Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Theatre of Hope, Strength, and Inclusiveness

I am disappointed to have missed the wonderful discussion over at Angry White Guy in Chicago's blog, that started last Thursday while I was attending the AlternateROOTS conference and not following the theatrosphere. Don Hall proposed the making of a list of plays according to my call for theatre that ""makes the community stronger, more caring, more inclusive, and more hopeful." Twenty-seven comments followed, and a small list started to come together. Fascinating. Some of the plays I'd agree with, some I wouldn't. Which is neither here nor there.

A few things I'd like to clarify: Don, my love of really goofy comedy was not the center of my belief in theatre of hope, strength, and inclusivity, but rather a personal outlier that I had to come to terms with. It seemed to me that an aesthetic that couldn't encompass pure joy was stillborn.

Devilvet -- I have not dismissed people who are "doing the work," but rather have said that simply doing the work without considering purpose or alternatives is to accept the status quo. Since I don't accept the theatrical status quo, I don't find doing the work to be sufficient in itself. I require some self-reflection. That's me, those are my values -- other's mileage may differ.

Devilvet also offered a list of plays that he thinks I might identify as falling outside this aesthetic. While I wouldn't agree with all of them, I think his impulse is pretty good in general. But rather than address each play, let me give an example: I think Pinter's The Homecoming is absolutely brilliant. I have taught it and seen it several times. But I can't direct it, and I can't see clear to producing it, because it is so very ugly. I feel the same way about Mud and Woyzeck (although I don't think the latter is a great play), and I would have to think a while about Endgame (although I think Waiting for Godot and Beckett's wonderful late short plays like Rockaby ARE filled with hope, in the sense of characters facing life with courage and determination). Death of a Salesman posseses a great deal of hope because of Biff, who comes to learn from his father's mistakes.

Hope, strength, and inclusiveness doesn't discount tragedy or plays that don't end happily. For instance, "MASTER HAROLD...and the boys" ends very painfully, and also is very hopeful. Add it to the list. Sophocles' tragedies also shows humanity strong in the face of overwhelming odds, even though ultimately defeated. Shakespeare's tragedies obviously end badly for the central characters, but show that enlightenment through pain is possible. I think I would argue that Sarah Kane's 4.48 Psychosis increases empathy for those suffering from mental illness on the part of the audience. That said, there are plays by Shakespeare, for instance, that I wouldn't include, for instance Titus Andronicus, which is just ugly 24/7, despite Julie Taymor's attempts to make the ugliness glow.
I seem to be using the word "ugly" a lot, and I suspect that is revealing in some way. Last night, I was reading Paul Rogat Loeb's 1999 book Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in a Cynical Time. In it, he tells the following story:

Will Campbell has been a Baptist preacher, a civil rights activist, a farmer, a writer, and a volunteer cook for his friends Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. One day he was invited to participate in a student conference on capital punishment at Florida State University. Only at the last minute did he discover that he was supposed to formally debate an erudite scholar whom he personally liked, but whose opinions he disagreed with. Will's opponent delivered a long philosophical argument in favor of the death penalty as a means for buttressing the legitimacy of the state. Then Will got up to present the case against it. Noth­ing equally weighty came to mind, so he said, slowly and deliber­ately, "I just think it's tacky," and sat down. The audience laughed.
"Tacky?" the moderator asked.

"Yessir," Will repeated. "I just think it's tacky."

The moderator asked him to expound, and Campbell repeated
his statement.

"Now, come on, Will," the moderator said. " 'Tacky ' is an old Southern word, and it means uncouth, ugly, lack of class."

