Dispatch from C2E2

Dispatch from C2E2

The ensemble of Improvised Jane Austen.

C2E2 at first glance looks more like a theatrical event than a comic convention. The cosplay! The larger than life art! The group photographs of poses from TV shows, movies, and comic books! But look past the surface, and you will see a deeper vein of theatricality surging through the crowds of dedicated fans. There is a committed theatrical bent to C2E2’s events, and it started for me on the Friday of the convention at the Cards Against Humanity Theater space, in the McCormick Place convention center.

This year, a full slate of comedy improv and stand-up was showcased at the CAH Comedy Theater as a way of connecting nerdery with live performance. As a lover of comics and also a lover of performance, the coming together of two forms of passion was perfect for me. At 12:15 pm, I wandered into the Improvised Jane Austen performance in room S402. I have seen these ladies perform on a Tuesday evening at iO, and their wit and intelligence radiated even in the much larger space at McCormick. Taking cues on nouns and adjectives from the audience, the crew built a love story about an old maid at the age of 21 and her over-the-hill suitor at 35. Her brother is afraid of everything around them, including the nearby woods, and their parents are tragically delayed from her coming out party due to their horse have a slipped shoe in Bath. In addition to crafting a daffy plot that can be followed by even non-Austen fans, the troupe did a wonderful job roaming through the audience to amp up the energy, and their wit and goofiness shone through in their physical choices as well as their word play. If you get the chance to see them on any given Tuesday, you will be delighted.

The ensemble of Storytown Improv.

Later that afternoon, I took in the sights and sounds of Storytown Improv, which performed at Family HQ on the open convention floor. These improv performers and their pianist make musicals and full plots up based on suggestions from their audience of children and families. It is a remarkable thing to watch songs be created on the spot, especially in an open room where it would be easy to get distracted by all the cosplay and competing  surrounding you. The Storytown performers asked for suggestions of place, and the children in the audience chose to set their adventure on a cold mountain. Immediately, the actors brought the world they imagined to life, shivering as they sung about the cold, and wafting a white jacket to create blankets of snow. Our hero trudged through the mountain on a quest to be friends with a villainous corporate overlord by the name of Cold, and the crew helped children lead dance battles that resulted in an end to corporate greed and the beginning of beautiful friendship. It was exhilarating to watch, and the kids in the audience had a blast. I would highly recommend checking out Storytown Improv on any given Saturday at Stage 773.
Theatre By Numbers is run by nerds and hopefully read by nerds.

If you happen to find yourself wondering what might be in it for you as a theatre fan at C2E2, just know there is so much more available than cosplay.

“The Call To Criticism In Uncertain Times”

“The Call To Criticism In Uncertain Times”

Kris Vire.

Kris Vire was laid off from Time Out Chicago this week. He was a senior editor, he covered theatre and LGBTQ events, and he had been writing for the outlet since its beginning in 2005. This blow to the artistic community feels wide-reaching. Vire’s reviews were thoughtful and succinct, and he championed shows big and small. Time Out plans to continue hosting theatre coverage, but how it will do so without a theatre editor on staff is unclear right now. Similar questions followed the ousting of Hedy Weiss at the Chicago Sun-Times in February. As of now, Chicago has one long-term critic still in print, Chris Jones at the Chicago Tribune. More and more, criticism is curtailed in mainstream outlets, and the reviewing community is left wondering about our place in the city’s culture. Do we need critics and criticism? What is the critic’s value to the audience? What is the critic’s role in society? Is it okay to have one seminal critic reviewing shows big and small? How do we find critics enough work in a freelance system? Will the critic survive our current click-based publishing model?

Vire gave a great interview about his years-long tenure at Time Out to American Theatre Magazine, and I would highly recommend reading his analysis of the old guard reviewing and new model transition that marked his time there. The death of print media plays a factor in his career. He discusses how Time Out toggled back and forth between producing online content and publishing magazines, and how difficult it was to produce enough clickable content to justify hosting theatre features. Every news organization has been struggling with the transition from print to online media for years at this point. The focus now is capturing hard data about what people read. But do page views measure how valuable a piece of writing is for the reader?

I think about this a lot in regards to Theatre By Numbers. We try to review as many different types of productions as we receive invites for, and we take assignments through a random roll of the die in order to give every theatre company an equal opportunity to have their work seen. But so much of the value in this writing comes from how it is shared on the Internet. The more people who see a review, the more likely they might be to attend a given show. Theatre companies depend on press to sell tickets, and a good web presence is part of that relationship. So clicks matter here at TBN, too. They matter everywhere. Whether this model is sustainable becomes an open question, though, when people cannot keep their jobs, or the only way to work as a critic is to be paid in free tickets.

