Friday, December 09, 2005

Conservatism

No, I have not decided to devote a post to our current Administration. I am talking about the traditional use of the word "conservatism." According to Dictionary.com, conservatism is:

1. The inclination, especially in politics, to maintain the existing or traditional order.
2. A political philosophy or attitude emphasizing respect for traditional institutions, distrust of government activism, and opposition to sudden change in the established order.


Wikpedia has a long section on conservatism, which includes this paragraph:

"In English-speaking countries, conservatism often refers to a political philosophy presented by Anglo-Irish statesman Edmund Burke. Burkean conservatives wish to conserve heritage; they advocate the current social climate. To a Burkean, any existing value or institution has undergone the correcting influence of past experience and ought to be respected. Burkeans do not reject change, as Burke wrote "a state without the means of change is without the means of its conservation," but they insist that further change be organic, rather than revolutionary."

My motivation in looking up this word comes from my bafflement concerning the theatre blogosphere's reaction to Steven Leigh Morris' article "Squinting Into the Sun: How our theater will change over the next decade." The reaction can only be described as traditionally conservative.

Steven Oxman at Theatre Matters (see sidebar), the first to respond to Morris' ideas (that I saw, at least), decided to let the news sink in: "I'm going to absorb this for a little while longer and see if I have any further response to it, other than: Will I really have to sit through more of what I consider community theatre? That's a very unpleasant thought."

Over at SpearBearer Down Left (see sidebar), our SpearBearer refers to Morris' ideas a "Chicken-little"-ish, decries Morris' "overstatement and pessimism," notes that he hasn't heard anyone calling for cuts in the NEA lately (not much left to cut there, in my opinion, but don't I vaguely remember at attempt to zero out the agency recently?), makes it a local problem ("it's just not a national problem. It's an L.A., New York, and maybe even a Chicago problem"), and ends: "But I'm sticking with my general philosophy. As long as the actors don't quit, there will be theatre. And if there's one person in the audience, the show will go on. (How we pay for it is another thing)." This last parenthetical phrase is a bit odd: I don't think Morris said that theatre would disappear, just that few would be able to make a living at it -- in other words, he was focusing on that "other thing" that SpearBearer tucks into a parenthesis. [An interesting sidebar: after calling Morris' ideas "Chicken-little-ish," he writes, "if that's not dignified enough for you, let's say "Cassandra-esque." You remember Cassandra, don't you? The Trojan princess gifted with the ability to see the future, but cursed by the gods to have nobody believe her predictions? Ah, the irony.]

Meanwhile, Matt Freeman visited my comments box and started his comment, "All of this stinks of surrender." He followed up with a fiery post on his blog (see sidebar: On Theatre and Politics") entitled "Theatre: Branding the Industry," in which he calls for the creation of "an organization that represents the Industry of Public Theater, or the Industry of Independent Theater. We can use the model of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, perhaps. But regardless, we must come together to create print campaigns, talking points, representatives, a business model, grant writing for small stages, new ways to approach ticket sales, and above all... a plan to simply raise awareness for what we do." Admirably, he not only calls for the creation of such an organization, but offers to begin discussions to that end: "In the coming year, after the Holiday, I would like to offer to organize an initial meeting to simply discuss how this might be acheived. Interested? Able to offer space? Want to attend?" Amd he provides contact information. [Another note: I encourage everybody to take him up on this offer -- it would be an excellent thing to have happen.]

MattJ over at Theatre Conversation and Political Frustration (see sidebar), in his post entitled "Performing the act of Theatre," worries about the ramifications of change. Addressing some of my suggestions for a new approach, he writes: "So what are the ends to the church-like theatre activity Scott proposes? Do we get so many followers that theatre becomes sort of mainstream again? If that was to happen, would the theatre get watered down, cyclically bringing us back to square one, creating a monster? Or does it become just a larger incestuous group?" He goes on: "I think I worry slightly about how it would change the nature of the professional, and the nature of theatrical presentation in general when part of the professional theatre artist's job is to have intense interaction with the audience all the time. I don't know exactly where I fall on this, my brain is telling me that a statement like this is ridiculous, of course artists should interact with the audience! But there's something about the mystery of the theatre and the craft of the actor, director, and designers which still needs to be preserved somehow. "

All of these are certainly valid responses to Morris' essay. And Matt Freeman's idea for an umbrella organization is a great one. The theatre has long refused to organize anything. We have no think tanks, no lobbying organizations, no white papers. We're all Rugged Individualists working our own theatrical field alone (well, not me; I stagger on burdened by the Scarlet A for "Academic" around my neck). Anyway, it is like shoveling frogs into a wheelbarrow getting theatre people to agree about anything!

