Friday, October 23, 2009

In Praise of Theatre Bloggers

Recently, Tom Loughlin posted a link to a a short video of director and Group Theatre co-founder Harold Clurman from the documentary Harold Clurman: A Life of Theatre, which coincidently I had just showed to the students in my Directing II class. I urge you to not only watch the snippet Tom posted, but to locate the entire documentary to watch, as it will provide your with inspiration and, perhaps, a renewed sense of purpose.

Clurman was a passionate believer in the power and importance of the theatre. He helped found the Group Theatre not because he was trying to promote his career, but because he felt strongly about what role a theatre ought to play in the American culture. If you watch Loughlin's clip, you can see how, at the age of 80, he still had the fire -- a fire that comes through most powerful in the moment that follows his condemnation of the mediocrity of our culture, when he says, with what seems to me red-rimmed eyes, "This always makes me angry."

Me too. Me too.

To me, Clurman ought to be a model for all young artists. And not simply because he was an excellent director who founded and important theatre, but because he had a strong sense of his responsibility to the art form as well. yes, he directed many important productions, but he also was a critic, an author, a speaker, and a professor at CUNY. The Collected Works of Harold Clurman, which sits on the shelf right in front of my computer, runs to over 1000 pages, and that doesn't even include his full-length books such as the inimitable Fervent Years. It wasn't enough that he just "do the work," he felt that it was important that he write about it, convey his ideas to others, work to advance the field. Aside from Tony Kushner, what contemporary artists are making a similar attempt?

Well, as far as I'm concerned, the answer is: the theatre bloggers. The majority of them are artists trying, like Clurman, to create worthwhile works of art. At the same time, they freely contribute their time to make sense of what is happening in the world of theatre, writing post after post, arguing with each other, theorizing and criticizing. Someone like George Hunka, for instance, has not only written and directed plays, but has also written erudite blog posts linking up contemporary theatre with the great thinkers and art works of modernism. Isaac Butler, Matt Freeman, and Don Hall contribute thousands of words each week. Newer bloggers, too many to mention (a few: Chris Ashworth, Travis Bedard, Bob Fisher, Ian Moss) bring their own insights into the conversation. And a few of us older academics -- Tom Loughlin, Andrew Sullivan, and I -- throw our oars in as well.

What often gets lost in posts such as David Cote's call to action is that this activity is a true contribution to the art of the theatre, a contribution made in moments stolen from lives that are already chock full of day jobs, art making, and everyday living. It is truly heroic, like Clurman's heroic life. And while from time to time things may get tired in the theatrosphere, and may not be as consistently insightful as some would wish, nevertheless these bloggers are the keepers of the flame. Most of the well-known theatre artists have abrogated this responsibility, choosing instead to focus on their own careers while feeling no responsibility to advance the field or to represent it to the larger society. In a time when the internet allows such artists to bypass the mainstream press and communicate directly with the world, most make no attempt to do so, leaving the field to flounder.

And so I take this opportunity to salute the theatre bloggers. Thank you for your work.


isaac butler said...

Damn, this gets me weepy. Thanks, man.

Leonard Jacobs said...

Perhaps one must be your acolyte to merit a mention?

All best,

Leonard Jacobs
Editor, The Clyde Fitch Report
(notice the change in URL, effective more than six months ago)

Scott Walters said...

It helps. I can send you an application, if you'd like.

joshcon80 said...

Here, here!

Leonard Jacobs said...

Go ahead and send the application. I know my blood type, too.

Thomas Garvey said...

Not to rain on the sainthood parade, but aren't many bloggers blogging to, well, promote their own careers, just like those nasty actors? It seems that way.

Scott Walters said...

Welcome, Leonard and Thomas. Nice to be visited by Envy and Cynicism, respectively. While I don't have a "trust fund," Leonard, I do have a tenured teaching position -- maybe you can make that the subject of your next ad hominem screed. Perhaps you can collaborate with your minion, Thomas -- sort of like a WWF tag team. Very impressive. Or maybe you could just have a few ideas of your own, instead of just making lists of what others think. But that might be hard.

First, Thomas, I don't believe I said anything about "nasty actors," but rather contemporary artists, which includes actors, directors, playwrights, designers, and producers. What I said was that bloggers are making contributions to the field, moreso than those who don't make the effort to put ideas into words. Does blogging help one's career? The jury is out. There seems to be evidence that blogging can actually hurt your career, if you offend some thin-skinned director or critic. There seem to be reports to that effect. Can it help? Sure -- people like to work with smart, creative, articulate people who aren't dicks.