"Yessir, I know what it means," said Campbell. "And if a thing is ugly, well, ugly means there's no beauty there. And if there is no beauty in it, there is no truth in it. And if there is no truth in it, there is no good in it. Not for the victim of the crime. Certainly not for the one being executed. Not for the executioner, the jury, the judge, the state. For no one. And we were enjoined by a well-known Jewish prophet to love them all." (bold mine)
I tend to agree with Campbell: if there is no beauty there, there is no truth in it. There is beauty in the strengthening of empathy. In the fall, I will be directing Roadside Theatre's play, Thousand Kites, which is about the Prison-Industrial Complex in this country. It's not a topic that makes one want to skip around. But after seeing the play, and the documentary they made about the same topic, and participating in a discussion about the issues raised, I believe the audience will leave with a greater sense of empathy for both inmates and guards, and a sense that something must be changed -- in fact, the last ten minutes of the discussion, which serves as the second act of the play, focuses on actions the audience can take. Increased empathy equals increased strength in the community.

I use the word "hope" in a very specific way: it is a belief that things can change for the better for me personally and for my community/society in general. Hope is based on a sense of empowerment. Hope is the opposite of Jesus' line to Pilate in Jesus Christ, Superstar: "Everything is fixed and you can't change it."

The question that seems to arise in the discussion on Don's blog (again, thanks so much for opening the discussion, Don) is whether this criteria is so broad that no plays fall outside of it. And I really can't answer that, except to say that the criteria are not meant to narrow the field of plays to a niggling few. I would also say that, for me, the application of the criteria is filled with grey space. For instance, I'm not certain whether I feel A Streetcar Named Desire has any hope in it. The message seems to be that the brutes will destroy the sensitive people, and that it is passed from person to person -- Stanley destroys Blanche as brutally as Blanche destroyed her husband. But do we come away from the play feeling more inclined to empathize with the delicate and not admire the strong quite as much? I don't know. But I think it is a worthwhile inner struggle to have when deciding whether to do a play at a particular time. I think the reflective artist is the stronger artist. I would have similar feelings about many of Euripides' plays like The Bacchae and Medea, both of which seem like cautionary plays (don't fail to honor the gods, don't betray those who have sacrificed for you) or something like Sweeney Todd (past injustices return with big, nasty teeth). I love those plays, and I would have to decide whether I thought they offered hope, strength, or inclusiveness.

I know there are many who think that everything is clear black-and-white in my mind, a simple manichean system of good and evil. I can assure you this is not the case. What I believe, however, is that it is worthwhile to develop one's sense of purpose and one's values and criteria for judgment, and then actively use those values when deciding what work to create. I don't believe in simply following one's impulses, one's "gut." I think artists should be conscious and have a conscience. I don't think being an artist releases you from the responsibilities of all human being to make the world a better place, not a worse one. And that requires awareness and a moral conscience.


Devilvet said...


Thanks for responding. Perhaps I was too focused on the notion "do the work" as it sounded to me off the screen during the whole big debacle a couple of weeks ago...I'll let that water go under the bridge for here on out.

It is tough for me to engage this post becuase I want to be respectful and furthering in the conversation but the following statement as well as the notion of hope as the benchmark still irk me..

"And if a thing is ugly, well, ugly means there's no beauty there. And if there is no beauty in it, there is no truth in it. And if there is no truth in it, there is no good in it."

Beauty can accompany truth, but it is not synonymus with truth.

Truth first
Beauty Second

I know we could probably both fragment the various elements of most narrative stories and find a virtue equatable to truth tied to either plot, theme, character, dialogue, audiences' post show glow... ;)

For example Shakespeare's Tragedy is ugly, but the langauge and concluding sentiment are beautiful... or
Driving Miss Daisy is beautiful in its conclusion, but ugly in its historical omissions and sugar coating of race relation...this sort of dissection could probably be applied to most plays, stories...

For me especially in these times of spin and sound bite and advertising images that are sold and that are so beautiful...I am advocate for dissent.

Whereas I didn't agree with points, sites for blame, or even degrees of consequence regarding stereotyping you have presented previously, I have to say I respected those dissenting notions more than "hope"

In a world where journalism is to my mind now synonymus with corporate,executive branch public relations...I think beauty (perhaps not as you are defining it, but definately in the context in which the media machine uses it) is false, that much beauty is only skin deep. And that the reason why so many yearn yearn and burn passionately for "hope" is that the further they inquiry into the truth, the uglier and less comforting it seems.

