Sunday, March 19, 2006

The War Project: 9 Acts of Determination

Sojourn Theatre
March 19, 2006; closes April 15, 2006

Sojourn stages some of Portland’s most thoughtful theatre. Several stinging scenes riled up heedful documentary, ultimately reclaiming/demanding positive attributes of “didactic,” “rhetorical,” “instructive.” Forgoing story structure was chancy, possibly heretical, but meta-staging issue-related discourse yielded no less compelling conversation. Signature interpretive gesticulations somewhat distracting. Wished for less presentation, more immersion.


Anonymous said...

War Project was more or less worthless. Focusing on an unanswerable question akin to: "What is life?" or "How does government work?," Sojourn set off on the wrong foot from the beginning asking "How, as a nation, do we decide what to kill and die for?" It's either completely unanswerable or the answer is boring: We elect officials. They make decisions for us. Soldiers kill and die based on those decisions.

Either way, the theatrical answer to this question was no more interesting than the preceding textual answer.

Muddled structure (where’s the climax?) and a wash of boring, re-hacked ideas equals a play that I just didn't care about. They're confused, I'm confused. Woo hoo. That much could have been established in a ten minute conversation over coffee.

Sojourn style of direct address and 'neutral mask'/intense focus is unnatural, distracting, and ultimately distances because I don't trust what I'm seeing as real. I’ll take it one step further: It’s lying on stage. When stylistic choices allow performers to hide the truth from the audience, they are bad choices. As for the gestures: they make a good backdrop for strong ideas and strong playwriting, but they do little to substantiate a play devoid of these essential elements. This was such a play.

I like Sojourn’s work, but it’s time to shake it up a little bit. It might also be time to consider “How, as theatre artists, do we decide what we can and can’t impact with our art?”

Dan said...

Wow, anonymous, that was great. This was not just a review. It was well-though out criticism, and that is something desperately lacking right now, so I have to say it was very refreshing. I may not be able to agree with your statements, well because I have not seen the show, but I think even people who disagree with your statement will have to give you credit for making a very solid, cogent argument. It's too bad you posted anonymously though because I'd love to chat with you about other theatre you've seen. I admire your intelligent point of view even if I cannot say the same for bravery (maybe one day though).

Anonymous said...

Dan- I would love to chat with you about theatre. It's one of my most favorite things to do. You're right; there is a huge need for more criticism as evinced by the lack of quality theatre. I would love to see a critic so powerful that he could shut bad theatre down with a bad review. That is true checks and balances. (Of course part of that is having an equally powerful alternative critic that could keep that same show going with a positive review. At least long enough for popular approval to decide if the play is worth anything.) I'd also LOVE to hear from other people about this show.

Follow Spot said...

Anonymous: I disagree that unanswerable questions are not good fodder for good theatre. I mean, exploration of an idea can be just as valid as a clear message, and especially when there's an acknowledgment that there may be more than one answer to the question at hand.

I couldn't agree more, however, with your closing notion: “How, as theatre artists, do we decide what we can and can’t impact with our art?”

If there's any trend in Portland theatre that gets under my skin more this season is when I keep coming back to the question -- "Why did they choose this play? Why this? Why now? What is the timeliness? What is the relevancy? What is at stake here?" or, more importantly, "Why should I care about this?" and other random flights of thought that follow. I'm not saying there isn't thinking behind play choices, but the raison d'etre isn't always self-evident -- and maybe it doesn't have to be -- but unclear or less-than-compelling communication about why a work is important is a weak link in Portland theatre. And I don't mean just marketing; this goes for what the production itself communicates as well as reviews/criticism.

Anonymous said...

As a practitioner, I have a lot of conflicted feelings about some of the comments herein expressed. First, a critic powerful enough to shut down a show? Wow. I don't know, did that make Broadway better in the 80's? Did Steffen Silvis (admittedly not that powerful) change theatre in Portland for the better? Did he even succeed (rumour has it he attempted)in getting Triangle's grant funding pulled? Secound, on the importance or relevance of a piece, a friend made a great comment the other night, the said "I love French New Wave cinema, but I also look forward to one day having Die Hard in my DVD collection." The fact that we are entertainers as well as artists should never be overlooked, and I beleive it's always okay to err more towards one or the other. Although, having said that, the chances of me being entertained by another big budget production of The Fantasticks is pretty slim.

