Some students too a "well, fuck them" attitude, and others were very upset at the way they were perceived. VERY upset. It led to a very useful discussion about the internal demands of the department, and how it should operate within the larger community.
I was reminded of this incident when I read Peter Birkenhead's "Give My Petards to Broadway" over at Salon.com. It can be a real eye-opener to see how people outside the theatre community view the theatre. Apparently Birkenhead is a former theatre person, so I guess he can't be counted as an "outsider" completely. Nevertheless, I think there is a lot of food for thought in his exasperated essay. In fact, many of the things he says echo things that he been said here and elsewhere in the theatrosphere:
- You seem to have trapped yourself in a system of theater creation in this country that is positively Soviet in its unwieldy, self-satisfied stuck-ness.
- You know that people who write for film and television aren't just doing it for the money anymore, right? They do it because their work won't be developed to death by an endless supply of places with "mission statements," because they know they will have more artistic freedom, more fun and more opportunities to do the kind of interesting work the theater once provided, about, you know, recognizable people in dramatic situations, struggling with the human condition.
- You have just got to get out more. I mean, the same elements that are considered avant-garde in the theater today were considered avant-garde in 1918. The theater still thinks dissonance is a daring musical gesture, and that nonlinear storytelling is new. It's embarrassing how proudly it seems possessed by not only the aesthetic, but the ethos and issues of another era.
- Some of you seem to think the problem is with the audience, and that the only prescription for what ails the theater is to redouble your commitment to doing work that is "important" and "ambitious." I've got news for you: People aren't staying away from the theater because it isn't ambitious enough. They're staying away because it's relentlessly "ambitious," because it keeps insisting on its own unique and righteous importance, despite all sad evidence to the contrary.
- theater has been hijacked. It's been commandeered by grant-proposal writers and dramaturges, by panel-discussion moderators and chin-in-hand bureaucrats, many of whom brook no more dissent than the Bush administration. To even suggest, at any of the endless symposiums that the theater community can't get enough of these days, that the problems facing the theater might be solved by respecting the audience more instead of less, that perhaps, instead of designing condescending "outreach" programs, the theater might try educating itself, and listening to the people it's been reaching out to, is to tempt the derisive wrath of a community whose motto might as well be "You're with us or against us."
- These days it seems like every other interview with one of you guys includes two or three unabashed pronouncements about your work's importance. Way too many of you plead the case that theater people are great artists, unfairly ignored by a television-watching world that is too ignorant to appreciate you. Which makes me wonder: Why are you asking for attention from people you look down on? It seems to me you should stop the us vs. them, and join the party. Because, and I say this only as someone who cares, you would do yourselves and everyone who loves you a big favor if you just broke down and got cable.
Now, I'm sure there are many points that can be disagreed with in the details of Birkenhead's essay as well as the shows and people he admires (as of this writing, there are 38 comments to his post). And I suspect his admiration for television may bring hoots of derision as well. Nevertheless, for those of us who create theatre, or teach young people to create theatre, there may be great value in considering Birkenhead's screed.