Saturday, November 21, 2009

Once Size Doesn't Fit All

When you're stepping outside the well-trodden path and trying to create something new, you often have to find inspiration outside of the discipline itself. I tend to read books on local economics, environmentalism, and small business practices seeking analogous situations that might help to define this new pathway.

To that end, I am in the midst of reading Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, by William McDonough and Michael Braungart (highly recommended). The chapter "A Question of Design" has a segment entitled "One Size Fits All," in which the authors discuss the Industrial Revolution's underlying design assumption that "universal design solutions" (i.e., one size fits all) could be implemented to improve the world. They use the examples of International Style architecture and mass-produced detergent to illustrate the flaw in this orientation. I think it is worth quoting at length in order to fully understand that what has happened to the arts is not an isolated and unique historical development that was "organic" and "natural," but rather part of a larger social movement resulting of a particular way of relating to the world.

First, the International Style of architecture as developed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Walter Groupis, and Le Corbusier:

Their goals were social as well as aesthetic. They wanted to globally replace unsanitary and inequitable housing -- fancy, ornate palaces for the rich; ugly, unhealthy places for the poor -- with clean, minimalist, affordable buildings

unencumbered by distinctions of wealth or class. Large sheets of glass, steel, and concrete and cheap transportation powered by fossil fuels, gave engineers and architects the tools for realizing this style anywhere in the world.

However, the vision of the originators was debased by those who followed:

Today the International Style has evolved into something less ambitious: a bland, uniform structure isolated from the particulars of place -- from local culture, nature, energy, and material flows. Such buildings reflect little if any of a region's distinctness or style."...Buildings can look and work the same anywhere, in Reykjavik or Rangoon. (italics mine)

The photo is of the Aluminaire House, and it is, without a doubt, one of the ugliest things I've ever seen.

Shifting to detergent, the authors write:

Major soap manufacturers design one detergent for all parts of the United States or Europe, even though water qualities and community needs differ. For example, customers in places with soft water, like the Northwest, need only small amounts of detergent. Those where the water is hard, like the Southwest, need more. But detergents are designed so they will alther up, remove dirt, and kill germs efficiently the same way anywhere in the world -- in hard, soft, urban, or spring water, in water that flows into fish-filled streams and water channeled to sewage treatment plants."

In the interest of appealing to as large a market as possible, detergent is disconnected from its relationship to local conditions.

The arts have fallen prey to exactly the same one-size-fits-all approach, not only in mass-produced art such as television, popular music, and movies, but also in art forms that have an intrinsic local orientation, such as theatre and visual art. Plays, for instance, are designed to appeal to NYC audiences and critics. If they achieve a successful NYC run, then across the US regional theatres will produce their own versions during the next couple years, and twenty years later community theatres will do their own reproduction. But is it really true that the stories and styles that appeal to a New York audience will automatically be right for one in Asheville, NC or Lincoln, NE?

Let's think of this by analogy. Here are two pictures of places in the world:

Would these two places not lead, for instance, to very different paintings -- paintings that would be created using different palettes, different shapes, different rhythms, different styles, different brushstrokes, different techniques?

And yet when it comes to plays, we see plays such as Rent being performed in Peoria and witnessed by the ultimate New Yorker, Rocco Landesman, who will judge it according to New York values. We universalize those values, and disseminate New York stories as if, like the International Style architecture and mass-produced detergent, they are completely isolated from place, from local culure, traditions, history, and values. People in New Amery WI watch CSI: New York despite the fact that it bears no resemblance whatsoever to their reality. We have become so alienated from our specific place in the world that we no longer even notice that we have been colonized by urban values, urban rhythms, urban styles, urban stories. The gangsta rap music blasting from the car next to mine in downtown Marshall NC is likely to be owned by a farmer's son out on a Saturday night toot.

The natural outgrowth of this colonization is for the colonizer to see themselves as the pinnacle of quality, as the natural goal of all who labor in the arts. So nobody bats an eye when Rocco Landesman, visiting Peoria and seeing the aforementioned production of Rent, is noted as having observed "earlier in the day that amateur arts are worthwhile much in the same way that minor leagues and amateur sports have value in relation to the big leagues and professional sports." There is no recognition that local arts done by amateurs or pro-am artists might not give a tinker's damn about the self-identified "big leagues," that the local arts might be a vibrant end in themselves. And artists buy into this value system. Why? Because they are brainwashed with the ideas from a young age. More importantly, what should be commented on is not whether the Peoria production of Rent is "as good as" Steppenwolf ("I'm not going to let you trap me on that one," Landesman said transparently -- har har), but rather whether it makes any sense for Rent to be performed in Peoria at all.

