Friday, December 09, 2005


No, I have not decided to devote a post to our current Administration. I am talking about the traditional use of the word "conservatism." According to, conservatism is:

1. The inclination, especially in politics, to maintain the existing or traditional order.
2. A political philosophy or attitude emphasizing respect for traditional institutions, distrust of government activism, and opposition to sudden change in the established order.

Wikpedia has a long section on conservatism, which includes this paragraph:

"In English-speaking countries, conservatism often refers to a political philosophy presented by Anglo-Irish statesman Edmund Burke. Burkean conservatives wish to conserve heritage; they advocate the current social climate. To a Burkean, any existing value or institution has undergone the correcting influence of past experience and ought to be respected. Burkeans do not reject change, as Burke wrote "a state without the means of change is without the means of its conservation," but they insist that further change be organic, rather than revolutionary."

My motivation in looking up this word comes from my bafflement concerning the theatre blogosphere's reaction to Steven Leigh Morris' article "Squinting Into the Sun: How our theater will change over the next decade." The reaction can only be described as traditionally conservative.

Steven Oxman at Theatre Matters (see sidebar), the first to respond to Morris' ideas (that I saw, at least), decided to let the news sink in: "I'm going to absorb this for a little while longer and see if I have any further response to it, other than: Will I really have to sit through more of what I consider community theatre? That's a very unpleasant thought."

Over at SpearBearer Down Left (see sidebar), our SpearBearer refers to Morris' ideas a "Chicken-little"-ish, decries Morris' "overstatement and pessimism," notes that he hasn't heard anyone calling for cuts in the NEA lately (not much left to cut there, in my opinion, but don't I vaguely remember at attempt to zero out the agency recently?), makes it a local problem ("it's just not a national problem. It's an L.A., New York, and maybe even a Chicago problem"), and ends: "But I'm sticking with my general philosophy. As long as the actors don't quit, there will be theatre. And if there's one person in the audience, the show will go on. (How we pay for it is another thing)." This last parenthetical phrase is a bit odd: I don't think Morris said that theatre would disappear, just that few would be able to make a living at it -- in other words, he was focusing on that "other thing" that SpearBearer tucks into a parenthesis. [An interesting sidebar: after calling Morris' ideas "Chicken-little-ish," he writes, "if that's not dignified enough for you, let's say "Cassandra-esque." You remember Cassandra, don't you? The Trojan princess gifted with the ability to see the future, but cursed by the gods to have nobody believe her predictions? Ah, the irony.]

Meanwhile, Matt Freeman visited my comments box and started his comment, "All of this stinks of surrender." He followed up with a fiery post on his blog (see sidebar: On Theatre and Politics") entitled "Theatre: Branding the Industry," in which he calls for the creation of "an organization that represents the Industry of Public Theater, or the Industry of Independent Theater. We can use the model of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, perhaps. But regardless, we must come together to create print campaigns, talking points, representatives, a business model, grant writing for small stages, new ways to approach ticket sales, and above all... a plan to simply raise awareness for what we do." Admirably, he not only calls for the creation of such an organization, but offers to begin discussions to that end: "In the coming year, after the Holiday, I would like to offer to organize an initial meeting to simply discuss how this might be acheived. Interested? Able to offer space? Want to attend?" Amd he provides contact information. [Another note: I encourage everybody to take him up on this offer -- it would be an excellent thing to have happen.]

MattJ over at Theatre Conversation and Political Frustration (see sidebar), in his post entitled "Performing the act of Theatre," worries about the ramifications of change. Addressing some of my suggestions for a new approach, he writes: "So what are the ends to the church-like theatre activity Scott proposes? Do we get so many followers that theatre becomes sort of mainstream again? If that was to happen, would the theatre get watered down, cyclically bringing us back to square one, creating a monster? Or does it become just a larger incestuous group?" He goes on: "I think I worry slightly about how it would change the nature of the professional, and the nature of theatrical presentation in general when part of the professional theatre artist's job is to have intense interaction with the audience all the time. I don't know exactly where I fall on this, my brain is telling me that a statement like this is ridiculous, of course artists should interact with the audience! But there's something about the mystery of the theatre and the craft of the actor, director, and designers which still needs to be preserved somehow. "

All of these are certainly valid responses to Morris' essay. And Matt Freeman's idea for an umbrella organization is a great one. The theatre has long refused to organize anything. We have no think tanks, no lobbying organizations, no white papers. We're all Rugged Individualists working our own theatrical field alone (well, not me; I stagger on burdened by the Scarlet A for "Academic" around my neck). Anyway, it is like shoveling frogs into a wheelbarrow getting theatre people to agree about anything!

