Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Billy Elliot

This will be a bit more personal a post that readers of this blog are used to... I just finished showing the film Billy Elliot to my freshmen honors colloquium on the Hero's Journey in film. It is an amazing film, and I am certain that it is every bit as amazing onstage. I have seen it before, and each time I find more beautiful details in the performances.

Billy's story is my own. I grew up in an industrial town in Wisconsin surrounded by factories, tool and die shops, and taverns. My mother didn't go beyond the eighth grade, and my father finished high school and worked as a bookkeeper in a small factory that made guns; my grandfather had been a lumberjack when young, then oversaw the power plant at the J. I. Case tractor factory in town until heart problems forced him to retire a few months shy of receiving a pension.

Like Billy, for me the arts were a way to escape. While I did not have to overcome the resistance from the family that Billy did, nevertheless for a boy in my town the question concerning the future was whether you were going to work in the factory office or on the factory floor. And like Billy, I had a dream and some talent, andlike Billy my dreams and talent took me away from home and I could never really go back. So Billy's story has a great many personal connections, especially those of channeling my rage and sense of being an outsider into my roles, and of feeling "like electricity" when I was onstage.

But I'm 48 now, and this time when I watched the film I found myself watching Billy's father. I watched his desperation and narrow-mindedness turning to painful bafflement at a son whose passion was released by something totally foreign to him. Whereas before, in the scene on Christmas Eve when Billy's father discovers him teaching his friend how to dance in the gym and Billy performs a defiant, passionate, and committed dance in his father's face, I was focused on Billy; tonight, I found myself riveted by Billy's father, standing stock still like a block of granite, completely paralyzed by the realization of his son's possibilities. I could feel how much it cost him to take the last few pieces of jewelry he had from his deceased wife and pawned them for Billy's audition money, and I thought of my own father, and the fact that I went to acting school on the life insurance and Social Security money he had after my mother's death from cancer when she was 42. I watched Billy's father's awkwardness, and sense of being out of place in the immaculate halls of the Royal School of ballet, but his passionate desire for his son to succeed against all the odds. And his wild and joyous run up the street of the town when Billy was accepted into ballet school.

And then what I felt most strongly came after Billy's departure, when we see his father and brother slowly descending once again into the mine, eyes empty; and his dance teacher alone in the gym. The sense of a light having gone out of an already bleak town.

But then -- then there comes the moment that really hit me hard. The final moment of the film when Billy's father sits in the topmost rows of the ballet waiting for his son to make his premiere entrance. His father looks as if he can hardly breathe as he waits, and then Billy enters with a high, high leap that seems as if he is flying, he is electricity, and he is never coming down -- and his father's eyes widen and he gasps as if he were coming to the surface of the water after nearly drowning. It is a moment that lasts only a split second, but in that moment, in that one sharp intake of breath, I see all the hopes and dreams that he has invested in his son, and in his ability to fly as far above the earth as he himself toils beneath it. It is a moment Billy the artist will never see, and the father will never be able to explain, and yet it is the reason that Billy, and that I, do what we do. When all the theorizing is over, and all the discussion of purpose and aesthetics, the reason I do theatre, and believe in theatre, and try to inspire young people to pursue theatre is to give people the gift of that gasp, of that realization of the wonder and beauty of life, and the possibility of rising above the earth for just a moment and feeling like electricity. That electricity flows through me to the spectators -- to my father and grandfather and mother and sister -- and for a moment lifts them higher than they thought possible. And in that moment, in that single gasp, I know why I spend my life doing what I do. It isn't about me -- I am just a conduit; it is about them.

Taking Aim At Isherwood

The blogosphere is taking aim, and with reason, at Christopher Isherwood's recent article on political theatre in the NY Times. Garret Eisler, George Hunka, and Isaac Butler each do a fine enough job dismantling Isherwood's woefully broken-backed article (did two different people write the first half and the last half of the article? [I refuse to call it a think piece]) that one is tempted to simply write "ditto" and save the effort it takes to write. As one who teaches theatre history, I am baffled by Isherwood's idea that people go to the theatre solely for "entertainment," and even more inexplicably that "entertainment" is the equivalent of "pleasantness." Is The Oresteia pleasant? Yet thousands of Greeks flocked to see it. Is there anything pleasant about Macbeth or Titus Andronicus or Doctor Faustus or The Duchess of Malfi? Yet the Elizabethans were there en masse. Is there anything jolly about Phaedra or The Cid? Yet the French filled the halls of Louis' theatres to see them. Of course, one could go on and on listing "unpleasant" plays that were wildly popular, but the point is made. I think that Isherwood underestimates the truly human need to confront the pain of life together.

Of course, in Part 2 of his essay, Isherwood proceeds to undo everything he wrote in Part 1, so it is hard to know what to think.

