Tuesday, December 05, 2006
Utile et Dulce; Utile et Non Utile
Utile and non utile -- Horace vs Wilde. Wilde and his cohorts argued for art for art's sake, art as an end in itself, art divorced from effect. The New Critics obliged by, when evaluating the work of art, removing it completely from it's historical context and connection to an individual artist.
Rob over at We Read Books discusses Rousseau's Discourse on the Moral Effects of Arts and Sciences and sets off a predictable, and understandable, chorus of harrumphs. To put art and morality in the same sentence today is to invite the chill wind of fundamentalist narrow-mindedness into the rehearsal space. However, I think it is important that we not follow the New Critics, but rather read Rousseau in his historical context. His article is written in 1750, when Europe was in the midst of a rejection of the aristocracy and the rise of the middle class. In literature, there was a strong rejection of the witty and morally decadent work of the English Restoration (thus, Rousseau's attack on the "effeminate and cowardly," "useless citizens," and his comment"“We do not ask whether a book is useful, but whether it is well-written. Rewards are lavished on wit and ingenuity, while virtue is left unhonoured.”), and the rise of sentimental comedy and domestic tragedy as theorized by Denis Diderot and embodied by plays such as George Lillo's The London Merchant (which, by the way, has an amazing speech by the villainous femme fatale, Millwood, that still sizzles today). Rousseau, like we in the blogosphere, is reacting to a specific time and place, and his comments, which at the time were seen as revolutionary, now within the context of the triumph of the Modernist rejection of morality, the Postmodernist embrace of irony and disbelief, and the rebirth of religious fundamentalism comes across as "conservative." No doubt, Rousseau the Revolutionary is spinning right now.
Rob feels that "Each artist much deal with Rousseau’s Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences in his own way." Would that it were so -- that the contemplation of one's attitude toward the intersection between art and good behavior, and toward the artists' role as a member of a larger society was truly and deeply undertaken by every artist, as George does and Isaac does. While one can reject Rousseau's starting premise, it is nevertheless important that artists grapple with this question in more than a perfuctory way.
For my part, I think it is important that we not define "utile" to mean "commodification;" Roussea is more interested in the soul than the pocketbook.Usefulness, in this case, means useful for the improvement of humankind. Given the choice between improving humankind and worsening it, I suspect that there are few artists who would choose the latter. I think we all strive in some way to make the world a better place. This does not mean we are committed to directly solving the world's problems through our art (although art can be used in this project, and be valuable as such -- cf Rhodessa Jones and the Medea Project, for instance). But unless our focus is entirely onanistic, what most artists want to do is affect the spectators (else why go through the trouble of creating productions?), and to affect them for the better. This might be through the creation of things of beauty, or the prompting of critical thinking, or the strengthening of empathy. What we don't like, and what leads us to react negatively to Rousseau, is not morality but rather moralizing.
Art that moralizes oversimplifies life. It takes issues that are fraught with internal and external struggles and makes them seem easy and obvious. It sacrifices complexity for shallowness, profundity for naivete. Such art is an insult to those who deal each day with the labyrinths of life and living. Such art is the opposite of "utile."
Rousseau looks at a deadent society and he throws his intellectual weight on the other side of the fulcrum. If society is decadent, then morality must be found in its opposite. If decadent art is filled with empty wit and pointless flourishes, then moral art must be sincere and simple. The technique itself is useful. Perhaps, to be truly useful, artists should throw themselves on whatever is the opposite side of the current imbalance. If today's society is filled with crass commercialism and commodification, then perhaps art needs to emphasize opposing values; if the world is heartless and oppressive, perhaps art needs to be caring and open. Herxanthikles, responding to Rob, may have it right: "Things are bad enough on this earth that there’s no reason to make things worse by spreading nihilism, sadism, and meanness under the cover of artistic license, which, incidentally, is why I hate the movie of A Clockwork Orange." We can agree or disagree with the example, but the orientation is interesting: why jump on the side of the teeter-totter that is already weighted down by society?
