Thursday, March 04, 2010

Tom Loughlin on Mindsets

What he said. RTWT. Well said, Tom.
    I'm off to Kentucky. See you next week.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Guest Blogger

I am heading off to Lexington, KY on Thursday to do a presentation with Tom Loughlin (A Poor Player) about the Theatre Arts Curriculum Transformation (TACT) and CRADLE. I'll be gone until late Saturday night.

Since my wife Laura Sue did such a nice job in the comments of the previous post, I've asked her to be a guest blogger for me in my absence. Laura is a former social worker with two master's degrees and two great grown children. She is a passionate knitter and weaver.

She is very busy these days, but I hope she can find some time to do at least one post.

I doubt I'll have the time or inclination to post anything while I am away, so I'll pick up again Sunday or Monday.

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 days...no, 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.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Formal Exclusion

Yesterday, my department completed a run of Naomi Wallace's play The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek. For the most part, I like Wallace's play, which is set in 1936 and is the story of the effects of the Great Depression on the people of a small town: a father who has lost his job at the steel mill, and as a result doesn't know who he is anymore; a mother whose hands have turned a toxic florescent blue because of a change in chemicals at the factory where she works, and who is getting involved in a workers' attempt to take over an abandoned glass factory; and two teenagers, Dalton and Pace, who fall in love while planning to outrace the 7:10 train across the titular trestle. It is a mystery, as the story moves back and forth in time, investigating Pace's death seemingly at the hands of young Dalton. I admire Wallace's obvious empathy for the working class characters in their struggle to hold onto hope in the face of a national economic meltdown not unlike today's.

But I am less enamored of the parts that fall under the category "formal experimentation," and I will explain why in a moment. It's not the part about racing trains, which we recognize as a variation of playing chicken with cars that we saw in Rebel Without a Cause, or the reckless racing of motorcycles sung about by Bruce Springsteen in Born to Run -- it is a trope that we recognize, and that we understand.Nor is it Wallace's use of a slightly difficult structure that goes back and forth in time -- again, nothing we haven't experienced in countless movie and TV mysteries throughout the years. It's the scenes where the action seems to disconnect from reality and reside in the land of symbols that bothers me, or rather bothers me on behalf of others. For instance, the father has an unexplained compulsion to break plates, and there is a scene in which he and his wife toss a plate back and forth while they talk; the father spends all his time in the dark making animal shadows on the wall with his hands; a jailer spends his time describing to the incarcerated Dalton the actions of another inmate in another cell, the owner of the glass factory who has gone mad and is spending his time pretending to be a variety of different animals, bugs, and buildings; the same jailer describes his relationship with his son, who was also killed trying to outrun the 7:10 train, and the way that his son started to batter and bloody himself so as to save his father the trouble of doing it every morning himself; Pace's ghost shows up throughout the play, sometimes interacting with Dalton (which makes sense), another time interacting with Dalton's mother, which makes less sense. Individually, these events have an evocative quality, but together they muddy the water of the story being told. But the thing that tips the play over into obscurity is the psychosexual supernaturalism of the relationship between Pace and Dalton, in which Pace kisses Dalton on the back of his knee and insists she is kissing him on the mouth, in which their identies eventually become so intertwined that they are able to have sex without touching, so that when Dalton touches himself he believes he can put his hand inside himself as if he had Pace's vagina. The end of the show, the moment that is supposed to explain the mystery of Pace's death but instead makes it even less understandable, centers on an intense but ultimately baffling scene of supranatural sexual union that shifts the play's focus from a tale of desperation to one of some sort of momentary transcendence of the physical plane.

This is the kind of stuff that the playwrights in Outrageous Fortune seem to see it as a badge of honor, a sign that there is some "real" playwriting going on. But ultimately, the effect is to alienate the audience. This is illustrated by an elderly couple who attended the show Saturday night. These are two people, probably in their late 70s or early 80s, who attend all of our productions, many of which are very challenging. Last night, after having watched the 2 hour and 30 minute production, they stayed for the post-show discussion afterward. By now, it was past 10:30 -- they were very tired, but they stayed out of some desire to understand what they had just seen. They listened carefully to the discussion, which was quite good, but afterwards they approached the director and pleaded with her to give them a synopsis of the play's events that they could take home and study. When the director explained that she didn't have one, they asked again -- "Are you sure you don't have a synopsis? Maybe I can find one of the internet -- you can find anything on the internet."

These were two people who in 1936 were likely around the same age as Pace and Dalton, people who perhaps could identify with having a parent who had lost a job in the Depression, or who knew what it felt like to have the wolf at the door. In other words, this was a play that could have deeply affected them. But instead of being able to bring their experiences to bear, instead of being reminded of the parallel between then and today, they were left desperately trying to figure out what the hell happened. Instead of trusting the power of her story and the humanity of her characters, Wallace had turned her play into an elaborate puzzle.

Naomi Wallace, a native of the small town of Prospect Kentucky, is someone who has experienced small town life, and is also someone who takes the side of the downtrodden and the oppressed. As Wikipedia says, "She is a dedicated advocate for justice and human rights in the US and abroad, and Palestinian rights in the Middle East." I know Wallace -- early in her career, she did a residency at Illinois State University when they did an early production of her play Slaughter City, and I spoke with her occasionally. Many of her plays are about the poor and uneducated, and she has a deep sense of commitment to such people. But she writes like an artist-specialist with a grad degree (Univ of Iowa) writing for other artist-specialists and for people whose education makes them capable of deciphering narrative lines and exploring obscure symbols. The people about whom she writes, like the elderly couple in the audience a few nights ago, would find it very difficult to understand what she was writing about, even though she is writing about...them.

