Thursday, July 26, 2007

Mind expansion

The 61st edition of the Avignon Festival has just ended—not that you'd know the three-week event had happened at all by reading the US press. That's okay I guess: Avignon is only one of the largest theater festivals in the world. That's probably why for the past several days the Times' chief critic, Ben Brantley, has been blogging about his theater marathon in London; typically, it started off with a show starring Orlando Bloom. Meanwhile, Avignon has presented productions staged by the likes of Frank Castorf, Ariane Mnouchkine, Rodrigo Garcia, Sasha Waltz and Romeo Castellucci. And that's only the ones who might ring a bell among NYC theater freaks. I mean, just look at the photo on the left: Doesn't it make you want to see more? At least you will be able to for this particular one: It's from Castellucci's show, Hey Girl!, which is coming to Montclair in February.

What's frustrates me is this lack of inquisitiveness about what's happening in the field you're meant to be covering. If you're going to spend some time across the Atlantic, wouldn't it make sense to also cross the Channel and poke around? Wouldn't you be the least bit curious? Wouldn't you want to experience theater that's completely different from what we see here, instead of just a more competent version of our regular fare? (For make no mistake, that's what London offers.) Reading the Times, you would never know that in the past 10, 15 years, an entire generation of directors has rethought European theater, and that a new generation is now coming up to scramble up the parameters all over again.

Compare this attitude with The New Yorker's Alex Ross, who regularly covers a wide geographical area. Typically, he just wrote a piece about a new opera titled Alice in Wonderland that just premiered in Munich (check out the mouth-watering video here). What's great about the article is how Ross translates the appeal of the production for the likes of me, someone with an interest in the field but who isn't a hardcore buff. He also makes it very clear why covering this type of show is important not only for American readers, but for the health of the American opera scene itself.

7 comments:

David Cote said...

As usual, esteemed colleague, you hit the nail on the head. (I only hope the nail isn't going into NY theater's coffin.) While its true that programmers at places like Lincoln Center Festival and BAM could be more courageous, god knows that this town's biggest print media outlet is woefully unprepared to handle the work. I mean, they scarcely know how to write about young AMERICAN playwrights and directors who are stylists, much less daring European directors. Soho Rep, New York Theatre Workshop and St. Ann's Warehouse are doing interesting things, bless 'em, but the Times theater coverage is provincial in every sense of the word.

Elisabeth Vincentelli said...

Especially because I'm convinced that Ben Brantley raving about some German or French show could perhaps incite local producers and artistic directors to at least look into it. It must be disheartening for the daring few here when they know the most influential press outlet in town does not show interest.

zp said...

Alex Ross is one of my favorite New Yorker writers, and probably my very favorite New Yorker "arts" reviewer. I've always thought that this was because he writes about things I don't know much about, which is an easy way to impress me.

But then, too, there's another element to what you're saying here - that a good critic would expand everyone's horizons, the way Ross does. Even for a really *knowledgeable* classical music fan (ie not me) Ross's description of the Munich performance of a new opera would be valuable.

Anyway, I am glad to see Ross held up as a shining example for others to follow!

Though I have to say, I find his blog less than compelling. Maybe it's aimed more at the knowledgeable fan, or maybe he just improves with good editing . . .

Elisabeth Vincentelli said...

I'm also a big fan of Ross' writing in The NYer, less so of his blog—mostly because a lot of it is too arcane for me. I find him a prime example of a critic who does what a critic should do: He explores new terrain and he explains to us why it matters (or not). And he does so in a very clear, accessible way. Yes, I do think it is part of the critic's job to look out over the horizon and think about what happens in the world.

I'd also like to point out that it's not that easy to lure in a reader who doesn't know the field at hand, so you being a Ross fan despite your not knowing much about classical music is proof of his skill and enthusiasm. I know little about art and cannot muster any interest in Peter Schjeldahl's writing for instance.

Caden Manson said...

Hey, Did you have a chance to see Rodrigo Garcia's new piece? I hope I have a chance to catch it somewhere before he moves on to something else. I was able to catch "Hey Girl" in Italy in May and will try and catch it again in Montclair. They're doing some great stuff out there.

Elisabeth Vincentelli said...

I've never seen any of Rodrigo Garcia's shows—I don't think he's done anything in New York and there's never been a show of his playing when I happened to be in Paris. But the friends of mine who saw a show of his at CitĂ© Internationale Universitaire a few years ago all hated it, which perversely makes me very, very curious.

Caden Manson said...

I saw that show too. It was two early solo pieces and they were long and slow with, really, one visual idea each and alot of pedantic political speech. I hear his later work is much more interesting and of a larger more physical and visual scope.... using alot of food, burning christmas trees, blowing up raw chickens and that was just "I Bought A Spade At Ikea To Dig Myself A Grave"... or at least I think that was the title. Anyway, thanks for the blog. Its really great to hear about all this.