Friday, May 02, 2008

The Devilvet Prompts Some Reflection

Over at Never Trust Your Pet to the Devilvet, devilvet (aka Bob Fisher), in a post entitled "Lights rise on a dark room, a man clears his throat and says...," writes about the recent discussions here and on Don Hall's blog. In an attempt to walk the line between being critical and saying something nice (because if he says something nice, you KNOW Don Hall is going to give him a verbal wedgy):
And to Scott's credit, he absorbs the criticisms, then uses them, then diligently tries to answer them, and he doesn't give up even when the argument isn't converting the most vocal monkeys on his back. He risks alot, and withstands alot. I often ask myself if this were say a Mammals production we were talking about rather than Mr. Walter's attempt at a new production paradigm, would I be able to sustain such rigorous deconstruction in so public a forum and for such an extended period of time. It is a tough road.
So I thought I'd talk about that "tough road" for a few minutes.

Sure, my ideas get hammered a lot, and sometimes I get hammered personally as part of the process. Part of the game. Sometimes I find myself feeling angry at being misrepresented or dismissed, but over the past couple of years I have tried more and more to maintain a sense of humor and objectivity rather than just shouting "Oh, Yeah! Well, you suck too! Take THAT, you loooo-zer!" Although truth be told, I still fall into that more often than I'd like.

But Bob's musings about being able to put up with public attacks about his own productions got me thinking. Back in late October 2006 (!!!), in the midst of a discussion about blog ethics (when we talk on our blogs about productions done by people we know, should we say anything critical about it? Resounding answer around the theatrosphere: No), Isaac posted this at Parabasis in a post entitled "(Un)critical response: My Policy": "And Scott, to answer your question... ideas are a dime a dozen. Criticizing someone's ideas is like criticizing someone's socks-- they can always go out and get some new ones (or defend their choice off socks, I suppose). Ideas aren't really work the same way that artistic creation is, which is the space where you have to take those ideas and make something out of them. That for me is why arguing against someone's ideas is totally different from publicly discussing what you didn't like about their show."

At the time, I was shocked and I kinda went, "huh!" I still do, actually. Because for me, ideas are a form of creativity just as difficult and just as self-revelatory and personal as creating a piece of art. And I've done both. Just like writing a new play, original ideas seem to come out of the ether and like plays they also sometimes take on a life of their own. Looking at the world and trying to create a new approach to something means putting together pieces of reality in new ways, placing conflicts into new contexts, looking at issues from upside down and inside out.

There seems to be a tendency to think of ideas as somehow emotionally detached from their creators, like socks as Isaac says that can be thrown away and new ones acquired. I can tell you that this is not the case. Ideas are as much the thinker's baby as a production is the artist's baby, and having people smacking that baby around is just as painful in both cases.

I am always surprised at how little artists seem to grasp this, or at least how little credence they give to it. This sharp double standard seems odd to me. When I read biographies of playwrights like, say, Eugene O'Neill I see how important the ideas of philosophy were to him, and his plays become ways that he converts those ideas into imaginative form in a process that parallels that which the original philosopher went through in order to create those ideas. It isn't a cold, analytic, painless process. "Writing is easy," Gene Fowler once said, "all you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead." Those drops of blood form on thinker's foreheads as often as an artist's.

So I am always sort of shocked when artists blithely dismiss intellectual work with a wave of the hand. The blogosphere became inflamed when George Hunka had the temerity to write a review of a production after having walked out at intermission, explicitly stating that he had done so in his review, but when Jason Grote writes a review of the WolfBrown study of intrinsic impacts of the arts without having read the study, a summary of the study, or anything more than the conference description of the study, and I wrote a blog post questioning the ethics of that, the theatrosphere remains apathetically silent. To me, that represents a lack of understanding about just what is involved in the creation of new ideas. The WolfBrown study may or may not be valuable, but as the product of a great deal of time and effort by its authors, the value of which is represented by its being included in the program of a national conference that happens only once every four years and that is being attended by prominent artists and thinkers, it deserved to be treated with respect.

