Essay-Review: Billy Elliot – A teaching moment?

Miners Association

Billy Elliot: A teaching moment?

 

 

J.P. Viernes as Billyby Paige Listerud

There shouldn’t be any trouble with the critically acclaimed and multiple award-winning show Billy Elliot, but there is. Simply put, the music – composed by Elton John – is gorgeous, the songs, memorable. The dialogue is, by turns, funny and frank—at appropriate moments brutally unsentimental and at others deeply touching. Under Stephen Daldry’s cunning direction, Billy Elliot successfully veers from hardcore expressionism to utter escapist fantasy. It’s a heartwarming tale about a child achieving his dreams against horrendous odds. All the same, while stuffed to the gills with sterling inter-generational talent, this multilayered production just isn’t putting bums in the seats at the Oriental Theatre the way Wicked did. Broadway in Chicago invited us to its “bloggers’ bash” last Thursday, no doubt to generate a fresh injection of press. Yet, shockingly, little more than half the theater was filled on a Thursday night.

So just what is the trouble with Billy?

  • Its rough language turns off too many parents. Hard to believe that this could be a concern in an urban setting, but this is the Midwest. Marketing Billy Elliot as a family show because of its plethora of child talent may have crashed on the reefs of American conservatism over language. Certainly the movie version, when it came to the US, received an R rating for adult language, which later transformed to a PG-13 rating upon DVD release. Much as I might wish that both parents and children could appreciate the touch of realism that Lee Hall has scripted for his Northern industrial English town, my sentiments may be completely overridden by parents not wanting one more cultural inducement for their kids to engage in verbal shock and awe.
  • It’s the economy stupid. Say what you want about uplifting messages about a talented dancing boy achieving his dreams, Billy Elliot is dark. Billy (J.P. Viernes for our performance) makes it to the Royal Ballet in London, but his small town community is going down. It’s 1984 and Margaret Thatcher is shutting down the UK’s national coal mining industry in favor of cheap coal from the Eastern bloc states. 300,000 jobs are all going bye-bye–forever. Try wringing a positive message out of that scenario as America double dips into the Great Recession (Great Depression for people of color) and the Democrats lose the gains they made in Congress two years ago.

So it’s not just the dirty words—Billy Elliot is crashing on the reefs of America’s economic and political turmoil. Would that the show itself could be a teaching moment about the value of survival in hard times. The trouble is that the only person surviving decently is Billy . . . and he survives because he is exceptionally talented, because his talent holds youthful promise, and because his future career is in the arts, not coal mining. The UK still subsidizes the arts far more than the US—but even that funding is facing a 25% cut under the current government.

Emily Skinner, Cesar Corrales and CastWhat may be an even more important point, emotionally and dramatically speaking, is that Billy is a lonely survivor. The production creates an infinitely potent moment of loss and isolation with the number “Once We Were Kings.” The miners, defeated after their struggle with the Thatcher government, descend into the darkness of the mining pit with only the lights on their helmets showing. Billy watches them depart—his own shadow cast long, black and solitary behind him. One way of life is ending while Billy’s is just beginning. Melancholy infuses Billy’s singular success at the Royal  Ballet. Billy makes his escape to London—but he cannot take the rest of his family or community with him.

Sadly, this just may be more realism than American audiences are ready to pay for in our country’s present situation. Ironically, Billy Elliot is just as much about human beings resorting to fantasy as a way to cope with hard times. This production contains incredible moments of fun and beautiful fantasy. Billy’s dance number with his young friend Michael (Dillon Stevens), complete with a cadre of 20-foot tap-dancing dress, is a flight into reverie over the joy of women’s clothing for the young cross-dresser. Other fantasy moments expand into profound theatrical expressions.

