Thursday, October 06, 2005
Walt Whitman, Democratic Vistas (1870)
[One hundred and thirty-five years ago. Has anything changed? By the way, Whitman's solution was to call on artists, the divine literatus, through their "archetypal poems" to restore a sense of morality, of justice, of right. "Few are aware," he wrote, "how the great literature penetrates all, gives hue to all, shapes aggregates and individuals, and, after subtle ways, with irresistable power, constructs, sustains, demolishes at will." We have great power. Perhaps we should look at our own work, and decide whether we are living up to our role. Are we creating "archetypal poems," or mere baubles? Are we calling on our peoples' higher angels, or appealing to their lowest impulses? Does out work provide hope, courage, and vision, or simply reinforce depair, weakness, and dishonesty? What is our purpose as artists right here, right now?]
The quandary I find myself in centers, like so much, around corn pone. It's corn pone that I know you can relate to, Cal: I teach. And I'm not certain that you can successfully teach a new generation without a firm belief in the possibility of positive change. How can you demand that students devote the time and energy and sacrifice to become true artists if, at the same time, you don't believe that their efforts will be acknowledged, appreciated, rewarded, or make a damn bit of difference? I guess I can't. I can't look those kids in the eye and tell them that corporate America has everything in its stranglehold and nothing they do will make a damn bit of difference. I have to create a vision of possibility, of empowerment, of alternatives.
Perhaps my insistence on the importance of the local is my way of escaping the corporate stranglehold dilemma. On the level of small communities, even small communities within much larger communities, I think change is still possible. Perhaps that is why I don't focus my attention on a national conversation. You are right, the media is the key, and the media loves conflict. Give them Mel's Passion, give them Serrano's crucifix in urine, give them Mapplethorpe's bullwhip up the ass, and the media loves it -- conflict and controversy! Better than cockfighting! But if it can't be covered in 90 seconds, then it ain't gonna get covered.
But in a discussion group at the local Barnes and Noble, maybe people can discuss more meaningful and more subtle ideas. In a small theatre in which the patrons are made to feel welcome, perhaps a post show discussion can deal with subtle insights, feelings, and wisdom.
I wrack my brain hours on end to come up with a way around the corporate dilemma. It's just the way I'm built -- if I think something is wrong, and can be done better, I have to find a way to do it. When students look in my eyes, they have to see a commitment and a hope for a better future. If I don't have it, I can't teach them; I shouldn't teach them.
So that's where I come from, and where my ideas of community come from. It isn't simply because I live in Asheville, it's because Disney now owns Broadway and I can't see that as a viable alternative for artistry anymore. I search for an alternative.
I still am trying to find what my contribution will be, what idea I will have that will make a difference, what student I will teach that will carry some shred of my ideas forward. My legacy has to come through those I touch, those I teach, those who hear the words I say and read the words I write. I need to think of something new, something that might add something to the world.
That is what I struggle to do. If I focus on holding my family tight and finding the art that feeds my soul, then I will never have the focus and courage to see a new idea through to the end, because new ideas require dissatisfaction with the status quo. If I focused on seeking out those great artistic experiences, I may create a good life for myself and a few who surround me, but right now I don't know that that would be enough. I so very much would like it to be. I even hear voices telling me that "the quest for greatness is a disease; the real goal is goodness." And I try to live with that, but it is like I am pursued by intellectual Furies who will not let me rest.
I think something is wrong with America, and so something is wrong with American theatre. I think that the whole machine is going to break down, and in the not-too-distant future at that, and when it does, there will be a vacuum into which new ideas will have to rush. I need to prepare for that moment, or prepare my students for that moment, because if we haven't imagined a different way, then the status quo will simply morph and refill that vacuum and then we're doomed. We're in a transitionary age, and other models need to be imagined. I don't know if local arts are the answer – it is just a way to fly under the corporate radar for while and find space to think and create.
"That being said, the pinnacle of theatre work is considered New York, is it not? That's where the majority of media is located, that's where the publishers and producers are, that's where the agents are - so we come here for big time work - especially if you want to make a living at it, writing, it's much harder to do in Idaho than it is here. You can write novels and maybe make a living, but not plays."
