Saturday, June 09, 2007

On Salon

Matt Freeman asked, in reference to my post about the Salon article by Birkenhead, "You're a member of the theatrosphere. What do you think?" Apparently, in an attempt to maintain a calm, objective neutrality, I neglected to include my own thoughts! Gotta be a first on this blog.

So, my rection: mixed. First, I think we need to keep the context in mind: he's writing about Broadway and the major institutions. Some of what he is desiring, it seems to me, is happening on the Indie scene, where a much younger crowd is being addressed. Nevertheless, many of his points are well taken. So what I've done is summarize his points and provided my reaction to each. Here goes:

Birkenhead: That the Tony Awards should have checked the TV listings before scheduling the award show.
Me: um, no. That's just a dopey thing to write, even seeing it as symbolic.

Birkenhead: theatre is mired in “unwieldy, self-satisfied stuckness”
Me: Yeah, I see that a lot. I have often commented on the rather conservative nature of theatre (and this is multiplied a hundred-fold when the venue is Broadway).

Birkenhead: Instead of learning from television, which is currently dynamic, theatrestried to distinguish itself from television –
Me: Actually, distinguishing theatre from television is a sound idea -- who needs an expensive version of something you can get for a monthly cable fee. That said, I think learning from TV isn’t a bad thing. Hell, learning from anything isn't a bad thing. Yay learning.

Birkenhead: The theatrical avant-garde looks like 1918.
Me: Yep. We've been chewing on the isms of the years 1875 - 1935 ever since. Symbolism, Surrealism, Futurism, Expressionism. Young artist keep reinventing these movements, thinking they've done something new. Needs to be more theatre history taught at the college level, I suspect.

Birkenhead: Writers gravitated to TV to avoid having their scripts “developed to death."
Me: That's what playwrights in the theatrosphere have been complaining about for years. I'm a little surprised to hear that there is greater "artistic freedom" in TV, but I suspect that the corporate pressure to create something new and different might actually be freeing in some ways. Still, I have a certain open-minded skepticism.

Birkenhead: [and this is a realy paraphrase] The institutionalization of theatre has lead to lack of artistic risk..."Theater has been hijacked. It's been commandeered by grant-proposal writers and dramaturges, by panel-discussion moderators and chin-in-hand bureaucrats, many of whom brook no more dissent than the Bush administration.”
Me: I think he's right there, too. Regional theatres have become conservative and safe mainly because artistic vision takes a back seat to fundraising. Cf The Theatre Francaise if you want to see what it looks like over time. We're getting dangerously close to this.

Birkenhead: Theatre no longer does plays about “recognizable people in dramatic situation struggling with the human condition.” Combined with: As a storytelling form, theatre has fallen behind.
Me: Hmmmm. Toss up. I think an awful lot of focus over the past -- what? 40 years? -- has been on formal experimentation rather than depth of content. I sometimes get a sense that the focus is so resolutely on how the story is being told (dramaturgically, visually, etc.) that the value of the story itself gets lost. Too often when you whittle down to what is being said...well, it ain't much. Often it is a platitude about tolerance -- which is Birkenheads complaint about plays pleading about issues that have already been pretty much settled.

Birkenhead: Theatre needs to market to 20 – 40- year olds,
Me: This is where the Broadway orientation is clearest. I suspect Indie theatre is a bit more youth-focused. But it is the aesthetic for this group, more than marketing, that needs to be considered.

Birkenshead: [again, a big paraphrase] Theatre has a stylistic clunkiness that is connected to self-importance.
Me: True more often than I'd like to admit.

Birkenhead: Theatre has inability to include contemporary problems in plays in a non-tendentious way (e.g., David Hare).
Me: Theatre isn't a very "nimble" form in its current configuration. It takes too long to get a play up, which means contemporary relevance is usually sacrificed. We can deal with that by creating more nimble ways of creating theatre, or by writing about more universal themes. Probably both wouldn't be a bad idea. The tendentiousness ought to be banished. David Hare's got it bad. So did August Wilson and Eugene O'Neill. (Although I love the latter two -- could live without the former.)

