Saturday, December 17, 2005

Academiaphobia

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?

Ripping Off George Hunka

I was reading again some of George Hunka's posts at "Superfluities" (see sidebar), and in his "Best of Superfluities" selection, I came across his post "No More Audiences" from October of this year that is so wonderful that I have decided to post it here in its entirety. While Terry Teachout may be referred to as the Dean of Theatre Bloggers, I am ready to nominate George as the Provost. Here is the post:


Scott Walters is standing at the side of his blog, paring his fingernails, as a passionate discussion is underway about religion (more specifically, spirituality) and theater at Theatre Ideas. That such a conversation has emerged over the weekend in the blogosphere is testimony to the very same deep, considered thinking about theater that's been missing from the culture generally (not to mention in the traditional media and even magazines like American Theatre). So good for him, and his guest-poster Brian, who started the conversation.

The clearest common thread to emerge from all this is a fear that in seeking this sacredness we are somehow not being modern enough. On his own blog, Matthew Freeman warns that, "Wishing for yesteryear [when theatrical practice was more specifically rooted in religious ritual] is not the way [to sell tickets]" (and I hope that these brackets don't misstate Matt's argument; if they do, he's sure to tell me). He adds, "There has to be a middle ground between the hopelessly arty and the utterly pedestrian. I think this conversation about moving towards Greek theatre and the ritual of theater is a bit, if you'll excuse me, self-righteous." At Theatre Ideas itself, Matt offers this:

I am perfectly happy to be in an era that wantonly ignores old forms and seeks
new ones. I would pose the opposite direction is preferable; to move forwards
into modern forms, not backwards toward the Greeks, long dead. To respect our
tradition is one thing ... to long to return to something centuries dead is
suicide to contemporary relevance.


I'm worried about that "wanton," because I see the same attitude in Joshua James's response:

Everything else today, from technology to medicine to sociology and
psychology, is far advanced from medieval times–we know more about everything
now, and given the choice between a doctor from the 1800's or a doctor from
today, which would you choose?

Why should "spirituality" be any different? Why is it assumed that Paul
and many of the other authors of the bible knew more about god or the afterlife
than we do?

Well, if being self-righteous isn't considering ourselves rather more spiritually advanced than Paul, Augustine or Aquinas, I'm not sure what is. (I mean, maybe I'm just being old-fashioned, but give me the gospels or the Vedas instead of Battlefield Earth or Tuesdays with Morrie any day.) While I have no intention of leaping to the defense of Christianity or any other dogma or theology, I will respond that this disregard of the nexus between spirituality and the theater, a nexus that we can trace through dramatic history, is indeed wanton, destructively so.

Obviously, Brian isn't arguing that, like the Greeks, we should push the altar to center-stage again, rebuild the amphitheaters and set God a-talking downstage. (The gods didn't often appear in the ancient Greek tragedies anyway, any more than the gods appear in 'night, Mother.) My argument with Joshua is that science and spirituality aren't the same thing, that an advancement in our knowledge of the material world does not necessarily indicate or parallel an advancement in our knowledge of the metaphysical world; nor can it, since you can't use the same instruments of knowledge. What is wanton, and destructive, is to think that they are the same thing.
That theater or any of the arts can be an instrument of metaphysical investigation, though, is quite true, and this metaphysical investigation doesn't necessarily lead to dogma any more than surgery necessarily leads to vivisection. But, in our particular era, this requires the same new forms that Matt and Joshua think they're so assiduously defending. I get the feeling, though, that for both of these writers there is a sense in that a form can be too new, and that Brian is indeed thinking far more imaginatively about the potential of theater than any of us.


This kind of imagination is innovative in our time because it doesn't spoonfeed its audience what it wants to hear; it is a distinctly non-commercial endeavor that challenges prejudices about the secular sphere; indeed, it challenges secularism itself. There can be no more revolutionary act for theater now than to echo Artaud's cry of "No More Masterpieces" with a cry of "No More Audiences": that is, to strike out from the idea that, through conjuring up with our audience consultants and marketing and development people a magical formula, a philosopher's stone, for getting people into the theater by offering it whatever it was we think they'll want to consume, we provide them with the potentially liberating experience of theatrical practice. But I get the idea that, as some forms can be too new, some revolutionary slogans can be too revolutionary for theaters and marketing departments, no matter how figuratively they're meant to be read.

Audiences will find us, as audiences found the spiritual work of artists like Robert Wilson, Reza Abdoh, Peter Brook and others, so long as we conscientiously develop our craft and think deeply about our own relationships to the world. We reach out to our audience as churches do: by living in the community, by providing it with something they can't get in their own homes, in their movie theaters or at dance clubs, and, yes, by commenting on the world poetically, in newspapers and magazines, as some recent Nobelists are wont to do. Church attendance is dipping as well, but one thing is worth remembering: regardless of the number of people in the pews, the miracle of transubstantiation occurs during the mass whether or not there's anyone there to see it. That's why the theater isn't merely another vocation, nor a play merely another product to be sold.

The Two Dumbest Sentences in Criticism

Thanks to Matthew Freeman over at "On Theatre and Politics" (see sidebar) for drawing my attention to the NY Times negative review of the new film of The Producers. Freeman titles his post "Theatre Gets Kicked in the Crotch." When I checked out the review by A. O. Scott, I found two of the dumbest sentences in criticism, which I quote below for your enjoyment:

"Now, many big musicals [on Broadway] represent the lowest common denominator: theme park attractions for tourists. The movie audience, I suspect, is more discriminating."

With all due respect to Scott: Excuse me? The movie audience is more discriminating? As Scrooge once said, "I'll retire to Bedlam."

Sunday, December 11, 2005

If Only More Theatres Had This Law

From "Oil and Water, Or How a Director Taught the Brilliant Old Dogs of Steppenwolf Some New Tricks" by Tina Landua, in this month's American Theatre:

"There's another thing I've learned from Steppenwolf. It's not: "Yes, and..." or "The same only different," but it too possesses a quirky and self-explantory name. We call it: "I cry bullshit." I learned this from the likes of Tom and Amy, Laurie Metcalf, Gary Sinise, Terry Kinney and Jeff Perry. It's a favor the ensemble does for each other, and they've developed this technique over 25 years together in basements, churches, and now in their three performance spaces on North Halsted Street in Chicago. If you're watching rehearsals and something happens onstage that is false, contrived, not believable (it could be a move, an acting choice, a line) you are encouraged (not required) by Steppenwolf Law to raise your hand as you would in class and call out: "I cry bullshit!"