Friday, November 04, 2005

The "I Wish I'd Said That" Department

The nature writer Barry Lopez was on the UNC - Asheville campus several weeks ago, and while I didn't have the opportunity to hear him speak, a local newspaper article quoted some of his words that had special resonance for the things I have been exploring lately.

He said that everywhere he traveled, he asked people about the meaning of the word they used for storyteller, and his favorite was from the Inuit: "It means, roughly translated, 'person who creates the atmosphere in which wisdom reveals itself.' The idea is that we are already aware, but if a writer gives a structure or atmosphere that can remind us of the wisdom we already have, that helps."

What a wonderful definition! The storyteller isn't wiser than his audience, but rather is able to evoke and remind the audience of the wisdom that is already within them. The storyteller doesn't create meaning, but rather creates an atmosphere in which meaning is revealed. Now, that is a positive, vibrant, and profound relationship between storyteller and audience, it seems to me.

He also wondered why we feel compelled to address the topic of technology in modern life, and he answered: "It's because something's missing for most of us. We suspect that our fascination with, our dependence upon and our vociferous defense of technology is leading us further and further from the things that matter -- from conscience, from reverence, from the capacity to love and the capacity to accept love."

When I write about storytellers counteracting or balancing the dominant zeitgeist of the age, this is what I mean -- trying to return people to their own wisdom that is based in conscience, reverence, and the capacity to love and accept love.

He goes on to talk about the pace of modern life, saying that it is damaging the pssobility for deep thought by its constant emphasis on speed: "We have taught ourselves to respond to that pace by not going deep anywhere in our lives. We concentrate on getting ahead, on moving forward, not pausing to go deep anywhere -- in love or imagination. Forgive me the generalization, but we have become a detached people." Again, perhaps the storyteller can counteract that tendency. Perhaps we can create theatre that will slow people down and encourage them to go deep, and by doing so reveal their own wisdom.

I wish I had been there to here Lopez speak. I know that I will try to find some of his books to read.

On Directing

Way back on November 1st, George Hunka asked a series of questions about directors:

How do they see themselves as creative artists? How would they articulate what they bring to a script? Where does interpretation end and their own emotional creativity begin? What do they look for in a script, by a living or a dead playwright, and how do they know that they have something to say themselves through putting those words on the stage? And then, how do they do so? What is the arc of their own creative, intellectual, emotional, psychic work through the production process?

I was very flattered to be included as someone who should respond to this, but have been too busy this week to respond. Even now, I will have to keep it short, as I am about ready to leave for the North Carolina Theatre Conference Gathering to recruit theatre students and talk about my play analysis book. Isaac does an amazing and articulate job answering George's query, and I feel all that is necessary from me is a little embroidery around the edges.

Isaac mentions an acquaintance of his that feels that the director is an interpretive artist, not a creative artist. Like Isaac I would tend to disagree with that. My broad definition of a creative artist is someone who transforms one thing into another in an aesthetic way. For instance, a painter transforms a vision of a landscape into a painting of that landscape. Along the way, that initial vision is supplemented by the artist's soul/mind/being/personality, and in that way it is transformed. From three dimensions to two (in the case of a painting), from the imagination to the page (in the case of a novel or play), from the page to the body and voice (in the case of the director).

However, unlike the painter painting a landscape, the director's starting point is (usually) another work of art created by another artist. This requires a different relationship between artist-as-director and source material. I think the director should show respect for the fact that his starting point is another person's work. And to me, it doesn't matter whether the playwright is alive or dead. (Isn't one definition of ethics "doing the right thing even if nobody is looking"?)

However, I think there needs to be a separation between the "local" in the play, and the "archetypal." In other words, the specific images in a script (descriptions of the set, costumes, characters, movement, etc.) and the more archetypal aspects. As a director, I feel it is OK for me to change blocking, arrangement of the set pieces, etc, because they represent the "local" imagination of the playwright that is connected to the specific traditions of his time and place. But rearranging scenes, changing the story to emphasize my own ideas -- no. That's just lazy. Lazy, because ultimately, if you want to say something different than what the play says, you should either find another play or write your own.

