Thursday, July 26, 2007

Gone Fishin'

Dear Readers: as delightful as this charming discussion has been, I must leave you for several days. My wife and I will be taking a short vacation beginning Friday morning and extending through Monday night, during which time I will be staying in a B & B on a working farm where internet access will not exist.

During my vacation, it is my intent to forget all about theatre and blogging and teaching and fill my mind with things that will stimulate my mind, bring joy to my heart, and enrich my soul. Among the books I will choose between:

  • On Beauty and Being Just by Elaine Scarry
  • The Complete Essays and Other Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom by Jonathan Haidt
  • Sacred Contracts: Awakening Your Divine Potential by Caroline Myss
  • The Princess Bride by William Goldman
  • Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver
  • The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories by Christopher Booker
  • Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes from and Why by Ellen Dissanayake
  • The Everyday Work of Art: Awakening the Extraordinary in Your Daily Life by Eric Booth
And no doubt my wife and I will sit outside with a glass of wine and cheese and look back over our lives together so far (we will have been married 12 years on August 5th) and discuss what we have discovered and where we might go in the future. And we will have a visit with my stepson and his girlfriend who live in Chapel Hill, and attend the wedding of a former student who once was a member of a group called "The Dead Dramatists Society" who met weekly to discuss the purpose and values of the contemporary theatre. And I will be among people who are thoughtful, generous, intelligent, and gracious.

I will see you Tuesday.

In Response to Mac at Slowlearner

Mac at Slowlearner has decided to take on both George Hunka and me in the same post. My response to him, and indirectly to many of you who have filled my comments box, follows:

This is not about me, nor is it only about theatre. It is about a culture. It is about a mass media that regularly focuses on the metropolis to the near exclusion of rural life and the south, and when it does refer to them, does so using demeaning stereotypes almost exclusively. The theatre follows that trend. So is there a NY aesthetic? There is a metropolitan coastal attitude that privileges certain types of content over others.

I refer you to your own link of non-musical plays: do you see any that seem to be set in the south or a rural community? What I see are some international plays, some classics, and some plays that SOUND as if they take place in NYC. So what, you say? In the current theatrical climate, mostly NYC plays get produced across the country. Films and television are also centered in NYC or LA, and also reflect the experiences and attitudes of that place.

Let me ask you a question: What is the ratio of television shows set in big cities to television shows set in the south or in a rural setting? Or if that is too hard, name some TV shows set in the south or a rural setting. Next: when was the last time you saw on TV or in a movie a southern police officer who wasn't represented as a stupid racist? When was the last time you heard a southern dialect that wasn't being used as shorthand in support of a stereotype? When was the last time you saw a farmer -- and I mean a contemporary farmer, not some historical "Little House on the Prairie" farmer -- who wasn't presented as a hayseed? These characterizations are based on stereotypes that are insulting and offensive.

In Spike Lee's "Bamboozled," Delacroix's first meeting about his new African-American show has a writing staff who are all white. When he expresses his frustration with this, and wonders why there are no black faces around the table, the writers all chime in with a series of reasons based on racist stereotypes that Delacroix caps with "and maybe they couldn't put down their crack pipes long enough to apply." At the end of that film, Lee strings together a long montage of racist images from cartoons and films over the years. Each one, taken separately, might seem harmless; taken together, they support racism.

In academic terms, this is known as "cultural hegemony," a term coined by Antonio Gramsci: "It means that a diverse culture can be ruled or dominated by one group or class, that everyday practices and shared beliefs provide the foundation for complex systems of domination." These shared beliefs are created, in part, through the repetition of images that are internalized by the culture, including those that it insults. (To see this in action, read Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye," which is a powerful illustration of the destructive power of internalized racism.)

What are the effects of internalized geographism? Children on farms or in the south are regularly told that their lives are boring, their values are reactionary, their history is despicable, their accents are ignorant, and their beliefs are evil. They rarely see anything that looks like their own lives, that reflects their own experiences, or that supports their own values. Rather, they are fed a steady diet of cosmopolitan values, morality, and ideology. They are told that, if they are smart, they will migrate to a big city, which is where all the smart people go. They are told that farming is of little value, small town life is tedious, and that life is only valuable if lived at a torrid pace, and that concrete and streetlights are more exciting than grass and starlight.

