Saturday, January 02, 2010

David Byrne on Arts Funding

This blog post by Talking Heads lead singer David Byrne, entitled "Art Funding or Arts Funding," is scary in many ways, and I suppose it is very possible to make a case against what Byrne has to say. And of course, as a musician who made his fortune in the public forum, Byrne has a particular viewpoint that informs his words. As a former Associate Artistic Director of the Illinois Shakespeare Festival, and a theatre professor who teaches theatre history almost every semester, I can also muster up quite a few arguments myself.

And yet...

If I am consistent in my focus on individual creativity -- on "bringing the arts back to life" -- then as Byrne says, the emphasis needs to shift from dead guys to the living.

Kingsolver: Bellwether Prize

"Fiction has a unique capacity to bring difficult issues to a broad readership on a personal level, creating empathy in a reader's heart for the theoretical stranger. Its capacity for invoking moral and social responsibility is enormous. Throughout history, every movement toward a more peaceful and humane world has begun with those who imagined the possibilities. The Bellwether Prize seeks to support the imagination of humane possibilities."
-- Barbara Kingsolver (description of the Bellwether Prize she founded)

Friday, January 01, 2010

A New Year's Realization

Tom Loughlin Hits The Nail
Over the past month, throughout the conversation about diversity, about class, about quality, I have avoided a true consideration of the sentiments Tom Loughlin expressed in his December 23rd post "Far From the Madding Crowd" and December 24th post "What's All the Fuss About?"Having been invited into the regional theatre discussion by the intelligent and thoughtful David Dower at Arena Stage, and having been stimulated by a few days of intriguing give-and-take between engaged theatre artists, I found myself trying to fix what is wrong with the so-called American theatre, and in the process I lost track of my own commitments and beliefs, most precisely characterized by the Buckminster Fuller quotation printed in my sidebar that serves as the guiding principle for this blog: "You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete."

Tom reminded me of it when he refused to be drawn into the diversity discussion, taking a longer view when he wrote "the debate itself is another manifestation of the worsening entropic nature of theatre itself at this point in time. According to social entropy theory, much of any organization’s energy and time is spent preventing an organization from descending into a state of chaos. As an organism or organization corrodes or decays, more and more time and energy is needed to maintain the status quo, and less and less energy is actually spent producing anything of use or value. Ultimately, the decaying state of the organization is simply too far gone for any corrective action to be worthwhile or effective, and the organization goes into a state of chaos, or death." He's right. And I had been contributing more and more time and energy to maintain the status quo.

Careerism
Most of the discussion of diversity was not about how telling the stories of a variety people might increase a sense of connectedness within the community, might create bridging social capital between groups, might enhance meaning in peoples' lives. What it was about was careers -- how artists of color, female artists, gay artists, any artists at all might find more opportunities to get their work produced and noticed. All it takes is a little skimming through the TDF book Outrageous Fortunes to see that the primary concern playwrights have is "making the jump" to larger institutions, i.e., "advancing" their careers.

Once again, it is Tom who puts this into perspective with his New Year's Day post "Changing Lives": "I notice this a lot in the younger generation. My students are constantly concerned with the career aspects of their training, and the surveys I’ve seen of undergraduate and graduate theatre students again and again indicate that they always want more courses that concentrate on career-building, not on the development of their talent. They want workshops that center on how to audition better, or how to market themselves better. They want agents to come see their work and make comments. They want to know what’s the best city to move to. In short, they want to be given as clear a pathway as possible that will lead to a successful career. They seem little concerned with changing people’s lives with their art." I notice the same thing (although perhaps a little less so in a liberal arts program such as mine), and like Tom I know this isn't their fault -- it is what they have been taught to be concerned with by their teachers and the culture. They are thinking only in terms of finding a place in the current paradigm. So to encounter it in a discussion about diversity, or class, or quality isn't all that surprising.

A Dream of Spinning Tires in the Snow
A couple nights ago, I had a dream. I don't usually have memorable dreams, and when I do remember, they are pretty pedestrian. But this one was different. I dreamt I was in my car driving up a very long and very steep driveway to the parking lot of an Office Depot store. The car, which for some reason I knew was an older Honda Civic, really had to work hard getting up to the top. When I finally got up there, I found that there had been a massive snow storm, and the parking lot was unplowed and had a 7 ft drift at the very top of the driveway, and there were a bunch of cars that had tried to break through the drift who were stuck, spinning their wheels ineffectively. I stopped my car and got out to better see the situation: there were no cars in the parking lot, only stuck in the drift, and in the distance the Office Depot was dark and empty. I turned around just in time to see my Civic start to roll back down the driveway. I tried to run after it, but it gained momentum as I watched it roll out into traffic and disappear into the city streets. I spent the rest of the dream trying to find the car -- I never did.

