Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Risk

This is the second part of my expansion of my interview on "Theatre is Territory," and as with the first part, I will use responses from others as a way to extend the conversation.

In response to the question, "What do American theatre educators need to do better, generally?," I wrote "Teach students to value, above all things, innovation, creativity, thinking outside the box, questioning the status quo, taking big risks, failure...Let students fail! Give higher grades for risk takers who really make a huge flop!" In the question that preceded this one, which concerned any unifying theories of the role of formal education for theatre artists, I made what I think was an important differentiation between what I believed was the priority of education and those who are "trying to create replacement parts for the current creaking theatre machine."

Ian, the Praxis Theatre interviewer, wrote that he felt this statement "seems like an argument in favour of the avant-garde," whereas David Cote felt that I had a more conservative agenda that involved theatre artists "eschewing esoterica and avant-gardism, thinking positively and bending over backward to accommodate the common man." He also offered that " Taking a big risk and daring to fail can also mean moving to NYC to try and 'make it,' whatever that means to you."

So what just did I mean? Was in endorsing the avant-garde or a conservative approach to theatre? And does my idea of risk taking include going to New York to "make it"?

Let's start with the last question first. While on a personal level, moving to New York to "make it" may, indeed, be a risk -- a huge risk -- for a young person, I would not include it in my definition of "innovation, creativity, thinking outside the box, questioning the status quo, taking big risks, failure." Let me hasten to add that if a student came to me and confessed that this was their dream, I would do everything in my power to support and encourage them -- I think following one's "Personal Legend" (ala Paulo Coelho's wonderful novel The Alchemist) is first and foremost the most important thing anyone can do. But if they came to me with this dream early enough in their academic career, I would gently encourage them to transfer to another college. Because what I have to teach them will not give them the skills they need to fit into the status quo. I cannot, in good conscience, "create replacement parts for the current creaking theatre machine." I just can't do it. The skills that I will teach will lead to frustration, disappointment, and failure if used within the current theatre climate. This would be especially true of actors, who more than other theatre artists are expected to trim their sails to whatever winds the director blows their way. I want to help create innovators more than I want to create mainstream successes.

So what about the other question: do I support the avant-garde, or a conservative agenda? The answer is yes to both. Or no to both. Let me explain by reiterating the main statement: "innovation, creativity, thinking outside the box, questioning the status quo, taking big risks, failure." If what you mean by avant-garde is the genre that Matt Freeman, in his perceptive post on that subject, describes as a form of theatre that "has become, for the most part, divorced from its roots, which is to experiment with the form. It's become a genre term, much like Alternative Music was in the 1990s. Foreman, for example, isn't experimenting, one could argue, but is presenting the sort of theatre that he has established as his style for a very long time," then no. Why? Because what we call the avant-garde is no longer innovative -- the experimental has become the traditional. And that isn't "innovation, creativity, thinking outside the box, questioning the status quo, taking big risks, failure." It doesn't make what Foreman does any less vital, but it isn't experimental - he is reaping the fruits of his earlier experiments, which is what mature artists should be doing.

So does that mean I support a more conservative agenda? No, if you mean doing what is currently mainstream. But if you mean by conservative the looking back to previous forms for ideas that have fallen by the wayside, then yes. Older techniques like storytelling, verse and rhythm, community involvement and movable productions (ala medieval mystery plays), choruses and narrators (the Greeks, for instance), popular music (like 18th century ballad opera), direct audience address (ala morality plays), or any other techniques you can unearth and adapt from the past -- these are all rich veins to be mined for contemporary experiment.

So yes: conservative appropriation and recontextualization of past forms; and yes avant-garde: creating something entirely new and newly conceived. And no to just recycling the old plays, and no to recreating the 1960s.

In addition, I would insist that, when students experiment, that they truly experiment -- by which I mean design a particular experiment to test a hypothesis, evaluate the results, and generalize from those results ideas that might be successfully applied in the future in another context. Experimenting doesn't just mean "doing weird shit." You have to do it for a purpose, and pay attention to the results. And if your purpose is simply, solely something like "to confuse the audience" or "to offend the audience," then I am going to say "That's too easy. Raise the bar." Because in order for an experiment to take place, there must be a serious chance of failure. Creating confusion or giving offense, as a goal, is too easy -- there is no chance of failure, anybody can do it. Which is not to say that an audience may not be confused or offended by a performance -- on the contrary, it may be the result of a particular experiment. But it must not be the goal.

All of this is very, very difficult to do in an educational setting. Teachers find it much easier to teach "what works for them," or "what their teachers taught them," or (perhaps worst) "what will make you employable." It is much more difficult to inspire creativity and innovation. I can't say I succeed, but every semester I try to wrestle with the problem and try to achieve that goal. And I look for some small glimmer that a student wants to be an artist, and not just working union member.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Centralization

As I promised a few days ago, I would like to take advantage of my own blogspace to elaborate on some of the items that appeared in my recent interview that appears on Theatre is Territory blog. There are several remarks that have been commented on, and I would like to use them as prompts.

The question that seems to have attracted some initial attention was in response to the following:

7) If class issues are preventing theatre from being a more vital voice in American culture, who’s responsible and how do we fix it?

I began by discussing my belief, shared by Dudley Cocke of Roadside Theatre (see his passionate and intriguing article "Art in a Democracy"), that theatre audience has become homogeneous and rich (80% of the audience is comprised of the upper 15% of the economic pyramid), and that to some extent Tyrone Guthrie's hijacking of the regional theatre movement, which substituted productions of European classics for support of indigenous playwriting, created the conditions that led to this situation.

