Saturday, March 28, 2009

Mick Montgomery on Mike Daisey

(Big h/t to Dennis Baker)

In a blog post nearly entitled "My Disillusionment," Mick Montgomery of Art of Function writes about the "Post Show Roundtable" that followed a performance of How Theatre Failed America in Los Angeles. Montgomery writes:

I listened to someone from the Odyssey say the words that spell the down fall of all theaters in this country... "I don't want to do Children's Theater, I want to do the Art I want to do."

My message to those folks running theater in this town is... "Guess what? That's not your job." The job of the theater is to support it's audience and community, not exist soley for the purpose of indulging the creative proclivities of the artists entrusted with running the stage. Artistcally, I may want to do a season filled with "True West" and "End Game" and the like, where I could star in or direct them all, but that's not my job as the steward of the theater. My job is to embrace my community for who they are, and then go from there. I'm not saying this is soley doing Children's Theater, but it's about engaging your audience where they are at, not asking the audience to engage you where you are at. Theater is about people, audiences and artists sharing things together. Theater is not about a building or a 'great space' or subscriptions. The theater is the product of the people coming to it, not the other way around. We don't understand that here in Los Angeles.

I found it ironic that Mike Daisey railed against theaters trying to 'get more money' to solve all their problems with paying artists in his piece, and then comedically, 10 minutes after the show when he asked his panel, what would you need to make big changes to the theater culture in L.A. the first answer out of someone's mouth was... "We need more money."

I sat in my chair and hung my head. Did they not listen to the show?

It's not the money that is the issue. It's our model. Maybe theater needs to be less capitalized and more socialized. Maybe the City should figure out how to support the Theater Arts in L.A. like they support the visual arts. Maybe we do need $5 dollar theater Wednesdays. Maybe we need A Theater Alliance that truly correlates resources and marketing stragies. We have a city with a School District crying out for subsidized arts education, yet no one is there to help that process along. And here I sit asking myself, "What the Fuck is everyone doing? Why doesn't anyone understand how to make this work?" How come people in Portland or San Diego get it, but the place I live, where some of the most talented people in the world are living, can't figure it out?

Los Angeles Theater is the great disconnect. The Theater Community fails to understand the audience, and thus it fails to understand itself. Everyone is just scrambling for crumbs, no one is building relationships with each other through the art. The solutions are so simple. That's probably why I'm so frustrated. [ital mine]

As has been the case for the past two years, Mike Daisey continues to provoke long-overdue reflection and questioning on the part of artists. Theatre artists have a single kneejerk response to every problem: give us more money. Or, in lieu of that, the other knee jerks "we need better marketing." When i reality, we need to do a Cartesian rethinking of the whole thing from the ground up. Peter Brook gave us a good starting point with the first lines of The Empty Space: "I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged." Three elements: a place, an actor, and an audience. What Brook fails to mention is the relationship between the three, which is what we need to be doing right now.

I would argue that the connection needs to be ongoing, committed, and interactive. As Wendell Berry says in an interview in Conversations with Wendell Berry, ""I think art comes about in answer to a need. At least, mine does. The community needs to talk about itself, needs to remember itself. It needs to recall significant things that have happened, and to mull them over and figure out what the significance is." In this case, "itself" embraces the three points of Brook's triangle: place, artist, audience. It is a three-way conversation that takes place over time. Berry sees the artist not as "an isolated, preeminent genius who materializes ideas from thin air, but as a person who has been in a community a long time, has been attentive to its voices...and who is prepared to pass on what has been heard. There are two things the artist must do: pass on all this is involved -- the art, the memory, the knowledge. And take responsibility for his or her own work -- that is the reason the work is signed, and that should be the only reason." Responsibility, not credit; humility, not self-aggrandizement.

Mick Montgomery made this realization, and it made him hang his head. That is the first step. The next step is to raise your head, look around, and start listening to the people around you.


Kyle Bostian, Producing Dramaturg said...

Hey, Scott. I have no argument with the overall point of this post. But I do want to help avoid any possible misperceptions about the nature of The Empty Space. You said Brook "fails to mention" the relationship between place, actor, and audience. In fact, once you get past the oft-quoted first sentences, you'll find that's the central focus of the book. For anyone interested in the kinds of issues you regularly explore, I highly recommend revisiting Brook's work.

Scott Walters said...

Kyle -- You are indeed correct, and in my haste I wrote in such a way as to suggest that Brook doesn't mention the relationship at all, whereas, as you note, the rest of the book is about that. In fact, the chapter on the Deadly Theatre is almost totally about that relationship -- the mutual desire by audience and artist to avoid real engagement.

That said, my memory is that Brook doesn't have a whole lot to say in the book about place -- the effect of place on the relationship. However, his later books are interested in that, as he wanders from continent to continent exploring how different cultures affect the work. Of course, Berry is more interested in a long-term relationship than Brook was. Would you agree?

Cole Matson said...