When I woke up, I knew this dream was about my own career, but I also see that it is about the theatre scene in general. Everyone is working hard to get to the top, where they encounter an empty destination and a bunch of people stuck and spinning their wheels. Nobody is questioning the worth of the quest to get to the top, nor are they thinking about ways to get unstuck. They just continue to spin their wheels in the same way they always have.

Refocusing: Thanks, Buckminster
This morning, I asked myself why I was spending so much of my time trying to address issues like diversity, class, and quality when the underlying values and the structure that supports them are so debased that it will corrupt any attempts to make it better. As long as people think art is a commodity to be sold, that stories are products to be copyrighted and horded, that creative expression is something that ought to be done by specialists, that the arts are a career -- as long as these are the values, then little of importance will change in the arts, and they will continue their downward spiral into irrelevance that, once again, Tom outlined in "What's All the Fuss About?" We have created this system ourselves, as Mike Daisey pointed out in How Theatre Failed America, and as long as we are committed to it, the existing reality will remain the same.

CRADLE(arts) represents my attempt to disconnect from a system I believe is broken. And while I, like everyone, am prone to be flattered when I am invited into the room to share my ideas with members of the power structure, I have to be wary about being co-opted, about shifting my focus away from creating a new reality toward fixing the unfixable current reality.

Perhaps it is the reality of being in our fifties, or perhaps it is that we are both college professors and it takes a toll on our psyche to educate young people, year after year, to join a system we have come to see as soul deadening and lacking in value, but Tom and I have a viewpoint that is very different from most of the theatrosphere, and from most of the generation that was sitting in a circle at the Arena Stage convening. I can't drive into the snow drift and spin my wheels -- I need to create a different route.

What I Care About
The fact is that I don't give a damn about what is happening in the so-called American Theatre, commercial or non-profit. I don't care whether Sarah Ruhl writes good plays or not, or whether the Broadway audience is 96.5% white, or whether using Facebook or Twitter will help market a show. I care about bringing back a shared sense of creativity to our society; I care about increasing the sense of connection between people; I care about helping people find meaning in their lives and relationships, and in helping them to disconnect from the soul-deadening materialism and individualism that makes the US one of the least happy countries in the world.

It's not that I scorn what others care about, it's just that I can't join that conversation. It takes a lot of reading, a lot of thought, to create a new reality, in the same way that it takes a lot of time and thought to work within the current reality. I don't have the time to do both -- I have to choose. And I choose a new reality.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Quality (Part 2)

This is why I love and hate blogging. I love it because I can post an extreme idea and a host of intelligent and articulate bloggers and commenters will analyze it, point out its strengths and weakness, and help me to polish the idea into something stronger and more insightful. I hate it, because very quickly I realize that I can't keep up with all the great blogs that are out there, and I miss some great insights.

The first comment on the previous post was by August Schulenburg, who back at the end of June posted to the Flux Theatre Ensemble blog his ideas "On Quality, Value, and Criticism." I remember reading it at the time, and experiencing regret that I hadn't been able to come to the NET conference (my father had had a stroke and passed away just before I was to head to San Francisco). His differentiation between "quality" and "value" is extremely useful. He writes:

I think the primary reason we have trouble talking about quality is we so often confuse it with value. Artistic quality is excellence in an established cultural tradition. That tradition has a form with a set of rules and expectations, a unique physics of engagement, a shared language; and from that tradition, excellence is expressed.

You do not need to like or value that tradition to recognize when its expression has quality. You only need to be familiar with the rules.
.......
Which brings us to value, which is a moral judgement, not an aesthetic one. Value judges what kind of work is important - theatre of social justice, devised work, Broadway, Indie theatre - and in doing so, also judges what kind of work is not important.

Quality is concerned with the use of a medium within an aesthetic tradition.
Value is concerned with the role of that tradition within a society.
Quality looks at how art works. Value looks at why.
Many of our most heated discussions in the theatrosphere are about value, not quality, although sometimes we get the two confused. I thank August for adding to my conceptual library.

