Friday, March 20, 2009

Celebrating American Theatre's 25th Anniversary

So I just got an email from TCG inviting me to "Gather 'round American Theatre's celebrity piano bar," with performances by the following line-up:

Laura Osnes Johnson, currently Nelly Forbush in South Pacific at Lincoln Center Theatre, winner of the role of "Sandy" on the televised Grease: You're the One that I Want! competition and Sandy in the 2007 Broadway run of Grease.

Michael John LaChiusa, Tony Award-nominated American musical theatre composer, lyricist, and librettist best known for complex, musically challenging shows such as Hello Again, Marie Christine, The Wild Party, and See What I Wanna See.

Marc Kudisch, seen this spring in the Joe Mantello-directed Dolly Parton musical 9 to 5 w/ Allison Janney, Stephanie J. Block & Megan Hilty as Franklin Hart, Jr.

Mary Testa, two-time Tony Award nominee, for performances in revivals of Leonard Bernstein's On the Town and 42nd Street.


Excuse me? Could somebody explain to me what in the world is in this organization's head? Has the regional theatre and the Broadway stage become so interchangeable that these are the people we ask to entertain us are the winners of the Grease: You're The One That I Want TV show? Every time I open American Theatre I am more and more baffled.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Samuel Mockbee: Educating Artists

I was listening to an old edition of NPR’s Speaking of Faith this evening on the way home. It was a wonderful episode called “An Architecture of Decency,” about the famous Rural Studio in Western Alabama. Included in the website for the program was an essay by Samuel Mockbee, the founder of the Rural Studio. I

This brings me to Auburn University’s Rural Studio. It had become clear to me that if architectural education was going to play any socially-engaged role, it would be necessary to work with the segment of the profession that would one day be in a position to make decisions: the student. The main purpose of the Rural Studio is to enable each student to step across the threshold of misconceived opinions and to design/build with a ‘moral sense’ of service to a community. It is my hope that the experience will help the student of architecture to be more sensitive to the power and promise of what they do, to be more concerned with the good effects of architecture than with ‘good intentions’. The Rural Studio represents an opportunity to be real in itself, the students become architects of their own education.

I believe that this could easily be the purpose of the educational aspects of the <100k>

For instance, I have a student who spent spring break in Guatemala with Patch Adams and the Gesundheit! Institute. She has created a small clown troupe who visit a local nursing home. Another of my students spent a semester touring with an environmental group that went to schools using the arts to teach about planting trees. These are small contributions in small places, but I think they are important, and that they receive far too little support in “professionally” oriented theatre programs across the US.

In the same essay, Mockbee writes:

Last year, I was asked to participate in an AlA (American Institute of Architects) Design Conference, along with two other architects and the English architect Michael Hopkins. Each of us gave lectures during the day and then participated in an after-dinner panel discussion that evening. Primarily, the questions-and-answers session that evening settled around questions about how an architect receives and executes major commissions. Each of the other architects were giving their answers to this question when Michael Hopkins interjected somewhat matter-of-factly that the evening before he had received a ‘fax on his pillow’ informing him that he had just received yet another commission from one of his major clients in England.

Later on someone made the observation that Hopkins was working for the richest woman in the world — the Queen of England — while I was working for the poorest man in the world, Shepard Bryant (the client and recipient of The Rural Studio’s first charity house, the Hay Bale House in Mason’s Bend, Alabama). They noted at the same time that my work and the work of Michael Hopkins represented two very different approaches to the practice of architecture. They wondered what the implications of this were. The question was directed at me and I answered that it probably had more to do with our nature than with any convictions — more to do with our own private (and somewhat selfish) desires rather than any commitment to public virtue. But as far as my own convictions went, I believe that architects are given a gift of second sight and when we see something that others can’t we should act, and we shouldn’t wait for decisions to be made by politicians or multinational corporations. Architects should always be in the initial critical decision-making position in order to challenge the power of the status quo. We need to understand that when a decision is made, a position has already been taken. Architects should not be consigned to only problem-solving after the fact.