When are areas outside of New York going to develop some pride, some sense of individual identity? When are they going to express themselves, instead of compulsively sneezing "Me too" after every artistic twitch on the East Coast? When is a visit to the theatre in different parts of the country going to be a unique experience, seasoned with local flavor and served with pride of place? When traveling, every tourist seeks an opportunity to experience the local cuisine, whether it is barbecue in Kansas City, gumbo in New Orleans, or kringle in Racine WI. But going to the theatre is like going to the mall -- once you're inside the doors, you could be anywhere.

University theatre programs need to stop teaching this generic approach, regional theatres need to reclaim their local roots, and artists need to wake up and reclaim their individuality.


silent nic@knight said...

“And artists buy into this value system. Why? Because they are brainwashed with the ideas from a young age.”

But brainwashed no less or more than the rest of the population. The American culture does not value theatre. They do value celebrity. The little celebrity theatre possesses comes via Broadway or some TV or movie actor appearing in a production.

I like your analogy to local cuisines. Maybe more to the point would be “Mom’s home cooking.” The slow art movement would be the equivalent to the slow food movement many now are embracing. Hope is that it is not fad but the beginning of longer-term change.

Kate said...

I believe in your call to Localization, even as I am a working regional actress based out of New York... I'm hoping I won't be stoned to death for posting here. I went to a dreaded Big School and got my MFA in Acting and I was raised in the northeast. I am white, was raised upper middle class, I'm an only child, went to private schools all my life straight through to my terminal degree.

I want to talk a little about what I got out of my MFA program, since it seems to be a popular topic here and I wanted to share a bit about my experience. I can't talk as much for design, playwrighting and directing programs, so I'll only talk about what I know. I went to probably the most expensive on that Big School list. I did not find that my class was mostly the over-educated elite. As a little breakdown: out of the 18 of us, I know of two who were paying tuition in full out of pocket-- a high percentage when you consider to small class size, but not a blanket truth about who we were. This obviously doesn't address your whole post elsewhere about silver spoons from birth and all, but I think it's false to assume that all MFA candidates are even those educational elites. Many of us were going back to school after years on the audition market with little to show for it. Some were coming from business undergrad. One man hadn't yet finished undergrad due to legal reasons but agreed to finish in summer school before he could earn his MFA-- he was just that talented that they agreed to bend the rules.

One thing that you need as an actor, both artistically and to survive in "the Biz" is an incredible amount of self-confidence and reliance. I believe that having money can help with that in the short term but to truly last and to have something to say it has to come from somewhere deeper. This is where training helped me.

I went to grad school because I didn't know what else to do. I was coming out of boarding/prep high school into a highly ranked undergrad and it seemed like everyone I knew was either joining peace corps or interning before med or law school. Even the artists were doing this. I knew that acting and theatrical art were my calling and I had only instinct about it-- no training. I knew I wanted to do more of it and do it all the time. Grad school seemed like it would at least give me three years of that. What it has done is change my life.

The former head of my program has said that (I'm paraphrasing) good acting training would make you a better actor if you became an actor, or a better doctor if you became a doctor or a better whatever depending on what you ended up doing. This is because good acting training makes you a better person. My training opened me up to who I am and what I want to be responsible for in the world. It is through the process of working with a small group of people for three years intensively that I have become a much better actress and a much better person. To me, acting grad school is a devised situation away from "the real world" that acts as a kind of artistic retreat so that you can work and grow and challenge yourself. The importance of the "elite" nature (both prestige and moola) means that it holds the whole group seriously accountable for their participation in the process... and the more everyone in your class is dedicated to the process the more you get out of it. THIS, more than "connections" or a certain technique, is what I got out of my training. And I believe it's one way to get the kind of serious life change that I think a serious artist needs to say, "OK, now I am devoted to this." It can happen other ways, of course, but I think the MFA route is not a bad one.

Kate said...

(sorry so long-winded, here's part two)

Ok, so on to NYC vs the whole damn country:

I live in New York because that's where I can support myself. This doesn't mean I don't think that regions should be able to sustain their own pools of talented actors. You think I want to live in NYC, shipping out every few months to live in company housing or hotels for the rest of my life? I've met some of those women (all of them pretty damn fine artists) who have been working the regional circuit for 40 plus years without a drop of fame to come with it... and usually without families either because the lifestyle doesn't really allow for a healthy family life. I admire and respect these women like crazy, but I'm pretty sure they would also say it would've been a hell of a lot better if they could've stayed in one place and played The Parts. I would love to find a community where I could plant roots, start a family, and work as a full time actress in one town. There are a precious lucky few who can do that-- perhaps in Chicago or Denver, or Portland, OR and even some in New York. For now, I'm using my community here to grow and work and thrive. And I leave to work regionally and make some money and qualify for unemployment every so often.

My last little thought is not about working as an actor, but rather about going to see plays. To my taste, I don't see a lot of regional work that I dislike. I tend to go to regional theaters that are producing their own work, and rarely go to touring houses,so I don't have much to say on them, but I think there's a lot of really great regional stuff happening-- doesn't seem that ho-hum to me.