Thursday, November 10, 2005

The Return of Zachary Mannheimer

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

"I'd like to comment on a few of your comments to clear some things up that seem to have gone astray...I'd like to get back to the original topic at hand.

First of all - I AM saying that we need to leave NYC. No, I am not holding a gun to anyone's head, but I do believe that we need to go. And I'll tell you why...

Matt says: "Zack wants those of us who live in New York to bring our enlightened sensiblities to the world outside NYC. I'm just not sure they need us to do that..."

While I thank Matt for his kind words, I believe that he is misrepresenting what I am trying to say, and perhaps it is my fault for the way I intended my ideas. I don't want "intelligent" NYers to take our "smart" ideas to the "stupid" people of the outside world. What I do want is for ideas to be shared, and mixed. I believe that I am right, the way I live my life and produce my theatre, etc...and those in Kanasas or wherever believe they are right, the way they live their lives and produce their art and whatnot. The problem I see is that there is no national discourse on this, or rather, no local, community-level discourse happening. I don't think either of us are right - what is right is in the middle - and I want to find that. I believe this is due to the fact that over the last 50 years, like-minded people have consistently moved to parts of the country where their are others who think and live like they do. I believe this is has largely led to the current red vs. blue mentality of the country as a whole. Just as there is no discourse when people come to see my shows and nod in agreement with, say, an anti-war sentiment, there is no discourse when we when we discuss the problems of the country in bars where the people having the conversation agree that Bush is great, or Bush is bad, or any other large topic debated in bars. We need to mix the pool.

Now - why should we do this? Becuase, I believe, it is the artists' responsibility to bring new ideas to new people. That is our "job". I am sick and tired of producing politically leftist theatre for politically leftist people. If you do not produce this type of theatre, and if you are not of a leftist state of mind - then I say - STAY in NYC. Otherwise, time to leave.

As theatre artists we understand that conflict is what creates a successful scene, let us now project this into the entire theatergoing experience. While many of our projects call for social change on a massive level, we must understand that the city we play in is the closest pinnacle of what we preach. Therefore, if our mission goes a step further, and we believe that we are a service to the community we play in just as much as we are an emotional and physical outlet, the next logical step is to play in front of an audience who can teach us just as much as we can teach them. A symbiotic relationship with our audience is what we strive for, and we will see the most results through a relationship with audiences elsewhere than where we congregate in vast artistic communities.

Josh hates the fact that he can't have 2 dudes kissing on stage in Iowa. So what do you do? You say fuck it and move to NY? Shouldn't you work on trying to solve that problem rather than abondoning it and letting it fester, getting worse and worse as the years go on? You don't like the fact that you don't have freedom to put on these types of plays in these places - then go and create that freedom, and then put them on. I do not see the point of producing another play where 2 guys kiss each other in NYC when almost every play from Off-Off to Broadway has some sort of "shocking" thing like that in it that would not play to those in Iowa. Isn't this arrogance? And you may say there's nothing wrong with that - that it is your choice - you want to get paid to be a writer where you can have the freedom to produce your work. Great. But the people coming to see your work are not your target audience, unless, as I've suggested before - you don't care about your audience and you simply want a paycheck.

We have to think about our work on a larger scale, and Scott has said this again and again and I thank him for his unwavering support of my ideas. There are larger causes out there than being a professional writer, I'm sorry, and I for one have no interest in that. The system is fucked up - we all know this - you guys write about it on your blogs everyday. And then people like me read them - and I agree with you already - so what's the point of writing about them if you're not doing anything about them?

Fact of the matter is: We must change the way we do theatre, and the places we do theatre. Period. Otherwise, I agree with Scott that theatre as we know it will die very quickly, and then we're all screwed. We have to act - now. And it will take a great deal of sacrifice. Yes, you will not get paid for a while and yes, you will lose your freedom for a while, and yes - your comforts will be displaced for a while - but it is for the greater good. Artists are idealists - otherwise you're just a whore. We must be striving for something larger at all times.

I want a real discourse - like this one, perhaps - where we are talking from different perspectives - not the same. I want to take my ideas to Wichita because I know people there will disagree with them. I want to strenghten my ideas by debating with them - because I know I'm not right about everything, and they will help me to understand that. And then I improve my ideas based on their suggestions. And vice-versa for them.

