Friday, September 23, 2005

The "I Wish I'd Said That" Department

Tony Kushner always seems to find a way to put his thoughts in the smallest, most incisive way possible:

"Kushner was in Provincetown when Katrina landed, and he spent a tense week tracking down friends and family. Two elderly cousins went missing for six days. “They made it through okay, drinking vodka and smoking cigarettes.” Relief gave way to horror as the “Hobbesian nightmare” of New Orleans began to unfold. “It’s the America the Republican Party has been working hard to establish over the last 30 years: no infrastructure, no social safety net, everybody carrying a gun,” he says." (http://www.nymag.com/nymetro/arts/theater/14446/index.html)

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Regionalitis II

An anonymous reader posts a comment on my entry into the "regionalitis" discussion:

"While regional theater's can do without another tired production of "Burn
This", I think you should encourage playwrights not to write for a local, or
national artist, but to write plays that speak to the human condition.I was born
in the South, and although I escaped to NYC, I still have an affection for parts
of Virginia and Texas, not to mention North Cackalackey.Perhaps I have become
elitist. Nine years with the urban Yankess does that to a man. Anyway, my point
is: isn't encouraging regionalism asking playwrights to behave in the same
insular way as Mr. New York Playwright Writing Something Pretensious and
Urbane?(I know the South, and it has other vibrations besides environmental
harmony.)"


I couldn't agree more -- plays that speak to the human condition: yes! I am not suggesting regional subject matter, or a parochial viewpoint, or insularity. But I am suggesting that the artist create for a specific community, and recognize that people in different places are different. Let me give a rather simplistic example that might help illuminate my idea, which I may have made hopelessly abstract: A German playwright who hopes to speak to a German audience writes in German. His work is shaped by that language, and by the particular cultural norms that inform that language. What I am suggesting is that different parts of our enormous country have different "languages," different ways of experiencing the world, different touchstones, different rhythms.

Putting this in more general terms (and perhaps more radical terms as well), I think that theatre artists need to conceive of themselves as local artists, not national ones. The theatre, unlike a mass medium like film, takes place in a single specific time and in a single specific place -- in other words, it is local. This is its strength! A performance is unique, individual -- and so is the audience seeing it. We tend to speak about attracting "an audience" as if "an audience" was a separate species, like a bear or a beagle. "Heree, audience audience audience" we coo, proffering our treats.

But a theatre audience is comprised of a collection of individuals who come to see a play on a specific night for specific reasons with specific expectations and a specific background. And nobody else in the entire world is seeing that performance, and no group of people is the same as this one. This is exciting! Put in the terms of Walter Benjamin, theatre is not "art in the age of mechanical reproduction" and it never will be (no matter how Disney wants to homogenize it); rather, theatre is art with an "aura." But it isn't just the art work that has an aura, so does the audience. The individuals in our theatre on any given night are people we theatre artists can meet on the street, talk to in the supermarket line, eat with at the Rotary Club, stand next to at our kids' soccer games. We can tune into the thoughts, concerns, and joys of the people with whom we live, and we can talk to them with our art. We could have a conversation, not a lecture! It might be a conversation about the human condition, about what it feels like to be alive today in this world -- Big Topics, Universal Ideas -- but it would be a conversation between specific people who share a context.

To my mind, the only reason this doesn't sound incredibly exciting to every theatre artist in the world is that we have become infected with globalism. We want to talk to the nation, to the world. But you can't talk to the world, you can only talk at it. You can talk to individuals -- the individuals who are in your theatre on a particular night.

Why isn't that enough?

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Regionalitis

SpearBearer Down Left and YS of Mirror Up to Nature are engaged in a discussion of "regionalitis," which YS defines as "the peculiar malady suffered by mediocre efforts of excellent playwrights. Usually regionalitis is caused by the continued and incessant performing of a play by regional and smaller theatres..." SpearBearer elaborates: "There's a lot of "mee-too-ism" that goes on in theatres around the country. If you can write a good 3-5 person play, that's not too long, smart but not too smart (we don't need any more new Stoppards, thank you very much), and avoid letting it look like kitchen-sink-drama or sound like a "well-made-play" — then, if you can have the good fortune to get a production or two at a couple must-see theatres, and then get it printed in American Theatre. By God, you've got something." YS concludes: " I think something is going wrong when most of us can guess pretty accurately what the theatre seasons of the regional companies are going to be. Not doing [a regionalitis] play as [often] may deprive people of seeing it, I know that. However, could multiple productions of The Real Thing and Burn This and True West, also be depriving us of seeing something possibly better? Something new, something that speaks to our time?"

In my opinion, we are being deprived of something new that speaks not only to our time, but to our place as well. Conventional wisdom is that mass media have made America a homogeneous culture: we all watch the same TV shows and movies, listen to the same music, read the same best sellers. And to some extent, at least, this is true. But I think what is often ignored is that the aesthetics and concerns of a community are strongly affected by its place: its geography, its size, its climate, its terrain, its pace, its culture.

I have lived in Manhattan (in fact, a block off of Times Square -- you can't get much more New York than that) and I now live in Asheville, and I know in my own case that, despite being the same person, I have appreciated totally different things depending on where I have lived. For instance, in NYC, rap music "made sense," it reflected my surroundings; here in Asheville, a small city of 100,000 surrounded by the incredible natural beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains, it seems jarring and incongruous. It seems to me that NYC people are focused much more on their inner life -- their aesthetic responses, their intellectual and emotional lives; Asheville people are more tuned into the environment that surrounds them, and their souls resonate to the things they see and hear around them. A novel like The Hours drove me crazy when I read it a few months ago; in NYC, I may have thought it absolutely brilliant.