I am in agreement with John McGrath, whose excellent book A Good Night Out I recommend without reservation and have quoted from before. McGrath is a well-known English director whose focus has been on theatre for the working class. He writes apropos of Harold Pinter, but also of plays such as Wallace's and others that think that good playwriting requires "formal experimentation," that:
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... in need of education.
People like the old couple are robbed of the theatrical experience they might have had, and that seems counter-productive and mean-spirited somehow. Which brings me back to Tom Loughlin's poignant post I mentioned yesterday:
If there is anything that is of interest to me these days, it seems to be the people I meet who have absolutely nothing to do with theatre or academia. The man doing my bathroom is a great guy and wonderful to talk to. He knows so many local people that I feel jealous. I ate lunch yesterday with a complete stranger at a local diner and had an interesting conversation about next to nothing. He was just a plainspoken, friendly guy. I always have these wonderful little conversations with Angela, the woman at the cash register in the student center where I get my bacon/egg/cheese sandwich some mornings. She talks about her vacation in Florida and how her husband is down there fixing up their small trailer, getting it ready for their retirement (retirement!). And Sue over in Cranston Dining Hall always asks about my son Eric, with whom she worked for a few months. They have their worries and concerns, I am sure, but at least they don’t appear to be trying to impress anyone. I wish I knew how to create theatre for these people. I’m depressed that I don’t. They deserve better of me.
I come from a working class background. By having gotten a doctorate, I was lifted into the educated middle class. I was taught over the course of a decade of higher education to appreciate ambiguity, to develop my play analysis skills so that I can understand plays such as Wallace's (I even wrote a textbook about it -- Introduction to Play Analysis), to seek out parallel structures, metaphoric significance, open narrative structures, wordplay and any number of "formal experimentation" techniques that playwrights have been fond of since Symbolism showed up as a rejection of Naturalism. But most people don't have the benefit of having spent their lives learning and teaching this stuff. They simply want to experience a story that helps them to understand themselves and their world more fully, helps them experience life more vibrantly, helps them find significance in the experiences that make up their lives. And instead, they encounter plays that deny them this, that seem to exist to confuse them, to point out their interpretational inadequacies, to tell them that they are not part of the "in" crown that understands these things.

And after being involved with theatre for 35 years now, I must confess that I am tired of it with the same sort of weariness that Tom expresses in his post. I'm tired of inwardly blanching when one of the housekeeping staff in our building asks what the play is about and whether they would like it. I don't like seeing the expressions of bafflement and disappointment on the faces of so many who leave a performance. I don't like the way these plays seem to tacitly filter out all but the educated. I want to find ways to reach everybody, not just the educated, not just the wealthy, and not just the city dwellers. I seek a profound theatre that enriches everybody, not just people who have as much education as I have. Wallace's play took the working class experience seriously, the small town experience seriously, but she couldn't write for them -- she had to signal that, while she was on their side, she is still a member of the intelligentsia, the artist-specialist class. And this seems sad to me. With so few people who can write from experience of these issues, it seems a lost opportunity and a shame.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Stories for the Folks Who Work the Cash Registers of Our Lives

Tom Loughlin over at A Poor Player has posted a emotionally true post about "Battling Ennui," expressing feelings that are all too common to people of his and my age, people who have devoted their lives to a particular something and now are looking for the next something to engage them. This, by the way, is the type of thing that youthful playwrights cannot write about empathically, having never experienced it. The young are still thrashing around with possibilities, while we are searching for meaning in what we've done and seeking the new thing that will enhance that meaning. Had Arthur Miller written Death of a Salesman at 54 instead of 34, there would have been a lot more sympathy for Willy and a lot less for Biff, I suspect. Salesman is a young man's play.  Instead, at 49 Miller wrote After the Fall, a play that looks inward at his life. It is a middle-aged play.
    At the end of his musings, Tom suddenly lifts out of his ennui, and writes something that is so clear, so true it struck deep in my heart:
If there is anything that is of interest to me these days, it seems to be the people I meet who have absolutely nothing to do with theatre or academia. The man doing my bathroom is a great guy and wonderful to talk to. He knows so many local people that I feel jealous. I ate lunch yesterday with a complete stranger at a local diner and had an interesting conversation about next to nothing. He was just a plainspoken, friendly guy. I always have these wonderful little conversations with Angela,  the woman at the cash register in the student center where I get my bacon/egg/cheese sandwich some mornings. She talks about her vacation in Florida and how her husband is down there fixing up their small trailer, getting it ready for their retirement (retirement!). And Sue over in Cranston Dining Hall always asks about my son Eric, with whom she worked for a few months. They have their worries and concerns, I am sure, but at least they don’t appear to be trying to impress anyone.
I wish I knew how to create theatre for these people. I’m depressed that I don’t. They deserve better of me.
 These two paragraphs go to the center of what CRADLE is all about: trying to create theatre that has something to say to people who are just living life day to day. Not high-flying intellectuals, not artists, but just the folks who work the cash registers of our lives.

They deserve better. Who's thinking about them?