Everything, that is, except one thing: that something might need to change. We are united in our conservative inclination "to maintain the existing or traditional order." If we were dinosaurs, we'd have been the ones saying, "Well, yeah, it's getting a little cold, but I think it's just a front and it's probably just a local problem anyway. Gimme a sweater."

I find it astonishing that otherwise imaginative, daring people are simply unwilling to even imagine, much less do, theatre differently. I'm not even saying living what is imagined, I mean even entertain for a moment the notion that things might need to change, and imagine changes that might -- just might -- make things better. Like traditional conservatives, we fret that any change whatsoever would probably be a change for the worse.

I am not arguing that any of my models are The Answer. But I have sworn to myself when I started this blog that I would do more than complain about the status quo, I would try to come up with actual ideas of things that could be tried out. But when I have done so, at best I have been greeted with silence, and at worst been told all the problems with the idea. And that is fine, that is why I post them here and don't just write them in a personal journal at my bedside table. But what baffles me is why others don't float their own ideas. The possible exception is Matt Freeman, who continues to propose that artists organize and take action, and I admire that enormously. I urge any New York theatre people who read these blogs to contact him and start trading ideas, and I hope something dynamic will come of it. It would help enormously.

In the meantime could we at least acknowledge that something might be improved about the way we do things in the theatre (not something that might be improved about the audience, or government funding, or the capitalist system)? And then maybe brainstorm a little about changes that might lead to improvement? It would only be a mental exercise not requiring that anybody actually change anything about the way they currently work in theatre.

But just...imagine...

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Theatre and Community

Steven Oxman over at "Theatre Matters" (see sidebar) has a post today called "Theatre, Community, and Community Theatre," which in turn is a response to Steven Leigh Morris' article in LA Weekly called "Squinting Into the Sun: How our theater will change over the next decade."

Let's begin with Morris, who sees the sun setting on regional theatres "as they've existed for the past half century." He first discusses the attack on federal funding for the arts (or just about anything non-profit-making), the change in buying patterns (subscriptions are down, single ticket buying is up), and private foundations are shifting their priorities to social problems.

"There are also other reasons," he continues, "cultural and technological, leading to the reality that putting on shows can no longer be the primary purpose of theater. Such a purpose — as a sole purpose — is unsustainable for either profit or nonprofit theaters in an era of funding cutbacks when the Internet, iPods, cell-phone cameras and flat-screen TVs have added to the already tempting distractions of California’s beaches, mountains and amusement parks. Even the film industry is struggling to get audiences into luxurious new movie houses." (my italics)

He predicts: "An entirely new paradigm for the performing arts is descending upon us, quickly, and for the theater to survive, it’s going to have to adapt just as quickly, redefining not only its structure, but also its sense of purpose.... The most fundamental transformation throughout the country will be a growing shift in notion, from “theater as product” to “theater as a process”: theater in prisons and hospices, serving its original function of uniting and validating communities. It’s not that shows will no longer be produced just for the art, or the entertainment, but that theater’s larger purpose will have to be redefined, or it simply can’t compete in a laissez-faire economy. In the next decade, the term “community theater” may no longer be disparaged as representing something at the bottom of a hierarchy of which Broadway is the pinnacle. Rather, you’ll have to go to Broadway or Vegas to see Broadway shows — the national touring circuits are slowly dissolving — while “community theater” may come to represent a considerably more noble activity than before. Theater’s funders will consist of fewer private investors, governments and foundations, and more colleges, film producers and restaurants that hire the artists in order that they can afford to do theater they love. That theater may not offer a living, but it will provide a calling."

Oxman, clearly made queasy by Morris' analysis (and who wouldn't be), writes: "I'm going to absorb this for a little while longer and see if I have any further response to it, other than: Will I really have to sit through more of what I consider community theatre? That's a very unpleasant thought."