Hats off to Adamflo84 and Thomas Garvey, who both clearly identified the contradiction at the center of my thesis. Adamflo84 wrote: "Really confused by you initial point of there is no "masterpiece" of recent memory, THEN you go on to blast the very idea of being able to identify quality. Isn't "masterpiece" a quality statement?" And Garvey followed up with: "But if quality doesn't exist, what is this "shared vocabulary" you propose going to be about? Because surely if artistic quality doesn't exist, then no quality exists - not political quality, not rhetorical quality, not logical quality, not nothin'. But of course "quality" does exist, or your post makes no sense - what are you aiming for, if not a situation of higher "quality"?"

Thomas is right: quality does, indeed exist. In fact, I'd go even further: we all would tend to agree about constitutes quality -- at least, we would all agree about what constitutes a basic level of competence. If we attend a festival of plays written by high school seniors, most of us will agree that the level of competence is not reached, whereas if we attend the 10-Minute Play Festival at Humana, we would likely see a basic level of competence. Where we tend to run into disagreement is at the point where the level of competence is achieved. At that point, each of us "values" certain things above others. You'll like one 10-minute play better than I do, and vice versa.

It was this that led me to propose the play lottery model: sort out those plays that we all would likely agree don't meat levels of dramaturgical competence, and then, at the point where agreement yields to individual values (which we sometimes call "subjective," as in "quality is subjective"), allow chance to take over. Why? Because otherwise, the decisions that are made concerning plays that are produced are strongly reliant on what devilvet calls "resonance," i.e., the way a particular play vibrates within my individual soul, what I personally "value."

If we rely on "resonance" of a couple individuals to determine which play is going to fill the slots (or single slot) devoted to new plays in a theatre's season, the limitation is obvious: "how do these plays get picked by artistic directors, literary directors, etc... who feel no resonance with the material?" This is when the homogeneous economic, racial, geographic, educational, and gender characteristics of those decision-makers becomes problematic for the cause of diversity in the arts. Because, as devilvet goes on, "how then does the organization not only produce, but enthusiastically produce work when it feels no resonance regarding it?"

Conventional wisdom says that the artists who produce and create a production must feel passionate about the work, must feel that it resonates within them, or else it will be mediocre. While this has historically not been a universal idea, it has come to be generally accepted today without, I would venture, a recognition as to the ramifications for all other aspects of theatrical creation, especially diversity of all kinds.

However, given that our commerical and regional theatres are mostly not producing using a permanent or even semi-permanent ensemble, but are instead jobbing in artists for individual projects, then wouldn't it be possible that an artistic team could be put together that was, in fact, passionate about a play that has been chosen via weighted lottery? Couldn't resonance be hired? And if so, what happens to our belief that a commitment to diversity leads inevitably to lower quality? At what point do we give priority to our values?

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Thesis: Quality Doesn't Exist (Discuss)

Let me just say up front, before you read any further, that I know that the post that is to follow is a non-starter. Readers will throw up their hands in exasperation, postulating as Isaac did that "Scott Walters is Insane!" Chris Wilkinson will likely remove me from his list of top theatre blogs. Thom Garvey will call me academic. I can take comfort, however, from Tony Kushner who, when he proposed in his outstanding speech and essay "A Modest Proposal" (American Theatre, Jan98, Vol. 15 Issue 1) that we "abolish all undergraduate art majors," recognized that "Since[undergraduate arts education] so very lucrative, I can say let's get rid of it and we don't have to worry that anything will actually happen. So my speech is rather like theatre in this regard, and this frees us to consider the validity of my proposal...as a pure abstraction ultimately productive of nothing more unpleasant than a spasm of conscience and perhaps something as pleasant as a whiff of scandal and a flicker of ire." I should be so lucky.

The topic of this post has arisen in my mind as a result of the reactions to my earlier proposal entitled "Diversity, Education, and the Arts: One Approach," in which I suggested that one way, an inexpensive way that could be easily instituted on stages across America, to increase diversity in the production of new plays was to create a specific rubric for evaluating plays in a blind reading, have readers indicate whether the play meets the criteria, then put all of the plays that meet said criteria in a weighted lottery and choose them randomly for production. This was the idea that led to my insanity charge. Some found the idea intriguing, though inevitably flawed in some fatal way that allowed it to be referred to affectionately as "wacky"; others howled in derision, decrying the abandoning of "choice" and "quality" in favor of Mere Chance; and others huffed and puffed about Hard Work and Merit. I've tried to track all the comments so as to provide links, but I'm afraid I've lost track over Christmas, and I need to get this written so it can stop rattling around in my mind.