It is this truly an age of conseqences as you quoted, then we are running out of time for beauty. Hope has been used by those who subtly advocate irresponsiblity for the sake of the market...this age needs dissent, needs to turn over the stone and look at the ugly...even if the audience wont.

I can't ask you to change your vocabulary. I won't ask you to silence your intent. Still, I feel it is important to speak up my idea in counterpoint to yours.

I want hope just as much as the next person. I want beauty as well. But the dissenting voice inside me, the voice that rose in counterpoint to the things I see that are wrong with this world...that voice can't place hope as it's benchmark.

Truth, Beauty, Hope, Love...what a comforting thought. Whereas I can work towards a worldview where these things accompany each other, I can not accept them as synonymus with each other.

With respect

Scott Walters said...

devilvet -- I can understand why you are tip-toeing around given the way our previous encounter occurred, but let me assure you it is OK to question and dissent about my ideas. Things only get ugly when I feel I am being attacked on a personal level, or my contributions are being denigrated because of my chosen profession. Everything else is fair game, although I truly appreciate the concern, and I value your counterpoint because it forces me to keep turning over these ideas to try to make them stronger.

Let's start with hope. Hope, as I defined it, is the belief that things could get better, which is not the same as saying that things are already better. That's where Driving Miss Daisy falls down, I think -- it presumes that we've reached a stage where just learning to respect each other is enough.

Without hope, dissent is pointless. Why offer resistance if one think's that nothing can change? It is precisely because I agree with you about dissent that I think hope is so necessary, because it bolsters courage and leads to action.

Beauty is a fraught term, I agree, and I'm not surprised it concerns you or anyone. In our culture, we tend to think in terms of physical beauty, rather than beauty of spirit or beauty of action. And as you note, physical beauty has been co-opted as a means of promoting sales. In the end, such co-opting is a recognition of the power of beauty, and I think we allow its co-optation by the greedy and brutal part of our society at our peril. We need to reclaim beauty, not abandon it.

But what do I mean by beauty? Hmmmm. Let me take a stab: Grace, nobility, integrity, depth of spirit, gentleness toward those with less power, courage toward those with more power, generosity, open-mindedness, among other things. Nelson Mandela is beautiful, Paris Hilton is not. Athol Fugard's plays are beautiful, Neil Labute's are not. I think the reason that Michael Moore is less effective than he ought to be, despite being totally in the right on almost everything, is that his interpersonal approach is so ugly. He pursues truth in an ugly fashion. Which has a certain power, and I would certainly never, ever try to silence Michael Moore in any way. It takes a loud, ugly voice to cut through the media cacophony. Nevertheless, what he needs is someone to follow behind him who has a beautiful heart who can convert the anger he inspires into positive action. What's missing, it seems to me, is the community connection. In some ways, I think showing a Michael Moore film at, say, a house party and following it with conversations and action plans would be the best way to accomplish what he wants to accomplish (but of course he would lose the mass media exposure). But our way of distributing such films turns the experience into a dissenter's version of coitus interruptus -- lots of sweat with no release.

But I don't think truth, beauty, hope, and love are only comforting. I think they set a high bar and demand that we strive mightily to reach them. When we dissent, we are usually doing so against injustice, unfairness, brutality, pain -- all ugly things. To move us away from those, even a few small steps, is to make our culture more beautiful, I think. At least, that's how I'm using the term

One short, final thing: this is a work in progress. I am not defending something complete, but rather trying to focus and define what I now only sense fuzzily through my intuition. Every engagement helps me to sharpen the vision, which may involve alterations in the original statements.

Devilvet said...

"Without hope, dissent is pointless."

I agree with that, but how about this?

Without dissent, Hope is dangerous?

Scott Walters said...

I like that too! They go together!

