In the experiment, tappers are flabbergasted at how hard the listeners seem to be working to pick up the tune. Isn't the song obvious? The tappers' expressions, when a listener guesses "Happy Birthday to You" for "The Star-Spangled Banner," are priceless: How could you be so stupid?There are times on this blog when I have the same frustrated feelings as the tappers in this experiment. I keep determinedly tapping out "America, the Beautiful" and my readers keep guessing "New York, New York" and "The Theme to Fame." My former father-in-law used to experience this same frustration when playing Pictionary. He would inevitably scratch some totally indecipherable marks on a piece of paper, and then spend the rest of the allotted time exasperatedly pointing over and over at the drawing with the tip of his pencil. When time ran out, he'd throw up his hands and proclaim to his baffled partner, "It's 'My Fair Lady'!" with the unspoken addendum: You Dumb Ass!
It's hard to be a tapper. The problem is that tappers have been given knowledge (the song title) that makes it impossible for them to imagine what it's like to lack that knowledge. When they're tapping, they can't imagine what it's like for the listeners to hear isolated taps rather than a song. This is the Curse of Knowledge. Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. Our knowledge has "cursed" us. And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others, because we can't readily re-create our listeners' state of mind.
I am trying to remind myself about this Curse of Knowledge as I respond to a few comments some of my recent posts have received. I am doing this in the hope that, by addressing these comments, the song will become a wee bit clearer to my readers. We'll see if I can go beyond exasperated pointing.
On TV, Film, and Commercials
THE ARGUMENT nicely put by RLewis: "Much of this discussion seems to assume that all actors are stage actors when many just do stage work until they book a good commercial (3 of those = all the $$$ one needs for the year). I'd bet more actors are in nyc and la, not because they have theaters, but because no other cities have advertising agency communities as large as they do. Actors don't buy a studio in Queens with money from stage acting, they do it with commercial residuals."
MY RESPONSE: He's right -- this blog is focused totally and completely on the stage. Period. Yes, actors make additional money by doing films, tv, and commercials, and that's just fine. They make money by waiting tables and doing temp work, but I don't feel the need to address those activities on this blog, either. This does not represent judgmentalism or dismissal on my part: I think doing film, TV, and commercials are all admirable endeavors when they are done well, and I applaud everyone who has devoted their artistic life to them. But they are different media with different issues and problems and challenges that are outside of my area of interest. This blog is completely focused on figuring out how theatre artists can lead a reasonable life by doing theatre. Not by doing theatre, movies, TV, commercials, and industrials.By doing theatre. Period. So the argument that theatrical activity should be centralized in NY, LA, and Chicago because that's where the film-tv-commercial work is located, for instance, is totally irrelevant to to this blog. To me, it is like arguing that theatre should be centralized in those cities because there are more restaurants there for actors to make money. Irrelevant. Where can people do theatre? This blog is called Theatre Ideas, and that wasn't an accident. I chose that title purposely -- it is about theatre. (And a sidenote: if anyone writes in the comments to this thread anything about my "idealism" versus their "pragmatism and realistic thinking," I will track you down and personally pull the homefries out of your ears.)
On Theatre as an End in Itself
THE ARGUMENT: A nice, personal description contributed by Mike Dailey: "I was born and raised in St. Louis. I love the city still. I have just had a baby and would love to live in a place like that and be an actor but feel it would be, as an actor, throwing in the towel and closing a door. No more commercial work. No more real thoughts of getting tv or film work." A more general description comes from Nick at Ratsass: "most theatre people are divided in their ambition. The inherent obscurity of producing theatre at the community level is a continuing challenge to one’s self-esteem and most theatre people are at least half desirous for recognition if not success by the yardsticks of the dominant culture in which we are all immersed."
MY RESPONSE: This is the Cinderella argument, and it is the theatre's version of crack addiction. Like most addictions, it often leads to self-destruction and collateral damage. It's connected to the first argument above, in that it blends theatre with tv, film, and commercials. But the center of this argument is that it sees theatre not as an end in itself, but as an instrument for acquiring something else: commercial work, TV, film, critical recognition, or ultimately (although rarely spoken explicitly) fame. Once addicted to this viewpoint, to step outside Nylachi is to "throw in the towel" and sacrifice self-esteem. [Note: from here on out on this blog (as long as I can remember), I am going to abbreviate NY, LA, and CHIcago as Nylachi.] Thus, your identity is a function of geography rather than accomplishment. If you work outside of Nylachi, when you go home for Thanksgiving, you lose the cache of saying that you are a Nylachi actor, even if you are primarily an Nylachi auditioner. In short, you have been Sinatra'd. While you may be able to actually create more theatre and practice your art more consistently in St. Louis or Omaha, and might be able to control your own artistic life rather than be at the mercy of the Nylachi moneymen, you will choose Nylachi because it makes you "feel" like an artist. To those of you who suffer from this addiction, this blog is not for you. This blog sees the creation of theatre as an end in itself. This blog has no interest in fame, only work. This blog sees the creation of theatre as more important than the location where you it is done. This blog believes that a Nylachi audience is no better and no worse than a St. Louis audience or an Omaha audience. This blog is deeply populist, and deeply regionalist. If you do not suffer from the Cinderella addiction, and you are considering creating your own theatre tribe/ensemble, I encourage you to avoid at all costs these addicts, for they do not want what you want, and they will dump you to run after the next shiny object. Seek those for whom the work is an end in itself. (Note: if you live in Nylachi, you are not necessarily addicted. It is entirely possible to be focused on the work as an end in itself, and to simply love Nylachi as a place to live. I say all power to you. Your challenges will be greater than those who do their work elsewhere, for you will have to focus on the work itself within a context that does not understand that orientation. I wish you strength and luck.)
Actors in the Big City
THE ARGUMENT: Made by Don Cummings: "However, I think the draw for artists to consequential urban has been around since before Rome and Athens. It's more exciting. More ideas, energy and let's face it, interesting sexual partners can be shared in lager arenas."
MY RESPONSE: Ancient Athens had a total population of roughly 250,000, most of whom were slaves. The adult male citizen population was 30,000, or roughly the population of Bartlesville, OK. And yet, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and the gang found enough people to trade ideas with. But if you want to include the slaves and women, it is a bit less than the population of Jackson, MS. Rome came in at a million at its peak, or about the same population as St. Louis County in Missouri. Although why you'd look to Rome for anything theatrical, I don't know. Paris in Moliere's time? Approximately 425,000, or the population of Omaha. London during Shakespeare's time: 250,000 or the population of Mobile AL. If Euripides, Plautus, Moliere, and Shakespeare were able to be inspired and energized in cities of that size, why can't you today? It is a specious argument, one that universalizes a personal preference. In a world where cell phones and internet connections allow artists to interact with ease no matter whether or not they share geographic proximity, the belief that Nylachi is the seat of energy and ideas is antiquated. As for your sexual partners, I have no opinion, except to say I don't give a damn-- it has nothing to do with theatre.
1. This blog is devoted solely and exclusively to theatre.
2. This blog is focused on theatre as an end in itself, not an instrument for the acquisition other things.
3. This blog is premised on the belief that population is not a determinant for artistry nor appreciation.
Tap tap tap. It's "America the Beautiful"!