Wednesday, November 09, 2005

On Hegemony

Apparently several of my fellow bloggers feel that I have personally insulted them with my last post, especially the following comment: "It sounds as if you are weekend warriors working day jobs to pay for your theatre habit." I really did not intend it to be insulting (argumentative, yes; insulting, no). Josh wrote this: “"I want to write for a living. I don't want to be a weekend warrior, like the cover bands I've written about in "No More Covers" - driving a truck during the week and doing theatre on the weekend." My use of “Weekend Warriors” came directly from him, and while he seems to have meant it in a belittling way, I did not intend it to be so. What I meant was that, whether you are in NYC or Iowa, most artists are working another job in order to pay the rent because this country doesn't support its artists. Working a job is hard, it is admirable, indeed it is almost heroic! But you’re doing the same thing in NY that you’d do in Iowa, so there must be some other issue that is keeping artists there, and the argument needs to go there.
Nobody is asking anybody to defend your choice to be in NYC, nor are we trying to get you to move. I think I said that directly somewhere. (That said, I think that you all are demanding that Zachary and I defend out decision NOT to live in NYC.) The discussion isn’t about individuals, it is about a larger issue. By defending your decision to be in NYC, at least the way it is being defended, you all are insulting Zachary (and indirectly, me) for making another choice.
I think NYC is a fine place – it is not a place I care to live in, but it is fine for others – my co-author lives in NY, and he and his wife wouldn’t live anywhere else. Where I draw the line is when we hold NYC up as the only place where worthwhile art is occurring, when we say that nothing is worthwhile until it has been blessed by NYC, where NYC is held up as the only place in the country where it is possible for an artist to make a living doing his art. I think this country is too big to have a theatrical center. And my experience of the quality of the offerings in NYC doesn’t live up to the hype – most of the theatre is just as crappy as non-NYC places, just crappy in a different way.

Zachary posted an interesting essay that proposed a particular approach in a non-personal way. If you read most of the comments, they are very personal: here’s why I live in NYC. It wasn’t me who made the conversation personal, but those comments are what I had to work with. Furthermore, I think there was a very dismissive tone to many of the comments concerning Zachary’s ideas. Look at this quotation from Josh’s post: “I did theatre in Iowa and Nebraska, I came here to pitch in the big show.” Now, what is the implied statement here? That anything but NY isn’t “the Big Show”? That is dismissive and vaguely insulting. He goes on: “Hey, there's nothing wrong with people that want to be big fish in a small pond - but it's not what I, myself, want out of this life” – good so far: couched in personal terms, “I-statements,” but then: “I want to do it for a living. As Matt pointed out, you simply cannot do that from Bumfuck Iowa. You can't. If you could, I'd still be there.” First of all, “Bumfuck Iowa” is an insult. Do a websearch and see how it is used – here is a sample: “So, here I am in Bumfuck, Iowa, sitting in a Barnes and Noble that caters to dairy farmers looking for information on teat sucking machines, and chunky housewives needing a book that'll get them wet, that will make them feel like they married Buck Hardass, or Thor Meatwand. I'm sitting here, solidifying my legacy and preaching to heathens, telling them that my biography of King Wilhelm I is a great read.” There is no respect in that term, and it says that Zachary’s decision to go in that direction shows he is a fool. Once you’re past that word, the larger statement requires support. Perhaps Josh couldn’t make it in Iowa, but Megan Terry made it in Nebraska. In other words, don’t inflate personal experience into global generalities.

I guess the larger point is that New Yorkers regularly denigrate and insult non-New Yorkers, painting them as unsophisticated rubes who require remedial artistic classes taught by NY Elites. You guys don’t even know you’re doing it. You use phrases like “the Big Show” and “Bumfuck Iowa” and don’t even notice the underlying ideology. The issue revolves around hegemony, a term used by Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci “to denote the predominance of one social class over others (e.g. bourgeois hegemony). This represents not only political and economic control, but also the ability of the dominant class to project its own way of seeing the world so that those who are subordinated by it accept it as 'common sense' and 'natural'. Commentators stress that this involves willing and active consent. Common sense, suggests Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, is 'the way a subordinate class lives its subordination.' I am trying to counteract NYC hegemony – I no longer accept as “common sense” and “natural” the idea that NYC has to be the center of the theatrical world. Comments that try to say that "that's just the way it is" are using ideologically-charged "common sense" to maintain hegemony.

