Friday, October 14, 2005

Theatre and Religion

A friend of mine who has been reading this blog sent me this email privately. I received his permission to share it with you:

I've been thinking about a number of the issues brought up over the past week in your blog. Here are a few of my own thoughts that are, admittedly, not fully worked out yet. I think I will title it: "All We Know of God," when it is eventually finished. I believe that Geurge Hunka grossly underestimates the relationship between theatre and religion. I do not think we, as artists and audience members, can fully address the important questions until the nature of
this relationship is worked out.

Today, it is hard to believe that in ancient Athens an audience would spend a full day at the theatre, arrive at sun-up, see three full length plays (with one or two satyr plays in between), take a break to eat over the afternoon, and then return to see one last full-length comedy at the end of the day. What Greek audiences had that we currently lack in the theatre is a sense of religion. As I pen these thoughts I am reminded of the German poet Rilke's The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, when he wrote: "let us be honest about it, then; we have no theatre,
any more than we have a God: for this community is needed." The suggestion inherent in Rilke's remarks is that the disinterest in theatre is a symptom of a larger societal disease. This disease is not merely a failure of our culture, it may be the failure of our art and religion to keep up with the monstrous moral crises of our time.

The playwright August Strindberg came to the same conclusion as Rilke, that theatre and religion were the two major casualties of modern civilization: "theatre, like religion, is on the way to being discarded as a dying form..." The feelings of purposelessness and destitution
present in the previous two remarks were also echoed by Arthur Miller when he said, "we have no real theatre. We have shows, which isn't really the same thing."

Given the current state of American theatre, I think we should ask one simple question: why write plays? Tennessee Williams gave his own reason for writing plays when he wrote: "Define it as the passion to create, which is all we know of God." In other words, the dramatic impulse (in its rawest and purest form) is the deepest instinct that we know and our strongest response to life itself- it is a religious impulse. However, in the theatre this instinct is wasted without an audience. For us to have a relevant contemporary American theatre, it is not enough to have important new plays, playwrights, directors, actors, designers and first-rate productions. We also need audiences that are aware of and responsive to the full implications of the plays;
otherwise there can be no real growth, community, or continuity (to use a religious term).
I'm afraid that I am not articulating my position very well, but I can't help but feel that it is the
inability to connect drama with religion that is at the root of many artistic and audience problems today.

I feel that 99% of the issues being brought up in your blog are merely symptoms of a larger problem. This is a problem bigger than NEA funding, new plays, the impact of cinema, or artistic integrity. In The Legend of Bagger Vance, the character of Junuh believes that the only thing at stake as he plays in the final golf tournament is public humiliation. His game only improves when he realizes what is really on the line: his soul. When the larger issue is corrected, the individual and smaller problems all subside. I feel that the theatre is at a similar crossroads right now- that we are not asking the right questions. The simplest question of all is: why do we or should we care? Why do we as a culture persist to write, perform, and attend plays?

Many people answer this questions with pretentious and cliche ridden diatribes that are either heady and cold or superficial and frustrating. Theatre is far too powerful a medium for us to avoid a bit of soul searching when devising an answer to this question.

My frustration with myself and others sometimes makes me wonder whether any of us ever truly devote serious and soul searching time to this question, perhaps the most basic and important question of all...


For my part, I would concur with many of Brian's thoughts, while perhaps defining "religion" to mean the philosophical-moral-ethical basis of our society. I have other thoughts about this that I will probably post later. But thanks to Brian for his contribution. Now, y'all be nice! He's my guest!

Thursday, October 13, 2005

And While I'm Praising George Hunka

Check out this post. While I can't endorse his viewpoint 100%, it is a wonderful description of his take on the purpose of art. It has inspired me to try to describe my own as well, and I can only hope that it will be as clear, coherent, and inspiring as George's. Well worth the read. Great job, George!

