Thursday, March 09, 2017

"Acrobats of the Soul": A Revisitation and Review

I recently revisited a book I haven’t read since college, Ron Jenkins’ Acrobats of the Soul: Comedy & Virtuosity in Contemporary American Theatre. It is a time capsule from the late eighties, each chapter sketching a portrait of a variety artist or circus. Performers such as Paul Zaloom, Penn & Teller, Spalding Gray, Avner the Eccentric, and the Flying Karamazov brothers; Circuses ranging from Cirque du Soleil's then-nascent techno rock show to the scrappy one-ring Pickle Family Circus.

When I first read the book, I did so with the wide-eyed wonder of a teenager in Arkansas, amazed that such performers exist. Coming back to it about a quarter of a century later, as someone who follows in the variety arts tradition both as both a solo artist and as one-half of Mr. Snapper & Mr. Buddy, my appreciation for the performers and their acts is much deeper. Jenkins’ book is a great jumping-off point for further discovery, providing descriptions of acts and some script excerpts.

Where it fails for me is in Jenkins’ attempt to politicize the performers and acts. Granted, he doesn’t have to read much into the politically charged work of Zaloom or Gray, but his analysis of Cirque (as a for instance) feels particularly contrived. Jenkins is attempting to make an overarching point about the resurgence of variety artists in the ‘80s as a reaction to Reagan conservatism.

Without a doubt, opposition to the powers-that-be has always been and always will be a powerful motivator for great art. The fact that these same artists continued to thrive through the Clinton years and beyond speaks to a more fundamental quality, something that defies mere politics. And this is the greater lesson I take away from the book now: commitment to one’s craft, and active concern with audience engagement is more lasting than the heat of the political moment.

It speaks to our moment, as well. One of my greatest pet peeves is when performers make a meal out of low-hanging fruit. Going for the obvious gag, playing fan service to an audience who already thinks the way you do. Low-hanging fruit is at best a light snack; a fun size Snicker bar that gives you a burst of endorphins but little actual sustenance. The acts in Jenkins’ book had and have staying power precisely because they provide sustenance.

Off-the-cuff jokes about Reaganomics may have given audiences to The Flying Karamozov Brothers a jolt of delight; the mind-blowing synchronization of various and sundry objects passed between the “brothers” hits on something way deeper. The force of Zaloom’s stage presence, his lateral-thinking satirical observation is more resonant than the party affiliation of whoever is in the White House at the moment.

The lesson I take from Acrobats of the Soul defies the political patina Jenkins washes over everything. Rather, it’s the dialectic between Jenkins’ approach, and the longevity of the performers he profiled that reaches the slightly less wide-eyed adult who read the book most recently. Focus on your act and focus on your audience with fierce dedication.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

"... there of their own accord and acting from their own free will."

"I think of the security of cages. How violence, cruelty, oppression, become a kind of home, a familiar pattern, a cage, in which we know how to operate and define ourselves …"
- Eve Ensler, Insecure at Last

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Defined Through Its Effect

"Entertainment -- the cause -- is thus inversely defined through its effect: a satisfied and happy psychological state. Yet, somehow, it matters not whether the effect is achieved through active or passive means. Playing the piano can be just as pleasurable as playing the stereo." 
- Harold L. Vogel, Entertainment Industry Economics

Even when viewed through the cold lens of economics, it's about the audience.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Bring People Joy

"When I’m on stage, I’m trying to do one thing: bring people joy. Just like church does. People don’t go to church to find trouble, they go there to lose it." 
- James Brown

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Why We Stopped Writing Reviews

Fringe season is upon us, and with it a coming barrage of emails and Twitter messages inviting Mad Theatrics out to review anything and everything. We stopped publishing reviews in 2014 -- hell, we stopped publishing anything in 2015 -- but I still get review invites all the time.

There are no plans to start up the ol' play review grindstone anytime soon, and so I thought I might try to head off some of those emails and messages with this post.


So, that's pretty much it.


So, uh, thanks for stopping by.


Yeah, yeah, I know. Why post something short and simple when I can navel gaze for a few hundred words?


The Visceral Company Broke Me. I became a fan, and had to stop reviewing their shows. At the same time, I had no interest in going to see anything other than the quality of work I had found at Visceral (and Sacred Fools and Rogue Artists Ensemble.) If I'm only willing to review shows that I know I'm inclined to love, I'm no longer a critic. I'm a cheerleader.

It really started with Sacred Fools. They are an extraordinarily good group of people. So good, in fact, that I would like to someday work with them. I can't very well do that if I'm "the enemy." My priorities changed.

On a related note ...

Writing About Other People's Stuff Was Getting In The Way Of Writing My Own Stuff. I was spending too much time consuming, thinking about, and writing about the works of other people.

It was a very worthwhile exercise. When Paul Storiale first suggested that I start writing reviews, he said it would serve the dual purpose of exposing me to more theater in Los Angeles (thus improving my understanding of the scene overall) and would help me hone my story sense as a writer. He was correct on both counts.

I Got Tired Of Adding To The Noise. Seriously. I think there are now more critics than theater companies.

On a related note ...