To me, this is what utile means -- and what I think Rousseau was doing, if not exactly what he was saying.
Thursday, November 30, 2006
An Interesting Letter -- Theatre Application?
The Role of the Director
Historically, the rise of the director is fairly recent -- the Duke of Saxe-Meiningen, generally acknowledged as the "first director," doesn't come on the scene until the 1870s. The Duke was known for detailed crowd scenes and an insistence of ensemble acting. When he toured, the troupe was seen by all the major first generation directors (Brahm, Antoine, Stanislavski, etc.) Arguments could be made for others as the "first director," but I think it is significant that opinion has settled on the Duke, because in that case not only were the actors who worked for him his employees, but they were also his subjects. Thus, he had great power over them both professionally and personally. In addition, his actors were primarily amateurs, and he funded the theatre from his own coffers. In other words, his power was complete, and extended to all elements of the stage. This was the model that influenced the early directors.
Prior to that, plays were staged by the playwright or main actor according to generally accepted conventions of staging. Actors were largely expected to plan their performances on their own time, and they would come together for a few rehearsals to walk the blocking, not unlike, say, the musicians in an orchestra. In other words, interpretive power was dispersed among multiple artists.
But with the birth of the director, the interpretive act was centralized. The director was responsible for the "concept," and for the interpretation of the individual scenes and the play as a whole. This overarching concept was to serve as the organizing principle for all other aspects of the production: designs, performances, etc. The movement from a dispersed interpretive model to a centralized interpretive model was not simply a smooth evolution -- power was wrested from the other artists, especially the actors, who were no longer the sole interpreters of their role, but now were asked to create within the confines of the director's interpretation. How did that transfer of power occur?
Primarily, it came through acting theory. It is very interesting how many of the first generation of directors wrote acting theory, most notably Stanislavski, but also Meyerhold, Brahm, Antoine, Tairov, and Craig. (Sidenote: take a look at the book woefully mistitled Actors on Acting and figure out what percentage of the articles are by directors and playwrights! Hint: it's a large percentage.) What is significant about these acting theories is that most of them shifted the focus of the actor from the exterior to the interior. Whereas in the past, actors would rehearse alone while looking in a mirror, say, and consciously plan their performance moment to moment, now the acting process became a psycho-spiritual process that sought to minimize the actor's awareness that they were on a stage -- they were now to trick themselves into believing that they were the character.
Perhaps not surprisingly, this shift of the actor's focus to the subjective part of the equation strengthened the need for this new position of the director, who now was required in order to provide the objective part of the equation. The sheer difficulty of what the actor was being asked to do cemented the need for an outside eye to evaluate the actor's performance ("Did I do it?"), and to guide the interpretation. It is also significant that much of the initial acting theory was written as a dialogue between a wise old teacher director and youthful, impetuous actors (An Actor Prepares, for instance, of Boleslavsky's Acting: The First Six Lessons). In such instances, actors were infantilized, presented as naive children in need of a wise parental figure to guide them toward success.
This process was then cemented into place by the death of the repertory companies, in which actors developed powerful positions by working together over a series of years, and the rise of productions that brought the artists together for a only specific production. These productions were put together following the industrial model that was dominating the business world. Production lines, with workers whose jobs were totally focused on one small piece of the construction process with only the supervisors having a knowledge of the entire process, were being hailed for their efficiency and productivity. The theatre fell into step: directors became the theatrical equivalent of the supervisor who knew the entire process, while the actors and designers specialized and focused on their own small piece of the product. To this day, one of the primary defenses of the director having interpretive control is one of efficiency -- production "by committee" is too inefficient and time consuming.
The point I am trying to make is that the rise of the director was not some sort of "natural evolution" toward perfection, but rather a shift in power that was rooted in historical circumstances and ideology. An Actor Prepares is an ideological manifesto that suggests a certain division of labor and distribution of power. It is not only a "better way to act."