OK, Not a Good Metaphor

One of the truly wonderful things about the blogosphere -- and I mean this sincerely -- is that, when you go too far, there are many people who will let you know about it, and give you a chance to right yourself. That happened yesterday with my rape analogy.

Isaac, from Parabasis, was the first to accuse me of "straw manning of people who disagree with you." He goes on: "I can think of no American theater artist who views the audience this way. There are some who have disregard for their audience, some who may even have contempt. But the only artists I can think of who fall into your rapist mentality are film makers and novelists. In fact, the only one who really comes to mind is Lars VonTrier."

Isaac is probably right (not about Lars Von Trier, whose work I don't know) -- the analogy is much too harsh, not to mention tasteless. The artists I am talking about are those who have "contempt" for their audience, as Isaac says -- contempt is not rape. Perhaps a better analogy would be that of pornography, most of which displays a contempt for women that is definitely not making love.

I would have been tempted to disown this line of analogy completely if it weren't for George Hunka's hilarious, yet meaningful, contribution: "On the other hand, all too many playwrights and theater artists, serious or not, want to give lap dances to the audience, and I think that constitutes the greater danger. Can we give NEA grants to those artists instead? The last time I was in an adult entertainment club (and this was a long time ago), a lap dance cost about the same as as a theater ticket, come to think of it. Since then, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the ladies' prices have gone up, while the price of a ticket to "Loot" has stayed the same. Lap dances, last I noticed, were neither government-subsidized or funded by foundation grants. More's the pity, maybe."

So now we have three different analogies for the theatre artist/theatre audience relationship:
  1. Making love
  2. Rape/Pornography
  3. Lap dances

Why am I suddenly feeling like Lenny Bruce?...

At the risk of beating a dead horse, let me try to de-sexualize these metaphors to get at their root. The difference between making love and a lap dance (now, just keep it to yourself, all you jokesters) is the difference between the I-Thou relationship and the I-It relationship described by Buber. (Buber is now spinning in his grave at being included in a discussion of lap dances.) Lap dances are pure economic transactions where the payor buys the services of the payee. There is no equality between the two people involved, no sense of the two as being people sharing anything. But when you make love, there is communion, communication, a recognition of the personhood of both people. Now, if you add in a little hostility to the lap dance, you have pornography -- same refusal of personhood from a different viewpoint.

Perhaps what I am suggesting is that we, as theatre artists, should strive to develop an I-Thou relationship with the audience, and also with the characters we create for the stage that, after all, often represent the members of the audience. Isn't that the genius of Chekhov, of Shakespeare -- that they do not judge their characters, do not refuse to look at the world through the eyes of even the most morally corrupt? There are no fingers pointed at the audience in Chekhov and Shakespeare. We empathize with Macbeth and Iago as much as Macduff and Othello.

Perhaps if we stopped judging the audience, and our characters as stand-ins for the audience, then we would escape both the lap dance and the porn relationship. The problem is, we feel so unappreciated as theatre artists. We end up having to beg our theatrical partners to make love with us, which leads to a certain sense of hostility once the accept.

Matt Freeman asked, "Who are these particular "serious" playwrights you're referring to? Stephen Adly Guirguis? David Mamet? Tony Kushner?" Good question. Of those three, I would only characterize David Mamet as one who displays a hostility toward the audience through his characters. I don't know Guirguis, but when I read a review of his latest play, I thought it sounded very human -- sort of like a 21st century The Iceman Cometh. Kushner, I think, along with August Wilson, are two of the most humane playwrights now writing. All you have to do is look at the depth, and even empathy, that Kushner showed in the way he portrayed the morally despicable character of Roy Cohn to understand the type of playwrighting I admire. Similarly, Wilson shows us the humanity of people we might not agree with -- say, the deeply-flawed character of Troy Maxson.

