¡Hola, mis amigos americanos! ¡Es el cuatro de Julio! ¡El día de la independencia! ¡Órale!
Last year at this time, I was down in my native land of Pike County, Illinois, watching things explode FOR AMERICA. This year, Minnesota has finally given me a reason to stick around for the nation's birthday, in the form of the first legal Sunday sales of alcohol in a century. Of course, I forgot to actually go to the liquor store on Sunday, because I was still hung over from celebrating the upcoming event the Saturday night before. God bless the USA!
Unfortunately, while Minnesota has become less of a stick in the mud about booze, the state still has the safety on when it comes to fireworks. What do you mean I can't buy a big ol' bag of quarter sticks of dynamite? As our great founding father Thomas Jefferson once said, "What is this, Soviet Russia?", to which the second President of these United States, John Adams, replied, "These colors don't run!" Then James Madison exclaimed "WOOOOOO!", and a great and beautiful nation was born. I would try to argue with Minnesota's stance on explosives, but the last time I tried that, the so-called judge informed me that my "Don't Tread on Me" t-shirt was "not a valid legal argument."
Anyway, as you gear up the grill for this year's massive meat explosion (or, for crunchy granola readers, this year's massive meat substitute explosion), enjoy these random bits of news that I couldn't squeeze into the rest of this week's narrative. Then enjoy the actual narrative, which will appear exactly as random and capricious as the following list, except that I was able to come up with transitional sentences that seem to tie them together.
(1) St. Paul's own Circus Juventas had some of their best and brightest students performing out in D.C. as part of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. I'm sure it was a swinging good time.
(2) The National Alliance for Musical Theatre just announced the lineup for their 29th annual Festival of New Musicals. Included in the list is The Passage by local performer/writer David Darrow, which got its premiere from 7th House Theater last year at the Guthrie.
(3) Last year on News and Notes, I blathered on incessantly about Emma Rice's firing from the Globe Theatre in London. Now that Rice's aborted tenure at Billy's house is almost done, she has announced her followup act: she's moving back to Cornwall to start a new theater company.
(4) And, finally, not all news can be good news: last week, St. Paul Ballet discovered that some jackanapes stole their touring trailer, in which was stored the dance floor that they take with them on the road. Since I can't imagine that a custom trailer housing rolls of dance flooring is an easy thing to unload, hopefully someone out there can give the police a tip on tracking it down.
In other completely and totally unrelated news, I have turned my garage into a brand new dance studio that you can rent, and I remind you that this has absolutely nothing to do with the previous story whatsoever. Nothing at all. If you have any nosy questions about it, I would like to direct you to the complex and nuanced legal theory on my t-shirt.
July 1 has come and gone, so that means that the 2017 Minnesota Fringe website is up and running. It's a new year, with a new executive director, and now you can finally see all the new stuff on tap for August.
Glancing through the full show list I was expecting to see a lot more shows with "Trump" in the title (since there were four last year, and he wasn't even President then), but it seems like these past six months of living in Bizarro America have ground the humor out of the situation. (As a recent New York Times review of a sketch comedy Trump satire piece said, "How can a satire possibly be more farcical or bizarre or outrageous than the president’s own words and actions? Spoiler alert: It can’t.") Instead, any political content we're getting this year seems to be just taking the Donald for granted and just going around him.
Of course, there is the usual smattering of "irreverence at the endtimes" shows (like The End of the World Sing-Along Hour and Songs for a Post-Apocalyptic World); but, we're going to be getting a fair amount of important political history lessons (like Themselves They Made Immaculate: Clara Barton at Andersonville, 1967, and [SHAMELESS SELF-PROMOTION ALERT] The Banana Wars). There's also an interesting pair of lookbacks to politicians who are now deified by their parties, but whose actual votes and actions might not hold up to the rigid litmus tests of our more dogmatic times (Wellstone: A Minnesota Musical and Ronald Reagan: Time Traveler). There are one-person shows that put the personal edge on the major anxieties of the times (like The Biscuiteater and A Resistor's Handbook); and there are a couple of adaptations of famous American novels whose previous political context might have a teensy bit of bearing on today (Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five and Sinclair Lewis' It Can't Happen Here).
I can only hope that some of these pieces that are commenting on the times without directly commenting on the times can make audience vomit, faint and get arrested like the adaptation of 1984 currently on Broadway; but if that's not your thing, you have plenty of other options. There's dance, comedy, drama, clown shows, whacko experimental work and, in what is actually a weird Fringe tradition, a Christmas-themed show.
