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.
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.
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.