Often, my ideas are dismissed as "just theory" unless I can point to pre-existent examples of these ideas already in action. To me, this is like insisting that a playwright who has written a new play point at some other play that already tells his story before anyone will consider doing a production. Sometimes, you just need to take an imaginative leap. By definition, creativity means bringing something into existence that hasn't existed before, and I claim as much creative license for my ideas as an artist should claim for his or her work. If somebody was already putting this model into action, I'd write a book about them rather than trying to give birth to these ideas myself, which is much scarier and more painful.

But if the ideas haven't been tried yet, before anyone adopts them and commits their lifeblood to trying them out, they need to decide for themselves whether those ideas make sense as far as their view of reality is concerned. Do the pieces fit together logically? Do the assumptions have a level of probability? Are the problems being addressed actually problems? Do the solutions to those problems have some likelihood of effectively addressing them? An idea, if it is effectively presented, should touch both your head and your heart simultaneously.

Anyway, I have benefited greatly from most of my discussion on this blog. It takes effort, and it is not without pain, but as a result my socks are much better than they'd have been otherwise.


Anonymous said...

No offense to Jason...but here wasnt on the radar I think as much as Hunka...and if Mr Grote had posted back to you explaining to you why his criticism were still valid despite a lack of familiar with 50% of the materials being presented...well you probably would have had a lot more people chiming in to back your assertion.

So, I get where your Hunka/Grote comparison is coming from. And i agree that theorists have just as much invested as artists in their product..I think alot more people are or were far more invested in the Hunka episode.


Scott Walters said...

Actually, he did:

"So Scott, you're crushed because I didn't misrepresent myself? The fine people at NPAC didn't ask me to comment on this study or presentation, and the quotes you put in italics were intended to make that absolutely clear. Had they, I would have declined. I'm not a marketer or a producer. I was asked to write a blog entry somehow related to the general topic of feedback and audience response, something I do have experience with as a playwright. I don't know what the "gotcha" stuff is all about, but I stand by everything I say there. If you'd like to blog about the particular study, go for it, but I never claimed to be doing that. I will say, though, that nothing you mention in your summary of the study really changes my mind, and theaters using this type of data to make programming and development decisions (not just marketing ones) is just as likely as anything."

Kinda sounds like George to me: hey, I SAID I left at intermission -- I was honest about it; hey, I SAID I didn't read the study -- I was honest about it.

Tony Adams said...


"There seems to be a tendency to think of ideas as somehow emotionally detached from their creators, like socks as Isaac says that can be thrown away and new ones acquired. I can tell you that this is not the case. Ideas are as much the thinker's baby as a production is the artist's baby, and having people smacking that baby around is just as painful in both cases."

I find that somewhat problematic. How does one have a discourse of ideas? (Say here at Theatre Ideas.) If one does not detach the idea (somewhat)from the creator.

One example, over the summer I did a series of posts on some of my ideas about art. DV and Paul Rekk pretty vigorously attacked some of my ideas. I was fine with that because the discourse never dipped into "you're an asshole" even when it got heated.

It's one thing to say an idea is flawed or untenable, it's another to call someone a douchebag.

If one can't debate ideas without it being a personal attack, what is the point of public discourse?

Or am I misreading you?

Scott Walters said...

I'm afraid you're misreading me. I welcome the discussion -- if I didn't want it, I would just write my book and forget about my blog, or at least turn off the comments. The reason I put these ideas out there is to get feedback.

I think what I am thinking about is just the belief that productions should be treated with polite kid gloves because of the sensitive nature of artists, but ideas -- pffft! -- trash 'em! There's more where those came from!

I hope we continue to have mad-passionate debates, but let's remember that there are people behind the ideas who are invested in them. We may not agree with the ideas, but we need to remember that there are human beings connected to them who are making an effort to make a contribution.

I don't run into brutality too much, but there are times when the debate spills over into personal attack, weird gnostic psychologizing ("what he REALLY means is not what he said, but actually this deep dark opinion"), or plain dismissiveness. Not helpful.

