New: “I took my play and ran…”

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“The preview performance of Julie Bovasso’s Angelo’s Wedding on 11 May 1985, imploded after an altercation between the playwright and the staff of Marshall Mason’s Off-Broadway Circle Repertory. Bovasso, then almost fifty-five years old, attended the performance against the explicit wishes of the production team; the rehearsal period had been fraught. Suspecting unauthorized cuts, Bovasso took a seat in the audience, but then, midshow, confronted the backstage crew and demanded the chance to give the actors notes. The staff refused. At the start of the third act, Bovasso changed tactics: she alighted the stage and instructed the audience to leave the theatre. Members of the crew blocked her access to the actors, leading to a physical altercation, a 911 call, and, eventually, her forced eviction from the theatre.”

—> Read “Subject To Punishment: Julie Bovasso’s Angelo’s Wedding and the Politics of the Unproduced,” my article on Bensonhurst-born playwright/actor/director Julie Bovasso (1930-1991) in the May 2017 edition of Theatre Survey (58:2). 

[Photo credit: Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library. “Julie Bovasso.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1950 – 1963.]

urban renewal, retrenchment, & La Mama

The four-story, red-brick Aschenbroedel Verein building, now La Mama E.T.C., 74 East 4th Street, 1977. Photo Edmund V. Gillon / Museum of the City of New York.
The four-story, red-brick Aschenbroedel Verein building, now La Mama E.T.C., 74 East 4th Street, 1977. Photo Edmund V. Gillon / Museum of the City of New York.

I’m very glad to have an article included in the insightful special issue of Performance Research, “On Institutions.” My piece contextualizes Ellen Stewart’s Off Off Broadway theatre, La Mama E.T.C., within a climate of fiscal crisis, neighborhood politics and real-estate policies of 1960s and 70s New York City.

Access the full article here, and follow this link to see the contents of the issue.

Lateral IV: Annie Lanzillotto and Eviction Survival Published

My article in Lateral IV, the journal of the Cultural Studies Association, is part of a special issue on performance and cultural studies, edited by Eero Laine and Stefanie Jones. “Live from the Nebulizer: Annie Lanzillotto and Eviction Survival,” can be read here.

Lanzillotto and her grandmother Rosa Marsico Petruzzelli performing together in a’Schapett! (1996) at the Arthur Avenue Retail Market in the Bronx. Photo: Andrew Perret
Lanzillotto and her grandmother Rosa Marsico Petruzzelli performing together in a’Schapett! (1996) at the Arthur Avenue Retail Market in the Bronx. Photo: Andrew Perret

 

 

 

The New Brooklyn: “Girls” Vs Ebbets Field?

The gentrification spat between Spike Lee, Errol Louis, and AO Scott inspired me to write this piece about some of the dangers in the “old vs. new Brooklyn” narrative, and the long history of artists protesting the way the Times represents the outer borough neighborhoods of New York. It was published today in New Geography.

 

The New Brooklyn: Girls Vs Ebbets Field?

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So much spit has flown on the topic of gentrification in New York City that it seemed at best superfluous and at worst suspicious for New York Times chief film critic A.O. Scott to say anything at all about the subject. But Scott couldn’t resist. In “Whose Brooklyn Is It, Anyway?” last month, Scott stuck a toehold into the debate sparked by film director Spike Lee, whose 7-minute rant against gentrification recently went viral. Lee compared the influx of white New Yorkers into the south Bronx, Harlem, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Crown Heights to “motherfuckin’ Christopher Columbus,” and decried the pricing out of renters and the wholesale takeover of neighborhoods, whose schools and streets, he claimed, received few resources before the white interlopers arrived.

Among the responders to Lee’s tirade was journalist Errol Louis, who accused Lee of hypocrisy. The filmmaker may have grown up in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, but the $32 million Upper East Side brownstone he just sold (or, as Louis argues, “flipped”), marked him as merely confused.

Scott gets a lot wrong in his attempt to wade into this discussion, but he gets one thing right: “culture, rather than politics,” can be a fruitful area of investigation if “labor, wealth and power” are your lenses of choice. There is, of course, ample research on economic restructuring and gentrification, real estate and global capital, and spatial injustices in the history of the city. But sticking with culture—including popular culture—is also important. Scott’s headline indicated that he was “tracing urban change,” from Welcome Back Kotter to Girls. In his analysis, as waves of demographic changes occur television representations shift.

He complicates this a touch by introducing the global branding of Brooklyn, but it isn’t quite clear how that branding is actually deployed. Through the ubiquity of artisanal shops? Scott’s partial answer is that this “New Brooklyn” found in “restaurants, real estate, and retail” is, in turn, seen—glorified? exaggerated? — on TV shows like Girls and 2 Broke Girls. In these shows, the borough “figures as a playground for the ambitious but not quite disciplined, broke but not really poor, mostly white, college-educated young.”

