Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Radio Silence

My quiet has been entirely circumstantial… I was running around New England like mad for 5 days and then my good friend dropped in on a whirlwind tour of the southwest.

I have things I want to complain about I’m sure, and I want to find a way to honor Mr. Pinter… but as this year winds down I have to take a moment to reflect.

2008 was a challenging year for many, and one that they are saying a gleeful goodbye to.

That is not the case for me.

2008 kicked ass, and if I am able to take the momentum from this year into 2009 (even in the face of global depression) the coming year will ALSO kick ass.

I produced two highly satisfying (and radically different) shows, performed to my own satisfaction in a third, got married (and went to Costa Rica) and saw my littlest sister get married.

And this country decided to take a chance on Hope.

My hope is that this year we take our first steps from Yes We Can to Yes We Are.  That this year is a year of change for theatre artists taking charge of and responsibility for their own work.

I have one major project scheduled and two new programs and the framework of a new Austin theatre community to help weave.  Money is no object.

2008 I will never forget you, and 2009? Watch your ass. We’re coming for you.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Standing at the Gate

Critics are apparently the topic of the week in the coffee bar that is my brain.

Critics are an odd appendage to the theatre community. They are (for the most part) as knowledgeable as your given practitioners in the rare case when they aren’t practitioners themselves, yet the hold themselves apart from the process to comment on it. What do I think their role should be in a perfect world?

Like it’s that easy. Different roles for different folks naturally!

First, there is a difference in my brain between reviewer and Critic. so let’s decide, just between you and me, that words mean something and that review and critic, being two different words, mean different things shall we?


Critic to the audience
The critic owes the audience a fair evaluation of a show, but more than a blow by blow. A critic owes more than a see it/skip it. A critics owes the audience a bit of context, a bit of dramaturgy, a bit of perspective on the producing company and their previous work, and why this current work matters or doesn’t

Critic to the Artist
The critic owes the artist as unbiased a view of the art as they can offer, with full disclosure of bias where it exists. The critic owes the same level of discourse to the artist as the audience, and should spare unnecessary cynicism or “snark” as in a searchable world those things become unerasable parts of a performer’s (or companies’) CV.

Critic to the Arts community
The critic is a gatekeeper. They control the only view of this niche world that most people get. Thiers is the king-making  power of The Trusted Opinion. As a part of the arts community they have a responsibility to not be destructive. In my perfect world they are the ombudsman of the arts community.

Reviewer to the Audience, Artist, and Arts community
A fair unbiased accounting of the show. Spare the snark. Recognize your junior gatekeeper status, and do no harm to the community.


Here do a Google Search for The Nina Variations.

How many of the first ten are from reviewers/critics?

FIVE. The others are my company’s website, a ticket giveaway for my production, a press release for an older production, teachers’ materials, Google’s own book search and Dramatists listing for it are 3rd and 4th.

That matters. That’s going to change the opinion of people thinking about doing the show never mind seeing it.

So that’s a start.
What needs to be added?
What needs to be expanded?
Aside from a rubric about always loving your work what do you want of of a critic or reviewer?

The First Step to Change is Participation

intentions put into words become actions

My wife is working with local artist L. Renee Nunez to create an art installation downtown as part of First Night Austin (and ensuring a second year of bark no my carpet at the holidays).


“But Travis? I’m in Vancouver!”

I know. Isn’t the internet awesome?

Read on:


As we head into 2009, for many of us the impact humans have had on our environment is constantly in our thoughts.  Both businesses and individuals are starting to take real action to provide a world for future generations that more sustainable than the one we currently inhabit.  Action originates in our thoughts and prayers, and we seek to use art to influence the thinking of those around us.

“Regenerate” is a site-specific installation intended for First Night Austin 2009.  At 3pm on December 31, 2008, we will be hanging mobiles made of branches and jute from the trees on triangle island. We invite everyone present to contribute a "Prayer Butterfly" to this project by writing a prayer, hope, wish, positive thought or resolution for our environment on a corn husk butterfly. These butterflies will be added to the mobiles. For those outside Austin who wish to participate, you can submit a prayer to us - we will be adding prayers received from outside Austin as well. Please help us to transform Austin's "Triangle Island" into an island of hope and intention for the new year. The more participation we can get, from Austin but also from all over the world, the greater the impact we will have.

