Friday, August 11, 2006

Calling Allison Croggon

Since one of the complaints is that I don't really know whereof I speak as far as contemporary theatre is concerned, I'd like to start a new feature: Teach the Teacher. This is a segment where someone from the blogosphere recommends something they feel would be good for me to be exposed to, and I will seek it out and give it a read, and then I'll blog about it. If I remember, I'll try to do this once a month.

I'd like the first participant to be Allison Croggon, who long has suggested I ain't readin' the right books. Allison, recommend a play for me! What is an important play I need to read?

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Mea Culpa

Dear Theatre Blogosphere and especially Fellow Bloggers,

I may be stubborn and dense, but when enough people hit me in the head with 2 X 4s, eventually I get the point. While many of you had a hand in the process of getting through to me, the ones who pushed me over the tipping point were Allison and Isaac with a good assist from Joshua.

To cut to the chase: I was wrong.

I felt that I had figured out a way to remove a point from abstract theory and give it a dramatic, emotional life. I didn't expect that others would have such a sense of personal betrayal, and at first I thought expressions of this sense of betrayal were simply an attempt to shift the conversation away from my point. Such is the effect of tunnel vision.

And while I tried to maintain a sense of objective calm, I know that the personal insults made me dig in my heels even more, and defend myself from accusations that I thought were not only unjust, but really hurtful.

But this morning as I walked across campus, I realized that I was wrong.

I was wrong from the first post on. The blogosphere is not a place for social experiments, and you don't use Invisible Theatre on people who have come to trust you over a period of months. That is betrayal.

So I apologize to you all for behaving like a stubborn ass.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Buried Child

I am so glad that Matt Johnson began a discussion of Sam Shepard's Buried Child, which along with A Lie of the Mind is a favorite play of mine. The complexities that Matt discusses make the play a wonderful leaping off place for exciting discussions of secrets, death and rebirth, and the American way of life.

I tend to look at the play more as myth than realism. Dodge, the pioneer and founder of the farm who hasn't planted a crop since the Depression; the next generation of sons, All-Americans all, and all crippled (physically, mentally) or dead, and lost; and the third generation, Vince, who is an artist (jazz musician).

For me, the last image of Tilden bringing the remains of the buried child up the stairs -- to confront his mother? -- is haunting. But what fascinates me is the question: why now? Why, after all this time, can the baby be unearthed now?

I think the answer centers on Vince, about whom, despite his long absence in the middle of the play, I think the play is about. Vince is an artist returning to his roots from the big city. At first, nobody recognizes him, which seems very, very strange. But when DO they recognize him? When his returns drunk and violent, having seen his ancesters in the rearview mirror back through generation after generation, into the heartland.

It is his return that is the catalyst for revelation of the family secret. It is his return that releases Dodge from his death-in-life to real death, following the ritual burial by his son under the sheaves of corn. This is the story of the Fisher King -- a decaying land ruled over by a wounded King that needs to be restored by a young knight who asks the right question.

The question that fascinates me, and that causes the most energetic discussion amongst my students, is what we are to make of the ending, when Dodge (in surely the most unnoticed stage death in dramatic literature) is replaced by Vince, who, drunk and violent, assumes Dodge's exact position on the couch. The play comes full circle: Hallie is chattering on upstairs, only this time she can SEE the fields of vegetables that on her son could see before. Are we to see this ending as negative: Vince has given up his artistic aspirations and been sucked back into the decaying family atmosphere and assumed the same abhorent characteristics of the now-dead former King Dodge? Or is it positive? Vince, the young artist who previously had denied his heritage and become a city boy, has returned home to claim his heritage and heal the wounded land -- past secrets will be unearthed, and the harvest will once again be bountiful.

