. For the living, it's the way to keep on living. For the dead: it's brains.

Much like the book, and what I'm hoping the film will be, the "World War Z" poster is a reference to past failed wars and future wars. Not that I'm saying "World War Z" is an allegory for the Vietnam War in particular. It's an allegory for wars in general. And it's always fun to get a reference that may not be the most overt.

Enough about wars and death. Let's close on a more upbeat, Jonathan Coulton note.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

J-School, or Justifying My Questionable Financial Decision

I'm back from Dallas, from a very exhausting week of reporting on the 2013 TCG National Conference.

Background: TCG stands for Theatre Communications Group, a membership organization for non-profit theatres across the country and the publisher of "American Theatre" magazine (aka, where I work). During the week, besides getting trapped in the elevator of the Borg-like Dallas Theater Center headquarters (seriously, it's shaped like a cube), and getting to finally meet certain artists in person (shout-out Desdemona Chang, Tlaloc Rivas), I was struck by how very lucky I am to be able to write about an industry that I adore, and to see as much theatre (good and bad) that I want.

There are people going to school to do exactly what it is that I'm doing. And if I made it, others might, right?