How 'bout this: Without beer, pizza is pointless.

Devilvet said...

"Without beer, pizza is pointless"

Being that you live in the south, I can understand this statement.

(oh no he didn't!)

But, Chicago Style don't need nothing but some parmesean on top


Scott Walters said...

*LOL* You disappointed me. I thought you'd say: "Without pizza, beer is dangerous." But you are right about Chicago style pizza -- although a few dried pepper seeds is nice, too.

Tony said...

What about hope for pizza and beer?

Alison Croggon said...

Woah! So some of the greatest and most beautiful masterpieces in the canon don't offer "hope" and communal inclusiveness and therefore ought not to be done? (I'm not even going to discuss "beauty" here, it's a complex thing that matters to me very much, but it seems to me you want not beauty but something else.)

I don't see how the theatre you're suggesting can be at all truthful, since it will not acknowledge the parts of life that are, as you put it, "ugly". (I'd prefer to say "intolerable".) So you'd prefer a theatre that never acknowledged, as well as joy, love, gentleness and so on, the realities of cruelty, suffering, loss. (Unless it's softened somehow - though such things are never softened for the people who suffer them). I've encountered such calls for "uplifting" theatre before. Such theatre can't help but be a lie.

And, to quote my man John Berger, a brave thinker and a writer of unarguable beauty himself: "The naming of the intolerable is itself the hope."

Scott Walters said...

Alison -- I wouldn't use the word "ought," in the sense of prohibiting the actions of others. I am saying that plays that leave the audience feeling hope-less, disempowered, are not something that I find valuable, regardless of whether they have been enshrined in the canon of "great art."

Yes, beauty is a difficult concept that many people have differing opinions about it. But I would disagree with Berger in this -- simply naming the intolerable is not a hope if the message is that the intolerable cannot be changed. I think our culture tells its citizens over and over that things are too big to be changed, and it dissuades people from action. I want people to emerge from art as better people, and/or willing to try to make society a better place.

Alison Croggon said...

Art is not a message stick. What induces hopelessness and despair that nothing can be changed in people, more than anything else, is not having your reality acknowledged. Why all those mothers with the photos of their dead children standing in the squares of Argentina or in Russia? Why the insistence of people who have suffered under oppression that their story "be told"? Because the powers that be insist that their experience does not exist, is marginal and unimportant. If you want to make the world a better place, you have to know what's wrong first. Naming what's wrong is an act of empowerment.

Scott Walters said...

Exactly, Alison, and every one of those mothers, in order to undertake their action, must believe in her heart that their actions can change things, can change the way people think. Such strength of character is based on hope -- a belief that things can change for the better.

And we will probably have to agree to disagree about your first sentence -- I think art is a message stick -- the question is whether the message is acknowledged or buried.

Alison Croggon said...

I think the act of theatre is in itself an act of hope. And it seems to me that if you avoid what's "ugly", you're not going to see the many truths of this world clearly at all. And thereby you'll suppress the very activism you claim to want to support. Woycek for example, one of the plays you claim is "ugly", is by one of the revolutionaries of his time - as is clear when you read The Hessian Courier. Pinter is an activist who most certainly wants to change the world. Even Beckett did his bit with the French Underground against the Nazis. The people you particularly name as "ugly" are writers who particularly strive to change the world for the better. You're claiming that these radical artists are without conscience, and are not conscious of what they do. I would say the complete opposite.

Certainly, the kind of lightness and relief and - yes - hope I feel in walking out of Endgame, for instance, is about the feeling that I have been treated with total truthfulness, that is, with respect.

Of course nobody is obliged to do these people. Nothing about art is compulsory. But people do their plays - and Tennessee Williams, and the Greeks and so on - because they respond to the truths in the work, because it expresses for them the human realities that are suppressed elsewhere, through such ideologies as you express here, or for other more openly political reasons.

