Thursday, January 07, 2010

At Arena Stage Convening

Nice picture of yours truly with a couple of smart bloggers serving as my bodyguards: Isaac Butler and Adam Thurman. (Thanks for the photo, Amrita)

Marga and Desi

In the comments to my post on "David Byrne on Arts Funding," a fairly common trope is arising that often arises in discussions concerning classics and contemporary work: that the classics are universal and as present as the contemporary. An anonymous commenter wrote:

Picasso once said that “there is no past or future in art. If a work of art cannot live always in the present it must not be considered at all. The art of the Greeks, of the Egyptians, of the great painters who lived in other times, is not an art of the past; perhaps it is more alive today than it ever was.” Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Wagner often if not generally remain more new than everything produced in our own era, and Schoenberg said essentially the same thing in his essay on "new music." Whatever is produced in our time isn't inherently superior, more important, interesting, timely, or let alone new, which is not to argue that it shouldn't receive support, but that the idea that what is made in our own era is inherently "new" is entirely specious.
When this idea is interjected into the context of diversity, it often takes the form of rejecting the concept of the Dead White European Male (DWEM). Ian Thal writes, "DWEM is a tired trope: it served a purpose for a while, but we need a method of calling for a more diverse canon and a opportunities for more new work and more diverse work without being so divisive and invoking identity politics and resentment-- especially, as you point out, when skin color and gender are not the only measure of difference."

I agree with Ian, in the sense that the DWEM trope is focused entirely on race and ethnicity, a concept that is more and more being called into question scientifically (which is not to say that it doesn't continue to be powerfully evoked sociologically and politically, which is probably ore germane to the discussion of diversity). We need to broaden the idea of diversity. However, we at the same time we also need to unpack the term. "Dead" is a different argument than "white European male." Byrne is talking about the "dead" part -- let's put the "WEM" off to the side for the moment.

I was reminded this morning of Joseph Campbell, the brilliant mythologist whose Hero With a Thousand Faces, and his interview with Bill Moyers The Power of Myth, have been so influential in our understanding of the importance of mythology in culture. I'd like to quote extensively from the book The Hero's Journey: Joseph Campbell on His Life and Work, edited by Phil Cousineau. On page 45, Campbell, in his discussion of Jung's "collective unconscious," says that
"mythic symbols come out of [the unconscious that each one of us shares], not out of the personal depth at al. Every mythology is, of course, oriented to a historical situation; it comes out of this people, this province, and that one and the other. And so there is that local inflection. But what is inflected are the deep energies of the total id."
He then goes on to discuss anthropologist Adolf Bastian, who called those common themes of the collective unconscious "elementary ideas." However, Campbell reiterates, "they always come to expression in specific social environments and it's historically and geographically differentiated. [Bastian] called those differentiations Volkergedanken, or ethnic or folk ideas."

Campbell then goes on to discuss the same idea as it appears in the art criticism of India, in which "these same two aspects of images are recognized. The folk aspect, which simply has to do with people and things in stories and time and space is called desi, which means local, popular. On the other hand the elementary ideas, when the diety is represented, are called marga, the path."

Campbell, as is the case in all of his writing, finds the common ideas, the "marga," the "elementary ideas," the "collective unconscious" that lie beneath the "desi," the "Volkergedanken." The structure of the hero's journey is one of these margas, a structure common to many, many hero myths.

To say that a hero myth from the past or from another culture is "universal" is to evoke the marga. However, the marga is clothed in the language, the images, the ideology of the time and place in which it is created. Marga "is from a root word mrg, which refers to the footprints left by an animal," Campbell continues. "So following the elementary idea, you are led to your deepest spiritual source." Once one recognizes the underlying myth in the story being told, no matter how foreign it is to your contemporary mind, it is possible to tap into the power of the myth itself. In fact, Brecht would probably note that the defamiliarization of the past or of another culture actually makes us able to see the marga more powerfully, since it is not caught up in the fog of contemporary issues and ideology. (Thus the settings of The Good Person of Setzuan and The Life of Galileo.) So those who point to the universality of past masterpieces are correct in referring to their presentness, their contemporaneity.

Nevertheless, marga-stories all wear the clothing of their place and their time. Their images are drawn from the vocabulary of the people to whom they are meant to communicate. While their clothing would have been transparent to those for whom the story was written, to us the clothing is opaque, something that must be explained and stripped away in order to connect to the story beneath.