I’m sorry that I came across as personally attacking people. I think it is great you live in NYC, and I hope that we can have a beer the next time I visit, which may be soon. I am talking about a larger issue, one that I care deeply about. And one that seems to be almost invisible in the consciousness of New Yorkers.


Freeman said...

I think Zack's a fantastic artist and a wonderful guy and when I've had beers with the man, I think I've made that expressly clear. And I think he's got a lot of great ideas, the one he laid out being one of them.

I think that the world outside of New York City is chock full of fantastic people and great art and ways to make a living. I simply think that it is how you define success that defines where you want to live.

I think Zack wants to bring theater to everyone in the country, spread out the base, and create, as Scott's said, a new model. It's all quite noble. But I feel that what Zack implies, ironically, is actually in some ways in line with Scott's own concerns. Zack wants those of us who live in New York to bring our enlightened sensiblities to the world outside NYC. I'm just not sure they need us to do that, in the way he's describing. I've seen plenty of evidence of fantastic artists doing great work and not missing the New York scene at all and not waiting for us to come out and give them a hand. Scott is a case-in-point.

Perhaps what we're really looking for is broad support for the existing theaters and good artists that seem unrecognized or unable to find an audience. That's why I say (don't everyone gasp) "marketing" so often. I also like to say "Federal Funding" a lot. It just sounds nice to me.

Anonymous said...

Wow. Scott, you can't get past the "bumfuck" Iowa comment and I will refuse to apologize for it.

Well, there it is. Listen, I don't like NYC and I don't know how many times I have to say it so that you GET IT. I don't contend that there aren't opportunities for writers outside new york, nor do I contend that there isn't great theatre happening outside new york. Nor do I contend that there isn't shitty work in new york - there is, loads of it. In fact, I think that perhaps theatre communities outside new york are probably better than in new york in some ways.

So why am I here? Professional writing opportunities are more numerous here than elsewhere. Period. End of story. Here or LA, this is where the agents are, at least right now. Perhaps Chicago. This is where the meetings with the film companies are. This is where the most opportunities now. I'm not saying anyone should move here, I'm not saying anyone shouldn't move away from here. I just stated what I said above.

Okay, so let's talk about the second thing you did - which was assume I denigrate weekend warriors. I do not. In my original post and comments, I believe I stated it was a fine thing if that's what you want to do. It is. My brother, who I love, does that very thing. It's not what I want to do. I don't say that to make myself as someone better than anyone who chooses a different path. I know LOTS of people who have. I make a different choice, to write for a living, and that means certain sacrifices, one of which is living here. Okay? I'm getting a bit testy with you constantly turning over my comments and words looking for evidence that I suggest that people who don't write for a living, folks that drive a truck or teach or do anything, are somehow less than I am because I choose to write for a living. Now, can we be clear on that issue, please? Because I am gettting TIRED of constantly restating that.

And damn it, Scott - I never told Zach he SHOULDN'T move if he wants, neither did Matt. We just pointed out why WE live here and the business aspect of it and you attacked us. Writers leave here all the time and I hope to do so as well, damn it. You're also dodging the central issue, which is, are there more professional opportunities for writers in new york rather than out of it? Tell me, you lived here. Are there or aren't there? Because if you have the same opportunities there, I'm ready, I'll move.

Next. Bumfuck Iowa. You bet I run it down, you know why? If a play had a scene with two men kissing in it (as we did at U of I when I was there) folks would kick and scream and picket the fucking play. Forget about it if we had a scene with full nudity or if we questioned the sacredness of Jesus. Not everyone in Iowa is like that, but enough of them are to cause great censorship to writers like me. I wrote SPOOGE and THE MEN'S ROOM, two plays that would never get me anything but ridicule in Iowa. That and I would get called a "Fag". Things change and will change there, I believe that and I also believe that through my work I am part of that change, but don't tell me I would have the same freedom to stage the plays I stage here in Bumfuck Iowa. I wouldn't.

Run NYC down all you want, I'm with you on that, but the strength of nyc, artistically, is that you can say or do anything onstage, you can worship Satan, call Jesus a sham, show two men cornholing each other and no one thinks anything other than - hey, it's a play, I didn't like the second act but the lead was cute . . . There is real freedom of expression here, freedom that is NOT enjoyed in bumfuck Iowa, through most of Iowa, and quite a lot of other states as well. Hell, I once got a call from someone in Virginia who wants to do one of my plays but first I have to "take all the bad words out". I refused.

