Saturday, December 31, 2005

More on the Film of "The Producers"

Norman LeBrecht does a nice job analyzing what he considers the failure of the film of The Producers, and much more insightfully than A. O. Scott's misguided attack on theatre audiences. LeBrecht, a fan of the original film and the musical, but not of the new film, writes:

"The sole heartening aspect of The Producers as a movie is its like-for-like
vindication of live art over canned, its proof positive – and how positive –
that the musical will carry on running on Broadway, in the West End and on tour
for years after its synthetic transposition is consigned to the dump bins of DVD
stores and the lower recesses of cable television."


I haven't seen the musical or the new film, but that doesn't stop me from agreeing with LeBrecht. There is something quintessentially theatrical about a stage musical, and that simply doesn't transfer to film. It has something to do with the circular flow of energy between stage and audience that is cut off in film, which is a one-way medium. (Lovers of the fourth wall might take note.)

While there are many theatre people who might not be enthralled by musicals in general, I think there is value in examining what makes the form continue to thrive. It is simply too easy to dismiss the form as successful because of pandering -- I think there is more to it than that.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

In my comments box, MattJ responded to the following quotation from my post on ensemvle: "if we really value the idea of an ensemble, and we also value the security of a liveable and consistent salary, then perhaps we need to break away from the industrial approach to the creation of theatre as a product and become more creative about how we generate income."

MattJ wrote:

Definitely. How can we do that without compromising our art form or assimilating with the capitalist consumerism we are rebelling against?

I'm also interested in the idea of the ensemble artistically. Yes, it would be great to have more rehearsal time, the creation process really does need to get more emphasis. One way to combat it is the ensemble idea. Back in the day Commedia Troupes could whip out plays at will in a combination if improv and acquired skill. But they had also trained with each other and knew how to work together. Anne Bogart does this stuff with the SITI company and Viewpoints, and I'm sure there's others as well. But I think it's an area of theatre that needs some more emphasis.

MattJ does a good thing here: he tries to come up with a solution, even a partial one, to the challenge. He identifies very clear perameters for the exploration ("How can we do that without compromising our art form or assimilating with the capitalist consumerism we are rebelling against?"), and he offers a solution: improv.

This leads me to ask for the combined brainpower of the theatre blogosphere to brainstorm: how might we create the possibility for an ensemble within the current theatre atmosphere?

I can think of a couple possibilities, and I hope others might contribute more. Here are a couple:

1. Pool resources and share expenses. I'm not talking about the traditional commune idea, which has gotten a deservedly bad rap from its 1960s weirdness. But nevertheless, would there be a way for a company to share its resources. For instance, buy a house together to house the company (or better yet, get an arts patron to contribute a house rent-free for a year), or on a smaller scale cook communal meals. The general idea is to reduce as much as possible the amount of money it takes to live, so as to allow more time to create. (The old saw is that time is money, but the reverse is also true: money is time.)

2. Rehearse and/or perform in non-traditional spaces. One of the big costs for a company is paying to rent space. Would it be possible to rehearse in a basement, a community center, a garage? Could performances occur in a church, a hotel ballroom, a garage, an attic?

Other ideas?

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Charles Isherwood on Collectives

The Playgoer quotes Christpher Isherwood, and I find myself on Isherwood's side!:

"True theatrical collectives - companies of actors and artists who repeatedly work together to hone their craft, establishing a cohesive aesthetic - remain a vital part of the European theatrical landscape. By contrast, the phenomenon is virtually nonexistent in the upper realms of New York theater, where the demands of the marketplace reign supreme and even the finest casts are assembled for a single production.

What we lose out on is what I found so transfixing in the productions mentioned: the singular ability of a unified company of actors to conjure a world that compels us with its truth, whatever the style or tone of the material. This is something different in kind from assembling an array of terrific performers for just one occasion."

What we also lose out on is the kind of on-going relationship between artists and audience that leads to a much richer, more knowledgeable interaction on both sides. Playgoer also applauds Isherwood, but goes on: "But does he breathe word anywhere of funding? Dream on..." Funding is certainly an issue, but what is interesting is how theatres regularly find the money to pay administrators, but not artists. Your values show up in where you put your money. That said, part of the problem may be in how we conceive of the job of the artists. The Actor's Equity contract is very specific about what actors can and can't do without additional remuneration. The model is that of the industrial worker whose union determines what the conditions of employment are. But art is not industry. If, instead of being regarded as employees hired to do a job, actors (and directors and designers) were made artistic partners with a stake in the success of the institution (not unlike the shareholders in the Globe, for instance), then a perhaps more creative approach to the work might lead to the ability to pay a decent salary to the artists. Wouldn't you agree that artists would welcome a steady, liveable salary and might be willing to undertake additional work to create the conditions needed to provide that salary?

Let me give a concrete example or two. I have begun working with a consulting group that provides leadership and team-building events for businesses. What sets this company apart is that they use the arts as a central part of these events. Plays, dance, music, visual art -- all are used as a catalyst to conversation. For instance, a performance of the play "Art" was used as a starting point for discussion of communication and conflict. Such events could provide considerable outside income for artists connected to an institution. Actors not appearing in the current mainstage offering could develop offerings for such leadership events, and also participate in them. Right now, actors could be hired by the consulting group independently, without violating Equity rules, and that's fine, but the money is in providing the entire leadership event, which an institution could do. Obviously, this ain't pure art, but it is income that might provide the wherewithal for an institution to pay a liveable salary to a company.

This idea could be expanded to include community building activities which could be supported by grants. Using short plays as the starting point for discussions that might address local problems. Again, it ain't pure art, but it is income. And surely it must be better than working as a waiter.

The point is that, if we really value the idea of an ensemble, and we also value the security of a liveable and consistent salary, then perhaps we need to break away from the industrial approach to the creation of theatre as a product and become more creative about how we generate income. Yes, Playgoer is right if we think about it in the usual way -- in order to support an ensemble, we would need more grant money. But I wonder if we might become a bit more self-sufficient if we thought outside the box.

What's a Manifesto For?

As we've been discussing Frederick Turner's manifesto, several commenters have either expressed a wish that Turner had expanded on his ideas more fully, sometimes bemoaning the fact that the ideas as expressed seemed trite; or rejected the manifesto in its entirety because he or she objected to certain aspects of it. I'd like to address these.

A manifesto almost by definition is epigramatic in form. To elaborate on the different statements in Turner's manifesto would take a book or two -- books that Turner has, in fact, written: "Natural Classicism" and "Culture of Hope" seem to fully flesh out those ideas. A manifesto distills the ideas. I have checked these books out of the library to see what the basis for the ideas is mainly out of curiosity, but there is a part of me that wants to say, "Who cares what Frederick Turner thought about when he wrote that manifesto? What matters is what I think about!"

I have no interest in being a Turner apostle, or anyone's apostle for that matter. And my impression is that nobody else wants to be an apostle, either -- not this independent group. But I am trying to piece together my own aesthetic philosophy, because part of what I do as a teacher involves demonstrating that such a thing can be done. My idea of beauty may have nothing to do with Turner's idea, yet I may find his statement compelling, so it is up to me to define my terms. If Turner thinks beauty means classical aesthetics, then that is fine -- I can still agree with the sentiment without agreeing with the specifics. It seems to me that SpearBearer Down Left, in his post concerning Turner's Manifesto, picks and chooses those things he agrees with, and rejects those he does not, and that's how it should be. But when he indicates approval disagreement [I misread SBDL's original post, and I stand corrected] with certain ideas, he often adds "I'd love to see this expanded upon." Instead, I'd love to see him expand upon it! What does he find in the idea that is objectionable? How does he interpret the terms. (I'd also like to see him do the same explication with the things he rejects accepts, which he has marked in bold.)

All of which leads to a question: was there anything in the manifesto that you could subscribe to, and if so how did you interpret the idea? It seems to me that such a question might lead to a conversation. Another discussion-starting question might be: what sort of plays might Turner's ideas lead to?

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Merry Christmas To All...

...and to all a good night.
I have had a wonderful day with family, and am now altogether contented. Time for sleep.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The Ground On Which I Stand

On Monday, George Hunka responded to my post on Academiaphobia with a challenge that I continue doing exactly what I'm doing, "only better," by which I assume he means that I should avoid some of the lightweight kvetching about Charles Isherwood and A O Scott and really write something with some weight. Fair enough. I'll try to pick up that gauntlet.

I find myself once again fallen afoul of the theatre blogosphere. This has become such a common occurence of late that I can't really express surprise. However, never before has something I have posted been labeled "evil," which is how George Hunka characterized my post of a manifesto by Frederick Turner. You can read George's full dismantling here. Allison Croggon and MattJ also contribute their thoughts, con and pro, in my comments box, and Joshua James dittoes George's viewpoint while Isaac provides an ad hominem argument in George's comments box. So I guess almost all countries have been heard from. Indeed, the comments box on George's blog was filled, at last check, with fully a dozen responses to his post. This is the problem with following George's challenge to post thoughtfully and deeply: one misses the flurry of the discussion. Nevertheless, I will take my time, and answer carefully.