Dan said...

I would never hope that a good piece of criticism would shut down a show. I don't think good criticism should ever be meant to disuade attendance. It should be designed to open a dialogue about what the production means to our lives now and what it will mean on a grander scale as we build the future of the form. If the show is bad, then talk about why it's bad and what we can do to improve it next time. Now look at the whole production and determine what valuable tenets can be gleaned from a single viewing. How was this production important to the art and how was it important to social change if theatre is to be the mirror of human folly. Is that too much to ask? It certainly wasn't too much for critics in the last 200 years up until now when western theatre was constantly evolving. We've hit a wall because nobody's providing criticism anymore. It's all business, all ticket sales and marketing and advertising with little or no thought to how this production is going to affect change. Why the hell are we doing it? It can't be about getting butts in seats. We're not selling burgers here. Where is this piece's place in history and in the future of theatre? Can we answer that? Can we even begin to question it? If not, then why are we doing it, and don't say you're doing it as a vehicle for a good actor or director. That's a vanity production, and we really can do without. In these times, we've got to trim the fat and get down to the bones. There's no time for excess when our art is slipping away from us into oblivion.

Crappy theatre reviews that fill up 2 inches of less than a page of theatre listings are far from worthy criticism. There simply is not enough room to elaborate and offer up constructive ways to improve, especially when they spend the entire two inches bitching and whining about how bad theatre is in (interst city name here) these days and do nothing to offer constructive feedback. Unless a news source has enough room for critics to really provide some perspective, then what is written is merely a broad review meant for shallow public consumption and is more of a short advertisement for or against a show than anything else, making it fundamentally useless to the future of the craft.

The only news source that currently has the ability to offer real criticism is the Oregonian because reviewers get alteast 500 words to state their case, not enough really but better than 100. I would like to challenge the writers/reviewers of the Oregonian to stop wasting inches recapping plot and offering literary criticism of the text and start utilizing their valuable space to offer real criticism of the production. Only then will they transcend the role of babbling reviewer and literary critic to become a real theatre critic.

To clarify, literary criticism of a play's text belongs in a different section of the paper than live theatre criticism. The only thing a live theatre critic should challenge or question is how the production used the text to its advantage or disadvantage. It's about how we used the words, but not about the words themselves. Don't waste 300 words of a 500 word critique slamming the playwright unless the playwright is the producer. Otherwise, you are not serving the production at all. Your beef is with the playwright and while it was part of the production, it's an argument for a different time and place.

We also need balance. Don't spend 250 words reviewing plot then 50 words on everything else. Also, please don't spend 300 words gushing about the actors we know and love like family in this town unless you have something legitimate to say about how their performance affected the play as a whole. Don't compare their past performances, because this is a production review. It's production specific. The review is not about that performer. Save those comparisons for glowing feature articles you later write when the time and space is afforded.

I could go on here, but I'd rather save it for my future course in performance criticism to be taught at a yet to be determined institution. Let's make a list though, and then get all Martin Luther on the Oregonian and pin our 99 theses right on their front door.

Rachel said...

Unfortunately, constructive criticism like that is really only helpful to practitioners or academics -- and even then, it doesn't always make sense unless you have seen the show (who besides the artists involved really care how to improve a specific show?)

Readers, on the other hand, probably prefer reviews that tell them: 1) what is it about, and 2) is it worth a babysitter?

And because readers (directly or indirectly) pay the bills, guess what wins?

That said, an identifiable sense of perspective -- good, bad or otherwise -- serves both artist and reader.

Dan said...