Some of the comments seem beyond my ability to respond to short of writing an entire book, or referring to some already written (although you could do worse than starting with Stephen J. McNamee's The Meritocracy Myth or perhaps more provocatively and persuasively Walter Benn Michael's The Trouble With Diversity). Suffice to say, if you think the theatre (or any other part of American society) is a meritocracy based solely or even primarily on hard work or innate talent, I invite you to return to reading Atlas Shrugged by the flickering light of a Fox News show.

The idea that I want to address here revolves around what 99Seats rightly called the "quality dodge." It is an argument that arises any time we attempt to correct inequities in some part of our society. It arose when we began using Affirmative Action to diversify college campuses, as politicians, professors, and reg'lar citizens argued that the "quality" of the student body was being compromised. And it is what underlies this discussion of diversity in the theatre as well. Opponents argue that quality on our stages will suffer if plays are chosen while paying attention to the race/gender/class/geography of the playwright -- they will be by definition be subpar. (Sidenote: my proposal didn't suggest doing this, except to say that a theatre could decide to weight the selections according to whatever criteria it wished, including considerations of diversity.)

Which leads to the thesis for this post: quality doesn't exist.

The reason it doesn't exist is that we define it, when we bother to define it at all (usually it is some vague assumption), in contradictory terms that simulatenously reveal the arbitrary and ideological source of our concept.

Before going further with this theoretical argument, I'd like to pause for just a moment to examine reality for a few moments. Given our seeming attachment to the status quo, given our belief that this system of conscious "choice" and single-minded focus on "quality" leads to excellence, shouldn't there be some kind of evidence that the system works? Shouldn't there be a helluva lot more masterpieces around? I must say I don't see many. In fact, I can't for the life of me think of a really, really good, powerful, profound play that has been done on the stages of Broadway or the regional theatre since, well, since Angels in America almost twenty years ago. I see a lot of average, faintly interesting, or adolescently "provocative" work, but nothing that really stakes a claim to become canonical. Indeed, when I look at most new plays, they seem like they could have been written by Paddy Chayefsky or A. R. Gurney, or if they are "experimental," Frank Wedekind or Alred Jarry. No, if this system is so effective, we ought to be able to come up with more than a single masterpiece a generation.

Or perhaps you say: well, as middling as plays like Rabbit Hole and Proof and August: Osage County are, they are probably the best of the lot -- there just aren't any masterpiecs being written these days. Maybe so, which might lead us to question whether the "elite" MFA playwriting programs are really all they're cracked up to be. But that's another argument, also about "quality" and its intersection with class and educaton. But let's get back to my thesis: quality doesn't exist.

When I proposed my thought experiment, one of the arguments against it focused on my idea of a rubric for determining basic competence. Some argued that this was too mechanistic, and that, when all was said and done, "quality is subjective." The proof, it was argued by many, was that the commenter liked some plays that other knowledgable people he or she respected didn't like, and vice versa, and who's to say who is right and who is wrong? To use a rubric, which removes the subjective element somewhat, is just "neo-intellectual fascism."

The problem with this argument, which is a form of relativism, is that, if every person has his or her own equally valid opinion as to what constitutes quality, then the claim that any play is better than another becomes by definition absurd. YOU may think it is good, but somebody else may think it is dreck -- and who is to say who is right and who is wrong? So how can we reject for reasons of quality the use of a lottery to choose a play, when quality is an individual opinion and any given play is as likely to have its champions as its detractors?

What we mean, really, is not that quality is totally s ubjective -- that the cab driver's opinion is as good as the artistic director's -- but that among trained, informed, knowledgable, and experienced people (i.e., experts) quality is subjective. Which brings us back to education again. There is, after all, a 2500 year conversation about what constitutes quality in the arts, and those whose opinions ought to matter more are likely to have absorbed enough of that conversation, usually through formal education or extensive independent reading (auto-didacticism being a respectable form of education) to arrive at an "informed opinion" about a play's quality.