What do I look for in a script? This changes from year to year, according to what I think my audience "needs" at a particular moment. But generally, I am looking for a play that has a voice, a body, a mind, and a heart. In other words, I want dialogue that lifts a little off the earth, that is unique; I want the play to also move through and occupy space in a dynamic and meaningful way (the problem I have with plays by Shaw or Coward, even though I love them, is that they are really most effective as stand-and-deliver plays); I want the play to have some complexity in its thought -- I tend to dislike issues or ideas presented in a manner that leaves the audience no room to examine their own opinions; and I want the play to pack some sort of emotional punch.

When I read a play, and it is a play that speaks to me, I see it play out in my head as I read it. It is like the page disappears, and I begin to watch the action like a spectator. This is the sign to me that I have something to bring to the play.

Unlike Isaac, who says his strength is staging, my strength is my ear. I can hear rhythms, sense the correct lengths for pauses, understand the structure of a punchline or a climactic moment. I also have a very good understanding of a play's overall structure. In a lot of ways, I see the most important thing a director does as being the creation of what I think of as "moments of emphasis." I think it is my job to make sure that the audience hears and sees clearly those six to ten moments during the play when the most significant actions occur, and help them to understand how they hook together to create meaning. I spend a lot of time working on those moments, and then building to them, setting them up.

I have a love of traditional structure -- plays that resolve with a satisfying final chord. I'm not a fan of obscurity -- I think the worst thing a spectator can say as they leave the theatre is "do you know what happened?" I want them clear on what happened, and to be arguing about why it happened, or whether it had to happen that way, or whether they agree or disagree with the action that characters took.

I think theatre artists should stay out in the lobby and talk to the audience as they leave, but I don't do it very much myself. After a show I have directed is over, I feel very exposed and naked and I tend to scurry away. I'm not sure what that is about, but that is how I feel.

I have worked with playwrights who were in residence three times in my life -- when I was a student at the University of Minnesota, I co-founded a new play festival and directed a show each year for the two years I was there. Most recently, I did a show called "The Frankenstein Project" that was created from the ground up by a team of four student playwrights -- in 5-1/2 months we wrote the script, cast it, rehearsed it, and performed it. All three times, I have enjoyed working with a playwright present. However, I tend to treat their plays the same way I would those of a dead playwright: I treat the text as finished, and it is my job to make it speak. I don't ask playwrights for rewrites, nor do I tend to ask them what certain lines "mean."

So that's my general responses. I tend not to think of myself as a director, although I direct every year. But I think Isaac's responses are more thoughtful, passionate, and informed. But thanks for asking, George!

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Church Model: Another Example

From Tim, who posts in the comments section:

I'm intrigued by your "Attempt at Synthesis" ideas, particularly because parts of it have been tried before -- and worked. You mentioned that we should think of theatre as an "alliance" or a "guild." How about a "troupe?"

I was a member of an improv comedy troupe. We owned our own theatre space, which was indeed open to the public when shows weren't happening. We taught comedy defensive driving there. We opened the space to corporate offsites. People came in, learned about our shows, came back that night.Members of the troupe were available to speak at businesses. You could hire us to put on a show at your grandchild's birthday party. You met the artistic director in the lobby before the show. You could mingle with the troupe at the bar after the show. Audience members were loyal, came back a lot, often ended up auditioning for the troupe.

Best of all, we weren't stuck doing improv all the time. We could leverage the recognition we got from being well-known in the community to put on serious stage plays, make films, just about anything. (Not unlike seeing a movie starring Will "Saturday Night Live" Ferrell.)

We didn't try the economic model you mentioned -- but I've always thought more theatres should do more of the sort of outreach you discussed. It creates a community. It brings in audiences. It works.

