Monday, August 07, 2006

The Distorted Mirror (Bah! Part 2)

In 1964, Robert Brustein began his now-classic book The Theatre of Revolt with a description of the modern theatre (which he dated from Ibsen):

Now, imagine a perfectly level plain in a desoltae land. In the foreground, an uneasy crowd of citizens huddle together on the ruins of an ancient temple. Beyond them, a broken altar, bristling with artifacts. Beyond that, empty space. An emaciated priest in disreputable garments stands before the ruined altar, level with the crowd, glancing into a distorting mirror. He cavorts grotesquely before it, inspecting his own image in several outlandish positions. The crowd mutters ominously and partially disperses. The priest turns the mirror on those who remain to reflect them sitting stupidly on rubble. They gaze at their images for a moment, painfully transfixed; then, horrorstruck, they run away, hurling stones at the altar and angry imprecations at the priest. The priest, shaking with anger, futility, and irony, turns the mirror on the void. He is alone in the void.

First, a nod toward Brustein (the much-admired subject of my dissertation): this is a powerful image, beautifully rendered. If you have not read this book, I recommend it highly. In it, Brustein lauds the great dramatists of the modern period: Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov, Shaw, Brecht, Pirandello, O'Neill, Artaud, and Genet. His writing is powerful, and his insights into the plays are often brilliant. It is a masterwork.

He goes on:

Detesting middle ways, scorning middle emotions, defying the middle classes, the rebel dramatist begins to celebrate, secretly or openly, the values of the extreme -- excess, insinct, emancipation, ecstasy, drunkenness, rapture revolt. Thus, the "damned compact liberal majority," as Ibsen called it, becomes the dramatist's chief antagonist. And since this majority constitutes the theatre audience, the spectator himself comes under attack, either assailed from the stage directly, or represented on the stage as a satirical figure.

For nearly a year now, I have been writing this blog, and during that time I have often questioned the value of this attitude of "revolt" on the part of theatre artists. Is it effective? Does it do anything more than alienate? Is it self-indulgent? Self-congratulatory? What purpose does hostility serve if the goal is to change hearts and minds, to change the way people live and see the world? And time and again, members of the blogosphere have argued that such an attitude is really the sign of the true artist; that to do otherwise was to provide expensive lap dances for the middle class.

Early this summer, I attended a conference on the Theatre of the Oppressed that examined Augusto Boal's fascinating techniques for using theatre as a way to create awareness, bolster empowerment, and encourage critical thinking. In preparation, I re-read Boal's book The Theatre of the Oppressed, and was particularly intrigued by his idea of Invisible Theatre. Invisible Theatre, according to Wikipedia, is "a previously rehearsed play that is performed in a public space without anyone knowing that it is a play. It will address a precise theme concerning social injustice, for example sexism, racism or ageism. It is intended to provoke debate and to clarify the problem among the people whom experience it." The key to Invisible Theatre, according to the Community Arts Network, is that it captures "the attention of people who do not know they are watching a planned performance... The goal is to bring attention to a social problem for the purpose of stimulating public dialogue."

I decided to do an experiment using my blog. On Monday, July 24th I wrote a post entitled "Maybe I Was Wrong," in which I rescinded my hands-off approach of non-confrontational blogging, and promised to try to "post something really extreme in the next week. Just to get the ball rolling." I then left that hanging for a while, waiting to see if anyone would respond. A few nodded encouragement, and eventually I received an email from George Hunka encouraging me to get off my duff and live up to my promises.

The result was a 1700-word post on August 6th entitled "Bah!" In it, I combined Boal's technique of Invisible Theatre with Brustein's description of the Theatre of Revolt, assuming the role of the priest who "cavorts grotesquely" in front of a "distorted mirror" before turning it on his audience. My intention was not simply to provoke a response -- I have done that in the past, and know that all one needs to do is gore somebody's ox to raise a bellow throughout the blogosphere. No, my purpose was experimental: I wanted to examine whether an aggresively provocative attitude of revolt that Brustein described and that many in the blogosphere defended as being valuable as a way of inspiring thought, reflection, and change on the part of the contemporary audience would have a positive affect on a group of intelligent, thoughtful, reflective theatre bloggers who seemingly shared my love of ideas and of theatre.

I crafted my post very carefully in an attempt to gore as many oxes as possible. I began, like the priest, cavorting grotesquely in front of a distorting mirror, describing my own growing dissatisfaction with the theatre and expressing a wish that the theatre might emulate modern corporate thinkers like Tom Peters, Thomas Friedman et al. Knowing my audience, I knew this combination would start the fire, since a passion for theatre and a disgust with capitalist commerce seems to be a commonly-held attitude. I then turned the distorting mirror on my audience, delivering a sweeping denunciation, filled with broad generalities, that dismissed as uncreative and lacking in innovation everything since Brecht. Of course, since many of my readers are artists themselves, by implication this description of the past fifty years dismissed their efforts as well as those of many admired artists. I then turned my distorted mirror on the void, attacking the state of theatre education, which was the biggest void I could think of.

What I wanted to see was whether my readers (or at least my fellow bloggers) would respond by "hurling stones at the altar and angry imprecations at the priest" (me), or, as many of these same readers (and bloggers) have argued in the past, whether my provocations would lead, rather, to valuable reflection and attitude changes. According to my readers, discomfort is good.

It has now been a couple days since I posted "Bah!" Let's examine the evidence.

ANGRY IMPRECATIONS

The first couple responses, one from John Branch and another by Matt Freeman, were pretty tame -- indeed, John's was even kind. But the third response, from an anonymous blogger, started the ball rolling as things started getting personal. In a comment that I found amusing in its Shakespearean excess, Anonymous wrote that my post was "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." Anonymous then finished off with an unattributed nod to Samuel Beckett, "You are, to be very nasty, worse than a critic." Ouch! Fighting words!