What it comes down to for me - this country is operating extremely wrong - and we, as artists, can do something about that - but not if we stay in our big cities hiding away from those "hicks who just don't get it." Theatre must have an audience, and don't you want the best audience? Or do you just want people to come see your shows and comment on the artistic values of it - when clearly you're after a larger point? I don't want my ego stroked - I want to make a change. "

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

From the Sports World

From's "Tuesday Morning Quarterback," by Gregg Easterbrook. Gregg Easterbrook is a senior editor of The New Republic, a contributing editor of The Atlantic Monthly and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. His latest book, The Progress Paradox, was released in December, 2003 by Random House.

What Hollywood Could Learn from the NFL
Film types are bemoaning a bad year at the box office. They blame DVDs, Internet piracy, El Nino: Everything but Hollywood itself. Tuesday Morning Quarterback suggests the box-office slump is a rational market response to a string of lousy movies. Major studios now assume that if you take a couple of brand-name stars, put them in a plot that makes no sense, have them read listlessly from a terrible script -- then add cleavage and explosions -- millions will pay $8 to sit through the result. The governing Hollywood premise is that typical ticket buyers are so incredibly stupid as to lack any ability to tell a good movie from a bad one. Actually, movie patrons are getting more sophisticated about flicks all the time, exactly as Hollywood dumbs down. Should we be surprised that steadily fewer people want to watch? Anyone selling a discretionary item, entertainment and sports among them, must never lose sight of the fact that quality is the essence of the product. Food and clothing are necessities; people don't have to have movie or sports tickets, so buyers line up only if they get their money's worth. In an era of 500 channels, the NFL continues to set records for gate attendance and ratings because product quality, namely the games themselves, remains the league's focus. Product quality seems last on the list of Hollywood's concerns. Which leads us to ...

Shoot to Kill the Hitman Characters
Ben Affleck, Tom Cruise, Jennifer Garner, Samuel Jackson, Angelina Jolie, Jennifer Lopez, Brad Pitt, Pierce Brosnan, Uma Thurman and John Travolta have played hit men or women who will murder anyone, even the helpless, for money. The number of current box-office stars who have portrayed hired killers in major-studio films probably exceeds the number of paid professional assassins in the real world. You don't have to be Dr. Freud to speculate that cinema stars, steeped in a Hollywood culture obsessed with personal power, subconsciously fantasize about actually being able to kill whomever they please. But doesn't it strike you as strange that so many big-name stars are willing portray characters who commit murder without compunctions? Can it be coincidence the public is becoming turned off to the movies at the very time so many stars revel in morally vacant roles? And if Hollywood won't show smoking because viewers are impressionable, how come the movie industry eagerly glamorizes murder after murder after murder after murder? Which leads us to ...

Maybe Someone Can Invent an Electronic Device That Stops USA Today From Saying Murder Is "Fun"
Recently, George Bush signed the Family Movie Act, legalizing electronic gizmos that delete violent scenes from privately owned movie DVDs. These devices will be busy! Sin City, a recent big-studio movie shown in suburban shopping malls, was praised by USA Today as "genuine fun." Sin City begins with a beautiful woman being murdered by a man she just met. The movie continues to dozens of graphic depictions of people being murdered, tortured or decapitated, and ends with the man of the opening scene capturing another beautiful woman and grinning as he prepares to murder her. Genuine fun! Of course, sometimes movie violence is justified; for instance, The Pianist was sickeningly violent and rightly so, as its subject was the Holocaust. Usually movie violence is just cheap exploitation and injurious to young viewers. Studies show the more cinematic depictions of violence to which a child is exposed, the more likely the child is to commit violent acts in adulthood: See this statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics, summarizing research on the relationship between film violence and actual violence.

The First Amendment protects moviemakers' rights to produce almost anything they wish. But just because it is legal to make films that glorify violence doesn't mean studios should do so; lots of things are legal and also irresponsible. If Hollywood doesn't want people buying gizmos to zap gratuitous bloodshed out of movies, there is a simple solution -- don't glamorize violence to begin with. (my italics added in the above paragraph)