I think Morris diagnoses the situation correctly, and even prescribes what needs to happen (the theatre will have to "redefin[e] not only its structure, but also its sense of purpose"). But I think he prescribes the wrong medicine.

In order for theatre to survive, it needs to be done by people who spend their lives developing their skills, focusing on their vision, and using their skills and vision to stretch the art form. IN other words, it needs professionals. As I said in a previous post, I think there is a very, very valuable place for theatre in prisons (ala Rhodessa Jones' Medea Project), in hospices, in the context of community building. Like the traditional theatre, it needs to be done by people who have devoted their lives to developing the skills, understanding, and vision necessary for that form of creation. But the two groups are artists are not the same, and neither are the art forms themselves.

But the prescription of "community" is a good one. I think theatres and theatre artists need to become more actively and permanently involved in the lives of their community. Brand loyalty (to use a marketing term) in an environment flooded with entertainment options will rest not on subscriptions, but on relationships -- and probably personal relationships.

Recently, I have discussed different ways of helping our audiences to get more from our work: extended catalogs/programs that provide help in mining the play they are going to see (and this doesn't have to be done through expensive printed programs, but could be done with websites, blogs, and podcasts), postshow discussions that actively involve the audience in talking about the show, and (just as importantly) talking to each other. We need to stop thinking of our job as creating a product, as Morris says, but unlike Morris' recommendation that we focus on process, I believe we should focus on creating an experience. This would allow us to expand our thinking beyond simply selling a production to providing a source of engagement, discussion, socializing, stimulation. Thus, the production becomes a part of a larger experience. I have written about an idea for a possible model in "An Attempt at Synthesis." I'm certain that there are many, many other approaches that would be just as effective or moreso. The point is that we probably do need to redefine theatre's structure and sense of purpose, as Morris says, before it is too late.

But that shouldn't make us queasy. It should inspire us to ask the questions that are central to our art form, to start from square one (two boards and a passion?) and re-examine each piece we add thereafter. George asked where is the garde that daring artists are supposed to be avant of? Well, the garde may not be a style of theatre, but rather the way we conceive of theatre itself, the way we create it, sell it, think about it. It is the perfect time to have a blog where this conversation can happen between intelligent, creative, and committed artists all over this country and beyond.

I hope we can begin such a conversation.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The Garde

Over in the comments section of MattJ's "theatre conversation and political frustration" blog (see sidebar), there is an absolutely brilliant discussion between MattJ, George, and Freeman of postmodernism as a term. In George's contribution, he asks in reference to people like Richard Foreman and Liz LeCompte, "Where's the garde they're supposed to be avant?" That incisive question really snapped my head back. Both MattF and George are threatening to write about this topic, and I really look forward to reading what they have to say. All I have to contribute at this point is to quote the first stanza of WB Yeats' The Second Coming, which to me seems prescient about the current situation in the arts:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all convictions, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Art Isn't Useful, Says SpearBearer Down Left

In the final flowering of SpearBearer Down Left's blog (see link in sidebar), he is reposting some previous posts, with additional commentary. On the topic of the uselessness of art (ala Kant), he provides two posts: "Art Isn't Useful" and "More on Selling Art to Pragmatists." Both are thoughtful and thought-provoking, and I recommend them highly. The former takes at its starting point the Rand Corporation's study of the arts (which I think needs much greater discussion by artists); the other begins with a Ben Cameron editorial in American Theatre. The essential thrust is that we have focused too often on promoting the side-benefits of the arts: the economic or educational effects, and on educational outreach. SpearBearer thinks, along with the Rand study, that we should focus more on intrinsic benefits. He also feels that theatre is becoming schizophrenic in that we are simultaneously trying to create a season of plays and do community outreach.

I tend to agree. I don't think using art as outreach is the answer. However (you knew there was going to be a however, didn't you?), I do think we should use artists as outreach. Let me explain.

When we make our art serve two masters, we serve each poorly. I think art should be art, and be justified intrinsically. Using art to teach elementary school children is a wonderful thing, and there should be more of it done -- but it should be done by people whose focus in entirely on that pursuit, so that what is brought into the schools is suitable. Similarly, art should be taken into and even created in the prisons, shelters, community centers and other institutions as a way of promoting dialogue, self-esteem, self-expression, etc. But again, it should be done by people whose focus is wholly on that pursuit. And artists should focus on art as an end in itself, stretching and strengthening the form, experimenting with new approaches, appropriating and reforming old approaches. There should be people who focus on helping those artists find and communicate with an audience (see my posts on "Helping the Audience, Part 2" and "Helping the Audience Part 3"), and those people should also be experts.

