Tag Archives: Netflix

What’s so special about theater?

Brendan Kiley

What’s so special about theater? I’ve been asked that last question so many times, and asked it in return, never getting further than the theater enthusiast’s shopworn answer: “There’s something magical about seeing it live.”

Sure, sure. But why? What’s so damn magical?

This summer, I thought I caught the glimmer of an answer in a billboard for the food-delivery service DoorDash. A well-groomed man reclined on a couch, phone in hand, neon diner sign above his head. Below him, the pitch: “Order burgers without moving your buns.”

Theater, I realized, is the opposite of that. It’s everything our watch-at-home, extra-pepperoni-hold-the-olives culture of comfort, distraction and pseudo-control (in which we get to play with inches of difference, but never yardage) has been engineered to avoid.

ft dec 2018 night

Audiences arrive at The Fountain Theatre.

Theater is inconvenient (you must move your buns); it’s uncomfortable (at least airplanes have flight attendants you can flag down for pretzels); it’s puny for cultural capital (not the street cred of graffiti, nor the sophistication of symphonies); it’s economically silly (there are better ways to make money); it can be intensely claustrophobic and boring (can’t get up, can’t change the channel); and so on.

Compared to an evening of Netflix and Uber Eats, theater is downright risky: going somewhere strange to be a human, sitting with other humans, sharing nothing but air, space and a story. You might have to look at (and reckon with) things that make you squirm.

These discomforts can produce bizarre effects, and I’m enlisting two philosophers to help explore why. (My mother was a reader — I think she’d approve.)

The first, famed conservative Edmund Burke, who wrote a 1757 essay about the sublime.

“Sublime” is an exhausted word these hyper-accentuated days, when even mundane exchanges get exclamation marks (“hello!” thanks!” “bye!”) and superlatives (“he’s the worst,” “you’re the best,” “all the feels”). But it was a newish and special idea to 18th-century Europeans newly interested in the difference between the merely beautiful and the sublime.

Beautiful things, Burke argued in his essay, are safe and subordinate: a violet, a vase, a tamed landscape. (Think the pleasing colors and lines of a French vineyard.) But vast deserts? Storms at sea? Eerie ruins? Things we can’t control and aren’t useful, but still move us, are sublime.

Film is safe and subordinate — it cannot be sublime. Its camera work, even when “awesome,” is all manipulated arrangement of color and line. It is economically useful (Hollywood, Bollywood). And no matter how big the explosion or expensive the actor, it’s all tamed, disembodied representation — carefully edited shadows on the wall, infinitely reproducible, never adjustable. There’s no immediacy, no risk.

The immediacy, the event-ness of theater makes it more potent: I laugh harder in theaters than I do at movies. I bet I’ve logged more teary minutes (probably hours) in theaters than anywhere else — weddings and funerals included. And, as theatergoers are well aware, its potential for boredom is acute, serious business. It’s so real, some skillful artists use it as a tool, an audience tenderizer, lulling us and making us more sensitive for shocks to come.

actor spotlight

Why the potency of live-ness? Enter philosopher No. 2, Walter Benjamin, who had a word for this: aura.

His 1936 essay with a cumbersome title (“The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”) thought through how the new technology of photography would change art. Super-simple distillation: Notre-Dame is unique, embodied. It has its own “aura … its unique existence at the place it happens to be.” If it burns, it’s gone. But a photograph of Notre-Dame is infinitely reproducible, a disembodied image you can pin to your favorite wall. Burn all the photos you like — there will be copies, aura-free, floating around.

“That which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art,” Benjamin wrote. His big example: The difference between theater and film.

Pulp Fiction

“Pulp Fiction” (Miramax)

Theater oozes aura and is irreproducible — not just from one “Hamlet” to another, but from night to night. “Pulp Fiction” will always be “Pulp Fiction” no matter where in the world you go, the camera an absolute dictator of your attention. (Benjamin points out that watching a movie isn’t watching acting — it’s watching editing.) Film is an object; theater is an event.

And while theater restricts your mind’s menu of distractions (no phones, no fast forward), it also provides a kind of liberation: an invitation to focus on the immediate present, free to move your attention wherever, from a gesture on stage to the lighting grid above your head. It’s like the strange relief you might feel on an airplane when you can’t use your phone but before the movies start. In one way, you’re stuck. In another, you’re finally unstuck.

