12 Artistic Criteria

  • Posted on: 28 August 2012
  • By: Tony

Last week Harvard Business Review posted an intriguing article, "Every Leader is an Artist."  The basic premise is fundamentally flawed, but it's intriguing nonetheless. 

O'Malley argues "leadership is an actual art, not metaphorically an art." And he follows it up saying, "While people may disagree about the quality of a given work of art, we generally know how to communicate our experience of what we've seen or heard."

Both of which strike me as problematic.  While there is an art to leadership, a leader is not an artist--except for in a metaphorical sense. Unless he's using leader is an artist in the same sense as a con artist is an artist, which I don't assume he is. There are many parallels to be drawn between leaders and artists. There are also many parallels that can be drawn between great leaders and great athletes. However, would anyone say every leader is an athlete? 

The second fatal flaw in O'Malley's premise is the assumption that we know how to communicate our experiences. As a whole we--artists, critics, audiences--generally are at a loss when we try to communicate our experience of what we've seen or heard, especially when faced with works that are not wholly familiar to us. That's probably a couple books in itself.

With familiar works, Shakespeare being the granddaddy of them all, it's easy. There is a massive amount of context provided for us and we can just compare pieces of each production to other productions and other parts of the cannon. As a whole, we are much better with comparison than with comprehension. When we can't simply compare and contrast, we generally lack the context, clarity, curiosity and criteria for evaluating a work. 

Ok, so the basic premise of O'Malley's post is problematic. However, O'Malley suggests 12 artistic criteria for judging the art of particular leaders. This is what intrigues me about O'Malley's post.  I wonder how well these criteria would function for judging the work of an artist? Obviously some tweaks would need to be made, striking the language specific to business.  With a few slight modifications, it could read:

So let me suggest 12 artistic criteria for judging the work of particular artists. To appreciate their art, we should ask about its ...

  1. Intent. Do they make an express commitment to achieve certain exceptional ends?

  2. Focus. Do they highlight certain features of the world over others to separate the important from the trivial?

  3. Skill. Do they demonstrate mastery or virtuosity in critical aspects of their work; do they possess a foundation for understanding people, communities, and the way work is created?

  4. Form. Do they combine their aesthetics, structures, politics, etc. into a unified, coherent whole?

  5. Representation. Do they convey meanings, in nonobvious and captivating ways, as opposed to giving simple directives and making straightforward declarations of fact?

  6. Imagination. Do they make surprising and unconventional departures from the ordinary that create a new sense of awareness or understanding?

  7. Authenticity. Do they present a stylistic distinctiveness that is an honest expression of their individuality and personal beliefs?

  8. Engagement. Do they offer complex and challenging information that stimulates intellectual effort and imaginative contemplation?

  9. Pleasure. Do they provide emotionally rewarding experiences that are shared among members of an audience, promoting stronger bonds and fostering personal fulfillment?

  10. Human significance. Do they facilitate personal reflection about who one is, what is most important, what is culturally valuable, and what is possible?

  11. Context. Do they create work that is in conversation with other practices, customs, and artists, and communicate in a style that is understandable and appropriate?

  12. Criticism. Do they welcome discourse and evaluation from others regarding how well they have performed and the amount of appreciation they should be afforded?

What do you think? How would these criteria work as a template for evaluating artists and their works? What criteria would/do you use?

Tlaloc’s 101 F*ck Yeah Plays

A couple of months ago, a blogger posted a list of 101 (supposedly) kick-ass plays.

I looked at the list and it absolutely bored me to death. That is to say, if a theater company had a 100-play season and these were the plays they had chosen, about half of them I would've just passed on. Some of the them were great. Many were not. Nearly all of them were written exclusively by dead, Anglo, male writers.

It is interesting to note that, at this moment, many regional and LORT theater's are announcing their season - and if you were to combine their selections, it would have resembled this list.

It may be too late to throw my hat it, but I created my own list. This list was created by the CORAJE (it's a Spanish word that really doesn't have an English equivalent) I was feeling about what people seem to believe is "kick-ass".

