Minnesota Fringe Festival: The Second Oldest Profession at the U of M Rarig Center Arena

CAVEAT: I am producing a show in the same venue that is technically in competition with this one for an additional performance (though I do not view mine as a serious contender).

SHOW TITLE: The Second Oldest Profession
PRODUCER: Tinker-2-Evers-2-Chance
HAILING FROM: Minneapolis
SHOW DESCRIPTION: Peter Moore’s solo show is a collection of delightful stories of the famous (and not-so-famous) from the world of show business, drawn from Moore’s nearly 40 years as an actor and director. Highly entertaining!

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: it was pretty clear pretty quickly that I was not in the target demographic for this show, for two reasons. The first is that the vast bulk of the audience was easily twice my age. The second is that I’ve been in show business for the entirety of my adult life, and had heard every single one of the anecdotes he told. (At one point, I actually started leaning over to my viewing partner, whispering the punchlines to her before he said them.)

Yeah…this is a starfucking show, with the twist that he hasn’t actually met most of the people that he’s talking about. These are the stories that you hear in every acting class. Hell, you could cull them from a Wikipedia page. The whole exercise seems incredibly bizarre to me: it’s the equivalent of doing a stand-up show in which you just told other people’s street jokes.

More distressingly, it’s predicated on the notion that actors are terribly interesting people. If anything, twenty years in show business have taught me that (with some commendable exceptions) actors tend towards the painfully vapid. They’re too introspective, elevating their own mild neuroses into earth-shattering drama. Which, upon reflection, probably makes them excellent interpreters, but poor conversationalists.

At one point, he says something to the effect that even stars have human failings! Even celebrities! Can you believe it? I have little patience for this attitude in the first place: having just spent a month working in LA, where celebrity worship is central to the arts culture, I find it actively offensive.

Beyond that, he’s essentially a motivational speaker, awkwardly stapling each anecdote to a (universally trite) life lesson. I believe that forty years in show business (twice mine) can teach you some real, meaningful, and truly important wisdom. I’m frustrated that he neglected to share any of it with us in this show.

The awful thing is, I’ve lived through this show before: I’m sitting at a corner booth in a bar, with a glass of whiskey in front of me. Someone very much like Mister Moore slides into the seat across from me. While I have a frozen, polite smile on my face, he begins to tell me all the stories about all the celebrities he’s heard, because he’s bought into that utterly poisonous American myth that you don’t matter unless you’re famous. My eyes shift furtively around the room, looking for someone I know, desperately trying blink an SOS at them in Morse code. Because I’m a Minnesotan, it takes me about twenty minutes to stammer a polite excuse and slide away to find somebody more interesting.

So, this show accurately captures that aspect of working in show business, at least.

Questions? Comments? Enraged invective? Check out my answers to occasionally asked questions in Notes on Notes, or the contact info linked from that page!

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Minnesota Fringe Festival: Rich Pieces and Other Dances at the Southern Theater

SHOW TITLE: Rich Pieces and Other Dances
PRODUCER: Shelter Repertory Dance Theatre
HAILING FROM: Wisconsin
SHOW DESCRIPTION: “Raw emotion momentarily captured” describes the spellbinding work of these exquisite dancers. Inspired by the poetry of Adrienne Rich, these dances encapsulate haunting images that entrance audience members.

Okay, so, that description is frustratingly vague. What exactly is this show? Three dances, three dancers, three choreographers. As for overarching theme, I would wave ambiguously at the word “feminism.”

If you’d asked me in the first ten minutes what this show was about, I’d have said something to the effect of “It’s a series of solo character portraits through dance,” as each member of the company comes out in a costume and glides through the space. Most entertaining of these was a number in the persona of an ungainly lush, swaying and wobbling across the stage. (I’ll confess that I’m a huge sucker for this kind of thing — the exercise of extraordinary physical control to represent the loss of physical control.)

Then all three dancers came out, and began to present a kind of physical relationship with each other. I spent about ten minutes somewhat frustrated, as I tried to connect what I was seeing to what had gone before, until I realized that this was a completely separate piece — there was no connection.