Mamet, on the other hand, writes heartless melodramas. He wants the audience to choose sides, or stand condemned. The difference between his Glengarry Glen Ross and Miller's Death of a Salesman is that Miller helps us to empathize with Willy Loman, and shows us that it is possible to grant that "attention must be paid" while at the same time realizing that "the man didn't know who he was." But at the end of Glengarry Glen Ross, all we have been shown are characters who are desperate and consequently dishonest. The plot twist is more important than people. We emerge from his plays like a martini: shaken but not stirred. His message is the point of a finger: see how it is???? The same is true of Oleanna -- both characters are presented without any sense of understanding. We're supposed to be interested in the arrangement of the events of the plot, not the characters. We have no insight into either character at the end. Again, we are left with the message: see how it is??? Salesmen are amoral cut-throats; teachers are pompous assholes, and students use postmodernism as a weapon.

So I withdraw my rape analogy, and draw your attention once more to George Hunka's beautiful essay about making love to the audience.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Follow-Up to Previous Post

No sooner had I posted my diatribe than I checked George Hunka's blog "Superfluities" and, to my amazement, found a two-year-old essay about why George had begun writing for theatre again. It is a wonderful post, and I draw particular attention to the following sentence:

"Like in good sex, a good live performance provides release and pleasure and the partners develop a sensual partnered grace; like in bad sex, a bad live performance results in discomfort, boredom and a good deal of squirming."

Now that's a good metaphor. How many playwrights, actors, directors, and designers regard the audience as a partner, someone to collaborate with, someone that we are trying to satisfy in some way? All too many "serious" playwrights and theatre artists have an artistic rape mentality: we're going to get our rocks off humiliating and debasing you, and it's OK because you deserve it for being a dumb, shallow, materialistic asshole wearing a short spiritual skirt. Oh, and you ought to pay for this opportunity, and also the NEA ought to give me a grant so I can do it on a full-time basis.

I highly recommend George's essay as a reminder of the magic, the beauty, and the inspiration of theatre. And then I invite you to examine your latest work of art to see whether your attitude toward the audience has anything to do with what George describes.

On Being Victims

In the mega-bestseller Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, author Stephen R. Covey distinguishes between our "Circle of Concern" (all things that we are concerned about) and the "Circle of Influence" (the subset of the Circle of Concern that we can affect through our actions). Proactive people, Covey says, are those who focus on the things they can affect; non-proactive people focus on blaming things in the Circle of Concern for their situation. Thus, in my post about "New Plays/Old Plays" I asked for us to focus within our Circle of Influence: "How have we (and the generation that preceded us) created this situation? How are we reinforcing it? And is there any way to remedy it?" Notice the word "we." Not "they."

I guess I shouldn't have been surprised that we are unable to do that. As artists, we are so used to blaming other factors for our situation that we have lost all of our ability to reflect on our own actions.

Some examples of this:

Matt Freeman points to modern poetry as an example of "how something once considered culturally relevant and even vital can be slowly pushed into the sidebar and reserved for academics." Note the word "pushed." (Also note the usual bashing of "academics," which I will let pass for now.) He continues: "As long as the market is the be-all-end-all of cultural significance, anything that is not easily sold, marketed, and resold has little chance of being picked up by the mainstream. I don't think new playwrights or producers of new work are intentionally causing themselves to be marginalized (although some don't help their cause.) I believe that we have a system that doesn't reward risk; especially when the fundamental economics are already tenuous." The market. Talk about the Usual Suspects. It isn't anything poets are doing, or anything theatre people are doing (at least not intentionally -- I guess there are some people who intentionally want to be marginalized); it isn't that many contemporary plays combine an adolescent attitude of rebellion with the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual depth of a child's plastic pool; it is the tyranny of the market. And as long as there is a market, I guess we just throw up our hands, right? Art and capitalism can't co-exist? Better move to...jeez, China, I guess.