While strong arguments can be made for both interpretations, I lean toward the latter. While Vince is drunk and violent, and while he does assume the same exact position on the couch as his predecessor, I think his realization in the car -- when he was running away from his home, but had a vision of his heritage stretching back into the mists of time -- is that you can't run from your family, you can't deny your roots, you must claim them. Initially, he must re-enact the ritual drunkenness and violence of the past -- a Bacchanalia of sorts -- before settling down to restore health to the kingdom. I think it is significant that he is an artist -- that it is an artist that must, in this generation, uncover the sins of the past, and heal the present using Dodge's inherited tools as well as new tools that he plans to acquire. The buried secret of America's past (this is, after all, an All-American family in America's HEART-land) must be dug up, acknowledged, even embraced, so that the rebirth can occur.

What is that buried secret in America's heartland? I don't know -- there are so many possibilities. And that is what makes Shepard's play so rich, so fascinating, and such a masterpiece.
Tags:theatre audience

Final Words

I was prepared to leave things where they were yesterday had not a brief tour of the websites and my comments box revealed a concerted effort to misrepresent the nature of my undertaking. Disinformation is disinformation, and it must be countered. For the record, the experiment was not to "prove" that people who are attacked will react, which, as others have noted, would be a "duh" conclusion.

The point was to show that even the most self-described open, reflective, and insightful members of our society -- our artists -- will react in the same way we have seen other groups react, and that artists have condemned for their reaction.

The pattern, borne out in the past few days, is as follows:

1. Personal Attack -- insult the person with the unpopular ideas on a base, personal level.
2. Circle the Wagons -- gather together those who share the idea under attack and reinforce, through reiteration and mutual congratulation, the value of the original concept
3. Attack the Outsider's Motives -- question whether there is something other than the stated idea that the outsider really wants to do
4. Intimidate -- threaten real life retaliation
5. Blame the Victim-- assert that the person being attacked and intimidated brought it on themselves through their actions
6. Silence -- cut the discussion short before cooler heads can prevail
7. Spin -- reinterpret the attack in ways that make it sound foolish
8. Act Bored-- tell the questioner that they have belabored the question and they should "move on"

We can trace these tactics through many of the major social revolutions we have seen over the past several decades: the anti-Vietnam Movement, the Black Movement, the Feminist Movement, the Gay Rights Movement, and now we are watching it unfold with the Immigrant Movement.

The point is not that my minor incursion into blog controversy has anything approaching the scale or importance of these major social movements. The point is that the reaction we have seen is 1) not in the least surprising, and 2) occurs even at the smallest level.

To those who would say that sometimes people need to be "slapped around," I would not argue -- the only way that injustices are addressed and change is undertaken is through provocation. But I would assert that, for change to actually occur, a two-part process must be undertaken.

1) Provoke
2) Follow-up by a moderate voice offering a less-aggressive alternative

Martin Luther King Jr now has a national holiday and is seen as the leader of the Black Movement for equal rights. Very true. But without Malcolm X and the Black Panthers rioting in the background, MLK would have been shut down by the FBI and ignored by the media and general public; without MLK, Malcolm X and the Black Panthers would have alienated the media and the general public, and eventually been arrested and silenced. The relationship between the provocateur and the moderator is symbiotic.

If someone like YS at Mirror Up To Nature, or Joshua James, two members of the group who took a moderate stance throughout, had followed up behind me saying, "Wait a minute -- let's see what might be learned from the past few days," there valuable discussion might have ensued. The problem was that I, as provocateur, continued to provoke, which did not allow a moderate voice to be heard. There needs to be a cease fire before negotiations can occur.

So for those artists who feel that it is necessary for audiences to be "slapped around" occasionally, I say "Hear! Hear!" But I would also encourage you to find some way for a follow-up moderator to help create something of value from the first step you have taken. In my opinion, one of the reasons that the NEA Four was defeated is that there was nobody strong enough to manage the process I described above and provide an acceptable alternative. We almost had it when Joseph Papp declined his NEA grant in protest of the inserted clauses concerning offensiveness, but it was too late -- the spotlight had moved on, and he was not supported by enough additional respected insiders to raise the profile of his protest.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Reactions (Bah, Part 3)

Note: I overlooked a very thoughtful analysis of this entire affair by YS over at "The Mirror Up to Nature." His post, entitled "The Sid Finch of the Theatrical Blogosphere," is well worth your time. -- SW
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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!