But very often the issue of "preaching to the converted" comes up when discussing political theatre, and in fact George asks, "But if the people who form that society don't show up for the performance, who is confronted? If agit-prop is performed in an empty theatre, is ti still agit-prop?" My quibble to that question might be whether political theatre and agit-prop are synonymous -- the latter might more usefully be defined as a subset of the former. But let that go. The dismissal of theatre that preaches to the converted is a topic I encountered just this morning in Jill Dolan's brilliant Utopia in Performance.

Dolan speaks about having Holly Hughes perform her Preaching to the Perverted (her one-woman show that examines her experience as a member of the NEA Four) at the University of Texas at Austin. She writes:

"Hughes remains an activist artist, who performance work and public presentations insist on examining culture and politics through art. She was eloquent in her meeting with my class and in her public interview. She deconstructed the notion of 'preaching to the converted,' an issue that already concerned my students, who feared that political work reaches a too narrow audience of people already persuaded to think progressively. How, they wondered, could more people be persuaded, so that performance and its potential for social change wouldn't be ghettoized far from the notice of those who perhaps need to see it most? Quoting theater scholar David Roman and performance artist Tim Miller's writing on this issue, Hughes proceeded to shake up some of these notions by suggesting that 'conversion' is always unstable, that people are never, finally, converted to anything; there's always ambiguity, ambivalence and doubt. Performance, Hughes insisted, is a renewal of faith, and progressive politics are always faith-based."


In a footnote in which she provides the citation for Tim Miller and David Roman's "Preaching to the Converted" in Theatre Journal 47, no 2 (1995), she also notes Vicki Patraka's interview with performance artist Robbie McCauley, in which McCauley says about preaching to the converted:

"I think that criticism is a cop-out. First of all, how much fo the converted know? And things resonate, ripple out. This is not to say that you do not work constantly for audience development; we need to grapple with ways to expand audiences. But we don't need to put that problem in the way of doing the work, making our work clear and beautiful for our audiences. The whole issue is just a block."


To be fair, Isherwood says just that:

"“Preaching to the converted” is the dismissive epithet easily hurled at plays that air a social ill in front of audiences predisposed to share the playwright’s view. But why shouldn’t theatergoers draw the same kind of sustenance from the collective experience of theater that congregants do from sermons at church? We all have spiritual lives of some kind, beliefs that are articles of faith more than reason. And they are nurtured by a sense of common feeling, the knowledge that we are not alone in our perceptions, whether they consist of general religious tenets or specific moral stances on social or political issues."


But he precedes it with this declaration, as if to put this thorny question finally to rest:

"Can art save the day? More specifically, can theater rouse the populace from a sense of numbed anxiety? Can a stage play change minds, or help channel passive beliefs into active commitment? Short-term answer: a resounding “Nope.” Long-term answer: a less resounding if hardly less dispiriting “Probably not, alas."


And this:

"Does this mean that theater has a perceptible or quantifiable impact on the issues raised? As I suggested earlier, not necessarily, or not much. I haven’t rushed to the barricades, hand in hand with the fellow in seat G102, any time recently. But I have left the theater with a more vivid sense of the painful human cost of public policy or a deeper knowledge of the gritty specifics of a specific historical event."

This is a red herring. To charge any individual event, artistic or not, with causing people to rush to the barricades is nonsensical. It is, as McCauley notes, a block -- an attempt to dispirit those who care by undermining any sense of hope that one's actions might make a difference. If political theatre does nothing else, it can serve to recharge the reserves of courage and commitment required of those who would enact social change. The changing of minds is a slow process of building empathy, making arguments, and exerting peer pressure (and probably the latter is the most important). Political theatre can be a player in the first two, and can provide courage and persuasive power for the last.

An additional red herring is to bemoan the lack of "masterpieces" in political theatre. The first critical question Geothe propounded was "What is the work trying to do?" The purpose of political theatre -- what it is "trying to do" -- may promote the expression of a clear and powerful message over artistic issues. While it is true that a combination of political power and artistic power might lead to a production that would be able to reach beyond the "converted" to touch a larger number of "average" theatregoers, this does not diminish the usefulness of those works that do not. I am not a fan of the aesthetics of plays like The Exonerated or Guantanamo, but I do value their power to bolster outrage and moral fervor. There is no doubt in my mind that Weiss' The Investigation or Kipphardt's In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer are much better plays, but every once in a while, when the chips are down, we need to trot out Are You Now, Or Have You Ever Been to remind people that America has a history of political bullying and a tendency toward fascistic behavior -- even though Bentley's play is, aesthetically, a rather flat affair.

The problem lies, it seems to me, in "One Size Fits All" theatre criticism that wants to measure every production using the same critical yardstick. When that yardstick measures the inches of "pleasant entertainment," what goes unmeasured is a powerful giant whose practical effectiveness may tower over the Liliputian entertainments being worshipped as aesthetic gladiators.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Is It?

"Is it too much to ask of performance, that it teach us to love and to link us with the world, as well as to see and to think critically about social relations?"

--Jill Dolan, Utopia in Performance