George Hunka agrees with Matt, saying drama and poetry are marginalized "because both poetry and drama (as well as challenging film, music and television) are regarded as leisure-time activities, and for us today, leisure means escapism. The arts have been conflated with this concept of facile pleasures, which indicates a disregard for the place of arts in an individual's life (see, for example, the very name of the New York Times' "Arts & Leisure" section, as if the two pursuits were the same thing)." Again, to paraphrase Laertes, "Society's to blame." The bloody, three-headed beast "escapism." A whole society filled with people who are shallow goobers -- not us, of course, we artists are the only ones who don't want to escape.

To his credit, George does do some self-reflection (sort of): "We don't mind new things so long as they reach out to us to entertain, to amuse; those that challenge certainly don't, or at least the entertainment or amusement factor takes a back seat to others. Playwrights today, fearing failure, all too readily cater to this impulse to entertain, to make jokes, instead of reaching further into the form--to be more ambitious. Audiences may wish us to be more ambitious, more complex, to take ourselves more seriously--like Chekhov, like Shaw." In this case, all those playwrights willing to sell their souls for a buck are to blame. But I call your attention to Aristotle, who said that the purpose of drama was to "entertain," and to Horace, who said it was to "entertain and enlighten." Even Brecht agreed with Aristotle! And to use Shaw as an example -- come on! Many, many of his plays co-opted popular forms (melodrama, farce, costume play), entertained, and made jokes as a way of putting across his ideas. The Fabian idea of permeation was at work in all but a few of Shaw's plays. We ought to take Shaw as a model, I agree, but see him for what he is: someone who used commercial forms as a way of sneaking Fabian ideas into the mainstream. But to paraphrase Laertes, "Entertainment's to blame."

Joshua James, the founder of the feast, says "Deconstruction's to blame!": "That's another of my points - in college we are all taught to desconstruct texts - but in writing a new play we are not doing that, we are constructing a text - it's a subtle difference, but an important one (remember my Pinter Betrayal story?) especially when at that delicate stage of bringing a text alive onstage when it has never been heard before. "

Come on, guys, you can do better than this. Take a good, hard look at the plays that are being written that are not being appreciated: what's the problem? George: what do you mean by "challenge"? It is a word we use a lot in the theatre when we're justifying ourselves. Does "challenge" mean "piss off"? Does it mean "make a festish of obscurity"? Does it mean "means a lot to me and that's what matters"? And what about that market? Are we saying that people aren't in search of things that add meaning to their lives, and aren't willing to pay for it? They're not in search of art that helps them to make sense of the world a little bit? That helps them to understand their trials a bit, and see those trials as having a larger meaning? That expands their sense of empathy, and self-understanding? Or are we defining the market as being that thing that gives audiences a multiplicity of choices other than being ridiculed and beaten around the spiritual head and neck by us theatre folk?

Until we, as artists, begin to examine our own premises, we will be stuck in a non-proactive posture of helplessness, frustration, and finger-pointing. And the result will be plays of helplessness, frustration, and finger-pointing. Which is a pathetic way for artists to look at the world.

(P.S. I have a cold today, so I am more irritable than usual. But come on, let's raise the level of discourse beyond the banal.)

Some Food for Thought

How do we figure in?
The Experience Economy: Work Is Theatre & Every Business a Stage
The Entertainment Economy : How Mega-Media Forces Are Transforming Our Lives
Experiential Marketing : How to Get Customers to Sense, Feel, Think, Act, Relate

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

The "I Wish I'd Said That" Department

From Frank Conroy's wonderful novel about a musician torn between classical music and jazz, Body and Soul. Claude is a composer who feels he should be "doing better," i.e., getting more recognition by winning prizes. His friend and mentor, Frederick, says:

"I thought you were past this....What you are looking for is authentication, Claude. But you're looking outside, to the system, and that's the wrong place to look. Bad music gets played every day and good music gets ignored. Everybody knows that. Forget about authentication. When it comes to writing music, all you can do is sign on for a way of life, and do the work...Do the work for its own sake, and if that's too hard, well then, don't do it."