If the papers can't do it, where do we go for the criticism we need to advance the art? The conduit by which criticism was previously distributed has changed. Mass media is product and market oriented. College teaches us, but once we've left the nest and built our own, who do we turn to for real constructive criticism, especially if all anyone wants to do is pat our backs so as not to destroy what little drive we have left in a world seemingly less interested in our art form?

Anonymous said...

The original Anonymous here:

I’d like to go back to follow spot's reply that begins: "I disagree that unanswerable questions are not good fodder for good theatre."

Agreed: unanswerable questions can certainly be good fodder for good theatre; Waiting for Godot comes to mind immediately.

Here’s the problem with Sojourn’s 9 Acts: their response to the unanswerable (or boringly answered) question did nothing to affect my understanding of it. It did not frame the question differently for me so that I might gain new insight. It didn’t even present new ideas. If 9 Acts were a conversation, it would go like this:

Interviewer: How do we, as a nation, decide what to kill and die for?
Sojourn: YEAH!!! How do we, as a nation decide what to kill and die for?

Most importantly lacking, though, 9 Acts did not connect to my own experiences grappling with that question. And this is where ANY work of art lives or dies. Does an audience connect with it?

Now, Sojourn chose to forgo story and characters in this piece, so our main point of connection was with this guiding question: How do we, as a nation, decide what to kill and die for? I sat here for a second trying to imagine how we’d connect with that the same way we’d connect with, say, Gogo trying to take his boots off—how a 65 minute musing on the collision of democracy and modernity could possibly even tie with the 60 seconds we see Gogo wrestling with his boot in terms of visceral and intellectual impact—and I just can’t make it work. We instantly love Gogo and he, Vladimir, Lucky, and Pozzo lead us into the backlog of our own experiences—thoughts, memories, joy, pain, boots, failure, etc.—and show us something we hadn’t seen before. Let us feel something new about life. So Godot rises above:

Interviewer: What is waiting like?
Beckett: YEAH!!! What is waiting like?

And this is how Godot sucessfully explores an unanswerable question: by showing us the depth of the question AS WELL AS entertaining us, introducing us to characters we love, hate, envy, pity, and adhering to the rhythmic structure we need to excite our imaginations, attention spans, and urgent concern for the play's pending outcome. This is Aristotle.

Ok, so 9 Acts isn’t like Godot. It deliberately casts aside characters and story because they allow us to “feel a part of something bigger” (ie; they distract us from the real issues before us). I get it: it’s hard, if not impossible to make a play or a movie about war without glorifying or demonizing it. But it simply does not work as compelling theatre to make a play without characters or a story.

I believe it was Edward Albee who said when his subject matter warrants a play, he writes a play. When it warrants an essay, he writes an essay. Important lesson. 9 Acts might have been an interesting essay.

Anonymous said...

Well, shucks, at least they got y'all talking.

Anonymous said...

I don't like posting under shows I haven't seen... but apparently, I am. Good points all around about the focus of papers reviews, but I think there are other - if not better places - for art-advancing criticism. Such as other artists I respect, other people I respect, random audience members, or even, you know, gimmicky theatre blogs :)

Even if the paper's critics are the most discerning audience possible, I wouldn't want any artist to rely that heavily on one or two or five people's opinions.


Anonymous said...

yeah given the unrestrictive nature of the web, it doesn't make much sense for a blog ot limit a review to 50 words

captain xram said...

In his original post, anonymous says "Sojourn set off on the wrong foot from the beginning asking 'How, as a nation, do we decide what to kill and die for?' It's either completely unanswerable or the answer is boring..."

Actually, the question is enitrely answerable, but Sojourn hasn't answered it because, for whatever reason, it doen't know the answers, embedded as they are in the day-to-day inexorable grind of the international economy. For a better understanding and therefore answer of this question, go see Syrania.

Follow Spot said...

I should add that, for me, part of what made the evening worthwhile was the post-play discussion among audience members, director and cast. Still no answers, really, but an interesting conversation.

Bill said...

Has anyone else seen the show? Any more thoughts or opinions on this work?

Anonymatrix said...