The community outreach should not use the arts, but rather should be done by artists. I'm talking about volunteerism. Artists as citizens should be involved not only in creating their art, but in the life of their community as well. This is good for the artist, who finds out what is happening in the hearts of their fellow citizens, and also good for the development of the audience, because it can create a relationship between artist and potential spectator that will lead the latter to visit the theatre to see their friend.

The problem occurs when we mix artistry and service.

Now, let's keep it real: I am not a good model. I rarely -- and I mean really rarely -- volunteer in my community. I tend to be shy when it comes to such things, it was not something that my family did, I don't belong to a church or a service organization, and I usually fall back on the excuse that I am just too busy. Hell, I don't even talk to the spectators in my lobby when we have a show going on -- again, introversion, shyness, whatever. But. If I were running a theatre, I think I would need to get over that, and I would benefit from getting over it, and my community would benefit from my getting over it. I would want people to get to know me outside of my plays, and see me as someone who cares about others, which I think would make them care more about me and what I am doing. Instead of my theatre being involved, I would encourage my theatre artists to be involved, and hope that this helped my theatre. In my job as a professor, I am evaluated on three things: teaching, research, and service. Perhaps such a way of evaluating artists and staff (I'm talking about a company, not a space with a bunch of jobbed in artists) would work as well. I don't know. But I do know that art-as-social-work done by artists seems like a waste of talent.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Endings

OGIC over at About Last Night drew my attention to a wonderful essay entitled "The end. At last." It is about the last lines of novels. The author writes: "The deepest rooted of last lines is the childhood one: "And they all lived happily ever after." Unlike the first line of such stories, "Once upon a time," it isn't just a formula. It's a reassurance that the result the story has achieved will remain in place even now the story-telling has finished. But more than that, it acknowledges what the story was about all along. Folk tales that end like that have, all along, been about happiness and challenges to it; the subject of the story is there in its last line....But there are two questions at stake here, in what Frank Kermode called "the sense of an ending". One is how far a novelist believes in the end of a story, either through perfect happiness or complete catastrophe. The other is just the sense of a cadence; the sort of thing that sounds final, even if the novel's concerns are provisional, incomplete." It got me to thinking about the last lines of plays, which seem to me to be even more important than the last lines of novels. Here are a couple off the top of my head:

"Help!" -- The Good Woman of Setzuan
"Yes, let's go." (They do not move.) -- Waiting for Godot
"There is now, in my mouth, this sharp chain. And it never comes out." -- Equus

What last lines do you find particularly effective?

Neo-Noir

Over at About Last Night, Our Girl in Chicago posts an interesting follow-up critique of the film The Ice Harvest, drawing on the review of Erasmus at Praise of Folly. In the post, called "Black Ice Continued," OGIC quotes Erasmus: "The problem with this film is that it fundamentally mischaracterizes the question at the heart of film noir, which is "what does the decent man do in an immoral milieu?" While I don't have much time to pursue this idea right now, I wonder if my uneasiness with the work of David Mamet is contained in this mischaracterized question. It seems to me that Mamet, in both his plays and his films, writes of a noir world, but like the filmmakers that Erasmus discusses, he gets to enamored of the Bad Guys and skips the Good Guys. I don't know. Maybe it is just that the Good Guys, when they appear in his work, always get squashed like a bug. Which would be another matter entirely... Anyway, I recommend reading this post for its clarity and insight.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Helping the Audience, Part 3: The Talkback

Playwright Laurie Brooks has a fascinating article in the latest American Theatre about a new approach to talkbacks that goes beyond the typical Q & A session. "How can theatre be a more vibrant, necessary part of our culture?," she asks. "There are no easy answers to that question, but an after-play event that invites audiences into structured dialogue adds ownership and transformative power to the theatre experience. As Daniel Renner, director of education at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, says, reflecting on his experience with [Brooks'] The Tangled Web forum: 'So often we lose sight that theatre is a communal event. We might discuss a play on the way home, but we are already removed from the experience we just had with strangers in the dark. What this simple but elegant design provides is an opportunity for strangers to become a true community that wrestles face to face with feelings, values and reactions to the primal issues of a play.'" Brooks challenges us to "take a risk. Move talkbacks beyond banality to deep engagement." You can read Brooks' entire article, as well as descriptions of her different approaches to talkbacks, at www.lauriebrooks.com.