ASCRIBING MOTIVES
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."

2) Devilvet: "The problem with your experiment and it's "success" is that it is a direct representation 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!"

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."

5) George Hunka: "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."

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.

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.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Bah!

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

Of course, I can claim busyness -- classes start in two weeks and I have a lot to finish before then. But that would only be half the story. The other half --or perhaps 3/4 -- is disinterest. Not in blogging, but rather in theatre. That wasn't an easy sentence to write -- I've been doing theatre for over thirty years now. But it is true nonetheless. Let me explain.

For much of the summer, I have been reading books and attending conferences about innovation. Sometimes, this innovation has been technological -- learning about wikis, podcasts, RSS feed, social bookmarking, and so forth, and how they might have the potential to change education and the way we interact. Worlds of possibilities opened out. Sometimes, this innovation has been in the form of "change agents" such as Tom Peters, Thomas Friedman, Daniel Pink, Chris Anderson, Frans Johansson -- people who are insisting that we are in the midst of a major upheaval in every aspect of our lives. And this has left my mind flashing like heat lightning on a summer's night.

And then... then I return to the theatre, where our radicals are more than half a century old, and where we spend our time worshipping at the shrines of long dead artists. Where are our innovators? Where are our new ideas? Brecht was the last real innovative thinker the theatre had. Since he died -- what, 50 years ago almost to the day now? (August 14, 1956) -- we've been in a reactionary phase that is abominable, all the while thinking we were being revolutionary.

Since then, we created Off-Broadway and the regional theatre movement, both of which started with new ideas, bot of which have become bastions of boring ideas. Season subscriptions to a "balanced" season (thank you SO much, Danny Newman), constant revivals of old plays, new plays relegated to readings and second stages, the artistic ranks filled with MFAs who have been trained to think that new ideas are at least 50 years old -- this is creativity? Meanwhile, over in the NYC OOB movement that started 30 years ago, we have come to define radicalism as being the power to yell fuck (or just to fuck) in an empty theatre. Well, hell, the Greeks were doing the first 2500 years ago, and the Romans did the second 2000 years ago. I refuse to get all excited about ideas that are two millenia old.

The other wing of "radicals" piously announces that they don't care whether anybody actually attends their productions, they're making "art," while at the same time they complain that people are too stupid and crass to know what they are missing. These attitudes are not only contradictory (either you care or you don't care -- decide), but also based on a near-total total lack of recognition that performing arts live and die in the moment, not in perpetuity. Maybe the playwrights can be sanguine about the survival and eventual recognition of their scripts -- I guess they have faith that their plays will be uncovered moldering in their desks after they die and recognized as the works of genius they truly are (me? I know how these things go -- my kids will probably toss my writings in a big leaf bag without reading them after I'm gone); but actors, directors, designers -- what are you thinking??? If your work goes ignored at the time you do it, it disappears entirely. Instead of darkly fulminating on the incursion of marketing into the theatre, we might spend a little time figuring out how the hell to make it work for us. But now, we'd rather grumble about purity, like a 70-year-old virgin that nobody wants.

A few days ago, I was looking through my notes from a conference I attended, and found a note I wrote saying that I was living at the deadly intersection of two of the most conservative disciplines in the world: theatre and education. It made me unable to post to this blog, because -- well, what's the point?

And nothing is going to change until arts education changes. Matt J writes:

We all go to MFA programs for different reasons, and I very well at some point go back and get mine as well, so that someday I can teach in higher education to some degree. Which is, of course, a whole different can of worms because it is very difficult for me, after spending some time in NY, to make these students pay thousands of dollars to get a degree in theatre when I know that it really won’t necessarily help them get jobs in the future, and may never help them.