But while Scott seems somewhat dubious of the images of Brooklyn represented by these shows, he ultimately writes as if he believes that TV or film can perfectly double reality, and, further, be trusted: “Girls” reflects a reality, but also popularizes a small sliver of experience as a global brand, and—here’s the nasty part—even is reality. Things have changed, he writes, as one can see in the development battles over Atlantic Yards: “the old Brooklyn mourned the loss of Ebbets Field, historic home of the Dodgers; the new Brooklyn reacted with ambivalence to the construction of Barclay’s Center, where the Nets now play.”

Scott isn’t interested in how a show like Girls might change, absorb, or reinforce communities and/or realities. And he isn’t so much interested in what it might leave out. For Scott, the relationship between television shows and gentrification is fairly pat. This pits the “Old Brooklyn” against the new, as Scott trots out well-worn examples like the Honeymooners and Saturday Night Fever and The Squid and the Whale. Never mind that he could have easily chosen very different movies and TV shows—The Warriors or The Jeffersons or Willie Dynamite— but then the relationship would have been considerably less pat; the images and representations might have complicated his understanding of New York at a certain time, his simplistic vision of the Old Brooklyn of working-class aspiration and the New Brooklyn of handlebar moustaches.

When we think of certain films or TV shows as “capturing” their time, we usually mean that they tap into an anxiety, a flavor, an aesthetic. TV shows, in their goofy approximations of urban life — think here the fake skyline of Friends—clearly remind us that cultural producers pick and choose symbols that they use to construct — represent, if you will — a certain reality. To what end? Pleasure, entertainment, authentication, maybe documentation. But these can be contested, too, and Scott’s insistence on ignoring the cultural sphere as its own field in which struggles for power take place (the power conferred by image and by representation) is troubling.

In his tepid response via Twitter to Lee’s grouchy self-defense, Scott described his article as “reportage.” He identifies a correlation between a cheese store on his block and a cheese store in Girls and understands one as reflecting the other, yet longs for artists and writers to “discover” another Brooklyn, one that looks more like it did in Lee’s film Crooklyn, or Jonathan Letham’s novel Fortress of Solitude, when residents lived in “close, sometimes uncomfortable proximity to people in very different circumstances.” But he’s gotten himself into a pretzel here. Discontent with the world outside his window, he’s also vaguely discontent with the world on his TV.

Coincidence? Like any representation, Girls might help us recognize something about ourselves; might deliver a particular kind of pleasure to a particular kind of audience. But there are brutalities and deceptions to be found in any artistic or cultural representation of a city, and Scott’s decision to switch hats from critic to commentator suggested something a little provocative: the potential for actual public debate related to representation and power and wealth.

There’s a long history of artists protesting the way the Times evaluates and represents the outer borough neighborhoods of New York. In 1971, Robert Macbeth of the New Lafayette Theater in Harlem chided Times theater critic Mel Gussow for referring to a production at his theater as “defiantly parochial.” Although Gussow penned a glowing review, Macbeth took exception to the suggestion that the theatre company

should have been something other than what they were…. Gussow, it seems, is saying that Black artists can and will and should only achieve full presence in his view when they are performing in his theatre, for him and his audience, like it was during slavery time…. Then he would be spared the long journey to the “narrow province” of Harlem. Harlem would come to him. And the artists of the province would insure that a transistorized translator would interpret their petty offerings for his “more universal” intelligence.

In 2014, many critics still long for universal intelligence; it’s much easier than thinking about the particular, or what actual reportage on wealth, labor, and power in the Arts & Leisure section might be. All of the cultural elements at play here called for a rough and tumble sociology of culture approach, but in the end, we were left with a battle of wills (and egos). Lee and Scott engaged in a duel of authenticity: can Lee really speak as a victim of gentrification, or has the great leveler of wealth rendered him a gentrifier, in spite of his own self-identifications? Today’s duel of choice rages on at the expense of other questions: the lived experience of neighborhood in relation to cultural access, and the actual reach of cultural products.

Rather than reflect on Girls as a true “copy” of the city, it would behoove Scott to demystify it. Why this curious game of pretending Girls is not the fruit of creative and commercial choices made in order to shape a particular urban experience? Why ignore labor issues and embedded assumptions about wealth and representation, in an article that purports to look at “labor, wealth, and power”? Perhaps the terrifying thing for Scott would be to question where the pleasure in watching Girls comes from– for him, and for audiences.

Hillary Miller is Lecturer in the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University, where she teaches in the Immersion in the Arts: Living in Culture program. Her current book project, “Drop Dead: Crisis and Performance in 1970s New York City,” looks at theater and community identity during the 1975 fiscal crisis.