There ARE other places in this country BESIDES nyc with this kind of artistic freedom, Chicago - Austin TX (believe it nor not) San Francisco - LA - and I'm sure there's a lot of freedom on different college campuses in different places throughout the country and if I got the same professional opportunities in those places that I get here in nyc, then I would be living there - I like that freedom - but we don't have that kind of artistic freedom in Iowa, not yet - Terrence McNally's gay Jesus play would get firebombed - And what about Kansas? Would it be well received there? There are states still fuggin' arguing about evolution, for crying out loud, and you are running me down for ragging on them?

I've never been to NC so I haven't commented on it as of yet - but are you honestly telling me that gay writers are welcomed with open arms, that gay men walk down the street hand in hand in NC? Because they can't do that in Iowa, not without getting attacked. If they can do that in North Carolina, let me know and I'll tell everyone I know who's miserable here to go to NC.

I may have stepped over the line and ranted on too much at the end, but I have to say, you got me a bit hot under the collar about this whole thing - I never thought I would be attacked for saying "bumfuck Iowa" - from someone who hasn't lived there - even Iowans laugh at that (and say it themselves) whenever I say I'm from Bumfuck. I ain't gonna apologize for it, and if that offends you - I guess it could be that I'm past explaining myself.

Scott Walters said...

Josh -- Here is an answer to one of your questions -- from the New York Times, so you know it must be true:

Anonymous said...

I did get a little hot, Scott - in rereading my post, I may have steamed too hot and so I apologize for that, but not for the ideas behind what I wrote.

There are also plenty of ignorant, censoring folk that live in new york as well (they work at Fox News) in addition to some wonderfully enlightened people who teach at different universites in Iowa.

In reading what Matt just wrote, I wished I stated what he did as calmly and cooly, but hey, what can I say, I got caught up in the flame of the moment.

And if I give the impression that I am a gay writer, I am not - it's often thought that I am, due the the subject matter of several of my plays, but I am straight and happily married, if that matters at all.

She's Japanese and she went with me to Iowa. She was a bit shocked at how folks acted- said she would never move there. She won't even consider Texas.

Anonymous said...

Are you being ironic about the Times? They also housed Jayson Blair and Judith Miller, stated how Iraq had WMD'S and was poised to attack America . . . at one point, perhaps, it was true if it was in the Times, but nowadays . . .

Scott, I like your blog and many of your ideas . . . any way to get past the "bumfuck Iowa" thing and still be friends?

Scott Walters said...

Going on: No, I can't get past "bumfuck iowa," especially when you keep adding stereotype after stereotype to the list. Listen, we did Angels in America at UNC Asheville about ten years ago, and the director was disappointed because nobody protested. About three years ago, we did Equus and I played Dysart, and we did the nude scene as written -- and nobody batted an eye. Not even a single cranky letter, or a walk-out. And you know what -- I doubt this is that uncommon. But I could be living in a fool's paradise. But didn't HBO just broadcast an acclaimed production of Angels in America, and wasn't it watched by people across America? Are there no gay people anywhere except NYC, and don't they need some art, too?

Josh, I'm not asking you to defend your choice of a city to live in. Zack is proposing another model for doing theatre, and that is what we need to talk about.

But I am trying to draw attention to "regionalist" ideas that permeate our thinking about the art scene, and make my young students think they must make a choice between going to New York and not doing theatre, and that is wrong.

Also, I was teasing about the NY Times -- but the article is a good one. Did you read it? Do you think it is lying? Because it isn't. That's how it is here.

America is more diverse, and more sophisticated, than it is given credit for.

Oh, about the article: the point Easterbrook is trying to make is: 1) people are getting tired of seeing crappy films about violence, and 2) just because you have the right to do something doesn't mean it isn't irresponsible to do it.

I have to run to class.

Anonymous said...

Have a good class -

I'll take your word via NC, it's why I asked and why I didn't comment on NC, but I lived in Iowa and I'm entitled to my opinion of it - it was a learned experience and continues to be, and most important, it was the truth of what I saw, felt and experienced . . . sure things change, you bet. I hope they keep changing and Kansas comes to its senses.

Scott Walters said...

By the way, Josh, we are still friends no matter how many times you use the phrase "bumfuck iowa." I'll just be a friend who regularly smacks you upside the head, that's all. ;-)

Anonymous said...


I'd like to comment on a few of your comments to clear some things up that seem to have gone astray...

I'd like to get back to the original topic at hand. First of all - I AM saying that we need to leave NYC. No, I am not holding a gun to anyone's head, but I do believe that we need to go. And I'll tell you why...