While I did not expect everyone to stand up and throw their hats in the air shouting "Huzzah!," I must admit to being rather upset by the response. Allison "felt more and more depressed reading this post," and has since gone on to call Turner (and by reflection, I assume, me) "reactionary" and "intellectual[ly] dishonest." George experienced a "growing sense of confusion; then wonderment; then bitter despair." I must admit that I had a similar experience while reading their responses. Never have I felt such a philosophical chasm separating me from my fellow bloggers, and I won't pretend that it doesn't depress me, primarily because I have a sense that it is at the level of bedrock worldview that we differ. In his comment, George writes "I'm afraid we're going to have to disagree," a sentence that I find deeply saddening, because it seems to evoke silence, not further discussion.

Nevertheless, in the face of my despair, I will do what bloggers do and write in the hope that, while agreeement may be impossible, at least a clearer understanding of the disagreements might ensue and a rope thrown across the chasm might provide a point of connection, even if it is only that of a tug of war. George has apparently gone on a holiday break, but it is my hope that the others who failed to leave a comment on my original post but have contributed, indirectly, to the conversation by leaving comments in George's comment box will grace me with their presence.

At this time, I am not going to respond to Allison Croggon's description of the "New Classicism," because I do not know enough about that movement to comment. If I have time, I will read a little more of Turner's actual work to find out whether I agree with the entire program. I will say, though, that I find the application of political terms like "conservative" and "reactionary" to aesthetic issues to be objectionable, because its effect is to place a general label in the place of consideration of individual aesthetic ideas. Furthermore, I cannot agree that one cannot sympathize with Matthew Arnold's aesthetic opinions without simultaneously accepting his political opinions any more than I can agree that Ezra Pound's poems cannot be appreciated without sharing his fascism. I don't have to swallow the whole Christmas goose just because I've nibbled on a wing. We have the right -- indeed, perhaps the responsibility -- to pick and choose and interpret ideas individually.

Therefore, I would like to base my conversation, at least for now, on the manifesto itself, and some of the questions that surround it, rather than Frederick Turner's other writings, his website, or his attempts at poetry.

Responding to Turner's first item, "The reunion of artist with public," Allison Croggon writes: "who are the "general public" lauded here? Aren't they a bunch of individuals whose tastes and desires are impossible to second guess?" Yes, and no. I think the intention here is avoid the creation of art for a coterie audience comprised of a small group of people who share the artist's background and viewpoint. The assumption is that addressing the general public requires that the artist broaden his or her scope and personal understanding, much like it is said Shakespeare did by addressing both the groundlings and the educated elite, and encompassing their worldview, within the same play. I believe that there is a place for coterie theatre such as the independent theatres created late in the 19th century (e.g., Theatre Libre, Independent Theatre, Freie Buhne) that gave birth to Antoine, Shaw, and Brahm, and that spread the work of Ibsen throughout the world. These theatres were laboratories in which new ideas were tried out and perfected, and they changed the face of the theatre. But eventually each of those great artists stepped outside of the lab and used what he had learned to address the public as a whole, thereby spreading the experiment further. Today, the realism these artists pioneered is now the norm, and generations of artists have committed their careers to new experiments to unseat that realism. That is as it should be.

Turner goes on: "Those members of the general public who do not have the time, training, or inclination to craft and express its higher yearnings and intuitions, rightly demand an artistic elite to be the culture's prophetic mouthpiece and mirror." A few people have expressed a sense that Turner's ideas smack of conservatism and reaction, but the above sentence also echoes Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci's idea of the organic intellectual who "function(s) in directing the ideas and aspirations" of the public. Ultimately, the idea is not to "second guess" this group of individuals (in Allison's phrase), but rather to see oneself as "organically belong[ing]" to that group in order to serve as a "prophetic mouthpiece and mirror." This does not mean pandering and flattering, which is to appeal to the base aspects of human nature, but rather to express the "higher yearnings and intuitions" of that group. Lincoln appealed to Americans to look to the "higher angels of our nature," and Turner seems to be calling on the artist to do the same. This requires, not that artists ignore the base actions of humanity, but rather that they portray those actions not as ends in themselves, but means of conjuring those higher angels.

George writes that "The horrors of existence, as exemplified by Lear's struggles against community and nature...are hard to squeeze into that word "beautiful,"' but I would beg to differ. I can think of few plays that are more beautiful than King Lear. Admittedly, the play is filled with horror upon horror, and these are not beautiful in themselves, nor are they meant to be; but what is beautiful is how Lear changes as a result of those horrors. We watch the tempering and burnishing of Lear's soul as he changes, through suffering, from an intolerant tyrant to a true spiritual king. For a man such as Lear, whose self-centeredness had made him blind to all but his own desire to be loved and worshipped as a god on earth, wisdom could only be attained through suffering and pain. But we see, at the end, perhaps for only a few moments before his death, a man who has attained redemption, empathy, and wisdom. It is the portrayal of such redemption that is beautiful.

And so the call for beauty in art does not exclude suffering, violence, and pain. But rather the suffering, violence, and pain is not presented as an end in itself, nor is it presented as the true and unchangeable nature of mankind. George writes (and it is here that the chasm may open between George and me), "It's hard to 'restore reverence for the grace and beauty of human beings and the rest of nature,' ...when one sees what human beings and nature are capable of destroying." For George, it seems, the horrors of Auschwitz and Hiroshima blot out, perhaps forever, the "grace and beauty of human beings." To this, I cannot assent. The existence of evil, even evil on such a horrific scale, does not negate the good. For every act of hatred and violence there has been one of love and caring, and while it is irresponsible for artists to ignore the former, it is equally irresponsible to ignore the latter. Noel Tichy, the head of the University of Michigan's Global Leadership Program, once said "What we view determines what we do." If we fixate on horrors and degradation of the world to the exclusion of beauty and goodness, we will create art that is partial, hollow, and despairing, and that ignores fully half of human experience. Consequently, I fail to see what is "fishy and banal" about the statement "Art recognizes the tragic and terrible costs of human civilization, but does not abandon hope and faith in the civilizing process." If that statement is truly embraced, and experienced deeply and profoundly with one's heart and soul, it leads to a sense of human possibility that comes through a balanced recognition of the power of human beings for both good and evil. A belief in the "civilizing process" of human existence -- a belief that humanity can be improved -- seems to me to be a necessary ingredient to the creation of art, indeed, to the creation of anything at all, to the continuation of life itself. Even if one believes that evil will always overcome good, one must believe in the heroic value of the struggle itself, or else lapse into silence and despair.

Citing several instances of the censorship of artists by governments or organized groups, George writes "the relationship of artist to public isn't necessarily a happy one, not these days. The artist usually needs to insist that she stands against the public, in opposition to it, separate from it, to do her artistic work." To be reunited with the public does not mean the reunion is always a happy one, or at least happiness as a continuous state of contentment, agreement, and euphoria. There is nothing in life that is always and ever happy. Nevertheless, the existence of conflict, of evil, of oppression, suppression, and censorship is not grounds for the isolation and self-banishment of the artist. We must participate in the pain of the world, not stand separate from it. Artistic work of value grows out of life, both the pain and the glory of it, and requires of the artist not distance, but profound experience and the wisdom that grows from that experience.

It is this that Turner's words bring to my mind, and why I posted the manifesto. I don't care about the value of metre or rhythm, or even about the connection of art and science. What I care about is a commitment to profound beauty in art, defined with complexity and wisdom, and I care about the belief that if an artist can communicate to humanity that beauty, in all its pain and glory, through artistic experience that is profound and wise, that in some measure it will contribute to the "civilizing process" of history. This is based on hope and faith in the educability of the human being, and held onto with bloodied fingers in spite of all the evil that men do. If this is conservative and reactionary, so be it. For me, to quote August Wilson, it is "the ground on which I stand."

Monday, December 19, 2005

A Discovered Manifesto

I am getting ready to move from my office to a new building, and so I have been going through things and packing. A few days ago I came across the following in a stack of papers. I copied it from a lecture delivered by Frederick Turner, author of New Classicism and Culture of Hope, and I was very happy to rediscover it, because I find a lot of the values expressed inspirational. At the end, I have included my own addendum:


We stand for:

1. The reunion of artist with public.

Art should grow from and speak to the common roots and universal principles of human nature in all cultures.

Art should direct itself to the general public.

Those members of the general public who do not have the time, training, or inclination to craft~ and express its higher yearnings and intuitions, rightly demand an artistic elite to be the culture's prophetic mouthpiece and mirror.

Art should deny the simplifications of the political left~ and right, and should refine and deepen the radical center.

The use of art, and of cheap praise, to create self-esteem, is a cynical betrayal of all human cultures.

Excellence and standards are as real and universal in the arts as in competitive sports, even if they take more time and refined judgment to appreciate.

2. The reunion of beauty with morality.

The function of art is to create beauty.

