Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Ad Industry is Still in a Mad Men Time Warp

The Art Director's Club has founded an initiative to make the famously boys’ clubbish ad industry more inclusive of women. This sounds unimpeachable on paper.  But wait until you hear what they’re proposing.
I realized how bad things really were when, at the opening party for the Cannes Lions several years ago, the line for the men's restroom circled round the block, whereas at the women's restroom there was no line whatsoever. A first in human history, to be sure. One look at the juries of Cannes and other advertising awards tells you all you need to know. They have one or two token females, but it is mostly guys. Only about 3% of creative directors are women.  This is plain and simple, gender discrimination. 
I am a creative director, and a woman, and I welcome the desire to do something about this problem. But the way the Art Director's Club is going about it seems, well, patronizing. "Women have made great strides", says the current president of ADC.  What strides? To catch up with the guys?  What are we, in a Virginia Slims commercial?
ADC’s idea is to force the industry to have a 50/50 gender ratio at awards shows, boards of directors and events and speakers lineups. How will this be encouraged? Just put a woman in there to make everyone feel better about themselves? This is like applying a band-aid to a festering wound. The reason why no more women are part of these things is that not enough women get hired or are allowed to reach the creative positions needed to be invited to such prestigious affairs. There is a glass ceiling made of guys who hire guys, who give awards to guys. Yes, there are many women in high management in media, account services and production. Many women work hard in creative departments, mostly looking up above at a formidable barrier of guys. Creative still seems to be dominated by the Don Drapers of the world.
So there is an event today calling all women in advertising for a photo-op to break out the campaign. I did not see any important women in advertising there. There were mostly young women with esprit de corps who can perhaps afford to spend their lunch hour posing for a photo.  The president of the ACD speaks and among the things he says is how impressed he was with the women he met at an awards jury panel, how much they had to offer, as if this were news. He is oblivious to how condescending he sounds.  
The idea of a gender ratio, albeit well-intentioned, smacks of tokenism. This should be decided by merit, not gender. Women should be able to compete with men as equals in the creative field. That is, if they are allowed to participate, not in special events, but in the day to day creative work that requires their talent and leadership. And by the way, are women being paid the same rates as men? Don't think so. 
Back in the Dark Ages in 2005, Neil French, then Worldwide Creative Director at  WPP, said that there weren't more female creative directors in advertising because they usually leave "to go suckle something."  “You can’t be a great creative director and have a baby and keep spending time off every time your kids are ill", he said, "everyone who doesn’t commit themselves fully to the job is crap at it.” Which is utter, despicable bullshit. One of the things that strikes me about Mad Men and its gender politics in the office, is the feeling of plus ça change. Yes, we've come a long way, but boy, are we still way behind.
Women can do it, whether they are single, married or suckling. But it would be better if we didn’t wait for the boys to give us the little pat in the back that is going to make everything allright. We have to start the fight to include ourselves. 

Monday, May 06, 2013

Dispatches from the Theater

This production of The National Theater of Scotland stars Alan Cumming playing all the major roles in this fabulous play by William Shakespeare. This is a modern adaptation, and so it takes some liberties, like framing the action at a modern mental hospital where a man, Macbeth, relives the trauma of his story. In contrast to other attempts at modernizing the Bard, this one does not feel strained or arbitrary. It allows the thick and oozing darkness of the play to seep through. This is one bloody, ominous, godless, violent and dark play, and that shines through in this production, directed with verve by John Tiffany and Andrew Goldberg.
The set design is a cavernous cell in a mental hospital with an observation window where a doctor and a nurse keep an eye on the madman. A trio of closed circuit cameras help the witches appear, and the use of simple props like three chairs and a metal table to create the banquet scene; a mirror, to have a conversation between Macbeth and one of his soldiers; or just a towel, to change him into her, is witty and effective. The production is riveting. It is alive, full of energy and power.
Mr. Cumming is wonderful. It is a total tour de force to be on stage for a full two hours with no intermission, playing Macbeth, the Three Witches, Lady Macbeth, Duncan, Banquo and a couple of others. If he sometimes slides into a bit of campiness, this is one instance where indicating with body language actually helps understand which character is being played.
Cumming, thankfully, does not change voices. He does change accents once in a while, sporting a strong Scottish brogue for Macbeth, something more dainty for the Lady and a plummy British accent for Duncan. He is extremely adroit with the text. We were sitting in the next to last row of the mezzanine and we could hear every word, except when he spoke a bit too fast.
It helps to be a bit familiar with the plot, but the program has a synopsis and a cast of characters. If you go, read it. This Macbeth, a play about the violence of ambition, feels like powerful, concentrated, totally relevant Shakespeare.