Birkenhead: “Some of you seem to think the problem is with the audience, and that the only prescription for what ails the theater is to redouble your commitment to doing work that is "important" and "ambitious." I've got news for you: People aren't staying away from the theater because it isn't ambitious enough. They're staying away because it's relentlessly "ambitious," because it keeps insisting on its own unique and righteous importance, despite all sad evidence to the contrary.” –
Me: This is the money quote for me, and it's something I've written about a lot on this blog.

Birkenhead: “the problems facing the theater might be solved by respecting the audience more instead of less, that perhaps, instead of designing condescending "outreach" programs, the theater might try educating itself, and listening to the people it's been reaching out to.”
Me: Been saying that for a couple years on this blog now. We don't need to educate people to want what we want, but rather listen more to what is needed. Not talking about pandering, just keeping an ear to the ground.

Birkenhead: Theatre should focus on being entertaining first, profound second.
Me: (deep breath -- walking a Vaseline-covered tightrope) Aristotle felt that theatre existed to entertain, and Horace to entertain and enlighten. But since the 4th century BCE entertainment has always come first. Something happened -- I want to say it happened when the regional theatre movement started selling the social and educational benefits of theatre as justification for its non-profit status and governmental support, but that is just a sense I have -- that made us think that enlightenment came first, and entertainment ran a distant second. I think it would be an interesting conversation to talk about how reclaiming the old order might positively affect the theatre. For instance, think of the comedies of the 1930s: there were certain things you couldn't do and say, and so playwrights became much cleverer in using double entendre and overall wit. Tap dancing came into being because the church had a rule against dancing because you weren't supposed to cross your feet, and African-Americans figured out ways around that and as a result created many wonderful dances. All of which is to say: being focused on whether something "works" theatrically and keeps the audience entertained seems a good starting point, as long as it doesn't (always) become an end in itself.

Jeez, another long-winded post. Blame it on Freeman!

Salon

Last semester in one of my classes, a student reported that she had been speaking with various people on campus who were not involved in the theatre department, and their view of the department was that it was isolated, elitist, cliquish, and not part of the university community. One group was frustrated because the students were so committed to working on our mainstage shows that they didn't help with the Vagina Monologues performance that occurs on campus, for instance. Overall, there was a sense of hostility toward the department, and a lack of interest in supporting it.

Some students too a "well, fuck them" attitude, and others were very upset at the way they were perceived. VERY upset. It led to a very useful discussion about the internal demands of the department, and how it should operate within the larger community.

I was reminded of this incident when I read Peter Birkenhead's "Give My Petards to Broadway" over at Salon.com. It can be a real eye-opener to see how people outside the theatre community view the theatre. Apparently Birkenhead is a former theatre person, so I guess he can't be counted as an "outsider" completely. Nevertheless, I think there is a lot of food for thought in his exasperated essay. In fact, many of the things he says echo things that he been said here and elsewhere in the theatrosphere:

  • You seem to have trapped yourself in a system of theater creation in this country that is positively Soviet in its unwieldy, self-satisfied stuck-ness.
  • You know that people who write for film and television aren't just doing it for the money anymore, right? They do it because their work won't be developed to death by an endless supply of places with "mission statements," because they know they will have more artistic freedom, more fun and more opportunities to do the kind of interesting work the theater once provided, about, you know, recognizable people in dramatic situations, struggling with the human condition.
  • You have just got to get out more. I mean, the same elements that are considered avant-garde in the theater today were considered avant-garde in 1918. The theater still thinks dissonance is a daring musical gesture, and that nonlinear storytelling is new. It's embarrassing how proudly it seems possessed by not only the aesthetic, but the ethos and issues of another era.
  • Some of you seem to think the problem is with the audience, and that the only prescription for what ails the theater is to redouble your commitment to doing work that is "important" and "ambitious." I've got news for you: People aren't staying away from the theater because it isn't ambitious enough. They're staying away because it's relentlessly "ambitious," because it keeps insisting on its own unique and righteous importance, despite all sad evidence to the contrary.
  • theater has been hijacked. It's been commandeered by grant-proposal writers and dramaturges, by panel-discussion moderators and chin-in-hand bureaucrats, many of whom brook no more dissent than the Bush administration. To even suggest, at any of the endless symposiums that the theater community can't get enough of these days, that the problems facing the theater might be solved by respecting the audience more instead of less, that perhaps, instead of designing condescending "outreach" programs, the theater might try educating itself, and listening to the people it's been reaching out to, is to tempt the derisive wrath of a community whose motto might as well be "You're with us or against us."
  • These days it seems like every other interview with one of you guys includes two or three unabashed pronouncements about your work's importance. Way too many of you plead the case that theater people are great artists, unfairly ignored by a television-watching world that is too ignorant to appreciate you. Which makes me wonder: Why are you asking for attention from people you look down on? It seems to me you should stop the us vs. them, and join the party. Because, and I say this only as someone who cares, you would do yourselves and everyone who loves you a big favor if you just broke down and got cable.

Now, I'm sure there are many points that can be disagreed with in the details of Birkenhead's essay as well as the shows and people he admires (as of this writing, there are 38 comments to his post). And I suspect his admiration for television may bring hoots of derision as well. Nevertheless, for those of us who create theatre, or teach young people to create theatre, there may be great value in considering Birkenhead's screed.

Friday, June 08, 2007

About Damn Time

Arts Journal calls it "navel gazing," and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune calls it "fretting," but I call the TCG conference's focus on "asking ourselves how to serve our missions and where we will go in this century" about damn time. They seem to be struggling between globalization and localization, and I hope Wole Soyinka will have a few principled words to help them. I don't know what will come of the meeting, but I hope a few radical ideas are heard and considered.

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.
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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.

Labute and Color Blind Casting

There is an interesting discussion of Neil Labute's comments on color-blind casting happening at The New York Theatre i, Matt Freeman's place, and BlogStage among other places. I have nothing to add that hasn't been said beautifully by those good people and their commenters. But at the intersection between that discussion and what we were talking about yesterday, a question occurred to me: Is Neil Labute an example of a conservative playwright? In many ways, this article about color-blind casting has a neo-con flavor to it, and when I think of plays like The Shape of Things and films like In the Company of Men I start to wonder. In many ways, these pieces either bash traditional liberal issues (The Shape of Things, for instance, really paints an awful picture of contemporary artists) or celebrate traditional power relations (like the men's power in In the Company of Men). I suppose you could say that he is critiquing these things, but his comments on color-blind casting make me stop and think. He is sort of like the playground kid who gleefully crows "Wanna see something gross???" I don't know Labutes work well enough to make a definitive judgment, but I wanted to throw the question out: is he a neo-con playwright?

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Not Conservative, But Human

Suddenly, everybody's talking about "conservative" or "red state" theatre. I must confess, along with Laura Axelrod and Leonard Jacobs, that I don't know what "red state theatre" is. Now, that might strike my readers as odd, since by all accounts I am the founder of this particular intellectual feast engaged around the theatrosphere. Briefly, I'd like to trace how this permutation of my original idea came about before I try to either address the question Slay is asking in "Conservative In Question," or redirect the topic in the original direction -- I'm not certain which way this post will end up.

Apparently, the starting point for this discussion is found in my interview at "Theatre Is Territory," where Ian, having no idea what can of worms he was opening, asked the following question:

Do you think conservative, right-wing politics are somehow fundamentally at odds with the arts community?

To which I responded:

No, but the arts community needs to care enough about the conservatives to dialogue with them and not just insult them. We’re digging our own grave! Half of America is conservative! [snip theatre history lesson] There’s got to be a progressive way to speak to conservatives. (Hint: it doesn’t involve dehumanizing them.)