Alison Croggon, in a less flowery but equally personal comment, displayed apparent knowledge of my personal theatre-going habits: "It occurs to me," she wrote, "that maybe you ought to get out more - and not to academic conferences about theatre, but to see some actual live real theatre..." She concluded, in a return trip, "Pull your finger out, Scott. Or open your eyes. Or go and see some theatre." This was a theme that would be repeated later, and which I will try to remember to address below.

By this point, what Matt Freeman called a "blog-lynching" seemed well under way. Ian Hill, who I don't believe I have ever heard from before, contributed a post on his blog entitled "Blood Up" that concluded with a photograph of Johnny Cash (I think) flipping the bird. Writing that "Scott wanted to put out something "really extreme" to shake things up and get a reaction, he gets mine," his reaction was instructive: a 2650-word (!) post filled with anger and invective. A few samples: "We are out here fucking, and you are a celebate, critiquing us based on your vast knowledge of mid-20th Century erotica and pornography." (Like the Anonymous blogger, apparently the biggest insult available is to attack my sexual potency or something. Here's another one, via Lucas Krech: "Reading the Joy of Sex does not devirginize you.") More: "Are you a theatre artist, or just an educator? And I do mean "just." (This also became a common theme: academy-bashing. What interests me about this is that about half of my original post was bashing the same academy. Guilt by association, I guess.) And: "I'm making fucking revelatory revolutionary art several times a year that changes the lives of a handful of people. That's enough. I want more, a whole lot more, but that's enough. You are a tourist with a typewriter."

James Comtois, who I have also not had contact with before, opined that I, a "cynical know-it-all theatre professor" and "a sideline sulker" had "cracked,"

The normally thoughtful, cerebral George Hunka joined the fray, referring to me as a "blinkered academic thinker" who "kill[s] the urge to creativity in their students." (The near universal concern for my students was very touching, and I am certain that they will be heartened to know that they are being protected by the watchful eyes of the blogosphere. But George, as well as Isaac and Matt, have been kind enough to mentor one of my students this summer, so perhaps they have inside information concerning my brutal tactics.)

I could go on -- the invective was pretty intense -- but I think you get the idea.

RALLY 'ROUND THE FLAG, BOYS

Another interesting phenomenon in this Invisible Theatre experiment was the way that the bloggers rallied around each other, cheering each other's ripostes and applauding each other's opinions. Luca Krech seemed to be the winner in this category -- at one point, I followed him through the comment boxes of several bloggers slapping them on their cyber butts and butting chests: " Hear! Hear!," he crowed at Superfluties at 10:56 on Monday morning; " Nice post," he applauded over at Matt Johnson's blog at 12:26; " Wonderful post!," at Matt Freeman's blog 9:32 this morning. There was quite a bit of this, actually: ISAAC: "Thanks for everyone's participation... George, I think you in particular have p'wnd this one. Anyway... carry on!"

And then there was the avuncular chortling. Over at Parabasis, there was the following exchange in reference to my comment about "shouting fuck in an empty theatre": COL: "I have never seen anyone yell fuck in a crowded theater, except in Germany. (Zing)." GEORGE: "Now yelling "theatre" during a particularly good fuck ... THAT'S revolutionary." JOSHUA: " LOL! Damn George, I'm going to be laughing about that one for a long time - and I'm jealous, I wished I said it!" The ever-supportive Lucas: "George, You should consider including a comedy in the Minima programming." IAN: " Oh, damn, George . . . LOL and I wonder how many of us are going to have that line come back to us at EXACTLY the wrong point in our personal lives. Some people might not find it quite so funny." JAMES: " I agree. George, when the hell did you become funny? (Ah, I'm just kiddin, ya big lug.)" IAN: "Oh, nearly forgot . . . Joshua James: "Damn George, I'm going to be laughing about that one for a long time - and I'm jealous, I wished I said it!" Ian W. Hill: (Brit accent) "Oh you will, Joshua, you will." GEORGE: "The only thing worse than having a high Technorati rating is not having a high Technorati rating." JOSHUA: "LOL! Ian, ya got me too." Har har har. The point is not that this sort of thing is wrong, or that it isn't funny (I did my own LOL at some of the faux-Oscar Wilde lines, particularly George's), but rather the function that it serves. Through the backslapping and chortling, each member of the "team" reinforced the other's cherished opinions.

YOU CAN'T TALK TO MY HOMEBOY LIKE THAT
The most consistent theme, heard from blog to blog, was a defense of home turf. Since most of the bloggers live in NYC and work on the Off-Off Broadway scene, my comments about that particular venue seemed to draw particular fire delivered with the greatest amount of outrage. George starts by listing ten productions he's seen this year that were innovative (several by fellow bloggers), and then continues: "So far as doing something, well... Ian Hill is, he's been at it for almost ten years; he's writing and directing his own plays. Freeman is; he's writing his. In addition, Alison's not only writing plays, but has become a force for change and advocacy in a formerly moribund theater in a small city half-way around the world that is now having global influence. Hell, even I am, much more modestly." More. LUCAS: "Thank you for insulting the hard work of numerous artists whose work you have never seen." ISAAC: " I do feel a need to defend myself, my friends, my coworkers from uninformed grandstanding..." Self-defense: you can't talk to ME that way: IAN: "I work hard. I do not appreciate having my work insulted by anyone, anywhere (not me, my work – I am unimportant in this world, I am only important in any way insofar as I make art -- my art is important). I’ve spent years doing whatever I needed to to be able to make worthwhile theatre happen, my own and other people’s. I lived in the fucking basement of a storefront theatre on Ludlow Street for three goddamn years with rats crawling around me as I slept so I could be indebted to and devoted to nothing in this world but worthwhile theatre, and you have the fucking nerve to lecture me from your ivory tower?" Again, the point is not to condemn these comments: there is something valiant and noble about the loyalty on display, and I mean that sincerely and without irony. No, the point is that, like rallying around the flag, attacking those who attack your homeboys is also a natural response to aggression from outsiders. And speaking of outsiders...