In response to the "how do we fix it" part of the question, I responded: "First, decentralize theatre – get over our childish fixation with the Cinderella story of NYC and perform in towns across America." This prompted the first part of a comment by David Cote that I'd like to address. He wrote:

We’ll ignore the defensive provincial stance here and point out that the theater isn’t “centralized” in any organizational sense of the word. Yes, the Tonys take place here and a lot of media attention focuses on Broadway openings, but that’s a media issue. The “centralization” of theater isn’t the nefarious work of NYC artists but a natural consequence of concentrated media, wealth, access and population density. There are historical, artistic reasons for NYC being called the center of the American theater universe. Sad to say, they don’t really apply anymore.

What I meant by my statement concerned employment, and the Cinderella myth to which I referred could most easily be characterized by the song lyric "If I can make it there / I'll make it anywhere." As long as the so-called regional theatres insist on casting out of New York, and bringing actors, directors, and designers in from NYC for one-shot, drive-by performances, instead of developing and maintaining their own company of artists who live in the community where they perform; as long as regional theatres continue to use their home base as tryouts for productions that are then transferred to NYC, and then use those productions as a way of "proving" their value to local funders; in short, as long as the theatre outside of NYC is created by NYC-oriented theatre artists, the theatre will be centralized. It has less to do with the TONY's than with the belief that having a 100- zip code makes theatre artists somehow better than those who do not. And it has to do with the belief that theatre that occurs west of the Hudson is somehow by definition minor league.

How does this connect to class? Perhaps another line from Cote's comment can make the connection: "I wouldn’t expect a director or troupe to abandon the cultured, exciting life here to enrich the lives of a theater-loving minority in Iowa." Now, let's unpack that sentence. Of course, there is no arguing with the idea that NYC is cultured and exciting. I lived there twice over the course of my life, -- it is a great city. But I have also lived in Minneapolis, and it too is a great city; and I have lived in Normal, IL and it too is a great city; and I now live in Asheville, NC and it too is a great city; and I recently visited Whitesburg, KY it is a great city as well. They are all great in different ways, but great nonetheless, and they are great because of the people one finds there. Each city has its own rich culture that is exciting in its own way. And those people deserve to see plays that reflects their own rich culture. What Cote implies by defining NYC as "cultured [and] exciting" is that Iowa, or Minneapolis, or Normal, or Asheville, or Whitesburg or any city that isn't NYC is uncultured and boring. And to further unpack the word "uncultured," what he means is less sophisticated, perhaps less educated, certainly less urban. In fact, them there Iowans are just hicks, ain't they? This is what comes of watching too many episodes of "Green Acres" and "The Beverly Hillbillies" -- the poisoning of regional respect by the centralized, urban media. It is a stereotype, one that people are educated into and express without shame or consequences. Over the course of the 20th century, the devotees of modernism have successfully stereotyped all non-urban, not Eastern, non-Northern people of the US as unsophisticated hicks, and it has all the characteristics of most bigotry -- a stubborn refusal to respect ways of being that differ from one's own. This extends to class issues as well, as most theatre artists are college educated beyond their class (I know this is true of me) and often have a great disdain for their roots (something I have had to work through as well). As Cote writes: "As someone who couldn’t wait to relocate here from New Hampshire, I have to say: there’s a reason why kids leave home." Right: because NYC is cultured an exciting and nothing else is.

And this is where the issue of centralization becomes a justification of one's preferences. Cote writes: "Personally, I like living in NYC. I like the people, restaurants, museums, streets, theaters, bars, dog walks, parks and subway. I don’t want to leave. And there’s work to be done here. We have our own theater-ecology crises that need to be addressed. There are companies to support, playwrights to champion, nonprofit giants to shame and commercial behemoths to ridicule....All theater is local. My locality happens to be NYC." And that's just great! I am not suggesting that Bush send in the troops to march all the non-native NYC theatre artists back to their home town! But all of those things exist elsewhere in America, and not in as great a numbers, or even if some elements don't exist in a particular place, they are replaced by other things that are just as precious: the sound of birds singing, a waterfall, an unending blue sky, a local diner, a pick-you-own blueberry patch, a bluegrass music festival, whatever.

But when theatre artists in Minneapolis, in Boston, in Austin, in Asheville, in Atlanta feel that they must move to New York in order to work in their own towns, then something is wrong. When young actors graduate from college and feel that they must go to NYC if they want to work, even though they would prefer to live elsewhere, there is something wrong. Why can't they live where they want to live? Because the regional theatres who might offer a living wage are all casting out of NYC. I freelanced in Minneapolis for a number of years, and it was just an accepted fact that no local actor was ever going to get cast in a decent role at the Guthrie, because they cast in NYC. And that's centralization, and that is wrong.

And it is wrong not only because it limits theatre artists' choice, but also because it homogenizes local culture. Instead of theatres growing out of and reflecting the specific and rich cultures, and rhythms, and values, and music, and colors, and landscapes of an area, and instead of developing a performance style that embraces those things, the American theatre simply exports NYC to the rest of the country under some misbegotten impression that NYC is universal. Up through the first half of the 19th century, America lacked an indigenous culture for exactly the same reason -- we didn't think we were "good enough," and so we imported our novels, our plays, our painting from Europe. Finally, Hawthorne and Whitman and Emerson, and later in the theatre O'Neill broke away from imitation and began to create an American culture. Well, NYC is the Europe of the early 1800s, and it is time for the rest of America to acknowledge the existence of an indigeous, rich, wonderful culture that lives outside of Manhattan.

There is no need to defend one's love of NYC, as long as in doing so one doesn't simultaneously denigrate the rest of the world. This is also true of one's class, level of education, and social group. Diversity is necessary for any bio-system to survive, and right now theatre is choking on its own homogeneity. Shakespeare said theatre was holding the mirror up to nature, but theatre is starting to simply hold the mirror up to itself . Until we begin to recognize and value the wonders of the rest of our enormous country, this trend will continue.