Philosophical games aside, loving something like theater in the age of Netflix requires an element of visceral, irrational amour fou. Some people love the precision of a good script, others are in love with certain actors.

Here’s mine: I am incurably attracted to that moment when the house lights dim on a roomful of strangers, just before the stage lights flare up on other strangers who are about to become characters.

There’s a radical possibility in that dark interval, that gap. Doesn’t matter whether I’m in a cramped basement or razzle-dazzle show palace. Doesn’t matter what exciting 7 p.m. situation I’ve torn myself from to trudge to another damned play. The promise of that interval is the same. We’re all there together, for a common purpose: to let the rest of the world drift into the background like mental wallpaper, to see what’ll happen next to these people in this room. That is, to us.

You can only find that level of heightened group communion in a few places: theater, sports and church. People have been gathering to do those three things for thousands of years — and they aren’t going to stop. Even if the regional theaters go bankrupt, nation-states collapse and Broadway becomes a barely remembered relic sunk beneath the rising Atlantic Ocean, people will still gather to stop time and perform stories. It suspends the aloneness.

In January of 2010, my mother was dying. She wasn’t totally-bedridden-dying, not yet — but she was getting there. We didn’t know it then, of course, but she had exactly one year of life left.

Electra

Marya Sea Kaminski as Electra, Seattle Shakespeare.

That month, I also saw a gut-churning, bone-achingly sorrowful performance of Electra. I was baffled, had to see it again and, for reasons I only dimly understood, bought my parents tickets to join me, to watch this live, raw, blistering expression of a grief we all privately carried and could barely comprehend, much less express. But in Electra, it was there. We could behold it — examine it. Why, in that particular moment, did I find such solace, such emotional solidarity, onstage?

It was something only theater could do.

Brendan Kiley is a Seattle Times arts and culture reporter. This post originally appeared in the Seattle Times.

‘Luke Cage’ co-star Simone Missick asks you to support the Fountain Theatre

misty-knight-simone-missickFountain actress Simone Missick currently co-stars on the Netflix hit series Luke Cage. She has appeared on our Fountain stage in our acclaimed Los Angeles Premiere of Tarell McCraney’s In the Red and Brown Water, and our award-winning stage adaptation of Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine.

The Fountain Theatre is Simone’s theatre home in Los Angeles. Like any home, the Fountain needs care and upkeep and investment to maintain its value and longevity.

“I have been allowed to grow and change and I’ve been nurtured in ways I could only have dreamed of by my Fountain Family,” says Simone.

The Fountain Theatre is a dream worth supporting. A dream worth fighting for. Don’t you agree? Give now

How Can I Help Keep the Fountain Dream Alive? 

Is Art Failing Us in These Hard Times?

Philip Seymour Hoffman in 'Death of a Salesman'.

Philip Seymour Hoffman in ‘Death of a Salesman’.

The social responsibility of art

by A. O. Scott

Ever since the financial crisis of 2008, I’ve been waiting for “The Grapes of Wrath.” Or maybe “A Raisin in the Sun,” or “Death of a Salesman,” a Zola novel or a Woody Guthrie ballad — something that would sum up the injustices and worries of the times, and put a human face on the impersonal movements of history. The originals are all still around, available for revival and rediscovery and part of a robust artistic record of hard times past. But we are in the midst of hard times now, and it feels as if art is failing us.

global-economyFor the past few years, like a lot of other people, I’ve been preoccupied — sometimes to the point of obsession, lost sleep, free-floating dread and active despair — by the economic state of the world. I spend more time than is healthy pondering the global labor market, the minimum wage, rising inequality, the collapse of the middle class, Thomas Piketty, Janet Yellen and the gross domestic product in China, India and Brazil. Closer to home, I’m grateful for my luck and worried about my neighbors, anxious about my children’s prospects and troubled by the fissures that divide my city and my country.

Strictly speaking, none of this has much to do with my designated area of professional expertise, which could reasonably be defined as writing about the stuff that people seek out to escape such worries and anxieties. Serious art and popular entertainment, in their diverse ways, offer refuge and distraction. Their pleasures and comforts are not trivial, but essential. Art is the domain of solved problems, even if the problems are formal and the solutions artificial.