A common refrain, not that different from what alwaysabridesmaid wrote about actors. The very next paragraph reads:
"I actually get treated better regionally than I do in nyc - I get paid well, they respect the work and love having a living playwright to talk to. There is a profound disrepect running in a lot of the theatre world for living playwrights, and I would accept it if the work being offered up instead were admirable - but mostly it's not - even on an Off-Off-Broadway level, where you think the playwrights would be welcomed, they are not. It's confounding, because the undiscovered playwright today could be the Richard Greenberg of tomorrow, but mostly we're told we're not important here."
When are theatre people going to realize that the myth of NYC does not match the reality? That we might be more likely to have a lively, fulfilling artistic life outside of the NYC rat race? Do we want to work, or do we want to dream about "making it"? Good God, it baffles me. It's the Lotto mentality!
Artaud said a similar thing in No More Masterpieces. ""Masterpieces of the past are good for the past: they are not good for us. 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."
It is an argument that, despite the fact that I teach theatre history, has a certain persuasiveness. To me, the lack of full productions of new plays is indicative of several things:
1) Artistic cowardice on the part of theatre people. We know that Shakespeare is good; how do we know that Joshua James' play is? Plus, we can count on potential spectators to recognize the title of a classic, so they might be inclined to attend. Gotta sell tickets, right?
2) Cowardice on the part of the public. After forty years of new plays written to attack them and make them squirm, audiences have finally gotten wise to this game and are refusing to play. You reap what you sow. Did we really think audiences would stand still indefinitely while we blew raspberries at them and then charged them big bucks for the opportunity?
3) Me-firstism on the part of theatre artists. Instead of seeing ourselves as part of a theatre community, and being concerned about the development of that community toward robustness, we focus on our own needs. Directors see classics as an opportunity to strut their directorial stuff, and actors know a good role when they see one. Who cares if it doesn't really speak to what is going on in our crazy world, or if it speaks in a language virtually incomprehensible to all but the most theatrically knowledgable, we can put on our resume that we directed Hamlet or played Lady Macbeth, and that's what matters most. Who cares if young playwrights are abandoning the theatre because they never see their work on a stage? We'll let Ibsen/Shaw/Shakespeare do our talking for us!
4) The ridiculous price of tickets. The higher the ticket prices soar, the more careful the public is about buying them. Have tickets topped the $100 mark on Broadway? Well, let's go see Fiddler on the Roof -- I know that that's a good show, I've already seen it a couple of other times. Even at the regional level, ticket prices are steep compared to other forms of entertainment. I might take a chance on a film at $8, but if it is gonna cost me $20 I want assurances. A recognizable name is an assurance.
The management guru Peter Drucker wrote in the Harvard Business Review, "Every organization has to prepare for the abandonment of everything it does." Pretty radical. Drucker isn't an artist, he's a business leader. If a business kept trying to sell products that were invented fifty years ago, it would go bankrupt. What about theatre? Why do we think we can live on the accomplishments of the past?
Look around at the art forms that are failing. Classical music? Audiences are diminishing at an alarming rate. Classical ballet? While audiences for dance seem to be going up, not for classical ballet. What's healthy? Film. While plagued by commercialism, the indie-film movement is doing well thanks to Sundance -- heck, there's even a Sundance Channel on cable. Do you see any indie filmmakers remaking Singin' in the Rain? Visual arts. New artists create new excitement (or at least new controversies), and I don't see any new artists doing reproductions of old classics. Literature. More people are reading, and they're not reading the classics.
In the 1960s, the regional theatre movement was just being born, and American artists like Margo Jones and Zelda Fichlander were finding and producing new plays by American playwrights. But then, displaying our typical American inferiority when it comes to things cultural, we allowed Tyrone Guthrie to hijack the movement. The Guthrie theatre opened to great fanfare with a production of -- you guessed it -- Hamlet, and soon followed it with Moliere's The Miser, and an adaptation of Aeschylus called The House of Atreus and on and on. Soon, other regional theatres followed suit, and pretty soon the regional theatre became more museum than alternative to Broadway.
At the same time, these theatre started complaining that American actors were unprepared to act in these classic plays, and so academia stepped up and said "We'll train them." And now look around at the curricula of theatre departments across the country: they all look the same, and they are all centered on classics.