JANE, YOU IGNORANT SLUT
The following comments take me to task for not being a part of the group under attack, in this case practicing theatre artists. Let's start with the heated Ian: "Are you a theatre artist, or just an educator? And I do mean "just." If only the latter, don't you fucking dare call yourself "we" with me. I outrank you. I work on revolutions almost every day. You write blog-manifestos to no point other then "tear it all down," with no idea as to how to do so or what to replace it with. And without bothering to go out and attend the cell meetings, it seems. You will just bitch and kibitz from the side while we pass you by. If we haven't already (let me look again . . . oh, we have . . . bye)." JAMES COMTOIS: "I have no time or patience for people who sit on the sidelines and roll their eyes theatrically and pontificate on matters they know nothing about (while being rewarded for their "bravery" by creating false controversy). This is fraudulent posturing, plain and simple....Mr. Walters, I am not a radical. I am a playwright. My job is to write plays, and to get them staged. Period. It is insulting to have you tell me I'm doing everything wrong. It is more insulting to have you do so when you have not seen or read a single play I have staged or written. It is even more insulting to have you do so after not familiarizing yourself to my work or the work of my peers and colleagues and yet assume that I should give you a modicum of attention when you don't extend me (or anyone in my field) the same courtesy." LUCAS: "You become a better theatre artist by making theatre. Praxis not theory. I am not theorizing here. These are not idle manifestoes written from some dark cubicle. I am describing my life. To quote Saul Williams, "I speak what I see, all words and worlds are metaphors to me." If you want some specific examples look here or here." Again, the message is clear: as an outsider, you have no right to tell me what to do, criticize my work, or really even have an opinion. Only those of us who are part of the club have the right to comment. And to some extent, I think they're right, or at least the position is valid.

THE EFFECTS OF PROVOCATION
In addition to behaviors cited above, the emotional effects were strong. According to the title of Ian's post, his blood was up, and the result is an "angry response." Joshua James, apparently fighting similar feelings, writes "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." The most disturbing response came from Devore: "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."

THE FINAL QUESTION
James Comtois sums it all up quite nicely: "Mr. Walters, what do you think will happen from this? Do you honestly believe for a second that we writers/directors/designers are going to be taking long, hard looks at our past and future works and figure out how to make them appeal to you (despite that you don't see our work)? Do you honestly believe (say) I'm quietly fretting about my upcoming play because you said modern theatre is no good, and that I'm wondering how I can fix it to please you? Who do you think you are?" Nicely put.


IN SUMMARY
Obviously, this Invisible Theatre experiment is over, although I have no doubt that the invective will continue for a while. What have I learned?

1) That even the most intelligent, sensitive, creative, reflective, and open-minded members of our society, the artists (a group of which, by the way, I do not consider myself a member, just in case you were wondering), -- even the artists, who stand head and shoulders above the mass man in terms of intellect and empathy, will engage in personal insult, wagon circling, xenophobic attack of the outsider, self-congratulatory backslapping, and defensiveness if their beliefs are attacked by someone considered to be outside of the group.

2) That being provoked, even in ways that seem uninformed or unfair, can lead to dispiritedness and even depression by those whose work is attacked.

3) That ultimately, the criticisms are rejected out of hand, without consideration or reflection (beyond a few people, such as Matt Freeman), and do little more than cement even further the beliefs previously deeply-held.

4) And this is the most disturbing: my blog, which during the previous month was averaging 45 hits a day, as of this posting at 5:30 pm on Monday, has had 424 visitors. Provocation sells, and that is sick. My original post had little to recommend it beyond high emotion and vigorous attack --as many noted, there were no specific examples given, no intellectual support, no direct knowledge of most of the theatre scenes attacked -- and yet there has been a 1000% increase in people wanting to hear what I have to say.

To those who attacked me in such personal and violent terms, I did not take it personally. I expected it, I intentionally provoked it, and I actually found much of it admirable. There is great loyalty among the theatre blogaratti, and also what seems to be a deep sense of community.

But it is my hope that the conversations of these two days will be a cause for individual and group reflection as to whether provocation is as effective as the legends of the theatre of revolt would have us believe. The people in our audiences are parts of communities just like yours, and to those communities you are considered an outsider. Do you really believe that their reactions are any different, any more enlightened, than yours?

I am certain I will be attacked for having undertaken this deception, and of course that is everybody's right. But I think I learned more in these two days, both intellectually and personally, than I have learned in the previous year of blogging.

34 comments:

George Hunka said...

Disingenuous, Scott. Utterly disingenuous of you. I'm afraid I've got to call you on this.

And preposterous. I can only speak for myself, and wouldn't presume to do so for anyone else, but I find that you reductively ignore my careful examples to you, examples that I offered in an effort to honestly respond to your question: "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." Your statement is simply untrue.

And I note that you remain silent when it comes to noting (as I did) productions that have led you to your current position. I know you will claim that wasn't your purpose here. But you haven't done so in the long time previous to this you've been blogging, either.