"Kick-ass" is a American term - and thusly, many of the plays here are and by American writers. But I also want to reclaim "Kick-ass" in the name of diversity, of feminism, and other underrepresented voices in the theater.

You will find that the many of the Greeks and Shakespeare are not on this list - however some remain and other plays are inspired by those works. It is my belief that contemporary works that allude to or are inspired by the classisc are often the best bridge to the original works. Because I'm professional director as well as an educator, this would be a list I would give a freshman in college and tell them, "This is a list of 101 plays you must read ... before you I hand you your degree".

There are some personal tastes reflected in this initial list. You will not find Six Characters nor No Exit on this list - because I can't stand them personally. And you will not find any Restoration plays here - no one has been able to convince me they're any good, and I've never seen a good production of them ... yet.

So here is my list. It's a list every artistic director, literary office, actors, directors, dramaturgs and educators should know about. Or, like I said earlier, its a list I would give to the prospective theater student as they begin their journey.

And when they graduate - I am going to hand them the next 101 plays and say, "Go to."

Any theatres that might be reading, these are also plays you should be looking at. 

Tlaloc’s 101 F*ck Yeah Plays

1. Accidental Death of an Anarchist
2. Alchemy of Desire/Dead Man’s Blues
3. American Buffalo
4. Angels in America, Part I
5. Arcadia
6. The Beauty Queen of Leenane
7. The Blacks
8. Blasted
9. Blood Knot
10. Blood Wedding
11. blu
12. The Brothers Size
13. Buried Child
14. The Chairs
15. The Cherry Orchard
16. Cloud Tectonics
17. The Colored Museum
18. The Conduct of Life
19. The Cripple of Inishmann
20. Death & The Maiden
21. Death of a Salesman
22. The Devils (Egloff)
23. A Doll’s House
24. The Dumb Waiter
25. The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity
26. Electricidad
27. The Emperor Jones
28. Endgame
29. The Exonerated
30. F.O.B.
31. Fires in the Mirror
32. Fool for Love
33. For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide…
34. Fuente Ovejuna
35. Funnyhouse of a Negro
36. The Good Person of Szechuan
37. The Great White Hope
38. Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde
39. “The Hairy Ape”
40. Happy Days
41. Hedda Gabler
42. Heroes & Saints
43. The House of Bernarda Alba
44. The Homecoming
45. Insurrection: Holding History
46. Jesus Hopped the “A” Train
47. Joe Turner’s Come & Gone
48. Kaspar (Handke)
49. King Hedley II
50. Kiss of the Spider Woman (Puig)
51. Krapp’s Last Tape
52. A Lie of the Mind
53. Life is a Dream
54. Look Back in Anger
55. Loot
56. Lorca in a Green Dress
57. M. Butterfly
58. Mad Forest
59. Marat/Sade
60. The Marriage of Figaro (Beaumarchais)
61. “Master Harold”…and the Boys
62. The Misanthrope
63. Miss Julie
64. Mother Courage and Her Children
65. Mud
66. Oedipus El Rey
67. Playboy of the Western World
68. Porcelain (Yew)
69. Pygmalion
70. A Raisin In The Sun
71. The Rover
72. Ruined
73. Santos & Santos
74. Saturday Night, Sunday Morning
75. The Servant of Two Masters
76. Short Eyes
77. Six Degrees of Separation
78. Skin (Iizuka)
79. Songs of the Dragon Flying to Heaven
80. Spring Awakening
81. Statements After An Arrest Under The Immorality Act
82. Still Life
83. Streamers
84. A Streetcar Named Desire
85. That Pretty, Pretty; or The Rape Play
86. Through the Leaves
87. Topdog/Underdog
88. Translations
89. Trial by Water (Nguyen)
90. The Trickster of Seville (Molina)
91. Trifles
92. Trouble In Mind
93. Under Milkwood
94. The Visit
95. Waiting for Godot
96. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
97. Woyzeck
98. Yankee Dawg You Die
99. Yellowman
100. The Zoo Story
101. Zoot Suit
Bengal Tiger in a Bagdad Zoo
Elliot, a Soldier's Fugue
Exit, Pursued By A Bear
Force Continuum
Kita y Fernanda
Last of the Suns
Vilna’s Got A Golem