Can this really be healthy for the theatre? I'm not saying no classics, but shouldn't we at least seek balance? And I'm not talking about regional theatres producing the latest Pulitzer Prize winner from last year, or last year's Tony award-winner for best play; that's just me-tooism. What I mean are legitimate world premieres written by living playwrights who might actually become attached to a theatre -- much like Shakespeare was the house playwright for the Globe -- and join a conversation with the community.
We're back to stability again. The creation of a stable community, instead of the theatrical version of a bus terminal. Figuring out how to accomplish this would require some imagination. It would require that we "prepare for the abandonment of everything that [we do]." But we're artists, right? Imagination is what we do!
Wednesday, October 05, 2005
The Shakespeare Theatre in Washington DC has adopted a format similar to the one you describe. My parents have season membership to the theatre, and they are the only theatre that I make a real effort to attend anymore.
They generally do the following things:
1. A few months before a show they send out a glossy magazine called "Asides" which has essays written by the Dramaturg, prominent critics, the director, and the scenic and costume designers. Essays included topics such has the historical context of the play, the playwright's bio, the production history of the play, and each crew member talking about their process and production concept (in the early stages).The designers include their early sketches and other renderings. The director encloses his thought process as he tries to settle on his final concept. For instance, Michael Kahn is currently directing the Shakespeare Theatre's production of 'Othello,"starring Avery Brooks. In his essay, Kahn talks about his past experiences with the play and how they inform his choices in the current production.
2. The Cast and Crew Meet and Greet. Before the first "Official rehearsal. season members are invited to the theatre to meet the entire production team and cast. At this session, the director and designers all speak about the play and unveil their final concept to the audience. Thus, the audience is allowed to more fully understand the evolution of their approach. Then, the audience is allowed to stay for the first table read through. I have been to one of these, and they sometimes attract up to 200 people. Afterwards, the actors speak about their roles and then everyone fields questions from the audience.
3. During the rehearsal process, the theatre holds lectures for the general public about the play from other local scholars. For instance, I saw a production of Lady Windermere's Fan last season, and the week before the show opened they had lectures scheduled from local history and literature professors at Georgetown and George Washington.
4. After the play opens, the theatre designates several post-mortems where the audience is invited to air their thoughts and engage in discussion with the production personnel and actors. The result of all of this work is a much more educated and engaged audience. The audience is able to see first hand the whole arc of the play, from the conception to closing night. When I saw Lady Windermere's Fan, Michael Kahn went out of his way to talk to as many audience members as possible and hear their thoughts about the show.
This might not be a bad strategy for other theatre companies to consider.
"Rebeck has also used her plays to build a community of actors. "I look for actors who can deliver their laughs and still keep the emotional level high," she says. Among those she counts White (who also played Rebeck's stand-in in The Family of Mann and appeared in the 2004 film version of Sunday on the Rocks), Nielsen, Reed Birney (The Butterfly Collection, Mann and Knit) and two newer cohorts, Marin Ireland (The Bells) and Austin Lysy (The Water's Edge). These collaborations have provided a new direction for Rebeck: writing specifically for actors. "Molière did it," she shrugs. "I think it's too bad that things aren't set up that way any more. You should attach a playwright to a regional company and let 'em hang out for a year and write something for that company."
Yup. Of course, we'd also have to have a resident company to hang out with...
""You know what they don't tell you about 'The Emperor's New Clothes'?" asks Rebeck good-humoredly. "They don't tell you what happens after the kid says it. The kid says it, everybody laughs and says, 'He's right, he's right, the emperor doesn't have any clothes on.' Then they take the kid outside and stone him to death. Don't ask me how I know that.""
In the October issue of American Theatre, Jeffrey Jones contributes an intriguing article mischievously entitled Thinking About Writing About Thinking About New Plays: Or, How the Visual Arts Audiences Got Comfortable with Radical Innovation, While Theatre Audiences Didn’t. Jones worries about “how off-putting it would be if the theatre just kept presenting the same kind of plays based on the same small set of templates – year in, year out, same as it ever was…” And he wonders, “How can anyone ever get an audience to accept and enjoy new and difficult work?”