There is the problem in all its deadliness: graduate programs as "preparation" for "the business" so that graduates can "get jobs in the future." This is a pathetic idea of what theatre education ought to be. Matt, you're not alone -- this is what everybody thinks. The Association for Theatre in Higher Education is just wrapping up in Chicago, and I'm certain that after a few drinks at the bar teachers are flogging themselves over the same issue -- how can we legitimately charge money for something that isn't likely to lead to a job?

But the central assumption is deeply flawed -- actually, the central assumption is fatal. If the theatre ever actually dies -- and I doubt it will, not because there is actually life there, but for the same reason that Amtrak still rolls and people still occasionally ride horses -- you don't have to look any further than the creatively bankrupt university system that emphasizes training over innovation. And those ATHE-ers won't even think about that, because new ideas are hard, and nobody wants to work that hard.

Look at the natural sciences if you want to see how it ought to be. The professors there are focused on original research, extending the discipline into new frontiers. Their graduate students are expected to participate in this research, and they are imbued with a clear understanding that it is expected that they will continue the search for new things when they graduate. If the sciences did things the way the graduate theatre programs do it, they would spend all their time reproducing with their students the experiments of Isaac Newton! Maybe with a few new bells and whistles -- the apple might be shinier than the one Newton originally came in contact with -- but essentially unchanged.

How did the web develop? The first web browser -- the search engines that really allowed the internet to be come something that could be used by more than a handful of scientists -- was developed at the University of Illinois. If those guys had been taught the way that theatre people are taught, we'd still be using telephones.

Universities should be the R & D arm of the theatre, and students should be encouraged -- nay, required -- to have a new idea regularly in order to graduate. And not only should they be required to have a new idea, but also to create a real experiment surrounding that idea, run the experiment, and clearly express what was learned from that experiment. THAT'S experimental theatre. Anybody can have an idea -- it's the people who actually DO SOMETHING with it that make a difference. Faculty should be required to have a new idea even more frequently than that or have their tenure revoked. It is pathetic that we are still almost exclusively teaching Stanislavski (and his pale derivatives), an acting technique based in long-discredited early-Freudian psycho-nonsense, a century after it was created. This is creativity?

And what about all these productions that are put on? What the hell is the point? Professors use their same old techniques to direct students in the creation of another tired production done in the same exact way that every other production in theatres across the country are done. Let me give an example of the non-creative lockstep: there are several college theatre departments around Asheville, and our students rarely get an opportunity to see each other's productions? Why? Because we all start at the same time of year, and we all have the same exact 6-week production schedule so we all have the same exact performance dates. Can it really be true that Hamlet takes the same amount of time to do well as, say, the latest Neil Labute barf-fest? But that's the way we do it. We all sit down at the end of the year, get out our calendars, schedule in the auditions and count six weeks out to establish the first performance. Then fill in the blanks from there: three dress rehearsals, a couple techs, run-throughs, work-throughs, read-throughs. Cookie cutter. Pathetic.

No, I am disgusted. The pace of change in theatre everywhere is glacial. We spend weeks and weeks getting exercised about whether Rachel Corrie gets done or not, when what we SHOULD have been getting exercised about was the old-fashioned, clunky, boring-as-hell technique that was used to put it together and that continues to dominate our stages. John Clancy spends his time tinkering with a system that ought to be razed completely while we grumble about "masscult, branding, and marketing" and whether the Neilsen ratings are going to sully our lilly-white sensibilities. What we are more likely to find out, like the the major networks are finding out from Nielsen, is that nobody is watching, nobody gives a shit what we do, and nobody cares. Maybe that's what we don't want to find out, because if we actually admitted that this was true, we actually have to DO SOMETHING, make a change. And we wouldn't want to do that -- that would require creative thinking.

Bah!


Tags:theatre audience