On Hegemony

Apparently several of my fellow bloggers feel that I have personally insulted them with my last post, especially the following comment: "It sounds as if you are weekend warriors working day jobs to pay for your theatre habit." I really did not intend it to be insulting (argumentative, yes; insulting, no). Josh wrote this: “"I want to write for a living. I don't want to be a weekend warrior, like the cover bands I've written about in "No More Covers" - driving a truck during the week and doing theatre on the weekend." My use of “Weekend Warriors” came directly from him, and while he seems to have meant it in a belittling way, I did not intend it to be so. What I meant was that, whether you are in NYC or Iowa, most artists are working another job in order to pay the rent because this country doesn't support its artists. Working a job is hard, it is admirable, indeed it is almost heroic! But you’re doing the same thing in NY that you’d do in Iowa, so there must be some other issue that is keeping artists there, and the argument needs to go there.
Nobody is asking anybody to defend your choice to be in NYC, nor are we trying to get you to move. I think I said that directly somewhere. (That said, I think that you all are demanding that Zachary and I defend out decision NOT to live in NYC.) The discussion isn’t about individuals, it is about a larger issue. By defending your decision to be in NYC, at least the way it is being defended, you all are insulting Zachary (and indirectly, me) for making another choice.
I think NYC is a fine place – it is not a place I care to live in, but it is fine for others – my co-author lives in NY, and he and his wife wouldn’t live anywhere else. Where I draw the line is when we hold NYC up as the only place where worthwhile art is occurring, when we say that nothing is worthwhile until it has been blessed by NYC, where NYC is held up as the only place in the country where it is possible for an artist to make a living doing his art. I think this country is too big to have a theatrical center. And my experience of the quality of the offerings in NYC doesn’t live up to the hype – most of the theatre is just as crappy as non-NYC places, just crappy in a different way.

Zachary posted an interesting essay that proposed a particular approach in a non-personal way. If you read most of the comments, they are very personal: here’s why I live in NYC. It wasn’t me who made the conversation personal, but those comments are what I had to work with. Furthermore, I think there was a very dismissive tone to many of the comments concerning Zachary’s ideas. Look at this quotation from Josh’s post: “I did theatre in Iowa and Nebraska, I came here to pitch in the big show.” Now, what is the implied statement here? That anything but NY isn’t “the Big Show”? That is dismissive and vaguely insulting. He goes on: “Hey, there's nothing wrong with people that want to be big fish in a small pond - but it's not what I, myself, want out of this life” – good so far: couched in personal terms, “I-statements,” but then: “I want to do it for a living. As Matt pointed out, you simply cannot do that from Bumfuck Iowa. You can't. If you could, I'd still be there.” First of all, “Bumfuck Iowa” is an insult. Do a websearch and see how it is used – here is a sample: “So, here I am in Bumfuck, Iowa, sitting in a Barnes and Noble that caters to dairy farmers looking for information on teat sucking machines, and chunky housewives needing a book that'll get them wet, that will make them feel like they married Buck Hardass, or Thor Meatwand. I'm sitting here, solidifying my legacy and preaching to heathens, telling them that my biography of King Wilhelm I is a great read.” There is no respect in that term, and it says that Zachary’s decision to go in that direction shows he is a fool. Once you’re past that word, the larger statement requires support. Perhaps Josh couldn’t make it in Iowa, but Megan Terry made it in Nebraska. In other words, don’t inflate personal experience into global generalities.

I guess the larger point is that New Yorkers regularly denigrate and insult non-New Yorkers, painting them as unsophisticated rubes who require remedial artistic classes taught by NY Elites. You guys don’t even know you’re doing it. You use phrases like “the Big Show” and “Bumfuck Iowa” and don’t even notice the underlying ideology. The issue revolves around hegemony, a term used by Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci “to denote the predominance of one social class over others (e.g. bourgeois hegemony). This represents not only political and economic control, but also the ability of the dominant class to project its own way of seeing the world so that those who are subordinated by it accept it as 'common sense' and 'natural'. Commentators stress that this involves willing and active consent. Common sense, suggests Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, is 'the way a subordinate class lives its subordination.' I am trying to counteract NYC hegemony – I no longer accept as “common sense” and “natural” the idea that NYC has to be the center of the theatrical world. Comments that try to say that "that's just the way it is" are using ideologically-charged "common sense" to maintain hegemony.

I’m sorry that I came across as personally attacking people. I think it is great you live in NYC, and I hope that we can have a beer the next time I visit, which may be soon. I am talking about a larger issue, one that I care deeply about. And one that seems to be almost invisible in the consciousness of New Yorkers.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

A Few Comments of My Own

I'm going to start with a few little things that regularly tick me off, and that are surfacing in this discussion. A few quotes:

"Hey, there's nothing wrong with people that was to be big fish in a small pond - but it's not what I, myself, want out of this life - I want to do it for a living. As Matt pointed out, you simply cannot do that from Bumfruck Iowa. You can't. If you could, I'd still be there."

"You don't go to Alaska to harvest tropical fruit.In that analogy, it's clear when I say Alaska, I mean Zack's Wichita, and when I say Tropical Fruit, I mean artistic praise. Let's just assume that when a producer in the great plains sees "produced in New York" on a play's resume, they're more likely to take a look at it than when they say "ran for ten years in Wyoming."

"I cannot find that in my hometown of Boyertown, PA, where baseball is the order of the day."

