Thursday, February 14, 2008

On Taking Action

Rebecca Z, in the comments to my post "It's Beginning to Happen," writes: "You're a great cheerleader about "change", don't get me wrong, but how are you going to act upon this need for change? What will you do to make a difference? And, writing about this stuff, while a great start, is not the answer I'm looking for. Feel free to point me in the direction of past blogs where you talk about action you may have taken, but it just seems like a lot of conversation."

It's a good question -- one that I'd like to address perhaps in a roundabout manner by talking about history.

In November 1930, a 29-year-old play reader with a minimal professional theatre experience began a series of weekly talks in which he passionately described his vision for an American theatre. At first, his audience was made up of a few friends and acquaintances – in fact, the talks took place in his own hotel room. But word soon spread of the excitement of his ideas, and soon he was speaking in a hall that seated 200. They all came to hear him describe an idea of the theatre that was idealistic, committed, and totally different than what then existed on Broadway. He would talk for hours at a time, shouting and waving his arms, and when the lecture was over, the conversation would continue through the night at coffee shops and restaurants. By May, through the power of his words alone, he had inspired enough people to believe in his vision that a new theatre was born. It was called the Group Theatre, and his name was Harold Clurman.

I refer to Clurman as much because of what he was not as what he was at the time he was talking the Group Theatre into existence: he was not a Broadway insider, he was not a seasoned professional. He was just a man with an academic knowledge of dramatic literature, a belief in certain values, and an intense desire to create something valuable and needed. While now we hail Clurman as a co-founder of arguably the most important theatre in American dramatic history, the fact is that for the first two years of the Group Theatre’s existence he did little more than talk. When the Group members retreated to Brookfield, Connecticut in the summer of 1931 to prepare their first production, Clurman contributed very little of a practical nature. He didn’t direct, that was Lee Strasberg’s job; he didn’t handle the finances, that was Cheryl Crawford’s job; he didn’t act, that was everybody else’s job. And yet, his role was crucial to the future success of this revolutionary theatre, because he was its spiritual leader. Every afternoon, Clurman would give lectures about what they were trying to do, why they were trying to do it, why the American theatre needed them to succeed. He imbued the assembled artists with the inner fire of a sense of purpose, and then he kept that fire burning. Why did they listen to him? It certainly wasn’t because of any worldly power or authority; it was because of intensity of his vision.

I'm no Harold Clurman, but I do see him as a role model. Sometimes what is needed is a vision that can inspire others. Marx didn't do anything to inspire the proletarian revolution beyond writing Das Capital, but his words, his analysis of the situation, his vision of the future inspired those who did. Similarly, I admire Clurman not only for what he said, but what he wrote. Over the course of his long career, he directed important productions all over the world, but he also took the time to write about his ideas, his reasons for doing theatre, his values, and his beliefs. The Collected Works of Harold Clurman runs over a thousand pages, and the editors of that volume note that those pages represent about a third of the total amount he wrote for newspapers and journals, and furthermore that anthology doesn't even include his full-length books Ibsen, All People Are Famous, The Fervent Years, and On Directing, books that have inspired generations of theatre artists and that represent many hundreds of additional pages. One might argue that Clurman's greatest impact on the American theatre has been through his writing more than through his productions, as important as Awake and Sing was.

Add to that the fact that Clurman also was a university professor, and you start to get a sense of the scope of his sense of responsibility. For him, it wasn’t enough to simply make art, it was important to put the underlying principles and observations into words that could be passed on to others. This reflected a deep sense of the future, a realization that while the work itself is written on water, the ideas could live on and serve as the inspirational foundation for future growth.

I think we all contribute to change through our particular areas of influence. I am an academic -- I am trying to educate a new generation of artists. So if I am going to walk my talk, as Rebecca seems to be asking, that means that I must begin teaching the values I am proposing, and addressing the skills that such values require to reach fruition.

But I also must write. This blog is the starting point for more formal writing on the same topics, but that is not why I maintain it. I blog because I have had evidence that there are people out there who are frustrated, who feel as if their talents are going unused, who feel as if they want to live a different life in the arts, and who need to hear that their frustrations are shared. They need to read ideas that question whether the status quo is necessary, or necessarily the best way. They need to hear that their desire to live their life outside of Nylachi, and to have financial stability, to have a house, to have a family, to be part of a community is not out of bounds. And they need someone who is trying, one step at a time, to figure out a new way of creating theatre that might fulfill those dreams.

Over the past week or two, I have begun the process of theorizing a different model. These posts can be found here, here, and here. The overall goal is developed here. It isn't easy -- it takes a lot of thought, research, and creativity. The hardest thing is to erase my innate preconceptions and try to think both historically (by uncovering past models that might be adapted to today's circumstances) and ahistorically (by beginning with first principles). In the coming weeks, I will continue this project and discuss, for instance, how one might choose a place to have a theatre, what underlying aesthetic principles might give it the best chance of being sustainable, what sort of space might be workable, what sort of approach to audience building might be effective. While I most likely won't be putting these ideas into a theatre of my own, I will be trying to think through the options and their ramifications, and with any luck I may create an advisory service that could help people willing to put the ideas into practice.

All of this may seem like mere conversation, but as Athol Fugard pointed out in Master Harold...and the boys, we have to first imagine a new reality before we can bring it into being. That's my contribution. That's the action I take.


GreyZelda Land said...

Thanks you, Scott.


GreyZelda Land said...

Or rather ... thank you.



Scott Walters said...

You're most welcome -- and thank you for the prompt. It may not quite be the answer you were looking for, but I guess it is the best I can give.

nick@ said...

Writing, theorizing, and proposing are all most definitely doing something. Please keep it up. But I want to hold you to your word.

"It is fairly easy to describe what one is against, but much more of a challenge to describe what one is for."

Scott Walters said...

Nick -- Wouldn't you say that the posts I linked to are describing what I am for?

nick@ said...

Yes, they describe mostly excellently what you are for.

You also threw in few side rants against regional theatre or such today.

Nice mix.

Danielle Wilson said...

Yes. Thanks.

I think it's important to remember that change is a process and it can be a long one. No one jumps into doing anything big without some plans... you don't buy a house without looking at at lot of houses and checking your financial situation first; you don't decide to change jobs without first having a job to change to; you don't decide to have a family and wake up with children the next morning.
The change in theater will be a lot of planning and a lot of providence and a lot of time.

Paul said...

Revolutions start with decades of discomfort, one ridiculous act, and decades of filtering through the aftermath.

We're not even at the 95 Theses stage yet, not really. We're just spitballing. That day is coming, it's building steam, and it will eventually explode.

The question is, does it explode through a simple act like Luther's discussion and we launch a new movement? Or does it explode like the Haymarket Riots and all this manic activity kills the message? Dunno, but worth remembering.