Monday, September 19, 2005

Where Are Our Ideas?

Where are our ideas?

In 1968, Peter Brook published The Empty Space and suddenly everyone was talking about Deadly Theatre, Holy Theatre, Rough Theatre, and Immediate Theatre.

Where are our ideas?

The following year, Jerzy Grotowski published Towards a Poor Theatre and he galvanized young theatre artists around the world.

In 1941, Robert Edmond Jones published The Dramatic Imagination, and a book that continues to inspire theatre artists to this day. He created a revolution.

In 1938, Antonin Artaud published No More Masterpieces, raising questions about theatre that still resonate today.

The the 1920s and 1930s, Theatre Arts Magazine focused and inspired the nascent American theatre scene and spear-headed a distinct approach to theatre.

Where are our ideas?

Cruise around and take a look at the curricula in most of the universitiy and college drama departments in America and you will find the same tired, unimaginative courses covering the same tired, unimaginative material in the same unimaginative ways in department after department. Cutting edge? Forget it. We teach our students to be dull blades plodding from audition to audition, production to production without a clear idea of what they are doing and why they might be doing it.

The book list at TCG is taken up with dozens of plays (fine) and titles like The Art of Governance: Boards in the Performing Arts. When I contacted Ben Cameron of American Theatre, one of the few in American theatre who are talking about ideas, with the suggestion that he publish a collection of his essays, he responded that he was " absolutely convinced that such a book would go straight to the remainder table." Is he right?

The academy, where one might think that professors would have the time to think about Big Ideas, is focused on minutiae. Academic presses publish titles like Acting Jewish: Negotiating Ethnicity on the American Stage and Screen and Acting Like Men: Gender, Drama, and Nostalgia in Ancient Greece. Theatre Journal is filled with essays like The Bind of Representation: Performing and Consuming Hypersexuality in Miss Saigon and Selling the Bird: Richard Walton Tully's The Bird of Paradise and the Dynamics of Theatrical Commodification.

There was a time when Robert Brustein had ideas. His 1964 masterpiece, Theatre of Revolt, examined the ideas that powered modern drama in a way that is still exciting. But for about the past 15 or 20 years he has spent his time attacking "political correctness" in the theatre instead of pointing the way toward something valuable. Surely there are more important issues to be addressed.

Tony Kushner is doing his best, God bless him. I was present when he delivered the keynote address at the Association for Theatre In Higher Education's national conference in 1997 in which he suggested that we eliminate all arts majors and instead spend four years acquainting our burgeoning artists with the great and difficult ideas of the world and training them to think clearly and deeply -- and there was nary a ripple of interest or outrage amongst the assembled academics. The publication of his speech as "A Modest Proposal" in the January 1998 American Theatre was greeted with equal silence: two short letters to the editor.

Perhaps new ideas need a new venue. The blogosphere provides a place where ideas can be exchanged quickly without the mediation of slow-moving, conservative institutions. There are many thinkers with lively theatrical minds that are publishing their ideas in their blogs -- I have linked to several of them, and no doubt will rely on them for future inspiration. Someone posts an idea, and very quickly it is traveling from blog to blog, spurring debate, exploration, and action. No need to worry about the "remainder table" here. No need to worry about the high price of books. Anyone with an internet connection can log in and connect with an idea.

Blogs could be an amazing tool in the revitalizing of the theatre. In the past, movements happened when a community of artists took up residence in close proximity and inspired one another in the studios and cafes of the area. In today's world, the blogosphere could be such a place (so could podcasts, whose potential for the dissemination of ideas is just beginning to be explored).

An example of this potential can be found in response to the RAND report, Gifts of the Muse: Reframing the Debate About the Benefits of the Arts (read it at, which undermines nearly every justification for the arts that we have ever used, but is anyone talking about it? Yes -- the blogs. hosted a fascinating blog discussion inspired by the RAND Report, which included posts not only by experts but also by readers who were following the debate. Read it at:

This blog will be devoted to -- you guessed it -- ideas. Big Ideas. Tirades, manifestoes, and musings. Declarations of Independence and Constitutions. Many, many questions -- and with any luck, perhaps a few answers. Or propositions, at least. I will do my best to stay current with what other bloggers are writing, and provide links to their ideas. I will try to keep current on issues in the press, and provide links to them. And I invite you to provide commentary on what I write. And perhaps if you are so inclined, create your own blog to keep these and other ideas circulating.

I look forward to the challenge.

I would also like to ask for your ideas: what books or articles have you found inspiring as far as ideas are concerned? I would like to create a list of influential books -- especially recent ones.


Freeman said...

Great stuff, and I'll be happy to link to it on my blog: I was having a drink with a friend last night and we were talking about the importance of understanding your place in theatrical tradition and embracing influences.

Sometimes it's hard to see a movement unless it's in retrospect. I wonder what we'll be called by those writing 20 years from now.

Jeff Sweet said...

Actually, I was at the Kushner speech in Chicago, too, and I don't remember it landing without a ripple of interest. I remember it being treated as Swiftian satire in that he was attacking the jobs of the very people he was addressing.

I also remember writing an article that used his speech as a starting point.