But if art, ideally, floats free of the grim reality of work, need and sustenance, that reality is nonetheless its raw material and its context. Intentionally or not, artists in every form and style draw on and refashion the facts of life that surround them, and the resulting work takes its place among those facts. What I’m grandly and abstractly calling “works of art” are more concretely and prosaically books, songs, movies, plays, television series, environmental installations, paintings, operas and anything else that falls into the bin of consumer goods marked “Culture.” These goods are bought and sold, whether as physical objects, ephemeral real-time experiences or digital artifacts. Their making requires labor, capital and a market for distribution. The money might come from foundations, Kickstarter campaigns or retail sales or advertising revenue. The commerce between artist and public is brokered by the traditional culture industry (publishing houses, television networks, record labels and movie studios) and also by disruptive upstarts like Amazon, Netflix, Google and iTunes. But the whole system, from top to bottom, from the Metropolitan Opera House to the busker in the subway station below it, is inescapably part of the capitalist economy.

media icons

And that economy, in turn, provides an endless stream of subject matter. Much as I respect the efforts of economists and social scientists to explain the world and the intermittent efforts of politicians to change it, I trust artists and writers more. Not necessarily to be righteous or infallible, or even consistent or coherent; not to instruct or advocate, but rather, through the integrity and discipline they bring to making something new, to tell the truth.

Jane Austen

Jane Austen

If I want to understand the dreams of the gentry and the nightmares of the poor in early-19th-century England, I turn to Jane Austen and William Blake. All the news you need about class divisions in Paris and London later in that century can be found in the pages of Balzac, Dickens and Zola. The history of European painting from the Renaissance to World War I is, in large measure, the history of power, wealth and social status. In the 20th century, film, theater and television tell the same story, as comedy, tragedy, thriller and farce. Class consciousness in Depression-era Hollywood ranged from tuxedoed and mink-coated swells in Manhattan penthouses to strikers on the picket line. Postwar Broadway was the kingdom of Willy Loman and Stanley Kowalski, and as television became a fixture of middle-class homes, it chronicled the struggles and aspirations of families — the Kramdens, the Conners, the Jeffersons, the Simpsons — trying to achieve or maintain middle-class status.

blackish-key-art-fullAnd now? Should we be looking high or low? At sitcoms or science-fiction allegories or realist dramas? At a movie like “Snowpiercer,” which imagines a train speeding across a frozen, apocalyptic landscape as a microcosm of global inequality? At a television series like “Black-ish,” which illuminates the contradictions of upward mobility in a decidedly non-post-racial America? Some of my previous Cross Cuts columns have tried to plot the contemporary intersections of culture, class, work and money. In the past year and a half, I’ve written about how movies like “The Great Gatsby,” “Pain & Gain” and “Spring Breakers” reflect our ambivalence about wealth and materialism; about how Leonardo DiCaprio has become the movie-star embodiment of that ambivalence; about the gentrification of Brooklyn and the eclipse of middlebrow taste; about the contradictory status of creative labor and the state of the working class as depicted in the films of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne.

But I want to go further. I want to know more about the political economy of art at the present moment, to think about how artists are affected by changes in the distribution of wealth and the definition of work, and about how their work addresses these changes. So I decided to ask them.

This fall I sent out a plea, accompanied by a questionnaire. My intention was to conduct a bit of unscientific research, and also to advance a discussion about what art has done and should do at this moment of political impasse, racial tension and economic crisis, which at once resembles earlier such moments and has its own particular character. My questions were simple and far from new. The social responsibility of art has been a topic for debate since the ancients. But the answers that came back — from playwrights, filmmakers, rappers, poets and storytellers who have directly confronted these issues — testify to the complexity and the urgency of the issue. These thoughts — largely shared by email, and edited and condensed for space here — convey the sense of a conversation that is going on wherever audiences and creators grapple with the relationship between art and the world. It is my hope that what these artists have to say will provoke reactions from other artists and from readers, viewers and listeners.

Here is the panel discussion with artists on how they address social issues.

AO ScottA.O. Scott is a journalist and chief film critic for The New York Times. In addition to his film-reviewing duties, Mr. Scott often writes for the Times Magazine and the Book Review.