I am hostile to instrumental ideas about art precisely because they deny art its particular freedom and - as is clear in your post - its real capacity for beauty. When did art stop injustice? All it can do is open possibility, expand consciousness. But you seem rather more concerned to close it down, to lecture audiences rather than to engage them, to close off possibility, to shut out areas of reality that you don't think appropriate. I think an artist honours an audience not by patronising them but by making the best art he or she can. Each artist has his or her own truth. As soon as you start evaluating it through extrinsic factors, you're entering the world of the cultural apparachiks - does Art support the Revolution, or is it corrupt bourgeois nonsense? And we all know what happened to Mayakovsky and Mandelstam and Tsetaeyeva.

Devilvet said...


Do you think it would help this arguement it hope were better defined? And I don't just mean a recapitulation of how you define it, but an arguement that does a better a better job of reclaiming the term. I think for too many of us that read your blog, the term "hope" is too loaded. It's implications (hope as a tool) bring up so many negative political connotations, we can't go with it.

Scott Walters said...

Devilvet -- You are right that I want to reclaim the term "hope," which for some reason has come to be defined in terms of vacuous pluckiness -- images of Annie singing "Tomorrow" spring to mind. And that's too bad, in the same way that it is too bad that the right wing has turned the word "do-gooder" into a pejorative -- it is a way of removing a barrier to selfishness and greed by making its opposite uncool. When positive concepts are turned into negative stereotypes, we have lost something. Hope has strength and backbone -- it is an attitude toward the future that is centered in a belief in the power of the individual to make a positive difference, alone or in groups. It is an attitude that looks unflinchingly at pain and injustice and says it can be made better with effort. Life requires courage. In a world that provides many opportunities for greed and selfishness to prevail, it takes a staunch and and fervent hope to resist the temptation to focus on getting yours at any cost and to hell with anyone else, to stand up for what is right in the face of those whose focus is on what is profitable. When hope is gone, evil has triumphed. George W Bush has spent two terms undermining our sense of hope -- hope for peace, hope for justice, hope for honesty, hope for altruism, hope for equality. I think we need every aspect of our society to focus on reclaiming these hopes and making them central to our worldview. The arts are part of our society.

I don't know if I've done what you've asked. Perhaps I've made it worse, I don't know.

Scott Walters said...

Alison -- I don't think the act of theatre is any more an act of hope than the act of getting out of bed in the morning and going to work. It is simply an activity the same as fixing as car or making a meal. The nature of the contribution is what is important to me -- whether it bolsters or diminishes the world.

And yes, that makes me an instrumentalist. While I think W E B Dubois badly overstated the point when he said he didn't give a damn about any art that wasn't propaganda, I am closer to that view than Kant's view that what defines art is its uselessness. IN M H Abram's The Mirror and the Lamp, my orientation is that of the "pragmatist," which is defined by its focus of the effect of art on the audience. And I want that effect to be positive.

Yes, Buchner and Pinter both were activists, and I respect that deeply. But I do not do people onstage, I do plays, and my focus is on what the PLAY does. To my mind, what Woyzeck and The Homecoming DO isn't something I value.

I am 49 years old, and I direct one play a year. So I probably have about 16 more plays in me before I retire, and I want to devote my energy to plays that I can stand behind philosophically, so that when I walk into retirement I can feel good about what I've accomplished. While to many this may be an odd way to think about it, I would argue that even the youngest theatre artist only has a limited number of opportunities in his or her lifetime to create art, and everyone should make choices that they will be proud of when they hang up their rehearsal clothes and take their position in the rocking chair.

I understand your hostility to instrumentalism, and your belief that it shuts down possibilities. I would argue that every choice we make shuts down possibilities, and life is about making choices, and I don't shy away from that. I'm not willing to engage in the relativism that says that all that is required of artists is that they express their own personal vision, and that each personal vision is as valid as every other. I believe in better and worse, and the ability of thinking individuals to come to consensus about what that means. Christopher Lasch (thank you for that reference, by the way, I am reading Revolt of the Elites right now) would argue that the discussion is what defines democracy, and that relativism undermines it. I would agree.