"That being said, I also feel that we're underestimating the popularity of theater outside of New York. Anywhere you'll find a public high school, I'm sure you'll find at least one musical being produced."

What ticks me off about these comments? The insulting assumption that once you get west of the Hudson River, the audience is comprised of a bunch of unwashed, uneducated, and unenlightened hicks whose idea of theatre is a high school musical. Words like "Bumfruck Iowa" are insulting and belittling. Just because they don't live in the concrete canyons of NYC doesn't mean that they have no appreciation for or understanding of quality theatre. And so for all you New Yorkers who think a 100-zip code is proof of superior intellectual and aesthetic sensibilities, I say: get over yourself.

Phew! OK, that felt good. The above gripe goes along with my other gripe, which is the insulting way that people from the South are represented in popular culture and even the news media. But that's for another day...

What is most interesting to me about the rest of the discussion we have been having is the way it is bringing to the surface previously buried assumptions.

I'm very puzzled: several of you say you are living in NYC because you want to be a professional writer. A sample of these quotations:

"I want to write for a living. I don't want to be a weekend warrior, like the cover bands I've written about in "No More Covers" - driving a truck during the week and doing theatre on the weekend."

"I want to be compensated for my work, I deserve to be compensated for my work - my work is worthy of that. "

"I do want to have a successful career and when you want that, you go where the industry is thriving. You don't go to Alaska to harvest tropical fruit.In that analogy, it's clear when I say Alaska, I mean Zack's Wichita, and when I say Tropical Fruit, I mean artistic praise. "

Now, tell me: are you all making a living doing theatre in NYC? Didn't Josh just post an eloquent and passionate article about how much doing play's in NYC costs him? And how difficult it is getting to produce work in NYC? It doesn't sound as if you all are making a living doing theatre. It sounds as if you are weekend warriors working day jobs to pay for your theatre habit.

So there must be something else. Obviously, it isn't the actuality of making a living, it is the possibility of making a living that keeps you all there, right? But even that doesn't make sense, at least to me, because where are the venues that are paying playwrights a consistent living wage? Broadway, but I don't hear any of you singing the praises of Broadway as a playwright's haven. Off Broadway? Are those theatres paying regular sizable royalties? I'm not there right now, but when I did live there, I didn't see that happening much.

No, what I saw (and still see) happening is that serious plays are transferring from regional theatres, they're not originating in NYC. In fact, many of our prominent playwrights don't live in NYC: Paula Vogel, Romulus Linney, Sam Shepard, David Mamet, the late August Wilson -- all non-New Yorkers, aren't they? Productions are transferring from Steppenwolf, the Goodman, the Seattle Rep, LaJolla.

What this really is all about, it seems to me, is the myth of NYC. The whole New York, New York thing. I think earlier in this blog, I got taken to task by somebody for implying that they were naively hoping to become a star, and that's why they were so devoted to living in NYC. But isn't that what it is? Not necessarily the fame thing, but the making-a-lot-of-royalties thing. It really isn't about the art, it is about how much you get paid for doing the art. It isn't about receiving artistic praise for your work, but about who is giving the artistic praise. If you ran a theatre in, say, Athens, Ohio, you might actually make some money (even a small amount), and not have to spend money in order to do your work. But the money wouldn't be NYC money, and the appreciation wouldn't be NYC appreciation, and the hands clapping wouldn't be NYC hands.

I teach in a prison twice a week, and one of the phrases I hear when a couple guys are arguing about something is: I'm just keeping it real. So let's keep it real. This isn't about being paid a livable wage for your work -- you aren't being paid a livable wage. This isn't about getting an opportunity to see your work mounted -- you aren't able to get much of it mounted because of the high production costs. This isn't about being in the place where you might get a production -- most productions of straight plays are coming from the regional theatre. (And I suspect that your biggest royalty checks will come from productions done, not in NYC, but in the regional theatres as well.) So what is it about?

Listen, Zachary isn't holding a gun to anybody's head and forcing them over the Brooklyn Bridge. But why is it so necessary to denigrate the desire to try a different approach? Why is it necessary to view that route as banishment, as giving up on the Golden Dream? As Zachary pointed out, at one time early in the 20th century, the Little Theatre movement was where the artistic experimentation was happening. In the 1960s, the regional theatre movement sparked an artistic renaissance in America. Ours is a big country, too big for the theatre to be centered on one small island off the east coast.

