Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Thanks Matt, Mac, Don, and Buckminster

My  last two posts, "Formal Exclusion" and "Stories for the Folks Who Work the Cash Registers of Our Lives," perhaps predictably have caused a certain amount of agreement and consternation in various places around the theatre blogging world. The consternation outweighed the agreement.

Perhaps the most direct attack came from Matt Freeman, who said his response to posts like mine and Tom Loughlin's is "write your own plays." He goes on:
If you don't see something to enjoy in the plays being written today, that doesn't mean you are excluded. It just means that today's playwrights don't speak to you. There are lots and lots of plays that will, or have, I'm sure. Be patient, read the things you love, and stop prescribing your taste to other people.Plays aren't written to order. I read the frustration in posts like these, and I understand it. But there's only really one solution if you feel that a certain play that should exist that does not already. Write it.
I have to admit that this made me angry, and I responded that way, and it still does annoy me somewhat. But Matt and I disagree on the role of the artist in society. Matt sees art as about self-expression, and I see it as contributing to the creation of a healthy society. These orientations are not mutually exclusive, but they do lead in different directions.

In the midst of what was developing into a semi-nasty spat, Mac Rogers interjected with a comment that brought me up short. He wrote:
Scott, "write it yourself" has been your recommendation on many occasions. You have written numerous times about how the arts need to be freed from an artificially defined professional class and given back to the people. What follows are your words:

"I want people to tell their own stories, instead of relying on TV to tell them for them; I want them to sing their own songs together, instead of buying a CD; I want them to dance together, instead of watching dancers. And I want the ideology that says that you can only do an art if you can do it as well as the 'professionals' to stop. The number of people who blush and say, 'oh, I don't sing' is disturbing."

You spoke on your blog about how the couple who didn't understand the Wallace play may well have lived through some of the same circumstances presented in it. By the lights of your argument above, that couple could, in collaboration with one another, write a new play that serves as a corrective to Wallace's. They have the life experience, and the arts belong to everyone.

Why should the people who are writing plays now change what they're doing? The true battle, as I've understood from your writing in the past, is to exhort the rest of the people to rise up and write their own plays, informed by their innate authenticity and lived experience, and displace the artsy frauds.

You and Freeman have made the same argument, it seems to me. Arguing that the people who currently identify as playwrights should change what you perceive to be their attitudes and behavior weakens that fundamental argument.
As Shakespeare might have said (perhaps in a W. C. Fields voice), "Hoist on my own petard." Mac Rogers is right, and so is Matt. While I could spend days and days marshaling arguments about why playwrights ought to care about the audience, and about reaching a diverse audience -- in fact, I have spent days and, years and years making such arguments -- ultimately I need to take the Buckminister Fuller quotation on my blog seriously and, instead of "fighting the existing reality," I need to "build a new model that makes the old model obsolete."

Actually, this model has already been built and tested out by people like Robert E. Gard, Alexander M. Drummond, Alfred Arvold and Frederick H. Koch, all of whom set up highly successful programs in the early- to mid-20th century to encourage and teach people in New York, Wisconsin, Alberta, South Dakota, and North Carolina to write and produce plays about their own experiences. Gard founded the Wisconsin Idea Theatre, Koch the Carolina Playmakers, Arvold the Little Country Theatre. Many of these men are now largely forgotten -- how many theatre people ever hear about them during their theatre history courses?I certainly never did -- yet they made an important contribution to the development of the arts in this country. They taught, provided space to archive and distribute plays, wrote handbooks, created tours, produced radio shows, and wrote books. CRADLE is designed to follow in the footsteps of these theatrical pioneers.

Will such an effort "make the old model obsolete"? I doubt it, at least not as long as the mass media is largely centralized in NYC. But it can restore the trail that was blazed by these men, and make it a viable path for artists who care about encouraging creativity, community, and understanding. I suspect that group won't include Matt Freeman, or Mac Rogers, or George Hunka and that's fine. For my part, I only want people involved who have a heartfelt commitment to the CRADLE mission, and I am convinced that there are many, many out there who do.