J.P. Viernes and Samuel PergandeOne of the deep pleasures of this production, over and above the movie version, is that we do not actually witness Billy as an adult ballet star. Future success is only hinted at during Billy’s dance with his older self (Samuel Pergande) to the music of Swan Lake. Peter Darling’s choreography and Rick Fisher’s lighting design evoke a scene that recalls William Wordsworth’s “The Child is Father of the Man.” The audience is moved to hope and dream with Billy because it can glimpse the fulfillment of his human potential through Viernes and Pergande’s grace and control.

Darling’s choreography even makes profound social statements about the nature of children’s lives under violent labor-busting conditions. The dance number “Solidarity” is by far the high point of the show. Darling intricately weaves together the feminine setting of Mrs. Wilkinson’s dance class with the outer masculine sparring between miners and police. Billy may tussle with the girls to keep up with Mrs. Wilkinson’s dance orders, but the children seem protected and separate from the struggle that is determining the course of their lives. Darling’s choreography stunningly reveals just how illusory separation is. It brings together the two disparate worlds of Billy’s universe and the lyrics of the song even comment on the blue-collar connections between the police and the striking miners. That’s a lot to achieve in one number and the cast pulls it off fantastically.

In fact, let’s just say here that every dance number is fantastic. Only the first act finale, “Angry Dance” pales, seeming rather anti-climactic, compared to the rest. Billy’s secret ballet lessons with Mrs. Wilkinson (Emily Skinner) have been exposed. Billy’s Dad (Armand Schulz) has just forbidden both them and his chance to audition at the Royal Ballet in London. So far as Billy’s family and the other miners are concerned, ballet is for “poofs.” Billy’s angry dance afterwards meshes with the violence erupting in town, since the police have just violently attacked Billy’s brother Tony (Patrick Mulvey – see picture below the fold).

Tommy Batchelor and Police Shields But once again, the choreography positions Billy as a lonely warrior against forces beyond his control. He alone faces a line of riot police with their ominous shields. Even as symbolism, the image is heavy-handed. Surely the rage and bloodshed that the whole community faces is worth some representation on stage. Having set Billy up as the boy who is “different” from the rest—because of his love for dance–he cannot at this point stand in for the whole community. As much as Fisher’s stark, expressionist lighting packs a powerful punch, the act of isolating Billy as if he were the only one suffering diminishes the powerful communal statement of the entire production and does not cleanly communicate Billy’s rage.

  • Billy is different from other boys. Billy is tacitly queer. Could the social conservatism of Billy’s mining town, circa 1984, have its mirror reflection in the urban and suburban environs of 2010 Chicago? That’s difficult to say. So long as documentaries like Straight-laced: How Gender’s Got Us All Tied Up reveal kids being harassed and bullied just for wearing scarves or pastel colors; so long as youngsters commit suicide because of anti-gay harassment at school – messages that promote tolerance regarding sexual identity and gender expression will always be needed in America.

A message of acceptance and tolerance, of appreciating differences, not denying, hiding or shunning them—this is the core message of Billy Elliot. One wonders whether this message, too, has been overwhelmed by our current economic troubles. Billy needs to escape the economic reality that his family and community confront. But the cost to him seems to be any close association with family and community. Few moments inspire more than when, not only Billy’s family realizes that he has to have his chance, but the entire community of rough and rugged miners offer up what little money they have left to get him to his audition in London. At that moment, Billy’s queerness seems to make no difference and their funding of his aspirations becomes their last, noble expression of “Solidarity Forever.”

Billy makes it out because of his exceptional talent. Heaven help the poor queer kid in a rough mining town who is simply average. At the end of the show, Billy gives his queer buddy, Michael, a goodbye peck on the cheek. Heaven help Michael because his community’s homophobia is not over and done with, whatever they have done for Billy. Michael still has to grow into queer adulthood. On top of that, he now has to grow up with extreme economic disadvantages to himself, his family, and his community—something that won’t make the homophobia go away. One of the terrifying things about economic crises is that people often go looking for an Other to scapegoat—whether that Other is queer, immigrant, or a member of a minority.

