What an interesting day yesterday was. I continue to learn a great deal from the theatre blogosphere. While George Hunka has officially declared the Great Theatre Blogosphere Dustup of 2006 officially ended (Daddy, apparently having had enough, has turned around to tell the kids in the back seat "I can turn this blogosphere around and we can just go home!"), I would like to review the responses that I have gotten on my blog, and the comments that also were contributed to George's blog, as well as a few late posts to various blogs. At the end, I will respond to George's calling me out: "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?"
So, the comments. I'm just going to skip past the additional insults to my person, because...what's the point? But I am going to note one thing: read back through the dozens and dozens of posts on this blog -- you will NEVER find me insulting people personally, calling them names, or denigrating their professions. One of the reasons that I don'tmention specific productions on this blog very often is that I prefer not draw negative attention to specific people. In the original "Bah!" post, you will notice that I mentioned nobody by name or even hinted at specific people -- my attacks were completely in the realm of abstract ideas. That the responses so often took the form of personal insults was quite disturbing. I expected negative reactions -- I didn't expect them to be personal. At the end of the day, things got real ugly.
KILL THE BASTARD
The award for the most shocking response goes to none other than George Hunka, who took the incredible step of suggesting I be fired! So as not to beleaguer my poor colleague with a bunch of emails, I am going to delete the email address (if you want it, George has it on his site), but here is what was written: "Comments about the wisdom of allowing Prof. Walters to continue his tenure at UNCA can be directed to XXXXX, the chairman of the drama department there, at XXXXX@XXXX.XXX. I especially urge those of you who still believe in the value of a university education in the arts to look at this response." I guess the body of these emails would go something like this: "Dear Mr. Drama Dept Chair -- Please fire Scott Walters because he is mean and he doesn't agree with the rest of us. Thank you." To his credit, Joshua James immediately expressed queasiness about this approach: " I dunno George, it's a bit raw to take to the head of his department, don't you think? I'm as much an activist and rabble rouser as the next guy, but I don't really believe Scott or more or less equiable as a professor than anyone else teaching theatre at his college. not to say I'm defending him, I'm not. I don't think I'd like to have him as a professor. But I do think that it should take more than a nutty, provocative post on a theatre blog to cause someone employment difficulties, don't you think? I mean, it's smacks of something I cannot descibe but makes me feel kinda, I dunno, not right?" Thank you, Joshua. And while it may smack of something that you can't describe, I can describe it quite well: intimidation. The message he sent to the rest of the theatre blogosphere is: if you fall afoul of George Hunka, he will take you down. In the past, George has liked to use the word "chilling" when responding to certain of my posts. Welcome to the deep freeze, George. It is liable to be kind of crowded in there, because out of all the bloggers and blogreaders, only Joshua was even in the least troubled by the sound of your intellectual jackboots marching down my street. Over the past couple days, I have had just about every type of personal insult hurled at me short of "your momma wears combat boots," but this particular was the single most disturbing. Good job!
This was another fun game in which commenters delved deep (and not so deep) into my psyche, where they claimed to have found all kinds of nefarious reasons for what I have said. The award in this category goes to kim, a self-identified stage manager who, despite admitting that that she "was unaware of the existance of this whole mess until recently," felt that she knew enough about me and my past opinions to declare that I was really covering up a blogging social gaff! "It sounds," she declared, using her stage-manager's inate ability to "get down to brass tacks,"" 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." To my amazement, George followed by admiring kim's ability "to make the most salient points," and then took me to task for stubbornly holding on to the same ideas I have expressed in the past! Which is it? Am I backtracking in the face of blogger backlash, or stubbornly refusing to change?