I think as artists we often forget that we are called to be servants, not self-proclaimed prophets. We should have respect and love for the audience, instead of contempt. Our job is not to force them to hear what our oh-so-important selves have to say, it's to listen to them, and communicate with them in dialogue - not proclaim at them. I attended one of the top undergraduate theatre programs in the country, and the atmosphere was that of the Cult of the Artist, which teaches that the artist, because of his emotional sensitivity and courage to do things that are socially unacceptable, is living on a higher plane of existence than that of Joe Plebian Audience Member. Therefore, the job of the Enlightened Artist is to wake up the audience from the darkness in which they live, through force (i.e. shock value) if necessary, and make them fully aware of just how ignorant and enslaved and brainwashed by society they are. I remember seriously debating in one class whether artists were bound by any form of morality. One student sincerely argued that artists could not be held to any sort of moral code, as otherwise they "would not be free to comment on society." As if my comments are so holy that they transcend the ideas of right and wrong by which mere mortals are bound.

This idea of the Cult of the Artist seemed to me not only to show a fundamental lack of respect for the audience, but also to cut off any possibility of sharing an artistic experience with them together as fellow human beings. The shared experience, the strengthening of the bonds of community, is the heart of theatre.

Scott Walters said...

Beautifully said, Cole. And I'm afraid your experience in school is duplicated across the country.

Kyle Bostian, Producing Dramaturg said...

Scott: From the relatively little I know about Berry, I would agree that he saw the artist-place relationship as more long term. And I also agree that Brook's later work is much more directly concerned with the role of place in the actor-audience dynamic. I do think he at least implicitly includes it in his analysis of theatre types (especially Deadly Theatre) in The Empty Space -- but in two somewhat different senses: the general cultural contexts and the actual physical environment in which a performance occurs. Neither of those goes to the issue of community relevance and support you explore in this post.

Austin said...

I think that it is a lot easier to say it's not about the money when your a producing company with a home theatre, but there are over a hundred quality producing companies in Los Angeles without a home stage, and I used to be amongst their ranks. It is great to talk about the Brooks essentials and debate the communication between artists and their audience, but when the funds are missing it moot.

LA has an established theatrical tradition that has been formed by Equity's 99-seat plan, forcing a large majority of houses to downsize. A stageless producing company with an audience is forced into a space of 99 seats (more likely 45 - 65) and +$2000/weekend rental fee. It's about the money and the restrictions that we as artist have put on ourselves through the use of our unions, as well as getting past our personal ideas of moral superiority.

Mick Montgomery said...

To Austin: 100% agree with you on the climate in L.A. I too have belonged to a few small stage companies both with and without home stages.

I ask myself, what's the point of the 99 seat waiver? It was created so equity actors could 'showcase' their skills to Television and Film producers, but so few producers go to theater these days. It's a systems that has outlived it's usefullness while out the same time saturating a market with bad theater, and preventing the overall development of the audience here in town.

Freeman said...

How does this jive with the idea that many communities are hostile to artists?

The assumption here is that artists are embraced members of a community who somehow cherish and reflect on that community.

The fact is, artists are often outcasts or critics of their communities. They're not always welcome voices. Nor should they be.

Mick Montgomery said...

Respone to Freeman:
The idea that the artist in a community must be critical to the community in an abrasive way may be the reason why the ARTS and ARTISTS are struggling to gain traction in certain communities.

Why can't artists learn to deliver their message in a way that challenges their audience, but at the same time allows for the message to be heard.

I'm not saying the Artist can't go out on a limb from time to time, but doesn't the artist want their message heard? Can ART be relative to the community when the Artist is operating in a vacuum?

Freeman said...


I think characterizing confrontational theater or a critical posture or even a hostile posture as abrasive is reductive. We shouldn't want for toothless messages or ones that, like medicine, are delivered with a spoonful of sugar. Where would that have gotten Ionesco? Arthur Miller? Henrik Ibsen? David Mamet? Tony Kushner?

I also don't necessarily believe that being unwelcome in your community means that you're delivering an unwelcome message. It may mean that a majority of your community doesn't identify with you, or understand your work, or find you palatable. It's possible for an artist to aesthetically stand outside his or her community.

All of this is a good thing. We should want artists to make us question, think, and see things we're not used to. That is necessarily uncomfortable.

An artist isn't operating in a vacuum when they're in opposition to their communities values.

Scott Walters said...

Matt - I will respond anon. I must finish rereading "The Winter's Tale" at the moment. said...

Now we're talking.

2 thoughts.

1. What's wrong with children's theatre? Or at least family theatre? (Aside from the fact that so much of it sucks?) When did it happen that theatre became such an "adult art form" that it precluded bringing the family? The missing audience is not only today's children who do not go to the theatre, but today's 25- to 45-year olds who want to go out and share something with their own family. They're all going to museums & the zoo (attendance is up) and movies (Hollywood gets it.) It may be that the most important work in the American regional theatres these days is A CHRISTMAS CAROL, because for that one time a year, they realize the importance of appealing to the family.

2. There's a confusion between the obligations of the artist and the institution. The artist can do whatever she or he wants. The non-profit institution has a legal & ethical contract to serve its community. (which includes people living some form of multi-generational life, as a child, parent, uncle, aunt, grandparent, or friend to someone of a different age --i.e., most people, few of whom are going ot the theatre)