Monday, October 10, 2005

New Plays / Old Plays

There is a disturbance in the 'sphere, Luke! A wonderful mini-discussion about the staging of classics and the staging of new plays. It began with playwright Joshua James' October 5th posts "No More Covers." The next day, I chimed in (see below) with an post un-originally entitled "No More Covers." Playwright George Hunka also joined the fray on his Superfluities blog, with a post called "Mad as Hell." This caused Isaac to post "What the Hell Are We Going to Do About It?" on his Parabasis blog, with a request for comments -- several followed. On October 7th, Joshua spoke again with "No More Covers, Part Deux." Which led Rob Grace on October 10th to contribute "Tales from the Other Coast -- Response to Whining" on the Parabasis blog. (If I am missing any other contributions, please let me know and I'll add them.)

I love the blogging world!

In the interest of keeping things going, I would like to contribute the following thought: I teach theatre history. (No, that isn't the thought.) Looking back through the 2500+ years of Western theatre, I have a hard time finding another society where the restaging of old plays took precedence over the staging of new plays. In fact, in most societies, there was nothing deader than an old play. This was also the case in America up until the 1960s. Does this seem weird to you? It does to me.

But it leads me to ask another question, perhaps a bit different those being asked by my fellow bloggers: what is it about modern plays that makes theatres (and theatregoers) reluctant to attend them? Why does an audience that regularly floods to see brand new movies avoid new plays? Doesn't this seem counter-intuitive?

Following my usual preference, I encourage self-examination rather than accusation. How have we (and the generation that preceded us) created this situation? How are we reinforcing it? And is there any way to remedy it?

Continuing the Conversation with alwaysa bridesmaid

alwaysabridesmaid has contributed a comment to my "Evidence of Confusion" post below. I am not going to paste it all here, but I recommend that you read it in its entirety. Instead, I will respond to particular parts of her ideas.

She begins "I am so enjoying/learning from this conversation!," a feeling that I share. One of the reason I have created this blog is to begin conversations. In addition, it allows me to put my ideas into concrete form and find out what is leading to misinterpretation, and what is being found arguable. So comments are doubly helpful for me.

The spirit of this blog can be most fully expressed by quoting from Athol Fugard's wonderful play, MASTER HAROLD...and the boys. After a wonderful speech in which Sam talks about the ballroom dance contest as a metaphor for a "dream about a world in which accidents don't happen," Hally, who is enthralled with Sam's "vision," asks: "But is that the best we can do, six finalists dreaming about the way it should be?" To which Sam replies, "I don't know. But it starts with that. Without the dream we won't know what we are going for."

I know about "the way things are." I lived in NYC, not just once, but twice. I was a freelance director, and continue to occasionally direct professionally (most recently, an Equity production of The Tempest in Minneapolis). I have many friends who are professional actors, directors, and stage managers in NYC and elsewhere. My ideas do not come out of ignorance of "the way things are." Rather, they come from its opposite: being alarmed about the status quo, and its deleterious effects on the future of the theatre. I cannot read something like what alwaysabridesmaid writes -- that "Hardly anyone can [pay a living wage for anything but small cast shows]. Write for 4 people and one set, or you're out of the game these days" -- without feeling that the theatre is shrinking away (the number of one-person shows in regional theatres and even on Broadway is increasing alarmingly) and that it will soon, with a small pop, disappear completely as some "theatre" figures out a way to do plays without even a single actor. The miniaturization of the American theatre is quite alarming.

As I mention elsewhere, I teach, and it is impossible to look young people in the eyes and encourage them to make their lives in the theatre unless you believe that such a path is possible and worthwhile.

But I also know that it is very difficult to think "outside the box" when you are simply struggling to survive. It is hard to think about the form of your swimming strokes when you are in danger of drowning in the ocean. If you want to make a living as an actor or a designer or a director, it is probably best to adjust yourself to the status quo and figure out how to make it work for you. Which leaves it to people like me -- people who know the theatre, have worked in the theatre, but are not reliant on the theatre to put food in their mouths -- to spend some time looking at the larger picture and propose alternatives -- to dream, as Fugard puts it.

