Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Striking a Balance

While George Hunka humorously paints a picture of me "standing at the side of his blog, paring his fingernails" while the discussion blazes around me (rather Nero-like, I imagine), I haven't actually been paring my fingernails so much as coughing my damn fool head off. I was very pleased to have such a thoughtful email from Brian, since I was incapable of having my own thoughts through the antihistamine-induced haze. (One of my last posts during this blurry period equated some artistic attitudes to rape, after which I decided to remain silent, or at best, pretty vanilla until I was thinking more clearly.) Anyway, I'm glad to see you have all carried on without me.

In many ways, I am content to stand on the side, since you all are doing such a wonderful job without me. George Hunka, as usual, has made a beautiful contribution with his "No More Audiences." SpearBearer Down Left joins the conversation with Theatre/Religion, expressing her belief that "theatre is at its most relevant when it speaks to something deeper than just advocating for positions, or painting our political climate with broad, one-sided strokes." Both are really worth the read. Matt Freeman made me laugh by confessing that he was born in 1975 "sue me," and goes on to express his annoyance at the whole damn conversation and says the whole thing is "self-righteous." He also, in a comment left, pats Brian on the head and finds his interest in the Greek "touching." Awwww -- ain't that sweet! Brian, the founder of the feast, rejoins the conversation in the comments area, as do many others. As George notes: "This comments page is now about three times as long as the original post!" If you haven't already, I recommend you read all the comments -- well worth the time.

So, as much to provide another post to which to attach more comments as a desire to enter the frey, I venture tentatively onto the field, fingernails nicely pared. I no longer have an excuse -- I'm healthy again. (Although I am very busy catching up, and getting ready for a guest lecture tomorrow on "the artist's responsibility" [in a class on censorship] and a conference in Denver on Thursday. All of which is to say, this post may be briefer than the subject deserves -- perhaps blessedly so.]

Anyway, here goes:

Peter Brook, in The Empty Space, began his chapter on "Holy Theatre" with a definition: "I am calling it the Holy Theatre for short, but it could be called The Theatre of the Invisible-Made-Visible: the notion that the stage is a place where the invisible can appear has a deep hold on our thoughts." He goes on: "This is what is meant and remembered by those who with feeling and seriousness use big hazy words like nobility, beauty, poetry... Many audiences all over the world will answer positively from their own experience that they have seen the face of the invisible through an experience on the stage that transcended their experiences of life....When they reproach the contemporary theatre for its kitchen sinks and cruelties, this, honourably, is what they are trying to say." While Brook dismisses most previous attempts to recover Holy Theatre by searching in past forms and nostalgic sentimentality, he does not dismiss the search. "All the forms of sacred art have certainly been destroyed by bourgeois values but this sort of observation does not help our problem. It is foolish to allow a revulsion from bourgeois forms to turn into a revulsion from needs that are common to all men: if the need for a true contract with a sacred invisibility through the theatre still exists, then all possible vehicles must be re-examined." (italics mine)

In his 1997 book The Politics of Meaning, Michael Lerner writes about the hunger for meaning that he found among the middle class people he was interviewing as part of a sociological study in 1976. "Our aim was to better understand the psychodynamics of middle-income working people..." What they found is quite interesting, and important for this discussion:

"What we learned from the thousands of people who participated in these groups challenged many of the beliefs that prevailed among us, and, more generally, in the liberal culture from which we researchers had come. We had thought of ourselves as psychologically sophisticated when we started this work, but we quickly learned that our assumptions about middle-income Americans were mistaken, prejudiced, and elitist. For example, most of us imagined that most Americans were motivated primarily by material self-interest. So we were surprised to discover that these middle Americans often experience more stress from feeling that they are wasting their lives doing meaningless work than from feeling that they are not making enough money. We found middle-income people deeply unhappy because they hunger to serve the common good and contribute to something with their talents and energies, yet find their work gives them little opportunity to do so. They often turn to demands of more money as a comepnsation for a life that otherwise feels frustrating and empty. In the Left and among many academics it has been almost a rule of reason to believe that what people really care about is their own material well-being, and that believing anything else is just some kind of populist romanticization. But we uncovered a far deeper desire -- the desire to have meaningful work, work that people believe would contribute to some higher purpose than self-advancement."

I think artists, as a group, tend to share the mistaken generalization about the middle class that Lerner outlines above. We think that exhaustion symbolizes apathy, and that a seeming unwillingness to be "challenged" is the result of intellectual apathy rather than emotional and spiritual rawness. There is a TV commercial for car insurance with the tag line "Life comes at you fast," and I think this could be the slogan for the last twenty years. We are daily bombarded with more and more information delivered in ever louder and more intense voices; we run from place to place, trying to keep up with everything that is happening; we work longer hours and at higher speeds, and when we come home we are tense and tired and drained. So my question is: just what does such a person need?