Please note the context: I was asked whether there was a fundamental disconnect between conservative politics and the arts community. My assertion is that the disconnect is a historical condition, not a fundamental one. The theatre has been conservative as much as it has been radical -- perhaps moreso. Aeschylus' The Oresteia is a conservative play in the sense that it celebrates the Grecian development of a court system to replace the revenge system of justice; Shakespeare's plays tend to support the English crown, and the playwrights of the French Neoclassical era bows to Louis XIV and the rules that the French Academy put into place at his behest. I could give other examples, but the point is that there is nothing endemic to theatre that makes it the enemy of conservative politics.

That said, I did suggest that theatre artists might find it beneficial to "find a progressive way to speak to conservatives," rather than insulting and dehumanizing them. That does imply some sort of active contact between liberals and conservatives that doesn't involve spitting or dogmatism. Apparently this idea is abhorent to at least one blogger, who has referred to it as "some shit." Nevertheless, this is just basic humanism -- the belief that most people operate from a sense of wanting to do right, even though they may differ about what that entails. That does not mean that one must agree with or respect all choices equally -- I am not suggesting that theatre artists sit down for a nice cup of tea with a KKK member and try to sensitively sympathize with his virulent racism. But I am suggesting that people who do not share a liberal ideology are human beings nonetheless and should be granted the basic respect that all human beings deserve.

Anyway, somehow this pretty bland idea (all people deserve to be treated like members of the human race and given the benefit of the doubt as far as their motives are concerned) was translated by Mark "Mr Excitement" at the Impending Theatrical Blogging Event as "Red State Hooey" (I love the title). Here's what it came out as (and my apologies to Laura Axelrod, who got unfairly smeared with my tar in this summary):

There is this odd notion in certain corners of the theater blogosphere that theater must speak to, or represent the concerns of, red state conservatives. It correlates with the outdated political notion that candidates must craft a message tailored to one elderly white male who lives in middle America, while the country is actually becoming more urban and more ethnically diverse. Plus, red state conservatives have had the entire government of the most powerful country in the history of the world speaking for them for six years now. The idea that theater should somehow also be responsible for promoting their agenda is bizarre.

Now, gentle reader, can you help me in tracing the devolution of my comment to this? I said nothing about trying to "represent the concerns" of conservatives, nor did I suggest that theatre should promote a conservative agenda. I suggested that theatre artists might find a "progressive way to speak to conservatives," that they might "dialogue" with them.

Nevertheless, it is Mark's revision of my original interview response that was picked up by Slay at Theatre Fortre in a post entitled "Hee Haw Retreads." Slay seemed as baffled as I was about the origin of this interpretation. He wrote:

I found where he says "a progressive way to speak to conservatives" and the part where he says "the arts community needs to care enough about the conservatives to dialogue with them".

I can't find "theatre made [there] in downtown NYC has [an] obligation to speak to those outside of its community" or "theater must speak to, or represent the concerns of, red state conservatives" or "theater should somehow also be responsible for promoting [the conservatives'] agenda " or any place where he says that theatre should be "speaking the concerns" of conservatives.

Is it not in this interview?


The ever helpful Joshua James offered this: "I believe Scott made that statement on a comment thread on David Cote's blog, if I recall . . . it may have been Catechism on a Hot Tin Roof, but I'm not sure. Mr Excitement would know, he referenced it originally." Slay checked it out, and said "I couldn't find it there." Joshua then said: "I'm not sure the exact place, myself . . . I know Walters also said something similar on his Praxis interview . . . but Mr. Excitement would know exactly." But alas, Mr Excitement ain't talking. At this point, I stepped in to save Slay from spending the day searching the blogosphere for my quotation, telling him it didn't exist, that it was a bad translation from the original English.