Is Billy Elliot’s message of acceptance, then, too narrow for our times? What one has with Billy’s acceptance by his family, the endorsement of his community, and with Billy and Michael’s own personal self-acceptance, is a brief respite from the punishing restrictions of sexuality and gender prejudice. It hardly seems enough in the face of government-sponsored economic terrorism–but they have to make do with what they have. And so do we.

Right now, that may not be enough for the American public, at least in terms of entertainment. Billy Elliot is such a big, rich and complex musical treat but it cannot do it all. One can only hope that this superb production has what it takes to survive the current climate.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

Billy Elliot is currently playing at the Ford Center/Oriental Theatre through January 15. Individual tickets range in price from $30 to $100, and can be bought at all Broadway in Chicago box offices (24 W. Randolph, 151 W. Randolph and 18 W. Monroe), the Broadway in Chicago ticket line at 800-775-2000, all Ticketmaster retail locations (including Hot Tix), and online at www.BroadwayinChicago.com. For groups of 15 or more, call 312-977-1710.  For more information, visit www.BillyElliotChicago.com.

Corrales, Skinner, Hammond and Ballet Girls

 

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INTERVIEW: Playwright Lisa Loomer

Playwright Lisa Loomer discusses her new play, Distracted, currently playing at American Theatre Company through February 28th.

Interview by Keith Ecker 

th_tn-500_loomerwm151222666 It’s hard to keep up with Lisa Loomer. The prolific playwright’s work has been produced around the globe in such countries as Germany, Mexico, Israel and Egypt. She’s the recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts grant, two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts as well as a handful of awards. In addition, her plays The Waiting Room—which is about the effects of cosmetic body modification on women—and Living Out—a piece that explores the relationship between a Salvadoran nanny and the Anglo lawyer for whom she works—are both taught in women’s studies and Latino studies programs.

Always one to gain inspiration from personal experience, it is only natural that Loomer would incorporate this idea of busyness in a play. Her piece Distracted, which is receiving its Chicago premier at American Theatre Company, explores the themes of sensory and information overload in our society, and more specifically, Attention Deficit Disorder. The conduits for the story are a husband, wife and their fidgety 8-year-old son. It’s part of the ATC’s 25th season, which explores the identity of the American family.


ChicagoTheaterBlog: American Theatre Company’s 25th season focuses on the American family. How do you think Distracted fits into this theme?

Loomer: Well, I think it fits all too well. Aside from the increasing number of children diagnosed with ADD and the huge rise in the number of psychiatric drug prescriptions written for children, it’s about how we live right now—our world of screens, our fractured attention spans, our need for stimulation and the effects on the family.

CTB: Distracted premiered in 2007. A lot has happened in the U.S. since then, including the election of our first multi-racial president, the collapse of our economy and, of course, the health care debate. Do you think in light of these historical changes, the play has taken on new significance?

Loomer: I think the play is about a society in a mad rush to keep up. I heard it in the State of The Union speech the other night, “We must keep up with China, with India, we cannot be second.” We need our stimulants and other drugs, our ever-changing Windows, our quick cuts, our frenetic rap. They keep us going. And as we fall behind in the world, as we see ourselves as struggling, I think it makes us run even faster. In terms of health care, I’m afraid I do see the drug companies as preying on this need of ours to perform, to be the best.

CTB: Distracted deals with issues related to ADD. What is it about our contemporary culture that has destroyed our attention spans? Is it Facebook, Twitter, 24-hour news cycles, etc.?

Loomer: Well, first of all, let me say that I do not believe ADHD is simply a cultural phenomenon. Scientists have isolated genes that are involved in ADHD. It is quite real, and I would never minimize its impact on the people who have it or their teachers or families. Whether it is a “difference” or a “disorder” is a question that I pose in the play. And I believe that what is a “difference” in the context of one society might be a “disorder” or “dysfunction” in another. That said, I do think that Xboxes and Twitter and the barrage of 24-hour news, etc. has had an effect on our attention spans. It’s harder to sit still, to contemplate, to wait and to pay attention. And what is attention? For me it is the ability to be present with someone without judgment. And that’s even harder to do when you’re distracted.