I firmly believe criticism is for other people: the artists and the audience. Critics evaluate the stories we tell so that we can get at the deeper questions about what makes us human. We build connections between reader and artist, and hopefully, give the reader a glimpse into what the artist is trying to accomplish. I do know not what model will sustain — rather than diminish — criticism as a form, but I believe criticism is an act of service, and I believe this bears repeating at such a precarious moment in our community. When reviews reach the public, and create a dialogue between artists and readers, I believe we are adding to the cultural conversation in our society. That has inherent value, even if we cannot measure it adequately.

“The Light” is by far the best show I have seen in 2018. The New Colony’s production was blistering and timely in its examination of what we owe to one another when moral grays enter our entertainment choices and our personal relationships. Theatre that reflects tough questions of the moment deserves to be championed. I loved writing about that show because I knew it contained lessons and reckoning for anyone who saw it. I told everyone I knew about it, and encouraged every theatergoer I talked with to buy a ticket. I knew that spreading the word was an act of service to the arts. Whether or not I convinced anyone is hard to say, but I know it was worth it for me as a critic.

Perhaps I am not enough of a big picture person for this industry. I cannot see whatever the next step is for critics to be able to sustain conversation without constant worry over losing clicks or losing employment. Right now the only response I can think of is for everyone to write more, to create more, to engage in dialogue more. I come from a place of privilege there, having TBN to foster and grow as an artistic home. But one of the best things about the switch to online media is that this platform has the ability to give those who have been previously unheard a voice. I may continually question my vision. I may doubt the current model. Yet I can’t help but see opportunities everywhere, if we can only figure out how to make them, and keep creating and asking hard questions. I know we can keep sharing. Perhaps we can find the solution together. And I hope that Kris Vire finds a new home soon. We need his voice in our community.

“New Worlds: Bill Murray, Jan Vogler and Friends,” or, White Privilege Ruins the Party Again

“New Worlds: Bill Murray, Jan Vogler and Friends,” or, White Privilege Ruins the Party Again

The Chicago Theatre.

There should be a shorthand word for the loss of fidelity you feel when you’re sure that someone you’ve always considered a hero doesn’t speak for you any longer. There should be another word for trying to watch your old favorite movies, then cringing after seeing the face of a once beloved figure who conducted themselves poorly in the public eye. Language hasn’t caught up with our many disappointments, so until we can zero in on something for my specific form of disillusionment, I’m going to name mine after the guy who inspired it:

Bill Murray (verb)

  1. To perform literary works that contain considerable racial slurs & silencing of women for an unwitting audience.
  1. To insist on reading dialog spoken by characters of color in what could be described as an

offensive, cartoonish accent.  

  1. To make the call on behalf of audience members that the value of the literature performed far outweighs the way insensitive language may make you feel.

I’ll use it in a sentence: “The performance of ‘New Worlds’ I attended had so much Bill Murraying, I got disgusted and left.” This statement is both true in my case, and grammatically sound. “New Worlds: Bill Murray, Jan Vogler and Friends” which ran at the Chicago Theater, and will soon tour international shores, is a master class on alienating your audience with a bait and switch. We’re first dazzled with the promise of an evening of fine music and literature, then left scratching our heads about what would prompt Bill Murray to read selections that feature prominent misogyny and plentiful racial slurs. Murray’s chosen pieces were from Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway, presumably because they are the titans of American literature. But as for what prompted him to choose the polarizing selections he read … your guess is as good as mine.

As acting curator, Murray chooses to divulge very little about what he and his collaborators (musicians Jan Vogler, Mira Wang and Vanessa Perez) will be performing. Near the top of the show, he assumed Chicago audience members “must be wondering if they’ve come to the right show.” And that is one way to be irreverent about what fans may be expecting from a comedy icon, but it’s also a way to avoid accountability for the design and reception of an evening not really considered from an audience perspective. It’s as if he’d like to pin any fan disappointment on differing tastes, which would be impossible for him to navigate. But I’m a disappointed fan, and my disappointment doesn’t stem from taste; on the contrary, I can’t get enough of essayists and deep cuts from American songbooks. No, it’s not that.

Where Bill Murray and I differ is what we consider appropriate to be staged. We differ in our definitions on what is racially insensitive. We differ on what casual sexism and racism should be construed as poignant and not troubling in 2018. We differ in our definitions on what is art worth revisiting right now, especially when someone could be treated to a late 19th century slur on a Tuesday this week. If Murray had the capacity to understand the embarrassment and anger his choice of words provoked, would he have chosen them?

