Thursday, July 12, 2007

Reactions to Tribalism Post

Despite having this blog for several years, I have just now figured out how Technorati works -- sort of. Ahem. Please no "old dogs" comments... Anyway, I was able to follow a few people who commented on my tribalism posts.

Don Hall, for instance, posts an endorsement with reservations in "A Tribe Has No Divas." Read the whole thing -- as is usually true with Don, he combines idealism and pragmatism with just a tang of skepticism. Sort of a Bacino's deep dish pizza of ideas. (God, I miss Bacino's.)

Anyway, there was a part of his post I wanted to address. He offers this scenario:

Jack can't get cast in anything substantive. He joins a theater tribe through volunteering his time and energy. He does box office, sweeps the floors, picks up the drycleaning, folds programs. In the back of his mind, he anticipates an eventual pay off for his labor. He is frustrated the next time he auditions for a show with the tribe and is not cast - after all, he has swept the floors and cleaned the toilets, he deserves an opportunity to be in a show.

The tribe can do one of two things. Cast Jack (even though he is not talented or skilled enough for an onstage role) and water down the artistic product, the very thing that whole tribe relies upon for its sustenance or not cast Jack and risk losing their volunteer janitor or worse, put up with the constant headache of an unsatisfied box office guy who is now starting to want that wage, given he can't seem to receive any artistic fulfillment.

My interpretation of Quinn would be that this isn't tribalistic behavior, but something more like the current theatrical model of internship, where young people do crappy jobs in the hopes of getting their foot in the door (and on the stage). According to Quinn, a tribe is a "coalition of people working together as equals." My reading of Quinn is that you don't "
join a theater tribe through volunteering [your] time and energy," you join a theatre tribe by having something to offer that extends the tribe's earning power. You enter as a full member, not a junior member working your way up, and you only join if the tribe accepts the value of what you have to offer. So this isn't about doing the crap jobs -- everybody does these jobs, because they are necessary to produce work. But if you want to act, you must make that desire clear when you join, the tribe must see that as a needed and useful contribution. As Quinn notes, "A group that doesn't take good care of its members is a group that doesn't command much loyalty (and probably won't last long)." So having a frustrated actor cleaning the john isn't a great way to survive.

This is why Dennis Frymire's description of the Shadowbox Cabaret is not a description of a tribal theatre. Here's why:

The company runs on the philosophy that everybody in the company does everything: Not only do you perform, but you serve food and drink, you prepare food and drink, you run box office, you sweep the floors and clean the bathroom. [So far, so good.] If you can get past the fact that this requires 14 hour work days from the core company, and even more from the members who have "moved up", it looks great on paper. [the "core company" and the "members who have moved up"???]

Here's where the train goes completely off the tribal track:

The less-talented in the company are strung along, being told what they need to change to get stage time, while still having to do equal work as the people who are getting the stage time. [Uh-oh -- this is not a coalition of equals...] (I know of one girl who had corrective eye surgery done so she wouldn't have to wear her thick glasses, and thus, have the right company image.) [Shouldn't have let her in if you didn't like what she brings to the table in the first place...] Also, if a tribe is supposed to mean that everyone is getting their share equally, that was corrupted as well: When I was with the company, average company members were taking their meager pay [of $1000 a month] while one of the founding company members drove a beemer. [ding ding ding!!! That's not how it works, people -- the proceeds are equally divided. There is no hierarchy.]
In another part of the comments, Kerry brings up another problem:

I was in a playwrights' collective for a while in the Bay Area, and continued to participate from afar for a couple of years after I moved back to Chicago. After a particularly trying conference call concerning collective bidness, I got a call from a friend who used to be in Oobleck. I told her "I'm going to say a phrase, and I want you to utter the very first thing that comes to mind. Ready? Okay. 'Consensus-driven, nonprofit arts collective.'" She screamed loudly.

