Friday, June 08, 2007

The Shiavo-ization of Theatre

Sorry -- I got sidetracked there for a while.

I had wanted to get back to elaborating on some aspects of my interview at "Theatre Is Territory" (which by now seems to exist in the dim and distant past).

The "Ten Questions" format always starts out with the same question: What the fuck is going on? I must admit that this question had me stumped for a while, so much so that I went and reread some previous "Ten Questions" respondents' answers to that question for guidance (hey, I'd never been interviewed before, OK?). What I found, I thought, were three broad types of answers: 1) snappy jokes, 2) a quick discussion of whatever the respondent was working on at the moment, or 3) a general statement about some issue. I knew I didn't want to do #2, because who the hell cares what a middle-aged professor is doing ("I'm teaching a Harlem Renaissance class from 8:00am - 9:55am Monday through Friday" -- pause while the world yawns). Then I thought I'd respond: "How the hell should I know? For God's sake, I just a country professor, Jim!" But my interviewer's name wasn't Jim, and it just seemed like a stupid way to start one's 15 minutes of attention. So I opted for #3, a general statement about an issue, and I wanted it to be snappy, so that readers would stay to read the other 9 questions. So I responded:

"We’re witnessing the Schiavo-ization of theatre as an art form – it’s dead, but we keep pretending it isn’t. People keep pointing at record ticket sales on Broadway and at regional theatres as proof that there’s life in the old girl yet, but Terry Schiavo probably had more visits from her parents when she was in a coma than she did when she was going to work every day. It’s hardly proof. Where’s the vitality?"

OK, on the one hand, that could be seen as a kind of crass and abrasive statement. Well, no, on both hands it icould be seen as a crass and abrasive statement. I can't deny it. But let me try to rescue it just a bit, if I can.

First, I'd like to change one phrase, because it's not quite what I meant to say. If I could, I'd change this: "it’s dead, but we keep pretending it isn’t." I'd change the word "dead" to "in a coma." And let me explain why.

First of all, I agree with everyone else who posts on the "death of theatre" -- it will never die. It is part of what it means to be human. It may (and I hope it does) change its shape or its business model, but I think people will always enact stories for each other. And when I read an essay like this one, in which Peter Felicia writes a Valentine to the impact of theatre, my heart jumps in my chest and I am ready to get back into rehearsal as quickly as I can. So I can't say theatre is dead. No sir.

But what I meant about the Schiavo-ization of theatre is that it seems to metaphorically be in a coma, in the sense of being non-responsive. For instance, the performance brings together two worlds: the onstage world, and the audience world. The same is true of visiting a coma patient: there is the internal world of the patient, and the external world of the visitor. In both cases, interaction is minimal or impossible. In the case of traditional realism, for instance, the fourth wall serves as an impermeable membrane that separates the two worlds. Like the hospital visitor, the spectator can sit quietly and watch but not engage in dialogue. Even in nonrealistic plays, the interaction between stage and audience is scripted -- the audience can't really affect what is happening. (As a sidenote, my fascination with Augusto Boal's Forum Theatre, which turns the audience into a group of "spect-actors" who step into scenes in order to suggest a solution to a problem, stems from my interest in tearing down the wall that separates stage from auditorium.) So there's that.

Theatre is also nonresponsive, it seems to me, in the sense that the world of the artist and the world of the spectator is becoming more and more separated. Artists have often huddled together, especially in the past 150 years or so, and there are many benefits to this. (A fascinating book on this topic is Michael P. Farrel's Collaborative Circles: Friendship Dynamics and Creative Work, in which Farrel examines 6 collaborative groups: the French Impressionists; Sigmund Freud and his friends; C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and the Inklings; social reformers Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and the "Ultras" in the women's movement; the Fugitive poets; and the writers Joseph Conrad, Ford Maddox Ford, and their friends.) But the downside is that art continues to become more self-referential, self-absorbed, and disconnected from the experiences of everyday people. This, of course, is an echo of one of my frequent themes: that artists need to become a part of their community, rather than stand outside it.

Why this is so important to me is something I perhaps haven't explained explicitly, and may give insight into many other things about which I blog. I think I've mentioned that I have communitarian leanings (despite finding Amitai Etzioni's writing style and imagination flat as the proverbial pancake). The dynamic aspect of communitarianism is its belief in balance. For instance, it posits a dynamic struggle between the impulse toward freedom and the desire for order, with each society teetering more toward one side or the other over different points in time. The ideal is to create a dynamic balance. So if a society tips too far to one side (say, the way American society became too ordered in the 1950s) then cultural leaders need to throw their weight to the other side (like the upheavals of the 1960s did) in order to restore some semblance of balance. It is important, then, for cultural leaders to be tuned into what a society or community needs at any moment, and be willing to throw their weight in that direction. This model applies not only to the freedom/order diad, but any other idea.

