Friday, January 20, 2006

The Totalitarian Narrative Indeed

George Hunka over at Superfluities (see blogroll) has responded to my post below entitled "Formal Inertia" with his own arguments apocalyptically titled "The Totalitarian Narrative."

First, let me say that I did not quote Aristotle as an appeal to the ultimate authority -- yes, all theatre people seem to be agnostics when it comes to any and all past thinkers, and I am no different -- but rather, I referred to him as an august elder statesman whose words show that the concept of narrative, of plot and story, is as old as the theatre itself. While I don't think that old things should be believed simply because they are old (nor, on the other hand, rejected simply because they are old), the fact that an idea has been held for centuries deserves respect, it seems to me. Aristotle is a grizzled survivor of the millenia, and not to be casually dismissed.

George seems to see the fact that people are "trapped in our own consciousness" as a failing we all share, as if anything short of omniscience were an artistic weakness. Because we can only see the world through our own eyes, and thus tend to represent the world from that vantage point, artists "force" upon the audience a single "ideology" (our own). Recognizing this "totalitarian" inclination "exposes the repressive risk of shoehorning arbitrary events into a one-size-fits-all story, that exposes the oppression of narrativity itself."

"Totalitarian," ""force," "repressive," "oppression" -- them's fightin' words, I'm thinkin'...

I agree that we are "trapped in our own consciousness," but I tend to see that as something that leads to wonder, not condemnation. Because of the arts, I have an opportunity to experience the world from another vantage point, which strengthens my imagination, increases my powers of empathy, and expands my understanding. Good God, what purpose would the arts have at all if we could each slip from mind to mind, or worse yet, could watch the world from a distant standpoint of omniscience. In fact, as a definition of art, I think it would be difficult to beat the idea that the arts are life filtered through a personality.

Narrative allows us to try on other viewpoints for size, experience things we would never want to experience in reality, and argue with view to boot! A narrative presents a solid surface that I can use as a jumping-off place for my own thoughts, a means of questioning and reflecting on my own beliefs and attitudes. "Openness" (and I really need a definition of this word, as well as an example of it in action) provides no resistance, no viewpoint about which I can ask "Is it true? Is it true for me?"

The reference to Scribe baffles me. Scribe created a very specific formula, one that placed dramatic elements in a specific order and pattern (and one that still works very well, by the way, as anyone who has directed All My Sons or even Proof can tell you). But it is not the norm today by any means, and plays written on this model are just as likely to be critically condemned as "creaky" as appreciated for "tightness."

I would agree with George that "there's very little in the work of our contemporary playwrights that suggests even a familiarity with the innovations of modern theater over the past 150 years, let alone a coming-to-terms with them. Lip service to innovators is not the same thing as examining their work in detail or trying to see what that work means to the individual artistic perspective..." Alas, as I see every day in my classes, people who seem themselves as theatre practitioners rarely see the value of studying the past. Most are proponents of what I call Nike Theatre: Just Do It. Consequently, there is a whole lotta wheel inventing goin' on. That said, I think there is considerable evidence that a playwright such as Tony Kushner is pretty damned knowledgeable about the theatrical past, as well as the philosophical and historical past. I doubt he is alone, but he is in the minority, I fear.

I must confess to being totally hornswaggled by the following sentence: "Personally, I see the next major project of theater (at least, of the kind of theater I want to see) is the reintegration of the lyrical, minimalist text with the Grotowskian body, to reintroduce eroticism and tragedy into a dramatic form desiccated by facile irony, totalitarian ideology of the left and right, and absurdism." The wha? Each one of those words individually I have a pretty strong grasp of, but placed end to end I am left with a question mark in my mind instead of an image. I keep remembering an old George Carlin routine where he imitated a "commie fag pinko junkie" with a funny voice saying "Workers of the world unite." As an academic, I ought to be able to parse this sentence, but I find myself without a clue. Help us out with a concrete example. Is Beckett and example of the kind of theatre you call for? It seems to me that his plays are pretty narrative (and his estate is pretty totalitarian as far as directorial liberties are concerned).

Truth be told, Matt Freeman seems as baffled as I am in his post entitled "Inovation for Inovation's Sake." He insists that the success of a form is dependent on the technique of the one using it. Fair enough. He also takes a view of form as organic (a Romantic view), writing: "The best innovation comes when we want to make a particular kind of statement, and find ourselves unable to with what we have available to us. Innovation based on rebellion in generally hollow. Innovation based on necessity is built on something far more firm." Of course, it is a 200-year-old idea, so I suppose it is suspect. Nevertheless, I think that Matt is right. George clearly has something he wants to say that cannot be said using current theatrical forms. Good enough -- what is new is usually rejected by those of us who lack the imagination or inspiration to see the possibilities (I run into this all the time). Me? I'll retire to my study and reread Aristotle's Poetics...

