What's better than 10?
Here we are again, staring down the barrel of another new year. Have you made your resolutions yet? How good of you! Have you placed bets on how long you'll stick with them? I know I have. I've got 20-1 odds against you fitting in that outfit by the time spring rolls around.
So, let's get on with the obligatory reflection of the past year. And since this is the internet, let's do it with lists!
Two weeks ago on News and Notes, we saw the first of the year-end "best of theatre" lists come out, John Townsend's "2015 Theater Year in Review". It's been traditional for the media to structure these things as "top ten" lists, but as I pointed out last week, this roundup at Lavender strained that old format by cramming 12 entries into a "top 10" by way of a three-way tie for the coveted #10 spot.
Since then, we've started to see more publications pump out their end-of-the-year "best-of" lists, and I've been seeing them strain to get out from under the yoke of the dreaded number 10. The folks at Minnpost's Artscape put together a list of their favorite 25 arts-related things. (Don't worry, theater people. You are represented there.) The Star Tribune had Rohan Preston put together his "top ten" list, but also piled on Graydon Royces's "top ten". Combined, you might call that a "top 20", except they both liked a couple of the same shows, so it's really more of a "top 18". (You dancers out there, however, get one traditional list of 10.)
And then there are the "Artist of the Year" awards. They don't have to pertain to theater per se, but theater people are cleaning up on them so far this year. City Pages' list for 2015 includes Guthrie veteran Mark Benninghofen and the ensemble theater group Transatlantic Love Affair, as well as dancer Karla Grotting. The Star Tribune's one big 2015 Artist of the Year award went to director Peter Rothstein, and they threw in a runner-up award for performer Sha Cage.
In the few days we have before 2015 gives up the ghost to the stronger, faster and much more modern 2016, I'm sure we'll see more "top [insert numeral here]" lists. In the meantime, I wish you all luck in recognition season and hope that you can finally find the validation you're looking for in a critic putting you on a list. Even if you don't get that, please know that you're all in my personal "top ten" list, dear theater people; it's just that several thousand of you are tied for tenth place.
This thing called News and Notes
So, we're still staring down the barrel of the new year. Only it's another barrel. 2016 is actually a double-barreled year, with a fast, single-trigger design and a tang-mounted automatic safety, and, boy, this metaphor has gone off the rails quickly. Sorry. I'm under a lot of pressure to put together another News and Notes "year-in-review" article like I did last year or even like I did at the end of 2013 despite the fact that I had only been writing this blog for a few months by that point.
Thankfully, I had last week off from writing this column, so I had a chance to get away from the ravenous horde of readers all clamoring for another news-packed edition (three people counts as a horde, right?), so I had time to look re-read all 50 heart-stopping, spine-shattering, overly-adjectived entries from this blog in 2015. My hands-down favorite was also the longest piece I've ever written for Minnesota Playlist, "Reports from Fringe central", a blow-by-blow account of the night-life at the Minnesota Fringe's drinking headquarters. It included no actual news, but it did get me introductions to quite a number of Bollywood dancers, as well as one or two cryptic comments from servers. It did not, however, get me any free drinks, so let's work on that for next year, people.
As for the rest of the articles… well, it was all pretty much downhill from there. Just another year of my frantic and impotent rants disappearing into the howling gale that is internet commentary. Last year I wrapped up 2014 by listing my favorite things that I had written about. Let's shut down 2015 by revisiting the things that will probably affect us all again in 2016, since, after all, time is actually one unbroken string of cause and effect, and a year is just an arbitrary and often misleading way of dicing it up for ease of digestion.
So, here, in no particular order, are my Top Five Things We Talked About This Year That We'll Wind Up Talking About Next Year (Admittedly, it's an awkward award title):
The great Shakespeare death party
A great philosopher once said "Jazz isn't dead. It just smells funny." (I think it was Aristotle). Well, the same might be said about our old friend, Bill.
As we talked about recently, the theater world is pulling out all the deodorizers in preparation for the grand party that is the 450th anniversary of William Shakespeare's death.
You might not remember this, because Western civilization has a near-goldfish-level of actual memory, but we just went through this Shakespeare anniversary hype in 2014 when we clamored to celebrate his 400th birthday. Now that we're going to be doing it all over again in 2016, please remember that, no matter how talented he was, William Shakespeare was just one man in the long history of theater, and we should not let his shadow cast a pall on the rest of our world. Also, he royally screwed over Richard III. Never forget.