George Hunka said...

Having been the target of some ad hominem attacks myself over the years, I only want to add that I also find such tactics distasteful. Leonard was good enough to question the wisdom of David Cote's comments about me and my writing at Time Out New York's theatre blog, and I appreciate that. Isaac and I have both worked together and have had our differences, especially recently, but he certainly doesn't merit this kind of personal public flogging, and the less of it the better. It wasn't pleasant nor fair when David did it to me, and it's neither pleasant nor fair when Isaac's the target. Address his arguments or thinking if you will, but surrounding it with insult is unnecessary.

For that matter, Scott and I have had violent differences in the past, long before either Leonard Jacobs or Thomas Garvey came on the scene, and on occasion we stepped over the line. I had hoped these were merely growing pains in this new medium, but apparently some still consider such attacks valid discourse. Never mind self-promotion; that's to be expected, on the Internet or in the press. But this kind of rhetoric leaves us where we started -- or, sadly, a few steps back.

Scott Walters said...

I know you and I have had some disagreements in the past, George, but did they take that sort of personal form? As anyone who has read this blog knows, I have no problem with taking a strong position regarding the ideas of other people. But I don't think I've ever commented on yo mama or whatever. There are some who have come on this blog and, like Leonard, tried to attack me for personal reasons -- usually, because I am a tenured proffesor (gasp -- a member of the Privileged Class in our midst?), and sometimes they have called me names -- but I just don't believe in it. Kill my ideas, sure, but attacking people on personal grounds is tacky, offensive, and intellectually bankrupt.

George Hunka said...

No disagreement there, Scott. And finally, given my own position (neither tenured professor, editor of Time Out New York nor critic), I think it's pretty clear that if Superfluities Redux was to serve me as a career-enhancing device, it has fallen rather short of the mark, at least in this sense. Though I'm delighted with my readership, my phone hasn't exactly been ringing off the hook.

Leonard Jacobs said...

I just want to be clear -- "envy" and "cynicism" with caps doesn't equal a personal attack, right? I don't mind if it does. You've never had any use for me, Scott; that's been clear. And that's ok. Honestly, low expectations of people mean they can't disappoint you.

The truth is, what exists in the theatrosphere is a clique. You're a teacher; I'm sure you've seen them before. Perhaps you've ever led a few. As a teacher, though, I'd hope you know and recognize how damaging they are. Unless you believe that the creation of two sets -- insiders and outsiders -- is inherently good and something to be proud of.

So, as in all clique situations, you're either in them or you're not in them. You and your minions -- and please don't suggest you haven't any -- have always made deliberate choices regarding who is in and who is out. I think we understand who fits into which bucket. And so, with little to lose -- and, frankly, being sick and tired of how Butler's minions fawn and coo over his college-lite ideas -- I stated what I think of him, and what I think of his ideas.

And, if you bothered to read my post carefully, I actually pointed up on more than one occasion where I thought Butler was right on.

I know by demonizing him I'll create a wellspring of sympathy for him. Poor Isaac!

But in a sense, David Cote is also right -- the theatrosphere can be a club or clique, or a space for intellectual and personal mashups. As George noted, I don't love the idea. But there are times when one must put one's cards on the table. I find Butler precious, totally self-impressed. Again, call me the names that make you happy. If I'm guilty of honesty, I'll happily value that commodity.

As for ideas, my site is rich with them. You don't check it or read it, so you don't know. So, except when I check my blogroll, I return the favor. Notice I didn't say you don't have any ideas.

In terms of envy -- I do indeed envy anyone with a trust fund. So what if I do? I wish I had one. If I did, I'd like to think I'd spend my life avoiding flitting displays of intellectual dilettantism. Yes, I want researched vigor, not "You know how to get young audiences? Put on shows they want to see." What is that, Scott? Is that the E=MC2 of the 21st century stage? Really? Do you really think so? It's all just so lightweight. And I am going to continue to call it out when I think it needs to be called out. I'm not a part of your clique anyway, so why wouldn't I? Because people won't visit my site? I'll worry about that when it happens. It isn't happening, to judge by my traffic. And at least, for better or for worse, we are awakened from the slumber that Mr. Cote despises.

Thomas Garvey said...

Again, a small point - being cynical about you and Isaac Butler doesn't make me cynical in general. (Especially since the two of you are . . . well, anyway . . .) And glad to hear that you agree with me that your original post was kind nutty, Professor!

