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.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Be Careful What You Wish For

I am up for "post-tenure review" this fall, and while I was putting together my dossier, I decided I wanted to mention the impact of my blogging on my career the last four years. I mentioned, for instance, that my NEA grant would have never happened without the blog, and that my ideas wouldn't have been as polished had they not gone through the burnishing of my fellow bloggers. Anyway, I remembered that Chris Wilkinson had said something nice about my blog after I announced I was shutting it down, and I wanted to quote him in my PTR cover letter, so I went to "Noises Off" and did a search on my name. Imagine my surprise when I found a post on July 29th, two months after I had stopped writing Theatre Ideas, entitled "Fighting Talk on Theatre Blogs." I knew I hadn't been fighting, so I was curious why my name was mentioned.

In it, Chris summarizes the "controversy" over David Cote's article in TONY in which he called on bloggers to "Engage/enrage." As someone who has engaged Cote only a few times (most of them enraging), I was sort of tickled to see him calling out the slumbering theatrosphere, something I had occasionally done as well. As Pink Floyd once said, "Is there anybody out there?"

Reading further, I found out, to my amazement, that the reason I was mentioned was, in fact, that I was to blame for the sleepiness of the theatrosphere (well, me and George Hunka). "Why have things been so quiet?," Chris asked rhetorically. "Partly, it seems, it is because some of the blogosphere's more combative, abrasive voices have either moved on or mellowed out." Ahem. He then went on to quote Matt Freeman, who wrote on his blog, "So...has the blogosphere been dull lately? I'd give that a big yes. Scott Walters has gotten a grant and left his New York bashing ways behind, although we did give each other a pair of parting middle fingers before stopped writing Theatre Ideas." While I don't remember giving Freeman the bird, I suppose it happened -- I'm certain it was done with great respect and affection, as always. However, that the disappearance of a couple bloggers should lead to nap time in the theatrosphere amazed me. Who knew that George and I were so damned important -- not to mention combative and abrasive (OK, I knew that part) -- that in our quietude we were damning the theatrosphere to zombihood? Especially when Don Hall was still around raising the banner of abrasiveness.

But after I read Wilkinson's piece, well... I just couldn't bear carrying that guilt any longer. I decided it was time, after a five month hiatus, to open the windows, remove the sheets from the furniture, and open Theatre Ideas for business once again. It's the least I can do. On my CRADLE(arts) blog, I will continue to address issues concerning the arts in small and rural communities. And I also plan to soon create a blog concerning theatre and arts education in higher education. I'll just be a blogging fool...(wait for it). But dang it, I'm feeling sort of abrasive and combative (George, are you feeling pretentious and self-aggandising, and ready to drop a few quotes?). Maybe I'll engage and enrage somebody. I just hate so much quiet! Don, I'll let you throw out the first douchebag.

Oh, and for those of you who wish I'd kept the windows shuttered: direct your complaints to . Chris Wilkinson and David Cote. How could I ignore a call from New York and London, the two capitols of the theatre world?