Beauty is incomplete without moral beauty.

There should be a renewal of the moral foundations of art as an instrument to civilize, ennoble, and inspire.

True beauty is the condition of civilized society.

Art recognizes the tragic and terrible costs of human civilization, but does not abandon hope and faith in the civilizing process.

Art must recover its connection with religion and ethics without becoming the propagandist of any dogmatic system.

Beauty is the opposite of coercive political power.

Art should lead but not follow political morality.

We should restore reverence for the grace and beauty of human beings and of the rest of nature.

3. The reunion of high with low art.

Popular and commercial art forms are the soil in which high art grows.

Theory describes art; art does not illustrate theory.

Art is how a whole culture speaks to itself.

Art is how cultures communicate with and marry each other.

4. The reunion of art with craft.

Certain forms, genres, and techniques of art are culturally universal, natural, and classical.

Those forms are innate but require a cultural tradition to awaken them.

They include such things as visual representation, melody, storytelling, poetic meter, and dramatic mimesis.

These forms, genres, and techniques are not limitations or constraints but enfranchising instruments and infinitely generative feedback systems.

High standards of craftsmanship and mastery of the instrument should be restored.

5. The reunion of passion with intelligence.

Art should come from and speak to what is whole in human beings.

Art is the product of passionate imaginative intelligence, not of psychological sickness and damage.

Even when it deals, as it often should and must, with the terrifying, tragic, and grotesque, art should help heal the lesions within the self and the rifts in the self's relation to the world.

The symbols of art are connected to the embodiment of the human person in a physical and social environment.

6. The reunion of art with science.

Art extends the creative evolution of nature on this planet and in the universe.

Art is the natural ally, interpreter, and guide of the sciences.

The experience of truth is beautiful.

Art is the missing element in environmentalism.

Art can be reunited with physical science through such ideas as evolution and chaos theory.

The retentiveness of art can be partly understood through the study of nonlinear dynamical systems and their strange attractors in nature and mathematics.

The human species emerged from the mutual interaction of biological and cultural evolution.

Thus our bodies and brains are adapted to and demand artistic performance and creation.

We have a nature; that nature is cultural; that culture is classical.

Cultural evolution was partly driven by inventive play in artistic handicrafts and performance.

The order of the universe is neither deterministic nor on the road to irreversible decay; instead the universe is self-renewing, self-ordering, unpredictable, creative, and flee.

Thus human beings do not need to labor miserably to despoil the world of its diminishing stockpile of order, and struggle with one another for possession of it, only to find that they have bound themselves into a mechanical and deterministic way of life.

Instead they can cooperate with nature's own artistic process and with each other in a free and open-ended play of value-creation.

Art looks with hope to the future and seeks a closer union with the true progress of technology.

7. The reunion of past with future.

Art evokes the shared past of all human beings, that is the moral foundation of civilization.

Sometimes the present creates the future by breaking the shackles of the past; but sometimes the past creates the future by breaking the shackles of the present.

The enlightenment and modernism are examples of the former; the renaissance, and perhaps our time, are examples of the latter.

No artist has completed his or her artistic journey until he or she has sojourned with and learned the wisdom of the dead artists who came before.

The future will be more, not less, aware of and indebted to the past than we are; just as we are more aware of and indebted to the past than were our ancestors.

The immortality of art goes both ways in time.

In the light of these principles we challenge contemporary thinking and urge the reform of existing institutions.
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Addendum:

8. Art should facilitate conversation and reflection about things that matter.

Artists should create opportunities for spectators to share ideas and emotions with each other and with the artist.

Artists should strive to create a community of reflection around their art.

Artists should see themselves as part of that community.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Academiaphobia

Over at "Theatre Conversation and Political Frustration" (see sidebar), MattJ is presiding over a lively conversation about "What is Text?" In the comments, I came across Matt Freeman chiding academics again. As an academic myself, I am always slightly offended but more baffled by such slights.

Freeman writes: "I'll say that I have been rightly accused, on occasion, of being skeptical of academia and theory. Essentially, most theories are applied, as far as I have seen, AFTER something is put into practice. Artists are lumped together by a theoretician, and after that, other artists ascribe themselves to a theory." In a later post in which he suggests that academia is "mental masturbation," Freeman writes, "Is it possible that what happens in academia is in response to what appears on a stage, and that academia comes AFTER action, not before? That academia is not a prime mover?"

The answer, of course, is yes. It is possible that academic discourse is mental masturbation, in the same way that it is possible that dramatist-director-actor discourse is mental masturbation. There is a dose of that in academia, and in the "professional" theatre world.

It is also true that sometimes theory occurs after the fact. For instance, it might be said that Martin Esslin created the Theatre of the Absurd as a style with the stroke of a pen, much to the chagrin of some of those who found themselves lumped together. But what he did was allow us to see a common element in disparate artists, and he also created a vocabulary for understanding those writers.

But it used to be that theory accompanied the work of art, and artists did it themselves. Emile Zola theorized about Naturalism in literature and theatre while he was writing Naturalistic novels and plays; Filippo Marinetti theorized about Futurism while he was creating Futurist performances; Brecht theorized about Epic Theatre while he was writing plays using those techniques. But American artists have been notably silent over the past 50 years or so. Schechner did some theorizing, Foreman continues to do so, Herbert Blau also wrote a lot of theory. But when it comes down to it, I can't think of any American artists who have gone on record promoting a new approach to the theatre.

Into the vacuum steps the academic, and why not? Where else are the ideas to come from? From what I can tell, making a living as a theatre artist is now so difficult that there simply isn't time to think about broader issues, much less write about them. And even if there were time, where would the ideas be published? American Theatre provides a platform for ideas to some extent, but after that? Academics, even when they are teaching many classes as I do, do have some time and resources to do this work. So why the hostility? Why not embrace academia as the Research and Development arm of the art form, the think tank for theatre? Looked at this way, academia becomes a subsidized space for experimentation and the extension of the art form.

Sure, a large amount of academic writing is indecipherable and irrelevant -- if I never read another article in Theatre Journal it will be too soon -- but with a little encouragement, academia might be persuaded to strengthen its relationship with the professional theatre world and start to serve a useful purpose.

A question like "what is text?" may seem overly abstract, but the struggle to answer such a question can lead to new thoughts about how to create theatre. Conversations begin with large questions and lead to concrete ideas which then lead to new large questions. Surely Brecht's plays were enhanced by his theories, and his theories by his plays. Conversation is circular.

I know that Freeman is expressing a commonly held opinion about academia that to some extent has been richly earned, and my feathers are only slightly ruffled. What I want to offer is my help, my energy, my ideas, my creativity, my pen. I'd like to be a member of the club. And so, to that end, I call on theatre artists to ask the question "how might academia help me in my art?" Yes, I know: do my plays, hire me to guest direct or adjunct, but that is mainly an institutional thing. Think beyond that -- how might a lone academic lend a hand?

Ripping Off George Hunka

I was reading again some of George Hunka's posts at "Superfluities" (see sidebar), and in his "Best of Superfluities" selection, I came across his post "No More Audiences" from October of this year that is so wonderful that I have decided to post it here in its entirety. While Terry Teachout may be referred to as the Dean of Theatre Bloggers, I am ready to nominate George as the Provost. Here is the post:


Scott Walters is standing at the side of his blog, paring his fingernails, as a passionate discussion is underway about religion (more specifically, spirituality) and theater at Theatre Ideas. That such a conversation has emerged over the weekend in the blogosphere is testimony to the very same deep, considered thinking about theater that's been missing from the culture generally (not to mention in the traditional media and even magazines like American Theatre). So good for him, and his guest-poster Brian, who started the conversation.

The clearest common thread to emerge from all this is a fear that in seeking this sacredness we are somehow not being modern enough. On his own blog, Matthew Freeman warns that, "Wishing for yesteryear [when theatrical practice was more specifically rooted in religious ritual] is not the way [to sell tickets]" (and I hope that these brackets don't misstate Matt's argument; if they do, he's sure to tell me). He adds, "There has to be a middle ground between the hopelessly arty and the utterly pedestrian. I think this conversation about moving towards Greek theatre and the ritual of theater is a bit, if you'll excuse me, self-righteous." At Theatre Ideas itself, Matt offers this:

I am perfectly happy to be in an era that wantonly ignores old forms and seeks
new ones. I would pose the opposite direction is preferable; to move forwards
into modern forms, not backwards toward the Greeks, long dead. To respect our
tradition is one thing ... to long to return to something centuries dead is
suicide to contemporary relevance.


I'm worried about that "wanton," because I see the same attitude in Joshua James's response:

Everything else today, from technology to medicine to sociology and
psychology, is far advanced from medieval times–we know more about everything
now, and given the choice between a doctor from the 1800's or a doctor from
today, which would you choose?

Why should "spirituality" be any different? Why is it assumed that Paul
and many of the other authors of the bible knew more about god or the afterlife
than we do?