CTB: What themes are pervasive throughout your work? Why do you feel you focus on these concepts? Is it a conscious effort?

Loomer: I tend to be moved to write when something bugs me. I seem to have written a lot about balance or the need for balance—the balance of masculine versus feminine, nature versus science, Anglo culture versus Latino culture, the powerful versus the powerless, life versus art. It wasn’t conscious, no. But after a while it became clear even to me.

CTB: Tell me about your writing process. Where do you get your ideas, and how do you flesh them out into a full piece?

Loomer: I tend to get ideas by what I see around me. I wrote Living Out when my son was little and I spent a lot of time in the park, listening to both nannies and moms. I wrote The Waiting Room when the dangers of breast implants were in the news and a friend also wanted me to do something on Chinese foot binding and my mother was dying of cancer. I’m writing now about Israel and Palestine because, well, I read the papers and because I get a dozen passionate e-mails everyday from both sides. Once I do have an idea or an impetus or I’m pissed off enough, a character will appear in my mind and start talking and taking action. And then other characters will appear and start to disagree and get in the way. Once I have a first draft, I will say, “Now what does this want to be about?” And I’ll start to shape.

CTB: You’ve done stand-up comedy. Do you still perform stand-up today? How has this influenced your playwriting?

Loomer: I did stand up, political mostly, for a very short time. Mostly, when I did comedy, it was one-person shows in the vein of Lilly Tomlin. I was an actress, and character comedy and working in political-comedy/performance groups was part of being an actress for me. If stand-up influenced me at all, it made me appreciate the value of cutting. Being an actress had a far greater impact on me as a playwright.

CTB: What advice do you have for aspiring playwrights who wish to see their work produced?

Loomer: Well, my advice is always write what you have to write, write what is yours to write and never write to please or be “popular.” Your job is to do your body of work—no one else’s. I can’t tell anyone how to get produced. But I believe that the more you allow your own voice, no matter how strange, and explore your own interests, no matter how controversial, the more satisfying it will be. I also advise living your life so you have something to write about, talking to everyone about everything and going to the theater.


banner_distracted6

distracted is currently play at American Theatre Company through February 28th.

written by Lisa Loomer
directed by PJ Paparelli

January 28 – February 28 (ticket and show info)

Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm
Saturdays and Sundays at 3pm

run-time: 2 hours, with one intermission

kid-friendly?: recommended for ages 14 and up

Congress passes $12.5 million increase for the arts

Yesterday, Congress passed a $12.5 million funding increase as part of the FY 2010 Interior Appropriations bill for both the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).  President Obama is scheduled to sign this bill into law by October 31, which concludes National Arts and Humanities Month. The nation’s two federal grant-making cultural agencies will now each have budgets of $167.5 million, their highest funding levels in 16 years. As so many state and local governments have had to cut arts budgets across the country, this well-timed federal appropriations increase for the arts is a welcome infusion of funds.


FY09 vs. FY10 Difference

NEA

$155 million  raised to $167.5 million

$12.5 million increase

NEH

$155 million – raised to $167.5 million

$12.5 million increase!!


The FY 2010 Interior Appropriations bill (H.R. 2996) was passed in the House by a vote of 247­­-178 and in the Senate by a vote of 72-28.  Please play your part and send a quick e-mail to your members of Congress at the Americans for the Arts E-Advocacy Center and let them know how much the arts will benefit from this funding increase.

Senate confirms Broadway producer as next NEA chair

This afternoon, the U.S. Senate confirmed Broadway producer Rocco Landesman to serve as the next National Endowment for the Arts chair and former Congressman Jim Leach to serve as National Endowment for the Humanities chair. Both are expected to begin work next week.  Americans for the Arts President and CEO Robert L. Lynch issued the following statement:

"Today’s Senate confirmation of Rocco Landesman and Congressman Jim Leach marks a moment of great opportunity for our nation’s cultural agencies. Landesman embarks as Chair of the nation’s arts agency with a robust agenda, an upward trajectory of funding, broad Congressional approval, and a White House committed to attracting national attention to the value of the arts and integrating them into broader domestic policies."

Rocco LandesmanUpon his nomination, Mr. Landesman said, "I am honored to receive the Senate’s vote of confirmation.  I look forward to serving the nation as Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. I believe this is an auspicious time for the NEA and the country. Art is essential to the civic, economic, and cultural vitality of our nation. It reflects who we are and what we stand for — freedom of expression, imagination, and vision. I am eager to work with our many partners to bring quality arts programs to neighborhoods and communities across the country."

Congress has now recessed for August.  When they return after Labor Day, the House and Senate will resume work on finishing the appropriations process for FY 2010.  Currently, the House has approved NEA funding at $170 million but must await the Senate’s completion of their bill, which the Appropriations Committee set at only $161.3 million.   While both of these funding levels represent increases above its current budget, these bills will need to be reconciled and a final compromise bill signed into law by President Obama this fall.


Interesting Chicago-related comments in Robin Pogrebin’s NY times interview with Landesman:

While Dana Gioia, his immediate predecessor, made a point of spreading endowment funds to every Congressional district, for example, Mr. Landesman said he expected to focus on financing the best art, regardless of location.

“I don’t know if there’s a theater in Peoria, but I would bet that it’s not as good as Steppenwolf or the Goodman,” he said, referring to two of Chicago’s most prominent theater companies. “There is going to be some push-back from me about democratizing arts grants to the point where you really have to answer some questions about artistic merit.”

“And frankly,” he added, “there are some institutions on the precipice that should go over it. We might be overbuilt in some cases.”

And regarding the Arts role in the country’s economics health:

Mr. Landesman said that as chairman he will focus on the potential of the arts to help in the country’s economic recovery.

“I wouldn’t have come to the N.E.A. if it was just about padding around in the agency,” he said, and worrying about which nonprofits deserve more funds. “We need to have a seat at the big table with the grown-ups. Art should be part of the plans to come out of this recession.”

………“When you bring artists into a town, it changes the character, attracts economic development, makes it more attractive to live in and renews the economics of that town,” he said. “There are ways to draw artists into the center of things that will attract other people.”

Read the entire NY Times interview here.

Polly Carl – Steppenwolf’s first DAD (Director of Artistic Development)

Steppenwolf Polly Carl, Producing Artistic Director of the Playwrights’ Center of Minneapolis, will join the Steppenwolf staff in the newly-created position of Director of Artistic Development:

“We are delighted to have Polly Carl join the artistic team at Steppenwolf Theatre,” comments Steppenwolf Artistic Director Martha Lavey.  “In her newly-created position, Polly will be overseeing our new play development efforts and spearheading our work on the artistic initiatives facilitated through our grants from the Duke and Mellon Foundations.  These initiatives, dedicated to cultivating a new generation of artists and audiences and creating transparency in the process of new play development, will continue our engagement with audiences in the public square of Steppenwolf .   We are honored to be able to welcome a leader of Polly’s acumen and experience to Steppenwolf and look forward to the contribution she will make to Steppenwolf and to Chicago ,” adds Lavey.

Polly K. Carl Ph.D. is one of the nation’s foremost experts in the field of new play development.  She has served for eleven years at the Playwrights’ Center – the last seven as Artistic Director.  Under her leadership, the Center has grown from a local playwrights’ service organization to a national hub for playwrights, theater artists and theater companies that write, develop and produce new work.  Carl has sat on numerous boards, panels and committees including the Steinberg Advisory Committee to select their distinguished playwright award-the Mimi, the NEA Theater panel, the MAP Fund panel, and the board of Ten Thousand Things Theatre. Her Ph.D. in Comparative Studies in Discourse and Society with an emphasis on performance theory is from the University of Minnesota .

Best of luck to Ms. Carl!