And while I am acknowledging commenters whose comments led me to a new insight, Don Hall, in a comment on my post "Parallels," wrote:
Here's my beef with the Nylachi nonsense - I agree with you that the Big Corporate Institutions are swallowing up all the dough but to condemn the entire urban arts community is to condemn thousands of artists that have NOTHING to do with those institutions OR the Big Grant Money they get from the G. It's why you're fight with NYC and Chicago artists is uncompelling - you're fighting with the cats on the shit end of the economic stick and telling us that we're the bad guys.Devilvet doesn't get money that you think should go to Toadsuck...why lump him in with those that do?
Like Mac Rogers, Don Hall is right. My desire to increase geographical diversity has never been about rejecting the small theatres struggling to carve out a niche in New York or Chicago or Los Angeles. Many of those theatre are very much a part of their community -- I think of a theatre like, say The Classical Theatre of Harlem in this regard. My beef, to borrow Don's terminology, is the message that theatre people can only have a "serious" career if they are in Nylachi; that theatre in Nylachi is the only theatre worth considering; that their is a geographical hierarchy with Broadway at the top (which has been recognized as a dumb idea for decades now); that "quality" and "excellence" has a geographical component. This is nothing short of an ideology, one that is oft repeated by those who have bully pulpits for the art form such as Michael Kaiser and Rocco Landesman, and that gets passed down to high schoolers across the nation through TV broadcasts of the Tony Awards and TV shows like "Taking the Stage" and "Grease: You're the One That I Want" and "Fame" that are little more than extended advertisements for the Broadway and commodity-arts ideology.

I remember when I was in high school and reaching the conclusion that I wanted to make theatre my life, my parents questioned me as to whether I thought I was "good enough for Broadway." Even in the land of Robert Gard's Wisconsin Idea Theatre (I grew up in Racine WI) that was the only benchmark. It certainly was the only thing I had in my mind, to such an extent that I wasted a year at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts because it advertised itself as the oldest acting school in New York, so it must be good. It wasn't until I was in my 30s that I recognized the falsity of that ideology.

So my quest, through CRADLE and through my teaching, is to open up an awareness and create opportunities for both young theatre artists and also creative people who, like Matt Freeman, want to express themselves even if they make their living doing something else. So yes, write it yourself...and act it yourself, and sing it yourself, and paint it yourself, and dance it yourself. And do it for others, for your community, as an end in itself and not a means to "fame and fortune."

Thanks Matt, Mac, Don, and Buckminster.


macrogers said...

Now that's more like it!

Ian David Moss said...

Just a quick (serious) note to say that if you're interested in what a national arts scene looks like when has intimate connections with local communities, lacks an immediately obvious economic center, and is dominated by amateur participants without aspirations of making a living from their art, you should really take a long look at choral music. Chorus America's 2003 Choral Impact Study is a good place to start: (There's a more recent version available, but its findings have been vigorously disputed in some corners.)

Scott Walters said...

Thanks for the tip, Ian. Since CRADLE is multi-disciplinary, it is important that I begin to develop a broad understanding of the work that is being done in non-theatrical art forms.

Thanks, Mac, for your insights.

99 said...

Good, good thoughts. It takes a big fella to admit when he's wrong-headed about something and I applaud that.

In fact, I applaud this whole post and direction. This is the kind of stuff that gets the oars pulling in the same direction.

macrogers said...

I agree about the oars, 99, and I don't mean my brief comment above to be at all gloat-y if it seems that way. I would've posted that same comment even if there was no reference to me in this post. I'm not trying to put one over on anybody, just trying to encourage mission focus and clarity in others, that I might foster the same focus and clarity in myself.

Freeman said...

I certainly apologize for getting hot under the collar.

silent nic@knight said...

You’re the man, Scott. Incisive self-appraisal.

Most are supportive of your goals when the broad generalized attacks on “the other” are missing.

Unfortunately without an enemy (Nylachi is a brilliant invention), I am afraid the debate over your proposals will fizzle. But fortunately, for those of us who enjoy the rigor of discourse, we have all witnessed your vows of abstinence before. You’ll be back. You’re the man.

Scott Walters said...

Matt -- No apologies necessary.

Nic -- Maybe without the debate, the proposals will have more power and support. In any event, the proposals will only have power if I can get this thing off the ground.

Nylachi is still a viable concept, it just is the name of an ideology... ;-)

Laura Sue said...

I have read this post and your apology and all the comments and they all anger me. So that your commenters know who I am, I am an audience member. Period. That's the only qualification I have in the theater world. To the advice, "write your own," I respond that this comes across as exactly what it is: total contempt and disregard that so-called artists have for their audiences these days. It's insulting. Remember that I am speaking as an audience member and nothing else. Artists want people to come see their plays--but only on their terms. An audience should be able to identify a play as being bad without being told "write your own." In fact, we are telling you every day--we are voting with our feet. And while playwrights are sitting around at "convenings" whining about how audiences don't appreciate them or understand them, we're trying to tell you. Your plays suck. They are incomprehensible and self-absorbed. Write good plays and we'll come. Who the hell are you writing plays for? Each other? That's how it seems from the seats. I count on Doc to advocate for the audience. I feel a bit let down by this post.

