Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Response to Isaac -- On Challenging the Community

Isaac suggested I post an email exchange he and I had in relation to a post on his blog. He asked:

Here's my question for you, though... One place that we agree is in the community stuff, or at least in the basic principles of community growth and development, and (For me anyway) a move away from the vision of the individual as somehow AGAINST as opposed to a part of a group. Where we differ though is I think the idea of challenge... My perception (and take it with a big grain of inaccuracy salt) is that you're very wary of work that challenges its audiences, even work whose challenge is fairly (in my view anyway) mild, like Paula Vogel's /How I Learned To Drive/, which you mentioned obliquely in that speech to your Freshmen and lumped in with the work of Karen Finley (whose work I don't actually find challenging on an ideological or dramaturgical level but rather simply annoying and boring, but that's beside the point)... anyway, assuming this wariness, a community at the same time has to be self-reflexive, and very critical of itself if it will continue to grow and develop. Otherwise, communities simply exist for the purpose of keeping their members comfortable + complacent + ossified and... well, not to be too slippery slope, but this is how we got to where we are today, and I don't think it's working out too well. Where is the room for challenge in your vision of what theatre should be?

To which I gave the following reply:

Isaac -- An excellent question -- and yes, my reference to Paula Vogel is coming back to haunt me (be careful of rhetorical flourishes, I must remember). Re Vogel: I like her humanist stance, and her taking an issue that could be very melodramatic and making it complex and thoughtful,
and I shouldn't have tarred her with the Finley brush. I agree with you about Finley -- a great example of how preaching to the converted can lead to abrasiveness for its own sake. I saw her in person last winter at NYU, and I've never felt so...I don't know what word to use...threatened, perhaps...in the presence of a performer. She seemed certifiably insane to me, and capable of snapping at any moment. Anyway, your question: I think challenge is absolutely necessary for a community to grow. Theatre shouldn't exist simply to deepen social bonds by reinforcing already-agreed-upon ideas. Although such deepening DOES serve an important purpose, and is part of what a theatre should do. Part, but by no means all. But theatre should also challenge, and the point about challenge I would make is a very fine one. It is about the artist's soul, I guess, his attitude. I think scolding and hectoring is ineffective, and scorn is alienating. I think that the challenge the artist makes should also affect himself -- in other words, he should be
implicated in whatever the change is that is being asked of the audience. That the finger that points has three fingers that points back at the artist. Going along with this, there should be a faith on the artist's behalf that the audience is capable of change. And as I noted in my post on risk, if your main purpose is to make the audience uncomfortable, you've set the bar too low. That is just so easy to do. I think discomfort comes as the result of a stretch toward something else, something higher than one has reached before. Like when a yoga instructor asks you to stretch in a way that is uncomfortable -- the goal is to increase flexibility, not the discomfort
itself. I guess it is a generosity of spirit I'm talking about, and a faith in one's fellow man. Does that in any way address your question?


nick said...

An ensemble will take the take an easy or well-traveled road unless one or more members lead the group into challenge and risk.

Theatre needs more adept peers and less master teachers. This goes to the heart of both training and producing theatre.

Aesthetics are hollow without the context of community. The ensemble’s relationship to the community is as varied as any philosophy of life is, but it needs to develop purposely toward that, a philosophy of life.

I could argue with you both about the value and necessity of individual performers such as Karen Finley. Stating that she is “certifiably insane” is a more censoring label than Jesse Helms’claim she was “pornographic.”

Scott Walters said...

Nick -- My comment on Finley had nothing to do with her art (unlike Helms'), but rather with a personal impression from sitting in the front row. There was something that made me very nervous in her presence. I have read and appreciated the texts of her art in the past, while at the same time thinking that it would be ineffective if the goal was changing the minds of those not already in agreement with her.

I totally agree with you about master teachers. One of the downsides of the Romantic idea of the "genious" is that it serves to de-emphasize and disempower the large majority of artists. It creates a steep hierarchy that works against a collaborative art like theatre. As a teacher myself, I am always aware of the dangers of assuming the mantle of guru. I consider my job to be midwife -- to help students discover their own values.