There's nothing educational about this. You are aware, I'm sure, that Freeman, Devore, Joshua James have disagreed about the worth of the theater we're doing, of our blogs, far more often than we've agreed. "Wagon circling"? "Attack of the outsider"? "Self-congratulatory backslapping"? I don't think so; your characterization is an attempt to make us look like schoolchildren high-fiving each other in making teacher look stupid. It's collegiality, casual respect for each other despite our differences. Something you've failed to demonstrate.

So you're inaccurate about this. You're also inaccurate about something else. You mention that I listed ten productions this year "that were innovative (several by fellow bloggers)." Wrong, Scott. Only Sheila Callaghan maintains a blog--one blogger in ten, not several. You're trying to characterize this, again, as a group of people celebrating each other's work. Sheila's never celebrated mine, nor I believe has she said much about anybody else's; she runs a different kind of blog.

Don't put yourself in Brustein's camp, my friend. He's way out of your league, and would never pull shit like this. Not to mention that I just don't buy it. "My original post had little to recommend it beyond high emotion and vigorous attack -- as many noted, there were no specific examples given, no intellectual support, no direct knowledge of most of the theatre scenes attacked -- and yet there has been a 1000% increase in people wanting to hear what I have to say." It had much less than that, and much more: it had irresponsibility, bad faith, and the high emotion and vigorous attack you mentioned have done nothing to dissipate my feeling that it covers a profound ignorance of the work of which you pretend to speak. And you're paid handsomely and get benefits to match, and get to call yourself a teacher of drama.

This doesn't wash, Scott. Not in the least. I sat in the audiences for those plays I listed as a part of the community for whom those plays were presented, not as an insider or a creator of these works. I simply went to the theater, to see these shows, as a community member. As caught in their concerns as you.

Or maybe not. Maybe instead of speaking with a community you intend to speak to it, without listening to a word which they might have to offer in good-faith response to yours, castigating them for self-serving defense instead. More than one self is being served here, I reckon.

Don R. Hall said...

Scott,

Don't pat yourself too vigorously on the back for your experiment.

I'll pat myself on the back for not taking the bait (anyone who winds up with "Here I come with some provocation" is likely playing a game) but, in spite of the trickery involved in your tutorial to us all, you forget that you are not our teacher. In this strange, little blogging community, I learn a little from everyone, reading about attitudes and experiences that both the most and least experienced artists care to blog about. We share our opinions and information and for anyone to arrogantly believe that he or she is the paragon of wisdom for us all is deluded.

Coupla thoughts to ponder:

1) The fact that provocation sells is neither new information nor is it particularly interesting to note. You might as well conclude that sex sells - a fact we're all very aware of. Ann Coulter is a bestselling author of complete agitprop - her prose neither teaches nor enlightens us - it just agitates for the sake of watching the bugs squirm under the magnifying glass.

2) If part of your goal with your blog is to share, equally, with the small host of theatrical bloggers, this move has most certainly set you back. Revealing your deceit puts into question any honest points you have to make in the future, which is a shame as I believe you have an interesting perspective on the work the rest of us do. A perspective, unfortunately, most of that 424 will now dismiss as purile horseshit. Welcome to being Ashton Kutcher for a while.

Joshua James said...

I have to agree with George, clearly and wholeheartedly, Scott. I also note you left out the bulk of my comment, where I challenged you to put your money where your mouth is - that was the essence of my comment - not the fact I'd promised my lady not to fight (and she never cares if I kick snooty theatre folk, she's a costumer and runs into more than her fair share of such) - In truth, I wasn't nearly upset or worked up. As George mentioned, I'm probably nearly as critical of NYC theatre as anyone is or can be.

In fact, I may even agree with you on a point or two, had it been presented in a way that was, I don't know, more reasonable or thought out or just was a little less insulting - You say all these things and then proceed those of us who have written a play with the word "fuck" in it somewhere. I dunno, man.

But I don't think the artists have let the audiences down. I think the industry has let the audiences and artists down. By industry, I mean the producers and also the educators, the vast amount of theatre programs across the country.

I think you're pulling a dodge here, and it's a bit dishonest. You said things you really appear to believe, then later said it was a test. That's kind of like Mel Gibson claiming he didn't mean what he said, it was the booze talking" despite the fact the words came out of his mouth so easily and freely.

Note, I'm not accusing you of racism or anti-semitism. I think you're simply goading us with criticisms about nyc and american theatre you maybe really want to believe, but are not founded upon any reality.

I don't know what to tell ya, but if you really want to do something, arrange a new york city playwright festival at your university. Put yoru money where your mouth is, Scott, a lot of really good theatre artists could use a decent regional production and we deserve it, too.

We deserve it a lot more than shouted insults. It's a lot harder to live here and work in this field than it is to do what you do, i'm sorry to say but it's true, I've been on many a campus.

devore said...

Wow. I am impressed. Really.

I thought I was a narcissist, but clearly I am merely a student in the discipline.

I just can't even begin to describe my horrified glee. You're a victim. Again I'll say it: wow.

I'm sorry to disturb you: I write provocative theater because people laugh at that which they fear (full disclosure: I'm a little scared of you, which I'm sure you're hungry little ego will devour toot sweet.) You have made me LOL, Scott. Shiver.

You want attention. And you got it. Good for you. When people get angry, you've touched a nerve. Gone after sacred cows. You could have used satire, or something more sincere and less calculated instead of blindsiding your readers. But no. Anyway, I might benefit from your sociopathic mind-game at a later date. After I take a shower.


The sad thing is, you don't even realize you're the establishment. You're playing games with a bunch of starving artist types in NYC, and you don't even get it: you're the man. Mr. Academic Theater Guy.