Initially, I was impatient with the premise that there was somehow something wrong with the audience because they didn’t get jazzed about plays that are “weird, unpleasant, irritating, aggressive, manipulative and…a theatre of absence and withholding, rather than presentation and presence.” Just what, I wondered, is the intrinsic benefit of “difficulty” (read: obscurity to the point of opaqueness)? Isn’t daily life incomprehensible enough? Instead of adding to the irritating, manipulative aggressiveness of the world, wouldn’t art do better to try to seek clarity, and describe some meaning, some beauty, some pattern to our existence?
But as I continued to read, I was surprised to find that this was not going to be another rant about misunderstood artists dismissed by lowbrow theatergoers. Rather, Jones’ gaze turns to the theatre’s seeming disinterest in engaging the audience in dialogue.
The model he asks us to consider to solve the question “How can anyone ever get an audience to accept and enjoy new and difficult work?” is that of the visual arts, where during the rise of Modernism patrons were taught a “handful of terms and concepts…with which to discuss the work.” As a result of acquiring this vocabulary, the now-educated patrons “are suddenly and magically able to discuss and understand I[the difficult work of art] – and, lo, the scales fall from their eyes and they see…” The vehicle for this revelation is the gallery’s 50-page catalog whose “actual purpose…is to provide an essay that places the work-at-hand in the context of that shared set of core terms and concepts.”
“Theatre,” he goes on, “has spent almost no effort or energy in defining, let alone disseminating, a core set of terms and concepts by which new plays might be discussed an understood.” And you know, I think he’s right. And what a refreshing viewpoint!
Instead of pointing a frustrated finger at the theatre audience, Jones asks us to look at ourselves and what we are doing to help the spectator to become more like the people we’d love to play to. Such an approach respects the intelligence of the audience, and turns the theatre into a place where a collaboration between artwork and spectator can take place.
I must confess that I have always, even recently, had the attitude that a production should speak for itself. If I have to tell an audience what it is supposed to see – through a director’s note in the program, say – then I haven’t really done my job. If the audience doesn’t notice the connection between my production of Marisol and the events in New Orleans, then who am I to tell them directly about this. If they’re not acquainted with the idea of “magical realism,” which informs Rivera’s aesthetic, and they can’t quite grasp the way the story is being told, then I have failed as an artist. An audience shouldn’t need any help to understand a production. Or so I opined.
But Jones’ article forces me to question my attitude. He tells a story about the remounting of the Wooster Group’s Rumstick Road at the American Place Theatre in New York, which was consistently being greeted with audience bafflement and a steady stream of early departures. But at one Wednesday matinee he attended, he was surprised to find “a crowd of fashionable middle-aged ladies not only sitting through the thing but paying attention and obviously having a grand time.” It turned out that they were a theatre group from Westchester whose leader on the bus trip into town had contextualized what they were going to see, and this gave them a way to enjoy the show that might have otherwise remained obscure and opaque. Brilliant!
Jones suggests we adopt three tools and techniques of the visual arts:
1. Theatre must accept that the presentation of new plays is Smart Fun, and be prepared to promote it accordingly.
2. The enterprise is not the work itself; the enterprise is creating the context for the work,
3. Therefore…the context specifically must be, and be known to be, about providing ways to read and understand and discuss the work.
He proposes that theatre commission “critical essays by smart, literate thinkers” and that those essays be published in the program, if not mailed to playgoers beforehand. “Is there any reason why major regional theatres can’t engage leading critics, essayists, novelists, poets, and playwrights for such a project?”
Is there any reason indeed? I love the concept, but wonder about the mode of delivery – I can hear managing directors all over America blanching at the thought of the printing costs for this expanded program. Might this be a wonderful way for theatres to use their websites, which right now seem to exist almost solely as a means of advertising? Create a webpage for each production with an essay such as Jones describes, as well as other dramaturgical material meant to help audiences planning to attend the play. And what about podcasts? If we want to reach young people, might we do so with some intelligent discussions by the artists in the plays, or recordings of someone reading the essay aloud. What if we provided these to patrons in the lobby of the theatre, so they could listen to the essay before the start of the show? What if, instead of post-performance talk backs, we had pre-performance “talk to’s” during which we gave the audience concepts and tools for greater appreciation? This wouldn’t have to be done in the theatre – it could be done at an area restaurant over dinner! And I'm not talking about gossipy chats, I'm talking real content.