Our theatre culture isn't working. We need a new model, a new way of thinking. Robert Sternberg, in his book Defying the Crowd: Cultivating Creativity in a Culture of Conformity, says that creativity involves "buying low and selling high" -- i.e., grabbing an idea when few want it and riding it up. When you do this, you let yourself in for ridicule and dismissal, so I suppose all this is to be expected. After all, Going to New York has been the main theatrical pilgrimage for some time now, and most people see NYC as the Holy Grail of theatre. But isn't that grail getting more than a little tarnished?
Holy Cow! We're up to 12 comments on Zachary's "Our Own New Deal" essay! I think there are three things I need to do: 1) bring the discussion out of the depths of the Comments box and into the Main Floor of the blog, and 2) perhaps organize the discussion in such a way that all the responses to individual comments and questions are in order (this may not be possible, but we'll see), and 3) wade in with my own comments, since anyone who has read this blog knows I am in complete agreement with Zachary and I hate to see him get to have all the fun or arguing!

Zachary's original post is here.
Joshua responded: "It is a well-written essay. I admire it. There is nothing I would like more than to be able to move to a smaller town where I can have a bigger house (for half the rent) a car and a motorcycle, along with green grass on a lawn and much cheaper beer in the bar. However. I want to write for a living. I don't want to be a weekend warrior, like the cover bands I've written about in "No More Covers" - driving a truck during the week and doing theatre on the weekend. I'm from Iowa, I know people who do just what he's written about and while there is nothing wrong with what they do, it is not what I strive for, which is to be a working professional writer, of the theatre and perhaps more. I don't wish to teach, I don't wish to review, I wish to write professional theatre along film and television. You cannot really do that from Witchita. Or Iowa. Not really. That's the reason to live here in new york city. Besides Los Angeles, this is where the agents are. And the managers and eventually some producers. I wish it were not so. I wish I could live in a small town, put up plays and have agents consider them. But I know several, more than several, really talented writers who live elsewhere and have great difficulty with representation, finding it and keeping it and getting their plays considered. So perhaps it depends on what a person wants to achieve. I don't know."

Matt Freeman wrote: "Now, I came here, like most people, to find a place where financial support and an audience exists for this sort of thing, plus the prospect for a career and real connections (yes, I said connections.) I cannot find that in my hometown of Boyertown, PA, where baseball is the order of the day."

Zachary responded: "I of course understand and respect the fact that most agents and producers are in the 2 big cities - and my idea is mostly based at companies - not individuals setting up camp in other places - but regardless, and this is the idealistic perspective - would the agents and producers not go where the talent is? Granted - it would take a mass exodus, to, say, Wichita, to lure them out there, and realistically I do not see that happening anytime soon - so - the alternative - I believe that taking your work and talent to a new part of the country is a sacrifice that will pay off in the long run.People don't want to go and start a community, or even help an infant one or small one into adulthood. People want to go to where the community already is. And that would be the cities. But I would argue - what kind of community do we even have here? There are well over 10,000 of us fellow artists in this city - where is the central place to meet? Do we see each other's work? I only know Freeman because he came and reviwed a show of mine and we run into each other at functions and shows, etc...and I've just met Joshua and Isaac (at least virtually). The community here is disjointed and does not work. That's why I choose to start The Community Dish - which has 67 Indie Theatre companies in it right now - but even that has its extreme problems."

Joshua responded: "would the agents and producers not go where the talent is?"Short answer - no. The media coverage is still mostly based on two areas that count for entertainment - LA and New York. Some Chicago writers do fair (and I've thought of moving there) but many have local chicago agents who find their hands tied getting their clients into big theatres here. There is a lot of talent in Chicago, and occasionally someone there will get major coverage in their papers, enough to translate into a transfer to NYC or LA - but still, for the most part - the theatre money folk stay close to where they are. nyc and la. Case in point - nyc fringe festival - gets a lot of ink (deservedly or not) - now there's been a similar festival running in edinborough for a loong time (and the direct inspiration for the new york fest) but is it covered here? No. Are agents that excited about any shows in Scotland? No. Is any producers here trying to transfer a show from there to OB? No. Why? Cause it's in fucking Scotland, man, and the producers and media are here. wish it weren't true, and there are instances where a piece will be developed and discovered regionally (Kentucky Cycles is one) but for the writer of theatre - unfortunately - you'll have more trouble making a splash. I want to write for television eventually, and that means moving to LA. 90% of the tv writing is done there, and so is the hiring. That's how it is, I wish it weren't so, but wishing won't make it true."