Monday, October 31, 2005

More on Truth

George Hunka writes:

I don't know about that "truth," Scott, as something that we as artists are the sole bearers of, or whether that's even the way in which "truth" inheres in our experience. Is it not in the process itself rather than in anything we can tape up on the wall next to our computers? And isn't the theatrical communion a process of experience, by its very nature ephemeral--something that can't be written down?If our theater does not do BOTH--adhere and explore traditions, as well as adhere and explore ourselves, to go places where we haven't been experientially, to think thoughts we've been afraid to think or express (and in this is the risk)--it will be dead and remain so. Our technique forms the discipline we need to communicate these otherwise formless, and therefore sloppy and self-serving, messages. Truth? I don't think so. A new way of thinking about ourselves, a new process with which our consciousness can contemplate the world? Much better.My recent play was the most successful of my career so far, and a large part of that was that I revealed far more of myself than I had in my previous work--a risk, and it paid off (not that I can expect that every time).

I would agree that artists are not the "sole bearer" of truth, and I don't think that Edmundson would say that there is a single Truth that all artists should be trying to convey. Rather, we put forward a truth, our truth, and find out whether it has any resonance with others around us. Milan Kundera speaks about novels being populated by "experimental selves." Edmundson writes: "These selves are persons whom we might be or become, or who signify aspects of the self. The novelist -- with our assistant -- sends them forth into the world, to see what the world will make of them, and they of it. The are the fictive human embodiments of what Nietzsche would call thought experiments. These selves are not after a long-lasting truth. Rather, they engage in an inquiry...[P]art of what these characters learn is that no way of seeing things is final. They don't look, and cannot look, for a final resting place sanctioned by a larger authority than themselves. As Kundera puts it, 'The world of one single Truth and the relative, ambiguous world of the novel are molded of entirely different substances. Totalitarian Truth excludes relativity, doubt, duestioning; it can never accomodate what I would call the spirit of the novel.'"

But to say that there is not a single truth is not the same as abandoning the search for truth entirely -- even if it is a temporary truth. Plays encourage the audience to reflect on their lives, on the way they live them, and on the values they hold. A play needs to give them a solid enough viewpoint that they can bounce against it, and work with it. When Bosola in The Duchess of Malfi, after performing a particularly heinous act, says "Look you, the stars still shine," he is making a moral proposition: no matter how awful human beings act, the world continues as before and God doesn't care. As an audience, we must weigh that viewpoint, try it on for size, see how such an idea would affect us and our behavior. We ask ourselves whether such a statement is true, and (as importantly) whether it is true for us (cf Goethe).

The "new way of thinking about ourselves" that you propose as a subject is a truth -- a proposed truth. We put an idea out into the world and find out whether it has any traction. And while your latest play may have been more successful because you risked putting more of yourself into it, if what you put into it didn't speak to anyone else, if it had not "truth" within it, then it would have been less successful. Your personal risk is important because from it you created a better play, but from the viewpoint of the audience your personal risk is irrelevant -- what they care about (it seems to me) is whether your play says anything to them, or says anything about them, or helps them see life from a different perspective.

When I wrote about Truth, I was encouraging artists to raise their sights higher than craftsmanship and appeal, and aim toward creating a work of art that bangs on the Big Drum in our soul and makes it resonate deeply.

Risking Truth

George Hunka over at Superfluities has a nice post about theatre criticism, and what theatre artists should be doing in order to raise the level of theatre criticism. He concludes:

I'm not saying at all that most theater artists don't take their task seriously, but when I look at the me-too-ism of so many seasons previewed in the last issue of American Theatre, where comfortable ersatz-Ibsenite realism continues to be all the rage (so long as there's a children's theater program to go with it, as well as a familiar Shakespeare like A Midsummer Night's Dream and a Christmas Carol adaptation), I wonder if we playwrights, directors and actors wouldn't benefit by paying heed to Michael Coveney's call to critics: "... let's hear it once more for experience, knowledge and seriousness. ... What is needed is a new group of younger critics [here, read artists] who will combine the enthusiasm of the aficionado with the rigour of the informed taskmaster." We should take theater more seriously and take more risks ourselves. It has to be new, dangerous and affecting to us before it can be new, dangerous and affecting to our audience, whoever they are. Every time we do a show, we should ask ourselves: "Is this new to me? Am I risking something personal here? Am I raising the stakes for the theater, the audience, for my collaborators, for myself?" This means taking to heart much of what SpearBearer suggests when he urges us to reconsider not the "theater" part of a "life in the theater," but the "life." Doing that, the theater might take care of itself.