Pay for play
Speaking of Fringe Festivals, the mother of all Fringes at Edinburgh has another stupid controversy on its hands this year. Recently, a new website not affiliated with the Edinburgh Fringe started offering to write reviews of Fringe shows for the low, low price of only £50 (that's about $65 in real money). Using the punctuationally-challenged tagline "IT IS NOT ABOUT THE REVIEWER IT IS ABOUT YOUR SHOW", edfringereviews.com was basically offering the same service that the Los Angeles theater magazine Bitter Lemons tried to roll out last year, except at half the the price.
It appears that this new site didn't know about the Bitter Lemons experiment or just chose to ignore it. Vanishingly few companies took up the offer in LA, and the online magazine's reputation was tarnished to the point that when its editor-in-chief published a victim-blaming rant about last year's Profiles Theater story, there was not enough good will left to save the publication. Even though Bitter Lemons' website still comes up and looks like it's active, they have not published any new content for almost a year.
So, it shouldn't be too surprising that bad press and complaints from theater producers from around the world caused the new Edinburgh site to call off their scheme. For now. The website now states "We were hoping to bring a new way of reviewing to Edinburgh this year but it seems that is going to be more complicated than we thought. So we will bring that in 2018."
Buckle up kids. The revised 2018 paywall will be coming sooner than you think.
The revolution will not be reviewed
The big thing driving these "pay for your review" schemes is cold, hard economics: there are fewer and fewer professional critics, and seemingly the same number of theater makers clamoring for reviews. At a certain point, the incentives shift the whole thing from a buyer's to a seller's market, so I would wager that you're going to be seeing a lot more of them coming down the pipe. $150 was too much cost, and companies still balked at $65, but eventually someone is going to offer them at a cheap enough price or at a prestigious enough publication that theater companies will start to have less of a moral quandary about taking them up on the offer.
Lord knows we're already taking enough exception with old-school theater critics as it is. This past week at The Stage, they released a flurry of opinion pieces about theater criticism, sparked by the above edfringereviews site and the recent Hedy Weiss controversy in Chicago (you know, the thing I wrote about last week and the week before and which I hope to never write about again). In writing about the Weiss situation Howard Sherman reminded everyone that it is impossible now for critics to pretend that they are disinterested, objective evaluators of technique:
"While critics may be first responsible to their own opinions, secondly to their audiences and perhaps then to those whom they write about, they are – I hope – in some fashion engaged in a dialogue. For that dialogue to have any benefit to any of the various constituencies involved, it is not helped when it starts from a place of disdain for fundamental beliefs."
Mark Shenton, responding to the would-be Edinburgh Fringe reviewers, looked into the future at the coming world of completely unpaid criticism, and saw it exacerbating the problems of privilege that we now decry with paid reviewers:
"Theatre criticism has become, like making theatre itself, a passion project: one that people want to do regardless of financial remuneration. And with theatre tickets being the price they are, the offer of a free ticket may be remuneration enough. We can't stop people working for free. But the problem with this is that it narrows the field to only those who can afford to do so; just as low paid or unpaid arts internships become the prerogative only of those who have other means of funding their living expenses; commentators and critics will only be drawn from people who have to work hard at other things – whether academics, accountants, lawyers or teachers – or not work at all, with parents who can fund the indulgence."
In the meantime, over at the Chicago Tribune, Chris Jones reminded me again why I think he's one of the best writers currently working as a professional critic. In a personal essay reflecting on Hedy Weiss and on taking his son to see the show that she is currently in hot water for reviewing, Jones came to the realization that Bob Dylan warned us about decades ago: the times, they are a'changing. Where Jones had trouble reconciling his old-school ideal of the remote and erudite critic with the calls for critics to be down in the trenches, diverse and socially engaged, he realized that his young son had no such problem with crossing that divide: "Young people don't just want to talk about our culture, they want to be engaged in the storytelling and, most definitely, in the process of judgment."
For Jones, Weiss and everyone else married to the former model of theater reviewing, this is all as sad and elegiac as it must have been for the workers at the last slide rule factory. But, lest you get mired down in sadness, let me remind you of two things: (1) today is the day that you get to set off explosions in the streets while half-drunk and no one particularly cares, so rejoice!; and (2) the state of criticism in the arts is a result of shifts in culture, and the weird thing about culture is that it is malleable and cyclical. Though it is not about criticism at all, I would like to leave you with a recent article from American Theatre Magazine about the shifting cycles of theater architecture through the ages. Though the exact forms never come around again, with remarkable regularity, the paradigms shift to an age of seeming chaos, where artists are allowed to improvise their way to the next accepted standard. Those moments of chaos are where the real innovation happens, and I would guess that's where we are right now.
So, get out there and think of something new, theater critics. Otherwise, you'll be out there on the streets at the Fringe, hawking reviews for spare change.