Wouldn’t we be doing our audiences a favor if we actually wanted to communicate with them, and give them better tools for truly enjoying our productions? Why keep them in the dark?
"I work mostly regionally, and I love it, but I am cast out of New York. The auditions I attend are in NY, so I must be there to get the work. I lived in Boston prior to that, and found that they would rarely take Boston actors seriously enough to cast them. They went to New York to find actors. Frustrating, yes, especially because I love Boston and loved living there, but it is the reality, so I moved."
This is a very practical attitude -- if I were an actor, I would probably be inclined to follow the same path, and I don't condemn alwaysabridesmaid for having made that decision. But I think it is time for someone to ask whether this "reality" is 1) good for artists, 2) good for theatre, 3) good for human beings. Why do we in the theatre rarely question the status quo as far as our working model is concerned? Why do we simply accept "the reality"? There is a need for theatre all over this country, and the majority of the theatre tickets are sold outside of New York. So what is forcing actors to live in NYC? Why can't you live in the city you love? Why can't oldphort make a living as an actor in Asheville -- there's a lot of theatre being done? Part of the answer is implied by alwaysabridesmaid: "I lived in Boston prior to that, and found that they would rarely take Boston actors seriously enough to cast them." To paraphrase Laertes, "The director's to blame." Did alwaysabridesmaid acquire more "training and craft" when she moved from Boston to NYC? Was she immediately more talented? I doubt it, but because of her new address, she will now be taken seriously by Boston directors. Does this make any sense at all? Is this not madness?
Once one admits the insanity of this, one is led to other questions: whatever happened to the idea of a resident company? Why are plays cast individually, rather than casting a company? Why is there little commitment to the development of an artistic community that supports artists' development? The usual explanation is "money" -- an understandable plea. But what I ask is whether there might be more money -- i.e., more audience loyalty, more tickets sold -- if all of the people who work in a particular theatre also were a part of the community. Not just the producer, who can only do so much, but everyone. Would someone be more inclined to come and see alwaysabridesmaid if she had just spent a weekend working with her building a house for Habitat for Humanity, or stood in line with her at the grocery store, or her son was on the same soccer team as alwaysabridesmaid's son?
A useful model of this in action might be the high school musical. When I was growing up, we sold out a 400-seat theatre night after night for My Fair Lady and Mame. Was it because the show was that damn good? No, it was because family and friends came out to support me and the rest of the cast and crew. "Let's go see Scott in a play." Is it that big of a stretch to think that the same thing might happen in professional theatre? Didn't people pack the Globe to find out what Shakespeare and Burbage and Kemp were up to now? Wasn't Sophocles an important member of Athenian society, and weren't all of the actors drawn from the community? Didn't throngs come to medieval mystery plays in part because there was a community connection -- their guild was responsible for one of the plays, and they knew the guy playing Cain? Wasn't the Restoration theatre packed with people wanting to see actors they partied with the night before, and see plays by playwrights they knew and who were writing about them and their friends? Often it is said that the audience for theatre now is filled with other theatre artists. True or not, the implication is true: we're often there to see what someone we know is doing.
This is the very definition of community. A community is not just "a group of people living in the same locality and under the same government," but it is also "a group of people having common interests" that involves "sharing, participation, and fellowship." (dictionary.com) I think artists should be a part of the community. I think that theatre that was created would speak more powerfully. I think theatres would be healthier if they committed to the development of specific artists, and thus formed an identity that was connected to people.
In another discussion, David Novak proposed that the artist was a Magical Stranger, and that his power came from his outsider status. I disagree; I think the artist is magical, but that magic would be even stronger if the artist were a part of the community. The image I have is of the shaman. The shaman was, of all people, the MOST active and involved in the community. Keeping the community together, working for the common good, and healing the community was his or her job. The whole point of contacting the spirit world, of being "different" was to benefit, support and guide the community. Now, this did not mean that the methods of contacting the spirit world were somehow made common -- that the magic leaked out. But the shaman saw themselves as a part of the community, and the magic that they undertook was for the purpose of helping that community in some way. Their skills were not shared by all, but they were not set aside and worshipped because they possessed those skills. Everyone believed that they would use those powers in service of the community.What if we, as artists, conceived of our role in the same way?