A lame attempt at conflating Pinter and Mamet, it is beyond me why anybody would want to re-stage this weak, derivative play by Lyle Kessler. But it has a cast of thousands, (actually three) so we went. Alec Baldwin is good as Harold, the gangster who insinuates himself into the home of two brothers, Treat and Phillip, played by Ben Foster and the impressive Tom Sturridge. But this play, albeit entertaining, makes no sense. Phillip (Sturridge, in a tour de force performance of kinetic energy) is mentally feeble; Treat is a petty thief who lords over him. He brings a drunk Harold into the house, finds out he is rich and decides to kidnap him, and then the tables are turned. The whole thing, as directed by Daniel Sullivan, has the feel of a toothless sitcom. And that is not the reason why one goes to the theater. I did not get the point of the play. Ben Foster, who is a talented movie actor, disappoints as Treat. However, he is an extremely welcome substitute for Shia Leboeuf, a man who if I had my druthers, would be banned from appearing on the face of Earth.

The Big Knife
Yes, it's old fashioned, yes, it's none too subtle, but I love hearing the language of Clifford Odets. Even if the play is deeply flawed, there is such heart in the writing, it's as rich as an extravagant dessert. This production is uneven, with great turns by Richard Kind, Rachel Brosnahan and Reg Rogers, and pretty much all the supporting cast, but a very miscast and lost Bobby Cannavale and a stiff Marin Ireland in the main roles, as a huge Hollywood movie star and his wife. We spent the intermission trying to recast Cannavale's part. They don't make them like they used to. 

The Assembled Parties
This was fun, entertaining, if slightly befuddling. It's the story of a goyish Jewish family in the Upper West Side and some of its secrets through the years. The cast is great, in particular Judith Light, the foremost expert in playing Jewish cantankerous matrons. Richard Greenberg's one liners are elegant and funny, but I cannot tell you that I left the theater with much more than that.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle
Brecht, even in his most feverish agitprop mode, had a rapier wit and a strong sense of irony. But this production with new music by Duncan Sheik feels like Brecht Lite. The lyrics by W.H. Auden still pack a punch, but the music, except for one song, is like generic pop music, totally wispy and forgettable. And this kind of political theater, which is not aging very well, deserves music with far more bite.
The first act is very enjoyable but the second totally fizzles out, and it goes on forever. This is one play that could use a bit of trimming and a much, much faster pacing. The cast seems to need a good jolt of caffeine. Mary Testa plays all her different characters the exact same way, wasting her considerable talent. Elizabeth A. Davis, who plays Grusha, the heroine of the play, is perfectly serviceable, but she should be more formidable. Even though one can understand the casting of the quirky Christopher Lloyd as the singer and the judge, he delivers a rambling, one note fest that gets tiresome pretty fast. He has some moments but he takes forever to say his lines. It's a long slog.

Here Lies Love
Evita Perón is conceived in her musical as a hick from the provinces with a bit of a lethal backbone. Nobody pretends she had a heart of gold (except herself). But Imelda Marcos, who did nothing to inspire the poor people of the Philippines except to go on obscene shopping sprees and carouse at Studio 54, is treated in this musical by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim as some sort of romantic heroine who could not resist the riches her bastard of a dictator husband bestowed on her, and hence turned into an unfeeling, distant, frivolous first lady. There is a lot to be mined in these rag to riches stories of women of low origins who seduce tyrants and then become tyrants themselves. I bet they were all Grade A bitches from the day they were born, but this is not necessarily what makes them great dramatic heroines, and don't look for profound human psychology in this frothy play.
I was down for the ride until the play ended on a sunny, preposterous note, even after the assassination of opposition leader Benigno Aquino. The real Imelda Marcos was a joke, an embarrassment to her country, deeply unconcerned by her country's woes, if not worse. Here she is romanticized, a bystander to corruption and cruelty, rather than a perpetrator, which is troubling. Yes, she denies her origins and behaves like a c--t sometimes, but why does she get the last laugh? If you need to put a disclaimer on the program that the Marcos couple were two evil bastards, what gives?
Some of the music is lovely and the best songs throb with a catchy, funky pulse. The title song is a horror, and unfortunately, it happens twice. The strained staging by Alex Timbers, which has the audience standing on the floor of a nightclub, and being manhandled by production assistants, while immersive and riveting at times, is also annoying. The cast is nimble, young and spirited. They deserve all the love.

Now Showing At A Theater Near You

A modern adaptation of Henry James' What Maisie Knew.
A muddy Mud, with Matthew McConaughey.
François Ozon best movie, In The House.