If you are in Austin please stop by on First Night and take part in the construction, or write your prayer at the triangle. (If your in Austin on Saturday and have a pair of scissors I’ll but you pizza and beer in exchange for cutting out butterflies!) If you are anywhere else in the world? Go to the site and submit your prayer, hope, wish, positive thought or resolution for our environment. There will be tons of pictures of the construction and final installation over in the Regeneration gallery so keep checking in.

And honestly? The more people from the more places that contribute to the installation the better it’s going to be.

So tell you friends.

Tell your theatres.

Tell your churches and synagogues and covens.

Take a step, participate.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Who watches the Watchmen (and women)?

Lots of people watch the watchmen honestly. With roughly 4.3 trillion interested parties watching their every semicolon, theatre critics get banged around an awful lot for their daily bread. I would wager that on any given production the (non-appreciative) critic takes more abuse than any of the actual creators, without so much as their Mom telling them that they’re pretty and did the words in the right order.

But apparently Steven Leigh Morris at the LA Weekly thinks that they need more regulation and tighter scrutiny.

Of course, being a bear of very small brain, I am flummoxed.

Critic-O-Meter is a review aggregator. That’s what Rob and Isaac are doing. It’s what they said they were going to do. It’s a pretty great service if you’re in the greater New York area. I guess I’m not sure why they’re drawing fire for it.

There is a need for Higher Theatrical Criticism. I don’t think anyone is arguing the negative there, if they are I haven’t read them. But it is not every person’s responsibility to fight every fight. If Colin Mitchell and  Steven Leigh Morris feel the need to fight that fight, more power to them and godspeed. I know that Tony Adams over at jayraskolnikov was Critiquing the Critics for a while (before other - more pressing - duties called) and good on’em.

But that’s not what Rob and Isaac are doing. They aren’t looking to have the conversation with the critic. They are looking to provide a place where the existing critical material about Broadway and Off Broadway shows can be found and clicked through. Why this has LA so pissed is beyond me.

This doesn’t destroy any of the deeper discourse on theatre. Isaac and Rob are both very active participants in all manner of conversation, high and low, as pertains to our favorite anachronism. They do it under their own names, in their own spaces.

Blaming a review aggregator for the fact that George Bernard Shaw isn’t going to see [Title of Show] and deconstructing the deconstruction is, frankly, idiotic. I had no idea they MADE strawmen that large. The library didn’t kill Shakespeare. 

Maybe it’s something I’m picking up from my wife, or maybe it’s the 8 years of being called unMurkin, but I grow ever more tired of people deciding what everyone else should do. Colin and Tony, kudos for following your gut, and responding to the gatekeepers. And Mr. Morris, I enjoy your work when I stop in (out here in the provinces I don’t have much need for show reviews from Gomorrah) keep that LA scene on it’s toes, and maybe Travel + Leisure will have y’all a tenth of a point ahead of us next year instead of behind. (I’m kidding, it’s Travel + Leisure and we have ZERO beaches)

But everyone needs to stop bitching about what everyone else should be doing, especially if it’s not touching your work. If you see a lack, a hole on the fabric of our business, step up. If you can’t for some reason, ask for help, or point it out. You want Higher Discourse? There are limitless pixel inches for you to create it any time you want. You want to simply read the Higher Discourse? George Hunka is available 24/7 at

Be part of the solution or go watch teevee.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

See… The Idea is to do this massive theatre piece

This is a post regarding my reaction to Synecdoche, New York, a film written and directed by Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind) I have no idea what would constitute as a spoiler for this movie but I’m not screening for them so if you’re going to see it and are sensitive to such things please don’t read this until such time as you have gotten an opportunity to see it.

To start with the 7th grade term paper staple I will define my terms:

A synecdoche (sin – EK – doh - kee) is a figure of speech in which the one of the following (or its reverse) is expressed: A part stands for a whole.

There is a cottage industry springing up for folks trying to explain this movie. Which seems a shame as they are spending time trying to intellectualize their response (rather than go with their emotional response) when Charlie Kaufman told you what it was about in the title.

Synedoche, New York (henceforth the shorter SNY) is Charlie Kaufman’s examination of the artists’ life, his experience in the artists’ life. The first criticism of this film, and most Serious Films (and make no mistake – this is a Serious Film), is that it is pretentious and masturbatory. Which is shorthand for “I didn’t like it so the artist is an elitist asshole who made it too hard”… but I digress.