BTW, my word verification for this comment is "horsecte" which is remarkably close to horseshit, don't you think? Perhaps the horseshit is mine, but truly, people, you are so condescending it's almost more than one can bear. Please, one of you tell me why I should ever bother to set foot in another theater again?

Scott Walters said...

Laura Sue -- First of all, I didn't mean my post to be an apology, but rather an acknowledgment that what you say is true -- many theatre people have a deep-seated contempt, or at least ambivalence, concerning their audience. They want to write and perform what they want, when they want it, and if you don't like it, then it is your fault for being so narrow-minded. After over 4 years of doing this, I have come to the conclusion that this is an intractable problem that will only change with the complete collapse of the system -- something that is coming faster than we think. As you say, audiences are voting with their feet, and every study tells us that the decline in attendance is precipitous. But nothing changes, except theatres start Twittering and Facebooking, and artists continue to beat their breasts and complain about how little money they make.

CRADLE is an attempt to get outside of that system.

99 said...

LS - I also didn't and don't see it as an apology. Just like I don't see Matt or George's points as whining. I think both things are kind of true: Matt and George and others are writing as they see fit, telling stories true and honest and doing the work that makes them happy and some audiences don't connect to it. That's life. But rather than blaming the playwrights, who are the low people on this totem pole, let's look at the system, let's look at the major theatres, let's look at all of the other players involved. Fine, you don't want to write plays; no one is saying you shouldn't vote with your feet and your pocketbook. We're just saying that the answer isn't "write other plays."

Don Hall said...

LS -

Not that it makes any difference, but you're not just an audience member - your the Prof's spouse, right?

It certainly doesn't color the issue much but in the spirit of full disclosure, it sort of makes a difference.

Scott Walters said...

An interesting point, Don. Not that it matters, but in the interest of full disclosure, could you provide us with a list of your friends who post on your blog?

Scott Walters said...

Indeed, Laura Sue is my wife. She reads this blog intermittently, and in this case took issue with this post. As is her right, she posted her comment, which expressed her own feelings.

Any person who comments on this blog, known to me or not, is treated with the same level of anonymity. I believe that is a level of respect paid to my readers.

Laura Sue said...

In the interest of full disclosure, I am a former social worker, divorced, with two children. I currently work as a secretary. I have one son who wants to be an actor and a husband who teaches theater in a small liberal arts college. I have seen more theater in the last 15 years than I would have had I not been married to him. If you think that his views on theater are pointed, you should hear mine. He tempers what he hears from me quite a bit. His populist leanings come not just from his Wisconsin roots, but also from the fact that he has a real person who is in no other way related to the theater to give him feedback. I recommend it to all of you. It might give you some perspective.

macrogers said...

Laura Sue, if you don't enjoy plays overall, you definitely shouldn't go. I don't like sporting events at all (which is kind of scandalous in a UNC-CH grad), so I never attend them.

But if you do like plays in general, but think that you don't like any (or most of ) contemporary playwriting, definitely make sure you know what all is out there before voting with your feet. Let me make this offer: if you ever find yourself in New York when a play I wrote is running, please get in touch with me, and I will arrange for you to have a free pair of tickets and seats with easy access to the door if you'd like to walk out at any point. But you might be pleasantly surprised.

My verification is "sailarpr!" ON THE TOWN meets public relations. "What gets promoted in New York, *stays* in New York!" (Scott, I'll do it for you: "If only.")

Don Hall said...

Scott -

How many commenters on my blog are my friends is kind of beside the point. I'd say with my glorious FaceBook tally, everyone that reads my blog is my "friend" but again, not really the point.

I certainly wasn't ranging an attack - I just remember the last time I took LS to task (not knowing it was your wife) and got a scathing behind the scenes rebuke for it. I STRONGLY disagree with her POV - if she's correct, then Legally Blond: The Musical is great playwrighting because lots and lots of folks - plumbers and teenage girls alike, saw that and voted with their feet.

Anyway, and not to take the focus off of a post that I did not perceive as an apology but a re-clarification of your blog's central premise, BUT...

If blogging is to take on the big boys in journalism, integrity and transparency have to be the road to it. LS reminded us twice that she was "just an audience member" and you answered her as that's exactly what she was. But she isn't. She's not only your wife but someone who hears your more private utterances about the ideas you hold forth upon - stuff that a regular audience member anonymously commenting on your blog isn't privy to.

You blog to instruct and edify so I believe that sort of subterfuge is unnecessary - if LS's comments have merit independent of being your wife, they have merit when that information is known. If not, then it becomes an opportunity to cast doubt on all you write (which I think would be a shame.)