Landscapes and Plays

  • Posted on: 8 February 2012
  • By: Tony

la nebbia di settembreFlickr

Following up on Jenn's blog about bread making and theatre, I thought I'd post the quote we were talking about from Caridad. (full text is here, subscription required)

Much has been written about the writer’s relationship to landscape (tangible, physical, specific, geographic) as well as the internal terrain of emotions, memories, erasures, sensations, etc. Both (and more) come into play when you are writing a text for performance. For example, there are some plays I have written directly inspired by a place or city or series of cities where I have been. Other plays have been created out of scraps of places encountered: an invented landscape. Whether drawing directly from a site or making a site out of others the places where your play lives (inside the world of the play) are always, in the end, invented/made up. It cannot help but be so because in the act of making a play you are  already involved in a process of transformation.

Some plays are governed more by landscape than others. For instance, in Landscape and Theatre, Elinor Fuchs and Una Chaudhuri speak eloquently about the way many of the “language playwrights” (Mac  Wellman, Suzan-Lori Parks, Ruth Margraff, Matthew Maguire, Len Jenkin, Erik Ehn) are truly “landscape playwrights.” Their use of language is topographical, expansive, physical, and demands embodiment in a different manner than say, the work of more “interior” playwrights like Christopher Shinn, Rebecca Gilman, Neil LaBute, and so forth. It is true that plays are always, ultimately, in the here of place. Whether we call it Illyria, Athens, or Chicago, the here is always the theatre space itself. Some writers use the theatre as their only space: a space without necessary referents. But even some of the  wiliest of self-referents will occasionally refer to another Here in the here, so that the theatre space is always doubled or tripled in perspective.

Maria Irene Fornes, Federico García Lorca, Tennessee Williams, Sam Shepard, and other poets of the theatre have understood how to make the landscapes of their plays, which merge direct referents with personal identifications and disidentifications, resonate within them and at their best extend outside them. So, for instance, New Orleans will always contain A Streetcar Named Desire and the California desert will always contain the warrior brothers in True West.

What is the map we see inside the blank page? What are the maps we make when we write? What is their essential geography? And what new points do we make on the larger, global map when we write a play?


photo courtesy of artistica2004

Ginkas on Mamet

  • Posted on: 1 February 2012
  • By: Tony

I was rereading Provoking Theatre: Kama Ginkas Directs, and I happened to read a section of it that talks of Mamet, just around the time I was watching Race. Ginkas points his finger on a lot of what I don't like about Mamet's work. I wanted to share it and get your thoughts. (This section of the book is in the form of interview between John Freedman and Ginkas)

(John Freedman) I would like to quote from True and False, David Mamet's book on acting. It is a clear, straightforward polemic with Stanislavsky that is as easy to take issue with as it is to agree with it. In one place he writes, "The only reason to rehearse is to learn to perform the play. It is not to 'explore the meaning of the play' -- the play, for the actor, has no meaning beyond its performance." He follows that up by stating that rehearsal "is not to 'investigate the life of the character.' There is no character. There are just lines on the page."

This, it seems to me, is diametrically opposed to Russian theatre in general, and to your theatre in specific.

(Kama Ginkas) Well, Mamet may be an actor, too, but it is obvious a playwright wrote those sentences. That is a sore spot of an author who wrote words that are never spoken as he wrote them. Not because the actors are falsifying him, but because he wrote a specific intonation into his play. A bad writer will do this. You can always hear in their characters the specific intonation the author is trying to give them. But the surest way to a lousy production is to perform in the intonation the author wants. That is guaranteed failure.

Mamet's utterance reveals the painful complexities of an author who is never satisfied with the intonations his text is gives. When he says "play the text," he means, "I have given you the intonation, now just reproduce it."