People then turned to Michael Hopkins for his answer. He replied, ‘Maybe architects shouldn’t be in the position to make those kinds of decisions.’ I took this to mean issues affecting social, economic, political or environmental decisions, and also staying away from making subversive decisions!

At first I was somewhat stunned by his answer and then reflected that perhaps here was a man who could be speaking for most practicing architects.

I do not believe that courage has gone out of the profession, but we tend to be narrow in the scope of our thinking and underestimate our natural capacity to be subversive leaders and teachers.

This easily applies to the other arts as well, and particularly the notoriously conservative theatre, which I do think has lost much of its courage and been over-run with careerism and caution. We talk a big game about “subversion,” but our idea of subversion is focused on pathetic attempts to stick our thumb in the eye of the middle class by saying bad words or acting out heinous acts onstage, rather than being truly subversive by creating a vision that helps to bring into existence a better way of being, by creating with a moral sense of service to the community.

Intriguing "All Things Considered" Story: Kutiman

When I was driving home from work Tuesday, I caught the All Things Considered story on the music producer Kutiman and his mash-ups created by layering together multiple YouTube videos. Here is a sample:


Now, I am aware that there is nothing new about mash-ups and sampling, but what interests me about this is that in all of the videos (and if you want to see more, go to his website: http://thru-you.com/) mash together the work of amateur artists, rather than sampling and manipulating the work of professionals. It is an example of an professional artist (Kutiman) using his skills to bring together and enhance the disparate talents of "normal folk."

I continue to be interested in a new role for the artist, one that is not only about self-expression or the creation of products to be sold to a passive consumer, but also is about facilitating the creativity of others, of using artistic talents to help magnify and amplify the creative talents of people who are not highly-trained specialists, but rather amateurs in its original meaning of "one who loves." Of course, anyone who is a church choir director or the director of a community musical understands the joy of using your own talents to allow others to use their. It seems to me that Kutiman takes this to another level by doing more than simply helping people to interpret already existing work, but instead combining their talents in the creation of an entirely new work. In the theatre, this might take the form of creating new performance pieces by combining the words, images, and music of local people, local stories, local images, local histories in a layered, musical sort of way. In a world where people may not have the time to participate in traditional rehearsals four or five nights a week, the idea of a theatrical mashup might be a way to put together a series of pieces involving different people that center around a common theme, for instance.

I'm not sure -- there are probably even better ways to build on Kutiman's inspiration. I just know that the what-if part of my brain felt a tickle when I heard the original story, and having now seen the videos I find myself thinking even more.

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.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Wal-Marting of American Theatre (Part 2)

I was a little puzzled by Leonard Jacobs' rejoinder ("From the Blogroll XI," scroll to the bottom) to my previous post "The Wal-Marting of American Theatre" (see below). Jacobs takes issue with the following line, which end my post: "And like the business leaders and legislators who promote Wal-Mart as an economic engine bringing jobs to depressed ares despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, theatre artists and educators who continue to promote this system are promoting a lie." Characterizing this sentence as a "sucker punch" and "facile anti-New York hogwash," he asserts that the "primacy...of Mew York theatre isn't a lie."

Jacobs is arguing against a point I wasn't making. Only a fool would assert that New York City isn't currently the dominant city of the American theatre, in the same way that Wal-Mart is the dominant retailer in America. What I am saying is that neither situation is good for American communities. More specifically, I am arguing that Wal-Mart and its theatrical equivalent leads to the homogenization of offerings, the weakening of the local economy, and a net decrease in local jobs.

Nor am I particularly interested in blaming New York for its success at "branding itself as the nation's theater capital," in the same way that I do not blame Wal-Mart for its success in building an effective supply chain that has made it a retail behemoth. All of us, New Yorkers and non-New Yorkers alike, are responsible for maintaining the strength of this brand, which was the point I was trying to make about SETC, an organization theoretically devoted to the promotion of theatre in the southeast. And my belief is that it is time to resist the Wal-Mart model of theatre, in the same way that Wal-Mart itself is being resisted in communities across America.