The film opens with Kaufman avatar Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Caden Cotard, a regional theatre director languishing in Schenectady in an unfulfilling relationship with his artist wife Adele (Catherine Keener) and young daughter. He is about to open a dreadful, unfulfilling production of Death of a Salesman (perhaps the prototypical America self-deception drama) and is failing at therapy.

Adele (who takes the life she examines and contains it on tiny canvases) bails with Olive for Germany, and global fame and success (highlighted by an ‘extra’ in Caden’s later opus walking through wearing a faded ‘Adele’ t-shirt), while Caden begins to mentally and physically fall apart and we first begin to slipstream through time. Caden loses months without recognizing it, only being made aware of it by amorous coworker Hazel.

Caden receives notification that he has received a Macarthur Fellowship, announces to a not-listening Adele (via phone) that he is going to make something big and real and true, acquires a hangar in New York and sets to.

And now, the scene set, the movie really begins, and becomes impossible to describe linearly.

So we move on to why in the world I’m writing this all down in a theatre blog.

Two reasons.

Reason the first?

The Grand Overarching Theme of Synedoche, New York is Caden Cotard’s synecdoche. Caden immerses himself in his Great Work. His synecdoche is theatre. He substitutes the work for the whole of life, and it consumes him. Time compresses, and relationships tangle, knot, and slip away in moments until the fiction of his engrossing production becomes his only reality.

Reason the second?

Caden works on this production from early midlife until his (and most of the casts’) death. It is never finished because in his quest for ultimate reality each new person that he or a cast member interacts with needs to be added to the cast. Their lives and homes become part of the Synecdoche, New York he has had constructed in the hanger inside the Real New York.

Without predetermined boundaries (Caden would call them out for fake) the network of stories is as large as the population at any given moment. You can never tell them all. Or as Caden discovered, tell even one with all the richness and truth that it truly deserves.

Everything is a choice. How much of your life will you devote to your art? Really and truly devote? How much will you live in the Real World with everyone else? How does that balance compromise or enrich the work or your life? Separately, at what point does the chase for Truth and Purity in art become destructive, because no audience ever gets to view it?

Please understand, this isn’t a post where Travis explains it all to you. This is what I got out of this film on this viewing in this moment in my life. I really think that it’s going to say different things to me each time I view it, and I will view it several more times. I recommend that you give it a try if you have a chance.


Thursday, December 04, 2008

Not for nothing…

But will the last show open on Broadway remember to feed the cat and turn out the lights?

Wednesday, December 03, 2008


I’m a baseball fan.

I love stats and leaderboards and comparisons, even if the criteria are completely opaque and arbitrary.

Travel + Leisure runs lists of, y’know, everything. Best everything bagel under $2, top 20 fresh mozzarellas… I mean it’s pretty comprehensive.

They ran a list of the top 25 theatre cities
(H/T AmericanTheatreWeb)

Rank      Score      City
1     4.90     New York
2     4.52     Chicago
3     4.50     Minneapolis/St. Paul
4     4.30     San Francisco
5     4.26     Boston
6     4.25     Washington, D.C.
7     4.19     Las Vegas
8     4.06     Seattle
9     4.05     Philadelphia
10     3.97     Portland, Oregon
11     3.92     Austin
12     3.91     Los Angeles
13     3.87     Nashville
14     3.85     Charleston
15     3.84     Denver
16     3.83     San Diego
17     3.72     Atlanta
18     3.69     Santa Fe
19     3.66     San Antonio
20     3.62     Dallas/Fort Worth
21     3.60     New Orleans
22     3.54     Orlando
23     3.47     Miami
24     3.45     Phoenix/Scottsdale
25     3.36     Honolulu

SO THERE LA! Travel + Leisure couldn’t find your theatre apparently…

Surprises for you?

For me, Austin being 11 and so close to the top 10 is a little surprising. But then when I asked myself who should be higher I couldn’t figure a better answer. San Antonio being on the list is a little surprising, it beating out Houston a little MORE surprising.

Las Vegas? Over Seattle?

But I’m interested in your thoughts. What would you change if you wrote for Travel + Leisure?

(and no I have NO IDEA what criteria they used… if you find a mention of it somewhere let me know and I’ll edit away.)

ETA: "Travel + Leisure teamed up with CNN Headline News and asked travelers to rank 25 top U.S. cities in 45 categories[...]. More than 125,000 opinionated travelers voted."