When he says there is no character, that is a comment on the level of his plays. This is, of course, a case of arrogance on my part because I do not know all of his plays and I am taking it upon myself to pass judgment. But the works of his that I do know are "well-made plays." Neatly built texts in which there are no characters, no living people. There are lines and punchlines that must be spoken as written and then you wait for the audience to laugh or fall silent. He wants the spectator to heed the text.

That, in his opinion, is the key strength of his plays. In my opinion, the key strength of a play, his included, lies in the extent to which the author taps into a living person. Mamet is a talented writer. As such, from time to time, he scratches the surface of humans, of lifelike situations, captures the living language in which people speak. When he does, his characters are, to a proper extent, alive. They are not as alive as Shakespeare's characters, or Chekhov's. But they are alive enough for the American public, which does not like stylizations, to see in them a reflection of themselves. They are written for a public that wishes to see its own reflection. (76-77)


"Not A Chinaman's Chance"


From Wikipedia

The expression a Chinaman's chance means someone has no chance at all of accomplishing or successfully doing an action.

The original phrase, from the California gold rush, was that one had only a Chinaman's Chance in Hell, but it morphed through usage into its current state.

1. History

The historical context of the phrase comes from the old railroad and Goldrush days of pre-California, where many Chinese came to work as laborers for the First Transcontinental Railroad, especially the Central Pacific Railroad. In this employ, they were sought out for the demanding and dangerous jobs involving explosives, often for half the pay of the Mexican workers. Yet the Chinese faced higher taxes, denials of citizenship and could not testify in court for violence against them.

2. Clouded origins

The Chinaman's chance originated from the early 19th century potentially from several events. One explanation is that at that time, Chinese migrant workers in the U.S. were sent into mines and construction sites to ignite dynamite, potentially with disastrous consequences. They were also lowered over cliffs by rope and boatswain's chairs to set dynamite to clear mountain and other obstructions to make way for the railroad construction. In this work, if they were not lifted back up before the blast, serious injury or death would result. Therefore the phrase a "A Chinaman's Chance" may have been coined in this context.

Another explanation for the phrase is the California Gold Rush 1849. The travel time for news of the gold rush to reach China was quite long, and by the time Chinese from China arrived to prospect, many of the rich mines were already taken. These Chinese immigrants who missed out time-wise had to work with only those lands which had already been exploited or which were rejected by others, meaning these "Chinamen" had a slim chance of success. The historical record, however, indicates that many Chinese combined efforts with each other and did very well in the goldfields, introducing mining techniques then unknown to non-Chinese.

According to Nothing Like It in the World by Stephen Ambrose, his book on building the railroad, the phrase was cemented by murders of Chinese that were condoned by state law. "In 1854, in a case heard in Nevada County, George W. Hall was convicted of murdering a Chinese man. On appeal to the State Supreme Court the decision was overturned because all of the evidence against him was from Chinese individuals."




I've had the honor to serve as the dramaturg on two of the three productions comprising the "Summer of David Henry Hwang," the other being Silk Road Theatre Project's production of Yellow Face. As a high school and college student, my discovery of Hwang's plays led to another, more personal discovery of my own ethnic background. Being half-Filipino, I had never considered myself to have had what some may call a "typical" Asian American upbringing, and the playwright's description of having undergone an "isolationist/nationalist" phase, in which you reclaim your cultural heritage and identity, fueled my own.

Needless to say, Hwang's work has been pretty important to me.

Having gone through the process of working on Yellow Face, re-reading Family Devotions was an odd experience for me. The newer play is an excoriation of identity politics and the multicultural movement. It undermines the notion of an inborn, essential cultural or ethnic identity. Marcus, the white fraud masquerading as an Asian, says to DHH, "David, are you familiar with the Chinese concept of 'face?' Basically, it says that the face we choose to show the world--reveals who we really are." This concept contrasts with the previously held assertion that Asian Americans needed to rally around an agreed-upon racial identity in order to stake a place in America. Marcus's notion actually aligns well with a Japanese saying (which I admit to have gotten from watching Mad Men): "A man is whatever room he's in."

