Saturday, June 09, 2007

On Salon

Matt Freeman asked, in reference to my post about the Salon article by Birkenhead, "You're a member of the theatrosphere. What do you think?" Apparently, in an attempt to maintain a calm, objective neutrality, I neglected to include my own thoughts! Gotta be a first on this blog.

So, my rection: mixed. First, I think we need to keep the context in mind: he's writing about Broadway and the major institutions. Some of what he is desiring, it seems to me, is happening on the Indie scene, where a much younger crowd is being addressed. Nevertheless, many of his points are well taken. So what I've done is summarize his points and provided my reaction to each. Here goes:

Birkenhead: That the Tony Awards should have checked the TV listings before scheduling the award show.
Me: um, no. That's just a dopey thing to write, even seeing it as symbolic.

Birkenhead: theatre is mired in “unwieldy, self-satisfied stuckness”
Me: Yeah, I see that a lot. I have often commented on the rather conservative nature of theatre (and this is multiplied a hundred-fold when the venue is Broadway).

Birkenhead: Instead of learning from television, which is currently dynamic, theatrestried to distinguish itself from television –
Me: Actually, distinguishing theatre from television is a sound idea -- who needs an expensive version of something you can get for a monthly cable fee. That said, I think learning from TV isn’t a bad thing. Hell, learning from anything isn't a bad thing. Yay learning.

Birkenhead: The theatrical avant-garde looks like 1918.
Me: Yep. We've been chewing on the isms of the years 1875 - 1935 ever since. Symbolism, Surrealism, Futurism, Expressionism. Young artist keep reinventing these movements, thinking they've done something new. Needs to be more theatre history taught at the college level, I suspect.

Birkenhead: Writers gravitated to TV to avoid having their scripts “developed to death."
Me: That's what playwrights in the theatrosphere have been complaining about for years. I'm a little surprised to hear that there is greater "artistic freedom" in TV, but I suspect that the corporate pressure to create something new and different might actually be freeing in some ways. Still, I have a certain open-minded skepticism.

Birkenhead: [and this is a realy paraphrase] The institutionalization of theatre has lead to lack of artistic risk..."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.”
Me: I think he's right there, too. Regional theatres have become conservative and safe mainly because artistic vision takes a back seat to fundraising. Cf The Theatre Francaise if you want to see what it looks like over time. We're getting dangerously close to this.

Birkenhead: Theatre no longer does plays about “recognizable people in dramatic situation struggling with the human condition.” Combined with: As a storytelling form, theatre has fallen behind.
Me: Hmmmm. Toss up. I think an awful lot of focus over the past -- what? 40 years? -- has been on formal experimentation rather than depth of content. I sometimes get a sense that the focus is so resolutely on how the story is being told (dramaturgically, visually, etc.) that the value of the story itself gets lost. Too often when you whittle down to what is being said...well, it ain't much. Often it is a platitude about tolerance -- which is Birkenheads complaint about plays pleading about issues that have already been pretty much settled.

Birkenhead: Theatre needs to market to 20 – 40- year olds,
Me: This is where the Broadway orientation is clearest. I suspect Indie theatre is a bit more youth-focused. But it is the aesthetic for this group, more than marketing, that needs to be considered.

Birkenshead: [again, a big paraphrase] Theatre has a stylistic clunkiness that is connected to self-importance.
Me: True more often than I'd like to admit.

Birkenhead: Theatre has inability to include contemporary problems in plays in a non-tendentious way (e.g., David Hare).
Me: Theatre isn't a very "nimble" form in its current configuration. It takes too long to get a play up, which means contemporary relevance is usually sacrificed. We can deal with that by creating more nimble ways of creating theatre, or by writing about more universal themes. Probably both wouldn't be a bad idea. The tendentiousness ought to be banished. David Hare's got it bad. So did August Wilson and Eugene O'Neill. (Although I love the latter two -- could live without the former.)

Birkenhead: “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.” –
Me: This is the money quote for me, and it's something I've written about a lot on this blog.

Birkenhead: “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.”
Me: Been saying that for a couple years on this blog now. We don't need to educate people to want what we want, but rather listen more to what is needed. Not talking about pandering, just keeping an ear to the ground.

Birkenhead: Theatre should focus on being entertaining first, profound second.
Me: (deep breath -- walking a Vaseline-covered tightrope) Aristotle felt that theatre existed to entertain, and Horace to entertain and enlighten. But since the 4th century BCE entertainment has always come first. Something happened -- I want to say it happened when the regional theatre movement started selling the social and educational benefits of theatre as justification for its non-profit status and governmental support, but that is just a sense I have -- that made us think that enlightenment came first, and entertainment ran a distant second. I think it would be an interesting conversation to talk about how reclaiming the old order might positively affect the theatre. For instance, think of the comedies of the 1930s: there were certain things you couldn't do and say, and so playwrights became much cleverer in using double entendre and overall wit. Tap dancing came into being because the church had a rule against dancing because you weren't supposed to cross your feet, and African-Americans figured out ways around that and as a result created many wonderful dances. All of which is to say: being focused on whether something "works" theatrically and keeps the audience entertained seems a good starting point, as long as it doesn't (always) become an end in itself.

Jeez, another long-winded post. Blame it on Freeman!


Scott Walters said...

Matt Johnson sent me this email in response to the Salon essay, which someone emailed to him:

"Holy. Crap. I wish I had the balls to have posted this train of thought on my own blog when I had one. This is absolutely spot on in my opinion. I can't even believe somebody articulated so well what I have been mulling over endlessly in this newly locked up brain of mine. It's a huge part of why I stopped blogging and a huge part of why I am seriously questioning my own future in the theatre and if that's even what I want anymore.

This article gives me an insane amount of hope. A kind of hope I haven't been given since I moved to New York. I'm going to read it like 20 more times. Then watch Scrubs."

I thought you might be interested.

Ben Kessler said...

"Just get cable," eh? News Flash: Not everyone can afford it. Not everyone loves The Sopranos, though you'd never know it from the mainstream media. For an affordable $25, I recently bought a ticket to God's Ear, a flawed but genuinely exciting play by a non-sellout artist with the potential to contribute something new to the culture. I.e., not another Godfather/GoodFellas ripoff.

There is no "artistic freedom" in television. Ask anyone who writes for a tv show. You have to adopt the exact worldview of the executives or get out. The last real work of art on tv was Twin Peaks.

Moreover, where's this dude getting the idea that theater pros are dismissive of cable tv shows? He doesn't provide one substantiating quote. We're just supposed to all agree that playwrights are contemptuous, elistist, and pretentious. Why? Because our lives aren't as glamorous as Milch's or Chase's? Because we ride on subways and not in Range Rovers? Please.

I recently participated in a workshop in which the instructor (a prominent British playwright) repeatedly proclaimed his admiration for Six Feet Under. I know a published theater critic who holds Greys Anatomy parties at her house. I hate HBO, but I can't wait for the Simpsons movie. Where are the tv-hating theater people?

MattJ said...

I left a longer comment on Freeman's blog.

tommyspoon said...

Birkenhead: That the Tony Awards should have checked the TV listings before scheduling the award show.

Me: um, no. That's just a dopey thing to write, even seeing it as symbolic.

If CBS was concerned about the ratings for the broadcast of the Tony Awards show, then they should have rescheduled the broadcast. The fact that they didn't is telling indeed...