Given the historical and ideological nature of this arrangement, my suggestion is that we step back and consider whether the doxa (the given, the natural, the it-goes-without-saying, according to Roland Barthes) is really as obvious and natural as it is presented. Is centralized interpretation, for instance, what is best in all circumstances and at all times? If not, what other models are there? Can we look to Ariane Mnouchkine, say, or the working model of Joint Stock as possible alternatives? When a playwright is living and present, should the traditional model be altered in any way? Should we look back to the past, and the examples of Moliere or Shakespeare, each of whom staged their own work, for possible models? What would happen if the responsibilities of the director was redefined in such a way that he is an equal among equals? Perhaps the responsibility of reaching an interpretation was the result of discussion, and the director was responsible for physical staging alone, while the actors worked amongst themselves to develop each scene. The possible arrangements are endless, but not until we acknowledge that the director-as-Grand-Arbiter is not the only effective model, and might not even be the best model.
I am not suggesting that directors are superfluous. What I am suggesting is that their role was defined during a time when authoritarianism and industrial efficiency was paramount. We are now in a democratic and post-industrial age -- should the way we make theatre change as well? I'm just asking.
Monday, November 27, 2006
It seems like a truism, really, and yet what happens to our idea of fundraising if we shift our focus just that little bit? If, instead of raising money, we went out to try to raise time and space. Many artists work day jobs in order to pay the rent, i.e., they make money to buy space. Artists, what if a patron or foundation offered you, not a grant, but a rent-free apartment for a year -- would this make any difference in your artistic life? What if a grocery chain offered to give you groceries for a year? Or the electric company paid your utilities for a year? How much real estate stands empty while someone seeks a buyer? What if they could get a tax right-off for renting it to you? What if empty warehouses could be leased for a penny a year to artists looking for a place to rehearse, or a place to put together a very basic performance space?
Of course, this is the world of bartering -- I am not having any particularly new and brilliant ideas. But it seems to me that the grantwriting scene has become so professionalized that another approach -- one involving smaller amounts of basic goods -- might lead to more time and space for artists.
So a question to the artists: would any of this make a significant difference to your artistic life?
Monday, November 20, 2006
"As a writer my job is to write good plays; it's also to defend dramatic literature against becoming 'Theatre of Schmaltz.' For while there are several playwrights whose work I love love love, it also seems that in no other form of writing these days is the writing so awful -- so intended to produce some reaction of sorts, to discuss some issue: the play-as-wrapping-paper-version-of-hot-newspaper-headline, trying so hard to be hip; so uninterested in the craft of writing: the simple work of putting one word next to another onstage. Theatre seems mired in the interest of stating some point, or tugging some heartstring, or landing a laugh, or making a splash, or wagging a finger. In no other artform are the intentions so slim! As a playwright I try to do many things: explore the form, ask questions, make a good show, tell a good story, ask more questions, take nothing for granted."
Jesus. Right from the jump, ask yourself: "Why does this thing I'm writing have to be a play?" The words 'why,' 'have' and 'play' are key. If you don't have an answer then get out of town. No joke. The last thing America needs is another lame play."
"Most playwrights who consider themselves avant-garde spend a lot of time badmouthing the more traditional forms. The naturalism of, say, Lorraine Hansberry is beautiful and should not be dismissed simply because it's naturalism. We should understand that realism, like other movements in other artforms, is a specific response to a certain historical climate. I don't explode the form because I find traditional plays 'boring' -- I don't really. It's just that those structures never could accomodate the figures which take up residence inside me."