Well, if being self-righteous isn't considering ourselves rather more spiritually advanced than Paul, Augustine or Aquinas, I'm not sure what is. (I mean, maybe I'm just being old-fashioned, but give me the gospels or the Vedas instead of Battlefield Earth or Tuesdays with Morrie any day.) While I have no intention of leaping to the defense of Christianity or any other dogma or theology, I will respond that this disregard of the nexus between spirituality and the theater, a nexus that we can trace through dramatic history, is indeed wanton, destructively so.

Obviously, Brian isn't arguing that, like the Greeks, we should push the altar to center-stage again, rebuild the amphitheaters and set God a-talking downstage. (The gods didn't often appear in the ancient Greek tragedies anyway, any more than the gods appear in 'night, Mother.) My argument with Joshua is that science and spirituality aren't the same thing, that an advancement in our knowledge of the material world does not necessarily indicate or parallel an advancement in our knowledge of the metaphysical world; nor can it, since you can't use the same instruments of knowledge. What is wanton, and destructive, is to think that they are the same thing.
That theater or any of the arts can be an instrument of metaphysical investigation, though, is quite true, and this metaphysical investigation doesn't necessarily lead to dogma any more than surgery necessarily leads to vivisection. But, in our particular era, this requires the same new forms that Matt and Joshua think they're so assiduously defending. I get the feeling, though, that for both of these writers there is a sense in that a form can be too new, and that Brian is indeed thinking far more imaginatively about the potential of theater than any of us.


This kind of imagination is innovative in our time because it doesn't spoonfeed its audience what it wants to hear; it is a distinctly non-commercial endeavor that challenges prejudices about the secular sphere; indeed, it challenges secularism itself. There can be no more revolutionary act for theater now than to echo Artaud's cry of "No More Masterpieces" with a cry of "No More Audiences": that is, to strike out from the idea that, through conjuring up with our audience consultants and marketing and development people a magical formula, a philosopher's stone, for getting people into the theater by offering it whatever it was we think they'll want to consume, we provide them with the potentially liberating experience of theatrical practice. But I get the idea that, as some forms can be too new, some revolutionary slogans can be too revolutionary for theaters and marketing departments, no matter how figuratively they're meant to be read.

Audiences will find us, as audiences found the spiritual work of artists like Robert Wilson, Reza Abdoh, Peter Brook and others, so long as we conscientiously develop our craft and think deeply about our own relationships to the world. We reach out to our audience as churches do: by living in the community, by providing it with something they can't get in their own homes, in their movie theaters or at dance clubs, and, yes, by commenting on the world poetically, in newspapers and magazines, as some recent Nobelists are wont to do. Church attendance is dipping as well, but one thing is worth remembering: regardless of the number of people in the pews, the miracle of transubstantiation occurs during the mass whether or not there's anyone there to see it. That's why the theater isn't merely another vocation, nor a play merely another product to be sold.

The Two Dumbest Sentences in Criticism

Thanks to Matthew Freeman over at "On Theatre and Politics" (see sidebar) for drawing my attention to the NY Times negative review of the new film of The Producers. Freeman titles his post "Theatre Gets Kicked in the Crotch." When I checked out the review by A. O. Scott, I found two of the dumbest sentences in criticism, which I quote below for your enjoyment:

"Now, many big musicals [on Broadway] represent the lowest common denominator: theme park attractions for tourists. The movie audience, I suspect, is more discriminating."

With all due respect to Scott: Excuse me? The movie audience is more discriminating? As Scrooge once said, "I'll retire to Bedlam."

Sunday, December 11, 2005

If Only More Theatres Had This Law

From "Oil and Water, Or How a Director Taught the Brilliant Old Dogs of Steppenwolf Some New Tricks" by Tina Landua, in this month's American Theatre:

"There's another thing I've learned from Steppenwolf. It's not: "Yes, and..." or "The same only different," but it too possesses a quirky and self-explantory name. We call it: "I cry bullshit." I learned this from the likes of Tom and Amy, Laurie Metcalf, Gary Sinise, Terry Kinney and Jeff Perry. It's a favor the ensemble does for each other, and they've developed this technique over 25 years together in basements, churches, and now in their three performance spaces on North Halsted Street in Chicago. If you're watching rehearsals and something happens onstage that is false, contrived, not believable (it could be a move, an acting choice, a line) you are encouraged (not required) by Steppenwolf Law to raise your hand as you would in class and call out: "I cry bullshit!"

Friday, December 09, 2005

Conservatism

No, I have not decided to devote a post to our current Administration. I am talking about the traditional use of the word "conservatism." According to Dictionary.com, conservatism is:

1. The inclination, especially in politics, to maintain the existing or traditional order.
2. A political philosophy or attitude emphasizing respect for traditional institutions, distrust of government activism, and opposition to sudden change in the established order.


Wikpedia has a long section on conservatism, which includes this paragraph:

"In English-speaking countries, conservatism often refers to a political philosophy presented by Anglo-Irish statesman Edmund Burke. Burkean conservatives wish to conserve heritage; they advocate the current social climate. To a Burkean, any existing value or institution has undergone the correcting influence of past experience and ought to be respected. Burkeans do not reject change, as Burke wrote "a state without the means of change is without the means of its conservation," but they insist that further change be organic, rather than revolutionary."

My motivation in looking up this word comes from my bafflement concerning the theatre blogosphere's reaction to Steven Leigh Morris' article "Squinting Into the Sun: How our theater will change over the next decade." The reaction can only be described as traditionally conservative.

Steven Oxman at Theatre Matters (see sidebar), the first to respond to Morris' ideas (that I saw, at least), decided to let the news sink in: "I'm going to absorb this for a little while longer and see if I have any further response to it, other than: Will I really have to sit through more of what I consider community theatre? That's a very unpleasant thought."

Over at SpearBearer Down Left (see sidebar), our SpearBearer refers to Morris' ideas a "Chicken-little"-ish, decries Morris' "overstatement and pessimism," notes that he hasn't heard anyone calling for cuts in the NEA lately (not much left to cut there, in my opinion, but don't I vaguely remember at attempt to zero out the agency recently?), makes it a local problem ("it's just not a national problem. It's an L.A., New York, and maybe even a Chicago problem"), and ends: "But I'm sticking with my general philosophy. As long as the actors don't quit, there will be theatre. And if there's one person in the audience, the show will go on. (How we pay for it is another thing)." This last parenthetical phrase is a bit odd: I don't think Morris said that theatre would disappear, just that few would be able to make a living at it -- in other words, he was focusing on that "other thing" that SpearBearer tucks into a parenthesis. [An interesting sidebar: after calling Morris' ideas "Chicken-little-ish," he writes, "if that's not dignified enough for you, let's say "Cassandra-esque." You remember Cassandra, don't you? The Trojan princess gifted with the ability to see the future, but cursed by the gods to have nobody believe her predictions? Ah, the irony.]

Meanwhile, Matt Freeman visited my comments box and started his comment, "All of this stinks of surrender." He followed up with a fiery post on his blog (see sidebar: On Theatre and Politics") entitled "Theatre: Branding the Industry," in which he calls for the creation of "an organization that represents the Industry of Public Theater, or the Industry of Independent Theater. We can use the model of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, perhaps. But regardless, we must come together to create print campaigns, talking points, representatives, a business model, grant writing for small stages, new ways to approach ticket sales, and above all... a plan to simply raise awareness for what we do." Admirably, he not only calls for the creation of such an organization, but offers to begin discussions to that end: "In the coming year, after the Holiday, I would like to offer to organize an initial meeting to simply discuss how this might be acheived. Interested? Able to offer space? Want to attend?" Amd he provides contact information. [Another note: I encourage everybody to take him up on this offer -- it would be an excellent thing to have happen.]

MattJ over at Theatre Conversation and Political Frustration (see sidebar), in his post entitled "Performing the act of Theatre," worries about the ramifications of change. Addressing some of my suggestions for a new approach, he writes: "So what are the ends to the church-like theatre activity Scott proposes? Do we get so many followers that theatre becomes sort of mainstream again? If that was to happen, would the theatre get watered down, cyclically bringing us back to square one, creating a monster? Or does it become just a larger incestuous group?" He goes on: "I think I worry slightly about how it would change the nature of the professional, and the nature of theatrical presentation in general when part of the professional theatre artist's job is to have intense interaction with the audience all the time. I don't know exactly where I fall on this, my brain is telling me that a statement like this is ridiculous, of course artists should interact with the audience! But there's something about the mystery of the theatre and the craft of the actor, director, and designers which still needs to be preserved somehow. "

All of these are certainly valid responses to Morris' essay. And Matt Freeman's idea for an umbrella organization is a great one. The theatre has long refused to organize anything. We have no think tanks, no lobbying organizations, no white papers. We're all Rugged Individualists working our own theatrical field alone (well, not me; I stagger on burdened by the Scarlet A for "Academic" around my neck). Anyway, it is like shoveling frogs into a wheelbarrow getting theatre people to agree about anything!