Anyway - back to the post -

Nicely done.

Laura Sue said...

Macrogers, I'm not judging every new play. I go to see new plays. I went to see "Trestle over pope lick creek." I try really hard to "get" the play and many's the time I've walked out of a show with Doc grumbling about about some production point while I'm saying, "Oh stop it! That was a sweet story!" But Pope Lick Creek was just bad. Bad because she didn't trust her story. She had a wonderful, beautiful, powerful story and she didn't trust it. It was very, very sad to walk out of the theater and know that she could have done it, but she didn't because she didn't trust it without a lot of garbage attached.

I think that a lot of theatergoers are like me. We want to enjoy it. We want to be moved. We can see magic even in a bad production. (Please people, I go to a LOT of college productions.) Yes, I do have some education after all these years. I'm educated enough to know that what was bad about Pope Lick Creek was the play, not the production.

Don thinks I have no credibility as "just an audience member." But that is just an excuse to continue to trash the audience. The truth is that we want to experience the magic. We really do. Macrogers, I don't walk out of plays. I stay all the way through and my hope never dies. I am not special or different. I am like most of the people in your audiences. Don, you're trying to disenfranchise me and take away my voice by setting me aside and saying that my comments are not valid. I won't let you get away with that. I don't comment here often, but I won't be silenced because you want to make me too "special" to comment.

We are your audience, breathless and on the edge of our seats. Show us the magic.

Freeman said...

LS -

It was not my intention to insult the audience. In fact, I love my audience. But I don't create things by anticipating what I think they need and then giving it to them. I write things that I think are personal or strong or poetic. That's my job. The audience can appraise that work as successful or as a failure.

For those people who think I should write different plays, I simply say "Write the plays you would like to see." It's not just that I won't write by assignment or to fulfill the taste of others ... it's that if I try, the results will be inherently compromised. Does anyone really want to write the play I wrote because someone told me they wished I would? I promise you...that's weak tea and you don't want to drink it.

I know you aren't speaking about ME as a writer specifically. But as a writer, I'm responding in a personal way so you see why I'm reaching this conclusion. When I say "write it yourself" I mean exactly that. I have written things myself. I hope they're good and valuable. If they aren't for you, then you can always open up Microsoft Word.

Dennis Baker said...

Wow, I don't know where to start.

Thanks for the post, Scott. Thanks for sharing some names of forefathers in the movement. I have added them to my reading list. I feel I need to fly down to NC and take a crash weekend course in American Theater history from you as my previous classes never mentioned some of the people you haves focused on. In the mean time, I use the money in late fees at the library.

In a semi-joking note, reading the first half of the comments, I thought we were going to have a kumbaya, group hug moment around the growth Scott has shown in the post. Then it got a little spatty (sort of, hard to read tone in comments) around the background of LS (aka Mrs. Walters).

LS, as a theater practitioner who married a woman who had no previous connection to theater before dating/marrying me, I hear where you are coming from. Many a time, my wife would leave a theater with the "I don't get it" look. And not from an intellectual POV, but from a moving, passionate story POV. She loves country music because of great stories (Me, not so much). She loves stories that make her feel and mover her.

Can there be be a middle ground between Matt's & Scott's philosophy. Can it not be "either/or", but "and"? Can a theater piece be written that is both "personal, strong and poetic" to the playwright, while at the same time keeping in mind the issues, stories, conflicts that are going on within the community?

macrogers said...

Dennis: there's no hugging in the theatrosphere! Take your touchy-feely self someplace more sensitive, like Daily Kos or Ace of Spades!

Laura Sue: it's pretty easy to win me over when you say you never walk out. I'm the same way. Even when I should, I don't. I really, really like plays.

I realize I'm leaving a bit of a wrong impression out on the floor. "Write it yourself" is not my position. I was just pointing out that it's a position that Freeman and Scott seem to share (albeit for different reasons), but it's not mine. Entertainment takes priority over personal expression for me when I write a play. I usually squeeze some personal expression in there, but that's only after I've satisfied myself that the story works as entertainment. I think of myself as a showman. The last thing I want is for people to write their own stuff! I want them to come to *my* stuff! So I bust my ass to try to give folks a quality product (that's right: PRODUCT) so they'll choose me.

I mean, if Scott's dream comes true, and people everywhere are writing their own beautiful plays, then sure, that will be a better world, 'cause it'll be full of beautiful plays. And as I noted above, I like plays. So in theory, when I set my own self-interest aside, I support it. But what does that actually mean? I never set my self-interest aside!

