Wednesday, October 12, 2005

On Being Victims

In the mega-bestseller Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, author Stephen R. Covey distinguishes between our "Circle of Concern" (all things that we are concerned about) and the "Circle of Influence" (the subset of the Circle of Concern that we can affect through our actions). Proactive people, Covey says, are those who focus on the things they can affect; non-proactive people focus on blaming things in the Circle of Concern for their situation. Thus, in my post about "New Plays/Old Plays" I asked for us to focus within our Circle of Influence: "How have we (and the generation that preceded us) created this situation? How are we reinforcing it? And is there any way to remedy it?" Notice the word "we." Not "they."

I guess I shouldn't have been surprised that we are unable to do that. As artists, we are so used to blaming other factors for our situation that we have lost all of our ability to reflect on our own actions.

Some examples of this:

Matt Freeman points to modern poetry as an example of "how something once considered culturally relevant and even vital can be slowly pushed into the sidebar and reserved for academics." Note the word "pushed." (Also note the usual bashing of "academics," which I will let pass for now.) He continues: "As long as the market is the be-all-end-all of cultural significance, anything that is not easily sold, marketed, and resold has little chance of being picked up by the mainstream. I don't think new playwrights or producers of new work are intentionally causing themselves to be marginalized (although some don't help their cause.) I believe that we have a system that doesn't reward risk; especially when the fundamental economics are already tenuous." The market. Talk about the Usual Suspects. It isn't anything poets are doing, or anything theatre people are doing (at least not intentionally -- I guess there are some people who intentionally want to be marginalized); it isn't that many contemporary plays combine an adolescent attitude of rebellion with the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual depth of a child's plastic pool; it is the tyranny of the market. And as long as there is a market, I guess we just throw up our hands, right? Art and capitalism can't co-exist? Better move to...jeez, China, I guess.

George Hunka agrees with Matt, saying drama and poetry are marginalized "because both poetry and drama (as well as challenging film, music and television) are regarded as leisure-time activities, and for us today, leisure means escapism. The arts have been conflated with this concept of facile pleasures, which indicates a disregard for the place of arts in an individual's life (see, for example, the very name of the New York Times' "Arts & Leisure" section, as if the two pursuits were the same thing)." Again, to paraphrase Laertes, "Society's to blame." The bloody, three-headed beast "escapism." A whole society filled with people who are shallow goobers -- not us, of course, we artists are the only ones who don't want to escape.

To his credit, George does do some self-reflection (sort of): "We don't mind new things so long as they reach out to us to entertain, to amuse; those that challenge certainly don't, or at least the entertainment or amusement factor takes a back seat to others. Playwrights today, fearing failure, all too readily cater to this impulse to entertain, to make jokes, instead of reaching further into the form--to be more ambitious. Audiences may wish us to be more ambitious, more complex, to take ourselves more seriously--like Chekhov, like Shaw." In this case, all those playwrights willing to sell their souls for a buck are to blame. But I call your attention to Aristotle, who said that the purpose of drama was to "entertain," and to Horace, who said it was to "entertain and enlighten." Even Brecht agreed with Aristotle! And to use Shaw as an example -- come on! Many, many of his plays co-opted popular forms (melodrama, farce, costume play), entertained, and made jokes as a way of putting across his ideas. The Fabian idea of permeation was at work in all but a few of Shaw's plays. We ought to take Shaw as a model, I agree, but see him for what he is: someone who used commercial forms as a way of sneaking Fabian ideas into the mainstream. But to paraphrase Laertes, "Entertainment's to blame."

Joshua James, the founder of the feast, says "Deconstruction's to blame!": "That's another of my points - in college we are all taught to desconstruct texts - but in writing a new play we are not doing that, we are constructing a text - it's a subtle difference, but an important one (remember my Pinter Betrayal story?) especially when at that delicate stage of bringing a text alive onstage when it has never been heard before. "

Come on, guys, you can do better than this. Take a good, hard look at the plays that are being written that are not being appreciated: what's the problem? George: what do you mean by "challenge"? It is a word we use a lot in the theatre when we're justifying ourselves. Does "challenge" mean "piss off"? Does it mean "make a festish of obscurity"? Does it mean "means a lot to me and that's what matters"? And what about that market? Are we saying that people aren't in search of things that add meaning to their lives, and aren't willing to pay for it? They're not in search of art that helps them to make sense of the world a little bit? That helps them to understand their trials a bit, and see those trials as having a larger meaning? That expands their sense of empathy, and self-understanding? Or are we defining the market as being that thing that gives audiences a multiplicity of choices other than being ridiculed and beaten around the spiritual head and neck by us theatre folk?

Until we, as artists, begin to examine our own premises, we will be stuck in a non-proactive posture of helplessness, frustration, and finger-pointing. And the result will be plays of helplessness, frustration, and finger-pointing. Which is a pathetic way for artists to look at the world.

