Monday, June 9, 2008

It's a wrap (plus blog stats)

Posted by John Stoehr on Mon, Jun 9, 2008 at 5:11 PM


It's finally over.

Last night at Middleton Place was a terrific cap to this year's Spoleto Festival.

We've seen a lot this year. Some expected, some unexpected, a lot of it memorable, all of it worth doing all over again.

But not for another year.

Meanwhile, it's time to see what we've accomplished.

Here's the breakdown of what we've done, says our resident web genius Josh Curry (who also took the above photo; he's our resident photog genius, too).

An estimated 5,000-6,000 people read Spoleto Buzz

The tally for Spoleto Buzz, Eargasms, and Spoleto Party Blog:

388 posts (including archives) were read

18,388 times

980 views per day on average

A comparative tally for all of City Paper's blogs since May 23:

In 2007: 308,967 hits from 16,768 visits

In 2008: 742,000 hits from 58,396 visits

Friday, June 6, 2008

The Post and Courier's missed opportunity

Posted by John Stoehr on Fri, Jun 6, 2008 at 11:46 AM

Philip Murphy of Mount Pleasant found fault with Tim Page's review of Monkey: Journey to the West. The overview critic for The Post and Courier wrote that he had little taste for the circus or for theatrical fare like that offered by Chinese opera director Chen Shi-Zheng, Britpop songwriter Damon Albarn, and Gorillaz illustrator Jamie Hewlett. If that were the case, Murphy said in a letter to the editor published on June 2, then why did Page write a review of something he already didn't like?

"Page should have disqualified himself," Murphy wrote.

I think he's right, but I must respectfully offer a slight amendment to his kind recommendation that P&C readers take a look at "the review by John Stoehr in the City Paper for a less biased perspective." I'm flattered by Murphy's approbation — we strive hard toward journalistic and critical excellence — but I never wrote a review. The piece Murphy cites — called "Motley Monkey" — was in fact a preview, a feature article whose nature was journalistic, not evaluative.

Even so, what Murphy's comment reflects is something larger, the two very different kinds of media coverage of Spoleto Festival USA. City Paper puts the arts at the center of its mission as an independent newsweekly. The P&C, on the other hand, is the paper of record. It has obligations different from ours. Besides, arts coverage gets diluted among stories about gardening, health, sports, etc. And like a lot of American newspapers its size, The Post and Courier gives voice to an anti-intellectual attitude. The arts are fun, sure, but not all that important.

Murphy's letter also reflects a level disappointment in Page's reviews and it puts the spotlight on the P&C's missed opportunity to enrich and enliven Charleston's aesthetic and critical conversation. As it is, readers are merely annoyed. The placement of Page's negative review of Amistad — above the mast, as if shouting with disdain, a decision made no doubt by his editors, not Page himself — still has people talking. That might seem great, to have people talking about the arts, but they're not talking about opera; they're talking the media's coverage of it, a misplaced argument fueled by misspent energy. And it overshadows whatever good work Page has done (the review for Amistad, for instance, was reasoned, balanced, insightful, and probative, all the things we'd expected from Page).

Were expectations too high? Well, Page is a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic. He was the classical music critic for the Washington Post for years. He has written numerous books about classical music. Published widely and often, Page is an authority and a nationally recognized figure in cultural journalism.

So when we read articles about how Charleston and Spoleto are a good match, when we read his column about the opportunity for cheap entertainment at Spoleto and Piccolo Spoleto, and when he wrote about how he spent only 40 minutes at the American debut of Monkey, we were let down. A good match? Yes, we know very well. Cheap entertainment? Thanks for the news flash. And why couldn't he give Monkey due diligence? Given Page's pedigree, we were expecting more.

Since Spoleto began, I have written posts critical of the P&C's cultural journalism. I'm not merely taking pot shots. And I don't point out the paper's missed opportunity with an elite cultural critic just for fun. I do this, because I believe that the quality of the conversation among Charleston critics should be as high a level as we can achieve. Critics, including myself, should be held accountable for what they say and how they say it as much as the artists they critique are held accountable for what they produce.

I was hoping Page might set an example for us. Maybe next year.

Friday, May 30, 2008

More gaffes

Posted by John Stoehr on Fri, May 30, 2008 at 4:00 PM

The hits keep on coming from the P&C . . .


In a review of Vaud Rats: Critic Sandy Katz writes that actor K. Brian Neel "channeled Robert Downey Jr. playing Charlie Chaplin." I'm pretty sure that Neel was influence by Chaplin, but whether he was influenced by Downey playing Chaplin seems to be another matter entirely.


In a review of the fourth chamber music concert at the Memminger: Critic Jeff Johnson writes about composer "David Papper's Requiem, a short, intense composition, features three cellos ..." In fact, the composer's name is David Popper.


In a review of The Burial at Thebes: The cutline says: "Catherine Hamilton plays the title role in The Nottingham Playhouse's translation of Sophocles' Antigone. In fact, the translation was done by Seamus Heaney, the Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet and translator of Beowulf, not the theater company.

In a review of the Imani Winds' Music in Time concert: Critic Loretta Haskell writes that the first piece on the program was written by Jeff Scott, "the French horn ensemble member and composer-in-residence." The Imani Winds are a woodwind quintet.

Later, Haskell writes that Wayne Shorter's composition, Terra Incognita, is "a delightful tribute to the composer." She later says that Terra Incognita is "translated as 'Unknown Land.'"