From my perspective, artists are cultural leaders, and in order to know what a community needs at a particular moment, they need to be in communication with that society. And I think a lot of that communication has to be unmediated in order to be valuable, by which I mean one's idea of the culture shouldn't come primarily through media and other intellectuals; it should come through regular conversation with the Average Joe in order to get a sense of how he tends to think at a particular moment. This is why I am so adamant about "respecting" the humanity of those with whom one disagrees. It seems to me that only by getting an honest look into how people are thinking can one throw one's weight in another direction.

The obvious examples for this can be found in our social playwrights. Arthur Miller, for instance, had a clear understanding of the witch-hunting mindset that was permeating McCarthyite America, and he wrote The Crucible to throw his weight in the other direction. The Group Theatre and especially Clifford Odets wrote plays like Awake and Sing and Waiting for Lefty to counteract a society that was undermining individual dreams through its focus on making money. The artists of the Harlem Renaissance were trying to counteract the race prejudice that permeated American society. While this makes artists sound oppositional, the key is that the artist needs to be able to adjust to suit shifts in society.

Often, this is done instinctively, not consciously. But I would contend, conscious or not, the process is served when the artist is having regular and unmediated contact with a broad segment of society. If the disconnect is too great -- if the Average Joe shuns artists and artists shun him -- communication can't happen. The theatre becomes non-responsive.

For all we know, inside her mind Terry Shiavo may have been leading a very rich internal life, but it was not being affected by the outside world, nor was it able to be communicated to the outside world. When the arts become self-referential and self-absorbed, the same thing is happening, I think. Channels of communication are severed. All one has to do is read theatre blogs to see that theatre has a very rich internal life, but if what June Thomas writes is true -- that "for the most part, theater just isn't a core ingredient of the cultural diet of this hypereducated, au courant group of relatively affluent young people. They read prolifically, see all the new movies, and can identify the hip bands in four notes, but Broadway, or theater in general?—not so much" -- then Houston, we have a problem. And the problem is not with this group of young people, nor is it with artists, but rather it is with the lack of communication happening between the two groups. And unless artists are willing to do what is necessary to breach that wall, and engage in a give-and-take conversation that would have an effect on how we do theatre, then the coma will continue.

When I write this blog, I write for those involved with theatre, and in doing so I feel it is necessary to address those things that we can do, not what the rest of society can do for us. Yes, US arts policy is appalling, but I don't think it will change until we make the case for our importance. And that means, I think, to establish a strong bond with the Average Joe, and create theatre that speaks to his heart and mind as it exists right now. And I'm not talking about political theatre, or not solely political theatre, but about his needs and hopes and dreams and pains and joys.

Recently, we had the story of the gentleman who woke from a coma after 19 years. There is always hope that communication can be re-established.
Update (just what you needed -- more appended to this eternal post): The quotation on "The Mirror Up to Nature" from Ian Maxwell MacKinnon's "Elect Better Actors" says is a nice addition to the above post. I interpret being "elected" in terms of being a part of the community, and chosen by it. I don't think it is about popularity, at least not primarily so, but about connection.


Jay Raskolnikov said...

I think ultimately, if theatre is to be revived from it's coma (as it has been many times) looking backwards can point the way.

Granted the biggest thing you can learn by studying history, is few learn anything from it. But you can also see that no major movement or innovation was begun as part of the prevailing schools of thought of the day.

So to some extent, trying to work against the systems in place, can be much less effective as working outside it and changing them.

Broadway and the regional theatre pipeline are consistently held up as examples of what is bad in the current climate. But yet artists continue to try to get into the club, instead of getting the club to come to them--like the impressionists did in painting.

For example, if I was a female playwright, I could rail against th e current system that only does 20% of their plays by female writers, or I could produce my own work. I could bemoan the developed to death syndrome, and complain about how a play actually is ready for years--or I could put the play up.

I got a little off topic, but I think it's a similar issue and a similar approach. We can complain about the lack of audiences--or we can go to them. And if you don't care about your audience, why not work in a art form that doesn't require them?

Scott Walters said...

Jay -- Yes yes yes! I agree entirely! And, in my post on "Risk," I discussed how current theatre education is complicit in embedding the "meme" of the status quo in the heads of young people who ought to be thinking in different directions entirely.

Praxis Theatre said...

Hey Scott,

Your breakdown of the three basic approaches to answering the "What the fuck is going on?" question cracks me up.



Philucifer [aka Charlie Willis] said...

Some interesting thoughts here. My response was too long, so I posted on my blog.