Anyway, what I really want to talk about was the time you spent here in New York. Was it bitter? Did you not get invited to experimental theater parties? I worry about you Scott. You seem so unhappy.

Joshua James said...

And like Don, I agree that you're not my professor (something which I noted later on Isaac's blog) or have I have agreed to have you as my teacher. We're fellow bloggers, nothing more or less.

I also saw through your game, which is why I didn't post it on my blog - I participated in comments because I am a part of this community, so I throw in my two cents, but I'm not promoting your site on mine when you run a basic Scientology scam, substituing Brecht for L. Ron.

And let me tell ya something. One doesn't get more dedicated to the craft of theatre than Ian Hill. When I met him, ten years ago, he was not only working in a small non-profit theatre (NADA) he was living there, on the floor in the back room (I met him when NADA did a play of mine ten years ago) he lived and breathed the work, still does, far as I can tell - he's a lifer, he doesn't just talk the talk, he walks the walk, too.

J Tzanis said...

Distorted mirror on the wall, who is the cleverest blogger of them all? Why, it's Scott Walters, that tricky devil.

I am one of those 424 who came to this blog only via links from blogs that I actually do read. Provocation may sell, but a one-time hit is hardly a "sale." I can't speak for the other 423, but I'm not sold, and I certainly haven't seen any reason for a return visit.

By the way, if you're just looking to up your hit count with some pointless provocation, I understand that nudity is a big internet draw. And, hey, wouldn't "The Nude Professor" be a great name for a blog?

Scott Walters said...

George, arguing about whether my points about innovation are "true" is missing the point -- the post was intentionally designed to be provocative without regard to "truth," "accuracy," or support. IT'S NOT ABOUT THE CONTENT OF THE POST.

Actually, George, what I am saying is that all communities, including the theatre blogosphere of artists, reacts to attacks by people it considers outsiders in the same way: hostility, rejection, and retrenchment of traditional values. This is exactly what happened in this case, and it is precisely what happens with traditional audiences when confronted with artistic attacks. I don't find this behavior self-serving; I agree that "It's collegiality, casual respect for each other despite our differences."

On a sidenote, George, your resentment of what you call my "handsome pay," and your complete over-estimation of the amount of money available at universities such as mine shows an ignorance equal to that which you accuse me of. The complete annual budget for the Drama Department in which I work (and I am not the chair, by the way), is a little over $20,000. That covers everything from production costs to equipment to copying and travel. The Arts and Ideas Program that I head, and to which you refer in your post, is a general education program that serves non-majors and has an annual budget of around $8000. While I am not going to share my annual salary here, I can assure you that it is far less than "handsome." In fact, in order to make ends meet, I teach night classes at a prison, and summer school in the summer.

Don, I also applaud you for not taking the "bait" -- there are always a few in every community who resist. And I agree with your characterization of the salability of provocation. The point is that, unlike many have asserted, provocation is not a sign of artistic purity or value. Nor, as this test might show, is it particularly effective in changing attitudes.

I also suspect that your last point is true -- that the level of trust for me within the theatre blogging community will have been diminished by this, in exactly the same way that the trust and valuing of artists has been diminished in the larger community of our towns, cities, and nation.

Don R. Hall said...

the level of trust for me within the theatre blogging community will have been diminished by this, in exactly the same way that the trust and valuing of artists has been diminished in the larger community of our towns, cities, and nation.

It is the rare statement that both makes me laugh out loud and drop my jaw. Tread lightly on the hallowed ground, Scott, or we'll be forced to pull you off of that crucifix, buddy.

George Hunka said...

But lies are lies, Scott, deliberate or not. To say that this is not about the content of the post, as you do, is precisely where this disingenuousness, this dishonesty, lies.

I'd like to have your pay, no matter what it is, but I don't resent it. Envy, maybe. Especially when I see that you consider this so-called provocation a legitimate examination of the theater and its place in the community. Many of the theater artists I know are very close to the communities in which they work, respect them, are respected by them. 2-Headed Calf, for example, does volunteer work in their community in return for rehearsal space. I could go on.

So intellectual dishonesty is intellectual dishonesty. It's indefensible, especially in a university setting (let alone the community of the arts). Can't you see that?

Scott Walters said...

No, George, I don't see it. My initial post was theatre in exactly the same way that your plays are theatre -- a fiction created to make a point. When you put words that you personally find offensive into the mouths of your characters, does that make you intellectually dishonest? When Wallace Shawn wrote Aunt Dan and Lemon and made a pretty good defense of some pretty heinous political ideas, was he being intellectually dishonest? When Anna Deavere Smith speaks the words of racists, is she being intellectually dishonest? Is Augusto Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed, which he has taught to theatre people around the world as a way of promoting critical thinking, and has won acclaim worldwide, intellectually dishonest when he has actors say and do things that are morally wrong, and when he doesn't announce that his play is a play? Or is it OK if it is done to other people?

I understand your anger, and I'm not saying I wouldn't feel the same way in your shoes. I think what you did on your blog as far as urging emails to my chair is beneath you.

And yes, I do think "this so-called provocation a legitimate examination of the theater and its place in the community."

Don, believe me, I don't see myself as a martyr -- one has to suffer to earn that moniker. I was simply drawing a parallel: that outsiders who attack a community without being a part of that community are usually rejected and distrusted. Artists have proudly assumed that role for upward of a hundred years, and the reaction has been predictable.

George Hunka said...

Unless you're a fictional character, Scott, and I understand from the student you asked me to introduce to the New York theater scene that you aren't, I can't buy that either. And if you're being provocative, then you should be careful of what you might provoke, before the fact. If this is your understanding of Boal's aesthetic and social mission, maybe it's a good thing you aren't a theatre artist.