The problem with this argument is twofold. First, during that 2500-year conversation there hasn't been a whole lot of agreement. The French of the 17th century thought Shakespeare was a barbarian, and even in Elizabethan London Shakespeare was regarded as a popular hack and upstart who couldn't hold a candle to the university-educated playwrights like Ben Jonson. The Greeks thought a chorus a necessity, the Romans...not so much. Moliere, Racine, and Corneille believed the Unities of Time, Place, and Plot as well as Verisimiltude and Decorum were absolutely crucial to a play's quality, whereas Lope de Vega and Calderon couldn't care less about them. The Naturalists put their faith in a scientific presentation of a slice of life, complete with a clear demarcation of heredity, environment, and given circumstances, whereas the Romantics believed a quality play was sui generis and arose organically from the individual passions of the playwright. In other words, there has never been consensus, and so the best an educated person can do is pick and choose which part of the conversation they find most attractive. In other words, we're back again to artistic relativism -- I like what I like, you like what you like. As Bud Abbott would say, "Third base."

The second problem with that argument about "informed opinion" is that, because of the 2500-year conversation is so cacophonous, the education that leads to an "informed opinion" involves a teacher picking and choosing which parts of theatre history to emphasize and which to ignore (after all, time is limited and there is a lot of cover), which to appreciate and which to exoriate. So what the student acquires is partial education shaped by a teacher's ideology. Since, as Tony Kushner notes in his aforementioned essay, arts majors tend to be fairly uninformed about their own art form, focusing more on learning skills than ideas, these survey courses often are the only exposure to the ideas of past artists that these young people will ever get. So the danger of "that troublesome MFA stat" that indicates that 90% of the working playwrights in the TDF study Outrageous Fortune came through a handful of elite MFA playwriting programs is that the students enrolled in them will receive, basically, the same partial education filtered through the same prejudices of a few teachers and thus acquire a similar set of values. So is the answer to the ubiquitous question "Who's to say what is good and what isn't?": Paula Vogel, Christopher Durange, Lynne Nottage, and Maria Irene Fornes? I doubt many would be willing to make them the final arbiter of theatrical quality.

So the problem is: if we define quality in relativistic terms, we can't use it as an objective way to prefer one play over another; on the other hand, if we define quality objectively by referring to education, we cannot deny that access is limited (these elite programs accept only a few each year) the definition is ideological, and thus diversity is diminished.

Which is why I say: quality doesn't exist. As a pure, usable, non-ideological, objective concept quality doesn't exist.

Unless we define it differently.

Right now, we use the word "quality" as if it is a part of the work of art -- as if it is something that lives within the play, within the performance, within the production that we can recognize if we have the requisite "taste."

But I don't think that is true. I think quality is interactive. Like a rainbow, which exists only when rain, sunlight, and an observing eye are in proper relation to each other, quality exists when a play with certain characteristics in a production with certain characteristics interacts with an audience who recognizes, appreciates, and is able to interpret those characteristics. You need to have all three elements for quality to exist. It is a gestalt. An excellent play in an excellent production that is performed in front of an audience that has no interest in it is not an excellent play and production.

If we accept this as true, it leads us to look for plays differently, because we recognize that there is no such thing as a "good play" all by itself. (And truth be told, a "good play" sounds pretty Platonic, yet I truly believe that most theatre people have some vague, unspoken belief that there are ideal forms that exist somewhere against which plays are measured -- they call this "intuition" or "gut feeling" and they believe that these feelings are somehow separate from ideology, prejudice, and personal experience.) Anyway, a play that is "flawed" when compared to some idea of what constitutes a "good play" might be exactly what is needed for a certain audience or certain performers or a certain context. For instance, Luis Valdez's Los Vendidos is a play with one-dimensional, stereotypical characters, energetic and exaggerated dialogue, and was played by relatively untrained performers -- but performed on the back of a truck in California during the grape strikes in front of an audience of striking pickers, it was a "high quality" production because it combined content, form, context, and audience in a dynamic and effective way.

In short, "quality" is a complex, contextual, ideological concept, one shaped by the (dare I say it?) hegemonic culture which privileges certain groups and ideas and discriminates against others. It is interactive with the audience and the particular social context. It cannot be easily used to reject plays without an explicit statement of what elements of the status quo you are tacitly or actively endorsing through your definition.

All of which is to say, once again, that we as artists need to develop a shared vocabulary of values and concepts which have been closely examined for their underlying power structures, asking ourselves who certain values and concepts serve, and who they exclude, and whether we can live with those exclusions and endorsements. While we may not be able to develop totally inclusive values, it would be refreshing and helpful to make explicit the ideology of those we hold, so that each of us is honest and above board about our commitments.

We can't continue to use words like quality as an excuse to end discussions of power and prejudice in the theatre.