Zachary responded: "In terms of why the producers and agents and whatnot do not go to those places, you are absolutely right. There are exceptions, of course - like Clancy Productions (John Clancy, who founded NYC Fringe) has left the world of NYC fringe or not, and taken his work to Scotland year after year, and won the awards and got the press and more importantly, the audiences, for his work - and year after year, it has not been written about here on a mass scale, but there are groups taking his work from Scotland and presenting it here next year. But yes, an exception.The problem I see is the reliance upon this system - we are artists, we are not ruled by agents and producers and paychecks. Yes, of course, money is important and we need it - but there are other ways to make it. You want to write for television - it may be easier in LA to do this - just like it may be easier in NYC to do theatre and get noticed - but who are you really affecting - and what are the odds that you will hit it big, no matter how talented you are? Not too good. So why not go to a smaller place and do a show from scratch on a local station that will give you airtime once you've established yourself there in the community? Where you are making your work as uninhibited by producers and agents as possible?I guess what really matters is what kind of tv do you want to write? Do you want to write for the masses only to get your work stepped on left and right so companies will purchase airtime to sell things - or do you want your art to be yours? Idealism is really all we have left at the end of the day, why not keep chasing it?"

Joshua responded: "We are different people, evidently - artists have to pay the bills just like anyone else - to say that we are not ruled by paycheck seems a bit, I don't know, of a dodge. We should support ourselves, if we can. I want to be compensated for my work, I deserve to be compensated for my work - my work is worthy of that. I agree that the system is frucked up with its overreliance on agents from specific agencies, that. But I don't know that moving is a solution. It would be better if the work moved, you know? If a theatre in Scottsdale did work of mine and traded with a theatre in new york. If the work moved, it would help. So I like your idea of a network - that's a good idea. Move the work around. I don't know if the writer moving helps, unless the writer is sick of new york (which happens) and wants to get out. And again, I come from the background you're talking about - I did theatre in Iowa and Nebraska, I came here to pitch in the big show. Hey, there's nothing wrong with people that was to be big fish in a small pond - but it's not what I, myself, want out of this life - I want to do it for a living. As Matt pointed out, you simply cannot do that from Bumfruck Iowa. You can't. If you could, I'd still be there."

Zachary: "Yes, it does appear that we are hitting this from different angles. Of course you deserve to be compensated for your work - but I simply see that compensation being different.In any respect, yes, the larger problem here, concerning the writer, is exactly what you said - esp. in NYC - there are not enough relationships b/w writer and theatre, and certainly not enough of them getting paid. It's very much like what Scott wrote about in Sept. on here (which I just discovered last night) about stars moving from one town to the next, and that's all. We need a tighter community in order to address this problem as a whole..."

Matt, on his blog, wrote: "I don't disagree with any of what he's saying, to be perfectly honest. The audience for Broadway is predominantly outside of New York City. If we want plays to sell well, or theatre artists to become important to the country as a whole, I'm certain that we should do more to get the word out into the rest of the country.While I've read a few things that would suggest to me that most artists are a bit defensive about their aspirations, I would say that I feel no shame in prefering to live in cities. There's more acess here, I spend a great deal of money for it, and I do want to have a successful career and when you want that, you go where the industry is thriving. You don't go to Alaska to harvest tropical fruit.In that analogy, it's clear when I say Alaska, I mean Zack's Wichita, and when I say Tropical Fruit, I mean artistic praise. Let's just assume that when a producer in the great plains sees "produced in New York" on a play's resume, they're more likely to take a look at it than when they say "ran for ten years in Wyoming."

This is an edited version of one particular "thread," as it were. In the next post, I will respond myself -- but I think this one is long enough.

Monday, November 07, 2005

"Our Own New Deal"

Zacharay R. Mannheimer, the Producing Director of the Subjective Theatre Company, posts a brilliant essay entitled "Our Own New Deal:Planting Roots for American Theater" over at the Brooklyn Rail blog. In it, he proposes that NY theatre artists spread out across the country, taking up residence in towns outside of Manhattan. His ideas about how to approach such a thing illustrate concretely what I have been calling for in my own posts on "regionalitis" on September 19, 20, and 22nd. To me, Mannheimer is someone who is thinking outside the box and trying to solve some problems. I highly recommend his essay.

Douglas Bails

A C Douglas has this enlightening post in my comments box: "Please read my response to George Hunka's remarks in the comments section of your previous post on this matter. That should make more clear to you my position in this business. And just to make very clear my position on the text, you, and Mr. Butler, and Mr. Hunka take it as inarguable that the text is not the play. I, on the other hand, insist that the text IS the play -- if it's worth something, that is. That's the core of our disagreements on everything in this business, and I now see (well, actually I saw it before) we'll simply have to agree to disagree on this core principle."