I think the bugaboo here is that every decision must be made by the group. Not so. Areas of responsibility are divided sensibly among the members of the tribe. The whole group is not voting on each light cue or marketing decision. But there is no doubt that tribalism is less efficient than hierarchy, but as I mentioned elsewhere, the inefficiency is magnified because we are never given any education in collaboration and consensus-building techniques. We think it just "happens," sort of like gravy just "happens when you cook the meat" according to Oscar Madison in The Odd Couple. We are brought up with the hierarchical model, and we don't really know how to effectively work as a group. If colleges would adopt tribalism as an additional model for theatrical production, then we would be required to teach those skills, in the same way that now we teach actors audition skills (one of the biggest waste of limited education time I can conceive of -- do business school spend an entire semester teaching their students how to create their resume?). [Someday, I will write a post venting about the incredible stupidity of the way we "train" theatre artists -- but it will be a long one, and a flamer. Stay tuned.]

Over at Collisionworks, Ian Hill, in what he calls a "massive sideline," writes:

One thing I've realized in seeing the posts about this idea is that the most fruitful tribes I've been a part of, as member or as boss (or, what I think is a more accurate term for this position in a tribe, "catalyst"), have all been based around a physical space - a theatre, a group of theatres, or a neighborhood.

He is completely correct, I believe -- a tribe is not only centered around an idea, but a place. It is comprised of a group of people who want to do a specific thing in a specific place. It isn't a launching pad for "stardom," but rather an end in itself, a way of life. If someone dreams of "moving up" to some more "prestigious" venue, then you don't want him or her in your tribe. Tribes require a commitment. And they require a place, because it is the place, and the variety of people in that place, that provide constant stimulation and broadening. Ian writes, "
When the tribe becomes a single theatre company, it tends to turn in on itself and not work as well -- inbreeding produces defects." Yes, you need new members occasionally, but more importantly, you need substantive connections to the outside world. The 14-hour day mentioned by Dennis above is a recipe for disaster as far as personal growth is concerned. Art requires air, and contact with the world. When it becomes too focused on simply "doing shows," you end up with productions that no longer have anything to do with anyone outside the tribe. Tribe members should be involved in the community, doing service work, running for office, hanging out at neighborhood centers, playing pool in the pool hall, participating in the life of the community. Otherwise, all the air is sucked out of the theatrical balloon.


Mike said...

I think Don Hall is right about this--it's a attractive concept, but I don't really see it surviving collision with reality. The issues of talent versus loyal work always raise their head in any collective, along with a host of other issues. Every system has issues, but the idea that the answer is simply "tribes" seems like academic hogwash.

I would love to hear about this idea in execution--so when you put it to work, Scott, please post about it.

Scott Walters said...

Ah, reality. Right. Let's see: Theatre du Soleil, which does some of the most fantastic theatre in the world. Quinn himself uses Neo-Futurists as an example. Paul Rekk mentions
* The Surrealists, despite the attempted tyranny of Andre Breton, were influential enough to spawn one of the most misused adjectives of modern times (their namesake)
*Dada, which managed to spring forth numerous successful tribes internationally all in one go
*The Nouvelle Vague, one of the rare instances of critics putting their money where their mouth is -- and to great effect
* The Factory, the greatest example of artistic tribalism, as well as the idea of a 'boss' vs. a 'leader'
* And dozens of other smaller, but equally revolutionary tribes: the Vienna Aktionists, the Panic Movement, Oulipo, and on and on

See, here's the problem: American theatre artists are so focused on the hierarchical model that they think it is the only one there is. But much of the greatest theatre in the world has been created using versions of tribalism, and throughout theatre history we see examples such as Commedia dell 'Arte troupes. But I suppose that is all "academic hogwash."

Oh, and Don Hall actually endorsed the idea, if you read his entire post.

We create reality every day, Mike, according to our actions. If you prefer the model of traditional, hierarchical theatre, then good luck to you. But there is nothing more real, or practical, or efficient, or creative about it, and to pretend otherwise is incorrect. Four out of five shows on Broadway, the King of traditional hierarchical theatre creation, fail -- would you call that an effective business model?

Finally, Mike, you are in the wrong place to use "academic" as a way of dissing an idea. Next time, think a bit before you post a sweeping generalization about "reality" with no evidence beyond your own opinion.

danielle wilson said...

Don't forget Peter Brook's work on _Conference of the Birds_. I do not think it is a coincidence that Brook was a student of G. I. Gurdjieff.
Any of group of fourth-way practitioners would be a tribe.
For an example of a performance driven fourth way group see Guitar Craft.