This process of decoding requires a certain level of education (assuming that said education is oriented toward learning the great ideas of past cultures), and to that extent the process excludes those who do not possess the skeleton key that will release the genii. The call for support of contemporary artists is not only about the importance of creating our own culture, our own Volkergedanken, but is also a call for a more inclusive, diverse audience. Antonin Artaud, in his still-controversial "No More Masterpieces," said it succinctly: "We have the right to say what has been said and even what has not been said in a way that belongs to us, a way that is immediate and direct, corresponding to present modes of feeling, and understandable to everyone." (italics mine)

British playwright and director John McGrath, in his excellent book A Good Night Out, calls this process of interpretation and translation "mystery," and he too sees it as exclusionary, reflecting the enjoyment of a certain class of people with a certain level of education. He writes:
But many audiences don't like mystery, in that sense of playing games with knowledge, and words, and facts. They become impatient, they want to know what the story is meant to be about, what is supposed to have hap­pened. They wish a different order of mystery. But because we have universalized the critical response to 'mystery' that proclaims it as a truly wonderful thing, we now have to dismiss those audiences as philistine, as outside true theatre culture, as - and this is the Arnold Wesker refinement - in need of education. My belief, and the basis of my practice as a writer in the theatre for the last ten years, has been that there are indeed different kinds of audiences, with different theatrical values and expectations, and that we have to be very careful before consigning one audience and its values to the critical dustbin.
And so this discussion, spurred by Byrne's evocation of a long-standing conflict, is not just about plays and playwrights, but is also about the type of audience we want and the richness of culture we wish to create.

This is not a problem to be solved, a zero-sum game in which we choose either the past or the present, finally and forever, or even contingently and temporarily. It is, rather, a polarity to be managed, a term used by Barry Johnson in his excellent book Polarity Management. He writes:
Polarities to manage are sets of opposites which can't function well independently. Because the two sides of a polarity are interdependent, you cannot choose one as a "solution" and neglect the other. The objective of the Polarity Management perspective is to get the best of both opposites while avoiding the limits of each. (italics mine)
Neither the marga nor the desi can exist independently -- they must interact, like the electrons and protons of a molecule. The argument Byrne is making, and that Todd London's Outrageous Fortune is making, and that I would make as well, is that we have not, over the years, achieved a healthy and dynamic interaction between the polarities of past and present, marga and desi, collective unconscious and Volkergedanken, educated and uneducated, rich and poor. It isn't about balance -- balance is static; it is about a dynamic flow between polarities, getting the best of both while avoiding the limits of each.

Few would argue that we should ignore past classics, DWEM or no, completely (although some would). What is being argued is that too much prestige has been given to the classics, and too much money has followed the prestige, to the detriment of the contemporary. There are others who would look at the larger picture and say that the mass media privileges the contemporary Volkergedanken and that the arts of classical music and theatre and visual art provide the balance necessary for dynamism -- without them, we would be drowned in the popular. This is a powerful argument that requires us to look at the larger artistic culture, not just out own local ecosystem.

However, the local ecosystem needs to serve as a hologram for the larger. If we would call on the mass media to exhibit a bit more appreciation for the marga, that would be to the benefit of those art forms. But we need to fight where we are angry. To neglect the desi in the theatre to balance the mass media is to create a monoculture that will eventually lead to a depletion of the creative nutrients within the theatrical soil.

The regional theatre is its own ecosystem, just as my proposed small and rural arts system will be its own ecosystem, and Broadway is its own ecosystem. They are interlinked, yes, of course, but not the same organism (which is a theme Rocco Landesman has argued forcefully in the past, and needs to remember in the present when he says dopey things in Peoria about the amateur arts "feeding" the professional theatre). We need each ecosystem to create and manage a dynamic polarity that gets the best of both while avoiding the limits of each. That is the challenge, one that is ongoing and eternal, one that requires monitoring by artists who will alert us when one polarity is being neglected.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Meet Uke Jackson, The Unknown Playwright

If you haven't been reading Uke Jackson's blog "The Unknown Playwright Speaks," it is definitely worth a read. I'd start here with "Some Might Say It's a Miracle," in which he describes his background. We don't always agree (which pretty much could be said of anyone with a brain, actually), but I feel a connection somehow. If you're looking for the way that class plays out in theatre, and also how personal determination also plays out, visit Uke. Good stuff.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

David Byrne and Mr. Tanner

The Ancients and the Moderns
Judging from the comments on my post below concerning David Byrne's December 12 blogpost "Art Funding or Arts Funding," there is a lot of people who find the idea of funding arts education and new work over classics objectionable. As seems to be our tendency in today's society, where critical thinking skills seem to have gone the way of the appendix, some people feel as if they are actually saying something important if they "uncover" the motivation someone has for writing an idea, rather than dealing with the idea itself. Hey, conjecture is always easier than actual thought. And so we get this unlikely syllogism:

1. David Byrne is a pop singer.
2. David Byrne is suggesting that public money be used to support arts education and living artists.
3. Therefore, David Byrne wants public money to be used to support only pop music.

