Thursday, September 11, 2008

Divine Fury

My friends, wanting to spare me my murderous impulses and practicing a therapy I respect and despise, tell me to calm down, give it time, things are happening. Things are happening: I want to look at them and see what's really happening. And to those who share my view of what the theater might be but defer to the sluggard drift of things, I want to say what Brecht's Galileo said to the Little Monk, temporizing in pity for those who, fixed in the old routines, scrape a living somehow -- on the premise that if whatever is is not right, it is at least unalterable -- "I can see their divine patience, but where is their divine fury?"
Herbert Blau
The Impossible Theatre: A Manifesto

I look around the theatre world, both on-line and off, and my mind boggles at the sheer complacency and superficiality. Over at TCG, Teresa Eyring pens a few vacuous ideas and thinks she's done something that deserves comment. Eyring, who as head of TCG ought to be considered an important leader of the theatre world, calls John Connolly iat Actors equity "visionary" because of a few vague generalities that have nothing to do with anything touching on the most important issue of his constituency: 86% unemployment, a migrant lifestyle, rampant under-employment, and the abandonment of the theatre by anyone over about age 35. What other leaders should we be looking at? The members of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education spend their annual meeting wandering the empty theoretical hallways of 1980s Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, blathering on about how many actors can dance on the head of a fresnel, while ignoring the idiocy that the art form has fallen to, and the contributions we as teachers make to feeding that fall. Into the vacuum of artistic leadership steps the theatre blogosphere, which for the most part simply reproduces the same self-involved, anti-intellectual, superficial thinking that exists everywhere else. Where is our sense of rigor? Where is our divine fury?

Mike Lawler at ecoTheatre pitches an article on the "supposed greening of theatre operations in this country" to Jim O'Quinn of American Theatre, and AT is interested enough to take him up on it, but when it is submitted, he is asked to rewrite it because it isn't "objective enough." What does that mean? Mike "contact[ed] theater artists across the country to talk about it, and even ask[ed] those I[he] was interviewing for other writing projects what they thought," so it wasn't just Mike's opinion. But clearly, from the use of "supposed" in the above sentence, the article had a skeptical viewpoint that might have cast a small shadow on the happy talk of American Theatre. We can't have even a small interruption of the self-hypnosis that substitutes for actual thought about what we do and how we do it. Well, eventually, AT decided to publish the article in the latest issue -- as an opinion piece. It is great that it was published, and I congratulate Mike, but it should have been a feature article, not a short "opinion piece."

Here in the theatrosphere, Theresa Rebeck publishes an article on the blog for The Guardian (why does she have to go all the way to London to find a place to publish an article attacking the New York stage? We wouldn't want to interrupt the Happy Talk!) that ends:

There's some feeling in rehearsal halls and writers' retreats and drunken dinner parties, that maybe the American theatre participates rather too enthusiastically in the supposed gender bias that the American media tosses about willy-nilly while discussing candidates for higher office. Mostly it is women playwrights who feel that way; male playwrights think the system is really, really fair and that women playwrights who raise these questions are whiners or dirty feminists. After all, everyone is discriminated against! It's show business! Nobody's happy! We're all narcissistic egomaniacs, you can't expect it to make sense! This is about the work. Which means, apparently, that any woman who cares enough to raise her voice about the fact that women's stories are not reaching the stages for which they are intended is a whiner, a dirty feminist and a lousy artist too - because a true artist wouldn't care.

Honestly I am not making one word of this up.

"Who owns the stories, owns the culture." For the life of me I can't remember who said that, but by God it is true.

That last line alone could have fired some really valuable thinking about the nature of artistic responsibility, the contribution art makes to society, the necessity of a diverse viewpoint. But no, what we got was a link to the article and a collective shrug: Guess that's "Just the Way It Is," huh? Gender bias? I don't know...what do YOU think?

What do I think??? I think some theatre people need to do a little reading, a little thinking, and little reflection and self-examination. Read some good feminist books, and some good book about racism while you're at it. Think about power, think about bias, think about how choices are made within our society and whether you just want to go along with it or resist it. And once you've read, and thought, and reflected, and examined yourself -- THEN SHARE. But publishing kneejerk shrugs that exist at the same level of thought as those who say, "Hey, I ain't a racist -- I never owned no slaves." And if you can't do better than that, then don't do anything at all. Silence is better than superficiality.

Kant to the contrary, the arts are not ends in themselves.

They are part of the larger society, the have a role in forming its self-image, its sense of what is right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable. When I say that making art is a moral act, I mean that it contributes to helping us answer Aristotle's question "how are we to live?"

In his essay "Corn-Pone Opinions," Mark Twain wrote, in the voice of an African-American slave boy pretending to preach a sermon, ""You tell me whar a man gits his corn-pone, en I'll tell you what his 'pinions is." Twain explains: "The black philosopher's idea was that a man is not independent, and cannot afford views which might interfere with his bread and butter. If he would prosper, he must train with the majority; in matters of large moment, like politics and religion, he must think and feel with the bulk of his neighbors, or suffer damage in his social standing and in his business prosperities. He must restrict himself to corn-pone opinions -- at least on the surface. He must get his opinions from other people; he must reason out none for himself; he must have no first-hand views."

The theatrosphere is mired in corn-pone thinking. A few months back, we had a series of discussions about courage, and the general consensus was that nobody is going to say anything that might affect their employability -- about anything, because who knows who is eventually going to be in a position to hire you? Well, frankly, that is not only pathetic, but it is a recipe for continued disaster. We are behaving like theatrical Nero's fiddling while the lobby burns. And the general effect, beyond the continued downward slide, is a theatrosphere mired in malaise and boring as hell to read.

Jill Dolan was writing about university theatre programs, but she could have been writing about the theatre blogosphere when she wrote:

I continue to believe that university theatre programs should push at the envelope of cultural expectations about the arts. If we defy conventional beauty and body image standards; if we routinely commit to color-blind or cross-race cast our productions; if we teach students to critique representations of gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, ability, and other identity markers in our own and mainstream productions, along with their aesthetic and ideological values; and if we teach students to reach outside conventional theatre to form their own companies and to create their own plays and performances, then we’ve truly added something to the national dialogue not just about the arts, but about citizenship and democracy. Supporting the status quo is untenable.
Italics are mine. And double-underline it.

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Anonymous said...

Must you refer to me as Mike Lawton still after all this time alternately loving and hating one another?!?

Scott Walters said...

Jesus! I'm SORRY! The University Attorney, who did a show with me, is names Lawton, and I just type it automatically. I've changed it. Yikes!

Anonymous said...

I was disturbed to hear from Thereas Rebeck and Julia Jordan that only 12.6% of the new plays being done in NY this year are by women, especially since MFA playwriting programs are turning out -- from what I can tell -- far more women than men these days.

Certainly one of the explanations we should consider is that there is conscious (and unconscious) gender bias going on right now in how plays are selected. But I can also see how a small gender bias in the selection of plays 10-30 years ago could have huge ramifications now even if producers are no longer discriminating on the basis of gender.

For example, if the first person who decided to produce Nicky Silver (or whatever male playwright) did so in part because of his gender, and every producer since then didn't care about gender at all but was only concerned with "filling the house," the well-known bias producers have toward "established playwrights" might direct them to do Nicky's plays over and over again and not bother considering a new writer of any gender. This whole dynamic would be exasperated if female playwrights his age opted out because of frustration.

I can't imagine how this could explain the entire discrepancy, but I could see how a dynamic like this could lead to well-known male writers taking most of the few "new play slots" that theatres have. It's not surprising to check out the upcoming Playwrights Horizons season and see new plays by Nicky Silver, Adam Rapp and Craig Lucas.

If theatres that are willing to take a chance on an unknown writer STILL predominantly choose male writers, well ... I really can't make sense of that at all, especially given the lip service that artistic directors and literary managers give to diversity. It's disturbing.


Scott Walters said...

Christopher -- That's a really interesting observation. Sort of the echo effect of past gender discrimination. That's a viewpoint I wouldn't have thought of.

Alison Croggon said...

How about defining the "theatrosphere" as something that includes the world outside the US? It's going pretty strong in Melbourne town and I regularly read stimulating and thought-provoking blogs from the UK. Not to mention your own George Hunka, who seems to have been cold-shouldered by the lot of you but is still writing (yep) about theatre. No "corn-pone thinking" there.

Scott Walters said...

Alison -- You are entirely correct, and my spirits rise at your suggestion that there are still some places where lively thought is occurring. I have also noticed that the Canadian bloggers have a lively conversation occurring as well. Would you recommend some specific blogs for consideration?

As far as George is concerned, both he and I have alienated ourselves from the US theatre blogging community (and I use that word advisedly) through our impatience with the superficiality of the American theatre and the writing about that theatre. I will probably start reading George more now, even though his foundational aesthetic ideas and mine are almost opposite. Nevertheless, I'm at a stage where any intellectual stimulation is preferable to a thought vacuum.

So thanks for the reminder, Alison.

Rex Winsome said...

Scott, I share your disdain for all the election tripe on theatre blogs recently, and dread that it'll continue through november. I also agree that artists and bloggers have a responsibility to express and deal with intellectually stimulating content, though less emphatically. I understand, but don't share your frustration and indignation with these things.

When you can't find what you're looking for it's your responsibility to look elsewhere, not to demand others create it for you. You might find good stuff on some of the less widely-read blogs. I've been on tour for a couple weeks, but since being back have spent more time with my blog than usual.

The subjects might not match your interest directly (some are very local, some are about a broader theory that i see theatre as but one application of) but i'd love to hear what you or anyone else thinks about it.