Saturday, October 29, 2005

Attempt at Synthesis: An Analogy

p'tit boo calls us out: "Ok, now let's get back to the fiery, heated conversations !" (Must be getting cold in Seattle.)

Last weekend, I was in an airport waiting for a flight back home, and I thought: on a practical level, what might the type of theatre you are proposing look like? So I started pulling things together that I had written about over the past month, and in the course of doing that, an analogy occurred to me: church.

Now, before everybody starts sharpening their long knives, I'm talking about structure, not content. Let me explain.

First, a disclaimer: I am not a churchgoer. When I was growing up, my family rarely went to church, so my knowledge of church life is not deep. However, my father-in-law is a retired Lutheran minister, so I have some insights. My background is also Lutheran, so that's the model.

Second disclaimer: this is a mind exercise. I have no evidence that these ideas will work, no examples to point to of people who have successfully tried it.

The Current Model
Currently, we think of plays as products to be sold. We create a product (product-ion) and try to sell it to people through traditional means: advertising, marketing, media, all of which are very expensive. Our competition, which is manifold, comes from other entertainment options: other plays, movies, television, other arts, home entertainment, sports, etc. If we're fortunate, we might have some subscribers, but a large portion of our audience is comprised of people who scan the entertainment options for something that catches their eye. As a result, we are dependent on media coverage: critics, feature stories, controversy.

It seems to me that this approach has led to a desperate economic crunch. We are an expensive art form to begin with -- inefficient (it takes the same number of actors to do Hamlet today as it did at the Globe four hundred years ago) and unique (a performance takes place in one place at one time). The cost of print advertising, postage, TV and radio advertising has skyrocketed. The mass entertainment forms, such as film, buy enormous ads that dwarf ours, casting us into shadow. The cost of bringing in new patrons continues to climb. Contributions to the arts are down as foundations and individuals shift their money to social issues, or cut their contributions due to changes in the stock market.

Proposed Model
What if we thought of theatre not as a product, but as an alliance (a "connection based on kinship, marriage, or common interest; a bond or tie"), a fellowship (a "close association of friends or equals sharing similar interests"), a guild (an "association of persons of the same trade or pursuits, formed to protect mutual interests and maintain standards"). Instead of buying a product (a ticket to a show), you became a member of this alliance/fellowship/guild and could participate in all of the activities associated with that organization. A church can serve as an interesting model.

Like the theatre, the church provides "performances," in this case the Sunday service. Unlike theatre, people do not regularly scan the religion section of the newspaper every Saturday night looking comparing ads for different churches. "Say, honey, this sounds like an interesting sermon -- let's head over to the Baptist church tomorrow and check it out." Rather, churchgoers choose a church, and then stick with it. There is a relationship there, a commitment.

Instead of tickets, each person contributes to the church according to their abilities and inclinations. Rich people give more, poor people give less. If you've fallen on hard times, you aren't barred from worship -- you're a member, you can come anyway.

You can go to church as often as you want without it costing you more. Want to do early service, bible study, and late service? Go ahead! But you don't have to pay each time you do.

The congregation comes to know each other. They have coffee and donuts before or after the service, they mill around the vestibule after the service chatting. They also come to know the minister(s). After the service, he or she doesn't scurry away never to be seen until the next Sunday; the minister stands in the doorway of the church and shakes each person's hand at they leave the church.

But the Sunday service is not the only thing the church provides. There are Bible study classes that meet to talk about the ideas raised by scripture, and struggle with their application to lives.

The church is involved in important rituals: weddings, funerals, baptisms. Thus, the ministers share moments of great joy and sorrow with their congregation.

The ministers visit people in the hospital, bring them food when they are sick. On Sundays, those who are sick are named, and the congregation prays for them. There is a relationship.

The church provides opportunities for service: making quilts for the poor, volunteering for Habitat for Humanity, making trips to disaster areas like those surrounding Hurrican Katrina to help with recovery efforts, missions to third world countries.

The church provides youth activities and retreats, as well as counseling services.

There are church picnics and potlucks where the members of the church can socialize.

The church building is rented inexpensively to community groups for meetings.