First of all, let's just say that $32M for a Wagnerian opera cycle is absurd by itself. But hey, if there are rich people out there who think it is cool, more power to them. But to ask LA county to foot $14M of that cost is really obscene. Nobody deserves that amount of money for a single production. Period.

But Byrne is using that production to illustrate a larger point, one that is getting lost in this rehashing of the 300+ -year Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns. Here are the critical paragraphs from Byrne's post, as far as I'm concerned:

I think maybe it’s time to stop, or more reasonably, curtail somewhat, state investment in the past — in a bunch of dead guys (and they are mostly guys, and mostly dead, when we look at opera halls) — and invest in our future. Take that money, that $14 million from the city, for example, let some of those palaces, ring cycles and temples close — forgo some of those $32M operas — and fund music and art in our schools. Support ongoing creativity in the arts, and not the ongoing glorification and rehashing of the work of those dead guys. Not that works of the past aren’t inspirational, important and relevant to future creativity — plenty of dead people’s work is endlessly inspiring — but funding for arts in schools has been cut to zero in many places. Maybe the balance and perspective has to be redressed and restored just a little. (underlining and italics mine)
What a radical concept: restore balance and perspective between the past and the present just a little. This isn't Artaud's 1938 "No More Masterpieces" (although I think Artaud had a point), but just a call for balance.

New Plays and Diversity
This goes to the center of our discussion of diversity and new plays. People are convening and blogging about how to get more diversity on our stages, but we are ignoring the single thing that would make the biggest impact: committing to the production of new plays. If every theatre in the country (save those devoted to the work of a single playwright, like Shakespeare festivals) committed to producing more new plays than revivals, the demand for new work would increase exponentially, and I believe so would diversity.

Margo Jones, one of the pioneers of the regional theatre, knew this. In 1951, she wrote in her classic Theatre-in-the-Round:
I believe it is imperative in creating new resident professional companies to take a violent stand about the choice of plays. Personally I believe in the production of classics and new scripts, with emphasis on new scripts. Our theatre can never be stronger than the quality of its plays. We must, therefore, have a great number of good plays. The classics have proved their value through­out the history of the theatre, and I believe we should draw on them as great literature and great theatre. But if we produce only classics, we are in no way reflecting our own age. Our theatres must not only be professional, they must be contemporary as well. The most excellent seasons in New York are those which bring forth exciting new play-writing talent.

Too many people are saying, "I'll do a new play if I can find a good one." Certainly you must find a good one, but this attitude is not good enough. The plays can be found if you look hard enough. And if you take the vio­lent stand I have spoken about, you will feel obligated to search and search and search until the scripts are dis­covered. I have a belief that there is great writing in America today and that much of it has not yet been un­earthed.


Great theatres have always had their playwrights. Shakespeare, Lope de Vega, Moliere, Ibsen—all these were men around whom theatrical companies were functioning. The Moscow Art Theatre had Chekhov; the Abbey Theatre had Yeats, Synge and O'Casey; the Provincetown had O'Neill; the Group had Odets. We must have our new play­wrights, and we will not have them unless we give them many outlets to see their plays produced. This is the best
way in which they can learn to write better plays.


The production of classics is healthy, but it is not step in the flowering we want to see in the American theatre. We need progress, and the seed of progress in theatre lies in the new plays.
But what happened to this attitude? It got destroyed by Tyrone Guthrie. In the 1964 book about the founding of the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis entitled A New Theatre (the irony of that title still rankles), Guthrie wrote:

It seemed to us that the only way of knowing a good play from a bad was to apply the test of time. Our programme would be classical; only those plays would be chosen which had seemed, to discriminating people for several generations, to have serious merit, which had, in fact, withstood the test of time. This would still offer a very wide choice.....If it be granted that fifty years is the absolute minimum of time required before a new work of art can wisely be regarded as a classic, then it follows that the American theatre cannot as yet claim to have developed a classical dramatist.
Think about that for a moment: the only way to know a good play from a bad play is to apply the test of time. Let's just let our grandparents decide what plays are good, because we sure can't. And because the Guthrie theatre made such a splash, attracting nationwide media attention for bringing in Hollywood stars like George Grizzard, Jessica Tandy, and Hume Cronyn to do Shakespeare and Moliere, everyone decided this must be The Way Things Should Be Done. And so we have our current regional theatre season, dominated by classics, with perhaps a single slot devoted to a newish play, preferably one that's been blessed by the NYC critics or won a major award. But an actual new play on the mainstage? Gasp! We'd have to close our doors! And so our contemporary playwrights scramble for crumbs, and eventually decamp for Hollywood where everything they do is new. Imagine if the Shakespeare's company had taken Guthrie's attitude, or Moliere's. There wouldn't BE any classics beyond the Greeks and Romans.

But note that Byrne isn't suggesting that classics aren't valuable. He writes: "Not that works of the past aren’t inspirational, important and relevant to future creativity — plenty of dead people’s work is endlessly inspiring." But let's restore some balance. Jones was saying the same thing, so was Clurman when he co-founded the Group Theatre, and so were those who founded the Provincetown Players (although the latter two had less patience with the classics than Jones). But then, a few years later, we let a Brit play on our sense of American cultural inferiority, and we abandoned the development of our own unique artistic identity to become Europe-lite. Shame on us.

The Real Revolution: Empowerment
Byrne follows this with what is a far more revolutionary and far-reaching idea:
I sense that in the long run there is a greater value for humanity in empowering folks to make and create than there is in teaching them the canon, the great works and the masterpieces. In my opinion, it’s more important that someone learn to make music, to draw, photograph, write or create in any form than it is for them to understand and appreciate Picasso, Warhol or Bill Shakespeare — to say nothing of opry. In the long term it doesn’t matter if students become writers, artists or musicians — though a few might. It's more important that they are able to understand the process of creation, experimentation and discovery — which can then be applied to anything they do, as those processes, deep down, are all similar. It’s an investment in fluorescence.
He's not suggesting we make everybody so-called "professional artists," much less pop music icons. What he is saying is that people should be empowered to take creative expression back into their own hands -- to make music, draw, photograph, write or create in any form, and to do it themselves, instead of buying it from some specialist with an MFA. Yes, learning about the classics can be inspirational, but all-too-often the underlying message that is communicated is, as Byrne puts it, "about valuing the classics more than anything you and your pathetic friends can make." This is also, by the way, the underlying message of TV shows like American Idol. For every singer plucked from "obscurity" and hurled into the music stratosphere, the TV audience spends weeks laughing at the ineptitude of just regular folks who think they might just like to sing.

O Fall On Your Knees
The tragedy of this attitude, which is deeply ingrained in contemporary America, is beautifully illustrated by the late Harry Chapin in his heartbreaking song, "Mr. Tanner":



"Music was his life, it was not his livelihood, and it made him feel so happy, and it made him feel so good. He sang from his heart and he sang from his soul. He did not know how well he sang, it just made him whole."

We've forgotten the true value of the arts, which is not solely about virtuosity (although virtuosity can be inspiring and has its place), but about making us whole, about allowing us to express the feelings within us, about allowing us to connect to what is beautiful and heartfelt, to what makes us human. When we sing, when we tell a story or write a poem or paint a picture, we allow others to find points of contact with us and with each other. We're reminded of our common humanity, and our sense of being alone is lessened. We share ourselves with each other.

That is what arts education ought to release. That is what deserves more attention.

Tell Me Again

Read this post by Jaime at "surplus," especially this paragraph:

I realized something about a month ago. I was sitting in a lovely off-Broadway theatre, watching lovely actors on a gorgeous set, hearing pretty words and watching the characters go through their personal strife. And it hit me: I am sick to death of plays. Granted, I thought this was a pretty bad one - though lots of smart folks and also a major critic at the paper of record thought it was totally awesome - but just plays in general. Blah blah blah blah blah. Middle-class white people talking about their problems, having babies and getting divorced and dying and falling in love and talking about it for two hours. (emphasis added)
Now tell me again why we shouldn't be working really hard to produce new plays by people with diverse backgrounds and experiences. Tell me again how sifting our playwrights through the same "elite" playwriting programs that are filled doesn't lead to the homogeneity that the phrase "write what you know" really fosters. Tell me again how the current system works so well because it puts individual "choice" at the forefront. Because I just don't see how the current system can stay healthy the way it is. Unless, of course, we keep doing the classics, which seems to be our favorite answer. Could we get some imagination going, PLEASE??? (h/t 99Seats)