Mr Douglas, there is a difference between making assertions and making an arguable claim. A line such as "Thus has it always and universally been, and thus it will always be," with which you end a previous comment, is an assertion that is unsupported with evidence, either historical or logical. It is, in fact, merely an opinion which, like assholes, we all have. Perhaps you feel an opinion is enough. Most educated people require more.

If you truly believe that the text is the same thing as the performance, then you are going to have to offer evidence and support beyond mere assertion, because to most people who actually work in the arts, your opinion makes no sense. It is like asserting an apple is an orange, and then insisting that we must "agree to disagree" on this core principle. I reiterate: A play or a score exists in two dimension on a page and communicates through written symbols -- would you argue with that? A performance exists in three dimensions and moves through time, and communicates through bodies and voices or instruments -- would you agree with that? If you do (and I'm not certain how you could not), then you have to admit that they are simply not the same thing. And while naive relativism allows youngsters (and postmoderns) to disagree on a "core principle" without discussion ("You believe what you want, and I'll believe what I want," they chirp), there is still such a thing as truth and validity and merely asserting an opinion exhibits neither.

Furthermore, Mr Douglas, to my knowledge you have never composed an opera or written a play or directed either one (correct me if I am wrong); that you would argue with people who have done so is fine, but that you would do so without feeling the need to back up your opinion with evidence and arguments, simply shows you to be an arrogant, uninformed fool with a computer and a blog.

If the best that you can do is call an argument "absurd," and assert the "universal" and eternal quality of your unfounded and undefended opinions, then my recommendation is that you go back to your electronic playground and let the grown-ups have a decent conversation.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

A C Douglas responds:
"I think you need to reread what I wrote instead of responding in knee-jerk fashion as you've done here. Note, please, that nowhere did I used the words interpreter or interpretation, and my focus on the director as servant was as faithful translator (i.e., faithful to the text and the vision of the play's creator), not mindless, uncreative toady. But the director's creative contribution to the work should be to "faithfully and as free from distortion as possible translate the creator's work from its form on the printed page into its truest, most effective concrete physical form so that the work becomes apprehensible to an audience in a theater as its creator envisioned it, which vision is embodied fully in the text or score itself."

I am puzzled about how I have misinterpreted Mr Douglas.But first, the catalyst for Douglas' screed, which are the following words from Isaac's post on the role of the director. Isaac writes:

We make a big mistake in theater by confusing The Script with The Play. The Script is the foundation, or the stem cell. Or, as Simon Callow writes about it, like a piece of music score where you only have some of the notes and you're not sure what key its in. It's just words. It's not the finished thing. We have this ridiculous idea of "Serving the Text." Bullshit! The Text serves the Play!

Now, to me, this seems pretty innocuous statement, almost a truism: the script is not the play, and I doubt that you could find a playwright (or a composer, for that matter) who would claim that it is. It is the raw material for a play, but raw material that is very much incomplete -- much more incomplete than a musical score or an archtect's blueprint, for instance. As I said in a previous past, there is a tremendous number of decisions -- decisions that affect the way the story is perceived by the audience -- that must be made by the director.

However, Mr Douglas uses Isaac's fairly neutral words to attack "grotesque directorial outrages" that he labels "eurotrash," Douglas writes: "And behind such Eurotrash outrages are opera directors who view matters much as does Isaac as reflected in his above quoted remarks; directors who imagine the composer's score is "just words" and notes, and merely "the foundation ... the stem cell" on or from which the director can shape his own "vision." That sort of self-serving, self-important view of things is quite beyond the merely insufferable, and ought not to be tolerated, much less countenanced or, worse, encouraged."

Now, first, Isaac doesn't say anything about using the play to express a directorial vision. Rather, he says the script is not the production. A production is made up of a great number of elements: acting, sets, costumes, sound, lights -- the text may be the founder of the feast, but the minute it enters the production process it becomes one among many.

Douglas goes on: "As a first principle they should be reminded that the playwright or the opera composer is the sole creator of his work, and that the playwright's text is the play, just as the opera composer's score is the opera. Any text or score that isn't, isn't worth the paper it's printed on."

