the curtain 7.16.19 🍑

#14: capitalism and theatre, pleasure and pain
The Curtain mailing list
Gus Cuddy
S01-14 (Issue 14)

Hey all,

Hope you’re having a great Tuesday!


First, a few quick notes on some things that inspired me this week.

Tonight I saw The Farwell, which was wonderful. I recommend you see it if you get a chance. It just set the box office record for best theatre average this year, which may or may not be a meaningless statistic, but it’s a really great story.

Last night I saw an inspiring DIY variety show at the Magnet Theatre called Maaad Late!. The idea was that the whole thing was an improvised late night talk show, complete with a special guest and musical performance. While the show was funny, it actually moved me more than anything else: to see regular people get up and talk about what’s going on in their lives (in the special guest bit), and especially the musical performance, in which De La Cruz brought a dancer named Soundcloud who he found performing on the subway to do his first ever gig and tell a bit about his story. It’s maybe silly, but it made me happy to be in New York, and happy to be a human.

Something else that made me happy to be a New York human this week? Seeing people talk to one another and cooperate during the Manhattan blackout — it’s amazing how, even without traffic lights, people actually find a way to make it work. We didn’t devolve into anarchy. (Something that made me less happy? Our performance of A Strange Loop getting cancelled.)


My partner Mari is in a show opening at the Corkscrew Theatre Festival in NYC this Thursday. Go see it!!

# Notes from the week

# Pleasure as an organizing principle

The world under capitalism deals with pain as its organizing principle:

The organizing principle of the modern world is pain. Avoiding it, yes. But also trading in it, taking refuge in it, and using it to justify our actions. Pain has so many uses. Why would you ever give up such a versatile tool?

What would it mean instead to re-frame our organizing principle to be around pleasure? I loved this article by Tiago Forte that asks that question, summarizing the work of activist adrienne marie brown (whose books I have now bought and started reading).

Brown’s new book is Pleasure Activism: “Ultimately, pleasure activism is us learning to make justice and liberation the most pleasurable experiences we can have on this planet.” It’s so far an invigorating and provocative read.

It’s made me think seriously about how much of our world is centered around pain, ideas like you must suffer for work and that sacrifice is inherently goodd. There’s a lot to consider here, and I haven’t fully unpacked it.

But it made me think back to that viral “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation” piece, which is an excellent read if you haven’t read it:

Why can’t I get this mundane stuff done? Because I’m burned out. Why am I burned out? Because I’ve internalized the idea that I should be working all the time. Why have I internalized that idea? Because everything and everyone in my life has reinforced it — explicitly and implicitly — since I was young.

Tech, social media, student debt, the cult of optimization, etc has made us think that we need to be on the clock 24/7, always working, always suffering. How can we lift away this pain and move towards pleasure?

# Uptown/downtown, Broadway/Off-Broadway worlds continue to meld

With the announcement that Jeremy O. Harris’ Slave Play (directed by Robert O’Hara) is going to Broadway, the trend of the uptown/downtown wall being torn down continues, following a Broadway season that produced the work of Heidi Schreck, Daniel Fish, Taylor Mac, and Young Jean Lee. I also wrote about this in May.

I think this is really big news for theatre, and a potential encouraging sign for its future. Jeremy and the producers are subsidizing 10,000 tickets to make them available for $39, which to be honest I don’t think is cheap enough, but is a start. (It also doesn’t change the fact that, for some absurd reason, you can buy a “premium ticket” for $227 for the show.) There have been also “grassroots” efforts to subsidize that $39 ticket price on Twitter for anyone that wants to go, which is an interesting thing I’m seeing pop up more and more online. (And is made more potent by Jeremy and the show’s popularity on social media.)

And while I’m a fan of Jeremy and Robert and the play, it’s important to remember that the show was not at all without its critics. There’s a lot to unpack. But the marketing for the Broadway run is really pushing that Wesley Morris quote that it’s “the single most daring thing I’ve seen in a theater in a long time,” which is about as good an endorsement as you can get.

