Friday, January 12, 2007

My Thoughts

Isaac, commenting on the previous post, asks "What are your thoughts, Walters?" I suspect that this question arises because most of my previous post was a link and a quote. But let me respond to that question in a broad sort of way.

To put it bluntly: I'm mad as hell. I am 48 years old, I have a doctorate in theatre history, and I have read a LOT about theatre over the 30+ years I've been doing theatre. Anyone who has taken a class with me, and anyone who has read this blog, knows that I believe that artists should be part of their community, and have a responsibility to improve that community through their art. Over and over, I have engaged in knock-down, drag-out battles with other bloggers about these issues.

So what am I mad about? Because despite all my reading, it wasn't until last summer when I attended a conference on Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed that I found out that there was an entire field out there of people who shared my orientation: community-based, grassroots theatre people. I am willing to admit that this oversight may be my own -- it is possible that I simply ignored references to this large and dynamic group of theatres and theatre artists. But I write Instructor's Manuals for several prominent Intro to Theatre and Theatre History textbooks, and while I remember contemporary ethnic- and sexuality-focused theatres mentioned in these textbooks, I also seem to remember that most of them are NYC based. What about the rest of the country? What about theatres like Roadside Theatre and Carpetbag Theatre, both of whom have been producing theatre since the late 1960s and early 1970s? Why has theatre history always been focused on the NYC scene?

At the end of the film Whale Rider, the grandfather prays to his granddaughter, who has just been revealed as the new prophet, "I am a fledgling new to flight." That is how I feel right now, as my middle-aged mind tries to catch up with decades of history and theory that didn't enter my consciousness. I had come to reject the NYC-centric view of theatre, but I was so stuck that I didn't see that there already existed an alternative that was brilliant and strong.

A 2004 Gathering of leaders of this movement, which took place without my even knowing it about 15 minutes from my home in Asheville, NC, discussed the need for the dissemination of information about this approach to theatre. I have taken that directive to heart, and I am using this blog to alert my readers to the work of these impassioned, creative, and caring artists. Meanwhile, I am personally trying to absorb all I can by reading the hundreds of articles on the Community Arts Network website, and the books that are listed in the bibliography of the Gathering's final report. And I am trying to communicate to my students that there are other ways to live one's life as an artist, and that the NYC-centric myth is just an ideology.

Most of the great playwrights of the past have written for a specific community. The Greeks crafted plays for a very specific group of audience members; the medieval mystery plays were written and performed by the members of the community; Moliere wrote for Louis XIV's court, and thew Restoration playwrights made a career out of thinly disgusing the courtiers of Charles II's court in their plays; the best plays of the Abbey Theatre, and of Synge, O'Casey, and Yeats were those written about their fellow Irish. But somewhere we grabbed onto the misbegotten idea that art is "universal," and that it doesn't really matter who is in the audience, and it doesn't really concern us whether what is written speaks to those people, or is what they need to hear at that moment -- playwrights write "for the ages."

Well, personally, I have lost interest in that ideology. And I am excited beyond measure to find myself, like Dorothy after her house crashes into Oz, exploring a new world that has assumptions and ways of doing things that are very, very different from where I come from.

And those are my thoughts, Mr. Butler!


parabasis said...

hey... you won't get any complaint from me about this one.

Scott Walters said...

LOL. Thanks, Isaac!

Laura said...

I agree with you Scott. Thanks for a great post.

David said...


I would certainly agree with you that the New York-centric myth could do with some debunking, especially for your students -- it's great to let them know that there are other options out there.

One thing I would like to point out, however, is that the New York theatre scene is hardly a monolithic, single community. It can seem that way, particularly when it comes to how NYC theatre relates to the rest of the country: exporting Broadway shows via the tour circuit, or exporting off-Broadway shows (not the original productions, but the plays themselves) via regional theatres. But I think that there are, in fact, many little communities of theatres and theatregoers in New York, and the work is often produced specifically for those audiences.

I've seen an attempt at creating and defining community in action on many of the New York theatre blogs, with this idea of "indie theatre." What's interesting about it (to me at least) is that they are not just trying to distinguish themselves from the "mainstream" theatre, but also from what I would call the "downtown theatre" scene, which is operating at a very similar level of production (in terms of budget, and also venue).

It seems to me (and I hope that I'm not misunderstanding the advocates of "indie theatre" here) that they are trying to articulate a distinction along stylistic lines. "Downtown theatre" has a definite experimental edge to it, and even a particular (although broadly defined) stylistic sensibility to that experimentation. "Indie theatre" seems to be an attempt to define theatre that is not necessarily experimental in the same way, but still operates at a similar level of production. (I also think that there's a generational split there, with a younger generation trying to carve out a niche for themselves in the territory occupied by a slightly older generation of theatre artists.)

I ran across another example of these multiple communities just today, while catching up on my blog-reading. David Cote writes about the unlikeliness of BAM producing a festival of contemporary avante-garde (I would, myself, use the term "downtown") New York theatre. He mentions 5 companies, 4 of which belong to what I like to describe as the "Williamsburg School" of theatre (though maybe Big Art Group is sort of in between) while one (Target Margin) is a fixture of that slightly older "downtown theatre" community (experimental companies that were mostly started in the 90s.) There's nothing at all wrong with this, but I found the "one of these things is not like the other" quality of the examples given to be amusing. Or maybe it was just my response to it that I found amusing.

Anyway, none of this is meant to dispute your original point. But I do think that there is more community-based work -- work that is written for a specific audience -- happening in NYC than might be initially apparent, in part because of the sheer density of theatre happening here.