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Now think about a regional theatre. It is run like a business, and the patrons are customers. The theatre itself is largely closed to the public except during performance times. The artistic personnel are totally focused on the creation of the next product. Outreach is minimal, and is provided for a fee. The artists do not greet the patrons before or after the performance, but rather rush off to the dressing rooms; consequently, the relationship between artist and audience is tenuous. There are few, if any, opportunities for patrons and artists to socialize (and usually when there is one, it is because we are raising money), and artists rarely participate in the important events of a patron's life. There are probably not play reading groups associated with the theatre. Because many of the artists are not permanent members of the community, they rarely participate in service activities, nor do the patrons do so as a group identified with the theatre. In short, the theatre is not an alliance, a guild, a fellowship. The patrons have little identification with the institution, and they attend based on their satisfaction with the individual productions. If you have a season that is a little rough, there are other theatres they can shift their allegiance to. And why not? Who really knows they're gone?

I teach at a university, and any Admissions Officer will tell you that retention of current students is much less expensive than the recruitment of new ones. We want students to stay, and while part of that involves our classroom experiences, a large part of it revolves around other aspects: social opportunities, clubs, activities.

What would happen if we changed our model? What would happen if you could attend our plays as often as you liked without having to buy a ticket each time? What if, instead of buying a ticket with a set price, you you knew how much it cost to run the theatre and contributed what you could? What if there were play reading groups attached to the theatre that read not only plays, but essays about theatre (say, from American Theatre)? What if members of the theatre were available to, say, tell a story at your grandchild's birthday party, or read selections of poetry at your son's wedding? What if the actors, director, designers, and playwright were in the lobby before of after the show, and there were free donuts and coffee out to encourage patrons to hang around and chat? What if there were theatre activities for kids that didn't involve tuition? What if there were picnics and potlucks and retreats for artists and patrons to socialize? What if artists and patrons of a theatre gathered for charity events that didn't involve money for the theatre, but rather helping someone else?

Perhaps the theatre would benefit from a new model -- the church, or the university. If we created an alliance with our audience, a fellowship, a guild with a group of members committed to a common interest, then perhaps their would be greater stability. If we knew the people in our congregation, then we wouldn't have to spend so much money on advertising, mailings, and media; we'd just send a schedule to our members. People would feel a part of our theatre, they would identify with it. They might invite friends to join. A community would develop.

This would require that we reconceive our mission, and our way of doing things. We'd have to commit to permanence, to participation in our community, to experience instead of solely to product.

Every year, it seems the situation becomes more dire for professional theatres. Perhaps it is time to rethink our model, our metaphor, from the ground up.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Apology Due: It's a Farce

I need to offer a public apology to the commenter devore. The explanation for my behavior is rather odd: I thought devore was somebody else! I have a student whose name is Devore. He is a good student, bright and thoughtful. When I saw the name "devore" on the post, I thought it was him, but since it sounded so little like him (while he has a sense of humor, he tends to be fairly serious), I thought he was trying to disrespect the thoughtful, engaged members of the blogging community and undermine the discussion. I resolved to nip that in the bud. Little did I know that I was totally mistaken in the identity of my commentor.

I feel as if I am in some blogospherical farce -- we just need three doors and some underwear (perhaps Matt playing Hamlet?).

Anyway, I proffer the olive branch to devore with sincere apologies for my boorish behavior. A believe me, Matt, I didn't do it in order to increase the hit count on the blog!

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Josh writes: "Obviously if you've read my blog (esp No More Covers) you know that I don't think everything in theatre is going great..." You know, I knew as I was getting ready to hit "post and publish" that the "you" in that sentence seemed to be pointing at you, Josh, and I didn't have time to change it before I went off to class. But I did not mean you -- I meant the wider version. No, I know you don't think things are great, and I have been in agreement with you for the most part about the artist and community.