I just saw the show last night, and was sorely disappointed. But I don't think the problem was that they didn't have a story or characters. I liked the format, and I liked that they were trying to dismantle our expectations and catch us off guard and get us talking, beyond the usual back and forth arguing.

But for that to work, they would need to do something beyond just not glorifying or demonizing war: they would need to glorify and demonize, and THEN pull the rug out from under us. I felt like they kept pulling the rug out before they'd said anything, which just left me confused.

I have a lot of respect for Sojourn, but I don't think it's enough to just put your own questions out there on the stage. If you're doing a show that you want to raise questions, say something provocative! I wanted to see them really dive in, and they kept hesitating, like they were afraid to say the wrong thing.

Anyway, I'd be interested to know more thoughts on this piece. I'm glad it's gotten people talking, but I wish what we were talking about was war. The topic of war is such a loaded topic right now! I'm amazed that I could come away from a piece about war feeling unengaged.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately critics are people who can't really do anything so they just sit on their butts and critique everyone else. "Taking inventory," as we 12-steppers call it. The same folks who keep journals cataloging the color and consistency of their shit and snot.
For God's sake, get a life.
There is no such thing as an unanswerable question. These aren't your typical rhetorical questions. They demand answers. The best answer to endless war and debt is STOP. Idiots like you just cloud the issue because you never stop talking long enough to get off you fat asses to do anything.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 7:25, who are you calling an idiot? It's very unclear.

Anonymous said...

You're an idiot.

Anonymous said...

Clear enough?
Please. Shut up and do something.

Dan said...

You say shut up and do something? But what exactly are you doing? You hide behind the anonymous mask and criticize people for not doing anything and yet we have no idea what YOU are doing to be a part of the solution. You can be the biggest culprit of complacency and inaction and yet we'd never know.

Anonymatrix said...

why is a critic someone who sits on their butt and can't do anything? why is that in your definition of critic, anonymous #23? can't a person be both an active artist and member of society, AND a critic?

isn't anyone who has an opinion a critic?

i love to hear opinions, and strong ones. i love when they clash. i think it makes work stronger. sometimes it just drags the whole thing down and makes everyone roll their eyes in boredom but i don't think that's the case for anyone reading followspot. obviously, if you're reading the comments on this site, you like to read (and probably write) criticism.

Anonymous said...

Who knows why critics would rather blab than work? They aren't the only ones. Passing the buck seems to be a quintessential American passtime. For my part, I created a world-wide network of user groups fostering alternative economy, I vote, and I participate in a variety of political and community service activities that actually make a difference. I don't feel it necessary to justify what I am doing beyond that statement to anyone here because my actions speak louder than words while most of you will never get beyond words.
I don't happen to think criticism is particularly constructive other than to put a critic (or a murderer) in his (or her) place.
You all are certainly worthy of each other's company. Beyond that remark, I'll not likely waste any more time here. I have too much work to do.

Follow Spot said...

OK OK -- let's get back to discussing the show at hand here, please.

Anonymous said...

If Follow Spot will kindly indulge me, I would like to respond to Monsieur (it would very much surprise me if it were a M'amselle) Anonymous's prickly remarks about "critics."

I'm afraid your comments are not only misguided in their content, but the betray a misunderstanding of the nature of this particular blog and most of its habitues. We are not critics; most of us are actors, directors, designers, and other techies. We DO -- however well or badly -- much more than we critique. And our remarks here are offered more in the spirit of colleagues, fans, co-conspirators, than the classic reviewer your remarks appear to posit, which is what makes me suspect you haven't been here or read much of this blog.

(On the other hand, some of us, as Anonymatrix suggested, can and do operate as artist, critic, and active member of society as well; I've posted critiques of plays that Follow Spot could not get to and just turned in a book review to the Oregonian -- my seventh or eighth in a year -- yesterday, I'm acting in "In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer," I have published several books of my own, and I always vote, have marched against the war, have donated to various charities, volunteered for Loaves and Fishes, SOLV, and recordings for the blind, etc., etc.)