I am a believer in a local economy: local food, local businesses, local idenity, and local entertainment. I think that a centralized, specialized, homogenized, globalized world makes our lives poorer and less interesting, and does untold damage to our natural, social, and cultural environment. Theatre by definition is a local art form, not a mass medium; a performance exists only in one place at one time.

Let me give a specific example of this homogenization in action, one that is reinforced by educators as well as so-called conventional wisdom. Beth Leavel, who was born in Raleigh NC and got her undergraduate degree at Meredith College in her home town and her graduate degree at UNC Greensboro, recounted what anyone who has ever been through an acting program will instantly recognize as a common practice: she was told that in order to work in NYC, she had to get rid of her NC accent. More than anything else I can think of, the way a person speaks reflects their background, the place where the were raised, their past and their people. To erase this in favor of a "neutral," so-called "standard American" accent that has the flavor of no place, no background, no history, no class is to erase a person's uniqueness in favor of generic blandness.

This saddens me. There are few things more beautiful, in my opinion, than a regional accent with its musicality, vowels, consonants and dipthongs, and special vocabulary. There are certain sentences that soar when said in the elongated sounds of the south (listen to the sermons of Martin Luther King, Jr for an example of this), other sentences crackle when said in the staccato nasality of Chicago or Boston, and still others that resonate with the rounded vowels of the upper midwest. But we sacrifce all that richness in order to provide the neutrality necessary for a centralized system with no roots.

Stories, like speech, are enriched by a regional flavor that gives them the juice of life. This is reflected not only in the rhythms and vocabulary used, but in their very subject matter, moral values, ways of portraying emotion. When a story is put through the filter of a non-localized system, it is neutralizes as certainly as Beth Leavel's lost accent, and it becomes "standard American." It loses a sense of place, its specificity. In the late 1950s, the English theatre was reinvigorated by an influx of playwrights and actors who were no longer speaking in the heretofore enforced English of Oxbridge, but were instead claiming with pride their own regional sounds. American has yet to do so.

Returning to the sentence that Mr. Jacobs found problematic, the reason given for the necessity of this neutralization, as Ms. Leavel noted, is employment, which is the same reason that young theatre artists are encouraged to migrate to New York, and the same reason given for accepting the invasion of Wal-Mart into a community. New York, conventional wisdom says, is "where the jobs are." This is the lie of which I was speaking.

The fact is that at any particular moment in time, 86% of Actors Equity members are out of work. The fact is that 55% of AEA members do not work at all during the course of a year. The fact is that the median income for working AEA members is $7340, which isn't even rent in NYC. And the fact is that the true median income for all AEA members is zero. When college teachers cling to the idea that they are training young people for the profession, they fail to note that, in fact, there is no profession. What we are training them for is unemployment, for like Wal-Mart NYC provides only marginal employment at best.

So I am failing to see the advantage of this system, which leads to unemployment and homogenization, and I am failing to see why an organization such as SETC or the collective university professors of America would promote this system to young artists. It seems to me to be highly irresponsible, and to lead to the tragic waste of a great deal of creative talent that could be bringing joy to many, many people.

I am not saying that Beth Leavel should not have done exactly what she did -- as one of my commenters noted, it was clear while Leavel was in grad school that she was going to be a "star." There are some people for whom New York is a haven, a place of rich opportunity and great personal growth and inspiration. They should go there. But there are others for whom this is not the case, others who are just as talented but whose focus is on another place, or whose gifts are unique and unable to be neutralized without loss, or who wish to lead a life close to family or in a place other than a metropolis. Those people ought to take another path, so that their talents are not lost.

Theatre professors and orgainzations like SETC need to balance out the dominant myth of NYC, giving equal time to alternative career paths. For instance, in addition to Beth Leavel, SETC might invite a keynote from one of the actors at Commonweal Theatre Company in Lanesboro MN (pop 788), or Dudley Cocke the fiery and brilliant leader of Roadside Theatre in Whiteburg KY.

There is another way that theatre can be done, has been done in the past, and is being done in the present, and it is time that that way be acknowledged and given its due. We cannot continue to turn so many young people into theatrical cannon fodder. We must start behaving responsibly before we lose our most precious gifts: our young talent.