Not just another labor dispute
I never thought I'd see the day when a group of workers would be fighting their own union for lower wages, but here we are. The ongoing dispute over Actors Equity's 99-seat plan for Los Angeles actually began in 2014 when AEA's leadership decided to revisit the long-standing agreement that ended LA's so-called "Waiver Wars" of the late 1980s; but it was a consistent smoldering fire through 2015, and a damn confusing one at that.
A normal labor dispute pits workers against bosses in a fight for better conditions, benefits or pay, but here we find union members battling their own union for the right to not be paid minimum wage; and that's only the first confounding thing about this fight. There have been so many more: AEA ignoring an overwhelming vote of its LA members against plan changes; union members picketing their own headquarters; the union getting a full slate of new leadership and still going forward with plan changes; union members filing (but not serving) a lawsuit. And the fight isn't over yet. If the previous Waiver Wars are any indication, it's just getting started.
Now, you're probably thinking, "I don't live in LA. Why should I care?" and normally I would endorse that statement wholeheartedly; but this current fight is about more than LA. Labor unions in general have been weakening in the US for a while, as has AEA's ability to guarantee the actors it represents anything even in vaguely the same neighborhood as a living wage. Whatever happens in LA, it will have ripple effects in the rest of the country.
The past doesn't go away
The ongoing lawsuit against Children's Theatre Company and a few former employees over sexual misconduct with former students is the toughest thing I've had to write about this year. Unfortunately, it's just getting started.
I'm sure we all wish there would be a quick and easy resolution to this, but as we are learning from the also-ongoing sex abuse case against the Boy Scouts, and as we definitely should have learned from the case against the local Catholic archdiocese, there probably won't be.
There is one issue I have talked about more in News and Notes in 2015 than any other: diversity. As our nation comes to grips with the fact that straight white men are not actually in the majority, we're struggling, slowly but surely, to try to rebuild our theater industry so that it somewhat reflects that. It's been a rocky road, full of terrible missteps and well-meaning but probably unworkable solutions. It may seem like an intractable situation, but sometimes people get it just a little right and sometimes the side for change wins just a little. And a little bit of change here and there does add up over time. I may be mad at the Tonys for not showing women cleaning up in the awards this year, but I can't deny the fact that women did clean up at the awards this year.
I feel like we're turning a corner on diversity in theater, at least in the big leagues. Broadway is all about it this year, and it's actually driving ticket sales. Big regional theaters like Oregon Shakespeare Festival have been making valiant efforts in diversity and seeing big dividends. Since this is America, it's a pretty safe bet that those dollar signs are going to accelerate change for everyone else.
But, if you need awards and big damn historic events to know that something is changing, wait until next year, because Hamilton will be eligible for the Tony awards. And, in an even more historic event, the stage version of Hermione Granger is black and most people aren't really complaining. Progress!
The times they are a' changing
2015 was the high-tide moment for a big generational shift in leadership in Minnesota. Our theater organizations are by and large shuffling out the last of the leaders left from the Baby Boomers and pumping in new blood. It has the potential to be the biggest shift in the theater landscape since the the '60s and '70s, if everyone is playing their cards right.
While most of the media attention has been on the new Joe over at the Guthrie, I really think the places to watch are the small and mid-sized legacy organizations like the Jungle, which can move more nimbly without the epic weight of an absurdly expensive building and a stodgy, highfalutin' legacy. Hopefully, our new theater leaders will have the courage and foresight to make the changes necessary to keep theater interesting and relevant to the next generation of theater-goers.
If not, I guess we'll get together in another 40 years or so and change them all out again.
The most important lesson of all
So, that was 2015, I guess. Good year, everyone. Let's do it again next year.
But, let's not forget the most important lesson we learned this year. (And it's not even from me.) Before we head into the season of trying and usually failing to be better versions of ourselves, I would like to share with you again. Earlier this year, a whole lot of angry internet people slammed down at once on Words Players, a children's theater company here in Minnesota. I don't really want to rehash that fight again, but I would like to take this opportunity to post one more time blogger Travis Bedard's monumentally humane response, "On Being Right". As we head into another year where we're probably going to be getting righteously angry about something, Bedard has the most important lesson to take forward with you:
"Our being right doesn’t make our every action right."
Or, if you clicked on that link and decided it was tl;dr material, then at least remember Wheaton's Law, OK?