This is hegemony, plain and simple. And like most hegemony, those who perpetuate it aren't even aware they are doing so. They have internalized the images so thoroughly that they innocently reproduce them without thinking. It isn't until somebody draws their attention to those images, and forces them to see them for what they are, that they begin to understand.

No, I have not read the script for "Iowa 08," but I have for nearly fifty years been fed a regular diet of these stereotypes enough so that I can recognize the clues pretty easily. It doesn't take a genius to see from the "Iowa 08" evidence that this material is insulting. But if it makes you feel better, I will condemn only the YouTube video and the blog posts. Either way, the argument still stands: the American culture, most of which emanates from either NYC or LA, presents a skewed, stereotypical, and insulting view of the lives of rural and southern people, and also valorizes life in the metropolis. I would be happy to stand corrected should my attention be turned to overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Finally, I am not insulting your community, I am calling on your community to respect the members of other communities.

[I ended this response with a short note to George Hunka, who made a snotty comment about "community" and "tribalism."]

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

That There Is Some Bullshit

"Theatre is Territory" is apparently recommending, "if you happen to be in New York," what seems to this former-midwesterner-now-southerner to be an insulting piece of so-called humor called Iowa 08, a 10-minute play festival created and performed by a bunch of New Yorkers about the people of Iowa and their role in the presidential election. These New Yorkers write "Of course, we don't purport to be experts on the topic," but that doesn't stop them from ridiculing Iowans through the propagation of idiotic and insulting stereotypes. If you think I'm being humorless, you don't know humorless until you've checked out their blog and seen their YouTube video, both of which are sophomoric.

This is the kind of bullshit I am talking about when I insist that the NYC aesthetic is not universal, and in fact is openly scornful and dismissive of experiences and lifestyles that take place west of the Hudson and in places with less than 7 million people. There is an arrogance just beneath the surface -- hell, lying right on top of the surface -- that needs to be called out by every non-New Yorker who is tired of seeing good people insulted, and every New Yorker who has even a small conscience left. This happens regularly, and not only to Iowans (who seem to regularly be whipping boys), but also people in the south who are constantly portrayed using insulting stereotypes. Enough is enough.

When are such affronts going to stop being tolerated? When are glib, smart ass kids who think they are "artists" going to be taught a little respect for our common humanity and citizenship? When is liberal respect for diversity going to include geographical and sociological diversity, not just race and sexual preference? When are we going to see the states that make up the rest of this country as having dignity and intelligence, and not simply as what keeps the east coast from bumping into the west coast? When are we going to stop endorsing the idea that the majority of this country is "flyover," as the ArtsJournal site insultingly calls its blog devoted to "art in the American outback"? AMERICAN OUTBACK??? ArtsJournal ought to be shot. And when is the word "satire" going to stop being an acceptable mask for offensiveness, crassness, and insulting behavior?

We've been putting up with this crap for far too long. Whether The Beverly Hillbillies (or its recently proposed "reality show" knock-off The Real Beverly Hillbillies, which proposed bringing people from Appalachia to California so America could make fun of them), or Green Acres or all the "hillbilly" and "farmer" caricatures propagated in the mass media -- enough is enough. We are sick of people like H. L. Mencken writing ignorant and scabrous comments like "Down there a poet is now almost as rare as an oboe player...It is indeed amazing to contemplate so vast a vacuity. One thinks of the interstellar spaces...And yet, for all its size and all its wealth and all the 'progress' it babbles of, it is almost as sterile, artistically, intellectually, culturally, as the Sahara Desert." This is narrow-minded, ignorant bullshit, and should be called such.

Arlene Goldbard (see sidebar), in a recent blog post, writes: " I had speaking engagements in Barcelona and London, and in between, vast conversations about culture and politics. In memory, they have the aspect of those cartoons where the backdrops change—now palm trees, now snow-covered hills—while the characters carry on chasing each other: one long dialogue with frequent changes of scene. My next few posts will be about what I learned from my travels. One thing that stands out is the depth of commonality it was easy to experience with people whose cultures and circumstances are hugely different from my own, but whose commitments and preoccupations feel the same." It is about time we all recognize this fact, and start respecting all humanity, and not just humanity that lives in NYC and LA.