How strange it was, then, to revisit the now thirty year-old Family Devotions, in which Di-gou, the uncle from the PRC, says to young Chinese American Chester,

"There are faces back further than you can see. Faces long before the white missionaries arrived in China. Here. [He holds CHESTER's violin so that its back is facing CHESTER, and uses it as a mirror.] Look here. At your face. Study your face and you will see--the shape of your face is the shape of faces back many generations--across an ocean, in another soil. You must become one with your family before you can hope to live away from it. [...] The stories written on your face are the ones you must believe."

Here is a much younger David Henry Hwang, telling me--reminding me--to take heed of what has come before me, that where I come from matters, even if I have to do some work figuring out where I came from. That those things define who I am. This is the very idea that modern day Hwang now dismisses. But is it any less valid? I don't think so. Family Devotions may be the product of the bygone multicultural era, but that doesn't means its insights are moot. Can I be who- and whatever I want to be? Sure. But can where I come from and the color of my skin also inform that? Also sure. This is America, dammit.


On Plot

  • Posted on: 26 April 2011
  • By: Tony
As with narrative, when I hear artists bemoan plot, I see confusion. Just as you cannot create a theatrical work devoid of narrative, you can not create one without plot.
Something happens onstage. Another thing happens. There is a series of events. Recounting/performing these events for an audience, is narrative. The order the events are recounted in, the arrangement and order of how the events and actions are performed is the plot. 
I know it is often confused with Aristotilian-based theatre traditions. Plot is often conflated with the classical unities, mixed and rehashed as the well-made play a la Eugène Scribe, William Archer, and George Pierce Baker. Plot is often confused with realism or naturalism. None of these are accurate. Plot is a simple thing.
Aristotle in his Poetics tries to define perfection in poetry, perfection in tragedy. He makes subjective aesthetic choices about how plots should be constructed. How the pieces should be arranged, from what sources, etc. As to what plot is:
You can’t remove plot from performance, just as you can’t remove narrative. Narrative is the recounting of events-the pieces; Plot is how those pieces are arranged. Plot is the thread that ties the various pieces together to become a play. There are numerous combinations that can be crafted from infinite sources, depending on your aesthetic and cultural preferences; however, no works are free from plot or narrative. They are merely particles of performance.

On Narrative

  • Posted on: 25 April 2011
  • By: Tony

A while back I was at a convening at a Tony-Award winning theatre. As we were discussing new plays and what can be done for foster them, I said that I would love to see more discussions on different aesthetic approaches. The associate artistic director of the theatre where the convening was being held, who was co-moderator of the gathering, looked up, "Well, that's hard."

End of discussion, new topic.

When I was younger, I thought aesthetic conversations were hard because artists just didn't want to take the time. As I get older I wonder if having aesthetic conversations is hard because we no longer know how?

I've been thinking of that a lot since. I was reminded of it when I came across this article that Travis Bedard shared on twitter at the #2amt hashtag. (Issac weighs in here as well.)

The political problems that narrative throws up are not so tough to recognize. Narratives must have   beginning, a middle, and an end. They must have a “controlling idea”, one main point (moral) we can take from the series of events that have unfolded. And they must have consistent characters with easily described natures – cowardly but kind, or irrational and insincere, for example. (Once a crook always a crook, etc. How much does this say for rehabilitation?) Narratives are psychologically comforting because they provide resolution, and often impose a logic onto a frustratingly fluid reality. As anybody who has ever had to edit a play or story can tell you, narratives are highly selective, shamelessly omitting facts and events in search of a coherent story. This is all well and good for Oscar bait – but when these rules are applied to a political situation (as in the media they often are) the omissions and cuts are real people with real experiences.

There's a lot I find problematic about the article. We have been telling complex, fluid narratives for thousands of years.  It also mistakes the nature of how many ways stories can be told. For ex. classical Indian dance could be written off as a rejection of story by someone unfamiliar with it when it's actually a highly complex, codified mode of storytelling. There is no set structure that narrative takes, let alone the extraordinarily narrow framework that Pearson claims narrative “must have”.