Again, writing about the Shorter piece: The composer's direction to avoid "playing measures together," Haskell writes, "classifies it as 'chance' music." That's debatable. "What a welcome and lyrical addition to that 20th century genre!" I think she meant repertoire, but I'm not sure. I know she meant 21st century.

Then she writes that the Imani Winds concert is "what live music is about and is the Music in Times series at its best." In fact, the series is called Music in Time.

Haskell also notes with authority that the piece by composer Gyorgy Ligeti "highlighted Ligeti's masterful play between sound and silence." Prior to the performance of Ligeti, the audience was told by the oboist that Ligeti was a master of playing with sound and silence.

You're welcome

Posted by John Stoehr on Fri, May 30, 2008 at 12:55 PM

That's what I'd like to say to Dan Conover of the Post and Courier. In today's preview of Taylor Mac (headline: "Modern 'fool' shares truths at his own risk"), Conover talked about the cross-dressing performance artist as "the Fool reimagined for the 21st century" who is "a truth-teller in drag" like "Frank-N-Furter," Tim Curry's meatloaf tranny in the classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

This comes more than a week after I wrote a Spoleto Buzz post connecting Mac's shape-shifting persona (in his case, shifting genders) with other shape-shifting fools who have license to goad the wise, challenge the virtuous, and act as critic of the world. I even delineate the fool's genealogy a bit — from Taylor Mac to Eddie Izzard to RuPaul to Frank-N-Furter.

Conover's article comes more than a week after I wrote a (discursive and perhaps too long) piece connecting the archetype of the fool to Chen Shi-Zheng's Monkey: Journey to the West. In it, I attempt to see the monkey king as a "global comic hero finding his natural audience in America."

I try to understand the monkey king as a metaphor for "America's continued role and purpose in a new globalized world, a revised version of Whitman's liberal transcendental self — a multi-national, multicultural, multi-spiritual comic hero perfectly suited to the 21st century."

And I try to put Monkey and (later on) Taylor Mac in an American context:

We like the risk-takers and mischief-makers, the hustlers and provocateurs. We have soft spots for thick-skinned kidders, visionaries, and con men: the dreamers and schemers, the fakers and fabulists. American history is filled with figures who played shape-shifters, tricksters, impersonators, and anti-heroes. We love them for their foreignness, eccentricities, and power to morally instruct, entertain, and make us laugh.

Tom Sawyer, Freddie the Freeloader, and Mohammad Ali; P.T. Barnum, Florenz Ziegfeld, and Ignatius T. Riley — the list goes on. Yorick and Puck find their modern expressions in Stepin Fetchit, Frank-N-Furter, Andy Kaufmann, and Borat, each exploiting his otherness to tell some kind of truth about us. All emerged from an Anglo-American culture that arose from an egalitarian gumbo of social differences and religious contradictions.

Lastly, Conover's article comes after two other Spoleto Buzz posts (here and here) in which I joked about the evidence piling up that this year's Spoleto is the year of the trickster.

So Dan, you're welcome.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

How YouTube is like vaudeville

Posted by John Stoehr on Thu, May 29, 2008 at 6:48 PM


K. Brian Neel was running a fever the entire time he was performing Vaud Rats on Wednesday night. I found this out afterward while we talked about his interest in the rich history of vaudeville.

As we talked about the play within the play aspect of his show, he asked me what I thought of the ending (don't worry, there's no spoiler here). He asked if it were buoyant and hopeful. I had to be honest. No, it wasn't. Fatalistic is more like it. He agreed that there might be something to that reading, but that's not what he normally does. Vaud Rats usually ends on an up note. It must have been the fever, we thought.

Perhaps it was a happy accident. The note of fatalism gave Vaud Rats a level of gravitas that hadn't been apparent to Neel before, he said. The end of vaudeville was a brutal time for stage performers, most of whom were left out of work and impoverished after the rise of mass entertainments like film and radio.

There's an alternate theory about the death of vaudeville, Neel said. Performers couldn't adapt. They couldn't come up with new material week after week, a pattern that's standard and expected these days. Neel said that vaudevillians would come up with a shtick and just do it over and over again.

Like the guy who did regurgitation on command. He'd swallow kerosene, then water. He'd first vomit the kerosene on to a fire, then vomit the water to extinguish the fire. When film came along, guys like this, who were merely freak shows, would lose out very quickly. Their bosses would film them doing their shtick, then fire them. No need to hire a guy day after day, road show after road show, to do the same thing when you can use a new kind of media to do the same thing and only pay for it once.

I told Neel that that pattern reminded me of the current woes in journalism. Newspapers aren't in control of their products as much as they used to be. Many on the business side of the newspaper industry are blaming new media, like Google, and sounding the tones of fatalism, like they too have a fever. Journalists and critics are unable or unwilling to adapt are finding themselves furloughed or retiring early. Others are saying that those who adapt to the changes are the ones who will succeed.

Then Neel says that YouTube is just like vaudeville. There have always been people out there who have a talent at something and they want to share it. Like the vomiter. YouTube is spreading these unique talents the way that vaudeville did in the pre-digital age. The difference is that at one time, people would pay to see that kind of thing. When the media changed, they no longer did. Performers had to change as the media changed. It took a long time to figure but eventually they did. Perhaps the same will happen in journalism of the 21st century.

(above Brian Neel after Wednesday's performance at Lance Hall at the Circular Church. You can tell he had a fever, but he performed his guts out anyway)

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