Nevertheless, from bad misunderstandings good conversations sometimes grows. Slay posted "Conservatism in Question," which lays out the basic topic quite nicely. Adam Szymkowicz contributes his thoughts in "Thoughts on Conservative Theatre," and Kyle at "Frank's Wild Lunch" offers "This In Response" to Adam. I suspect by now there are others as well, but rather than provide a Wikipedia article on the whole thing, let me stop here and offer my own thoughts on this subject tangential to my original quotation.

There's part of me that would like to offer the following quotations and let it go at that:

Laura Axelrod: I’m not sure what Red State Theater is, exactly. Personally, I’d like to have the biggest audience possible for my work, without compromising my vision. Shouting that Democrats or Republicans suck is going to defeat my purpose. Unless, that is my purpose. KnowwhatImean?

Slay (quoting from one of his recent shows): "We need to actually be liberal, to view the world as being made up of varying points of view and to court those we would not normally meet for coffee ... We have to give up the Us/Them mentality. You know, the one we find so disgusting when employed by George W. Bush."

James Comtois: To me, theatre doesn’t have to be political, apolitical, educational, right-wing or left-wing. It’s far more important to me that theatre artists and theatre theorists don’t consider their audience “beneath them.” Once you think you’re smarter than your audience, that’s the beginning of the end.


Those are all pretty damn good. But simply quoting would be the easy way out. I should probably supply something of my own that can be twisted in translation.

What I would suggest is as follows (with apologies for repetition). Great theatre artists should:

1. Avoid dogmatism and propaganda. Any part of life worth writing about is worth portraying in complex terms. Melodrama has one-dimensional heroes and villains -- don't stack the deck in your favor.

2. Assume that your audience is as smart as you are. Or better yet, smarter.

3. Believe that your spectators are capable of change.

4. Understand that change comes from persuasion and empathy, not nagging.

5. Allow for the possibility that viewpoints other than your own may be valid. As Neils Bohr famously said, "The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth." Strive to create plays that contain profound truths rather than correct statements.

6. Include yourself in any accusations. Remember that when you point a finger, three fingers point back at you. If you must point, that is good dramaturgical advice.

7. Even if you disagree with a particular value, try to understand it deeply, and present it fairly. Don't turn values into cartoons.
The thing that makes Angels in America great is that all of the characters, even Roy Cohn, is presented with complexity, depth, and (yes) empathy. See number 1 above.

8. There is a place for preaching to the choir -- as Slay wrote, quoting (he thinks) West Wing:
"Sometimes you have to preach to the choir, if you want them to sing." So true. Sometimes values need to be strengthened and reinforced. But don't confuse this with creating high quality theatre -- this is propaganda. Sometimes propaganda is necessary.

9. Imagine a better world. As Jill Dolan writes in Utopia in Performance, try to "inspire moments in which audiences feel themselves allied with each other, and with a broader, more capacious sense of a public, in which social discourse articulates the possible, rather than the insurmountable obstacles to human potential." As I tell my dog, Kip, you can point out shit without having to roll in it. He never listens either.

10. Believe in hope. As Barack Obama says, "the audacity of hope." Cynicism and despair is the idealist's wound. Always open up your heart, even though it seems dangerous to do so. (And if someone brings up Beckett as an example of a great artist that writes about despair, I would beg to differ. All of his characters have hope, in my opinion, and in their hope is their tragic heroism.)

Now, are these the characteristics of a "conservative, "red state" theatre? Not really, I suppose. But they are, I think, characteristics of a theatre that might bring people together in a common experience, and that might help bridge the ever-widening gulf in American society that the media has created and reinforced. Please note that I have not suggested "pandering to the audience," which is a violation of #2 above, nor have I said they should not be challenged. I guess, when all is said and done, I am simply repeating what I wrote in the post immediately preceding this one:

I think challenge is absolutely necessary for a community to grow. Theatre shouldn't exist simply to deepen social bonds by reinforcing already-agreed-upon ideas. Although such deepening DOES serve an important purpose, and is part of what a theatre should do. Part, but by no means all. But theatre should also challenge, and the point about challenge I would make is a very fine one. It is about the artist's soul, I guess, his attitude. I think scolding and hectoring is ineffective, and scorn is alienating... And as I noted in my post on risk, if your main purpose is to make the audience uncomfortable, you've set the bar too low. That is just so easy to do. I think discomfort comes as the result of a stretch toward something else, something higher than one has reached before. Like when a yoga instructor asks you to stretch in a way that is uncomfortable -- the goal is to increase flexibility, not simply the discomfort itself. I guess it is a generosity of spirit I'm talking about, and a faith in one's fellow man.