You say your actions speak louder than words, but they were silent to us because we did not know what your actions were until you described them. There MAY be something worthy of discussion in your position with regard to critics as a breed, but so far you have presented it in a manner no different from that of the typical newbie, flash-in-the-pan troller in any Usenet group or listserv.

-- David J. Loftus

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 1 (4:53, 10:54) here-

To tie these posts together a little bit (and get back to the show at hand, which is as important to me as it is to followspot), I offer the following:

Beyond chastising critics, Anonymous (7:25 and 7:23) makes strong implicit assertions about theatre's ability to influence the political realm. Without digressing too much into the huge, ridiculous question “Can Theatre influence politics?” (I believe it cannot), if it is ever to effect change, theatre makers must consider what, exactly, they offer beyond “inspiration” or discussion material and how exactly their product fits into the myriad cogs of politics.

I think the belief that ‘theatre can change the world’ is analgesic to theatre makers which allows them to keep creating “topical” shows that affect only the egos of those involved: actors and audience alike, which is FINE, as long as that is the goal of the show: Make people feel good about their political leanings (or in this case, the common difficulty we experiencing discussing war) But it should be acknowledged: beyond “exposing” our difficulty in talking about war, 9 Acts did not work theatrically or politically. Of course, it’s always a goal to create a show that functions well theatrically, and I think it’s safe to assume Sojourn attempts to play a role in politics. However, I have yet to see a glowing review here attesting to the theatrical prowess of this show. (Regardless of others' thoughts, my opinions of the show have been posted and remain unchanged.) And as far as political clout, notice: no one here is discussing war or even “how we, as a nation, decide what to kill and die for?” If audiences aren’t coming away from this show talking about the guiding question of the show (which is even reiterated in the program), even Sojourn would have to concede it missed its mark. Twenty-five posts later and not a single comment about these issues.

However, a fuller, richer theatre works for social change in a simpler way, I think: by letting people have a good time together, letting them share a rich, human experience together, and gently reminding them that “yes: your neighbors are similar to you, your family, your friends.”

Anonymous 7:23 is on the right track, doing WAY more than protesting or discussing. It’s simply not enough anymore to protest forces one considers evil. And it’s also not enough to discuss them. It follows that it’s not enough to provoke discussion, which seems to be Sojourn’s aim. I have no doubt that anonymous has changed the political landscape more than Sojourn has.

This is, and always has been, theatre’s greatest strength. Theatre makers should strive to enhance this power of theatre (which would certainly help their pocket books as well) and work for real political change with methods resembling anonymous’ 7:23/7:25.

Peanut Duck said...

Just to toss this out there: Peanut liked the exploration/discussion by Sojourn of the "limitations" of story/narrative in making a point, exploring an issue, initiating a discussion because of its personalization/diminution of the larger issues at hand.

Haven't decided if I agree or disagree. Anyone else's thoughts?


Anonymous said...

Works for lectures, speeches, and essays; not for theatre. It's like taking the canvas away from a painter. It just needs that much at least.

michael said...

anonymous original
my old friend

i speak here for a moment, after much watching from afar
simply to note that every blogger can dislike the work, and critique it, and disdain it

i actually find the comments pretty interesting

and the idea of a theatrical essay-
well, read more brecht along with the beckett, and not just the well known ones...
it's an old and interesting tradition

i write because as soon as you enter the realm of making vast pronouncements about the experience of others
as in
noone is talking about the issue at hand
are they talking about the piece as emotionally engaging
well, you just gotta get out more
or at least speak with others, and not just those who share your views, or who enter this site-

i hear some real anger about the perceived failures of the piece, and about sojourn needing to shake things up

i'm pretty sure this was your first sojourn show
you had lots of opportunities to engage/challenge this particular question yourself as an artist

to call it out

life is an unanswerable question

how you choose to proceed
as an artist
as a citizen

that's all you've got

disapprove, dislike- but ask yourself why you get so heated about the attempt of others

and the idea that it's because you believe so much in the need for good true theater- i don't buy that for a moment.

by the way,
a canvas is what you make of it.

anonymously or not.