As I point out to my dog Kip all the time, it is possible to look at a pile of shit without rolling in it.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Scott, you misunderstand me totally, to the point where it seems utterly wilful. At this point I'll gracefully withdraw because I'm not interested in a circular argument and your misrepresentation makes me cross.

Scott Walters said...

Well, Alison, it wasn't intentional -- I thought I was addressing your point. It is always nice, though, to have motives ascribed to me by others. Thanks for stopping by.

Freeman said...

Scott -

Do you feel that other artists should follow your example (not to direct The Homecoming, for example, despite its brilliance); or do you feel this is all simply a matter of personal choice?

The reason I ask is, of course, that your tone shifts between stating a personal belief (which I think is totally respectable and will inform your own teaching and directing) and promoting that view.

For example, do you believe that other artists should not follow his or her "gut?" I do so. Would you say, therefore, that you would tell your students (for example) not to work in the way I do, and that you disapprove of my artistic impulses?

I don't ask this to be personal. I use myself as an example in order to ground the discussion a bit for me.

The implication here is that by following one's impulses, one is disavowing responsibility and moral awareness. I think those things aren't mutally exclusive. In fact, I've never understood the connection between active decision making and a belief that this will guide a person to the best moral decision. Often, one's gut is a better indicator of what is responsible or moral than the intellect.

It's interesting because both you and George Hunka have recently talked a bit in terms of moral judgment re: the production of artistic work. That seems to be a bit of a puritan impulse; a desire to guide or course correct artistic expression so that it more closely matches your own values.

I think that's entirely acceptable to do for yourself. If you make these decisions in deciding which plays to direct for yourself, that's up to you. I guess (in my rambling way) I'm curious if you are actively promoting that attitude in others, and in your students. If so, why?

Scott Walters said...

Matt -- Good question. I encourage my students to be conscious about what they choose to do. I think one earns the right to follow one's gut, and one earns it through experience and thought. I think everyone needs to have an educated gut! Otherwise, it is pure impulse, which is usually just the inner voice of the status quo. When I hear experienced actors on "Inside the Actors Studio" talk about how they follow their gut when playing a role, I want to point out that they have guts that are very, very educated. Robert DeNiro can follow his gut all he wants, but an 18-year-old's gut just hasn't been around long enough to be trusted. So I encourage them to develop their own aesthetic path through personal reflection and exposure to the thoughts of others who have gone before. In other words, they need to look outside themselves for heroes, and look inside for true north. They need to take their own journey by entering the woods alone and at the point where it is darkest, to paraphrase an old King Arthur story.

If you are asking whether I use my position as a professor to proselytize, I'd say I try to avoid it. If my students become apostles, I feel as if I have failed. If they ask my opinion about something, I tell them -- I don't keep secrets, although I often will do a lot of dancing and deflecting first -- and I try to explain how I got to that opinion, what values they are based on, so that they can understand the type of thinking they themselves should be doing.

Often what happens is that a young student will attach himself or herself (usually, it is a him) to me early in their university career, but if I've done my job correctly, by their junior or senior year they will begin the process of "killing Dad" -- i.e., actively questioning almost everything they have heard from me. It is at that point that I feel that I have done my job: to create independent, thinking artists.

If they get one strong message from me, it is to question the status quo and always think independently.

Did I answer your question, or did I willfully misinterpret it? ;-)

Scott Walters said...

P.S. I wouldn't deny a puritan impulse, if by that you mean a sense that it is important to have explicit ideas about right and wrong and follow those values.

P.P.S. Do I hope other artists will follow my ideas? Sure, of course I do, if there are others whose journey seems to be going in a similar direction. On the other hand, if everybody suddenly became converted to my viewpoint, you would likely find me fighting tooth and nail for the other side very quickly. I think intellectuals (which includes artists) should usually find themselves on the lightest half of the teeter-totter.

Devilvet said...