Everything, that is, except one thing: that something might need to change. We are united in our conservative inclination "to maintain the existing or traditional order." If we were dinosaurs, we'd have been the ones saying, "Well, yeah, it's getting a little cold, but I think it's just a front and it's probably just a local problem anyway. Gimme a sweater."

I find it astonishing that otherwise imaginative, daring people are simply unwilling to even imagine, much less do, theatre differently. I'm not even saying living what is imagined, I mean even entertain for a moment the notion that things might need to change, and imagine changes that might -- just might -- make things better. Like traditional conservatives, we fret that any change whatsoever would probably be a change for the worse.

I am not arguing that any of my models are The Answer. But I have sworn to myself when I started this blog that I would do more than complain about the status quo, I would try to come up with actual ideas of things that could be tried out. But when I have done so, at best I have been greeted with silence, and at worst been told all the problems with the idea. And that is fine, that is why I post them here and don't just write them in a personal journal at my bedside table. But what baffles me is why others don't float their own ideas. The possible exception is Matt Freeman, who continues to propose that artists organize and take action, and I admire that enormously. I urge any New York theatre people who read these blogs to contact him and start trading ideas, and I hope something dynamic will come of it. It would help enormously.

In the meantime could we at least acknowledge that something might be improved about the way we do things in the theatre (not something that might be improved about the audience, or government funding, or the capitalist system)? And then maybe brainstorm a little about changes that might lead to improvement? It would only be a mental exercise not requiring that anybody actually change anything about the way they currently work in theatre.

But just...imagine...

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Theatre and Community

Steven Oxman over at "Theatre Matters" (see sidebar) has a post today called "Theatre, Community, and Community Theatre," which in turn is a response to Steven Leigh Morris' article in LA Weekly called "Squinting Into the Sun: How our theater will change over the next decade."

Let's begin with Morris, who sees the sun setting on regional theatres "as they've existed for the past half century." He first discusses the attack on federal funding for the arts (or just about anything non-profit-making), the change in buying patterns (subscriptions are down, single ticket buying is up), and private foundations are shifting their priorities to social problems.

"There are also other reasons," he continues, "cultural and technological, leading to the reality that putting on shows can no longer be the primary purpose of theater. Such a purpose — as a sole purpose — is unsustainable for either profit or nonprofit theaters in an era of funding cutbacks when the Internet, iPods, cell-phone cameras and flat-screen TVs have added to the already tempting distractions of California’s beaches, mountains and amusement parks. Even the film industry is struggling to get audiences into luxurious new movie houses." (my italics)

He predicts: "An entirely new paradigm for the performing arts is descending upon us, quickly, and for the theater to survive, it’s going to have to adapt just as quickly, redefining not only its structure, but also its sense of purpose.... The most fundamental transformation throughout the country will be a growing shift in notion, from “theater as product” to “theater as a process”: theater in prisons and hospices, serving its original function of uniting and validating communities. It’s not that shows will no longer be produced just for the art, or the entertainment, but that theater’s larger purpose will have to be redefined, or it simply can’t compete in a laissez-faire economy. In the next decade, the term “community theater” may no longer be disparaged as representing something at the bottom of a hierarchy of which Broadway is the pinnacle. Rather, you’ll have to go to Broadway or Vegas to see Broadway shows — the national touring circuits are slowly dissolving — while “community theater” may come to represent a considerably more noble activity than before. Theater’s funders will consist of fewer private investors, governments and foundations, and more colleges, film producers and restaurants that hire the artists in order that they can afford to do theater they love. That theater may not offer a living, but it will provide a calling."

Oxman, clearly made queasy by Morris' analysis (and who wouldn't be), writes: "I'm going to absorb this for a little while longer and see if I have any further response to it, other than: Will I really have to sit through more of what I consider community theatre? That's a very unpleasant thought."

I think Morris diagnoses the situation correctly, and even prescribes what needs to happen (the theatre will have to "redefin[e] not only its structure, but also its sense of purpose"). But I think he prescribes the wrong medicine.

In order for theatre to survive, it needs to be done by people who spend their lives developing their skills, focusing on their vision, and using their skills and vision to stretch the art form. IN other words, it needs professionals. As I said in a previous post, I think there is a very, very valuable place for theatre in prisons (ala Rhodessa Jones' Medea Project), in hospices, in the context of community building. Like the traditional theatre, it needs to be done by people who have devoted their lives to developing the skills, understanding, and vision necessary for that form of creation. But the two groups are artists are not the same, and neither are the art forms themselves.

But the prescription of "community" is a good one. I think theatres and theatre artists need to become more actively and permanently involved in the lives of their community. Brand loyalty (to use a marketing term) in an environment flooded with entertainment options will rest not on subscriptions, but on relationships -- and probably personal relationships.

Recently, I have discussed different ways of helping our audiences to get more from our work: extended catalogs/programs that provide help in mining the play they are going to see (and this doesn't have to be done through expensive printed programs, but could be done with websites, blogs, and podcasts), postshow discussions that actively involve the audience in talking about the show, and (just as importantly) talking to each other. We need to stop thinking of our job as creating a product, as Morris says, but unlike Morris' recommendation that we focus on process, I believe we should focus on creating an experience. This would allow us to expand our thinking beyond simply selling a production to providing a source of engagement, discussion, socializing, stimulation. Thus, the production becomes a part of a larger experience. I have written about an idea for a possible model in "An Attempt at Synthesis." I'm certain that there are many, many other approaches that would be just as effective or moreso. The point is that we probably do need to redefine theatre's structure and sense of purpose, as Morris says, before it is too late.

But that shouldn't make us queasy. It should inspire us to ask the questions that are central to our art form, to start from square one (two boards and a passion?) and re-examine each piece we add thereafter. George asked where is the garde that daring artists are supposed to be avant of? Well, the garde may not be a style of theatre, but rather the way we conceive of theatre itself, the way we create it, sell it, think about it. It is the perfect time to have a blog where this conversation can happen between intelligent, creative, and committed artists all over this country and beyond.

I hope we can begin such a conversation.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The Garde

Over in the comments section of MattJ's "theatre conversation and political frustration" blog (see sidebar), there is an absolutely brilliant discussion between MattJ, George, and Freeman of postmodernism as a term. In George's contribution, he asks in reference to people like Richard Foreman and Liz LeCompte, "Where's the garde they're supposed to be avant?" That incisive question really snapped my head back. Both MattF and George are threatening to write about this topic, and I really look forward to reading what they have to say. All I have to contribute at this point is to quote the first stanza of WB Yeats' The Second Coming, which to me seems prescient about the current situation in the arts:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all convictions, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Art Isn't Useful, Says SpearBearer Down Left

In the final flowering of SpearBearer Down Left's blog (see link in sidebar), he is reposting some previous posts, with additional commentary. On the topic of the uselessness of art (ala Kant), he provides two posts: "Art Isn't Useful" and "More on Selling Art to Pragmatists." Both are thoughtful and thought-provoking, and I recommend them highly. The former takes at its starting point the Rand Corporation's study of the arts (which I think needs much greater discussion by artists); the other begins with a Ben Cameron editorial in American Theatre. The essential thrust is that we have focused too often on promoting the side-benefits of the arts: the economic or educational effects, and on educational outreach. SpearBearer thinks, along with the Rand study, that we should focus more on intrinsic benefits. He also feels that theatre is becoming schizophrenic in that we are simultaneously trying to create a season of plays and do community outreach.

I tend to agree. I don't think using art as outreach is the answer. However (you knew there was going to be a however, didn't you?), I do think we should use artists as outreach. Let me explain.

When we make our art serve two masters, we serve each poorly. I think art should be art, and be justified intrinsically. Using art to teach elementary school children is a wonderful thing, and there should be more of it done -- but it should be done by people whose focus in entirely on that pursuit, so that what is brought into the schools is suitable. Similarly, art should be taken into and even created in the prisons, shelters, community centers and other institutions as a way of promoting dialogue, self-esteem, self-expression, etc. But again, it should be done by people whose focus is wholly on that pursuit. And artists should focus on art as an end in itself, stretching and strengthening the form, experimenting with new approaches, appropriating and reforming old approaches. There should be people who focus on helping those artists find and communicate with an audience (see my posts on "Helping the Audience, Part 2" and "Helping the Audience Part 3"), and those people should also be experts.

The community outreach should not use the arts, but rather should be done by artists. I'm talking about volunteerism. Artists as citizens should be involved not only in creating their art, but in the life of their community as well. This is good for the artist, who finds out what is happening in the hearts of their fellow citizens, and also good for the development of the audience, because it can create a relationship between artist and potential spectator that will lead the latter to visit the theatre to see their friend.

The problem occurs when we mix artistry and service.

