Monday, February 20, 2006

A Thought to Ponder

A friend of mine -- not a theatre person, but someone interested in theatre -- emailed me about an article in American Theatre magazine. She says: " I read the article in American Theater and found this interesting. Sarah Jones says: “I think Bernie Gersten at Lincoln Center Theater coined the term ‘theatrons’: the units of energy that are created in an atmosphere in which actors on stage are communing with the audience. That kind of energy is unmatched in any other medium. On Broadway, I love the idea that 600 of us are going to get together every night and do something that no one has ever done before and no one will ever do again.”
I think this goes a long way towards addressing what my particular beef is with theater. It’s not so much that I want the actors to “pander” to me or make me feel good or only do something that is “heartwarming”. But I want to feel that we are in it together. That they are WITH the audience, not against it. I can look at very hard things with the actors and director if they are looking WITH me. But if they are shoving my face in it, well, no thanks. I can find abuse all over the world. I certainly am not going to pay to get it.


parabasis said...

The problem, as I see it, Scott, honestly here, because i've disagreed with you many times but I hope you understand my respect for you in all of this...

My problem, Scott is that you view it as an either/or. You're either with the audience or against it. And I disagree. Further more, when you write it really does seem like your definition of "with" is "will make feel good about" or "wil not challenge". And I believe you can challenge someone and be with them, frankly. You seem to see art that challenges its audience as basically the same as art that wants to take a crap on its audience. And its not. Not to me, anyway.

Perhaps I'm misreading you, and if I am, please clarify for me.

Scott Walters said...

I think the key is this sentence: "I can look at very hard things with the actors and director if they are looking WITH me."

It is not about challenging subject matter, it is whether you are with the audience, or against it.

parabasis said...

Again, I refuse to accept this "with us or against us" dichotomy, just as I refuse about any rhetorical tactic used by the Bush Administration. For two reasons:

1) I don't accept either/or as a real proposition, it's just a bit of logic we made up to help us sort the world out better. And I said that in my first comment and you ignored it, which leads me to believe this might be an irreconcilable different in how we see the world, but I'll give you an example: Was PT Barnum for the audience or against them? He saw them as suckers and took advantage of their gullibility but at the same time gave them exactly what they wanted and profited enormously off of it. Is Bertold Brecht's work "for" his audience or "against" it? What about Augusto Boal?

And also, how are you defining audience? You assume a middle class audience in much of your arguments. I would argue that most of what you view as epatering the middle class actually has little to nothing to do with said middle class, and that the middle class is probably not the intended audience of a lot of that work when it was originalyl created.

but, even if I didn't believe that
2) Because who is to define what "against us" means? For a lot of people (including our president) "against" simply means "disagrees with", "challenges" or "opposes in any way". That's how wishy washy bullshit democrats who hate arabs as much as GW Bush but want to kill them in nicer ways can be portrayed as being "against". So who qualifies as "Against", who qualifies as "for" and who gets to say? Is this an "i know it when I see it" situation?

I look forward to your reply!

Scott Walters said...

P T Barnum was against his audience: he scorned them. To give an audience what it "wants" (meaning what you think the lowest common denominator is) is an insult. He may have been successful with it, but that doesn't make his theatre was valuable to the people in the audience. However, he was a producer, not an artist -- it may have been that the artists involved in his shows did not regard the audience with such disdain.

Brecht is a hard one to figure. He clearly believes in the audience and their abilities to think. And when I think of his plays, it seems to me that he goes out of his way to reach out to that audience. Not to flatter them, but to invite them into the play. So for me, he is on the audience's side.

When I use "for or against," I do not use it in the same way Bush does. His means: "You either agree with us, or you're our enemy." I use "for" to mean: "Do you, as an artist, respect us as people who share your humanity? Do you consider us as intelligent as you are? Are sensitive? We may disagree, or I may not have thought of things the way you have -- but do you respect my ability to think, and do you respect my basic right to disagree?"

Alison Croggon said...

Scott: it is whether you are with the audience, or against it.

I think Isaac is quite right to pick up on this: it certainly troubles me. Why the Bushite rhetoric? You don't say, in your explanation, what "against" the audience means: it's hard from what you say not to conclude that you mean the same as Bush: that if "they" are not the same as "us", "they" are our enemy. Theatre, and life, just isn't like that.

My main participation in the theatre is as an audience member. All the theatre I've loved does indeed respect its audience as intelligent, sensitive, and deeply human. I have broad tastes, and that theatre includes examples of mainstream theatre, and widely differing approaches.

But the theatre I love best is work that treats me as a sentient, conscious, adult moral being, assuming that I have passions and ideas that will respond to those the theatre artists are exploring. It is very often theatre that challenges aesthetic or social conventions, requiring me to think and respond, yes, even disagree; that's the theatre that ultimately I find the most exciting and the most rewarding, the theatre that sticks with me, that I remember years later. And yet that's exactly the work you tape as "hostile" or "abusive" to an audience! I think you mischaracterise as hostility the challenging aspects of reality this theatre presents; you could equally (and more justly) see it as a compliment to an audience member's perceptive and interpretative abilities. As Isaac says, it's a false opposition.

GoinStyle said...