It reminds me of many conversations I've heard about narrative works vs. non-narrative works. Those conversations always make me cringe. I've seen and read thousands of works spanning all but one continent. (If there was ever a play written in Antarctica, I'd love to read it, if for no other reason than I could say “on every continent”) I have never seen or read a work devoid of narrative.

...most pieces I have seen seem to lie at one of two extremes – well made plays that place Story above all else, or performance and dance pieces that reject storytelling entirely. And then there are those pieces that sit somewhere in the middle – juggling the difficult job of telling a story while not telling a story, aware of narrative without pandering to it blindly. Two pieces that come to mind are Tim Crouch’s The Author and Ridiculusmus’ Tough Time, Nice Time. Both of these pieces have serious beef with narrative, and yet skillfully play its game.

Narrative is a recounting of events. It's the very nature of performance. Too often formal and aesthetic traits of aristotelian-based modes of performance get lumped together as "narrative" But that is inaccurate.  Pearson, among many others, confuses form and structure for narrative.

You cannot have a work of performance free from narrative. Something happens. That is an event. Our brains are hard wired to create them even if they may not exist. Even if you were hypothetically able to create a performance in a laboratory, where nothing happened. There were no events. The act of performing that work before an audience would create its own narrative.

We speak so infrequently of aesthetics as a field that our terms are a copy of a copy of a discussion, and we conflate aesthetic approaches with basic building blocks of story.

Ah story. Another one that's usually conflated. Story is not narrative, and story is not plot. They are connected but not interchangable.

More on that to come. Hopefully this is not the end of the conversation.

On White Space

  • Posted on: 13 April 2011
  • By: Tony

Yesterday, Polly Carl shared a link via twitter to a story that I loved, "White Space, Green Space: The Narrative of the City" Read it.

A couple parts got me thinking about the stage:

White space on the page is a breath, a break in the walls of gray text. Rather than the absence of content, white space gives meaning. It can propel the narrative forward, pause the narrative, open up a passage or a scene, invite the reader in. The reader enters the text through the white space and participates in the aesthetic process.


In the narrative of the city, the breath, the “respite from traffic and the sound of other voices” is in the green space. As a city resident, my imaginative act is to “alter my perception” and create a new definition of green space for Warren Park.

What is the stage version of white space? What takes the form of a breath for an audience member?

I wonder if 90 one-act formula tends to strip the stage of white space as it were? I don't know if jokes, while often tension releasing, are really white space. On the other hand, I think many musicals--especially those whose books are simply an excuse to get from song to song--are 90% whitespace. Also less than ideal.

I wonder if there's something we could rediscover from form of melodramas? Musical interludes etc. as white space?

I know, I'm supposed to be all, "melodramas, eww. They're terrible." But there is little terrible about the form. What is melodrama?  The word is borrowed from the French, mélodrame. Which in turn borrows from the greek melos, song--and the word for drama.  A melodrama is a play with songs.

Webster online has a pretty handy learners dictionary, for people learning English. It gives simple definitions of words. They have this for melodrama: "drama in which many exciting events happen and the characters have very strong or exaggerated emotions." That doesn't seem like a bad thing to me; exciting things, with strong emotions.

Most of what we tend to think is melodramatic, bad acting, shallow stock characters arent really the form, they're results of the historical era they lived in. But people loved them. They still do. I had a critic once tell me that August: Osage County was just a really tight melodrama, without the interludes. It wasn't meant to be an insult, either. he loved the show.

Either way, melodrama has plenty of whitespace. And often that whitespace is really enjoyable. Music, audiences openly reacting to characters onstage, etc. A lot of post-modern styled folks often use anachronistically random pop-songs, dance breaks etc, (read: fun) in a similar manner.

What do we have for white space in more mainstream theatres? The theatre that is seen by the most people? Have we pushed it aside in favor of an arbitrary running time? Does lack of white space make a work less enjoyable, as lack of green space makes a city less enjoyable? Are there other forms of white space I'm missing?

What do you think?