Now, let's keep it real: I am not a good model. I rarely -- and I mean really rarely -- volunteer in my community. I tend to be shy when it comes to such things, it was not something that my family did, I don't belong to a church or a service organization, and I usually fall back on the excuse that I am just too busy. Hell, I don't even talk to the spectators in my lobby when we have a show going on -- again, introversion, shyness, whatever. But. If I were running a theatre, I think I would need to get over that, and I would benefit from getting over it, and my community would benefit from my getting over it. I would want people to get to know me outside of my plays, and see me as someone who cares about others, which I think would make them care more about me and what I am doing. Instead of my theatre being involved, I would encourage my theatre artists to be involved, and hope that this helped my theatre. In my job as a professor, I am evaluated on three things: teaching, research, and service. Perhaps such a way of evaluating artists and staff (I'm talking about a company, not a space with a bunch of jobbed in artists) would work as well. I don't know. But I do know that art-as-social-work done by artists seems like a waste of talent.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Endings

OGIC over at About Last Night drew my attention to a wonderful essay entitled "The end. At last." It is about the last lines of novels. The author writes: "The deepest rooted of last lines is the childhood one: "And they all lived happily ever after." Unlike the first line of such stories, "Once upon a time," it isn't just a formula. It's a reassurance that the result the story has achieved will remain in place even now the story-telling has finished. But more than that, it acknowledges what the story was about all along. Folk tales that end like that have, all along, been about happiness and challenges to it; the subject of the story is there in its last line....But there are two questions at stake here, in what Frank Kermode called "the sense of an ending". One is how far a novelist believes in the end of a story, either through perfect happiness or complete catastrophe. The other is just the sense of a cadence; the sort of thing that sounds final, even if the novel's concerns are provisional, incomplete." It got me to thinking about the last lines of plays, which seem to me to be even more important than the last lines of novels. Here are a couple off the top of my head:

"Help!" -- The Good Woman of Setzuan
"Yes, let's go." (They do not move.) -- Waiting for Godot
"There is now, in my mouth, this sharp chain. And it never comes out." -- Equus

What last lines do you find particularly effective?

Neo-Noir

Over at About Last Night, Our Girl in Chicago posts an interesting follow-up critique of the film The Ice Harvest, drawing on the review of Erasmus at Praise of Folly. In the post, called "Black Ice Continued," OGIC quotes Erasmus: "The problem with this film is that it fundamentally mischaracterizes the question at the heart of film noir, which is "what does the decent man do in an immoral milieu?" While I don't have much time to pursue this idea right now, I wonder if my uneasiness with the work of David Mamet is contained in this mischaracterized question. It seems to me that Mamet, in both his plays and his films, writes of a noir world, but like the filmmakers that Erasmus discusses, he gets to enamored of the Bad Guys and skips the Good Guys. I don't know. Maybe it is just that the Good Guys, when they appear in his work, always get squashed like a bug. Which would be another matter entirely... Anyway, I recommend reading this post for its clarity and insight.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Helping the Audience, Part 3: The Talkback

Playwright Laurie Brooks has a fascinating article in the latest American Theatre about a new approach to talkbacks that goes beyond the typical Q & A session. "How can theatre be a more vibrant, necessary part of our culture?," she asks. "There are no easy answers to that question, but an after-play event that invites audiences into structured dialogue adds ownership and transformative power to the theatre experience. As Daniel Renner, director of education at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, says, reflecting on his experience with [Brooks'] The Tangled Web forum: 'So often we lose sight that theatre is a communal event. We might discuss a play on the way home, but we are already removed from the experience we just had with strangers in the dark. What this simple but elegant design provides is an opportunity for strangers to become a true community that wrestles face to face with feelings, values and reactions to the primal issues of a play.'" Brooks challenges us to "take a risk. Move talkbacks beyond banality to deep engagement." You can read Brooks' entire article, as well as descriptions of her different approaches to talkbacks, at www.lauriebrooks.com.

Helping the Audience, Part 2

Back on October 5th, I wrote and admiring post, "Helping the Audience to Appreciate Our Work", about Jeffrey Jones' essay in American Theatre entitled Thinking About Writing About Thinking About New Plays: Or, How the Visual Arts Audiences Got Comfortable with Radical Innovation, While Theatre Audiences Didn’t. I wrote: "The model he asks us to consider to solve the question “How can anyone ever get an audience to accept and enjoy new and difficult work?” is that of the visual arts, where during the rise of Modernism patrons were taught a “handful of terms and concepts…with which to discuss the work.” As a result of acquiring this vocabulary, the now-educated patrons “are suddenly and magically able to discuss and understand [the difficult work of art] – and, lo, the scales fall from their eyes and they see…” The vehicle for this revelation is the gallery’s 50-page catalog whose “actual purpose…is to provide an essay that places the work-at-hand in the context of that shared set of core terms and concepts.” “Theatre,” he goes on, “has spent almost no effort or energy in defining, let alone disseminating, a core set of terms and concepts by which new plays might be discussed an understood.” And you know, I think he’s right. And what a refreshing viewpoint!"

This month in American Theatre there is a letter from Benjamin Lloyd skewering Jones' essay. "Like many other highbrow artists," Lloyd writes, "Mr. Jones bangs his spoon loudly and complains that no one likes the theatre he likes....But then he proceeds to the odious position that it's because we are all too stupid to get the theatre he likes, and need thick, jargon-laden programs written by more theatratti to explain it to us. Obnoxious!" He goes on "When I feel like no one likes the theatre I like, I try to find out how to make what I like likable to my audience." And he concludes: "Those of us who create theatre that needs explaining are doomed to irrelevancy."

I sympathize with Mr. Lloyd, and in fact my gut response to Jones' essay had a similar flavor. As someone who directs, I had always been loath to provide even a "Note from the Director" for the program under the notion that if I'd done my job well, the audience should be able to "get" what is there without my help. I tended to agree with Lloyd: "It is not my job to lecture my audience..."

But what Mr. Jones suggests is that, especially with new work that stretches conventions, the artists provide the audience with the tools to more fully understand and appreciate what they are seeing -- in short, to help them enjoy themselves more. Why is this objectionable? When you buy most products, they come with an instruction manual so that you know how to use it. A trip to the computer section of the local bookstore reveals extremely long volumes about how to use Microsoft Word, or Windows, or Excel. Are these books insults to the public's intelligence? Should they be left to their own devices, clicking their way around in some sort of software version of the game "Myst"? Or rather, aren't they books that help me to uncover all the power in the program, and to fully utilize what is there?

Theatre is not easy. It goes by quickly, and you can't rewatch the pieces that you didn't get the first time. Why is it an insult to the audience to give them some guideposts, maybe even a little map, to help them navigate the trip, especially when the terrain is challenging and unfamiliar? If we don't do so, audiences will be confused, and rarely does confusion by itself lead to revelation (I'm putting aside those pieces in which confusion is the ultimate goal). It isn't that audiences can't appreciate new approaches, but rather that they need help reorienting themselves in the theatrical landscape. In fact, by providing audiences with a few tools, the artist is actually doing what Lloyd thinks should be done, trying "to figure out how to make what I like likable to my audience." Mastery of the new is enjoyable, no matter how conservative the audience!

As anyone who has been reading this blog knows, I object to artists having a hostile attitude toward the audience, but that doesn't mean simply giving them whatever they are used to, or even "meet[ing] them halfway" as Mr Lloyd suggests. I think artists should often be trying new things (or making old things new again), and stretching the form, and venturing into new areas. To not do so leads to a moribund art form. We send scouts ahead to describe the path and what to expect as we go along it, not to leave us behind in the dust. When an artist tries something uncoventional, it seems friendly, not "obnoxious," to shine a light along the new path.

In this case, I think Mr Lloyd missed the boat.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Bamboozled

I don't know whether I have mentioned this in the past, but in addition to my regular teaching load, I also teach a course each semester at the maximum security prison about an hour from Asheville. This semester, I have been teaching a course called "The Legacy of the Harlem Renaissance." We read from the 1920s works of Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Zora Neale Hurston, as well as the work of artists who seem to have inherited the legacy of the Harlem Renaissance: Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, Amiri Baraka's Dutchman, Gloria Naylor's Bailey's Cafe. The primary theme that weaves through the course is the representation of African-Americans in the arts, as well as WEB DuBois' idea of "double consciousness" and his argument with Langston Hughes over how to represent black experience.

As a culminating class, this Monday we watched Spike Lee's brilliant film Bamboozled. If you haven't seen this film, I recommend it highly. It is the story of Pierre Delacroix (played by Damon Wayans), a Harvard-educated TV producer whose white boss informs him that his shows are not "black enough." Angered by his boss' attitude, Delacroix decides to get himself fired (he can't resign due to a 5-year contract) by pitching an idea for the most extremely offensive "black" show he can think of: "ManTan: the New Millennium Minstrel Show," complete with blackface, a watermelon patch set, tap dancing, and racist stereotype after racist stereotype. In a plot twist similar to The Producers, Delacroix is horrified to find that his boss loves the idea, and tells him to go into production. The show becomes a national sensation, with studio audiences, both black and white, arriving to see the show in blackface and proudly proclaiming, in the pre-show warmup, to being niggers. Like Dr. Faustus, Delacroix ends up selling his soul to the devil for wealth, fame, and power, and like Faustus ultimately ends up being dragged into hell.