Wednesday, November 15, 2006
Clurman and Enthusiasm
"To what human beings, one might ask, were theatre ideas to be valuable. First, to the theatre artists themselves -- to actors, since they were the theatre's crucial factor; actors were citizens of a community before they took on their dubious connection with 'art.' Second, theatre ideas were to be important to an audience, of which the actors were a focus, for it is the audience (seen as a 'community') that has given birth to its artists. The criterion of judgment for what is good or bad in the theatre -- be it in plays, acting, or staging -- does not derive from some abstract standard of artistic or literary excellence, but from a judgment of what is fitting -- that is, humanly desirable -- for a particular audience." (italics mine; from Fervent Years)
Clurman condemned the board members of the Theatre Guild: "They had this fixation on pessimism. If you felt BADLY and said life stinks! it STINKS! you were really an advanced person. There'e something about pessimism that gives people an aura of grandeur. If you think everything is hopeless and down and wretched and dirty, then you really are an exalted person. I've never understood why." (quoted in Smith, p 24)
"If theatre is an art, if it has any value beyond decorating the emptiness of our existence, it too, collective art thought it be, must have an analogous singleness of meaning and direction. It too must say something, it too must create from the chaos which is the common experience of its members, an expression that will have, like that of the individual artist, an identity and significance with which people, sharing the common experience, may sense their kinship and to which they can attach themselves." (italics original; quoted in Smith, p 7)
Clurman taught at CUNY back in the 70s, and a good friend of mine, Alvin Goldfarb (co-author of The Living Theatre and expert in Holocaust theatre), had classes with him. It must have been extraordinary! To warm your mind and soul through the heat of a man with a vision of what theatre should be, and who spoke those ideas in words of passion and intensity -- I can think of few things that could nourish the artistic heart more fully.
I am reminded of Jimmy Porter's plea in Look Back In Anger for "a little ordinary enthusiasm," and his frustration with the fact that "Nobody thinks, nobody cares. No beliefs, no convictions and no enthusiasm." Clurman had enthusiasm, he thought, he cared, he believed. He was not afraid to look silly because of his passion, he was not afraid to not be cool.
Is there someone who carries on that tradition? I sometimes feel it when I read some of Kushner's essays. Are there others that you can point me toward -- other visionaries who are putting forward a passionate, committed vision of today's theatre that echoes Clurman's 75-year-old prophecies? If I wanted to inspire my young students with a contemporary vision of theatre's power and potential, where should I look? Is there anyone who has transcended the hip postmodern cynicism to propose something that can be believed in? Is there somebody who embodies enthusiasm?
Tuesday, November 14, 2006
Wednesday, November 08, 2006
About Theatre During a Time of War
-- George Cram "Jig" Cook -- Provincetown Players, 1918
Tuesday, November 07, 2006
If You'd Like to Hear My Voice...
My lack of sympathy with the basic tenets of libertarianism, with its naive and ahistorical faith in the benevolence of the free market, makes me unwilling to even mount an attack. It is like talking about music with the tone deaf. The guy who wrote, on Allison Croggon's blog, about being "dragged" by his wife to a production of Metamorphoses, which he attributes to some old "Greek" play (Greek? Greek???) and which disappointed him because it didn't have any nudity in it...well, it is representative, and arguing with a man standing at the intersection of Ignorant Street and Braindead Blvd really isn't worth the candle.
But I can hardly resist expressing my wonder at the defenses for the value of art being mounted by my blogosphere comrades in arts. At the drop of a grant proposal, everybody is willing to wax eloquent about all the beautiful things the arts add to life. A few paragraphs from Allison are emblematic:
Artists have personally experienced what the arts can give: as a means of self awareness; as a profound and continuous pleasure; as one of the human activities that give meaning and dignity to human existence; as a means of creating a sense of community and relationship; as a way of establishing and questioning a national identity; as a way of understanding our place in the world and ourselves as human beings beyond the materialist valuations of the marketplace.
Anyone who has ever loved another human being, who has had a child, who has felt - by looking at a painting, or listening to music, or by walking through a virgin forest or a humble laneway transfigured by moonlight or, like Wordsworth, by standing on a city bridge - in fact, anyone who has been touched by beauty in one of its myriad manifestations - knows that there are many things in life that are too complex and too profound to be valued simply in terms of money. Art is one of those things.