Helping the Audience, Part 2

Back on October 5th, I wrote and admiring post, "Helping the Audience to Appreciate Our Work", about Jeffrey Jones' essay in American Theatre entitled Thinking About Writing About Thinking About New Plays: Or, How the Visual Arts Audiences Got Comfortable with Radical Innovation, While Theatre Audiences Didn’t. I wrote: "The model he asks us to consider to solve the question “How can anyone ever get an audience to accept and enjoy new and difficult work?” is that of the visual arts, where during the rise of Modernism patrons were taught a “handful of terms and concepts…with which to discuss the work.” As a result of acquiring this vocabulary, the now-educated patrons “are suddenly and magically able to discuss and understand [the difficult work of art] – and, lo, the scales fall from their eyes and they see…” The vehicle for this revelation is the gallery’s 50-page catalog whose “actual purpose…is to provide an essay that places the work-at-hand in the context of that shared set of core terms and concepts.” “Theatre,” he goes on, “has spent almost no effort or energy in defining, let alone disseminating, a core set of terms and concepts by which new plays might be discussed an understood.” And you know, I think he’s right. And what a refreshing viewpoint!"

This month in American Theatre there is a letter from Benjamin Lloyd skewering Jones' essay. "Like many other highbrow artists," Lloyd writes, "Mr. Jones bangs his spoon loudly and complains that no one likes the theatre he likes....But then he proceeds to the odious position that it's because we are all too stupid to get the theatre he likes, and need thick, jargon-laden programs written by more theatratti to explain it to us. Obnoxious!" He goes on "When I feel like no one likes the theatre I like, I try to find out how to make what I like likable to my audience." And he concludes: "Those of us who create theatre that needs explaining are doomed to irrelevancy."

I sympathize with Mr. Lloyd, and in fact my gut response to Jones' essay had a similar flavor. As someone who directs, I had always been loath to provide even a "Note from the Director" for the program under the notion that if I'd done my job well, the audience should be able to "get" what is there without my help. I tended to agree with Lloyd: "It is not my job to lecture my audience..."

But what Mr. Jones suggests is that, especially with new work that stretches conventions, the artists provide the audience with the tools to more fully understand and appreciate what they are seeing -- in short, to help them enjoy themselves more. Why is this objectionable? When you buy most products, they come with an instruction manual so that you know how to use it. A trip to the computer section of the local bookstore reveals extremely long volumes about how to use Microsoft Word, or Windows, or Excel. Are these books insults to the public's intelligence? Should they be left to their own devices, clicking their way around in some sort of software version of the game "Myst"? Or rather, aren't they books that help me to uncover all the power in the program, and to fully utilize what is there?

Theatre is not easy. It goes by quickly, and you can't rewatch the pieces that you didn't get the first time. Why is it an insult to the audience to give them some guideposts, maybe even a little map, to help them navigate the trip, especially when the terrain is challenging and unfamiliar? If we don't do so, audiences will be confused, and rarely does confusion by itself lead to revelation (I'm putting aside those pieces in which confusion is the ultimate goal). It isn't that audiences can't appreciate new approaches, but rather that they need help reorienting themselves in the theatrical landscape. In fact, by providing audiences with a few tools, the artist is actually doing what Lloyd thinks should be done, trying "to figure out how to make what I like likable to my audience." Mastery of the new is enjoyable, no matter how conservative the audience!

As anyone who has been reading this blog knows, I object to artists having a hostile attitude toward the audience, but that doesn't mean simply giving them whatever they are used to, or even "meet[ing] them halfway" as Mr Lloyd suggests. I think artists should often be trying new things (or making old things new again), and stretching the form, and venturing into new areas. To not do so leads to a moribund art form. We send scouts ahead to describe the path and what to expect as we go along it, not to leave us behind in the dust. When an artist tries something uncoventional, it seems friendly, not "obnoxious," to shine a light along the new path.

In this case, I think Mr Lloyd missed the boat.