Scott Walters said...

I would like to include Brook throughout much of his career, especially the work of the past few decades, but didn't know enough about the arrangement of his troupe to tell how tribal it is. But Brook writes like a tribalist!

Mike said...

I went and reread Don's post--I think he's clear about the very real issues with tribalism in practice, which I agree with. If you want to interpret his measured response as unconditional endorsement, that's your bag.

I know the NeoFuturists deal with MANY ego-driven issues, especially talent-related ones. The Surrealists, Dadaists and New Wave were artistic movements in a variety of mediums and not theatrical companies. The Factory is an interesting example--I'd actually posit that it's more of a "cult leader" than this "boss" you speak of, and the power of cults of personality is always present in these sorts of artistic endeavors, tied to both positive and negative aspects.

I'm going to ignore most of the last two paragraphs as they're mostly bluster--you know very little about my opinion of "traditional, hierarchal theatre" so casting me as its champion is really silly.

I can't resist this, though:

"We create reality every day, Mike, according to our actions."

I would respond that only solipsists and academics truly believe this.

(If I were a person who used smileys, I'd insert one here lest a tribe of theatre academics descend upon me, slavering for blood. Or footnotes.)

Scott Walters said...

You should have inserted the smiley. I don't take kindly to those who feel it is OK to insult academics.

There are issues with all forms of organization. Surely the current form isn't working in any way -- or would you say it is? Are we in the midst of a theatre renaissance that I'm unaware of? Have you seen any masterpieces lately? Are theatre people regularly employed, and employed doing things that improve society in any way? Is a 90% unemployment rate for union actors worth defending?

A mood of cynicism and resignation, which you exhibit in your "nothing's ever gonna change so why even bother talking about it" tone, is defeatist. Nobody is suggesting that you need to change your behavior in any way -- why do you feel it is necessary to diss those who believe that change is possible? Who do you think you are helping?

Paul Rekk said...

I feel a need to quickly interject here, since I was the one to initially bring up the other various movements.

Mike, I'm not sure which direction you're taking by tossing aside other mediums. Sure, visual art isn't as inherently collaborative as theatre (can't really say the same for film...), but a large part of the point was that in an often non-collaborative form, these movements resulted in an unusual amount of joint works amongst somewhat of a core group.

As for The Factory, well I can't really counter that argument, as it doesn't really exist as anything beyond semantics.

The one I'd be curious to hear you tackle is the Vienna Aktionists. Unless that falls under the heading "performance art" and is automatically disqualified?

Mike said...

"You should have inserted the smiley. I don't take kindly to those who feel it is OK to insult academics."

Oh, you'll live...probably with health insurance to boot. ;)

"There are issues with all forms of organization."

On this, we certainly agree. I just thought "tribalism" was a word being used for a very complicated social organism that is quite unstable and very bad at a number of things, and incredibly challenging at the best of times--it felt reductive to exemplify it as THE answer.

"Surely the current form isn't working in any way -- or would you say it is?"

Of course it is working--if it wasn't, there'd be no theatre. It isn't working well, but that can't be news to anyone--I'm still not certain why you would ever think I'm in love with the state of theatre.

"A mood of cynicism and resignation, which you exhibit in your "nothing's ever gonna change so why even bother talking about it" tone, is defeatist."

1) I don't know what mood you refer to--I think you're reading between, through and around my words to create something altogether more exciting.

2) Sometimes people shut down discussion by telling people they're defeatist--it's the same mechanic that allows folks to use "unpatriotic" as a conversation killer.

3) There's no "those" who I'm "dissing"--I just commented on your blog about your post on tribalism, because I thought it was largely academic, and largely suited to the washing of hogs. The rest of the universe who is working for change in our lives are not implicated.

Mike said...


To me, the visual arts are pretty much irrelevant--the challenges in making live performance collectively are so much more time-constrained than visual arts, and the visual arts don't have to contend with writer/performer dichotomies--to me it really doesn't have that much to contribute. They look similar on the surface, but it's more difficult.