As I said above, I think this film is brilliant. But as I drove home, I found myself wondering how it fit into many of the things I have written on this blog. Several of my students noted that they thought the message of the film was "You can't escape the power of money," followed by the conclusion, "You just need to make sure you get yours." They were not angered by what they saw, or motivated to change the racist stereotypes Lee says lurks barely beneath the surface of American society, but rather they came away with a sense of hopelessness. I have written that I think art ought to help people to find order and meaning in experience, to present an option to the speed and abrasiveness of everyday culture. This film is as abrasive as the culture, and seems to be an angry expression of frustration at the ultimate corruption of everybody. It really doesn't fit into my artistic world.

And yet, I think it is a brilliant film. It doesn't fit my stated aesthetic values, yet I think it is an excellent work of art. How to accomodate this seeming contradiction?

In one way, I value it because Lee has a complex moral vision. Despite the central theme of selling one's soul, the film is not a moral melodrama where the Good People confront the Bad People and lose (a melodramatic tragedy). Rather, each character is flawed: white as well as black, educated as well as uneducated, rich as well as poor, powerful as well as powerless. Indeed, it is interesting to look at the central character as standing in for Lee himself, and the dangers that he faces each time he makes a film in Hollywood -- the temptation to sell his soul for success. No hands are clean in this film. Lee's Swiftian thrusts skewers not only white TV execs, but also (and perhaps most brutally) black revolutionaries (in this case, a group called the Mau-Maus, who are simultaneously dumb as a rock and dangerous as a rocket). Lee's eye is critical, and unblinking.

So I ended up questioning my values, both personal and aesthetic. And perhaps ultimately that is what good art does: makes you go into your philosophical closet and try on all the clothes to see how they look with this new addition -- how does this old pair of pants look with this new shirt? If those of you who have written about making an audience "uncomfortable" mean this -- mean providing the impetus for the audience to reflect upon its assumptions and suppositions -- then I can walk along your road with you quite happily. Bambaoozled certainly made me think and think again, and that was a real pleasure.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Back Soon

It is the last week of classes here, and things are crazy! I will be back soon with a post or two.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Follow-Up: Thanksgiving Sermon

Check out Isaac's Thanksgiving Sermon over at Parabasis. Great stuff.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Thanksgiving Wishes

To everyone who visits this blog, and to everyone who loves theatre and who gives their energy to creating works of art, and to everyone who attends plays and helps to create the circle of energy that makes theatre a special art form, and to everyone who does what they can to encourage artists to develop their work, and to the teachers who devote their energy and thoughts to the growth of young people learning through the arts, to theatre bloggers from San Diego to New York to Australia who devote their time and thoughts to maintaining a conversation about a living art form, and to the community that surrounds us from the local to the national whose commitment to freedom allows artists to reflect the outer world and express their inner world -- to all, I wish a Happy Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Help with Play Suggestions

The Drama Department where I teach has decided to try to plan our seasons two years in advance. The way we decided to start this process was to come up with eight "themes" (we do four shows a year), and to find plays that fit the themes. I will put the themes below -- if you have any suggestions of plays that fit these themes, including your own, please share your ideas. The themes are:

Courage
Desire
The Human Condition
Love
Memory and Imagination
Personal Responsibility
Survival
Wisdom

Experiment

Things have been fairly quiet around here lately -- mainly because I have been so darned cranky lately. I posted something about how NY sucks, which, after further review (and some friendly basking from fellow bloggers), I decided would be best if it were removed. Thank God for the delete function.

Here's the problem: I haven't had a new idea for about a week! It is nearing the end of the semester, and my brain is kind of crisp around the edges. My lack of mental activity is getting a bit disturbing, though.

But let me post an idea I had about a week ago. Now, this is not a universal or a normative idea -- I am not asking anyone else to adopt this idea. It is my little experiment. So why post it? Because I'd love some suggestions about how to improve the idea, and my readers seem to be bright folk.

In the Spring, my drama department is doing a project aclled "Stage Left." Instead of doing a play on our mainstage, we are all mounting small productions that have only one rule: they can't be done in a traditional theatre space (thus, Stage Left: we have left the stage. We academics are damned clever, no?). My contribution to this farrago is something I am calling "Living Room Theatre." Taking a page from Czech playwright Pavel Kohout (dramatized by Stoppard in Kahout's Macbeth), about half dozen students and I will be creating small "chamber pieces" that are designed to fit into a suitcase and be performed in living rooms. We are making ourselves available to individuals or groups at no cost. The only rule is that the students must be allowed to stay for the social events preceding or following the performance. I want the students to make personal contact with their audience, and explore how such an experience is different than performing in a larger, more formal venue.

Last week, I had an idea to embroider on this idea. Several years ago, I discovered the World Cafe. The World Cafe is an approach to community building and problem-solving that asks what if:

The future is born in webs of human conversation?
Compelling questions encourage collective learning?
Networks are the underlying pattern of living systems?
Human systems—organizations, families, communities—are living systems?
Intelligence emerges as the system connects to itself in diverse and creative ways?
Collectively, we have access to all the wisdom and resources we need?

The idea is to explore "questions that matter" in the following form. Put people into small groups of three or four around a table. Give them a large piece of butcher block paper and some colored markers. Give them the question to be explored, and have them explore it together, drawing and writing their ideas on the paper. After a certain amount of time, one of the group stays at the table while the other members go to different tables. Now assembled into new groups, the process continues using as a starting point what the previous group wrote and drew. Through this process, a group of people can come to know each other, and use their multiple perspectives and creativity to address a common problem. At some point, each table "reports out" to the group as a whole.

It occurred to me that this might be added to my Living Room Theatre concept. There was a recent report, discussed in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, which investigated how the motives of audience members differed from art form to art form. said that "68 percent of theatergoers surveyed said they attended plays as a way of socializing." This got me to thinking that theatres really don't attempt to facilitate such socializing very often. There are the occasional talkbacks, which are formal and usually directed at a central facilitator (I have done this several times for North Carolina Stage Company, for instance). But what if there was a way that audience members could be encouraged to talk to each other? To use the performance as an excuse to connect about the ideas, emotions, and viewpoints of the play?

And so I am thinking of using my "Stage Left" project to explore this model. The students and I will choose plays that might lead to a discussion -- perhaps plays that are open-ended, or alternatively plays that express a very strong viewpoint that could serve as the leaping off point for a conversation. I think these plays should probably be short -- perhaps one-acts, I don't know -- in order to allow time for discussion. I think that the actors and others bringing the play should also be participants in this process, again as a way of encouraging communication between audience and artist.

Do you have any ideas how this might be fine tuned? Do you have any suggestions for plays that might be intriguing? Right now, I am thinking about some Yeats one-acts, like Death and the Fool or Purgatory. I don't think I want political plays, but I don't know. I welcome any comments and suggestions.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Christopher Isherwood

Over at Parbasis, Isaac Butler wonders aloud what is up with Christoopher Isherwood's assassination of the new play Bach at Leipzig written by Itamar Moses. Isherwood writes that Moses is "clearly a writer of nimble verbal gifts and high ambition," and his play actually seems to engage ideas -- and yet Isherwood smashes him. Later in the season, no doubt, Isherwood (or Brantley) will write an essay in the Sunday Arts section about why American theatre seems so trivial, totally forgetting that they are responsible for cutting young playwrights off at the knees while wondering why they don't run faster. Now, I haven't seen or read Bach at Leipzig -- it may be as sodden as he says -- but I am ready to say that we should be encouraging, not killing, any American playwright with "nimble verbal gifts and high ambition."

Monday, November 14, 2005

On Being Provocative

In the previous post, I wrote parenthetically: "(And Isaac, thanks for introducing your new readers to the "Stop Attacking Artists" post in response to one of my tirades. Hey, any publicity is good publicity!)"

Isaac responded: "And hey, if you didn't post provocative stuff worth arguing with, there'd be no point in blogging, now would there?"

This reponse has put me to thinking -- probably along a well-worn path trod by many before me -- but... I have a counter on this site, and I've noticed that the hit count skyrockets whenever we seem to be arguing about something. In fact, the more abusive we seem to get, the faster the hits multiply. I have also noticed that when I post something that is beautiful or thoughtful, but not necessarily provocative (say, Barry Lopez's quoting of the Inuit definition of "storyteller"), rarely does anybody comment.

And it makes me wonder whether, by being "provocative," we are actually participating in thought-as-bloodpsport that we see exemplified on the Sunday morning political shows like "Firing Line," where people simply yell at and over each other for 60 minutes. Is there any room for thoughtfulness and reflectiveness in our culture?

What got me to thinking about his was George's post over at "Superfluities," "What a Playwright Reads." I wonder if anyone has responded to this reflectiveness...