All this discussion of "continuous pleasure" and "meaning and dignity" and "creating a sense of community and relationship" and "beauty in one of its myriad manifestations" -- well, it just chokes me up. The thing that impresses me about these paragraphs, and the many, many others just like it that are mouthed in defense of arts funding, is that the feelings expressed are so...balanced. In the midst of this Hallmark card image of the arts, there is a little gesture toward "questioning a national identity" (balanced, of course, by "establishing" that identity), but only a small gesture, and there is talk of "understanding ourselves as human beings," which sounds beautifully soul-enhancing. But the fact is that, when the rubber meets the road and the actors meet the stage, the people of the blogosphere don't give a damn about beauty and meaning and pleasure and dignity, and if you mention the word "responsibility" in terms of something like the creation of "a sense of community and relationship" they turn absolutely blue in the face and start raising images of Joseph McCarthy -- no, what they care about getting up people's noses, about sneering at just about any values at all. The true value of a work of art is readily established by measuring the degree to which it tweeks the noses of...well, of just about everybody except the artists themselves.
Over at "A Poor Player," Tom wonders about the lack of right wing art, and the relentlessly liberal slant of the arts in general. Well, I suppose one might point to the art that IS supporting itself and say that is right wing art. I stopped watching 24, for instance, when I found myself pulling FOR Jack to eject the ACLU lawyer who was there to prevent the CIA from torturing someone. Most Hollywood films are decidely right wing, especially in the action film genre. Music? Check out the rightward slant of country western, for instance, or the classical music genre entirely with its reliance on music by long-dead white males.
But both the left wing art and the right wing art stands on the same ground: scorn for the audience. The left wing artists think the audience is filled with non-thinking, insensitive, narrow-minded oafs, and they want to attack them; the right wing artists think the audience is filled with non-thinking, insensitive, narrow-minded oafs, and they want to pander to them. Rarely is there a healthy respect for one's fellow man, a sense of being a part of a community in the midst of facing the mysteries of life and living. The left wing artists put self-expression ahead of responsibility to a community, and the right wing artists put profit ahead of responsibility to community. They are brothers under the skin.
If the non-profit arts wants funding to continue, they need to take a little more seriously its role as part of a community; if the profit-making arts wants to avoid censorship and regulation, they need to take a little more seriously its role as part of a community.
And artists need to quit cynically trotting out this sentimental view of the value of the arts when their behavior contradicts the image. Nobody is buying it anymore.
Friday, October 27, 2006
But I confess that many of the responses in this discussion have puzzled me. I left this comment in Isaac's comments box at Parabasis: "I think the theatre blogsphere has been relentlessly critical of the ideas of other people. We don't back away from saying that somebody's post is dumb as hell, and doing it in graphic and bloody detail. So my question: why does the theatre blogosphere tiptoe around theatre itself? Isn't there something contradictory about that? Do we feel that plays are just too delicate to handle criticism? Do we feel that ideas as somehow fair game and stronger, but productions are sacrosanct? Do we give more respect to the egos of artists than of thinkers? If so, why?"
I elaborated on this on Matt Freeman's blog: "There is something really weird about the lines we draw between people's ideas and their work -- as if the two were separable. We may not be professional critics, but most of us are not professional aestheticians and that doesn't stop us from having opinions about aesthetics. A community requires honesty."
In direct response to my comment, Isaac wrote: "ideas are a dime a dozen. Criticizing someone's ideas is like criticizing someone's socks-- they can always go out and get some new ones (or defend their choice off socks, I suppose). Ideas aren't really work the same way that artistic creation is, which is the space where you have to take those ideas and make something out of them. That for me is why arguing against someone's ideas is totally different from publicly discussing what you didn't like about their show."
This response stunned me. Ideas are a dime a dozen? You can just go out and get new ideas? Was Peter Brook's Empty Space a theatrical sock? Were Grotowski's ideas of a Poor Theatre something he could have easily dumped in favor of some other idea? Were Stanislavski's ideas less important than his productions? Granted, there have been no blog posts that have approached the profundity of Brook, Grotowski, and Stanislavski (although George's collected posts have potential), but nevertheless I would argue that that power of ideas to inform new artistic work and to inspire other artists makes them the equal of production, and worthy of being treated as seriously and as carefully as artistic work.