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Formal Inertia?

Not long ago, George Hunka over at Superfluities (see blogroll) contributed a post entitled Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe that examined Manet's painting. After an elegant and quite interesting analysis, he concluded:

What does all this have to do with theater and drama? Well, one of the things it points out it is how far our drama is behind the other arts, about 150 years behind painting in this case. Most of our drama is still playing with Victorian narrative form; as much as there are jokes around the edges of it, "playing with form," that form is not abandoned nearly as much as Manet abandoned conventions of narrative and allegory in 19th-century French painting.

I would question whether George's characterization of contemporary theatre is completely fair. If he means by "Victorian narrative form" the well-made play, or even realism, then I would say that many "advances" have occurred. While our playwrights do sometimes use these forms (for instance, a play like Proof), we are just as likely to find a play that does not use those forms (such as Angels in America, or How I Learned to Drive). We have one-person plays such as those by Anna Deavere Smith, or Eric Bogosian, or Lily Tomlin, or Rachel Rosenthal, or Holly Hughes, or Karen Finley. We have wild extravaganzas like The Lion King and Avenue Q. Surely if we are focusing purely on form, then we are not stuck in a Victorian rut.

If, however, what George is rejecting is not simply Victorian narrative form, but all narrative form, all storytelling, then yes, we haven't moved much. However, to condemn our failure to abandon narrative as a failure to advance in theatrical form (if that is what George is saying, and I'm not totally sure that he is) seems to me to be rather churlish. This would be like accusing painters of failing to advance because they had not abandoned paint.

Since Aeschylus, the theatre has been concerned with telling a story. Aristotle named plot as the most important element of the theatre, and imitation of an action as its primary method. While we could distill the theatrical experience down to the presence in the same room of a live artist and a live spectator, there would little to distinguish theatre from dance or music or any live performance. No, a form of storytelling in which an actor impersonates the character is hwo Aristotle described theatre, and I'm not certain there is a way to abandon that without eliminating theatre's unique definition as an art form.

Could there be a theatrical equivalent of, say, action painting? I suppose there could -- in fact, there may have already been in the creation of Happenings and the work of Fluxus in the 60s and 70s. And while these movements were necessary as a means of jolting us out of a rut, I don't think they were very valuable in and of themselves. In many respects, they served the purpose of erasure, of shaking the Etch-a-Sketch to start over.

I teach a course in Modern Drama. I start in 1879 with A Doll's House and extend up to Angels in America. The stylistic experiments are legion: Symbolism, Dadaism, Expressionism, Theatre of Cruelty, Theatricalism, Futurism, Epic Theatre, Absurdism...the list goes on and on. But what characterizes our present moment in time, it seems to me, is the existense of all these forms simultaneously, sometimes in the same play. A playwright like Caryl Churchill brings together epic theatre, realism, magic realism, theatricalism, and expressionism in a single play like Cloud Nine or Top Girls. To me, that's postmodernism -- what the architect and postmodern theorist Charles Jencks called "the presence of the past." To me, that's a change in form, and a serious one at that.

So I can't agree that the theatre has somehow been stuck in a formal rut for 150 years. It seems to me that it has been just as revolutionary as any of the arts, if perhaps a bit slower at times. Now if you wanted to argue that we haven't had an advance in the theatre's means of production since the Victorian era, I'd be with you!

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Moving On...Sort Of

Over at "An Angry White Guy in Chicago" (I gotta update my blogroll and get this guy on it), Don Hall, in his post "Dust Bunnies From My Medulla Oblongata" takes to task fellow-blogger "The Angry Vet" for characterizing our discussion of the audience as follows:

Ever since I had to leave college behind for the "real world" I've been hearing these sorts of conversations which end up sounding like self therapy. It always breaks down into the following paradigms1) No one likes what I do, why? 2) No one likes what I do, fuck em! 3) What do people like? Do I want to change to please them?

In a comment, the Devil Vet writes: "where are the epiphanies that lead to more audience?...I'm frustrated with the conversations about audiences because I don't see the profit."

Initially, Don attacks the Devil Vet for mischaracterizing the conversation, but the challenge inspires him to write a marvelous post:

I believe the epiphanies will come from the conversations. Fremo has brought up the pursuit of the 90% of the American population that are not theater goers as a start. Stephanie hits upon the idea that the 'real" audience is out there, just not in urban areas. You wrote in comment to Matt Freeman that the idea of 'branding' is not, in and of itself, the answer.