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Congrats to George and Isaac

Our esteemed fellow-blogger, George and Isaac, made the Wall Street Journal this weekend in Terry Teachout's column. He wrote: "Many also write to offer insight into their own creative processes. Playwright-critic George Hunka (http://www.ghunka.com/) and director Isaac Butler (parabasis.typepad.com/blog) recently collaborated on an Off-Off Broadway workshop production of "In Private/In Public," a pair of one-act plays by Mr. Hunka, and both simultaneously blogged to illuminating effect about the experience."

Woo-hoo! Great job, guys!

(And Isaac, thanks for introducing your new readers to the "Stop Attacking Artists" post in response to one of my tirades. Hey, any publicity is good publicity!)

Thursday, November 10, 2005

The Return of Zachary Mannheimer

Zachary has posted in my comments box a response to the rather heated discussion we have been having concerning his article, "Our Own New Deal: Planting Roots for American Theatre" over at the Brooklyn Rail website. As usual, Zachary makes an elegant case for his ideas, sans the table-thumping to which I am all-too-often prone. He writes:

"I'd like to comment on a few of your comments to clear some things up that seem to have gone astray...I'd like to get back to the original topic at hand.

First of all - I AM saying that we need to leave NYC. No, I am not holding a gun to anyone's head, but I do believe that we need to go. And I'll tell you why...

Matt says: "Zack wants those of us who live in New York to bring our enlightened sensiblities to the world outside NYC. I'm just not sure they need us to do that..."

While I thank Matt for his kind words, I believe that he is misrepresenting what I am trying to say, and perhaps it is my fault for the way I intended my ideas. I don't want "intelligent" NYers to take our "smart" ideas to the "stupid" people of the outside world. What I do want is for ideas to be shared, and mixed. I believe that I am right, the way I live my life and produce my theatre, etc...and those in Kanasas or wherever believe they are right, the way they live their lives and produce their art and whatnot. The problem I see is that there is no national discourse on this, or rather, no local, community-level discourse happening. I don't think either of us are right - what is right is in the middle - and I want to find that. I believe this is due to the fact that over the last 50 years, like-minded people have consistently moved to parts of the country where their are others who think and live like they do. I believe this is has largely led to the current red vs. blue mentality of the country as a whole. Just as there is no discourse when people come to see my shows and nod in agreement with, say, an anti-war sentiment, there is no discourse when we when we discuss the problems of the country in bars where the people having the conversation agree that Bush is great, or Bush is bad, or any other large topic debated in bars. We need to mix the pool.

Now - why should we do this? Becuase, I believe, it is the artists' responsibility to bring new ideas to new people. That is our "job". I am sick and tired of producing politically leftist theatre for politically leftist people. If you do not produce this type of theatre, and if you are not of a leftist state of mind - then I say - STAY in NYC. Otherwise, time to leave.

As theatre artists we understand that conflict is what creates a successful scene, let us now project this into the entire theatergoing experience. While many of our projects call for social change on a massive level, we must understand that the city we play in is the closest pinnacle of what we preach. Therefore, if our mission goes a step further, and we believe that we are a service to the community we play in just as much as we are an emotional and physical outlet, the next logical step is to play in front of an audience who can teach us just as much as we can teach them. A symbiotic relationship with our audience is what we strive for, and we will see the most results through a relationship with audiences elsewhere than where we congregate in vast artistic communities.

Josh hates the fact that he can't have 2 dudes kissing on stage in Iowa. So what do you do? You say fuck it and move to NY? Shouldn't you work on trying to solve that problem rather than abondoning it and letting it fester, getting worse and worse as the years go on? You don't like the fact that you don't have freedom to put on these types of plays in these places - then go and create that freedom, and then put them on. I do not see the point of producing another play where 2 guys kiss each other in NYC when almost every play from Off-Off to Broadway has some sort of "shocking" thing like that in it that would not play to those in Iowa. Isn't this arrogance? And you may say there's nothing wrong with that - that it is your choice - you want to get paid to be a writer where you can have the freedom to produce your work. Great. But the people coming to see your work are not your target audience, unless, as I've suggested before - you don't care about your audience and you simply want a paycheck.

We have to think about our work on a larger scale, and Scott has said this again and again and I thank him for his unwavering support of my ideas. There are larger causes out there than being a professional writer, I'm sorry, and I for one have no interest in that. The system is fucked up - we all know this - you guys write about it on your blogs everyday. And then people like me read them - and I agree with you already - so what's the point of writing about them if you're not doing anything about them?

Fact of the matter is: We must change the way we do theatre, and the places we do theatre. Period. Otherwise, I agree with Scott that theatre as we know it will die very quickly, and then we're all screwed. We have to act - now. And it will take a great deal of sacrifice. Yes, you will not get paid for a while and yes, you will lose your freedom for a while, and yes - your comforts will be displaced for a while - but it is for the greater good. Artists are idealists - otherwise you're just a whore. We must be striving for something larger at all times.

I want a real discourse - like this one, perhaps - where we are talking from different perspectives - not the same. I want to take my ideas to Wichita because I know people there will disagree with them. I want to strenghten my ideas by debating with them - because I know I'm not right about everything, and they will help me to understand that. And then I improve my ideas based on their suggestions. And vice-versa for them.

What it comes down to for me - this country is operating extremely wrong - and we, as artists, can do something about that - but not if we stay in our big cities hiding away from those "hicks who just don't get it." Theatre must have an audience, and don't you want the best audience? Or do you just want people to come see your shows and comment on the artistic values of it - when clearly you're after a larger point? I don't want my ego stroked - I want to make a change. "

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

From the Sports World

From nfl.com's "Tuesday Morning Quarterback," by Gregg Easterbrook. Gregg Easterbrook is a senior editor of The New Republic, a contributing editor of The Atlantic Monthly and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. His latest book, The Progress Paradox, was released in December, 2003 by Random House.

What Hollywood Could Learn from the NFL
Film types are bemoaning a bad year at the box office. They blame DVDs, Internet piracy, El Nino: Everything but Hollywood itself. Tuesday Morning Quarterback suggests the box-office slump is a rational market response to a string of lousy movies. Major studios now assume that if you take a couple of brand-name stars, put them in a plot that makes no sense, have them read listlessly from a terrible script -- then add cleavage and explosions -- millions will pay $8 to sit through the result. The governing Hollywood premise is that typical ticket buyers are so incredibly stupid as to lack any ability to tell a good movie from a bad one. Actually, movie patrons are getting more sophisticated about flicks all the time, exactly as Hollywood dumbs down. Should we be surprised that steadily fewer people want to watch? Anyone selling a discretionary item, entertainment and sports among them, must never lose sight of the fact that quality is the essence of the product. Food and clothing are necessities; people don't have to have movie or sports tickets, so buyers line up only if they get their money's worth. In an era of 500 channels, the NFL continues to set records for gate attendance and ratings because product quality, namely the games themselves, remains the league's focus. Product quality seems last on the list of Hollywood's concerns. Which leads us to ...

Shoot to Kill the Hitman Characters
Ben Affleck, Tom Cruise, Jennifer Garner, Samuel Jackson, Angelina Jolie, Jennifer Lopez, Brad Pitt, Pierce Brosnan, Uma Thurman and John Travolta have played hit men or women who will murder anyone, even the helpless, for money. The number of current box-office stars who have portrayed hired killers in major-studio films probably exceeds the number of paid professional assassins in the real world. You don't have to be Dr. Freud to speculate that cinema stars, steeped in a Hollywood culture obsessed with personal power, subconsciously fantasize about actually being able to kill whomever they please. But doesn't it strike you as strange that so many big-name stars are willing portray characters who commit murder without compunctions? Can it be coincidence the public is becoming turned off to the movies at the very time so many stars revel in morally vacant roles? And if Hollywood won't show smoking because viewers are impressionable, how come the movie industry eagerly glamorizes murder after murder after murder after murder? Which leads us to ...

Maybe Someone Can Invent an Electronic Device That Stops USA Today From Saying Murder Is "Fun"
Recently, George Bush signed the Family Movie Act, legalizing electronic gizmos that delete violent scenes from privately owned movie DVDs. These devices will be busy! Sin City, a recent big-studio movie shown in suburban shopping malls, was praised by USA Today as "genuine fun." Sin City begins with a beautiful woman being murdered by a man she just met. The movie continues to dozens of graphic depictions of people being murdered, tortured or decapitated, and ends with the man of the opening scene capturing another beautiful woman and grinning as he prepares to murder her. Genuine fun! Of course, sometimes movie violence is justified; for instance, The Pianist was sickeningly violent and rightly so, as its subject was the Holocaust. Usually movie violence is just cheap exploitation and injurious to young viewers. Studies show the more cinematic depictions of violence to which a child is exposed, the more likely the child is to commit violent acts in adulthood: See this statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics, summarizing research on the relationship between film violence and actual violence.

The First Amendment protects moviemakers' rights to produce almost anything they wish. But just because it is legal to make films that glorify violence doesn't mean studios should do so; lots of things are legal and also irresponsible. If Hollywood doesn't want people buying gizmos to zap gratuitous bloodshed out of movies, there is a simple solution -- don't glamorize violence to begin with. (my italics added in the above paragraph)