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?