Monday, March 31, 2008

Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain

Every once in a while, an issue arises on my blog that leads to discussion about my personal blogging "style," and words like "abrasive" and "combative" inevitably are trotted out. People tell me that I would be more "effective" if I were "nicer," if I didn't "lecture," even if I used fewer declarative sentences! Sometimes I get irritated with these discussions - in fact, I'm afraid I got a little testy with Freeman and Isaac late last week in a series if IM's and emails that were sent out of friendship, and I apologize to them publicly (end of a busy week).

Anyway, I was talking about this with my wife this weekend, and in the course of the discussion I was struck by a realization due to an observation she made: when I blog, I play a role. I'm not really like the guy who writes this blog. I'm not like this in classroom, or home with my wife, or out with friends. Like the Wizard of Oz, I have constructed a fiery, scary persona to mask my own more human side. While I have never quite understood why the Wizard benefited from this persona (doesn't it seem like the Munchkins would have worshipped him regardless?), I know why I play that role: because most of you can't.

Let me explain.

Most of you who participate in the theatre blogging community, either as bloggers or readers, are artists. In a highly competitive field in which everybody knows everybody else, your livelihood depends on people seeing you as someone they want to work with, and it might be dangerous for you to risk offending people through too-pointed criticism. It isn't that you don't address controversial issues (or else nobody would have talked about Rachel Corrie, for instance), but just that your comments, your blogging persona, operate within that context.

But as many of my readers regularly point out to me, I am not an artist but an academic -- and a tenured academic to boot, and with that comes certain freedoms. I have the passion for the art, and the commitment to its health and well-being, and a belief in its power and value, but I don't rely on it for sustenance. And that allows me to say things that others can't as easily.

And so I can serve a particular function in the theatrosphere. I can serve as the gadfly and the curmudgeon. I can email the editor of American Theatre or a representative of the NEA and take them to task over certain issues because I don't need anything from them. I can be blunt, and bring the issues to the fore without worrying whether I am ever going to be needing their support.

But the help I do need comes from the rest of you. After I stir the waters, you can follow behind and make suggestions for improvements that will calm them, and so the situation may be resolved. I can't do this easily myself -- when you're a disembodied head with fire that shoots up with every word, it is hard to be anything except scary and speak in declarative sentences! Once I raise an issue -- say, the increasingly more centralized coverage of theatre in American Theatre -- you can all talk about how the staff of American Theatre's heart is in the right place (true), they have a challenging job (very true), etc and make a few friendly, practical suggestions that might improve the situation -- for instance, make some suggestions for article topics or writers, or suggest a monthly feature by the Flyover people, or whatever. That way, you look like nice people, and things change for the better. Everybody wins.

The fact is -- and I suspect my students would concur, and I know my wife would, and maybe my colleagues would (at least most of the time) -- I am much closer in real life to the man behind the curtain than the fiery green head. Pointed, sure, a little ironical, of course, but kindly at heart. Is there a part of me that is like the fiery head -- absolutely, or I wouldn't be able to so easily assume that persona. But it is a partial self. And while a blog other than Theatre Ideas might allow that real person to come out, Theatre Ideas is about trying to create change, and right now I think change needs to be provoked rather than coaxed, and sometimes that means some fire and declarative sentences more than kindly one-liners. But we need to work together.

Keep Toto away from the control booth for a little while longer.

1 comment:

Dennis Baker said...

People tell me that I would be more "effective" if I were "nicer," if I didn't "lecture," even if I used fewer declarative sentences!

Like email, I believe it can be dangerous to read tone and intention into blog posts and comments. Yes, there are exceptions. What someone reads as "abrasive" and "combative" I read as some one that has deep passion.

You do bring up a good point I struggle in writing my blog. What to share and not share because there might be people reading who will hire you, who you will work with, and whose relationships you need to cultivate.

I have always landed on the side of being honest in hopes people will respect that. I have been told that I am too personal, but I also have been thanked for exposing the highs and lows of being an actor and in this field. Has this honesty lost me jobs or working with people? Hard to say because in this industry you could not be cast for being too tall, too short, too whatever. So I think a blog might be on the bottom of that list...hopefully.

All this to say I think you are doing a great job and that I hope more people are telling you this than being concerned by how "nice" you should be.