Monday, October 03, 2005
"To suggest that artists cannot come from NYC to work in other communities because we cannot understand how to speak to them is to encourage provincialism in the arts. Actors and directors live in NYC because that is where we get work. We are so dedicated to a life in the theater -- creating it, not teaching others how to do it -- that we need to be where the opportunities are, even if that means not getting to live in the bucolic mountains.We also like to be around and learn from a truly diverse community, because that is how to really learn to make art.To suggest that we all insulate ourselves into small communities and only perform for each other? Means that your student production of the Bronx-set Marisol should not exist. You have a white woman playing Marisol, a fact which I'm sure would make Rivera cringe. Under your reasoning, you and the small, very white community in which you live and work could not possibly understand his work."
First, let me be clear: I am not suggesting that artists cannot come from NYC to work in other communities. What I am suggesting is that this requires acculturation -- the artists need to understand where they are. We generally condemn cultural imperialism in the guise of, say, the British creating colonies in Africa and forcing the native people to conform to their ideas regarding behavior, religion, and social mores. But this is often how NYC artists behave -- like they are going to come to the "provinces" and bring their culture with them, and the audience needs to bow to their greater sophistication.
Let's look at something like color in painting. Look at the use of color in painting done in NYC versus painting done in, say, Bermuda. The colors are different because the color of the place is different, and this is true even in painting that are not landscapes. If you want to instantly be identified as a tourist in NYC, arrive wearing a teal jacket; very quickly, you adapt to your surroundings, dressing in shades of black and grey. Why should this be any different than personal rhythms, worldviews, or interpersonal relations? Would Faulkner have written differently had he not grown up in the South? Would Emerson have sounded differently if he wasn't in New England?
Yes, I know that NYC is where the work is, but does that have to be the case? If we were a truly healthy theatrical community, wouldn't actors be able to live all over this country? And wouldn't that be better for the communities in which they live? When is it that we begin to value artists who live in our community? When is it that we stop looking to NYC to validate our work? Why is it that a wonderful production by a regional theatre only seems wonderful if it transfers to NYC? There is an old joke: "There is no God, and Jesus is His name." Well, to paraphrase: there is no national theatre in America, and Broadway is its name. It is time for the arts to grow up in our nation and become truly national. We are a huge country with a rich populace. It is time to stop thinking about anytyhing east of the Hudson as the "provinces," which is what you are saying when you say anything not from NYC smacks of "provincialism."
And yes, NYC is a more diverse community than Asheville, and that is wonderful. It is something that ought to be reflected in the art that is made there. And Asheville needs to relate to the diversity that is here -- and believe me, despite your lack of knowledge, Asheville is diverse. It has a sizable Hispanic population, and large number of Russian immigrants, as well as a sizable black population. But it isn't NYC by any stretch.
By the way, you are wrong about the woman playing Marisol -- her father is South American. You should be careful about jumping to conclusions in order to make a point. That said, I assume that when you do a play, you will cast according to strict racial lines. For instance, if you do Long Day's Journey Into Night, you will only cast Irish actors in the roles, and a production of Antony and Cleopatra will have an Egyptian Cleopatra. A question, though: even if we had only had white actors to play the roles in Marisol, would it have been better to have not done the play at all? Wouldn't that have opened us up to accusations of "provinicialism"?
I think you raise a valid point, though: did Marisol have anything to say to Asheville? It is a question I, as an artist, should ask myself. The answer may be yes, but the question must be asked nonetheless. That's the point I'm trying to make -- that because I live in the community that I am addressing, I have a better chance of answering that question than someone who sweeps in from somewhere else.
I am not asking you to leave NYC, nor am I dissing NYC theatre. I am suggesting that we need to expand our system of valuation to include other worlds than Manhattan.
Sunday, October 02, 2005
The first couple posts are about my production of Marisol, which closes today. Nice to see how the play affected others.
Welcome to the blogosphere, Jess!
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 ...
When Vulture writer Jason P. Frank published his interview with 1776 cast member Sara Porkalob on October 14th, the online theater world h...
In an essay entitled "Defining Racism: Can We Talk?," from her book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? ...
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 ...