Thursday, August 09, 2007

Thanks, Matt and Don

Two wonderful bloggers, Matt Freeman and Don Hall, have each written excellent posts about aspects of my "Welcome, New Readers" post below. I value these posts very highly, because they lead further consideration on my part. Fine tuning.

On a sidenote, I must admit to being a little puzzled by Matt's expectation that one of my ideas was not "revelatory." Revelation seems a tall order for blog posts, which are by their very nature rather informal and off-the-cuff. My intention in writing my post was my realization that, as a result of the geographism debate, many new readers had visited my blog, and I felt it was important that I outline my general orientation. Unlike many blogs, which have an orientation based on responding to day-to-day events, mine tends to be a bit disconnected from such things and instead I spend much of my time pondering, well, theatre ideas. And I found it a good exercise to try to distill those ideas into a few short paragraphs. Sort of an "executive report" for my blog.
The main point that Matt makes, and one that does, indeed, serve as a point of separation for us, is my belief that there is something deeply wrong with the state of the American theatre. To make a sweeping generalization solely as a means of summary, Matt think it has a bad cold and I think it is coughing up blood. Matt wants to give antibiotics, I want to do radical surgery. Matt believes in the evolution of the theatre, and I believe in the revolution. They are two very respectable positions, positions which are mirrored in many other discussions from politics to religion to psychology.

To a large extent, arguing such basic premises is fruitless, since an entire edifice of thought rests atop those foundations and to remove it would lead to the collapse of everything else. For every statistic that I could offer that would illustrate the impending doom, Matt could offer another that would indicate the patient is "feeling better." What is most valuable, it seems to me, is that readers understand the two orientations, so as to better understand individual posts. For instance, knowing Matt's foundational premise, one shouldn't be surprised or impatient when he looks at marketing as the solution to some of theatre's problems. Similarly, knowing my foundational premise, one shouldn't be surprised to find an impassoned, John-the-Baptist-like fervor.

Beyond the basic premises, I would quibble with Matt's insistence that "theatre is already inherently local." If I can tease out the unspoken part of this sentence, I believe that Matt feels that, because theatre takes place in one place shared by actors and audience members, it si by definition local -- as opposed to mass media, in which the actors are not in the same place as the audience. But, perhaps predictably, I would argue otherwise, and I would do so bydrawing an analogy to restaurants. When I eat at a McDonalds, the food is cooked by a local cook, served by a local waiter, and eaten in a building that resides in my community, but it is not a local experience. The food at a McDonalds in NYC tastes the same as the food here in Asheville. When I visit NYC, I seek out NYC food that I can't get somewhere else -- and there is plenty of it. When I have out-of-town guests, I take them to restaurants that reflect Asheville, not, say Applebees.

My point is that I would like a local theatre to be like a local restaurant -- to reflect something unique about the place where it is. That's what I mean by local. Something like local flavor. When the regional theatres all perform the latest Pulitzer Prize winner in the year following its NYC premiere using actors, a director, and/or designers imported from NYC, that is the McDonaldization of theatre.

Matt also worries about using funding incentives for certain things, which "seems to be indicating mission statements." Don also raises the hoary image of "censorship" in a different context. It seems to me that these worries don't recognize that such mission dictating and censorship aren';t already happening. That the gradual shrinking of cast size, for instance, and the rise of one- and two-person shows simply arose from the artistic preferences of individual artists. But surely not. Economics are already dictating what can and can't be done and said on the stage, large-cast shows like Angels in America to the contrary. But we tend to like our economic hands invisible, and resist a conscious stating of values. I would argue that I like to know the rules of the game, and who created them, before I play. And I don't think that making an artistic value explicit constitutes censorship, but rather an opportunity for artists to actually resist and oppose, unlike the way it is today, where we gnash out teeth about a "system" that never has a face, phone number, or address.

Don devotes his post to my principle #4. Let's start with a definition of hope. For me, it is a belief that things can change for the better, for me and for others. I think anyone or anything that undermines hope and promotes despair allows the darkest aspects of humanity the upper hand. My belief that artists should be committed to making their community better is a universal principle for me that applies not just to artists but to everyone. I think that is what it means to be a citizen and a member of humanity. But I am not speaking primarily, much less solely, about politics. I am not advocating a steady diet of "issue oriented" theatre, God save us. But I am saying that we should embrace our moral responsibilities as members of humanity.

As I said in Don's comment box, he raises an issue that really gets me where I live: pure comedy. I love it. I love Laurel and Hardy, Burns and Allen, doorslamming underwear farces, Monty Python, the Marx Brothers -- well, you get the picture. And I must confess that my principles sound pretty solemn. How can I still watch these things?

But you'll notice that I say entertain and enlighten, and entertain comes first. That is really important. Theatre has to keep an audience's attention riveted (not just casually stapled) before anything else can happen.

I have been trying to find a story I read -- and I think it was in the screenwriting book Story, but I can't find it -- about an obscure movie about a director of idiotic movie comedies who suddenly decides what he is doing isn't worthwhile and he sets of to do "important" movies. All kinds of stuff happens that I can't remember, but the punch line of the film was him coming upon the barracks of a group of oppressed workers or inmates or coal miners or something -- guys who had a really shitty life, at any rate -- and hearing laughter drifting out their window. When he drew closer, he could hear the dialogue from one of his idiotic comedy films that was the source of the laughter. (Note: Thanks to Paul Rekk for identifying this film as Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels -- hardly an "obscure movie," as Paul points out, but one unknown to me. The end of the film is described as follows: "Incarcerated in a prison work camp as the end result of his misadventures, and as part of an audience of chain-gang convicts watching a screening in a Southern black church of a Walt Disney cartoon (starring Mickey Mouse and Pluto), he retains one final ability - - to laugh. He succeeds in understanding that his attitude toward the poor had bordered on patronization. He finally realizes the uplifting power of laughter, and decides to return to his true calling - the making of entertaining comedies to entertain rather than to edify.")

There is value to the community in the lifting of spirits. Laughter makes people better, too. And it gives them hope.

I would like to emphasize that I don't think either Matt or Don are somehow "wrong" in their beliefs -- I believe in the truism that sometimes the opposite of a profound truth is another profound truth. And I like to be upfront with the profound truths that underlie my writing.


Paul Rekk said...

Obscure movie?!?

That's Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels!

Devilvet said...

"Stories that leave me feeling despair -- a sense that everything is shit and nothing can be done to change it and all good people are doomed to defeat -- are destructive of hope. And without hope, then life is grimly Sisyphusian. To destroy a person's hope is, to me, one of the most dastardly things a human being can do"

Scott, I think that sometimes these stories can also serve as cautionary tales thoughs. If one can get his/her audience to care about one of their characters who is then placed in a dystopian situation, I think that you can create a work of art that stands as a warning (sort of one of th best things about classic sci-fi or noir) The images is less about giving the audience hope for a better future rather it is meant as a warning, it uses the stage,the page whatever to show the audience a potential consequence so dire that the community can say "I will not let such events occur on my watch!", "I will not kill the king even though three witches predict it"

Now, I'm not saying to throw out craft, entertainment or (gulp) humor...I just sort of recoil when sometimes when some people say "It's got to give me hope"