Barnum was a business man. He saw his niche and filled it. "There is a sucker born every minute" is one of his more famous quotes. Was his showmanship an art or just a measure marketing savvy? He played to the common denominator but why denounce him for his success? Do his actions display contempt or are they a function of the model he created? Sharks are not evil, just hungry. Should someone be accountable for their nature just because it is counter to someone else's moral compass? (aha! now he moves in to spring the trap...) But what about the psychological predators, energy vultures, power geeks, emotional rapists, pathological contrarians, artistic terrorists, intellectual spammers and congenital liars? Not to mention those violators of the body physic? Should they be allowed to roam free solely because they are true to their nature and not responsible for their actions? Yes. If you value your own freedom, yes. Of course that does not preclude society from paintballing members of the aforementioned groups. Identify them and avoid them, or arm yourself and walk in their midst.

Why must cynics think their answers are unequivocal because they are couched in "reality". I can be optimistic AND practical at the same time. So all cynicism aside. The greater the risk the greater the reward. I want to be invited on the journey even if to the depths of the human psyche. However, I do not equate challenge with abuse. Shoving my face in shit is not going to teach me to keep from shitting the floor. I will only learn to resent the messenger and not listen. Why not expect the best from a cast? Why not want them to do well. Why not wish a cast to aspire to be greater than the sum of their parts? Surely such an elevated goal elevates all those that would strive toward it including the audience.. I've typed too much..


Alison Croggon said...

I actually think a large part of the problem here, Scott, is that you're very unclear precisely what theatre you're referring to. We've all seen shows, I'm sure, that are simply yuck-it-up undergrad provocation, and yes, that's very boring indeed. But do you mean work like, say, Handke's "Offending the Audience" (admittedly very popular among drama students), which seeks to redefine an audience/performer relationship in what I think are rather interesting and intelligent ways? Do you mean work like Sarah Kane (whom I hope you're reading)? Heiner Muller in, say, "Quartet"? I would argue strenuously that all of these works are motivated in part by a desire for a more authentic and immediate relationship between audience and theatre practitioner. You did talk about Robert Mapplethorpe at one point, and also there was the In-Yer-Face theatre stoush, but even that term covers an amazing lot of ground, some of which I really incredibly exciting, and some of which doesn't do much for me at all. So exactly what theatre do you mean?

Joshua said...

I hate Fear Factor. And American Idol. I find them insulting, in particular the latter, which sets up naive untalented people on television and then proceeds to have a snobby brit humiliate them. I find that to be emotional porn. Not artistic, no purpose other than to get the sadistic rocks off of the audience, inelegant and terrible and not challenging in any way.

The shows disgust me and delights in doing so, they seem to revel in it (Fear Factor, after all, has people eating maggots, among other things).

Yet so many I know love both those shows. Their audience loves them.

So you want to me to respect that? I have respect for my friends (who are fans of the show) as people, but not for their taste in television. I tease and rag on them about it at every given chance. And given the opportunity, I would do it onstage. My taste is different than theirs, obviously, and many of my friends find my interest in cage fighting to be equally disturbing.

You seem to want to demand respect for the audience from artists, Scott, that's what I hear when you go on about this stuff. It's a button for you, you want the artists to respect the audience and the artists wants, demands, respect from the audience as well.

In reality, neither can. Respect is one of those things which must be earned. Artists get respect by consistantly doing work worthy of that respect. Audience get respect by supporting work they respect.

But here's the thing - in a free country of free expression, someone is guaranteed to present work that will offend the sensibilities of someone. Guaranteed, and that's a good thing. That's freedom. It means someone is going to insult the audience, someone has to, because one person's butter is another person's burn. One cartoon to one person is a harmless commentary on modern Islam, to another it's blasfemy an excuse to burn an embassy they never liked anyway.

Remember that it's always going to cut both ways. That's freedom.

It means we're free to do what we want and the public at large will tell you, right or wrong, what's popular and why. If they don't like something, they are also free to voice their opposition to the work. And the artists are just as free to insult that popularity (remember that many shows lampoon popular shows, SNL makes it's living doing just that) and on and on and on.

It troubles me in this series of posts on this subject that you appear, in a sense, to want to regulate taste and respect - it's what you are calling for, right? That's what it sounds like.

Not all audiences want to be respected (hence Fear Factor) just as some of us will be content never to have to sit through another Shakespeare play ever (me) or an opera or altnernative comedy or a play "with music" all the way to that silly theatre exercise some call "church".

The audience, of whom you speak, is wide and incredibly diverse and most of all, free. Free to watch Fear Factor and American Idol or Pericles, whatever turns them on, no matter how much or how little the artists in question respect them.

Don't you think it's a little much to presume to speak for all audiences everywhere?

Freeman said...

It is a rare man who will not pay for a little abuse.

Go on. You know what I'm talking about.

(This is why I'll never be invited to the good Cultural Critic parties.)

Joshua said...

And there are men who will pay much to be abused terribly, which is what my research into dominatrix life revealed to me some time ago (just as an observer, fyi - having suffered enough abuse going through puberty, I have no need for it - in fact, anytime someone screams profanity at me they're risking a prompt physical rebuttal)