Sunday, August 06, 2006

Bah!

Well, call me a tease. It has been weeks since I grandiosely posted that maybe I was wrong, and I was going to try to get some exchanges of ideas going -- I even hinted I might post something radical. Then silence.

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.

Bah!


Tags:theatre audience

23 comments:

John Branch said...

Wow, Scott. To get colloquial, that's some real whup-ass writing. (Pardon that, but I'm from Texas, and it still lives somewhere in me.) You hit, or at least aimed at, far more targets than I can respond to, and I know I'd end up disagreeing with some of them if I tried to go down the list, but I have to applaud you for trying to stir things up. All systems end up being limiting, so (from my point of view, though I suspect you might not share it) there's always a value in raising challenges--it may stimulate new ideas, which are exactly what you call for, and it may also provoke the existing system to make changes.

Your post reminds me of a science-fiction novel called Agent of Chaos. The situation is familiar: there's a big empire ruling the solar system, and there's a little rebel movement. But there's also a third faction, in which the eponymous agent operates; its aim is to disrupt either side whenever it threatens to achieve a certain local dominance. You're doing the same thing here, it seems to me. Or close to it.

Freeman said...

*shrug*

Ideas are worth the screens and papers they're written on, Scott. Actions speak louder than blogs.

Anonymous said...

This bitter little screed is worse than a bad idea. It's a wet, gaping void of ideas, under the banner of radical bar-rattling. It's a hydrophobic landlubber who thinks he's rocking the boat. It's a castrated hermaphrodite giving coital pointer at an orgy. It's a flat-Earther plotting course for Magellan. You are, to be very nasty, worse than a critic. At least a critic sees these shows and once in a while offers some enlightened feedback.

Alison Croggon said...

Scott, it occurs to me that maybe you ought to get out more - and not to academic conferences about theatre, but to see some actual live real theatre...

Scott Walters said...

Thanks, John. It was a "bitter little screed," as the cowardly "anonymous" so touchingly put it in his hilarious list of near-Shakespearean insults. I like your Agent of Chaos analogy -- yes, I think everybody needs to be shaken out of their complacency. There is too much self-satisfaction and moral certainty on all sides. I would also point out, to those who wish to feel deeply offended, that I reserve my harshest criticism and greatest disgust for my own profession of teachers. Apparently, nobody feels the need to rush to the defense of such people, however... That said, I find it deeply ironic that Freeman, a veteran blogger, would imply that ideas and blogs are worthless. Surely not, Matt, or what are we wasting so much time on these words for? I write nearly a 1700-word post, and the best you can do is shrug? Not worthy of you, Matt. Surely you can engage an idea with the best of them. Like Matt, Alison also evades the issues I bring up, instead preferring to make a personal comment. You'll forgive me for being baffled.

I also find it extremely puzzling that the few comments on other blogs that I have read have focused on two sentences about OOB. Are memories really that short? Do I need to provide all the links to the "In-Yer-Face Theatre" dust-up of a couple months ago, when the blogosphere courageously stood up and proclaimed the deep theatrical value of sex acts onstage? Matt and Isaac are right, however: OOB is not ONLY about saying fuck in an empty theatre -- there is another chunk that is as conservative as regional theatre. There is a small contingent struggling to say something worthwhile -- my question is: are they saying something worthwhile in an innovative way?

But at least some energy has been released, and the sleeping giant of the blogosphere has awakened. I wait with baited breath for George "The Leviathan" Hunka, the theatre blogsphere's Monster of the Deep, to dismantle me point by point. And I say that with sincerity, because George will pay me the great honor of actually dealing with my ideas in toto, rather than focusing on a couple sentences or making a personal comment and a shrug. And he'll sign his name at the bottom, unlike our daring Anonymous.

Freeman said...

What can I say, Scott, it's Sunday Night. But I'll add a few more words, which are that complacency can't be shaken out of people by saying "You are complacent! Come up with an idea!"

Ideas and inspiration are not forced into existence. If you are not finding what you want to see, you have to create it yourself. If you don't create it, you have to foster it in others by supporting those rare visions (they're out there) that you feel are underappreciated.

Coversation is about inciting us to action.

As far as theatre being an art that doesn't "move with the times" I personally agree there. But progress is not always solely technological, nor should it be.

Ian W. Hill said...

Scott,

Perhaps we would deal with your ideas if they consisted of anything other than "theatre is taught wrong" and (to us theatre artists), "you're not innovative enough and you don't do your job well." The first doesn't concern me personally in any way, and my answer to the second is only, "how the hell would you know?"