Don’t worry, ye advocates of the devil, who may choose to read this piece as a call to silence artists, or censor the artistic choices at your disposal. Think of this less as a matter or censorship, and more as a matter of  empathy. For instance, would Murray have chosen to read from Hemingway’s “A Movable Feast” if he had known it had the capacity to make me, a female audience member, feel angry and embarrassed?  The context and the history I should be appreciating is moot if I am distracted completely by the knowledge that somewhere, to this day, an author can still reduce me to a pair of breasts and demand my silence, just like Hemingway’s Pascin does of his female consorts. And if you were wondering if Hemingway takes any time to stereotype people of Asian descent in this piece? He does, and Murray considers it worth a mention. It’s a luxury to have the remove that Murray does from this material. It doesn’t have any power to hurt him.

Likewise, I can’t begin to fathom what it is like for a person of color to sit through a reading from Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn.” Sure, the piece gets to its abolitionist point, but only after a lot of slurs. The n-word that dots Twain’s pages has dropped any illusion of 1880’s gentility, and blossomed into full vileness no matter how it may exit the mouth of a white person. Murray’s style of narration for the character Jim in particular was the sort of broad, imbecilic read that would have made Al Jolson proud.

The only valid criticism I can levy is my own,  and I’ve never come away from anything as dejected as I did from this. By the time we got to Twain, my eyes were superglued to my shoes as I waited for him to get it over with. I haven’t left a performance mid-way through like that in over a decade.

Maybe our discomfort is the point, but there’s no history of Murray acting as a provocateur to suggest that. It’s far more likely that he hasn’t given his selections thought beyond what would be fun to read. But he’s asking a great deal of his patrons of color and female patrons, when he asks us to find our poignancy buried somewhere in the mountain of the white male gaze. I just have one question for him: why?

Far be it from me to try and tell actor, comedy great, and self-proclaimed American folk hero Bill Murray what to do with with his limitless creative options. The devotion he instills in fans across the globe ensures that whatever project he fancies will get off the ground. I have counted myself among his most die-hard fans for many years, but “New Worlds” is hard to forget, harder to forgive, and probably will leave an awful taste in my mouth long after his next stint at the multiplex.

Feature: “Chicago’s Theater Community Coming Together to Fight the Ism’s” (Black Ensemble Theater + Steppenwolf Theatre)

Show: Chicago’s Theater Community Coming Together to Fight the Ism’s

Company: Black Ensemble Theater & Steppenwolf Theatre

Venue: Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 N. Clark St.

Backed by Black Ensemble company members and a small but mighty house band, our host for the evening, Black Ensemble Founder and CEO Jackie Taylor, invited Chicagoans of all stripes onto her own sacred ground to do some healing. Crafted by a growing collection of theater companies that are owned and operated by women and people of color, “Chicago’s Theater Community Coming Together to Fight the Ism’s” came to life, and went immediately to battle against always present enemies: a tradition of exclusion, and a culture of silence.

The evening of theater and performance brought together voices from Teatro Vista, About Face Theatre, Black Ensemble Theater, Her Story Theatre, Firebrand Theatre, A-Squared Theatre, and several speakers from a very short list of black corporate executives. Just as much as this was an evening of underrepresented stories taking focus, it was a primer for a large audience of white supporters on the myriad ways we can show more support and be more aware of our own biases.

Black Ensemble company members regaled the collected crowd with original songs like “Four Hundred and Sixty Five Years” and “I Can’t Give Up Now”, that highlighted healing racial divides. Her Story Theatre implored us to start seeing the signs of sex trafficking and modern day slavery with “Money Make‘m $mile”, and Firebrand Theatre (a company devoted to musicals penned by women) shamed golden era musicals with “The Sexist Medley”.  About Face Theatre threw the glammest dance party ever to combat homophobia and gender/binary exclusion with their piece “Looking Out, Looking In”. And the sharpest skewers were saved for A-Squared Theatre and Teatro Vista, each of whom took great umbrage with normalized racial insensitivity for Asian and Latin cultures by lambasting micro-aggressions in sketches.

The most interesting viewpoints for me were from Angelique Powers , the Co-Founder of Enrich, and President of the Field Foundation, and Tyronne Stoudemire, Vice President of Global Diversity and Inclusion for the Hyatt Corporation. Powers spoke about the pitfalls and importance of arranging events targeted at addressing workplace racism, even though we all are ill-equipped to hold a healthy discussion on race. Stoudemire reminded us of some of the fallacies that prevent diversity efforts from taking hold, and the stigma that accompanies his work (“want to put your staffers to sleep? Invite them to a diversity seminar”). Inclusion at all levels, listening,  and understanding are the only way to let others into primarily white male institutions. This process takes constant work, and there is no easy resolution or quota to achieve,  but the result can mean that stories that may have once been dismissed will be heralded on the stage and everywhere else.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Putting the work of artists of color and women first.