Of course, I can claim busyness -- classes start in two weeks and I have a lot to finish before then. But that would only be half the story. The other half --or perhaps 3/4 -- is disinterest. Not in blogging, but rather in theatre. That wasn't an easy sentence to write -- I've been doing theatre for over thirty years now. But it is true nonetheless. Let me explain.
For much of the summer, I have been reading books and attending conferences about innovation. Sometimes, this innovation has been technological -- learning about wikis, podcasts, RSS feed, social bookmarking, and so forth, and how they might have the potential to change education and the way we interact. Worlds of possibilities opened out. Sometimes, this innovation has been in the form of "change agents" such as Tom Peters, Thomas Friedman, Daniel Pink, Chris Anderson, Frans Johansson -- people who are insisting that we are in the midst of a major upheaval in every aspect of our lives. And this has left my mind flashing like heat lightning on a summer's night.
And then... then I return to the theatre, where our radicals are more than half a century old, and where we spend our time worshipping at the shrines of long dead artists. Where are our innovators? Where are our new ideas? Brecht was the last real innovative thinker the theatre had. Since he died -- what, 50 years ago almost to the day now? (August 14, 1956) -- we've been in a reactionary phase that is abominable, all the while thinking we were being revolutionary.
Since then, we created Off-Broadway and the regional theatre movement, both of which started with new ideas, bot of which have become bastions of boring ideas. Season subscriptions to a "balanced" season (thank you SO much, Danny Newman), constant revivals of old plays, new plays relegated to readings and second stages, the artistic ranks filled with MFAs who have been trained to think that new ideas are at least 50 years old -- this is creativity? Meanwhile, over in the NYC OOB movement that started 30 years ago, we have come to define radicalism as being the power to yell fuck (or just to fuck) in an empty theatre. Well, hell, the Greeks were doing the first 2500 years ago, and the Romans did the second 2000 years ago. I refuse to get all excited about ideas that are two millenia old.
The other wing of "radicals" piously announces that they don't care whether anybody actually attends their productions, they're making "art," while at the same time they complain that people are too stupid and crass to know what they are missing. These attitudes are not only contradictory (either you care or you don't care -- decide), but also based on a near-total total lack of recognition that performing arts live and die in the moment, not in perpetuity. Maybe the playwrights can be sanguine about the survival and eventual recognition of their scripts -- I guess they have faith that their plays will be uncovered moldering in their desks after they die and recognized as the works of genius they truly are (me? I know how these things go -- my kids will probably toss my writings in a big leaf bag without reading them after I'm gone); but actors, directors, designers -- what are you thinking??? If your work goes ignored at the time you do it, it disappears entirely. Instead of darkly fulminating on the incursion of marketing into the theatre, we might spend a little time figuring out how the hell to make it work for us. But now, we'd rather grumble about purity, like a 70-year-old virgin that nobody wants.
A few days ago, I was looking through my notes from a conference I attended, and found a note I wrote saying that I was living at the deadly intersection of two of the most conservative disciplines in the world: theatre and education. It made me unable to post to this blog, because -- well, what's the point?
And nothing is going to change until arts education changes. Matt J writes:
We all go to MFA programs for different reasons, and I very well at some point go back and get mine as well, so that someday I can teach in higher education to some degree. Which is, of course, a whole different can of worms because it is very difficult for me, after spending some time in NY, to make these students pay thousands of dollars to get a degree in theatre when I know that it really won’t necessarily help them get jobs in the future, and may never help them.
There is the problem in all its deadliness: graduate programs as "preparation" for "the business" so that graduates can "get jobs in the future." This is a pathetic idea of what theatre education ought to be. Matt, you're not alone -- this is what everybody thinks. The Association for Theatre in Higher Education is just wrapping up in Chicago, and I'm certain that after a few drinks at the bar teachers are flogging themselves over the same issue -- how can we legitimately charge money for something that isn't likely to lead to a job?
But the central assumption is deeply flawed -- actually, the central assumption is fatal. If the theatre ever actually dies -- and I doubt it will, not because there is actually life there, but for the same reason that Amtrak still rolls and people still occasionally ride horses -- you don't have to look any further than the creatively bankrupt university system that emphasizes training over innovation. And those ATHE-ers won't even think about that, because new ideas are hard, and nobody wants to work that hard.
Look at the natural sciences if you want to see how it ought to be. The professors there are focused on original research, extending the discipline into new frontiers. Their graduate students are expected to participate in this research, and they are imbued with a clear understanding that it is expected that they will continue the search for new things when they graduate. If the sciences did things the way the graduate theatre programs do it, they would spend all their time reproducing with their students the experiments of Isaac Newton! Maybe with a few new bells and whistles -- the apple might be shinier than the one Newton originally came in contact with -- but essentially unchanged.
How did the web develop? The first web browser -- the search engines that really allowed the internet to be come something that could be used by more than a handful of scientists -- was developed at the University of Illinois. If those guys had been taught the way that theatre people are taught, we'd still be using telephones.
Universities should be the R & D arm of the theatre, and students should be encouraged -- nay, required -- to have a new idea regularly in order to graduate. And not only should they be required to have a new idea, but also to create a real experiment surrounding that idea, run the experiment, and clearly express what was learned from that experiment. THAT'S experimental theatre. Anybody can have an idea -- it's the people who actually DO SOMETHING with it that make a difference. Faculty should be required to have a new idea even more frequently than that or have their tenure revoked. It is pathetic that we are still almost exclusively teaching Stanislavski (and his pale derivatives), an acting technique based in long-discredited early-Freudian psycho-nonsense, a century after it was created. This is creativity?
And what about all these productions that are put on? What the hell is the point? Professors use their same old techniques to direct students in the creation of another tired production done in the same exact way that every other production in theatres across the country are done. Let me give an example of the non-creative lockstep: there are several college theatre departments around Asheville, and our students rarely get an opportunity to see each other's productions? Why? Because we all start at the same time of year, and we all have the same exact 6-week production schedule so we all have the same exact performance dates. Can it really be true that Hamlet takes the same amount of time to do well as, say, the latest Neil Labute barf-fest? But that's the way we do it. We all sit down at the end of the year, get out our calendars, schedule in the auditions and count six weeks out to establish the first performance. Then fill in the blanks from there: three dress rehearsals, a couple techs, run-throughs, work-throughs, read-throughs. Cookie cutter. Pathetic.
No, I am disgusted. The pace of change in theatre everywhere is glacial. We spend weeks and weeks getting exercised about whether Rachel Corrie gets done or not, when what we SHOULD have been getting exercised about was the old-fashioned, clunky, boring-as-hell technique that was used to put it together and that continues to dominate our stages. John Clancy spends his time tinkering with a system that ought to be razed completely while we grumble about "masscult, branding, and marketing" and whether the Neilsen ratings are going to sully our lilly-white sensibilities. What we are more likely to find out, like the the major networks are finding out from Nielsen, is that nobody is watching, nobody gives a shit what we do, and nobody cares. Maybe that's what we don't want to find out, because if we actually admitted that this was true, we actually have to DO SOMETHING, make a change. And we wouldn't want to do that -- that would require creative thinking.