The point I am trying to make is that regionalitis treats all places as if they were the same. If the hot new play in NYC is, say, Art, it must be just the thing for...Asheville and Omaha and Nashville...because w're all the same, right? Wrong. The reverse is also true. A play like The Kentucky Cycle was extremely popular at regional theatres, and even won the Pulitzer, but it failed in NYC. Why? I'd venture to say that, at least in part, it was because it didn't have an urban pace or urban subject matter, and so NYC critics found it tedious -- the production was undermined by an aesthetic rhythm problem! In fact, those NYC actors who would have been cast in it probably had no idea what a Kentucky rhythm was, and they distorted the production through their own internal timeclocks being set to Eastern Standard Time instead of Central!

This is why it is so important for theatre artists to be part of the community in which they perform. They can't fly in from LaGuardia, bringing all that Big Apple tension, frenetic pace, and edgy aggression with them and expect to create a successful production for the slower, more mellow, and more cooperative Asheville theatregoer. They have to let the community sink into their bones. Once that has happened, once they have been marinaded in the social juices of their community, then they can make insightful choices of plays that might speak to their audience in a language that resonates within them, and perform those plays in a way that is recognizable to those who bought tickets.

Let me be perfectly clear: I am not suggesting that plays performed in a city in the South, for instance, have to be plays about the South. What I am saying is that every play ever written vibrates with its own melody, and an artist who wishes to speak to the actual people in their theatre, and not some imagined Manhattan Ideal Audience, needs to be tuned into that melody and understand whether it can harmonize with the local chords. If they do so, they might have a chance of escaping the effects of regionalitis.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Decentering the Arts

Wall Street Journalarts critic and dean of the arts bloggers, Terry Teachout, writes the following in his new weekly arts column (http://online.wsj.com/public/article/0,,SB112690528332043364-zN0_vTs8lrRTeobtYHCHiyesPoA_20051018,00.html?mod=blogs):

"I live and work in New York, and I'm happy to be here. Still, I learned
long ago that if you want to stay in touch with the best of what's happening
right now, you've got to look beyond the city limits -- no matter where you
live. The Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Carolina Ballet, Chicago Shakespeare
Theater, the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Miami City Ballet, Opera
Theatre of Saint Louis, Washington's Phillips Collection, the San Francisco
Symphony: All rank high on my personal list of America's top arts
organizations, and all are a long, long way from Ninth Avenue.

"Time was when life in the provinces was very different. When Katharine Cornell took her productions of "The Barretts of Wimpole Street," "Candida" and "Romeo and Juliet" on the road in 1933 for a 17,000-mile American tour, she brought her acting company to city after city where professional-quality drama had never before been seen, setting up shop in movie houses and high-school gyms. Back then, and for a long time thereafter, you had to come to New York to engage fully with the larger world of art. Even those artists who were doing major work elsewhere, such as the California
painter Richard Diebenkorn or the West Coast jazz musicians of the '50s, found
it hard to get New York critics to take them seriously.

"Now it's possible to live in almost any large or medium-sized American city and be regularly exposed to a wide range of high-quality artistic activity. Yet this deprovincialization of the arts in America has been accompanied by what can only be called the reprovincialization of arts journalism. Not only has network TV largely given up on the fine arts, but surprisingly few newspapers now take the trouble to hire staffers familiar enough with the arts to cover them well. To some extent the new media are starting to take up the slack. More and more I find myself looking to blogs for thoughtful commentary on the arts, much of it by amateur journalists living
outside New York who write as well as any professional (many of whom are themselves practicing artists). But the new media as yet have a comparatively small readership, and they typically "narrowcast" to niche audiences instead of addressing ordinary Americans who long to learn more about art. "

I couldn't agree more, both about the arts and about arts journalism. For too long, New York has been regarded as the source of all things theatrically worthwhile. This continues to be the case as far as hiring is concerned, with all too many regional theatres doing their casting, and hiring their designers and directors, out of NYC instead of developing a vibrant local artistic community.

It was once said, back when Sean Connery was playing James Bond, that we would know that feminism had won when Sean Connery made love to a woman his age on the screen. Similarly, we will know that we truly have a regional theatre scene when the actors, designers, and directors are residents of the region where they work; when they are not using their regional theatre as a springboard to NYC and then films and TV; when our artists form a deep and worthwhile relationship with the members of their community.

People form relationships with people, not with buildings or with institutions. When I was growing up in Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre had a husband and wife team of actors, James and Rose Pickering (they're still there, in fact, thirty years later), and I know for a fact that there were many people who came to play after play at that theatre because they wanted to see what James and Rose were up to now. Is this any different than Richard Burbage and Will Kemp at the Globe? But most of our regional theatres are revolving doors. How long will it take for theatres to realize that their success depends on relationships, not advertising and marketing? How long will it take for theatre people to stop believing that a 100XX-zip code is proof of artistic superiority?

I am thrilled the Mr. Teachout will be traveling throughout the US to report on the arts -- heck, I might even subscribe to The Wall Street Journal just to support his venture. I certainly will continue to visit "About Last Night" (http://www.artsjournal.com/aboutlastnight/) to get his take on the arts world and a bit better sense of what is vibrant and alive east of the Hudson River.

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 http://www.rand.org/publications/MG/MG218/), which undermines nearly every justification for the arts that we have ever used, but is anyone talking about it? Yes -- the blogs. ArtsJournal.com 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: http://www.artsjournal.com/muse/

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.