I don't actually know anything about the Aktionists, so I couldn't say--though I'd be surprised if they didn't find a collaborative model ego-driven, difficult and inherently unstable, requiring immense amounts of love and effort to sustain it. If they had some magical way to make it easier for all to deal with human nature, that would certainly be cool.

Brian Santana said...

"I don't actually know anything about the Aktionists, so I couldn't say--though I'd be surprised if they didn't find a collaborative model ego-driven, difficult and inherently unstable, requiring immense amounts of love and effort to sustain it. If they had some magical way to make it easier for all to deal with human nature, that would certainly be cool."

Mike, if you are looking for an example of the defeatist tone in your writing that was earlier commented upon, the above paragraph is a prime example.

I think the larger point that Paul, Danielle, and Scott were/are trying to articulate arises from the conviction that the current theatrical system does not seem to be working. They make this assumption based on 1)unemployment rates of actors 2) the places that working actors must migrate towards to secure jobs (e.g. living in Minneapolis but traveling to NY to get a job in a Minneapolis regional theatre) 3) the quality of theatre that they see produced and published 4) the theatre educational system's role in perpetuating this system 4) the general sentiment of discontent expressed by many theatre writers, artists, and bloggers online.

This forum, it seems to me, is a serious attempt to explore possible remedies to this more general malaise. Tribalism is a tactic, not an end result. No one has claimed that the mechanic and implementation of this idea have been streamlined and perfected in the brief blog spaces it has been afforded thus far. They are, however, pointing out that a belief in tribal principles of organization and production have historically informed many exciting movements and artists. The excitement and newness of these past movements are brought up not as an attempt to mimic them, but to learn from the core principles that lie at the heart of their success(es). Many of these principles (like tribalism) stand in stark contrast to the current model.

Once this point has been established, the next phase is to examine how such principles and ideas could be adopted within our specific contemporary artistic communities.

Though tribal practices might share many commonalities, I suspect the actual implementation would vary between communities since this is a localized approach to a localized art. No one is saying one size fits all. The goal and belief, however, is that a broad understanding of shared values by members of different regional artistic communities creates a domino effect which, in turn, produces change on a large scale.

Will there be artistic tribes that devolve due to headstrong leaders, a breakdown of ideas, or egotistical figures that come to power? Probably, but that's true of about everything in life. Besides, when this happens, new tribes will replace the old ones and learn from their past mistakes. It's a self-correcting process.

The sheer volume that you devote to deriding new possibilities and models, often with dismissive and condescending language ["If they had a magical way to make it easier for all to deal with human nature"] is not only unhelpful but dangerous.

nick said...

Like most theatre people in the America today, I discovered my love and professionalism for theatre via academics in the university. But the conundrum in this is that the hierarchical relationship of student/teacher haunts all future collaborations I have had with peers.

The “master teacher” is a role that belongs in a school, not a tribe, and in my mind, not in theatre. Dell'Arte, SITI, Theatre of the Oppressed, and of the course the-be-all-end-all, the Method, are all schools with their masters and students.

Related to this is condition of “schooling” is the fact that theatre ensembles most often have a director now. In a historical context, this is a recent development. Not until Stanislavsky was the phrase "stage direction" even used.

Do we read and practice Stanislavsky as acting peer or master teacher, as actor or director? How is he taught, why is he taught? The “teaching” itself is part and parcel of how any method is inherited. Stanislavsky was exploring a new method of acting with a new ensemble of peers at Moscow Art Theatre; he was teaching nothing. The system being explored was also specific to the text and context given by Chekhov and Moscow at the turn of the century.

As I age into my artform I am finding increasing difficulty in dismissing the role of elder that younger peers seemingly need to always project unto me. This complicates any of the roles I would assume …producer, director, actor, writer much differently than when I was younger without a resume or experience.

Theatre thinks of itself as the anarch to the establishment and institutions. The mock that Mike throws at academia is part of that mindset. He is assuming his role as Brat to Geezer academia. This is a simplistic if not false dichotomy, and brats are not rebels, anyway. O woe, another Starving Artist without health insurance.

