Every year between October and December, the San Francisco Bay Area enters a local performance fever. The flip-side of this is that I invariably see advertisements for the same three artistic events: the "smash global hit" Mama Mia!; the eternal, all-invasive Nutcracker; and the children's musical The Velveteen Rabbit.
Is it possible, I ask myself every year, is it possible that for 14 years in a row (2000 is the year of my arrival in California), the people of San Francisco are not getting tired (or nauseous, or insane, or whatever) of hosting these three shows? Is it really possible that no single culturally minded person in the area could come up with any other option? From all the artistic performances and culture of planet Earth, since Lascaux paintings to this day, there was no other performance but ABBA, Nutcracker and this stupid Velveteen Rabbit?
The other day I was reading the booklet I receive around this time of the every year, detailing the UC Berkeley Zellerbach Hall Performances. It has exactly the same format like the Costco Warehouse Coupon offers, and the first page displays similar information:
"Save up to 20% with a
Select four or more events on a single order and:
Save 10% on 4-5 events
Save 15% ...
Save 20% ...
... More Savings ..."
My wife often accuses me of excessive -- and even snobbish! -- pickiness, but honestly, shouldn't artistic performances be promoted in a different way than beef jerky in my Walgreen's junk mail? Is it really the SAVINGS, in bold and bigger font size, that I am looking for when I choose an artistic performance?
Aside from that though, I rarely find in the booklet a performance that is appealing to me, and it is even more rare that I find an artist that I previously heard of. Which of course, might have to do with the fact that I am born and raised in a different culture -- I mean, I truly hope it's because of that. This season (2014-2015) for example, I was super lucky, from over 50 performances I could recognize five names: David Sedaris, Gidon Kremer, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Mikhail Baryshnikov. And that's just fine, it feels great to have the possibility to see all five guys live in the Bay Area. It actually feels like my native Romania when suddenly, after 50 years of communism and the fall of the Iron Curtain, there was a flock of artists from the "developed world" booking concerts in "the faraway country of which we know nothing" . As an example, in post-communist Romania performed Guns n' Roses, Aerosmith, Scorpions and Julio Iglesias. The only ones missing were ABBA, Milli Vanilli and the cast from Dallas.
Yes, this is exactly how it feels when I conscientiously read, every year, the Cal Performances booklet: that some people, lead by a couple of world renown performance dinosaurs, mercifully agreed to travel to and perform in this faraway cultural province of the world called the San Francisco Bay Area. I can even imagine Herbie and Chick talking:
'Hey, what's up, how is it going'
'Good, good, I got this phone call from some guy in Berkeley, California, for an engagement, they want me to play Bach in this Zeller Hall or something'
'Really? That's funny, they called me too.'
'Oh, cool, let's take the train down there together then. Did you hear that they invited also some Soviet dancer or something?'
'No way! These Berkeley guys are nuts man, partnering up with commies!'
Anyway, from all the lineup of this year's Cal Performances there was one that really drew my attention: Theatre de la Ville, with Six characters in Search of an Author. I am a big admirer of theater of French inspiration -- and by that I mean real theater, not some gathering of people singing their lines in the midst of a flamboyant, multi-million dollars stage design. So I wanted to make sure that the Quebec performance is not some sort of musical in disguise. Quick read of the booklet description: "absurdist psychological drama," "captivating and disturbing" ... Excellent, that's it, I'm getting tickets! And suddenly, my eyes fall on the last two words, written in italics: "contains nudity". Really, you needed to warn people that the play contains nudity? So, here I am, theater director and my team of actors, working my a** off to build and reveal something (hopefully) meaningful, aesthetic and entertaining to my audience. And what concerns these guys from Berkeley is that my play "contains nudity"! I imagine the Cal Performances curators talking to each other, 'Yes, I agree, it's an amazing play! ... But what a shame, unfortunately it contains nudity...'
Is this really something we should be worrying about, or rather the fact that 9 years old girls are taught to shoot Uzis? Or that a (white) cop who fatally shoots an unarmed (black) teen receives more money in donations than his victim? Or that Mamma Mia! and Nutcracker might immediately replace Theatre de la Ville if we criticize Cal Performances too much? I honestly do not even understand to whom this warning is addressed. Who needs to know and why that a theater play "contains nudity"?
All in all though, I look forward to see the Quebec theater play, and maybe even Baryshnikov acting in Daniil Kharms' The Old Woman. In fact, I am really curious to find out what kind of nudity is going to be shown on stage, as well as who are my culture fellows who decided to ignore the warning.