These are not ideas. They are insults, and deserve only a response in kind. Matt was restrained in his first response, and bothered to be polite in his second, and it should probably be left at that.

But . . .

. . . as you seem to want to be "provocative" by being insulting, and want a "fuller" response than Matt's (appropriate) shrug, my first response to your 1,700-word screed was to write 1,700 words of invective earlier this afternoon to get the anger out of my system, which I didn't necessarily intend to share with the world, but I'll post it over at my blog later tonight after some slight rewriting. Enjoy.

IWH

(and despite a similar image in my piece and the post above from "Anonymous," that sure as hell wasn't me -- I sign my insults)

Alison Croggon said...

Scott: I didn't evade your argument. There wasn't an argument to evade. You just accused contemporary theatre (in general - no specifics here) of a whole lot of things, and then claimed that those who defend it said a whole lot of things they didn't say (eg "sex acts on stage" is, I presume, your description of George's complex and intriguing argument for erotic tragedy, or that all contemporary theatre amounts to saying "fuck" on stage - not arguments, not descriptions, just abuse).

Did you name a single piece of theatre? Yes, one, My Name is Rachel Corrie, echoing Walter Davis', George's and my argument that it was aesthetically unchallenging. Oh, and Neil Labute, as if that is the "cutting edge" you are somewhat foggily attacking. (Thomas Friedman is an innovator?! If you take your cue from this pissweak pseudo-intellect, no wonder you're in trouble.)

If you were saying something specific about actual theatre, it might be possible or even interesting to mount a counter-argument. But all these straw dummies are, really, worth the shrugs they attract.

For example: "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."

I presume you haven't heard of writers like Caryl Churchill, Harold Pinter, Heiner Muller, Marius Mayenburg, Edward Bond, Michel Vinaver, Bernard Marie Koltes, Copi, Sarah Kane, John Foss, David Harrower, Maria Irene Fornes, Sam Shepard, David Mamet, Howard Barker, Peter Handke, Samuel Beckett, Botho Strauss, Fassbinder, Thomas Bernhardt, Franz Xavier Kreutz: or theatre makers like Kantor, Foreman, Armand Gatti, Ariane Mnouchkine, Boal, Peter Brooke... to suggest an extremely incomplete list of innovators over the past half century. You think that it's enough to describe these people as "reactionary"? That that statement is an argument?

Pull your finger out, Scott. Or open your eyes. Or go and see some theatre.

Freeman said...

Whoa EVERYONE... let's really try not to make things too personal. Scott can get his ire up easily (it's one of his signature kung fu moves) and there's no reason for everyone to get ape. Remember... each perspective is valueable. If Scott is angry about the state of things, right or wrong, let's not turn this into a blog-lynching.

George Hunka said...

My own response here.

Jamespeak said...

Well, I'm currently working on my two cents over at Jamespeak (I just found this).

Although I don't wish to be part of the blog-lynching, quite frankly, Mr. Walters, you're way out of line with this.

This seems to be rabble-rousing solely for the sake of rabble-rousing, and that gets us all nowhere. It's very insulting to tell an entire group of people their work is meaningless having not seen or read the work of said group. It's more insulting to assume that we writers/directors/designers should change our methods and listen to you, regardless of your (unfounded) indifference to us (unfounded because you give no impression or evidence that you've seen any of our shows yet feel justified in telling us where we've gone wrong).

Joshua James said...

Wow, Scott, you weren't kidding when you said you're were going back to Old School confrontation, whoa-nelly.

Umm, rather than throw leather and mix it up with you (as we have in the past, and I congratulate Matt on his good natured humor)I'm going to turn the cheek and take your ideas, if I can, because I promised my lady I'd try and not fight so much these day. I told her I'd keep my drama on the page and stage and not in life, if possible.

What I will do is this -

I accept your challenge - you challenge us creaters of theatre to be more innovative with ideas and work, I can do that. I have been doing that, actually.

But I challenge you - to put the work up - in other words, you run a program with many actors and lots of theatre space (every college I went to, four or so, had lots of space and warm bodies to fill) - you give me a theatre, a four week run, cover my expenses and rehearsal time (at least another four weeks, though six would be best) and I will come down and present a show, written and directed by me - then we both will have contributed to the modern innovation of theatre.

I have the work. I just don't have the same space options y'all down there have. This is why Clancy is kicking and screaming about the showcase code. I still get work done, obviously - but let me (and George, and Matt) what I can do for you in person.

So right back at you. We all have great works that would benefit from a nice regional run. Open the door for me and let me run, then judge the work and decide if it's innovative enough.