See, I've spent literally hours, days, weeks, months, years (not to mention thousands of dollars of my own money) trying to build a theater in which I hold a profound belief, for which I've tried to build an informed, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually well-laid foundation. I believe it the wellspring of my labor, of my life. And many others are doing the same thing. For you to provoke, as you claim to do honestly at first, then to revoke that assumption of your honesty (which I've never had reason to question in the past), well ... art isn't a game. Neither is academics. It has profound implications. And I take it seriously.

Ben Ellis said...

First, you claim that theatre artists' love of provocation has led to the flight of audiences from the medium. You then go on to bemoan the fact that your own experiment in provocation has increased your blog's audience ten-fold. I find that contradictory.

As far as Invisible Theatre goes, Boal's objective is to allow audiences to realise that their actions can have an effect upon the drama before them. The aim is to empower the participants, to help them realise the transformations of which they are capable of effecting in their communities and societies. In your post, all I read is a finger-wag in a style not dissimilar to the original, alleged experiment.

Sometimes when we believe we see a distorted image in the mirror, we blame the mirror. I'm not sure that the mirror is the problem here. Throughout this blog you take issue with what you believe is a problematic, aggressive stance taken by contemporary theatre - particularly the word "fuck" being uttered and with sex acts onstage - and for you the meaning of any of these instances ends right there. As if the word, "fucking" in a play like Simon Stephens's Country Music is only there so that "fucking" can be uttered, as if the disaster of taste that this might bring in weighs so heavily that it crushes all other possible connections and relationships within the work, and between the work and the audience. The irony is, what you (unjustly) accuse the In-Yer-Face plays and much of contemporary theatre of is what you have done here:

"I crafted my post very carefully in an attempt to gore as many oxes as possible."

With your limited insight into what you abhor, you parody the image; the cavorting AND the distortion belong to you. This is no Invisible Theatre as per Boal. The provocation is not linked to any other aim but... provocation. Boal attempts to turn the spectator into what he calls a "spec-actor", with greater awareness of the choices they can make. And here?

This is not an intellectual experiment but a poorly executed practical joke, and you're taking a fairly strange and long time to dissect the frog.

Joshua James said...

You dodged my comment here, Scott, but engaged me on George's site - again, I challenge you, you think we're not innovative or compelling enough, bring us down and showcase us.

But I agree with George that this exercise of yours is fundalmentally a dishonest one built on lies of a sort, and an ugly truth of another that you seem not to want to admit to.

Alison Croggon said...

Yep. Disingenuous. Your selective quoting doesn't demonstrate that people were actually angry because you had NO argument, not because you were criticising what they were doing as an "outsider" (c'mom, Scott, you're no more or less an "outsider" than I am, we're all outsiders here). If you had come up with an interesting critique, the response would have been different.

You clearly think that contemporary theatre is only about ignorantly abusing the audience. The reason why people think that you clearly haven't seen any (aside from the fact that you never mention seeing any) is that you seem to have no idea what, in all its diversity, it actually seeks to do.

Scott Walters said...

Joshua, can I make this any clearer: THE ORIGINAL POST WAS A PHONY. QUIT ARGUING WITH THE ORIGINAL POST. Believe me, if there was any way for me to take you up on your offer and bring you and George and Matt and any other blogger who wanted to come down for a season of plays, I WOULD DO IT IN A HEARTBEAT. It would definitely be the most exciting season my department has seen EVER. It would be the kind of theatre education that would be truly, truly valuable -- in fact, invaluable. Having you each teaching courses in your specialty, and having a series of public conversations would truly be exciting. Hell, you could devote one entire evening to hammering me, for all I care. I want my students to question everything, including everything I tell them. Do not assume, as many have, that because I express strong opinions that I pass them off as God's truth and brook no dissent from my students. Ask George, Matt, and Isaac, who have been graciously hosting one of my students on his visit to New York, what he told them about me -- I suspect he would tell you that I often err on the side of NOT stepping in and expressing my opinion, but rather allowing them to wrestle through things together. I say that because that particular student came to me at the end of the semester with just such a complaint -- he wanted me to take greater control. I refused.

Ben, yes it is an interesting contradiction. How many of those hits, which are now well over 500, will return in future days, do you think? Not many, I suspect. They are drawn by the smell of blood, which is not a particularly good way to create an ongoing audience -- with a blog or a theatre. How many of those who showed up for "Corpus Christi" became permanent subscribers? How many who will show up for "Rachel Corrie" will be there for the long haul? It will be interesting to watch, though -- my prediction: ultimately, and quickly, my hit count will fall well below my original monthly average of 45. Your other question is a good one: "Boal attempts to turn the spectator into what he calls a "spec-actor", with greater awareness of the choices they can make. And here?" Here there is an opportunity, through reflection and discussion in the blogosphere, for people to consider what has transpired and its relevance to the theatrical world. Many, indeed most, will find nothing of value, which is fine. But each impassioned condemnation I receive reinforces my point: that attack leads to rejection, not change.

Would Boal approve of the way I used his technique? Probably not. And I am certain that Brecht would not approve of the ways his techniques have been used, either. Oh, well -- Shakespeare probably wouldn't like contemporary productions of his plays either. It is largely irrelevant.

Joshua James said...

the premise was phony, Scott, but the inherent challenge was not. That's why I said, bring us down.

I am a lot of things, flawed in many ways, like all of us, but one thing I am not is PHONY, as many of my professional contemporaries would testify, nor do I have much patience for phoniness, even when dressed up as "for my own good" or "for an exercise".

I don't know that I was arguing with the original post, per se, as much as responding to it. That was your intent, was it not?