BLAME THE VICTIM
This is a common tactic used by perpetrators of domestic violence: you MADE me beat you up. Mac Rogers, in a post entitled "The Abusive Blogger," writes about me: "My feeling is that the only way to enforce decent behavior on the internet is through silence. If a blogger becomes abusive of his online collegues, the most effective way to correct his behavior is to ignore him, remove him from your blogroll, and not link to his website." Now, I invite Mac and any other blogger to do a simple exercise: draw a line down the center of a piece of paper and put at the top of one column "Abusive Comments BY Scott Walters," and put at the top of the other list "Abusive Comments ABOUT Scott Walters." Then cruise around the internet finding comments (as a starting point, you might start with the comments I have gathered above, and on the previous post). Post your list to my comments box. I think if you are being fair, you will find that my "abusiveness" in my initial "Bah!" post, the one that led to the lion's share of the shit flung, was confined to vigorous expressions of being less-then-impressed with the level of innovation in the American theatre and American theatre education, and that my readers are the ones who applied it to themselves and their friends. Aggressive? Yes. Abusive? Not in the least. But boy, the responses certainly crossed the line, and with alacrity. Special recognition goes to Ian Hill, who set the bar for everyone else.
BACK AT YOU!
These were the most amazing comments, because I found myself finding my very own central point rephrased and then thrown at me as a repudiation! To recap, here is my central point: ATTACKS BY OUTSIDERS, THROUGH ART OR OTHERWISE, ARE INEFFECTIVE IN PROMOTING CHANGE BECAUSE THE COMMUNITY'S RESPONSE TO ATTACK IS USUALLY ANGER, REJECTION, AND A RETRENCHMENT OF TRADITIONAL IDEAS. Now, here are some of the comments that were apparently calculated as repudiations of my methods:
1) Joshua James: "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."
3) RBDaug: "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?"
4) J Tzanis: "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."
YES! YES! YES! I agree wholeheartedly! I didn't choose to use attack in my original "Bah!" post in order to change minds, but rather to dramatically demonstrate that when people feel their deeply held values are under attack by someone that they view as unqualified to comment (i.e., an outsider) their natural tendency is to hold more firmly to those beliefs and attack the attacker. As a way of changing minds, my post "Bah!" was entirely ineffective -- in fact, if my main motivation had been to persuade people to accept those ideas, then it would have been a total failure because, in fact, it had exactly the opposite effect. The point is that a post like "Bah!" is no different than, and provokes the same reaction as, a play like Corpus Christi or a work of art like Piss Christ.
Now, that said, is there a place for such theatre? Absolutely -- these are plays for the choir. Beleagured and oppressed groups often need to have their strength bolstered, their spirits lifted, and their courage reinforced. Often, a good way to do this is by joining others in bashing the oppressive group. There is a sense of relief and community in hissing the villain and cheering the hero. But if you aspire to affect those who aren't already singing, you need other tactics, because if the villain is a caricature of me, I am not likely to hiss him.
WHAT IS TRUE
George wants me to speak up about what, in fact, I believe. This is going to be a cop-out, but I am going to begin by quoting someone else. Jill Dolan has a beautiful post on her blog "The Feminist Spectator," which she submitted to NPR's "This I Believe" segment. After briefly describing her childhood involvement in theatre, Dolan writes:
I know of no other secular gatherings at which I’m regularly inspired to laugh and cry with strangers. In those moments of breathing together, the people we watch on stage reach the audience with little bits of their souls through the transmogrifications of character or the illumination of language.
I feel this heightened community, this warm if temporary belonging, watching high school students perform diverting musicals like Guys and Dolls, as well as seeing serious Broadway performances like Fiona Shaw in Medea. Professional or amateur, performance captivates me with its enactments of the possibilities of our lives.
A friend and I, both of us white, middle-aged, Jewish theatre professors, went to see ten young people of color reading their slam verses in Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry Jam on Broadway, an exuberant evening of stories not regularly heard in that forum. We smiled even when we didn’t understand a reference, moved by the obvious delight of the younger people surrounding us.