Boths idea and artistic creations benefit from rigorous analysis and discussion. And the blogosphere allows such a discussion to benefit more than the artists involved. Blogging has the potential to spread ideas beyond a small circle of friends and acquaintances to the theatre world as a whole. A playwright reading a serious discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of In Public might be able to strengthen the play he or she is working on right now. The same is true of a discussion of directing, or designing. As theatre bloggers, we have the opportunity to have a positive impact on the development of other theatre artists, and I think one of the things we need to model is a rigorous form of critical thinking and self-assessment. I'm not talking the spilling of blood, I am talking the granting of the ultimate artistic compliment: taking something seriously.
Ideas are where we rehearse the revolution. Analysis is where we tone our creative muscles. We plan the future by learning from the past and conjecturing about what might be. We combine the subjunctive and the indicative. Ideas are not intellectual socks, they are the skeleton that supports our frame. Ideas are the lifeblood of creation. We must not undermine the immense possibilities of the blogosphere to improve future works of art. Lucas, I believe, said he had had three years of public criticism in grad school, and he'd had enough thank you very much. I know what he means! But, truth be told, those are public floggings, not public discussions. It is the MFA version of hazing. But if we treat works of art AND ideas with the respect they deserve, and respect them enough to look at them with care and rigor, then something immensely valuable will result.
Monday, October 16, 2006
Richard Foreman and the Impenetrable Mystery of Language
"3) Each on stage item as provocation. Provoke, like the mysterious seductive one who withdraws into silence, and beckons -- like a door to another world..."
Nice image. I have always admired Foreman's images. One of the most riveting productions I have ever seen was Foreman's production of Moliere's Don Juan at the Guthrie with a title character played by John Seitz, who created an eery and disorienting character by spending the entire play walking like a crab: always at right angles, never diagonally. And Roy Brocksmith played a hilarious Sganerelle. And I have seen several of Foreman's original works as well when I lived in NYC and worked at Performing Arts Journal. In fact, after one such performance, I spent a few hours drinking with Foreman and my bosses, Bonnie Maranca and Guatum Dasgupta (George knows them -- he had the same job a few years before I did), and I found Foreman an interesting combination of charming and morose.
So I am not a Foreman basher. But my literal mind balks at #3 above. Why? A trip to the American Heritage Dictionary gives this definition of "provocation:"
|1.||the act of provoking.|
|2.||something that incites, instigates, angers, or irritates.|
|3.||Criminal Law. words or conduct leading to killing in hot passion and without deliberation.|
The word comes from the Latin meaning "a challenging."
Synonyms include: "affront, annoyance, bothering, brickbat*, casus belli, cause, challenge, dare, defy, grabber*, grievance, grounds, harassment, incentive, indignity, inducement, injury, instigation, insult, irking, justification, motivation, offense, provoking, reason, stimulus, taunt, vexation, vexing."
Flipping over to "provoke":
- To incite to anger or resentment.
- To stir to action or feeling.
- To give rise to; evoke: provoke laughter.
- To bring about deliberately; induce: provoke a fight.
Suddenly, the root of all the arguments on this blog about theatre that "provokes" becomes clear: all the provocateurs are using the word "provoke" to mean...well, what? Seduce? Tease? Coax? And here I was thinking that "provoke" means...well, what the dictionary says it means. Dopey me!
Foreman follows this statement with key #4: "Language as the impenetrable mystery." I guess it becomes particularly impenetrable and mysterious when you ignore the meanings of words and make them mean...whatever you want them to mean!
Wednesday, October 11, 2006
Are these reviews going to reach the heights of Kenneth Tynan, Robert Brustein, and Stanly Kaufman? Of course not. But when I am looking at a book at Amazon, I find the insights of those who have read the book before me, no matter what their background, very helpful in my evaluation.
And good God, given the quality of theatre criticism we are confronted with every day in the media, can these really be that much worse?