The “new” Brooklyn: Flickr photo by Matthew D. Britt, Barclays Center, Brooklyn, New York.

Advice to Applicants: New article in PAJ

The January 2013 PAJ has a special section on Educating the Artist.  My contribution, “Advice to Applicants: Labor, Value, and MFA Program Design,” is featured alongside articles by Heiner Goebbels and Emma Lew Thomas (“Research or Craft?: Nine Theses on Educating Future Performing Artists”) and Peter Zazzali (“Actor Training in New York City”).

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Here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Advice to Applicants: Labor, Value, and MFA Program Design

From: PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art
Volume 35, Number 1, January 2013 (PAJ 103)
pp. 32-42 |

When I ask a playwright friend of mine for reflections on his graduate school experience at a prestigious playwriting MFA program, he does not immediately have a clear answer. For many graduates of MFA programs that focus on dramatic writing, the conversation that has been happening in the theatre community for some years amounts to more than just a juicy topic for a plenary session: it is, rather, one of life and livelihood. It would be an understatement to say that there are no extensive opportunities for the “early career” playwright—and the ones that do exist do not pay even subsistence wages.1 The more we talked about the tangled process of becoming a “professional” playwright, and the disillusioning path of the playwright who once believed a Masters program would increase the chances of having his work read or seen, and who then must face the uneven terrain of over-burdened literary departments and few work prospects, the more agitated he became. This is the emotional quality of life as a playwright, sharpening pencils for the production that will never come. He recalled his intuitive response to play readings in graduate school, which foreshadowed his later experiences on the “outside”: the process suggested an exchange that was more like a begrudging favor, and less like the collaborative ideal of a barter. Actors were there to help you “fix” your play, to read your work as a kindness, garnished with a little hope that perhaps you might be the next Tony Kushner.

The residue left behind was infantilizing; we are here for you, the playwright, and in turn the writer learned to express a confused gratitude. The confusion is not surprising: MFA playwrights are being trained to enter a field that the New York Times called “obsolete” as a profession. “Richard Nelson might be the last one,” said Marsha Norman, referring to the number of playwrights who only write plays.2 The phenomenon of playwrights migrating to television and film writing is by now (very) old news. To debate the merits of such a system is hardly worth the energy; it remains a crucial avenue for playwrights who wish to be dramatic writers and not cab drivers or mathematicians or real estate agents by day. It is a recognized and accepted fact that playwriting programs do not provide entrée to full-time careers in playwriting, but more often in education or another profession, with playwriting sprinkled on the side. Even Kushner does not support himself through playwriting.3 Often ignored, however, are the curricular imperatives that this state of affairs now mandates: a serious exploration of new alternatives to the predominant MFA playwriting program design and coursework.

Regardless of the perils of the field, students continue to attend these programs, a fact that is not wholly attributable to youthful hubris or artistic whimsy. As long as programs continue to advertise that they prepare students for “professional careers as skilled dramatic writers in theatre,” students will hope against hope and apply with these expectations. They will be counseled by their undergraduate mentors that an MFA program is a place that can buy them time while they focus on their craft; that is, it will allow them to write a lot, under the auspices of an institution, with the aid of mentors and peers. None of these assumptions are misplaced: the achievement of the degree denotes a level of seriousness regarding dedication and artistry, and, I suspect, will do so for a long time to come. The question of what aspiring writers study when they actually attend these programs is, then, of crucial concern.

What students actually study is the workshop model, an approach to producing writing that has been much debated. In his review of Mark McGurl’s The Program Era (2009) about the importance of creative writing programs in postwar literary history, Louis Menand highlights the…

Available for download here.

Walking the Elastic City

My interview with Todd Shalom and Niegel Smith of Elastic City is included in “Walkers, Voyeurs, and the Politics of Urban Space,” a special issue of the Radical History Review. Take a look at the full issue contents and order a copy here.

Walking the Elastic City

Total Detroit: An Interview with Todd Shalom and Niegel Smith

Elastic City, an organization that gives sensory, conceptual walks through New York City, explores embodied approaches to accessing urban archives. Todd Shalom, the artistic director of the organization, invites artists to create walks that emphasize engagement with the city space not through observation and exchange of factual information, but through participatory performances. Every Elastic City event positions walking as a central practice that awakens participants to their own mental mapping process while also maintaining a careful attention to the street as lived space. In August 2011, theater director Niegel Smith led Total Detroit, a walk that encompassed fifty-seven hours, beginning and ending at LaGuardia Airport. As a performance, Total Detroit rehearsed Smith’s ideas about walking and social meaning. This interview with Shalom and Smith was conducted one week after they had returned from Total Detroit.