Do the same for Freeman, Hunka, Issac and Hill - all of us would comprise a pretty interesting season for you in NC - Put your money where your mouth is and you won't be disappointed.

Don R. Hall said...

Do the same for Freeman, Hunka, Issac and Hill - all of us would comprise a pretty interesting season for you in NC - Put your money where your mouth is and you won't be disappointed.

Hell, Scott - I'll come out for a three-month stint and produce a festival of New Work - open it up for submissions - you get to be the arbiter of choice - my in-laws live in Black Mountain, so I can hang for a couple of months. We can even get George to teach a theatre minima conceptual master class.

That's action.

devore said...

This cinches it.

Theatre is irrelevant, a waste of time, a beloved relic at best, a boutique vanity art form at worse. One of the most important aspects of a relationship is to know when it's over. Clearly, there is no theater scene. Just bitter little tribes cannibalizing each other. There is nothing embarassingly awkward about this "scene." Because all good art is embarassingly awkward -- even raunchy, over the top, in yer face theater takes vulnerability. But that's not what we're all about. No sir. There is a fragile part of what an artist does, a part that cannot hold up to constant hammering, a part that shouldn't be talked about, it's precious and should be nurtured and hugged, and protected. Fuck it.

You must be doing a bang-up job inspiring your students Scott. Or should I say, despising them, and then packaging your insular arguments in adolescent terms they'd understand. With us or against us, right?

Oh well. You win. I'm wrong.

But please be honest with yourself: academics are nothing more than bureaucrats with an inflated sense of purpose and worth. You're a cog in a machine that serves to separate money from it's customers by offering the illusion of education. You confer status for profit.

I got my BFA at VCU, in Richmond VA. If I didn't agree with the aesthetic they insisted I adhere, then somehow I was an idiot, I was wrong, etc. I guess this is how it is in theater now: we're so hot on declaring the big picture, we have no perspective. I don't need to show you my resume, Scott. It's lame you've made so many people defensive that they have to recount why their opinion matters to you. Actually, that's really shitty.

You haven't earned the right to be a provocatuer that matters, because, and I'm trying to think of a way to poetically express myself but I can't, but you're being a dick. And for the life of me, I can't understand to what end.

Do you think that if someone who wasn't a theater nerd, a regular, intelligent, well-read, hard working person, read these theater blogs they'd like us? Want to spend time with this group? Seek out the work we're all purporting? Are we inspiring or honest or sincere? Does our love and excitement about theater translate into the tens of thousands of words spent on these blogs?

I say no. I say our work reflects the sentiments on this particular, meaningless fiefdom of the blogosphere. Parochial, navel-gazing, tired, and bitchy.

You've succeed, Scott, in doing what fifteen years laboring in the theater haven't done. All the starvation, the credit card debt, the working my ass off on one career that funds the other career, the nights and days spent writing, haggling, directing, striving, and producing, the empty houses, or bad reviews have never done.

Take the fight out of me. Bravo, douchebag.

Lucas Krech said...

It is truly sad to see someone who can only be satisfied by making unnecessary, rude and insulting comments about others. If creating conflict is the only thing that gets you off, I am sure the Bush administration cuold find some work for you. Thank you for accepting the dominant American paradigm of hostility through your actions Scott.

Thank you for insulting the hard work of numerous artists whose work you have never seen.

Thank you.

Are you happy now that you have angered many people and improved your technorati rating? It must be what Bush felt like when the US invaded Iraq.

Anonymous said...

Scott -

Amazing Blog. You know how to get the nerve !

I'm actually shocked that people are so taken by this.

I like that you throw down the gauntlet. I don't know if I believe it, but I find it interesting.

So what do you teach ? And how do you survive on the faculty with the mediocrity ?

Anonymous said...

Oh I forgot one more question -

Does cost ever factor into your view of the prohibitive producing environment ?

And why just NY. There are other places like Chicago that kick ass.


Buddha Cowboy - NYC

George Hunka said...

People are taken by this, anonymous, because Scott's got a certain sinecure, security, and influence by virtue of his position as a senior faculty member at a university which claims to offer an education in drama and "Arts & Ideas." In terms of the professionalization of the arts (and this continues), the colleges and universities play far more of a factor in setting trends for future theatre artists than anyone likes to admit. (Have you seen the "theatre training" issue of "American Theatre" any time recently? Dozens of pages of full-page advertisements for degrees which will, at the very least, provide these students with at least the ability to teach. I've got no MFA or PhD, rendering it highly unlikely I'll ever teach anywhere, given the hiring practices of universities, despite experience, or knowledge, or practical skills that I may have picked up in working in theater.)