Walking up the aisle after particularly affecting performances like Def Poetry Jam, I rub shoulders with fellow audience members embraced by the warmth of communal pleasure. These moments elevate us to a plane far above everyday life, and surprise us with a depth of present experience that brings us closer together, if only for a moment.
I prize these opportunities to experience public life in tandem with others, despite whatever differences of upbringing and identity might in other social circumstances keep us apart. I’m filled with hope knowing that strangers keep gathering to see people transform themselves into others or to tell us stories about their lives and our own.
I believe in the power of the collective creating and viewing performance inspires, when we confront each other in all our tender mortality and yearn together toward a common future. That bluebird in my hair as Mrs. Malaprop was a harbinger of belief in the possibility of theatre’s magical potential to let us laugh, feel, think, and dream together.
I have not had an opportunity to read Dolan's latest work, Utopia in Performance: Finding Hope at the Theatre, but I look forward to it with anticipation.
As far as my original "Bah!" post in concerned, much of what I had to say about theatre education pretty accurately reflects my feelings about my own profession. I don't find much innovative thinking there, and all too often I see a system that constricts creativity instead of releasing it. Many of you tasked me with doing something in my own teaching to change that, and all I can say is that I am trying my best.As far as the state of the theatre in general, I am usually disappointed. I see a lot of technically efficient productions that have very little nutrition for my soul or my mind. As far as innovation, there has been some since Brecht but not much, and what there has been has garnered few followers. Jerzy Grotowski had a new idea, and I am glad that someone like George Hunka is trying to build on it; Samuel Beckett was a giant; Robert Wilson is another innovator, as is Julie Taymor. I respect many theatre artists who are not innovators, but rather are building on the idea of previous innovators -- many of the artists that Alison Croggon mentioned in a post fall into this category: Churchill, Fornes, Shepard, Pinter, Brook, Mnouchkine, Kreutz. They are what Frans Johanssen in The Medici Effect calls "directional thinkers." They are extending the art form along already started pathways, and doing so brilliantly, but they are not innovators. Matthew Freeman is right to question whether innovation is important -- perhaps we need a period of directional thinking. But given the speed and severity of the changes happening in our culture today, I hope somebody is trying to innovate at what Johanssen calls the "intersection" of the new and the old. It is a mash-up world, as P'tit Boo says, and I think we need some mashup ideas.
Do I go to the theatre? Yes, I do. Not as much as I'd like, and I wish I had the money to see more in different places. I have never been to Europe, for instance, and I feel that lack intently. But for some reason, I find less and less in the theatre I see that feeds me. And that may be my problem, not anyone else's.
But the number of times I go to the theatre and see some kid in their mid-20s angrily shaking their finger at me and telling me how stupid and fat and complacent and awful I am -- well, it doesn't help. I am hungry. I am looking for revelations. I am looking for someone who seems to have enough imagination to stand where I am and poitn me in a direction that has meaning, excitement, and purpose. I want, like Jill Dolan, to be "inspired to laugh and cry with strangers." But what I usually get is either jollied and flattered, or condemned and lectured. Surely there could be more the theatre than that.
After three days of this, like George, I am tired. Over the past year, I have tried to make a simple point about what I feel is wrong about the theatre, but to no avail. "Bah!" was my last effort. To those who felt I crossed a line, all I can say is I did so out of a deep belief in the power and beauty of an art form to which I have devoted my life. And while many do not respect that my contributions have, at least for the past 10 years, been in the realm of education, that is where I have decided to pour my lifeblood.
I wish I could write like Jill Dolan. I wish I inclined toward the poetic, which others might find more inspiring. My mind, however, is more prosaic and more dramatic -- dramatic in the sense of being dialectic, living on the clash of ideas. It's what I do.
If I really thought "Bah!" about the theatre, I wouldn't be able to continue teaching it. I would go in another direction. But two weeks from now, I will be standing in front of a lot of undergraduates trying to figure out how to inspire their creativity and their independence. It's what I do, and I do my best.