I don't think generosity of spirit and faith in one's fellow man is too much to ask of an artist. To me, that is the definition of a great soul. And I think great art comes from great souls.


Addendum: 1) None of these ideas should be viewed as policies -- no jackbooted arts troopers will come to your door to force you to follow these ideas. 2) If there was some miracle and suddenly every play being written were conforming to these suggestions, I would immediately create another list insisting on the opposite -- balance is the goal. The above, which may seem like truisms to some, are what I feel is in need of increase at the moment.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Response to Isaac -- On Challenging the Community

Isaac suggested I post an email exchange he and I had in relation to a post on his blog. He asked:

Here's my question for you, though... One place that we agree is in the community stuff, or at least in the basic principles of community growth and development, and (For me anyway) a move away from the vision of the individual as somehow AGAINST as opposed to a part of a group. Where we differ though is I think the idea of challenge... My perception (and take it with a big grain of inaccuracy salt) is that you're very wary of work that challenges its audiences, even work whose challenge is fairly (in my view anyway) mild, like Paula Vogel's /How I Learned To Drive/, which you mentioned obliquely in that speech to your Freshmen and lumped in with the work of Karen Finley (whose work I don't actually find challenging on an ideological or dramaturgical level but rather simply annoying and boring, but that's beside the point)... anyway, assuming this wariness, a community at the same time has to be self-reflexive, and very critical of itself if it will continue to grow and develop. Otherwise, communities simply exist for the purpose of keeping their members comfortable + complacent + ossified and... well, not to be too slippery slope, but this is how we got to where we are today, and I don't think it's working out too well. Where is the room for challenge in your vision of what theatre should be?

To which I gave the following reply:

Isaac -- An excellent question -- and yes, my reference to Paula Vogel is coming back to haunt me (be careful of rhetorical flourishes, I must remember). Re Vogel: I like her humanist stance, and her taking an issue that could be very melodramatic and making it complex and thoughtful,
and I shouldn't have tarred her with the Finley brush. I agree with you about Finley -- a great example of how preaching to the converted can lead to abrasiveness for its own sake. I saw her in person last winter at NYU, and I've never felt so...I don't know what word to use...threatened, perhaps...in the presence of a performer. She seemed certifiably insane to me, and capable of snapping at any moment. Anyway, your question: I think challenge is absolutely necessary for a community to grow. Theatre shouldn't exist simply to deepen social bonds by reinforcing already-agreed-upon ideas. Although such deepening DOES serve an important purpose, and is part of what a theatre should do. Part, but by no means all. But theatre should also challenge, and the point about challenge I would make is a very fine one. It is about the artist's soul, I guess, his attitude. I think scolding and hectoring is ineffective, and scorn is alienating. I think that the challenge the artist makes should also affect himself -- in other words, he should be
implicated in whatever the change is that is being asked of the audience. That the finger that points has three fingers that points back at the artist. Going along with this, there should be a faith on the artist's behalf that the audience is capable of change. And as I noted in my post on risk, if your main purpose is to make the audience uncomfortable, you've set the bar too low. That is just so easy to do. I think discomfort comes as the result of a stretch toward something else, something higher than one has reached before. Like when a yoga instructor asks you to stretch in a way that is uncomfortable -- the goal is to increase flexibility, not the discomfort
itself. I guess it is a generosity of spirit I'm talking about, and a faith in one's fellow man. Does that in any way address your question?