Anonymous said...


I missed the grote happens ;)

I concede the point.


Anonymous said...

FYI - I dont know if its just me...but the link to the other post from 2006 isnt working...

code issue?


Scott Walters said...

Thanks -- I think I got it fixed.

Philucifer [aka Charlie Willis] said...

"Often, my ideas are dismissed as "just theory" unless I can point to pre-existent examples of these ideas already in action. To me, this is like insisting that a playwright who has written a new play point at some other play that already tells his story before anyone will consider doing a production."

I think that's true to a certain extent -- I've certainly seen some of your commenters do just that.

But for me -- and I think, perhaps, for a lot of people who keep up with this blog -- that analogy is a bit flawed. I think it's more like:

Having a playwright friend explaining a play that he plans to write -- "then this happens, then the characters do this, and he says this," -- which can be compelling on its own, but until it's down on paper so that you can see what the structure is, how the beats are finessed, how the dialogue crackles, then it's very, very difficult to give really constructive feedback on whether your original goals are being met.

That's why I think people respond to real-world examples of a theory that's working out there in the world, whether it's being used by a theater or not. I find the Appalshop post you wrote to be a very convincing example of the kind of thing you're talking about. Finding a co-op grocery where the employees actually shared the income dependent on their needs from month to month would certainly give me something to think about re: that aspect of your tribal model. (And I do actually look for these kinds of things, occasionally, on my own. So you are inspiring people to explore the notion, whether they completely agree or not.)

"There seems to be a tendency to think of ideas as somehow emotionally detached from their creators..."

I think we have to look at ideas that way if they're going to be tested to see if they can stand up to rigorous inquiry. The personality behind an idea has little objective bearing on whether an idea is strong or weak in itself.

Plus, once an idea is expressed it's no longer the property of the mind that expressed it. It will either thrive or die due to its environment, and its inherent strength/weakness.

But then, I also admit to critiquing people's art. I just prefer to do it in person, over a beer, if at all possible.

RLewis said...

Scott, I'll bet that it's not your Ideas that anyone has a problem with; it's just partly the way you put them across. And I'll bet that almost every artist reading about your Tribe wants you to go out and Do It - and Succeed.

I've enjoyed reading your Ideas, and mostly, only pipe up when you shoot down New Yorkers. Your Tribe Idea is so good that I bet you could make a great case for it without making any actor in a big city feel like a smuck for living there. I have no control over who TCG puts on the cover of their plays, so I resent it when you make me feel bad that it's a New Yorker. Your point is well taken, but it could have been made without denigrating anyone or group.

This post today is a good example. You make great points that I'm sure few disagree with. But then you go on with the " little artists seem to grasp..." and "...shocked when artists blithely dismiss..." - You simultaneous lump folks together who are not a lump and put them down by asssuming what they're thinking when you could have just asked. Just because they didn't agree with a certain Idea doesn't mean they didn't get it.

And you go on to single people out. I see no way that either George or Jason would think that a new visitor to your site would read this and think more highly of them; just the opposite. You've put it out there to the unknowing that those guys have done bad - generalizing yes, but that's what the uninitiated do. And your point was good; it didn't need a naming names kick in the ass.

At some point you will come to a Put Up or Shut Up line, but so far I bet a lot of folks have enjoyed hearing your Ideas, I have. And I bet you're a good enough writer to make your point in 3rd person or some other helpful way. Your campaign is righteous and need not go negative on those who haven't chosen your path. We get you; just stick with the good Ideas and leave what we're doing wrong out of it (believe me, inside, we know already).

The Director said...

Good points.

I don't think I look so much for pre-existent models but more practical applications of your theories.

It could be something as simple as a fictional example, or it could be as detailed as a case study of an actual theatre tribe/company.

It's just so easy to sit here and think "Well, if each person in the tribe does this and that and contributes this and that, then the theatre will be fine." and qualifying it with "well, it's hard work" doesn't really make things any better.

