On the Paradoxical, Enigmatic, Exhausted Alexis Soloski

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CriticsSummer in New York — well, more like the good-weather months, from approximately April through October — has become Festival Central and it really can be quite overwhelming. My personal background happens to be live theater, so I’ll rattle off the dramatic tsunami, from multiheaded-hydra monsters like the New York International Fringe Festival, Midtown International Theater Festival and New York Musical Theatre Festival to smaller scale yet no less impactful, dynamic fare like the Summer Play Festival, Ice Factory, the HOT! Festival, the Fresh Fruit Festival and whatever wild, inspired lunacy the Brick Theater cooks up for Kings County delectation. The avalanche of work — not to mention all that attendance — is also phenomenal. What it suggests to us regarding the basic health of the craft is unquestionable. However, with that avalanche can come a very real possibility of dramaturgical overload.

Quick history lesson: Until 80 or 90 years ago, New York theater all but ceased during the summertime because air conditioning didn’t meaningfully exist. It simply wasn’t practical or feasible or managable to perform — or to sit in some steambath edifice. The story of Steele Mackaye and his penchant for invention, such as a rudimentary but ultimately ingenious air conditioning mechanism at the Madison Square Theatre, is always fun to tell, but the fact is that it was several decades into the 20th century before indoor theater during summertime — I don’t mean summer stock — was something to discuss.

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The summer break for professionals in the field and for those covering their work, was naturally a cherished time to recharge, rethink, re-plan, re-instruct, recapitulate, reinforce and re-imagine. If you consider the fact that not only have New York theater festivals multiplied beyond anyone’s imagination, but festivals in other disciplines — music, dance, performance art, visual art — have doubled, tripled or quadrupled as well, you have a situation in which that refreshment period is done, buried, kaput. For the last 15 years or thereabouts, theater in New York is as colossally and monumentally 24/7/365 as everything else is in this hyper-manic-warp-speed culture. And if theater isn’t your bag, summertime Gotham will surely offer you something, somewhere, some festival or other, that absolutely is.

As we live in a time of unbounded and expected cynicism, it is increasingly fashionable, then, for critics and observers to express a weariness, a certain exhaustion, with the seemingly endless metastasizing of summer festivals. Getting back to theater specifically for a moment, it’s geographically inescapable: If you’re not located in New York, you’re likely somewhere else in which another theater festival is within driving distance. Or you’re in Edinburgh, immersed in the biggest, oldest fringe and theater festivals of them all. Or at who knows how many Shakespeare festivals. Whether you’re an audience member, a practitioner or in the media, I believe in a ruthless rule: If you’re overwhelmed, ease up. Stop going. Take time off. Recharge, rethink, re-plan, re-instruct, recapitulate, reinforce and re-imagine.

For if you don’t, you’re liable to rail. And so now we come to a blogpost published in the Guardian by Village Voice theater critic Alexis Soloski. Reading it, you instantly felt compassion and concern for her. The headline and dek — which I imagine she probably did not write — commences the piece with a languid yet disconcerting tone:

Theatre festival fatigue in New York
New York is awash with theatre festivals over the summer – and the chance to discover exciting new voices is getting lost in the flood

Even if I hadn’t gone on to read the piece, the headline would be an alarm bell: Who says there’s festival fatigue in New York? (All right, so I did. So Soloski does, too.) A louder alarm bell is the dek: stating “the chance to discover exciting new voices is getting lost in the flood” signals the reader that there’s so much chaff now that discerning wheat is well-nigh impossible. Soloski is entitled to her opinion, of course. But even as a matter of pure editorial opinion, sending this message to the reader sets a high bar because the reader will expect — and deserves — proof. Can one just blithely say that the wheat-chaff process is now untenable? Mustn’t one illustrate and demonstrate why and how that is so?

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For commercial and nonprofit theater producers and presenters, after all, summer theater festivals have increasingly become orgies of sheer potential and possibility; more and more shows each year enter a fast-track toward additional development and that, my friends, is one of the primary reasons why summer theater festivals have metastasized at such a mind-blowing rate. It may take one, two, three or more years for a property to arrive at its final destination — Off-Broadway, the touring circuit — but New York’s summer theater festivals are increasingly seen as shopping malls for such affairs. The Summer Play Festival, for example, undeniably bills itself as a shopping mall for new properties — that’s why the plays are unavailable for review. Now, if commercial and nonprofit producers can discern wheat and chaff in the midst of a “flood,” shouldn’t critics and audiences be able to do so as well? In fact, shouldn’t critic be able to do it, as in so many things, better than the producers?

Soloski opens her piece with a confession:

While I love my work as a drama critic and used to very much enjoy my days of frantic Fringe-ing, I have begun to view this late-summer ritual with something approaching dread. It’s not the fault of the Fringe, but rather the fact that in recent years New York has come to suffer from a condition called festival glut.

In 1996, the Lincoln Center festival opened its doors to counter the theatrical summer doldrums. The Fringe festival started the following year. Now New York is overwhelmed with dramatic events. These last two months have already seen the Summer Play festival, Summerfest, Summerworks, the Summer Solo Series and a dozen others. The Fringe has even spawned a knock-off: the International Cringe festival, at which I witnessed several (more or less intentionally) execrable shows last week.