I got that “three dances” from the programme, though I’ll confess I had some difficulty telling where they began and ended. When one character enters while the other is still onstage, then begins dancing before they exit — is this a smooth transition between two separate dances, or intended to be a continuing piece? Likewise, the moments of empty stage — are these scene breaks, or pauses in a continuing thought?

At first I assumed that the three solo dances I saw were a single set, and as the ensemble dance was significantly longer than any of the others, I looked for a breaking point in the narrative. It’s not until I perused the programme after the show that I realized that the first two solo dances were one dance, the alcoholic stumbler was the second, and the massive ensemble piece (by far the bulk of the show) was the third. This is significant, because by not being able to tell when one dance ended and another began, I wasn’t able to view them as self-contained sets — I was looking for connections where none existed.

I was hooked on the solo pieces, and found my eyes glazing over on the ensemble. (It’s worth noting that I spoke to at least one audience member who had exactly the opposite response.) I found it to be just too much beautiful abstraction, under some rather stiff readings of Adrienne Rich’s writing. (And it’s also worth noting that, while I admire Ms. Rich’s career as an activist, I find much of her poetry to be execrable.)

There is much impressive beauty and skill here, but I suspect that the vast majority of the show is geared towards the specialist, not the casual viewer.

Questions? Comments? Enraged invective? Check out my answers to occasionally asked questions in Notes on Notes, or the contact info linked from that page!

Minnesota Fringe Festival: A PSA for Dancers

Hey there, dancers! How’s it been going? How’s the Festival treating you?

Rough, huh? Yeah, I hear that. I’ve had the pleasure of working with a number of dancers over the years, and I know that the audience challenges that we playwrights and storytellers face often pale next to yours. There’s that dance stigma at the Festival, that tendency to regard your work warily as opaque or inaccessible before even getting in the door. It’s not fair, really, and for the most part you don’t have any control over it.

Here’s the thing, though. There is one thing that you can control: if you’re not a writer, hire one.

I mean, I get it, I believe in the auteur system as much as anybody. And, yeah, I’ve got some movement background and if I’m directing a musical I can technically cobble a dance together, but the results are going to be much stronger if I hire someone who specializes in that discipline.

Here’s what I’m talking about. Pull up the modern dance shows on the website. Click through to read the descriptions. In more than half of the cases, I have no idea what this show is about or what I will be seeing. Some of those descriptions will rattle off a resume. Some will speculate on vague and grandiose goals (e.g. “these whirling limbs will unlock a spiritual experience and connect you to a higher consciousness”). Few of them give me information that tells me what I will be looking at for an hour, and in this respect one becomes impossible to distinguish from another.

I’m going to pull an example from a programme. I won’t say what show it belongs to, because

1) there’s no point in embarrassing one company, and
2) this isn’t about one company. This bit of text could come from any number of programmes, descriptions, or press releases, from any number of dance companies, in any number of cities.

“Through the exquisite physicality of his dancers, these works are at once abstract and dramatic, leading the audience into uncharted emotional regions of the human experience.”

…buh? What the hell does this mean? Doesn’t most art try to do this? What is happening in this show? This was someone’s best effort.

It’s failing to give me the information I need to evaluate what this show is and do I want to see it. Instead, it’s free-associating a series of clich├ęs that I have to assume are endemic to dance training, because they show up in the text for every dance show in every damn city I tour to.

The reason this matters is because your potential audience will most likely read your show description, read what is sampled from your press release, and read your programme long before they see you take a single step or make a single gesture. Text is almost always the beginning of your relationship with your audience. You fumble it at your peril.

Here’s the thing. For the most part, we non-dancers like you! We really do! We’re amazed by your grace and physical prowess. Most of us would enjoy sitting through most of your shows! But that potential audience is terrified of ending up in a room and being confused for an hour, and throwing a wall of vague and confusing text at them is a big red flashing “KEEP OUT” sign.

We want to love you. Help us!

Questions? Comments? Enraged invective? Check out my answers to occasionally asked questions in Notes on Notes, or the contact info linked from that page!