It's a lot harder to come up with an example, even a fictional example. It's a lot harder to say "Okay, here's one way you can implement this theory that would actually work".

I have this theory that you can go just about anywhere if you have a toolbelt and a pencil behind your ear. Especially somewhere that's normally hard to access. That's easy for me to say.

But it's a lot harder to think of a real-life example in which this would actually work, and then actually have someone pull it off.

I love your theories, even if I don't always agree 100%, but I'd like to see more practical applications of those theories.

How can I find other tribe members? How can we go about setting up this tribe?
What are some examples of contracts we could come up with to establish the kind of tribe you're talking about?
What are some ways we can cut costs while maintianing quality?
What problems could we expect to run into if we started a tribe?
What are some possible solutions to those problems?

Stuff like that, I guess. I ask you, because you seem to be the one with the most solid understanding of what you're talking about. I understand your idea is that tribes should be flexible and extensible and that you're constantly changing the model to fit new ideas... but at the same time, it's easy to say "Well, tribes should work together to produce theatre..." and a lot harder to give some solid examples of how that might actually work.

Mike D said...

Obviously, anyone spending time reading through this blog is interested in these ideas, needless to say, myself included. I don't need concrete examples, but I have a couple of things that seem to be holes (or at least muddy to me) in your vision.

I agree and as I said in my post a few days ago, I find your financial model that involves pooling income and then sharing it amongst the company to be a major stumbling block. As someone who has produced theatre with fellow ensemble members in a Company (yes, in one of 'those' cities...) for 10 years or so, I've certainly noticed that the introduction of money to the collective process of making art can easily overshadow the art itself. Once the group has to start making decisions about what is 'fair' things can get real weird, real quick and tend to stay that way. When everyone has a dayjob of their choosing, no one has to worry about who is working the hardest or getting a bigger share of the pie. Either no one gets paid at all (or much) or its a union job and the pay is pretty much set. Is a company member who acts in the plays and cleans building once a week paid more then the stage manger who is also in charge of audience development?
What about the other actor who is also an electrician and maintains and upgrades the electrical service? These kinds of questions have come up over and over in my experience in Chicago and I don't expect moving out of chi or ny or la is going to put an end to them.

Keeping Fresh.
Another concern for this model would be replacing the constant influx of different artists that one gets in Nylachi. While its great to work repeatedly with the same group of people, doing that over a long period of time, with only a limited access to outside artists could be a challenge. Perhaps this is where the vaudville style 'circuit' of tribes around the country could help keep the company fresh and exposed to new ideas and artists.
Maybe that is more my personal preference shining through, but I suspect it would be a pretty obvious concern for young artists considering your idea as a real career option. Is there a way to not run off to the big city but also not become too isolated?

nick@ said...

“The theatrosphere remains apathetically silent.”

The silence is not from apathy but from the deliberate self-censorship of all debate that might compromise one’s self-promotion. Why would one criticize Jason or George or whoever if one day they might be able to promote your blog, ideas, or theatre work? The PR Clique of the theatrosphere is experienced as kind of Stasi that influences everyone’s converation. The PR Clique is both real and imaginary, but it is part and parcel of all that is spoken or silenced. Some are more Stasi, backstage gossipmongers, than others. Some are more freethinking, bridge-burning anarchists, than others. But the PR Clique of our FaceBook Nation compromises all our thought and debate to some degree.

Brian Santana said...

For anyone that might be interested, below is a link to a fairly recent panel discussion (titled, "The Critic as Thinker") with Eric Bentley, Stanley Kauffmann, and Robert Brustein. Beginning around the 55:00 minute mark, they begin talking about a number of the issues that have been discussed on this blog:

Scott Walters said...

God, Brian -- thanks so much! That discussion is like revisiting my past. One of the best classes I had during my years in the CUNY doctoral program in theatre was with Stanley Kaufman, my dissertation was on Robert Brustein, and my dissertation advisor was Jonathan Kalb!