You go on: "It's not that the work is provoking (and I actually think theatre is much tamer than it used to be, there are far less risks in theatre than in other mediums such as music and film) so it's not that the "artists" are driving the audiences away by provoking them - it's simply that a lot of "artists" in question have lost touch with their audiences and the audiences went somewhere else to be moved emotionally, intellectually and spiritually." I'm sure you know from reading previous posts that, again, I am in total agreement with you. I think that the objectification of the audience that is necessary to assume a hostile attitude toward them is much harder if you actually "know" your audience. I think about ministers who occasionally must deliver sermons that take the congregation to task for their actions or behavior. Afterwards, those ministers must stand in the doorway as the congregation leaves, and shake each person's hand and look him or her in the eye. I am told by several acquaintances of mine who are ministers that this has an effect on how they express themselves. It doesn't stop them from saying what needs to be said, but it affects how they say it. We in the theatre have the luxury of cowardice -- we bring the lights down at the end of the show and escape to the dressing room, never having to look anyone in the eye. Even this small thing might make a difference.

As you note, the high price of tickets also has the effect of distancing the artist from the audience. We need a new approach!

Cynicism: This Is What I'm Talking About

devore writes:
We're attached to attack, because we're a complacent, conservative society committed to our comfort zones. Your argument that art should or shouldn't be this or that way augments the truth that we're a culture of tribes. For one, I don't believe in high brow or low brow. I spent a very brief period of my career as a food critic (very, very brief). The one lesson I took from it is that I love cheeseburgers as much as I love duck confit or toro sashimi. Culturally, people want to be told what they want to hear. They're not angry, they're petulant. They don't want community, because a community accepts differences, and we're a society that wants to pretend everyone thinks the same and if they don't, if they want to truly buck the status quo, they get screamed at.I have no idea what a serious artist is. I find the notion hopelessly bourgeois.I have no responsibility to anyone but myself, as art is an affirmation of existence, a marker that announces in a thousand different ways "I exist, and this is the world filtered through my heart, my eyes, my mind, my soul."Which is why, friends, the only true modern art form is advertising. It's what museums will be full of in 400 years. It reflects, honestly and properly, our era. And with that, I'm going to go purchase some Burger King chicken fries, and maybe scribble a few notes about a play about a talking Nazi fetus.

Notice the repeated word "they" along with the even more frequently repeated word "I." A combination of disdain for others and narcissism. Combine that with a fashionable nihilism, and you have the recipe for late capitalist consumer society. And "adolescent" is the word that seems to be echoing in my mind at this moment.

Now I Can Rest

Matt Freeman's recent post on his blog makes me feel that I have at least been understood. Thank you so much, Matt -- you have expressed my thoughts better than I have.

Response to Comments

Isaac: I did not address your arguments about How I Learned to Drive because I don't want to get sidetracked by a discussion of individual works. I used those examples to illustrate, in broad strokes, a general concept. If How I Learned to Drive is going to sidetrack the discussion from the broader idea (the most effective way for an artist to interact with and affect a community), then I withdraw it as an example and substitute another -- say, Neil Labute, if you like, or none at all. Same with Chris Ofili's work -- my point was that an almost identical approach as Serrano's to a religious topic predictably provoked the same reaction. Whether this is part of Ofili's ouevre is an important context for understanding the work of art, but it doesn't mitigate the underlying similarity of form and content, nor diminish the strong reaction, which was my point.

Isaac and webloge: Yes, I have seen a production of How I Learned to Drive, and yes I have seen Chris Ofili's work (the latter in reproduction, not the original). And yes, I have seen Piss Christ and yes I have seen Mapplethorpe's photos. And no, I have not seen Passion of Christ. See above.

Joshua: You ask "Attack or not, what's the difference?" and also say "Freedom of expression means that we are bound to hear something that we hate." The roots of this discussion reach into other posts I have made on the artist as a member of a community, on the preference for classic plays over new plays, and on the despair over whether serious work can find an audience. I am proposing that artists engage in imagining their function differently as a way of stopping the downward slide toward theatrical oblivion we seem to be seeing. If you think everything is great on the theatre scene, then you should be free to ignore my writing, since it is an underlying assumption for everything. The idea of freedom of expression, clearly expressed in the First Amendment, has become disconnected from the responsibility to the community that protects that freedom, which is also in other parts of the Constitution. I couldn't agree more that "artists have played a huge part in social change because of their willingness to tackle subjects that many may want to avoid." What I am saying is that we are in danger of being ignored because we too often use our freedom to provoke for the sheer sake of provocation, and that is making us ineffectual when we have something important to say. Also, a minor thing: I use "artist" for lack of a better word to encompass the creators in different art forms. I tend to agree with Georgia O'Keefe, who felt that "artist" was what others called you after you had a body of work that has been acknowledged as worthy. But writing playwrights-actors-directors-painters-photographers-sculptors-composers-etc in my posts seems rather pointless. It is shorthand, nothing more.