Matt says: "Zack wants those of us who live in New York to bring our enlightened sensiblities to the world outside NYC. I'm just not sure they need us to do that..."

While I thank Matt for his kind words, I believe that he is misrepresenting what I am trying to say, and perhaps it is my fault for the way I intended my ideas. I don't want "intelligent" NYers to take our "smart" ideas to the "stupid" people of the outside world. What I do want is for ideas to be shared, and mixed. I believe that I am right, the way I live my life and produce my theatre, etc...and those in Kanasas or wherever believe they are right, the way they live their lives and produce their art and whatnot. The problem I see is that there is no national discourse on this, or rather, no local, community-level discourse happening. I don't think either of us are right - what is right is in the middle - and I want to find that. I believe this is due to the fact that over the last 50 years, like-minded people have consistently moved to parts of the country where their are others who think and live like they do. I believe this is has largely led to the current red vs. blue mentality of the country as a whole. Just as there is no discourse when people come to see my shows and nod in agreement with, say, an anti-war sentiment, there is no discourse when we when we discuss the problems of the country in bars where the people having the conversation agree that Bush is great, or Bush is bad, or any other large topic debated in bars. We need to mix the pool.

Now - why should we do this? Becuase, I believe, it is the artists' responsibility to bring new ideas to new people. That is our "job". I am sick and tired of producing politically leftist theatre for politically leftist people. If you do not produce this type of theatre, and if you are not of a leftist state of mind - then I say - STAY in NYC. Otherwise, time to leave.

As theatre artists we understand that conflict is what creates a successful scene, let us now project this into the entire theatergoing experience. While many of our projects call for social change on a massive level, we must understand that the city we play in is the closest pinnacle of what we preach. Therefore, if our mission goes a step further, and we believe that we are a service to the community we play in just as much as we are an emotional and physical outlet, the next logical step is to play in front of an audience who can teach us just as much as we can teach them. A symbiotic relationship with our audience is what we strive for, and we will see the most results through a relationship with audiences elsewhere than where we congregate in vast artistic communities.

Josh hates the fact that he can't have 2 dudes kissing on stage in Iowa. So what do you do? You say fuck it and move to NY? Shouldn't you work on trying to solve that problem rather than abondoning it and letting it fester, getting worse and worse as the years go on? You don't like the fact that you don't have freedom to put on these types of plays in these places - then go and create that freedom, and then put them on. I do not see the point of producing another play where 2 guys kiss each other in NYC when almost every play from Off-Off to Broadway has some sort of "shocking" thing like that in it that would not play to those in Iowa. Isn't this arrogance? And you may say there's nothing wrong with that - that it is your choice - you want to get paid to be a writer where you can have the freedom to produce your work. Great. But the people coming to see your work are not your target audience, unless, as I've suggested before - you don't care about your audience and you simply want a paycheck.

We have to think about our work on a larger scale, and Scott has said this again and again and I thank him for his unwavering support of my ideas. There are larger causes out there than being a professional writer, I'm sorry, and I for one have no interest in that. The system is fucked up - we all know this - you guys write about it on your blogs everyday. And then people like me read them - and I agree with you already - so what's the point of writing about them if you're not doing anything about them?

Fact of the matter is: We must change the way we do theatre, and the places we do theatre. Period. Otherwise, I agree with Scott that theatre as we know it will die very quickly, and then we're all screwed. We have to act - now. And it will take a great deal of sacrifice. Yes, you will not get paid for a while and yes, you will lose your freedom for a while, and yes - your comforts will be displaced for a while - but it is for the greater good. Artists are idealists - otherwise you're just a whore. We must be striving for something larger at all times.

I want a real discourse - like this one, perhaps - where we are talking from different perspectives - not the same. I want to take my ideas to Wichita because I know people there will disagree with them. I want to strenghten my ideas by debating with them - because I know I'm not right about everything, and they will help me to understand that. And then I improve my ideas based on their suggestions. And vice-versa for them.

What it comes down to for me - this country is operating extremely wrong - and we, as artists, can do something about that - but not if we stay in our big cities hiding away from those "hicks who just don't get it." Theatre must have an audience, and don't you want the best audience? Or do you just want people to come see your shows and comment on the artistic values of it - when clearly you're after a larger point? I don't want my ego stroked - I want to make a change.

Think Again: Funding and Budgets in the Arts

Every once in a while, I think I'll post a link or two to posts written earlier in the life of Theatre Ideas that seem worth revisiting ...