Welcome Back, Tom Loughlin!

After several months of silence that coincided with a stint as interim Dean at SUNY - Fredonia, Tom Loughlin quietly stole back into the theatrosphere on the Fourth of July without my noticing. Welcome back! As Tom notes, he and I are "generational contemporaries faced with many of the same issues and problems in our careers." For instance, his July 18th post could have been taken from my own journal (or from this blog):

It leaves me wondering where does real change begin? This is a very critical question for me, because as someone engaged in public education, it seem I really need to re-think in some manner how I will continue to approach the classroom. I like writing, to be sure, and I am in some ways glad to get back to this blog. But I cannot hold any illusions that writing will be a catalyst for change. it helps me clarify thought, but thought must be put into action. I need to figure out, and quickly, what form that action will take.

Where does real change begin? I've been reading a book lately called Collaborative Circles: Friendship Dynamics and Creative Work, which looks at groups of artists (e.g., the Impressionist painters; C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and the Inklings; John Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, Alan Tate and the Fugitive poets, and so forth) who have inspired each other through constant interaction. In some ways, I had often hoped that the theatrosphere could serve such a function, but the jury is out on that. I agree with Tom that writing alone is not a catalyst for change, but I would also argue that action alone isn't either. There is a great deal of action going on in the country, but unless somebody shines a light on it, it will tend to go unnoticed. Harold Clurman directed, yes, but he also wrote about the Group Theatre and its ideals; Brecht wrote plays, yes, and he directed, but he also wrote his ideas about how theatre ought to be and this added to his renown; same with Richard Foreman; would Look Back in Anger have launched a revolution without Kenneth Tynan's review?

Change happens, it seems to me, when there is a strong circulation between thought and action, and when there is a community of artists who push each other to go further than they expected. In this respect, the hyper-individualism of our current theatre scene seems to work against change. In many ways, the "collaborative circles" discussed by Michael Farrell resemble in many ways Daniel Quinn's "occupational tribes" that I have been discussing of late. The question in my mind is: is it possible to faciltate the formation of such "collaborative circles," such "tribes"?

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Tony on the Synthesis of Art and Entertainment

Tony, over at Jay Raskolnikov, has recently written a wonderful post entitled "Entertainment vs Art: Go Big or Go Home?," in which he uses the recent Harry Potter discussions to make his own points about what makes theatre really cook. After reading the post, I think the title doesn't reflect the content. Tony doesn't seem to be putting entertainment and art in opposition, but rather looking back to a day when they were expected to be joined. Tony writes, "Somehow we got the notion that art was different from entertainment; that art, that theatre shouldn't be entertainment, pandering to audiences. No one wants to be bored." Significantly, to my mind, he makes sure to quickly assure everyone that "This does not mean theatre should not challenge ideas, perceptions, beliefs, the status quo." I say significantly, because that is the way so many have come to think about art: if it is entertaining, then it must be pandering; if it is challenging, then it must be boring. If you come out in favor of the importance of entertainment, then you are in danger of having your artistic license revoked. And yet since Aristotle the first commandment of theatre was "to entertain." Horace added "educate" to that first rule, but it did not replace entertainment, but rather added to it.

For many people, Peter Shaffer and a play like Equus represents middlebrow hack work. But I say that play is a great model of what happens when you join entertainment and thought. Using the popular structure of a mystery story with psychiatrist as sleuth, Shaffer adds layers of fairly difficult ideas about religion and society, passion and normalcy. The spectacle is spartan, yet evocative. The story is embodied, not simply discussed. And what is at stake are two peoples' souls. And Shaffer accomplishes this by drawing from the ancient Greeks as well as the popular form of the mystery. And he doesn't shy away from helping the audience to understand the ideas, just like the chorus did in the Greek tragedies, and like Shakespeare's Chorus did in Henry V. He used powerful techniques from the past with contemporary content and language. Artaud would be pleased.

So be sure to read Tony -- great stuff.