"P.S. I wouldn't deny a puritan impulse, if by that you mean a sense that it is important to have explicit ideas about right and wrong and follow those values."

Well, I could be wrong Scott but that is not what many of us think of as Puritan. Or rather let me say, not what I think of as puritan.

For me the implication (oh yes...puritan is a pejorative when it is spoken by a majority of those in the arts) is not only explicit ideas about right and wrong, that the individual follows. It also includes those who would mandate, legislate, enforce, impose those beliefs on others. It suggests someone who at best finds opposing viewpoints distaste, but at worse finds them heretical.

This puritan impulse, as I understand it, is almost always born out of the best intentions, it is always a desire towards utopia or redemption, etc...but when unchecked usually leads towards totalitarism that borders on the paranoid.

Now, I am not accusing you of the above mentioned. But, I would also hope (that word ugh!) you would acknowledge that most view this sort of puritanical impulse in the sorts of inquiries you're investigating, especially in light of the whole previous debacle. I don't want to pull that up if it is unfair, but at the same time, even as the tone of the conversation has mellowed (for most) in the comments section...I would be remiss to say that what I read here isn't informed by what I've read the past 3 or 4 weeks.

The tone and civility of ourconversation/debate is better but don't you think the initial concerns/fears...etc. are still haunting this discussion?


Devilvet said...

I've thinking about what I wrote. And I also hope it isn't taken as a sugar coated accusation. So...

Is it possible that when it comes to artistic edicts or manifestos or declaration of priniciples informing the work, that those of us in the arts tend to have an immediate, almost visceral distrust unless the said manifesto arises from a minority (not racial just any sort of minority) group or from a fringe/dissenting voice?

Here's another question which is an immense simplication, but hell I'll type it anyway...what is the difference between your thoughts and sentiments and the song "Kids" from Bye Bye Birdie?

OK...I think I've final crossed a line here. Anyway...I'll shut up for a bit.

Scott Walters said...

devilvet -- Oh, if I could become the Paul Linde of the theatropshere, I'd be in heaven! Question: Paul, who takes longer to give birth, your wife or your elephant? Paul: Who told you about my elephant? *LOL* Classic. I'll come back to that later...

Yes, bloggers have very long memories. I don't, and I'm always surprised when others whip out some past wound as a reason for their current reactions. Dorothy Lemoux is still nursing some wound from over a year ago. I'm not saying that's wrong, just that it isn't how I think, and it always catches me off guard. If Joshua James showed up and started making comments using a different tone than in the past, then I'd accept that as the new situation and go with it -- he'd get a free pass. But that's me, and apparently it isn't normal. I'm just always surprised. We made jokes about hope, dissent, pizza, and beer, so I'm thinking everything's good -- water under the bridge. Apparently not so. I throw down my weapons and wipe the slate clean after each post. That's me.

As I've written a few comments above, my purpose is to present an alternative. For me, I am dissenting (and you like dissent, right?) against what a recent "Mirror Up to Nature" post called the "modernist master narrative," which emphasizes the cosmopolitan, oppositional, is focused on form, and sees the artist as a mysterious genius with special gifts who stands outside the community speaking truth to power. I am promoting a theatre that is local, dialogical, focused on content, and sees the artist as just another member of the community who sometimes is the power that needs to be spoken to. Why is that my position? When the master narrative becomes too strong, as the modernist master narrative has become over the century it has dominated, then I feel an alternative needs to be presented to keep things honest. That's just how I think. I believe anything "generally accepted" needs to be problematized, to use an academic term.