p'tit boo: Yes, I am talking about cynicism, which of almost all viewpoints I find most objectionable. I believe in hope, and I believe that things can be improved. Not very postmodern, I know, and lacking in the irony that Matt says is the "sticky lifeblood" of his generation, and "like it or not, its the language we speak." I guess I'm just an old fart who prefers hope and engagement. Anyway, you beautifully express many of my deepest beliefs, and I thank you for your comments and participation. I would add, however, that I am not suggesting that artists should never be provocative. What I am suggesting is that the definition of a serious artist not be confined to being a mere "provocateur," and that in a cynical world of disorder, meaninglessness, and shallow materialism, it might be more "provocative" to create works of art that point toward hope, order, meaningfulness, and idealism. In another post, I mentioned Shlovsky's idea that art exists to "make the stone stony," which means breaking us out of the usual ways of seeing. Some plays that seek to provoke do so in a way that actually feeds the thing they wish to attack. In my opinion, Big Business benefits from chaos and meaninglessness, because they operate in that painful void and sell us things to fill it. If I really want to unsettle our materialist society, I would suggest not more chaos, but rather more reflexion.

I appreciate others engaging me and trying to persuade me to see things in another way. I think the worst thing that can happen to a community is the naive relativist statement "you believe what you want, and I'll believe what I want," which totally shuts down communication. If it is important, it is important enough to discuss and persuade. As Isaac says, "the civility mixed with passion of this conversation is quite invigorating." I agree.

I hope I can persuade someone to see things my way. However, just as important to me is that others clearly understand what I am saying. I would rather be understood and rejected than be misinterpreted and agreed with. And obviously being misunderstood and rejected base on that misunderstanding is entirely unacceptable.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

A Hurricane All My Own

Well, apparently I have drawn the ire of my fellow bloggers, who have taken arms against me en masse! Apparently I have epatered le blogeousie! For those of you who want to follow the whole controversy, here is the list (at least, those I know):

It begins with two posts on my own blog, here and here. Attached to these posts are several comments. Then other bloggers begin to brandish the cudgel:

George Hunka at Superfluities.
Isaac at Parabasis.
Mac Rogers at Slow Learner.
Matt Freeman at On Theatre and Politics.

If you like a lively debate over ideas, this is definitely the place to be. What is most impressive about all of this, in my opinion, is that the exchange is passionate, but not abusive. It is clear that everyone respects each other, even if we disagree. And that means a great deal to me personally, and I think speaks well for the theatrical blogosphere.

I have less time than usual to blog, because this week is registration advising, which takes up several hours in my day. Nevertheless, I don't want to disappear entirely while the debate continues.

Where to begin a response?

Perhaps with those who would like to argue over the artistic value of Serrano/Mapplethorpe/Vogel. First, let me state my pedigree: in my previous job, I was Assistant to the Dean of the College of Fine Arts and Illinois State University, where we had a very cutting-edge art gallery run by curator Barry Blinderman. So cutting edge, in fact, that during my tenure we were attacked on the floor of the Senate by Jesse Helms for displaying the works of David Wojnarowicz, who had suggested in the catalog of his NEA-sponsored display that we should shove TNT up Helms' ass and blow him up. A year or two later, we had an intense local controversy over an artist who painted pictures of his naked adolescent daughter. During both of these controversies, I was deeply involved in handling media and local relations. So I have earned my stripes.

To those who would argue about the quality and symbolism in the work of Serrano, Mapplethorpe, and Vogel, I would readily assent. It would be so much easier to attack these works if they were done by hacks. It is very true that Serrano picture is beautiful when viewed formally, and Mapplethorpe's photographs are absolutely gorgeous technically, and Vogel's work is extremely sensitive. Most of the masterpieces of the 20th century are absolutely brilliant -- say, Nabakov's Lolita. Despite their masterful use of the form, the content of the work is designed to provoke.