Scott Walters said...

Leonard -- I have absolutely no problem with anyone who wants to write that the Emperor has no clothes, and that goes for me, Isaac, or whoever. That is part of the intellectual back-and-forth of blogging, and what makes it worthwhile. I happen to feel similarly to you about the "how to get young people into your theatre" post of Isaac's. (Although I also think that there are times when any blogger will put something out there that sounded good in their head, but that hasn't really been fully thought out. It's not easy churning out content day after day, as you know.) But using someone's finances as a reason for attack, or any other personal attack, is simply out-of-bounds as far as I'm concerned. I've also called out Don Hall for taking his discussions to a personal level as well, calling people "ashhats" and "douchebags." If you think Isaac is overrated and want to deflate that reputation a bit, that's certainly your right, and I'd defend you for it. Just focus on the ideas.

As far as my original post being "kind [of] nutty, Professor" (har har "Nutty Professor" -- good one] I'm not certain to what you are referring. My comment addressed your own assertion that blogging somehow helps one's career, something I didn't assert in my original post. What I said was that bloggers contributed to advancing the field, which is valuable, and a responsibility that many of our highest profiled artists have abrograted. If that's nutty, so be it.

Finally, as far as a "clique," well sure, blogging is like anything else. I'm certain that both of you are parts of cliques as well. Part of this so-called clique is the result of longevity -- there are some of us who have been around and engaging each other for a long time. And you're right, Leonard, I don't read your blog unless I find a link to one of my posts (rarely, indeed). The fact is, that's what I mostly read, because I simply don't have time to keep up with the whole theatrosphere while also trying to do all the other things that are part of my life. Plus my interest in the ins-and-outs of NY theatre is pretty minimal -- I'm frying other fish.

In summary: attack the ideas all you want, as harshly as you want. But leave the personal out.

Thomas Garvey said...

Please, Professor. Somehow I recall the first thing you ever posted on my blog was a (very personal) sneer at my attempt to define and critique academic theatre. You're still sneering, of course, although now you're doing it while trailing after the cool kids from one of your classes. Just admit the bloggers you most admire are, indeed, using their blogs to further their careers, and have done with it. And get real about getting "personal" - you trade in personal attacks as much, or more than, anyone.

Scott Walters said...

Nice try, Thomas, but no.

Laura Sue said...

Excuse me, but isn't this all just a little bit, um, childish?

Scott Walters said...

Of course it is, Laura Sue. Very junior high school.

Thomas Garvey said...

Actually, no, this is just open criticism of Mr. Walters. I call him "Professor" because I can't count the times he has reminded us that yes, he's a tenured professor. Well, with the tenure comes the title, no? As for the claim that he doesn't indulge in "personal" attacks, the evidence is everywhere (or at least on my blog) that yes, he does, and then pretends he doesn't. In the end, Isaac Butler has obviously built a clique, and Professor Walters would obviously like to be in it. I agree that part is childish, but I don't think calling him on it is.

Don Hall said...

Nobody asked me - you know, cuz I like a good, personal fight as well as a clash of ideas - but:

Leonard kind of rocks. I don't always agree with him, but he's true to his beliefs and I respect that.

George is a great but elitist artist/writer. Bit of a snob but ends up being the Thurston Howell III of the theatrosphere.

Isaac is growing on me. Combine him with 99 Seats and you have a daily read.

I promised someone I would try to avoid this word's use on my own blog, but not in Scott's comments, so Tommy Garfield is a douchebag no matter how one slices it (and slicing up a douchebag is just unsanitary...)

The Prof (much cooler sounding than "Professor") is exactly what I think a blogger should be - someone throwing his idea-pasta on the wall to see what sticks with the intent of improving the world. He's wrong as much as he's right but he also can have a heated argument with the erudite Hunkster and in the next keystroke get into a nice round of arm punching with me. Gotta give him some respect.

And, fellas? You're all pretty.

My Word Verification was

"dikegi" - noun - the collective egos of a buncha dicks.

Thomas Garvey said...

Oh, please, Don, confine the feces to within your cage. We already know that, like life, you're nasty, brutish, and short.

Scott Walters said...

Comment moderation is now turned on. There will be no more pissing in my comment box. I will not OK any posts that I deem offensive and personal. What you do on your own blog is up to you -- here, you'll behave. Period.

devilvet said...

Comment moderation rocks!