I really like the idea of "experience, knowledge, and seriousness," as well as the combination of "enthusiasm" and "rigour." What I'm not certain about is how George got from that to "danger" and "risk." I have nothing against danger and risk, mind you, but at the same time I don't see them as synonymous with "experience, knowledge, and seriousness." I've been reading Mark Edmundson's marvelous book Why Read? Edmundson begins a segment called "Truth" with the following:

"Literature and truth? The humanities and truth? Come now. What could be more ridiculous? What could be more superannuated than that?

"We read literature now for other reasons. We read to assert ourselves, to sharpen our analytical faculties. We read to debunk the myths. We read to know the other. We read,. sometimes, for diversion. But read for truth? Absurd. The whole notion of truth was dispatched long ago, tossed on the junk heap of history along with God and destiny and right and all the rest. Read for truth? Why do that?

"For the simple reason that for many people, the truth -- the [Emersonian] circle, the vision of experience -- that they've encountered through socialization is inadequate. It doesn't put them into a satisfying relation to experience. That truth does not give them what they want. It does not help them make a contribution to their society. It does not, to advance another step, even allow for a clear sense of the tensions between themselves and the existing social norms, the prevailing doxa....I believe most people who go to literature and the liberal arts out of more than mere curiosity are in this group, demand other, better ways to apprehend the world -- that is, ways that are better for them. And the best repository for those other ways are the works of the poets...and of the painters and composers and novelists and historians. Here one may hope for a second chance, a way to begin the game again, getting it closer to right this time around."

Perhaps the risk we need to take is expressing the truth as clearly, powerfully, and deeply as we possibly can. Perhaps we can use our "experience" and "knowledge" (and dare I add "wisdom"?) to express this truth. I suspect that there isn't an artist who doesn't feel he or she is expressing truth, but maybe simply setting that as our goal (tape it to the wall next to our computer?) would remind us of our purpose as artists.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

A Few Questions from Matt Freeman About the New Model

Matt Freeman asks a couple good questions in response to my attempt at a new model for theatre based on church. He asks:

'Another question I have for this new model is "Would it be sustainable to support Equity Actors?"

I think there are two questions here. One is: will Actors Equity support this model? My gut response is: no. Actors Equity is mired in an industrial model of theatre production that was needed in the past, but that has become hopelessly rigid in today's circumstances. It regards theatre not as an art, but as an industry. The effect of Equity on the theatre is a much larger question, and perhaps a later discussion.

The second question might be: would it be sustainable to support actors (and directors and playwrights and designers). I don't know. It might. What I do know is that the current model doesn't provide sustainable support for Equity actors. A review of the annual report from equity shows that most Equity actors are underemployed, and making very little money each year. what makes this unacceptable is that, not only aren't theatre artists making money, but they also aren't having an opportunity to work, and it is only through work that artists improve. If you want the rundown on the bleak 'indie theatre" scene in NYC, read Josh James' post at his Daily Dojo, and to see this isn't just a NYC phenomenon, read Jess Wells' post at Asheville Green Room. The New Model may or may not provide a living wage, but it definitely would provide an opportunity for consistent work.

I also wonder whether there might be a greater inclination for foundations to fund such an endeavor, especially while the model is new.

Matt also notes that I seem "to find the idea of pure marketing a bit distasteful.What is it about simply saying "we need to sell more tickets and here is a way to do it" that makes theater artists, especially the most earnest of us, so incredibly uncomfortable?"

I don't find marketing distasteful, I find it expensive. When I was Chair of the Drama Dept, I handled advertising and marketing for our productions, and each year I found the cost getting higher and higher. In fact, we were spending almost as much money on advertising as we were on the shows themselves! Since we are edu-theatre, it didn't matter that much, but how can non-profit theatres continue to absorb those costs? What I am trying to figure out is an alternative that allows a larger percentage of the budget to be spent on art and artists.

One might consider this a response to SpearBearer Down Left's recent post "Is Theatre a relic?"

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 ...