Now, Isaac says that most artists are not like Serrano, Mapplethorpe, and Vogel, but I am not certain I would agree. Perhaps I need to be clear, though: I am talking about serious artists, those who are attempting to do something that transcends mere commodity. If we include all those whose main goal is to tickle the audience, then I am in agreement with Isaac. But if we are talking about serious artists, I think most would share Matt Freeman's creed: "[Artists] are, in fact, supposed to break social contracts, attack their audience, embrace their audience and do whatever it is they feel is best to make their statement." I'm not certain how much clearer this can be stated: 1) artists have no responsibility except to their own selves, 2) their job is to break social contracts and attack the audience.

To me, this seems not quite grown up. In fact, it sounds downright adolescent. But I would be happy to entertain the notion if Matt or anyone would go beyond the level of assertion and actually lay out the case for this ethic.

Matt also makes what seems to me to be a very shaky argument: "For the record, "Piss Christ" is still being giving substantial discussion. Take this one, for example. We're not discussing "Our Town" or Winslow Homer are we?" We're still talking about the Holocaust today, but that doesn't mean that there is much to recommend about Auschwitz.

I also must admit to being very puzzled by what George Hunka calls Isaac's "key graf" (clearly, I still have to learn blog-speak): "Art isn't useful. It has no practical purpose. If you buy a chair, you have a chair. You can sit on it. You can commodify it. You can resell it. You buy a ticket to theater, and you have a couple of hours of an experience that may, indeed, change you. It will, with any luck, impact you in some way. But what can you do with that impact? It's all ephemeral. As artists we need to help our audiences enjoy and value that experience in a world where something uncommodifiable is another term for something worthless." I understand the idea, which has a little Kant in its background, I suspect. But I hope Isaac will elaborate: are you saying that only material things have a "practical purpose"? That because ideas have no substance, they are purposeless? Surely I am misinterpreting what is being said, because if this were so then only industry would have purpose.

Isaac also comes to the conclusion that I think "art is made for the middle class" -- I assume what he thinks I am saying is that "art is made solely for the middle class." Not so. But as I noted in my lecture, epater le bourgeousie has been a rallying cry for the arts for a century, and in that phrase the target is clearly named. Nobody says epater le lumpen-proletariat, for instance, or even epater le tres riche bastards. No, most artists come from the middle classes, and they tend to attack their roots.

That said, he mentions friends of his who run a "thriving artistic home" called BAAD! that addresses "queer people of color" as an example of artists not doing art for the middle class. Very true, and I also will point at the same group as being an excellent example of artists who have created a community around themselves, and address them. Now, I don't know the work of BAAD!, but I would be willing to bet that they do not take a hostile attitude toward that community that they have built. And so we can discuss artists being part of a community, or, alternately, artists being hostile to a community that they are not a part of.

Listen, I am not against art that provokes. I think we needed the provocative art of the 60s and 70s as a way of breaking us out of the complacency of the 1950s. But today's mass media is filled with hostility. We are constantly yelled at on TV, the internet, magazines, newspapers about environmental damage, the economic destruction of the global economy, the increasingly wide gap between rich and poor. We are constantly told, at least implicitly, that changing things is impossible, that idealism is stupid, that competition beats cooperation, that capitalism red in tooth and claw benefits everyone, that the spiritual is nonsense, that personal piece is impossible and undesirable. 2005 is not the Leave It to Beaver world of the 1950s, one that needed to be shaken up. Today, we are shaken up hourly, to the point where we no longer notice that we are shaking. Maybe if we want to attract attention, we need to stop shaking, noit shake harder.

I am not saying artists should not try to make a difference, however slight; nor am I saying that we shouldn't do what we can to get the attention of the audience. What I am saying is that our shock techniques, which were so right in the face of the 50s or the 20s, are wearing out in today's abrasive world. As Mac Rogers notes, shock playwrights like Neil LaBute are being embraced by the masses. We eat shock for an afternoon snack. If we really want to get attention, it seems to me we should change our tactics and focus on something we're not getting right now: significance, humanity, order, spirit, caring, community.

Is that so objectionable? Why are we so very much attached to attack?