Slay said...

Hey Scott -
What Parabasis post does this refer to?

Scott Walters said...

Hey, Nick -- Actually, I emailed him because I was having computer problems and a comment I had posted for this post of his (http://parabasis.typepad.com/blog/2007/05/more_fuel_for_t.html) hadn't shown up. I wanted to make sure he hadn't taken it down before I started trying to figure out what went wrong with my computer. So it wasn't really in response to a specific post, but rather what was going around the theatrosphere at the time.

nick said...

Hi Scott,

The theatre space is probably too polite for Finley’s aggressiveness. Her move out of the nightclub venue into the theatre drained much of the dynamism and relevance out of her performance. That happened twenty years ago!!! Years before even her celebrity as one of the NEA Four.

The role of criticism and journalism is essential in bringing an awareness and appreciation of art into the larger culture. The celebrity ensembles of Dell 'Arte and Roadside Theatre you highlight become broadly known and appreciated mostly through the documentation and journalism of their work, not the actual experience of their theatre. The state, federal, and foundation funding they receive is based directly on this journalism. It functions essentially as a PR package for the ensemble to solicit subsidies from outside their community.

Wondering if you believe the celebrity status of these ensembles doesn’t operate in the same detrimental way you see the idea of genius working, “de-emphasize and disempower the large majority of artists” i.e., the other ensembles throughout the country and the world working in relative obscurity with limited resources.

Cindy Carr’s journalism was part and parcel to Finley’s performance art achieving critical mass in culture twenty years ago. Here’s an interesting article exploring the significance of the Village Voice in a certain culture discourse at the time.


“The iconic example of these clashes was the Great Yam Furor of 1986. C.Carr, who was covering the performance-art scene, wrote a piece on Karen Finley, then an obscure performer working in small clubs. Carr called her "a raw, quaking id," describing in riveting fashion her obscene, scatological monologues and penchant for smearing herself with food and other substances; in one such routine, called "Yams Up My Granny's Ass," Finley applied canned yams to her own butt. Men in her audiences often freaked out. "A filthy woman (in any sense of the word) has stepped further outside social mores than a man can possibly get," Carr observed. The story made the cover and the "white boys" went bananas, nicely illustrating her point. In his column Pete Hamill sarcastically reassured his political writer friends that Carr's piece had to be a parody rather than "vile, disgusting, contaminating," as they thought. The letters about yams poured in.”

Scott Walters said...

Nick -- You ask a good question. I think the difference between Roadside (my knowledge of Dell Arte is second-hand, so I won't discuss them) and the master artist/genius is that Roadside teaches its techniques to anyone who wants to learn. As such, they are not "special" or "different." There story circle techniques, for instance, are designed to include "just folks" in the artistic process.

I do think that journalism and documentation is important. Not because it is necessary for a theatre like Appalshop to become "famous," but rather because it is important for artists who might have similar aesthetic values to see that there is a model, that it isn't necessary to build from scratch. When I taught a class about grassroots theatre at the university, the Drama majors were blown away -- they had no idea that such theatre was being done, and done successfully. Several of them became so enthusiastic that they are hoping to work in the field, and are pursuing educational opportunities to prepare them. Without books like Local Acts and Performing Communities, as well as the Community Arts Network website, it would have been very difficult for these students to discover the wealth of ideas out there that diverge from the traditional theatrical model. When the Tony Awards Show is the only representation of theatre that you're exposed to, and most theatre textbooks promote that traditional model, then it isn't surprising that your imagination would run only in that direction. So journalism is important to diversify the field, in my opinion.

parabasis said...

Hey Nick,

Just a couple of quick thoughts on Finley... I like *BLACK SHEEP* quite a bit. It's probably the only piece of hers I really dig. Most of the rest of it I find dull rather than worrying or discomfiting. (Most of her monologues feel about 5 minutes too long, and I find the arc of them emotionally and performatively to be fairly predictable. Then again, I came to Finley much later in her career than you, and I have a feeling that might have something to do with it).