Thursday, November 10, 2005

The Return of Zachary Mannheimer

Zachary has posted in my comments box a response to the rather heated discussion we have been having concerning his article, "Our Own New Deal: Planting Roots for American Theatre" over at the Brooklyn Rail website. As usual, Zachary makes an elegant case for his ideas, sans the table-thumping to which I am all-too-often prone. He writes:

"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. "


Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this under its own title, Scott.

Underneath all this, I think, is a definition of the social use of theater, explicitly political, and my problem with it is that it's an extraordinarily narrow definition. Not to mention that it relies on that faulty but attractive Red State/Blue State division; the differences are not about New York vs. Kansas, but about urban vs. rural. In the last election, urban voters all around the country went massively Democrat; for example, Georgia went Bush, but Atlanta went Kerry. In persuasive numbers. Similarly here in New York, rural voters north of Westchester County went alarmingly for Bush as well. And how much more Blue State can you get than New York? I'm afraid, if Zach wants to have the conversation he wants to have, he's going to have to avoid not only Los Angeles and New York, but also any mid- to large-size cities and university towns. I have the feeling that audiences would nod approvingly of Zach's productions in Asheville just as much as they do in Greenwich Village.

Scott, you and Zach seem to find the art of theater as a locus of political debate. Of course that's always been one of its functions; but has it ever been effective? And if one wants to use the performing arts as a vehicle for debate, wouldn't it be more efficient and economical to do film and television? You can buy a good DV camera, that produces images as good as 35mm film, for the fraction of the cost of a theatrical production in, say, a university theater; movie theaters and TV stations are far more common than auditoria suited to theatrical presentation. You can still go to Topeka, but instead of doing theater, do films and television; distribution in digital form also makes it possible to reach a broader audience.

I'm not dismissing your ideas at all, but I do want to point up the assumption that theater that changes minds is necessarily active, political theater. There's another sort as well: the contemplative sort of theater that can change consciousness, not merely Presidents and other elected officials. We have the political situation we have because of collective consciousness: an assumption that reality works a certain way. It emerges from a deep philosophical construction of the world.

On the other hand, Zach doesn't want that. He says, "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." It's possible that his imprecation that I stay in New York to do my more contemplative work is precisely the problem. But I've noted at my own blog (and in the comments section here) my reasons for staying here, though I'm always open to argument.

Anonymous said...

What George said, and as I've mentioned again and again, my experience is that there are many more professional opportunities here than elsewhere - there just is, and that is what I seek.

I'm from Iowa, as has been noted many times, and would it make sense for me to move to New York City if want I wanted to do was grow corn and make a profit at it? Sure, I could get a yard here (I live in Astoria) and grow a little bit of corn for my family, but could I really profit from it, professionally?

Unknown said...

I agree with George when he says:
"We have the political situation we have because of collective consciousness: an assumption that reality works a certain way. It emerges from a deep philosophical construction of the world."

That is what I am saying when I say we leave NYC (aka - large city) to go more rural. Our productins will, on a surface level, be political in nature - but if the art is great, then it will also get to this large collective consciousness that I seek to break into.

This, if done in large swaths (theatre artists leaving NYC) will have an overt effect on the red/blue map, BECAUSE it is effecting people's general conciousness.

I ask this: George - if your work aims at tapping into this - what is your goal with your contemplative work? What do you want your audience to contemplate?

Scott Walters said...

Josh -- You mentioned you used to live in Iowa. It wasn't Bumfuck Iowa by any chance, was it? ;-)

George -- I'm not going to speak for Zachary, but my artistic orientation is decidedly not political. I tend to agree with Martha Nussbaum, who wrote in Cultivating Humanity that the arts in general, and theatre in particular, increases empathy by encouraging people to see the world through the eyes of another. This can be done through contemplative theatre or political theatre.

Me? I'm a Joseph Campbell kind of guy. I'm interested in the enactment of the Myths of the world as a way of broadening one's sense of purpose, place, and selfhood. That's why I like plays like Angels in America and Marisol and Zoot Suit. These plays all address political issues, but do so from an archetypal base, and the political is one among many issues. If I'm going to go political, I want it to be complexly political, and humanistically based -- MASTER HAROLD...and the boys rather than...oh, gosh, I can't think of an example from theatre, let's go film: Fahrenheit 911.

But I do assume that theatre (and the arts) affect people, although "changes minds" (as George puts it) is perhaps too strong. I think it affects thinking and feeling. Remember, I am the one who posted with admiration Barry Lopez's definition of a storyteller as a "person who creates the atmosphere in which wisdom reveals itself." The theatre that interests me is about wisdom more than power, philosophy more than politics.

As far as Josh's reiteration about NYC being where the jobs are, I think I am starting to understand. I think Zachary and I are thinking like someone who starts their own business, as opposed to someone who gets hired by someone else. So for us, the jobs are wherever we are. Does that make sense? It's a little different orientation, I think.

Anonymous said...

idwizard: I don't find it useful to think in terms of goals or definitions for my own work because I hope each audience member will be affected differently. As we (playwright and audience member) are under the skin human, I hope we communicate somehow on that level alone. To say or assume anything further would be presumptive.

Freeman said...

I agree with Zack that we often are preaching to the converted here. So if you are a political theater writer (I don't believe I am one) Zack's ideas are ones to consider.

As a writer, though, I can live in New York and have my plays produced elsewhere. It's not necessary for me to live outside of New York to have my plays hear. But there are things here that I can't get in Kansas.

I have a great deal of respect for what Zack is saying and what Zack does. I reviewed his production of "The White Plague" a while ago, and I think it should have been seen in Ohio. Luckily (or unluckily) it was performed up the street from the Republican National Convention. Ohio came here to visit.

Scott Walters said...

Zachary said, I believe, that his essay is more for companies than for playwrights. Matt, you're right about your work as a playwright -- your work can travel and be done anywhere without requiring you to give up the NYC perks that stimulate you. Directors, actors, and designers might do better to seriously consider Zachary's ideas.

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