But okay, I'll drop the challenge - it's fine. And I hope you'll note I did not personally attack you or scream in capital letters at you, as many of my fellow bloggers had. I just wanted what I said to be heard - you focused on a small part of my comment (my lady and my feistiness) and not my inherent point within the challenge.

So you've responded and we'll leave it at that.

R. B. Daug said...

How many of those hits, which are now well over 500, will return in future days, do you think? Not many, I suspect. They are drawn by the smell of blood, which is not a particularly good way to create an ongoing audience -- with a blog or a theatre.

Um, if you know that pointless provocation is no way to build an ongoing audience - for a theater or a blog - then why exactly did you undertake this little experiment in the first place? Are you trying to drive readers away so that you can later complain that people are only drawn by pointless provocation?

Scott Walters said...

r. b. -- it was done to illustrate a point: that attacks on a community from someone outside the community (in my case, an academic among artists; in the rest of the world, artists among the middle class) provoke a predictable and consistent response: anger, dismissal, rejection, and a retrenchment of long-held values. So far, I seem to be batting a thousand. It isn't about my blog, it isn't about Technorati rankings, it isn't about hit counts -- none of them matter in any way. It was solely about the idea. And I welcome any comments, here or elsewhere, that will demonstrate that the response does not exhibit those characteristics.

Freeman said...

Oh boy. Who knew? I mean, who could really know?

kim said...

r. b. -- it was done to illustrate a point: that attacks on a community from someone outside the community (in my case, an academic among artists; in the rest of the world, artists among the middle class) provoke a predictable and consistent response: anger, dismissal, rejection, and a retrenchment of long-held values. So far, I seem to be batting a thousand. It isn't about my blog, it isn't about Technorati rankings, it isn't about hit counts -- none of them matter in any way. It was solely about the idea. And I welcome any comments, here or elsewhere, that will demonstrate that the response does not exhibit those characteristics.

I'm a stage manager who was unaware of the existance of this whole mess until recently. Now, it's been observed that stage managers have a knack for being practical and getting down to brass tacks. So it's an instinct I rely on when wading into the middle of frays like this.

And, honestly, after reading your initial post and your followup, that getting-down-to-brass-tacks instinct is telling me that this particular follow-up post, and your claims that this was all an "experiment," sound an awful lot like the school bully calling you stupid and then saying, "I was just kidding, can't you take a joke?"

I didn't buy it from the school bully then, I don't buy it here. It sounds more like you took an unpopular position, were challenged on it, and are now trying to pass it all off as a joke; I tend to mistrust people that can't hold on to their own opinions. I also tend to mistrust the opinions of people that retract them claiming it was all some "social experiment." After all, who's to say that you won't later turn around and claim your retraction wasn't itself some kind of esoteric theater experiment you read about in an even more esoteric tome somewhere?

Conducting such social experiments serves only to alienate your readers from you, and it's just a pity that that's not the lesson you learned.

Devilvet said...

If an outsider kicks me or one of my friends in the nuts, and then says "see everybody suddenly wants to see whats going to happen next..."

The problem with your experiment and it's "success" is that it is a direct represntation of the disregard and disgust you have for the very same people you might have tried to inspire.

This experiment was done with malice, with vitrol and now you get to sit back smuggly and say I told you so...

You did prove that I might attack someone who kicks me in the nuts, even if after they say, "I didn't want to crush your nuts...I just wanted to prove I could make you mad!"

R.B.D. said...

Well, then, sounds to me that your premise was pretty badly flawed, Mr. Walters.

I'm not a theater artist and I don't have a theater blog. I'm just someone who likes interesting theater. (I'm also part of what most people would consider to be the middle class, by the way.)

From here, you sure don't sound like much of an outsider. You teach theater, right? And you are directly involved in productions from time to time, right? And you blog about theater, right? And it sounds like you know these theater bloggers and have had serious discussions with them in the past, right?

If all of this is true, then your claims of being an outsider seem pretty disingenuous, and your little experiment seems like little more than bad-faith trick designed to allow you to mock a lot of people while claiming to have proved a pretty silly point.

Of course, something that you yourself characterize in your reply above as an "attack" - whether it's from inside a community or outside of one - is going to provoke anger. That's why they call it an "attack" and not a "hug".

Was this really your whole point, or am I missing something?

George Hunka said...

Leave it to stage managers like kim and the laity like r.b.d. to make the most salient points.

But, in any event, I'm left wondering just whose "anger, dismissal, rejection, and ... retrenchment of long-held values" we're left with after all this, assuming (if this isn't another experiment) that this second post is the sincere demonstration of his intent.

Scott seems to think it's the blogosphere's. Actually, I think it's his. Scott's made no secret of his feeling that a theater that provokes a community is a theater that insults and alienates it, and he feels angry at theater artists for taking that particular tack (despite the idea that theatrical provocation is a textured thing, not as simple as he sometimes seems to think). Certainly Scott's dismissed and rejected as childish certain aspects of this provocative theater. And despite the wide-ranging responses to his posts -- some of which agreed with a few of his points, others of which agreed with others -- if anybody's values seem to be retrenched, they're his. He still desires, apparently, to be proven wrong: "And I welcome any comments, here or elsewhere, that will demonstrate that the response does not exhibit those characteristics."

Well, fair's fair. I'd welcome a response from him that demonstrates that his original posts did not exhibit those very same characteristics that he attaches to his interlocutors: a reponse that arises not from anger, dismissal, rejection and unremitting stubbornness, but from an acceptance of responses, yes, even to that very first post of his, which he now has announced was insincere, dishonest and deliberately ignorant.