I personally have found the role of anarch/monarch a fruitful method when leading unknown ad hoc ensembles; it speaks directly to our inherited mindset. Of course productions are always volatile when there isn’t a clear structure of authority, but reinventing such structures in society is one of the prime tasks of theatre for me.

Mike said...

"The sheer volume that you devote to deriding new possibilities and models, often with dismissive and condescending language ["If they had a magical way to make it easier for all to deal with human nature"] is not only unhelpful but dangerous."

If only this were actually true, that I had achieved DANGEROUSNESS in my comments--but actually, they're just comments on a theatre blog discussing a theoretical model that some (I) find simplistic. You'd think I'd thoughcrimed you people.

"Theatre thinks of itself as the anarch to the establishment and institutions. The mock that Mike throws at academia is part of that mindset. He is assuming his role as Brat to Geezer academia."

Uh...sure. Or I'm assuming the "role" of a working artist in a field that is dominated by academics, whose endless theorizing I chafe under.

"This is a simplistic if not false dichotomy, and brats are not rebels, anyway. O woe, another Starving Artist without health insurance."

A) I have health insurance--buy it myself, with money earned from working in the American Theatre.

B) Not starving--eating (too much, to be sure) food bought with money earned as a working independent artist in the American Theatre.

nick said...


Please tell us a little bit more about yourself. Were you born god’s gift to the American Theatre box office, or have you studied and trained for that position? I’m not being mocking or facetious. For most “working” artists in American Theatre I know, it’s a combination of the two.

Having worked at Coney Island, I have come to know some great sideshow performers. Otis had been known as the Goat Boy, then later as the Frog Boy. When I knew him he was being billed as the “Human Cigarette Factory.”

I guess god’s gift towards Otis’ ability to be a working independent artist in American Theatre would be the same gift many models and movie stars are given: his physical appearance. Otis’ head was the only normal sized part of his body, the rest resembling that of a paralyzed and deformed four-year-old child.

Many physically handicapped sideshow acts perform some feat or another to illustrate how they had overcome their particular disability. For instance, armless people sometimes draw, typewrite, or knit using their feet. The skilled and trained aspect of Otis’ act was that he’d roll a cigarette, light the match and then puff smoke rings…”using only the lips of his mouth.” He would then swallow the burning cigarette making it disappear, only to cough it back up to smoke it again.

The sideshow performers have saying about some of the feats that they perform for their appreciative audiences. Screwy Louie pounds a nail up his nose. Sick Nick, the Belleview Boy, escapes from a straightjacket while hanging suspended upside down on a chain from the ceiling.

“Folks, let me tell you truth about all this. It’s a hard way to make an easy living.”

For me, the initial training necessary to become a sword swallower is perfect metaphor for the mindset needed to pander after the American Theatre box office audience;i.e., first thing the sword swallower must learn to do is repress the gag reflex. But I don’t begrudge anyone who finds the necessity to accomplish this skill. Each to their own definition and quest to be an "independent artist" in American Theatre. I also don’t “chafe under” theatre academics as you do. I have no envy for their “publish or perish” mandate.

Academics are not artists but I consider them important peers in my theatre work. Theory, criticism, and documentation give relevance and context to theatre within the History of Great Ideas.


Slick Nick

Independent Artist in American Theatre. No health insurance but plenty of food thanks to my day job.

Mike said...

That was a great post.

I don't really have much of anything to add; I think your position with regard to academics is well put, and I have always had a great and abiding respect for the sideshow.

Scott Walters said...

Might I add one thing: my experience is that there really are very few academics in professional theatre, and for the most part their theories are unknown and ignored by those who work in the field, who prefer the blandishments of "Variety" to the consideration of other questions. It has always seemed to me that both groups could benefit from more dialogue sans bluster.

Mike, I have no objections to you engaging in a dialogue about ideas. My quibble was about civility. I consider my blog to be like having a party at my house to which you, as a reader are invited. If you were at a party at my house, we could have a heated argument about ideas, and we'd still be friends. But if you came to my house and insulted me, then I probably wouldn't invite you again.

I would love to have you to my "house," but we have to interact with mutual respect and tact. I know the internet and the blogosphere is wild and wooly, but I am trying to reserve my little nitch as a place where civility still is the rule.