It is very true that the playwright and the composer is the sole creator of his work. But his work is the script or the score, not the performance. If the play or the score were the performance, then we would have no need for all these other collaborators to bring it to life, and theatre and opera would be a helluva lot less expensive. But if we accept Mr Douglas' idea, then it follows, doesn't it, that as long as a singer sang the notes accurately, the composer's work would be served. In fact, he says a similar thing a bit later: "In short, a director is doing what he ought to be doing only when he and his work are perfectly transparent middlemen." But surely he can't mean that, or else why would great opera singers be in such short supply, and so fiercely fought for? Clearly, they add something to the notes written by the composer -- something the composer couldn't put on the page, but that comes from the performer's soul, talent, and heart. They are not "transparent middlemen," because such a thing is impossible -- and actually, undesirable. Why? Today's computer technology allows us to enter a composer's work into a computer program, which will then convert it into sound. But the result is sterile, uninflected, uninspired -- in short, dead.

He goes on: "Second, they should be reminded that the creators of plays and operas neither need nor require partners or collaborators once the work is finished." This is a statement that I find completely baffling. I guess the "work" to which Mr Douglas refers is the script or the score, and if I am right about that, then what he says is unarguable. But as Isaac says, the script is not the play (or, perhaps as a way of eliminating confusion: the script is not the production). And the playwright and composer clearly does need partners to convert the script or the score into a performance.

In his comment above, he seems to be referring to the following lines in his self-defense: "What the creators of plays and operas need and require are gifted servants of which the director is one; servants who will faithfully and as free from distortion as possible translate the creator's work from its form on the printed page into its truest, most effective concrete physical form so that the work becomes apprehensible to an audience in a theater as its creator envisioned it, which vision is embodied fully in the text or score itself." I have already addressed the impossibility of being a "servant" to a master that is incapable of giving thorough orders, so I won't review that. But what Mr Douglas seems to be referring to is what has long been referred to as the Intentional Fallacy: the error of assuming that what a text means is what the author says it means, and the even greater problem of knowing what a dead author thought something meant. What did Shakespeare "mean" by Hamlet? What did Sophocles "mean" by Oedipus Rex? And perhaps as importantly, is what it mean to them more important than what it means to us today? Aristophanes wrote Lysistrata in reference to a very specific war -- must it continue to do so, or can it now refer to any war since then? I think Mr Douglas thinks we know more from a text or a score than is actually available, and he apparently believes that the way something was originally meant to be heard (say, played by ancient instruments rather than contemporary ones) is how it should remain. This is museum theatre and museum opera -- artifacts, not living experiences.

This has nothing to do with postmodernism, by the way. Wimsatt and Beardsley proposed the Intentional Fallacy over half a century ago; Vsevelod Meyerhold was reinterpreting texts in Russia at the turn of the 20th century, and Nahum Tate was rewriting King Lear with a happy ending in the 18th century.

This issue is complex and many-sided. I, too, don't like director's who seem to disrespect the play they have chosen to bring to life. But I don't think "transparency" is possible.

A C Douglas

Over at Parabasis, guest blogger Abe Goldfarb takes A C Douglas to task for a decidedly uninformed post responding to Isaac's comments on directing. Douglas' hobbyhorse are directors (in his case, opera directors) who see themselves as creative artists instead of "servants" to the play. He gets bent out of shape by "Eurotrash" directors who use the text as a pretense for their own theatrical meanderings. Well, me too. Nobody should accept a director who dismantles a play or an opera in order to strut their egos. However, the alternative is not seeing oneself as a "servant" of the play.

The director is creating a new work of art, not interpreting a pre-existing one. To interpret a play would be to describe in words the play's meaning, significance, etc. But a director transforms the text into a new work of art: a performance. He or she works with words, pauses, inflection, breath, facial expression, movement, rhythm, images, sound, lights, music, costumes, and sets to create a new work of art that lives and breathes. The play on the page is a work of literature; the play on the stage is a work of theatre.

The play provides only the barest hint as to the moment-to-moment artistic decisions that a production demands. Take the simplest of theatrical moments: a pause. How long should it be? Should the actors remain still or move during it? Should they be close together or far away? Facing each other or facing front? Take a simple line: which word should be emphasized? Should it be shouted or whispered? Said quickly or slowly? No script provides the level of detail needed to turn the director into a servant. People who talk about directors as servants are ignorant of the sheer number of details provided by the director, not the playwright.

A director should have artistic ethics. If you are doing a production of Hamlet, you should direct that text, and not use it as a pretext to riff on some personal hobbyhorse. But a servant acts on the orders of another person -- the master; the text of a play is not directive enough to be a master. Instead, it is suggestive. To that extent, the director should see himself or herself as the playwright's collaborator. But servant? No, Mr Douglas, you misunderstand what a director does. And the fact that George Hunka, a working playwright who has had several of his plays directed by Isaac, agreed with Isaac's statements about the director's relation to the text should have made you think a bit more before blasting your opinion to the blogsphere. Frankly, there was something kind of canned about it.

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 ...