Zombie Flick without the Zombies: Guthrie’s New Production of The Birds

Take a contemporary, character-driven psychological thriller zombie flick where all of the characters have taken refuge in a remote farm house.  Remove all guts, gore, and zombies, add the sound of birds attacking.  Translate that to stage and you have the Guthrie’s new production of Conor McPherson’s adaptation of The Birds.

During last night’s preview the pace of the play was achingly slow at points but I’m sure they’ll tighten that up by opening night.  Over all, it was a very nice evening.

The most remarkable thing: the set is amazing, with wonderful attention to detail.  The most annoying thing: to make the sound of birds attacking windows and doors, they had a person kicking/pounding on the door.  That sound would be impossible for a bird to make (besides possibly Big Bird).  At first it left me wondering “Who’s outside? Maybe there really are zombies.” then it just became a nuisance.

We Theoroi had conversations with Sound Designer Scott Edwards and Assistant Director Amanda Friou before the show, which was a good way to prepare for seeing the first preview of a new play.  Edwards was quietly casual but got everyone riled up when he started talking about why he loves working in live theater what it’s like to work as a sound designer.  Friou did a great job of explaining all the work that had led up to the evenings performance and how many people it takes to put on a production like this.

After the show, we debriefed in the Guthrie’s Kitchak Lounge over wine and snacks.  Not surprising, it’s possible to get a lot more out of a play when you have 25 people to unpack the show with afterwords.  There were many very cool angles on the characters and the plot that I simply wouldn’t have noticed if others hadn’t pointed them out.

After the after party, a handful of us retired to Zen Box Izakaya on Washington.  I was delighted!  Finally a place to get Takoyaki in Minneapolis! And they’re open late! And the Takoyaki is really good!


Theoroi: a lighthearted exploration of social media, relevance and performing arts

When my friend Suzanne approached me about joining the board of the Schubert Club, I didn’t know much about the organization. My friends in the performing arts were quick to inform me that, though understated, the Schubert Club is a pillar of the arts which, like the Walker, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, and The Museum of Russian Art, holds a position on the international map of the arts as well as an important position locally. That was enough to lead me to a meeting where Suzanne explained that the Schubert Club is one of the oldest arts organizations in the country and, to paraphrase her, “Organizations don’t last 120 years by chasing fads, but they also can’t ignore change. We know that underneath the fads of social media is an important current of huge social change. Your role would be to help us articulate an understanding of that underlying trend so that we can respond to it wisely.”

Now that’s a challenge I can sign onto — putting Facebook and twitter in context for an organization that has witnessed the advent of telephones, recorded music, radio, television and the internet.

A few weeks later, Suzanne introduced me to Kathleen van Bergen who was Director of the Schubert Club at the time. Kathleen told us “I have this idea. What if we pick of group of people in their 20s and 30s, send them on a season-long tour of the top performing arts organizations in the Twin Cities, and ask them to post online about the experience.” With that, a new project was born and I joined the board. A few months later, Bethany Kois suggested the name theoroi (Greek: θεωροὶ or θεαροὶ) — who were ambassadors of festivals in ancient Greece — which is a perfect fit.

The basic idea of our theoroi project is fairly simple — invite a group of bright young people who aren’t arts insiders to experience a season of performances presented by the Twin Cities most prestigious performing arts organizations. Ask these participants, our theoroi, to post about their experiences on blogs, Facebook, twitter, or any other online platform of their choice. Let each organization put its best foot forward and see what happens.

From an organizational perspective, the motivation for this project is modest. It’s an open-ended exploration, allowing the Schubert Club to lightheartedly dip its toes into the realm of social media and see what happens when you mix together an unseasoned audience, a season of prestigious performances, and the potent cacophony of social media?

Any time you combine young audiences with established performing arts organizations, a discussion inevitably arises around the topic of relevance. Art lovers, patrons and creators perennially ask (or are forced to answer) “Is this art form (opera, ballet, symphonic music, chamber music, etc.) relevant to modern life or is it simply rote recital of outdated beauty?” The answer is inevitably an enthusiastic and often articulate expression of all the ways that the art certainly is relevant. This leads to the obvious follow-on: “What about all those people who aren’t participating? How do we show them that this art is relevant for them in their modern lives?”

Patrons of the oldest and most prestigious performing arts organizations often use grey hair as a simple metric for how well an organization is doing at answering these questions. “I see an awful lot of grey hair in the audience” is like a murmured alarm call saying that something needs to change lest another institution suffer the same fate as vaudeville.

Unlike projects of the past, theoroi makes it relatively easy to see and measure the actual response each participant has to each performance. It also forces the participants, the theoroi, to play the role of ambassadors by expressing their opinions in a public (or semi-public) venue. Far from being an oddity of the project, this is an apt reflection of today’s media where, for better or worse, everyone is a critic and absolutely everyone with an internet connection has access to a personal publishing platform. This is very useful for exploring the questions of relevance but it also goes deeper. Anyone who has watched a Disney film, read Lord of the Rings, or pondered the US Constitution knows that with power comes responsibility. In the information age we are incessantly reminded that “the pen is mightier than the sword”. We are trained to be acutely aware of the close links between power and information. In this context, it’s both exhilirating and disappointing to witness the popularization of publishing power. Why is it disappointing? Because technology changes much faster than society. In the same way that tyrants like Napoleon sweep in to take advantage of the confusion after a revolution, companies like Facebook are poised to take advantage of the populace while society recovers from having a century worth of communication infrastructure rendered obsolete in less than a decade.

It’s in this situation, where we see an entire civilization grappling with the fundamental ideas of communication, power, culture and historical context, that we begin to see clues to answering the driving question behind Theoroi — How are established modes of performing arts relevant to modern audiences? While the possible answers are myriad, it’s inevitable that they will be tied to the millenia-long artistic exploration of the relationships between power, knowledge, society and tradition.


Worst theater experience of the year: Vox Lumiere’s Phantom at the Ordway

Vox Lumiere’s adaptation of Phantom of the Opera was spectacularly, embarrassingly bad. If I could redact it from the Theoroi schedule, I would. The only positive thing about that evening’s experience was that it forced the Theoroi participants to grapple with the challenge of speaking publicly, online about a really bad theater experience. This did give rise to a moment of bonding for the group, but I worry that it was downed out by the horror of sitting through 2 hours of amplified schlock bereft of any musical or artistic merit.

There were numerous moments throughout the night where I realized my mouth was hanging open, involuntarily, in what must have been an expression of complete disbelief. Great art can transport you out of your body and into another aesthetic plane. Vox Lumiere triggered a defensive out of body experience, leaving my eyes and ears to experience the assault while my mind hid as far away as it possibly could.

I’m deeply appreciative of the fact that all of the Theoroi stayed through both acts.  For many of them I think it took a feat of will to return to their seats after intermission.  At the end of the show, the audience responded with a shellshocked 0%/0% ovation — nobody stood up when the applause began and nobody was standing when the applause finished.

When we gathered in the lobby to debrief about the show, everyone made an earnest effort to find constructive and meaningful ways to describe the train wreck they had just witnessed.  More than a few of them were reduced to observing that “Well, the Ordway does have to fill the auditorium with something every night”. Is that what motivates the Ordway’s programming team?  Are they merely concerned with filling space, regardless of the artistic or entertainment quality of the show?  What a disappointment.