So short of that happening, it's incumbent upon playwrights like me ("playwrights" defined here as "people who use up a big chunk of their finite life-spans practicing playwriting so they'll get better at it") to offer top-shelf dramas to the folks who drag themselves out of their houses and pay good money to see them: premium product that offers gripping storylines, humor, speaks to people's lives, and maybe gives them a little something to fight about on the way home.

isaac butler said...

Hey Scott,

Just wanted to say this is a great post.

Scott Walters said...

For reasons that baffle me, Don Hall and devilvet have decided that my having responded to Laura Sue without identifying her as my wife right off the bat is somehow a example of deceit and nefarious doings on Theatre Ideas. As I explained above, that is my policy. Nevertheless, I fully expect a post from Don this this.

Anyway, I am heading to do a presentation at the Southeastern Theatre Conference tomorrow, and I'm going to ask Laura Sue if she will guest blog for me. Don't know if she'll do it, but I'm going to ask. I think she has some interesting things to say, and she says them quite well.

Don Hall said...

LS -

I really wasn't making any attempt to discredit your opinion.

If it stands, it stands. If it's valid, it's valid. I don't see any purpose to keeping it a secret that you are married to Scott nor do I believe it discounts your experience.

I DO think that by describing yourself initially as "an audience member. Period" combined with Scott's response to you (that, in effect, takes back most of what he clarifies in the post) creates an interesting but non-transparent subterfuge. Unnecessary, in my opinion - apparently VERY necessary in Scott's.

The beauty of being "an audience member. Period" is that you have no hidden agenda - your initial statement bristles with a disgust for artists that Scott has been accused of in the past. You seem to confuse popularity with populist appeal and commercial success with quality. Accessibility has never been the demarcation of great artwork and to level that "if we don't come to your shows, you suck" means that Disney World is housing better art than the Museum of Modern Art (FAR more people attend Disney World than MoMA.)

Logically and aesthetically, your argument is flawed. But you're just "an audience member. Period" right? Oh. No. You aren't. You're the partner of someone trying to change the industry and hear him out every day on the subject and, according to your own words, have very pointed views on theater. Hardly "an audience member. Period."

I think Scott's post is pretty cool and speaks a truth I hope he embraces. I do believe that much of his arguments in the past five years have had an awful lot to do with taste in theater (as do yours) and that the more transparent he is with that, the more credible his arguments for spreading the government wealth are.

silent nic@knight said...


Maybe we are all showmen, pandering to our audience or our patron to some degree. To what degree is where we divide. But as Screwy Louie at the Sideshow would say to the audience just before he drove a six inch nail up through his nose with a hammer.

“It’s hard way to make an easy living.”

The Director said...

I like the post. Good clarification. I didn't take it as any sort of apology either, for what it's worth.

As for the issue of LS's non-disclosure, I can see Don and Devilvet's points. It's misleading to essentially for us to hear "I'm totally impartial" and then to later find out "Oh, and I'm his wife." Not that it invalidates her opinion (it certainly doesn't, and it's most certainly a valid and valuable opinion -- certainly some things we need to hear!), but it does help us better understand criticism if we understand where it's coming from.

When Pelosi, McCain and Beck talk about the same topic, they say very different things. Based on their political ideologies, we can strain what they say through a filter and get a more complete (jumbled?) picture of what's really the bone of contention there -- we take what they say and figure out what they mean. Without that context, we'd have three completely contradicting statements on the same topic -- how do we know which one is more correct and/or valid?

The same thing applies here, I think. With full-disclosure, we can better understand the situation. Without full-disclosure, then we have to take Anonymous (the world's oldest and most prolific author) on a leap of faith -- the very same Anonymous who may have a specific agenda (say, defending what she sees as her husband's integrity). Then again, Anonymous may not have an agenda other than to share her specific, valid and blunt views.

There's always spin. Determining which way the spin goes is just as important as being vocal in the first place.

Elizabeth Guthrie said...

I am very interested in learning more about Robert E. Gard, Alexander M. Drummond, Alfred Arvold and Frederick H. Koch (especially Koch, due to my deep and abiding love for my home state). My internet sleuthing has hit a wall. Do you know of any books I could read to learn more?

Scott Walters said...

Elizabeth -- Thanks for the prompt! I highly recommend Gard's "Grassroots Theater: A Search for Regional Arts in America" (still in print and available at Amazon). He talks a lot about Drummond, who was his teacher. Koch: you can read "Pioneering a People's Theatre" on line at Internet Archive ( (Other great theatre texts there, too. Koch also published a series called "Carolina Plays" that have texts. Arvold wrote "The Little Country Theatre," which is available on Google Books:


Anonymous said...

Many used copies of Grassroots Theater: A Search for Regional Arts in America 1995 reprint at Abe books: