Saturday, August 26, 2006

Year-in-the-life books, part III: Theater and Business

Goldman, William. The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway. New York, Harcourt, Brace & World, [1969].
An oldie but a goodie, as they say. And it's by the author of The Princess Bride! I read this so long ago that I don't even remember what season was profiled--I think it was 1967/68. Goldman tracked the progress of all the shows that opened on Broadway in that season. Not completely a "fly on the wall" view, but it was compelling nonetheless. I believe Goldman did interview key people as to what went right, and wrong, with the various shows of that season.

Cohen, Leah Hager. Stuff of Dreams: Behind the Scenes of an American Community Theater. New York : Viking, 2001.
...and the community is a suburb of Boston, Mass. The play: the controversial M. Butterfly, dealing with issues of race and gender. I admit, I only remember a few particulars about the book: how isolated the Asian-American actor who played one of the leads was, partly by choice; the hunt for costumes, and a lot about the author's experience with theater. Maybe there wasn't a lot, but I didn't want to read ANY of her reminiscences. Especially because it's not like books chronicling a season of a community theater are a dime a dozen. Now that I've read more about theater, though, I'd like to re-read this one. I bought it shortly after it came out, I was so eager for this kind of book.

Hapgood, David. Year of the Pearl: The Life of a New York Repertory Theatre Company. New York : Knopf, 1993.
The title says it all. Another one I want to go back and re-read, having seen more theater and read more about it.

Isenberg, Barbara. Making It Big. New York : Limelight Editions, 1996.
Okay, this one I read this spring. So I remember much more about it. Written in a diary format, it follows the musical Big from its birth (genesis of the idea, getting financing, pulling together the creative team) through its opening on Broadway. This book covers more than a year, but the idea's the same. Amazing to learn about how much tinkering goes on with a play. Interesting stuff about casting, the tryout in Detroit, and converting a movie to a stage show. (That seems to be the fashion on Broadway these days.) Could've done with less about the financing. Otherwise, a fun, quick read.

See also the entry for Backstage at Stratford.

Stabiner, Karen. Inventing Desire: Inside Chiat/Day: The Hottest Shop, the Coolest Players, the Big Business of Advertising. New York : Simon & Schuster, c1993.
Yes, another one I read quite a while ago. Chiat/Day developed some of the most famous ads for Apple computers. I recall a lot in this book about advertising campaigns for an artificial sweetener and a car. This book is good enough I remember it, probably 10 years after I read it. More memorable for me, though, was Stabiner's Courting Fame: the Perilous Road to Women's Tennis Stardom.

Shactman, Tom. Around the Block: The Business of a Neighborhood. New York : Harcourt Brace, c1997.
This book was GREAT!! I wish there were more like it. I've recommended it to family members who are fans of or are in small or independent businesses. That's really what this book is about. I don't recall more than a couple chain stores being on the New York City block Shactman writes about. An established department store, Barney's, rubs shoulders with new start-ups. The block includes restaurants, offices retail, and wholesale. There are two plumbing supply stores on the block, and Shactman explains how they're different.

Other entries with "Year in the Life" books: June 20, 2006–restaurants/chefs; June 22, 2006–part II: education; Oct 11, 2006–part IVa: sports; Feb 21, 2007–part IVb: sports; March 28, 2007–part V: religion; April 6, 2007–part IVc: sports; and May 2, 2007–part VI: miscellaneous.
Beth reads fiction!! Chick lit/culture clash

I don't read fiction a whole lot, except for cozy mysteries. But occasionally I venture in to other kinds of fiction. Recently I read a book that I'd call "chick lit." Broadly speaking, the subgenre features women in their 20's and 30's, and chronicles their adventures in love and careers. They're breezy and humorous. Think Bridget Jones Diary. Oh, and they often have bright pink covers.

In Full Bloom by Caroline Hwang (New York: Dutton, c2003) was recommended to me by a friend who knew I was interested in reading about culture clashes/children of immigrants. The protangonist, Ginger Lee, is a second generation Korean-American who's recently quit grad school (at UW-Madison, no less) and is now working as a secretary for a friend who's an editor at a fashion magazine. Ginger's mother arrives from Milwaukee one day, unannounced, to help find Ginger a husband, preferably a Korean husband. Meanwhile, Ginger is pulled into a power struggle at work.

What initially intrigued me about the book was the work setting at a fashion magazine. Some of those behind the scenes details were interesting, but what I liked much more was the relationship between mother and daughter, and the humor in the book. I think Ginger's experiences as a daughter of immigrants also distinguish the book a bit. Ginger is far from the perfect feminist heroine, but the book does raise some interesting issues, as well as make you laugh.

Okay, spoiler alert: don't read this till you've read the book.
So, Ginger is more passive than she ever realizes, even to the end when she's gained some spunk. She's far from consistent. However, these are the aspects of her character I could really relate to! The aftermath of the reunion with her brother is glossed over--maybe Hwang's saving that for a sequel?? The machinations at the office were hard to follow at times. Overall, though, this was a fun and sometimes moving read.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Behind the scenes at a classical theater

While it's still fresh in my mind, I'll write about Backstage at Stratford by Joan Ganong (Toronto, Longmans [1962]). This will eventually end up on some list about the Stratford (Ontario, Canada) Shakespeare Festival, or theater books in general. But I read it on vacation last month.

Ganong worked in the publicity department of the Stratford Festival for two years in the early 1960s. She wrote in-depth about its 9th (I believe) season, so the Festival was still relatively new.

The book was very slow to get going...discouraging, because I'd been looking forward to reading it. But that's in part because the festival season was slow to get going; the director (Michael Langham) of two of the plays was late in arriving. Plus, everyone was waiting (with huge anticipation, to believe the author) for the arrival of Paul Scofield, who was to play the lead in Coriolanus, as well as have a role in Love's Labours Lost. (The other mainstage play performed that year was Henry VIII.) This wait was marked by the author with gushing prose, a problem throughout the book. I don't recall seeing either Scofield's or Langham's work; they may have well been worth all the praise she heaps on them. But the style overall got irritating. It wasn't just these two she praised to high heavens: it was nearly every person involved in the season. I kept wishing for one of the characters to lose their temper, or just do something less than saintly. The writing style was pretty flowery and almost quaint, which didn't help matters.

But the book did pick up, and I'm glad I stuck with it, despite its flaws. Ganong covers nearly every creative aspect of the season, covering not only rehearsals but the design and creation of the set, costumes, props, music, lighting. Okay, when she went into great detail about all the lighting cues, it got a little long. But it did demonstrate how much goes into "putting on a show." And I did like reading about what has to be considered in putting together costumes, and the tricks used in constructing props. I really got a sense of the rehearsal process, and what goes in to theatrical dueling. Oh, and there's a whole chapter about doing the publicity photos! But it was interesting!

I've read First Stage: the making of the Stratford Festival (Toronto : McClelland and Stewart, c1987.), festival founder Tom Patterson's account of the festival's founding, and Stratford Gold: Fifty Years, Fifty Stars, Fifty Conversations (Toronto : McArthur & Co., 2002) by Richard Ouzounian, interviews with 50 actors who've starred in Stratford productions. What Backstage at Stratford offers, aside from the backstage detail, is a glimpse of a theater that's become a national institution, BEFORE it was a national institution. It doesn't place it in a context of Canadian or classical theater; it's about the people doing the work in that season. And it's definitely about doing the work, not about gossip or hanging out in Stratford, Ontario (which may be a pretty quiet activity, for all I know).