Monday, March 16, 2009

The Wal-Marting of the American Theatre (Part 3): Taking the Stage

On the heels of Tom Loughlin's "The Ides of Theatre," which discusses the appalling high school musical competition in New Jersey, built to propogate the Myth of the Broadway Eden, comes this trailer from HBO, forwarded to me by Brian Santana, for a new show called Taking the Stage. As you watch this trailer, listen to the Wal-Mart rhetoric the promotes, without blinking, the idea that it just isn't good enough to be anywhere else except New York:

This is just the kind of propaganda that must be fought. It isn't that these dreams should be squashed, but rather the idea that it is a sign of triumph to take your talents from your home town and pedal it in New York or Los Angeles. That to be an artist in Cincinnatti is somehow a failure, a sign of a lack of talent. And arts teachers in places like Cincinnatti School of Creative and Performing Arts, as well as arts schools across America, use this propaganda as an excuse to abuse students and turn them into unthinking automatons who have no sense of life outside of the arts, and whose entire worldview is contained within the walls of a theatre.

However, as Leonard Jacobs says, don't blame Broadway for doing a great marketing job, promote and alternative. Part of the job of the <100k style="font-style: italic;">Fame-like performing arts schools and colleges and universities. There is a greater purpose to the arts.

As Wendell Berry said in an interview, "In a disintegrating, shallowly pluralistic society such as ours, the artist's role gravitates toward a kind of nonessential entertainment, which merely distracts from things that matter. In a truly grounded, locally adapted culture, the artists would be the rememberers. They would memorialize great occasions, preserve necessary insights and so on." TV shows like Taking the Stage, through its focus on the grueling nature of "training," tries to add weight to the distracting non-essential entertainment, but like the pathetic A Chorus Line, which ends with all the individual dancers melded into a faceless, superficial dance number, it is hard to get away from dehumanization that is the final product.

To HBO's credit, they also air documentaries like the brilliant and inspiring Autism: the Musical, which I recently watched. It is the story of parents of autistic teenagers who discover that performance in a musical helped their children express themselves more fully, acquire social skills, and grow as human beings. There needs to be more of these shows to balance out the Taking the Stage's, the American Idols, the Grease: Your the One That I Wants. The arts can serve a much more profound, purposeful, and crucial role in real life. Wendell Berry describes one version, Autism: The Musical describes another, and there are many, many more waiting to be documented. If the Wal-Marting of the American Theatre is to be stopped, we need to document as well as create.


Shari said...

I watch this with mixed feelings. I agree that the focus on NYC and a certain kind of success is damaging; so many of my peers who went to graduate school are in deep debt and as actors have no way out of it. I myself would be also except for a little luck. So leading youth to that false Holy Grail is wrong.

At the same time, as someone who grew up in a rural area with little to no arts community, a show like this would have been unimaginable. People my age who like art? Anyone other than me who will admit an interest or an ambition to take part in it? Such ideas were inconceivable, and I think I would have found a show like this exciting because it promised some sort of possibility for community that I didn't have.

Of course, the solution is to build up local art communities... but how do you do that? If I'd stayed put, I wouldn't have learned the skills I have now. And I am not sure I have the skills yet which would enable me to create a viable alternative in a small community... let alone make anything like a living at it...

Scott Walters said...

Yes, to some extent we have a chicken or the egg situation, which has been created by the intense focus on buying our entertainment from "experts" instead of creating it ourselves. In the past, rural communities would be filled with people who made their own entertainment: music, storytelling, doing playlets in the parlor, etc. So now we have to recover that.

That said, I'm not certain what skills are necessary that you acquire before making an attempt. Skill acquisition is probably faster on the job through trial and error, rather than waiting until you find a toolbox of skills. That is a way to make sure it never happens, because nobody (including me) ever feels wholly competent. My friend Cal Pritner has often said that one of the wonderful things about the theatre is that it is biodegradable -- no matter how much you stink up the place, the air clears fairly quickly.

If you have a desire to bring the arts back home, don't wait, and certainly don't wait until you can make a living at it. You can't make a living at so-called "professional" theatre in NYC, either, so why use that as an obstacle?

Shari said...

Well, due to personal commitments I'll be in NYC for at least a few years anyway, and I do want to pursue college teaching, which would require a PhD.

I suppose my word "skills" has less to do with practical skills like directing or accounting, which I either have some little experience in or know I could learn. I worry more about the networking and social aspects of running an organization of this type. There is a reason why I gravitate towards dramaturgy -- which is more of a consultant than a manager.

Those are skills I could develop anywhere, of course. It requires a change of mindset and determination.

Scott Walters said...

Ah, yes -- introverts unite! That's why there needs to be a team of people (an occupational tribe, in Daniel Quinn's term used in "Beyond Civilization") whose talents complement each other. Although we introverts will have to learn to go outside our comfort zone as well -- can't just leave everything to others, right?!

If you want to teach college, that changes everything, of course. You must acquire the credentials.

RVCBard said...


I feel your pain. Look me up if you're in NYC after mid-April.

Jeremy said...

"Cincinnati" One T. :-)