True. Yet there’s a problem here: in 2007, Soloski wrote a piece in the Voice stating that FringeNYC

…has largely failed to attract the range and quality of shows at other fringe festivals- Edinburgh, Dublin, Adelaide, even nearby Philadelphia.

And that while some shows — at the time, she cited Urinetown, Matt and Ben, Debbie Does Dallas and Dog Sees God — were Fringe hits and transferred to other venues with varying success

….very little in the New York Fringe Festival appears, well, fringe.

The bottom line, Soloski wrote in 2007, is that

Having attended eight of the 10 previous New York Fringes and seen well over 100 shows, I can claim with some confidence that since the mainstream success of Urinetown, the offerings have become distinctly less eccentric…. Not since 2000, when I saw Charlie Victor Romeo and Tiny Ninja Macbeth, has a Fringe show really surprised me.

So not only is Soloski kvetching about a festival glut, but assuming her position hasn’t changed about the New York International Fringe Festival, 10 of the last 12 Fringe festivals have left her unimpressed or unsurprised. Two years ago, in response to her Voice piece — which explored what’s wrong with FringeNYC’s structure and featured quotes from various folks, such as FringeNYC co-founder John Clancy, on how to fix it — I wrote a post that included these graphs:

[Soloski’s essay] …reeks of wild agenda-setting; it’s more of an injection of pure, unapologetic subjectivity into the debate over what’s wrong with the Fringe (if you agree there’s something wrong with the Fringe) than a cogent analysis of the Fringe at this moment in its history. To state that the Fringe doesn’t “exude that kind of excitement or buzz” associated with other festivals, that it has “largely failed to attract the range and quality of shows at other fringe festivals,” is to marginalize (some might say vaporize) the work of the many thousands of its local, national and international artists and participants since its inception. With the blithe, broad, Marie Antoinette-esque flick and smack of her dainty editorial hand, Soloski simply dismisses their combined product. How facile, how flimsy, how forlorn. If the product is so poor, if the buzz is so lacking, if the whole is so much less than the sum of its rusty parts, why are tens of thousands of people schlepping all over town in the muggy August heat to see theatre? Are they all just idiots?

…let’s assume Soloski’s thesis – skewed and unproven as it is; patronizing as it seems; founded on little more than that aforementioned flick and smack of her aforementioned hand – is valid. Let’s agree, too, for purposes of this analysis, that the Fringe is simply a limp dramaturgical dishrag smearing the American theatre, denuding it of all of its brio, sweep and sass. In that case, sure, ok, I think it’s quite fine to talk to John Clancy about what the Fringe might do to “sex itself up, to attract innovative artists, to convince more experienced artists to return” – clearly as one of the Fringe’s co-founders, he’s the perfect “get.” (I also consider John a friendly colleague and a man for whom I have tremendous respect even when I disagree with him.) But, in my view, if one is going to suggest that something must be done “to convince more experienced artists to return” to the Fringe, surely actually naming two or three such individuals would be instructive…. Three times in her piece Soloski cites Urinetown, which has become the well-dinged hockey puck in the debate over whether the Fringe has become simply a supermarket for commercialism, a victim of its own perceived or proven successes. How lame.

…Her definition of Fringe (not “the innovative or the outré” but “the sort of work that crops up on the fringes of a curated arts festival”) is blitheringly reductive; her demand for “weirder, more outlandish work” goes, in essence, strictly undefined. Soloski suggests that, having seen “well over 100 shows,” she can “claim with some confidence that since the mainstream success of Urinetown, the offerings have become distinctly less eccentric.” This is not only highly subjective but ignorant, pedantic and wrongheaded. If Soloski has been unable since 2000 “when I saw Charlie Victor Romeo and Tiny Ninja Macbeth” to see work that “really surprised me,” could it be that perhaps there’s something seriously defective with her aesthetic? ….I never thought of the Fringe as perfect, but I never thought of it as so, well, grindingly vanilla, either.

And so now, reading Soloski’s blogpost in the Guardian regarding “dread” at the approach of another Fringe, I have to ask: Wouldn’t it be more sensible to leave town? It turns out that’s what she has in mind:

…Last month I spent my holiday in London and Manchester, seeing plenty of plays. Nor am I anti-festival. Every year a critic friend and I hatch schemes to get ourselves to the Festival d’Avignon; they’ve yet to work.

I say go. If a critic has been unable, in 10 of the last 12 Fringe festivals (or approximately 2,000 shows), to find much to her liking, and if the “flood” of theater festivals have rendered her unable to locate “exciting new voices,” shouldn’t she do something else?

How alienating as well that Soloski told the Guardian readership about how disdain for homegrown work:

I would never call for a moratorium on festivals; I’d just prefer that New York’s were fewer and better assembled, and brought more experimental companies to the city. Alas, many are overbooked, under-curated, and rely exclusively on local talent. What I miss most from 10 years ago isn’t so much the opportunity for a holiday but the chance to uncover a really exciting new voice… it has been years since I anticipated the Fringe with such relish – or hoped to find there the next great writer, performer or company.

I hope she finds it. And gets a rest.

CATEGORIES: Theater

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