My tentative answer is: he needs meaning. He needs an artist to sort through the avalanche, slow down the onslaught, and make sense out of something in his life. Perhaps he needs someone to imagine the world another way, perhaps a world that values something more meaningful, more fulfilling, more human, where contemplation is encouraged and where serenity is a possibility. He might need to see the mystery in life, the holiness of a person or a piece of nature, the grandeur of the human endeavor.

Viktor Schlovsky, in his 1917 essay Art as Technique, wrote about how we normally experience the world: "If we start to examine the general laws of perception, we see that as perception becomes habitual, it becomes automatic." Therefore, according to this theory, the more we get used to a thing, the less clearly and firmly we perceive it. Art exists, Shlovsky writes, "that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known." In other words, art changes the way we know the world. It changes our rhythm, our angle of perception, our way of seeing. If art simply reproduces what already exists, then it loses it purpose; it simply joins the cacophony that is daily life. This is the error of Realism and its muscle-bound cousin Naturalism, who found their greatest achievement in the reproducing of life as it is lived.

So if our experience of daily living is fast, intense, overwhelmed, bombarded, meaningless, violent, intellectually simplistic, emotionally deadening, and spiritually empty -- then shouldn't we, as artists, try to alter perception by doing its opposite? If a late-capitalist consumer society is decidedly materialistic, would not a truly revolutionary act be to create art that finds meaning in non-materialistic perceptions?

This is a vision of the artist as balancer, a healer, as someone who looks at what aspects of a community's life is out of balance and creates art that seeks to provide what is missing or weakened. What people long for is not what there is already a glut of, but what is missing. In American society, I would venture to say that what is missing is a sense of meaningfulness, of purpose, of serenity and contemplation, of reflection and generosity. Might we, as artists, try to provide what is missing?


Freeman said...

I love feeling popular. That's what I'm all about.

I'm brought to mind the film, My Dinner with Andre. After a very long and interesting and high-minded story from Andre about the nature of the world, and theatre and meaning; Wallace Shawn politely says "I have no idea what you're talking about."

devore said...

i like the greeks. matt freeman...come out to play. rumble, coney island, daybreak. can you dig it freeman?

the greeks wrote about sex and violence and their comic actors wore funny phalluses and the action happens in real-time, unfolds loudly, tragically, reflecting a world that is bleak and cruel and cutting a human figure that is selfish and vain and noble and deserving or not deserving of thunder and/or having their baby thrown on the ramparts. Religion, theater, politics, pick-up lines — why these rituals effect the human heart and mind...i dunno. I do know this: I like to be destroyed by a play. I like to cry. I like to laugh while crying. So if you can do that, and don't know how you do that, then do it, and I'll pay. Cash money, yo?

I also like togas. I like a little freedom down there. Junk was meant to hang free. wow. coffee. mmmmmmmm.

Freeman said...

In all sincerity, whatever I can muster, it's not that I necessarily disagree with what Scott's written about an artists desire to find some way to create a sense of balance in a culture... I guess I simply doubt that actively making "meaning" is something we can adequately lay claim too. What is "meaning" anyhow? (Yes, I said it.)

I'm not afraid you, Devore. Prepared to be sacrificed to polytheism.

Sean Murphy said...

Thank you Scott for sharing your viewpoints.

The insights you shared about the desires and drivers for the middle class resonate with my middle class, day-job self. We are far too busy to waste time, but we want more from life. We want to make a difference. It is my nighttime theatre self that is working to connect with the daytime world.

The challenge is that, given the bombardment and burdens of everyday life, how can we give breathing room to our patrons so that they would give themselves the time to take in theatre that speaks to them? A greater challenge for our society is to demonstrate the value of the arts to the community’s well being. We are watching arts funding get cut in our schools. Not only is it hard to get the middle class parents to stop and take time for theatre, but also the next generation of potential patrons is being taught that the arts are secondary, or worse, insignificant. Studies have shown the benefits to critical thinking and social awareness that have taken place with children that are exposed to the arts. We are trying to get this message out and work with our local schools, but Silicon Valley life is technology driven and moves at an incredibly fast clip. There is lots of great theatre with messages that speak to me, but if it is my perception that I don’t have the time, then theatre still suffers, whether they are producing the classics or a brand new work. We need to break through the bombardment to offer a brief and welcome sanctuary. It is just cracking that nut which is proving challenging.

Anonymous said...


While I find your ruminations interesting (And thank you for finally citing the Holy Theater parts of Empty Space...I've been looking for my copy for days now) I think I'm going to try disagreeing with one chunk of your post:

I don't think our world has meaning. Therefore, providing "meaning" to the audience member is merely drugging them with intellectual ritalin. I think what we are seeing in our world is one that is suffused with alienation and disconnection, and as artists what we can give to an audience is an experience that (even briefly) works against that alienation and disconnection.