My belief? Right now we don't have a national theater identity. We operate, both in large and small houses, under the existing paradigms that have existed since vaudeville. We hold the conventions of the theater business model as sacrosanct. I don't thnk there is anything wrong or broken with the processes that playwrights and directors utilize - I think the system of presentation is outdated and needs to be shed.

In other words, it isn't the stories being told or even how they are being told that is the disease affecting American theater - it is the method of presentation. The money doesn't come our way because we have a diminishing audience base.

If we, as American Theater Artists, can shift the model of "The Show" to include bold new ways of hosting the event, we may have a chance at reaching a wider audience.

Ultimately, while discussions about the audience can become circular and tedious, these discussions are essential to have. I don't believe we are discussing COMMERCE but ACCESS."

And he concludes: So - what do YOU wanna talk about?
Before I reprint how The Devil Vet responds (so stay tuned), let me respond to both his thoughts and Don's. There are times, I admit, that we seem to be rehashing rather hackneyed ideas and complaints. And sometimes we do end up talking about how to increase the size of our audience. But much of the time, we are discussing not how to get more people, but what our relationship with those people should/could be.

Like so much of modern society, I see such a polarization between the commercial theatre (typified by Broadway) and the Indie theatre (typified by, say, Richard Foreman). Much earlier in the life of this blog, someone described commercial theatre as providing a "lap dance" for its audience; I have frequently characterized the Indie theatre (as it begins with Ibsen) as having a hostile attitude toward the audience. What puzzles me is why most of us can only conceive these two poles, and nothing in between.

As Don says, the problem may be an antiquated "method of presentation," which I interpret to mean "means of production" (to borrow from Marx). The last real change in the approach to production was the 19th-century change from the permanent company doing shows in rotating rep to the star system doing long runs. Even when we only run a show for four performances, it is still produced using the latter system: a cast pulled together for that one particular show, and running as long as the audience will hold out. This system is locked in place by unions and organizations that view theatre not as an art but as a product, and the theatre artists as laborers. Despite a variety of concessions designed to encourage small theatres and production, the union approach ignores the fact that the creation of a piece of theatre is not the same as the creation of an automobile. The rigidity hamstrings alternate forms of production and creativity, while at the same time not providing a livable wage for its members. As The King of Siam used to say, "It's a puzzlement."

That said, I don't think I agree with Don that there is no problem with the stories that are being told, or the way those stories are being told. I agree that there is a high degree of proficiency out there -- rarely do I go to a professional production that does not display a high level of competence. But at the same time, rarely do I go to a professional production that seems to have something important to say about the way we live today. Because of the economics of production, many playwrights end up writing miniatures -- two- and three-handers about tiny personal conflicts that don't resonate much. Take a play like Proof, for instance. I saw it on Broadway, and all during the play I was quite interested -- the acting was excellent, the direction was seamless, the set was fantastic. I even had an interesting discussion with my wife about the "whys" of the play: why did she do X, why did he do Y. But I'm not certain, when all is said and done, what the play is really about beyond another example of how efficient and effective the 19th-century well-made play structure is.

Anyway, rising to Don's challenge, The Devil Vet responds:

I want to talk about what sort of scripts the writers write. I want to talk to directors about style and craftsmanship, I want to know what is it that you like to see when you go out to the theatre.

I want to be inspired by artists being creative, because (personally mind you) I'm exhausted hearing about how to build audiences, how to reach people who don't need, want or care for the art anyway.

I want stories, I want verbs. I want to remember joy!!! Remember joy!

I want to know about what happens during the rehearsals and during the production meetings...not what is happening during the board meetings or the publicity meetings.

As I said on the phone, maybe the sad frightening thing we need to acknowledge is that when it comes to what motivates non-theatre goers into the theatre...well maybe it isn't up to us.

Why hasn't someone suggested the possibility that Americans know what it is the we are doing and many of them have simply decided to pass?

To my mind, the sad true of the matter is that those people who want to be in the audience (especially in major metropolitan areas) already are. There is no magic brand, magic marketing scheme, or theoretical formula that gets people into the theatre that dont want to be there.

I know this sounds defeatist, but to my mind maybe I can lose the battle, but in the end win the war.

I'll make art within my means, within my resources (the actual audience being part of that resource).

OK, you got me talking. Hope you're happy!

I don't know about Don, but I'm happy. I think we could feast on this post here in theatre-blog-land for quite some time!