No One Fucking Cares. No one decides to go to a play based on the opinion of some random anonymous dude on the internet. You decide to go to a play because someone you know is in it. You decide to go because you're on the theater company's mailing list, and you really like the sound of Troilus and Cressida set in 1930's Chicago.

The bulk of our traffic came just after informing a theater company PR person that the review of their show was up. Noting this, we focused on our actual audience: The folks involved in producing the shows we reviewed. Our reviews became more like notes and less like snark. I like to think that some of the people who read our reviews got something out of them, but I'm not fooling myself. The whole reviewer/reviewee relationship is not set up that way.

Most likely, anything good we wrote was taken as a welcome ego stroke, and anything bad was brushed off as "misunderstood intentions" or somesuch. Like the blind prophet Tiresias, I've been on both sides of this situation. I know how it goes.

In Conclusion, we do not write reviews anymore.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Sympathy for the Divine

"Good bad taste is celebrating something without thinking you’re better than it. You think it’s so amazing, and you could have never even thought it up.
"Bad bad taste is condescending, making fun of others.

"So that’s the difference for me: if you’re celebrating something or you’re looking down on something."

- John Waters (source

If you've ever seen any video of a live act, you know: You MUST be in the room to really get the full effect. A video may sometimes look pretty, but more often than not it looks horrible. It is impossible to get an accurate video artifact of a live performance unless you're a Martin Scorsese or Jonathan Demme, and even then the level of trickery and control employed is well beyond the means of your average videographer, no matter how dedicated or awesome that videographer may be.

To say something is "lost in translation" when a video or (god help you) photo of an act is chanced upon online is to engage in superlative understatement. You can't judge a book by its cover, and you most certainly can't judge a burlesque act by its fat suit.

Brandy Snifter's Divine act is a loving tribute to everything that Divine and the films of John Waters have come to symbolize. Embracing the outsider, reveling in what "decent" society considers trash.

Brandy doesn't do glib, dilettante work when she takes the stage. She is fully committed to everything she does onstage. She's not playing at Divine, she's playing Divine. Her Divine drag is perfect. She looks like Divine, and she fully owns the persona. Everything is on point, including the overall silhouette.

She's not shaming fat people for being overweight. To say that would be to say she's shaming Divine for being overweight, and of course that is not what Brandy is doing.

And herein lies the controversy. Brandy performs a striptease, down to a "fat suit." On its face, it sounds bad. Still photos and video taken out of context may seem shocking. In context of the act, dismissively calling it a "fat suit" is a pejorative. When Brandy strips down to and out of the fat suit, she's not shedding layers of fat; she's shedding a specific silhouette. She's shedding Divine' s silhouette. She's not shaming fat people for being overweight. To say that would be to say she's shaming Divine for being overweight, and of course that is not what Brandy is doing. Of course it's not.

Brandy is not propping up a caricature as a representation of reality in order to belittle others. Her act is not a metamorphosis of a fat person becoming skinny. In fact-- and this is some deep shit here -- Brandy is revealing something very personal about how she views herself by taking on the mantle of Divine. Brandy is stripping away the externals of Divine to get to the core of Brandy Snifter, as if to say, "This is who I am."

Brandy Snifter's reveal is not a "fat suit." Her reveal is something deeply personal about herself.

It's easy to get tripped up on the external, and that's rather the problem. Getting tripped up on the external is what the "straights" do to the heroes in John Waters movies. Tripping out on the fact that Brandy Snifter strips down to a fat suit is like tripping out that Glenn Milstead didn't really have tits. It misses the point by a mile while simultaneously proving the greater point. It proves the necessity of this kind of an act.

Brandy Snifter's reveal is not a "fat suit." Her reveal is something deeply personal about herself.

Somehow we've gone through a wormhole where we have to remind people that it's okay to be weird and different. We're all weird and different now, all of us, all weird and different just exactly the same as all the other weird and different people. When a person stands up and presents something personal and genuinely outre, what do we do? The same thing society has done to the outre since the beginning of society. Shun. Ostracize. Make them feel lesser-than.

That is the great tragedy in all of the hoopla that has surrounded Brandy's act. The reaction to it, the outrage and subsequent belittling of a performer who is honestly putting herself out there, is exactly the sort of thing that would piss off a person like Divine.

If you are an injured party in all this and feel you have some legitimate claim to feeling offended, that's your prerogative. You are absolutely entitled to your opinions and feelings, and no one can say boo about that. But I would ask that before you go on a wrecking campaign against another person's reputation, at least try to understand where they're coming from.

You may not like the art, but you might just come to respect the artist.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Sink or Swim

"It is unfortunate and unacceptable what vile and lazy do-nothings are given unwarranted credence for mouthing such foul and mean cliches as 'rip-off' and 'sell-out.' They have no understanding of our economy and the time it takes society to go. Confess and shut up! Capitalism good or ill is the river in which we sink or swim. Inspiration has always been born of recombination." 

- Gary Panter, "The ROZZ-TOX Manifesto"

Friday, March 18, 2016

Time To Renew Your Passport

"From the start it has been the theatre's business to entertain people.

"It needs no other passport than fun." 

- Bertolt Brecht, A Little Organum for the Theatre

Monday, November 03, 2014


If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber'd here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
If you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to 'scape the serpent's tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.
 Good night, folks.