2009 Creative Chicago Expo – Saturday at the Cultural Center!

2009 Creative Chicago Expo

 

Info for artists on

Space HousingBusinessCommunity

 

CCE09_postcard_f.jpgSaturday, April 4 10 AM – 4 PM
Chicago Cultural Center

Admission free ~ bring a friend!

20+ Workshops | 100+ Vendors | 40+ Consultants
Services for all Artists, Arts Businesses and Organizations

Dance | Fashion | Media | Music | Theater | Visual Art | Words
Once a year, the Creative Chicago Expo presents Chicago’s top resources, services and expertise specifically for people in the arts. Featuring workshops and vendors for individuals and arts organizations, the Expo is also an important opportunity to network and build community. Join over 3,500 artists who will make their way through the Cultural Center on Saturday April 4. The Expo is brings Chicago’s cultural community together under one roof!

CONSULT-A-THON!

Pick an expert on something you need — career coaching, legal or accounting issues, portfolio or grant review, casting agents, even organizational development and business issues for non-profits.

Schedule a 25 minute appointment for one-on-one consulting for only $10. Over 40 consultants will be available for appointments. Click here for the complete consultant list and to make an appointment. Limited to 3 appointments per person.

WORKSHOPS
Presented by top local and national service providers all day:

• Affordable Housing in Chicago
• Art Festival How-tos
• Benchmarking 101: Outcomes & Measurements
• Building a Board of Directors
• Business Licensing Basics
• Cultivating Individual Donors
• Finding Live/Work Space
• Fiscal Sponsorship
• Forming a Non-Profit
• Health Insurance Advice for Artists
• Marketing For the Cash Strapped and Time Poor
• Meet your Arts Service Agencies
• Obtaining Capital for your Creative Industry
• Reaching New Audiences
• Space Development Starter Kit for Non-profits
• Starting an Arts-Based Business
• Strategic Planning for Non-Profits
• Time Management for Artists
• Tips for “Successful Grant Applications
• Winning Public Art Commissions
• Your Credit Score: Re-Building Your Financial Health
Workshop Presenters include: Arts and Business Council of Chicago, Amdur Productions, Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center, The Center for What Works, Columbia College Chicago Arts Entrepreneurship Center, Community Media Workshop, Communication Society, Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, Executive Service Corps, Fractured Atlas, Future of Music Coalition, Illinois Arts Alliance, Illinois Association of Mortgage Professionals, Illinois Facility Fund, International Academy of Design and Technology, Lawyers for the Creative Arts, Inc., League of Chicago Theatres, Mission Paradox, and others.


Read complete workshop descriptions and schedule here

All 2009 Vendors after the fold.

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Senate Cuts Arts from stimulus bill… :-(

Americans for the Arts sent out this news, which is even more disappointing considering the list of senators who voted to cut arts funding (I have bolded those names):

Yesterday afternoon the U.S. Senate, during their consideration of the economic recovery bill, approved an egregious amendment offered by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) that stated “None of the amounts appropriated or otherwise made available by this Act may be used for any casino or other gambling establishment, aquarium, zoo, golf course, swimming pool, stadium, community park, museum, theater, art center, and highway beautification project.”  Unfortunately, the amendment passed by a wide vote margin of 73-24, and surprisingly included support from many high profile Senators including Chuck Schumer of New York, Dianne Feinstein of California, Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, and several other Democratic and Republican Senators.

If the Coburn amendment language is included in the final conference version of this legislation, many arts groups – including some in Chicago –  will be prevented from receiving economic recovery funds from any portion of this specific stimulus bill.  It is clear that there is still much work to be done in the Senate and in the media about the role that nonprofit arts organizations and artists play in the nation’s economy and workforce.

Americans for the Arts has offered a few plans of action:

  1. Easily contact your senator, telling them of your opposition to the Coburn Amendment, using this customized message .
  2. Click here to customize an opinion editorial to your local media, which supplies you with easy-to-use talking points.

To my readers – I strongly recommend that you join the Arts Action Fund today — it’s free and simple.