The universities are every bit as commercial and profit-driven and consumerist as the Coca-Cola company. They sell a product: degrees. They render that product, through their marketing and advertising, attractive: future careers. They can't sell talent, or insight, or artistic spirit: they're not commodifiable.

So I understand where he's coming from. And I know this is unlikely to change so long as so many people have a vested, economic interest in keeping the university system of training exactly the way it is, exactly the way it has been. So long as a piece of paper, or a few letters of the alphabet, allow you entry into these training centers.

Anonymous said...

George -

Thank you for your insight. But also - most of these MFA folk have a choice in whether to go or not ? So, what's the rub. Ae we that frightened that somehow these teachers are that influential that they brainwash actors ? If anything my teachers (undergrad, I don't have an MFA either) gave me insight, but there were just as many who were full of shit and I simply nodded and ignored them.
Aren't we giving this idea too much power ?

Buddha Cowboy - NYC

George Hunka said...

No, of course not, I don't want to give this idea too much power. And to be fair, several playwrights of my acquaintance, playwrights for whom (and for whose work) I have the highest respect, pay the bills by teaching in these drama programs. More power to them, I wish I had the same opportunity. But I believe that it's also true that non-degreed theater workers have a much more difficult time in establishing their careers, lacking the support network and collaborative skills they gain by spending two or three years with the same group of people. They know this. It's a smart career choice. And no two experiences are the same.

Steven Gridley said...

It seems like the only way to respond to your post is to cite some shows that you thought were innovative or exciting. But even that seems like a weak argument as innovation and exciting theatre is still ultimately an opinion. I have witnessed many shows that I believe will go down in theatre history as exactly what you profess is lacking in theatre. But obviously, this is no proof of the vitality of theatre. So we come back to just attitudes and experience. I want to make two quick observations, however.

Innovation is not the only benchmark of great theatre. I wouldn't say Williams' earlier plays were innovative, however, they are great works of literature. To me decrying the lack of innovation sounds a lot like the "new forms" argument Treplyev speaks about in Seagull. Theatre needs "new forms". Well, sure, but great writing and great acting is still great.

Secondly, I agree to some extent that what we learn about in school as current is 50 years old. But that seems to be more about the failure of education than of innovation in theatre. Even innovation itself is always behind the current times to a certain extent. By the time some new discovery hits the "market" a newer discovery is already in the works. How can education catch up? I've seen some very innovative works from Elevator Repair Service, NTUSA, Radiohole and others going on right now. Do I expect to hear about them at Brown? No. Is theatre to blame for this? No. Innovation is a tough thing for the mainstream to swallow. It's harsh, arrogant, and accusatory. So consequently it is seemingly always under attack until some day for some reason it becomes universally applauded. And this is art were talking about, not science. So opinions rule, not facts. Grotowski, for example, was hated in Poland until the entire world proclaimed him a master. So you understand why people get so riled up when it seems to many of these bloggers that you’re looking for innovation in MFA programs, conferences, books and other non-innovative avenues. It seems like your looking for apples in a cherry tree and then blaming apple trees for the lack of fruit. Many of these theatre artists, myself included, who aspire to the very ideals you claim are absent, are struggling to get people into the seats.

People who work in theatre love theatre. Why else would they do it? The benefits? So your comments like ‘were not working hard enough to get good ideas’ feels like just whipping the whipped. I whip myself plenty already (after my day job, of course) so thanks but it really doesn’t spurn me on to be a “genius” now. I suppose I should go home, slap my thigh and say, “Just think what I could do if I really tried!”

Adam said...

Blah

beth said...

Hm.
I think if you choose to be an artist you must know the history of the art, the framework on which it is built and has been built, if you intend to break the framework and build new forms of art. I have worked in oob and in regional theatre, have a BFA and an MFA though I don’t think to be an actor you need either: you need to have a willingness to tell the truth and a skillset which helps you access it. That’s what MY training did for me. And that’s why I went: not to land a job or get my equity card, though I was able to do both after graduating, but mostly because I was a better actor, a better storyteller, a better TRUTHTELLER when I came out than when I went in. But I also believe an understanding of the histories of the art form for which I was preparing myself gave me a flexibility some of my colleagues in my 6-person-per-class conservatory training did NOT have. I believe that history roots us, binds us together, gives us a sense of place and a launching pad into the future: a direction to strike, a place to land the punch.
If you don’t like teaching, stop teaching. If you don’t think the theatre is innovative, or worse, if you don’t think you as a teacher of theatre provide innovation or inspiration, you owe it to yourself and to your students to quit.