When I say I am offering an alternative, what I mean is that I am not trying to legislate rules and regulations but rather open a space for those who can't fit into the more accepted narrative. Frankly, I am baffled when people refer to me or my ideas as "dangerous," because they seem to give me some power of influence that I don't have. I'm just a college prof in NC with an opinion, a Blogger account, and an internet connection! I write in the hope that somebody "out there" who feels they can't find their place in the master narrative might find something to give them hope (yes!), a sense that they are not alone. Fellow travelers. I have always been baffled that people who find what I say objectionable don't just ignore me. I don't WANT to be ignored, of course, but if somebody's blog just didn't speak to me, I'd stop coming by. What is the impulse toward destruction? For instance, I rarely read Superfluities anymore, because George's vision of theatre has nothing I can be comfortable with. But I don't feel the need to swoop into the comments box for every new series of organum sentences and try to obliterate his vision. What's the point? To silence him? Is he somehow dangerous? Nah. He's presenting an alternative. (In his case, his alternative fits comfortably into the modernist master narrative, by the way.)

Our society has a big discomfort with anybody who strongly promotes an idea. To not write "in my opinion, and it's just my opinion" every other sentence is seen as being intolerant or puritanical. But it's my blog - who else's opinion would it be? Do I have to state the obvious every other sentence? I'm not speaking for anyone but myself, and if there is somebody out there who resonates with those ideas, hey that's great. But I just can't spend a lot of bandwidth apologizing for having an opinion or pointing out that there are other opinions as well, even if that is seen as being "nice" and Open-minded." And I admit I don't have a strong aversion to the words "should" and "ought" -- I like normative statements. But a normative statement without the power to enforce it is just...well, an opinion! *L* Theatre artists regularly huff that I am telling them what to do. I'm not telling anyone what to do. I'm sending out a message to those who are looking for something different.

Many complain about the "tone" of my posts. Maybe it's a regional thing. I grew up just north of Chicago, and I think my writing style is very similar to Don Hall's. It's sort of pugilistic. I enjoy Don's tone -- but I suspect he gets a lot of the same complaints I do. It's the way I write. I come from a lower-middle class background with parents who either didn't make it through high school, or barely did. I'm not graceful. I have a doctorate, but I still carry my roots in every sentence I write. I'm honest, straight-forward, and blunt -- that's how I was brought up to be in an industrial union town. You don't have to guess where I stand on an issue. I like that in my friends, but others do not -- they think I'm not nice. They want me to write like they write, and I just can't and still say what I have to say. I can be polite or I can be interesting, but I can't be both.

Now, about "Kids" -- it's a hilarious song. So I guess the question being asked is whether I am just a middle-aged fart harrumphing about the younger generation. Fair enough. I am middle-aged, and I do harrumph. Except that would assume that I think that my generation somehow did it right -- "why can't they be like we are -- perfect in every way," right? But I think my generation fucked it up even worse. TCG is my generation all over -- whiny and ineffectual and lacking any strong principles except relativism. And older generations ain't much better. There were a couple moments when we had a chance for something extraordinary -- the Little Theatre Movement of the early 20th century could have transformed American theatre, and then 50 years later the regional theatre pioneers like Nina Vance, Margo Jones, and Zelda Fichlander were starting to create something extraordinary -- but the siren call of NYC killed the first one, and the Ford Foundation killed the second. Off Broadway and OOB were both born "dirty," with the crack addiction known as commercial Broadway coursing through its veins. And the grassroots, community-based movement, as much as I admire it, is still reeling from the disappearance of CETA money in the Reagan years. We got hooked on government handouts, none of which were sufficiently large to nourish creativity, but were large enough to create complacency.

One symptom of being an old fart is going on and on endlessly. My apologies. You and Matt gave me a chance to try to be understood, and I couldn't resist pouring my heart out.

Devilvet said...

"I'm just a college prof in NC with an opinion, a Blogger account, and an internet connection!"

When I read this I was instantly reminded of another classic Phil Hartman's Caveman Lawyer "I'm just a caveman, your world frightens and confuses me..."

Alison Croggon said...

To clarify:

Well, Alison, it wasn't intentional -- I thought I was addressing your point.

I was simply pointing out that deciding I'm a "relativist" because I defend the idea of aesthetic excellence in evaluating art is patently absurd. Or something. And that I've no wish to spend time defending ideas I don't hold.