(P.S. I have a cold today, so I am more irritable than usual. But come on, let's raise the level of discourse beyond the banal.)


Freeman said...

Hey there,

Happy to get a quick rundown of my commentary. I would say, in fair response, that you should check out my post on Marketing. How we can use capitalism and its forms for our advantage. My attempt to be "proactive" as they say in business.

Here it is:

I would also say that ignoring the cultural and market forces that are acting upon things like poetry and theatre would be avoidance of a relatively big part of the problem. Art and Capitalism can co-exist, but Capitalism rewards certain behaviors and actions more than it does others.

It's fair to say that my word "pushed" is an implication that somehow poetry is a victim. To clarify: poetry is not a victim, it just isn't on the tips of the tongues of the mainstream public anymore. I reference is because I see similarities in the lessening of its sphere of influence that is similar to that of theatre is the United States.

Suffice to say at this stage in the discussion, I'm asking myself more questions than I am making firm statements. I simply hesitate to say that the reason that new works aren't as accepted by producers, or why they have lost a fair amount of audience is because of some inherent flaw in the work.

Arthur Miller, when he accepting his lifetime achievement award at the Tonys, noted that if he had sent "Death of a Salesman" to producers today, it never would have gotten onto Broadway. I think we should ask ourselves what exactly he is saying about the Market.

The Market is one of the "usual suspects" because it's ubiquitous. If we are going to work for an audience within Capitalism, we need to identify and work with and analyze the market.

Freeman said...

Oh and, love the vitriol. Fun. Next time, just call me a "commie."

Rock and roll.

George Hunka said...

Well, so far as I'm concerned, arguing with the market is like arguing with the sky: it gets one nowhere. Much as we may wish to change it, and even as much as we're trying to, it's part of our environment now and we deal with it or we don't. And that's both as artists and as human beings.

I certainly don't look at my audience as "shallow goobers," but I think marketers do--as some gross mob whose predilections, likes and dislikes can be quantitatively measured and sent on to groups ultimately responsible for the decisions that institutional theaters make--the boards of directors who look at these reports and studies and determine the direction of the theater based thereon. Artistic directors serve at the pleasure of these same boards. So if I don't blame the market, can I blame the marketers instead?

It's a constant source of sour bemusement to me that, in the thirty years since marketing and development experts joined the staffs of non-profit arts organizations, audience numbers and earned income have dropped precipitously; nowadays, these staff members are among the most highly paid permanent employees of non-profit theaters. No doubt these marketers are those who suggest that the coffers of the theater would be best filled in the Yuletide season with yet another adaptation of "A Christmas Carol," but I don't think I have to pay a Wharton MBA $75,000 to tell me that.

So far as entertainment and escapism goes, I confess I define those quite narrowly. When Aristotle or Brecht set out to "entertain," they did so using the word as a synonym for a broader engagement than mere pandering to audience taste. Perhaps I should have used the word in the sense that Aristotle or Brecht meant it--to "entertain" ideas, emotions, perspectives, rather than to "entertain" dinner guests. But I'm not sure this kind of "entertainment" would exactly correspond to the way marketing and development departments would describe it.

I suppose this is the challenge to audiences I propose: to re-examine their perspectives, not to confirm them in their prejudices, be they liberal or conservative; just to communicate with them some of my feeling that to be a member of the human race is a fate more ambivalent than many of them seem to think. I don't want to piss them off. (My outlook may be bleak, but I'm not suicidal.) Neither, though, do I want to confirm them in their comfort. I'm not certain that marketing and development would share that consideration; they may not desire that discomfort, for it may drive those audiences away.

George Hunka said...

(And a short correction--when I said "entertain" ideas, perspectives, etc., in the above comment, I meant to entertain them in tandem with the audience, not to lecture the audience, but to investigate with them, to feel with them. Not merely to feed them expensive, trendy haute cuisine with all the self-conscious, suffocating sincerity of a Martha Stewart.)

Joshua said...

And as I mentioned, the point of my comment was a response to another - so context is somewhat important . . . mostly I posit that since few work with living playwrights (in college) and focus on dead texts - they don't know how cool it can be to enter into a collaborative sphere with a writer, how much you get back from it and how important it is in the culture of our arts -

And it does make something of a difference - the college kids studying theatre today are our contemporaires tomorrow - they are programming, directing and putting up work - and most know little of the life of a living playwright -

It's important, right?

Joshua said...

I should add, however, that I agree with your point of Spheres of Influence - work on what you can change, yourself -

My original post was a call of what I myself plan to do, avoid covers, and why - because I was and still am frustrated with the state of theatre, indie-theatre, primarily - SO I took action and made a statement of intentions (made it public, I decided on new years and haven't paid to see a cover show since) -

Will it change everything? No, it will not - but I'll feel better and I will also feel I'm committed to something I truly believe in, new work, and those I work with may come away thinking about things a bit more -

I hope, anyway -