# Maria Striar on ticket prices, recycling sets and making it happen

Great interview with Clubbed Thumb Artistic Director Maria Striar in The Interval (RIP), a company that’s been killing it for a while but has recently made a bigger name for itself with What the Constitution Means to Me and (to a lesser extent) Plano.

It’s really important for us that it’s ambitious, but low stakes. There’s a calibration of shoot for the moon, don’t be lazy, don’t be unambitious, but also don’t be scared, don’t hedge your bets. You can try something out and if it doesn’t quite work, we’re all going to be okay.

We are very good at doing a lot with a little…You can take somebody else’s leftover set parts, and you repurpose your own set parts, and you do all kinds of clever, thrifty things that require a little bit more scheming and engagement**…**There is part of me that is so deeply downtown-y and scroungy and really hates waste. So I like that back and forth of using resources, as long as within the parameters of not wasting people’s time and not clipping people’s wings. The set budgets for Clubbed Thumb can’t cost more than the artistic. People first, stuff second or third, down the line.

I think the most important thing is striving to pay people. It is so expensive. The city is so expensive to live in. Everything you can do to put money in the hands of young artists or other types of theatre practitioners is allowing the presence of this form in this city to continue. I feel like that is my highest priority. I also feel like it’s really, really important to keep ticket prices low. I can’t tell you how many people showed up for the 25 dollar rush tickets. And how many people tell you they don’t have money for a 20 dollar ticket.

Plainly put: even $20 can be too much.

# New York Theatre Workshop continues to crush it

NYTW announced their full season, which includes a production of Three Sisters starring Oscar Isaac and Greta Gerwig and directed by Sam Gold, Celine Song’s Endlings directed by 24-year-old Sammi Cannold and featuring a 4,000 gallon water tank, and a new play by Martyna Majok directed by the amazing London-based Rebecca Frecknall.

NYTW has their problems as well, like any Off-Broadway institution, but they have consistently been doing great work for many, many years, and I imagine one or more of these productions will become a major hit and/or transfer to Broadway. They continue to be one of the institutions in New York that I am most excited about. (But they need cheaper tickets, and a more easily accessible rush system — theirs is a total mess, but that’s not a unique problem.)

# What What the Constitution Means to Me Recouping its Broadway Capitalization Means to Me

Constitution made back its money on Broadway, which is another very positive sign that downtown theatre sells on Broadway, and that the old-world thinking of “hit-making” is pretty much dead. The internet has made it so that audiences are able to discern more clearly what is great and what’s not — they don’t want to be merely spoon-fed “entertainment” in the classic Broadway sense.

Of course, there are also lots of holes in this argument. Tickets are still too damn expensive. This play has a simple set and small cast, so is not exactly expensive to produce, and just now made its money back after a relatively long run. (Which indicates that producing theatre is just too expensive!) And as usual, so much money being tied up in any one show (and this is peanuts compared to other, larger shows) does have quite a sickening feeling to it, and it’s tied to a deeper, systemic money problem at American theatre’s very core; that is, an existential crisis of participating in a capitalist market economy.

# Thinking critically about staging gendered violence

A very good conversation in Howlround about the perils of staging gendered violence (specifically the nunnery scene in Hamlet), and the nature of trauma.

What is the purpose of staging and showing such explicit violence? Is this a shorthand for thinking about moral flaws? Is staging violence a way of saying the perpetrator of violence suffers from mental illness? Is it just saying, “Rather than actually considering other aspects of the text, we’re going to use a moment of violence as some other way of showing internal struggle or personal turmoil or emotional conflict”?

They also discuss Nanette:

Jess: That makes me think of Nanette, the Hannah Gadsby special.

Emer: Yes!

Jess: Part of what she’s doing is unraveling the idea that you need to subject yourself to violence in order to ease tension.

# End Note

art by Kyutae Lee.

I’m working on formatting for this newsletter. If you have any suggestions on what you like to see the most here, please let me know. I love putting this together, and I’m trying to figure out which parts of it have the biggest impact. Thanks!


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