Everything, that is, except one thing: that something might need to change. We are united in our conservative inclination "to maintain the existing or traditional order." If we were dinosaurs, we'd have been the ones saying, "Well, yeah, it's getting a little cold, but I think it's just a front and it's probably just a local problem anyway. Gimme a sweater."

I find it astonishing that otherwise imaginative, daring people are simply unwilling to even imagine, much less do, theatre differently. I'm not even saying living what is imagined, I mean even entertain for a moment the notion that things might need to change, and imagine changes that might -- just might -- make things better. Like traditional conservatives, we fret that any change whatsoever would probably be a change for the worse.

I am not arguing that any of my models are The Answer. But I have sworn to myself when I started this blog that I would do more than complain about the status quo, I would try to come up with actual ideas of things that could be tried out. But when I have done so, at best I have been greeted with silence, and at worst been told all the problems with the idea. And that is fine, that is why I post them here and don't just write them in a personal journal at my bedside table. But what baffles me is why others don't float their own ideas. The possible exception is Matt Freeman, who continues to propose that artists organize and take action, and I admire that enormously. I urge any New York theatre people who read these blogs to contact him and start trading ideas, and I hope something dynamic will come of it. It would help enormously.

In the meantime could we at least acknowledge that something might be improved about the way we do things in the theatre (not something that might be improved about the audience, or government funding, or the capitalist system)? And then maybe brainstorm a little about changes that might lead to improvement? It would only be a mental exercise not requiring that anybody actually change anything about the way they currently work in theatre.

But just...imagine...


MattJ said...

Your post really makes me think, Scott. I'm saying to myself... me! conservative! Where's the tallest building! But it's true, I suppose, in some ways. We want to be innovative in the art form but not innovative in its, i guess, administrative execution (with the uber notable exception of MattF).

I think my major argument was how we can protect the things that drew us to the theatre in the first place, by still being innovative. It's a lot like the avant-garde discussion in so far as protecting the base and fighting the enemy. Maybe it would be useful for us all to have a little thought experiment, try and identify those things that drew us to the theatre in the first place, so that we know specifically what we need to change and what we need to preserve. Once again, looking backward to propel forward.

Anonymous said...

I'm pretty sure, given my rant against cover tune classic shows, I'm not a conservative - plus, I agree that theatre can and should be done differently as time goes by - everything changes and grows, why shouldn't theatre?

oldphort said...

If you stick your head in the sand and swear there is no sky, is that an appropriate way to respond to "chicken-little-ing?"

Local communities are no longer set up to group-sustain its individual members/practitioners. Call it the WallMart effect.

"Successful" artists are able to trade nationally. Poets, musicians, authors, tactile and visual artists, film actors et. al. can trade nat'l'y--have been helped immensely (and, in some uber-pop cases, undercut immensely) by the internets.

Theatre cannot, I think, do this.

My people in Illinois cannot see my play in Atlanta (if I had one). Theatre cannot be nat'l.

Thus, for theatricians to continue to advance the art form it seems there is no other way than to embrace "process" over "product".

We must make theatre in and with our communities - viable in many venues, many expressive means.

The major hurdle? Making a living.

Local communities are no longer set up, or encouraged, to group-sustain its individual members / practitioners -- especially the local artist.

How can it be done? What are the first steps?

Scott Walters said...

I think that theatricians (I like the new word, Jess) should embrace relationships instead of product. We should stop seeing ourselves as "producers of plays" and instead see ourselves as "facilitators of a conversation."

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