And thus this blog.

alwaysabridesmaid writes: "I think there are still a lot of communities where people expect theatre to be about that experience you wax rhapsodic about of seeing someone they know up there -- because a bulk of their theatrical experience is made up of piling into school auditoriums to see productions of The Music Man. They are supporting the "good for them for getting up there" mentality, rather than going to see how theatre will affect them. Therefore, they won't see anything they don't know anyone in, and they certainly don't want to pay a lot of money to do it. (It's their dentist up there playing Stanley Kowalski! They know he makes good money; they give it to him.)This perception leads to the neglect of theatre artists as paid workers." A bit later, she continues: I'm not saying it's the only place in the country where that's true, but I know where I grew up, in an Asheville-sized city in Central PA, my family only went when I was playing Daisy Mae at the high school or a Hot Box Girl in Guys and Dolls at the Dinner Theatre.Now, the main theatre in town recently switched to an Equity theatre and my stepmother finally, after 50 years of living in that town, signed them up for a season subscription. Did she know that they had switched to a LORT-D contract and were now casting professionals (yes, mostly from NY)? No. But she did know that all of a sudden the plays they saw there got a lot better, now that our pharmacist/mayor wasn't up there trying to play Marc Antony.

Let's be very clear: I am not saying that the theatre would be better off if dentists played Stanley or the mayor played Marc Antony (although I see nothing wrong with that, it is just a different animal entirely). Training is important. What I am saying is that professional actors should become a part of the community in which they live. That people outside the artistic enclave should get to know them as human beings, not simply as artists. People are committed to other people, not institutions. With more and more entertainment options available, many of which do not require that you even leave the house, a little human touch might rouse people off of the couch. Without it, theatre is just another entertainment option -- and an expensive one at that. But if a regional theatre was more like a local bar where, ala Cheers, everybody knows your name -- and also, you know everybody's name -- there might be more loyalty, more commitment to attending. It is impossible to establish such relationships with people who are here for 6 weeks and then head for the next gig.

Which, of course, brings us to the idea of the resident company. alwaysabridesmaid writes: "There is only one non-musical based theatre in Asheville that pays a living wage (NC Stage Co.) They would have to base their entire season around the idea of casting me in order for me to make a living acting in Asheville..." Yes, this is true. They would have to commit to you as an artist, and a member of the artistic community. Would that be hard? Sure. But there are a lot of hard things that are worthwhile. It is hard maintaining a marriage, raising a baby, having a democracy instead of an oligarchy -- but all of these have been judged by many as being worth it for other reasons that are held to be important. Would a living wage and constant work benefit you as an actor? I suspect so, but you'd have to answer that yourself. Would having you as part of the Asheville community, participating in the life of the community, forming bonds with the people -- would that be beneficial to NCStage? I suspect so. Would it require thinking differently about terms of employment and the way of doing beusiness? Definitely. Is ti impossible? No.

I teach theatre history, and there are a lot of models for doing theatre that might be adapted. For instance, Shakespeare's theatre. There was a three-tier structure of shareholders, hirelings, and apprentices. Shareholder bought into the theatre and were part owners. They were paid a percentage of the box office according to their percentage of ownership. Hirelings were paid a specific wage to do a specific job. Apprentices were given room and board, and they could move up the ladder as they became more fully trained. There was a fourth position: householder, which meant you were part owner of the theatre real estate itself. Right now, most people in the theatre are hirelings, but what would happen if you were a shareholder in NCStage? How would this change your relationship to its operation? How would it change the way that productions were chosen? How would it change the finances of the theatre?

I'm not saying that Shakespeare's model is the Right One. What I am saying is that, until we start thinking more creatively about every aspect of the way we do theatre, the theatre will continue to shrink and sputter.

We create "the way things are" every day by the way we think and behave. What if we thought differently? What if we dreamed?

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 ...