Your thoughts?
-- Isaac

oldphort said...

Not from the head, but from the heart.

We all strengthen the life around us in ways that are uniquely our own. Sometimes we draw on our own life experience, sometimes on the myths of our shared cultural memory and sometimes on the deepest instincts of our own hearts. In the end, it may simply be our commitment alone that has the power to reach across and spark the will to live.

When someone's life matters deeply to us, the life in us may speak to the life in them directly and have a far greater healing effect than saying the "right" words or using just the "right" imagery or the "right" ritual.

Joan Halifax says, in 'The Fruitful Darkness':

This great heron reminds me that storying is a kind ofroot medicine, a way for us to enter our depths and derive nourishment from the fruitful darkness. For her life to succeed, this big mother heron needs her old pine tree and the dark inland water. She needs continuity, heights, and depths for her life to be complete. It is this way with tellings, with stories, with myths, with prayer, prophecy, and song. They call forth the firmness of the tree and the yeilding of deep water in moments of transmitted inspiration.

Joshua said...

What Isaac said.

Ty Unglebower said...

Interesting post on a continuing subject.

I have just a few questions to add for anyone who wants to answer them. Please know I have no answers to these questions at this time. Not even a personal opinion of same. These are just the things I have found myself wondering as I read these threads.

Scott ends this post by saying...

"What people long for is not what there is already a glut of, but what is missing. In American society, I would venture to say that what is missing is a sense of meaningfulness, of purpose, of serenity and contemplation, of reflection and generosity. Might we, as artists, try to provide what is missing?"

Ponderance number one for me is something that relates back to a topic making the blog circuit a few weeks ago...classics vs. more original material. Could part of the inundation of "classics" in the last several years in fact be a result of trying to fill that void of missing "meaningfulness, of purpose, of serenity and contemplation, of reflection and generosity" that Scott speaks of? Do people reach for these so often, not just because of the guaranteed purse they often bring,(always of course a huge consideration) but also, because on some level not immediately conscious to us, we think such classics inject some of those long missing and possibly dying qualities in our society?

Ponderance number two is, could society in general be rejecting a larger issue than simply live theatre, as the numbers for it decrease over the years? Perhaps there is a larger, umbrella issue that live theatre happens to fall under that civilization is turning from. If that is true, could any amount of writing innovation, improved markets for new playwrights, introspective production, or depth of theatrical experience really make any difference? Is it possible that studying how theatre itself can improve, (and arguing which way is best, which was is practical, etc) is not addressing the overall problem? A deck chairs on the Titanic sort of thing?

Just some things I am pondering, and probably will ponder for a while.

Freeman said...

I think Ty has, in his final thought, his finger pointing in the right direction. Which is that we see a large societal shift and we need to address it.

I've often likened Broadway to the Titanic that is staring directly at an Iceberg and refusing to change course.

I believe firmly that there will be a backlash against the depersonalizing nature of modern technology. But as it so happens, we are living in a time of communication that seems more immediate than ever before (this forum is a fine example) but also more distancing (I've never met any of you in person.) The pleasure of being in the presence of one another is the unwritten and only true thing that consistently separates theatre from it's sister art forms. The Presence of the Actor, as Joe Chaikin wrote, is the true difference between theatre and film. The rest is window dressing.

We can argue form, and we can argue taste, but in the end; the central problem is selling (yes, i use that word) an audience something that is good for them. I believe firmly that generally good people have surrendered the power of marketing to those who have no agenda other than to sell soft drinks. And I don't mean multi-million dollar marketing, I mean intelligent marketing, intelligent salesman ship, that creates in an audience that is more starved than ever for contact the very thing that don't even know they need.

It's that way that, as Scott says, we can provide what's missing. But it's not through reinventing the play. It's by presenting "the play" as something essential to a modern audience.

Alison Croggon said...

The "classics" - depending how they're done, and which ones you're talking about - tend not to be very healing. They leave the world torn and open and unresolved. (Obviously, I think classic=tragedy). On the one hand, they might give the world a formal shape, but on the other, what they expose is raw woundedness, irresolvability. How does taming the Eumenides "resolve" the crimes, say, of Iphigenia's death, Agememnon's murder, Orestes' matricide? Something, to paraphrase Beckett, plays itself out, and that is all.

I'm with Isaac - artists who think they are bringing an audience "meaning" are being very above themselves. Surely that is an ultimate vanity? Who are they to impose healing when the world is full of fractures? Moreover, if theatre is supposed to make the wounds heal, then isn't it being a kind of aneasthetic? I thought art was about waking people up, and that this is its peculiar joy - to be aroused to grief and sorrow, without which joy cannot exist. That's the only "meaning" that theatre, or any art, can offer. I do think there is a hunger for it, because most entertainment is about anaesthesia, this false resolution that is ultimately about keeping people as passive consumers.