Scott describes himself as a man who "err[s] on the side of NOT stepping in and expressing my opinion, but rather allowing them to wrestle through things together." All right. Here's your chance, buddy. We're all listening. What do you really think?

Ensemble said...

SMO was a play about two guys who are invisible
the two guys names were gary and steve
they were involved in having a drug deal
but they discovered that friendship is more important than making the deal
That's what SMO was about.
We did the show on the concourse at flinders street station
It's been to two festivals already in australia, one in adelaide and another one in Sydney
Over the next three years it will be touring overseas.
Performing in a public psace was a totally new experience for me.
But it was interesting because I've never performed in a publiuc space before.

Alison Croggon said...

For those not in the antipodes - The show Ensemble is talking about above is Small Metal Objects, by Back to Back Theatre, a theatre created by its disabled members. I saw it at last year's Melbourne Festival, review here, for anyone interested (scroll down). It was beautiful. And, yes, provocative in all the subtle ways that Scott says contemporary theatre isn't...

John Branch said...

I have to admit that so far I've only skimmed Scott's post and the comments, but a few things occur to me already. One, it's true, but no surprise, that "provocation sells." Broadly speaking, this is one reason for the idea that conflict is the essence of drama (an idea I don't entirely agree with). Two, sometimes when you shake things up, all that comes out are hornets. Three (this may be fitting in light of Scott's original reference, on Sunday, to the sciences), I notice that on the physics blogs people can criticize string theory, or write about religion from the perspective of a scientist, or do a number of other contentious things, without getting personal. I'm not sure what this means.

Anonymous said...

I think we all have a little too much time on our hands.
Go out and live life. Create. Breathe. Reflect...but only for a few minutes at a time through out the day.

Buddha Cowboy - NYC

P.S. - Based on your post, am I to understand some of these folks had you as a professor ? IS that why they were so upset ?

Anonymous said...

How insecure are you all? I'm a playwright; I've been up and I've been down. My work has been praised and damned and the kind of theatre I believe in has been celebrated and condemned. I've never felt personally threatened by anything said or written. I find something terribly sad in the vitriolic responses to the BAH blog. Methinks you all doth protest too much and it leads me to suspect your trust in your own work.

Col said...

So, because I cracked a joke, I'm a self-congratulatory backslapper? Wow, do I evre not agree with that characterization of myself.

What should we say here -- "Ya got me, guy. Wow, I've learned *so much* about theater and life from you"...?

What I've learned is that you think you're superior to the rest of the blogosphere by unwillingly tricking people to participate in your "experiment".

Must be pretty lonely at the top.

Lucas Krech said...

You are a small, sad pathetic human being. I hope one day you learn to grow up and respect people.

devore said...

John Branch brings up an interesting point. I wager that even string theorists though, can get hot under the collar. And some people can talk about religion, but if the news is any indication, more people like to wage war over religion.

I think it's natural and human to defend something that you love. Whether you trust that love or not.

The one thing that Scott has succeeded in doing is making all of us jerks. All of us, Scott.

I'm sure his students are reading these posts, and he points to the tirades as proof of some impossibly full of itself New York theater scene. To that I offer a classic quote from literature: whatevs.

The sad thing is that Scott's desire to shake people up utterly obscures the points he's been trying to make for months. And they are very reasonable points. Multi-media theater aside, he's asking the community to think and explore new business models for the theater. Theater was always about selling tickets, and 2006 is no exception.

I suggest buffets.

Anyway, on the topic of jerks: this bitchfest has just drained me. So I offer an apology for going off half-cocked, and then I'll slink away and ask myself why I gave a shit in the first place.

I am sorry for paying more attention to your scorching sizzle, than to your steak. I am sorry for lobbing hand grenades at you, Scott. In the past we've parried to absolutely no good. It's clearly something I need to address.

The shame will settle in shortly.

George Hunka said...

I know why I gave a shit, John. You're right: Scott's students are reading this. And, as an educator, with memberships in professional associations who also may read this blog, he can have a modest effect on the way that theater is taught and thought about in the university, and those theater practitioners that UNCA turns out every graduation day. In his stated desire that theater "R&D" should take place in universities and colleges, Scott in a sense is marginalizing other innovative theater taking place outside the college gates.

Truth is, it's not a bad idea. But stunts like this make me profoundly uncomfortable about the wisdom of implementing this idea in any way. Scott doesn't represent all theater educators and teachers, of course. But it's happened before, in other disciplines: with the Alan Sokal affair a few years ago, for example. This recent contretemps does not have the far-reaching implications of the Sokal case, of course. But the ethical questions remain relevant, and I hope Scott will discuss these among his students and colleagues who read this blog.

Alison Croggon said...

I was quite amused by the Sokal affair (and the book, for all its flaws, did make some interesting points about the ignorant use of science in the humanities). I don't think Scott was doing anything as intelligent as that.

He was just saying things he's said before, like here and here and here. If perhaps in a slightly more aggressive mode. The howls produced then were along the lines of, read the playwrights before you condemn them! You're misrepresenting what they do! So, what's new?

Yes, it proves, as world politics is proving at the moment, that aggression begets aggression. Like many people, I'm not sure what is to be gained from this "lesson". Mainly, it seems, a whole lot of bad feeling. I'm kind of with Matt on this one, really, with his shrug. There seems to me to be a whole lot of things to be upset about at present, the destruction of Lebanon, say, and it's depressing that so much energy can be sidelined by sophistry that "proves" nothing except that art can be made utterly meaningless. I fear that Scott has demeaned us all.

Anonymous said...

OMFG!!!

I've never seen such tenacious self-righteousness on display since kindergarten.

Lighten up people! This was an interesting thought experiment, not the destruction of the state of Israel, uh, I mean Lebanon...