Tuesday, October 10, 2006
--Maureen Corrigan, Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading
Friday, October 06, 2006
Engaging the Imagination
Tuesday, October 03, 2006
Struggling with Choices (Matt and Ian)
My silence has been unavoidable, and is likely to continue with sporadic posts for most of October: my wife and I are moving on October 21st. We finally decided we couldn't take the isolation of our current house up on the mountain with its 35-minute commute (15 of which is uphill). We wanted to be able to have friends over, family over, students over and start to participate in a community.
However, I have been touching base with my favorite theatre bloggers over this time, and Matt Johnson's recent post "A Life's Work" has caught my imagination. One direction to take the discussion is looking back towards one's roots -- why one first was attracted to the theatre. Both Isaac and George have provided rich discussions of their own development, and while I am tempted to follow their retrospective lead, I want to respond to another strand of Matt's original post.
At the beginning of "A Life's Work," Matt mentions that his post was inspired by another post by Ian Belton at Culturebot.org entitled "My name is Ian Belton...duh." Near the end of Belton's discussion of his recent directorial work, and the directions he has gone as a result, he writes:
"To quote my CDP application, “I would like to create a synergy between my artistic pursuits and my career.” What I have learned in the past two years is that the energy it requires to perpetuate a career from “within” the theater is so great that it forces one into isolation. I would rather live and work “outside” the establishment so that I can bring things of value back to share. I’d rather take the risk of being forgotten by the community than become so self-absorbed that I am ignorant to the rapidly changing world.It seems to me that these two paragraphs provide the fuel for Matt's thoughts, which end:
I am not so juvenile as to say, “I am never directing another play ever again.” Nor will I bitterly proclaim, “I quit the theater!” I look back on my C/V with fondness . . . even a little nostalgia. Now, I simply want to find another way to earn a living so that directing plays is not my bread and butter. Then maybe it won’t be so precious. Maybe then I will be able to speak and listen with the clarity I found abroad."
"I want to do the work that is important to me, and work with the people I can trust and who are passionate. I don't want to feel guilty because I have to work a day job everyday, as if I am at the mercy of the circle. We all must find a way to survive both in life and in art. The journey will be different for each. That's the nature of this life's work. I'm confident that I will find a way, even if I have to do it all on my own, to do the work I feel is important. And I hope I can find others to come along with me."
Perhaps I am misreading these two men, but what I think I see are two young artists trying to come to terms with what seems to be a gap between what brought them into the theatre in the first place, and what seems to be required of them in order to make a living doing theatre; between the motivation to create art, and the desire to make a living as an artist. The grizzled veterans may smile ruefully in recognition of their struggles. As Margo says in Applause, "Welcome to the theatre -- my dear, you love it so!"
But as a teacher, it is hard for to see this as a process of natural selection where those who are tough enough stick it out, and those who aren't don't. It seems to me that young artists like Matt and Ian are exactly the kind the theatre need right now -- artists who see the theatre as serving a larger purpose, artists who question the way things are done. From my perspective, the most painful sentence in Ian's piece is "What I have learned in the past two years is that the energy it requires to perpetuate a career from “within” the theater is so great that it forces one into isolation." And the most hopeful from Matt's: "I'm confident that I will find a way, even if I have to do it all on my own, to do the work I feel is important. And I hope I can find others to come along with me."
Caroline Myss, in her discussion of inner archetypes and elaborating on the ideas of Carl Jung, talks about one's Inner Prostitute, an archetype which she says we all have -- what part of our integrity we are willing to sell for something we want, whether it is success or security or simply survival? It is a question we all must confront. Ian answers it one way: " I would rather live and work “outside” the establishment so that I can bring things of value back to share." He will follow the example of artists like T. S. Elliot (banker) and William Carlos Williams (physician) or even Ezra Pound (publisher) who did not rely upon their art to provide their daily bread. This gave them the freedom to remain true to their values and their vision. The trade-off is that their art was created in spare moments, and did not receive their full focus. To what extent did their art suffer because of that? On the other hand, how might their art have suffered had they felt the need to tailor it to the marketplace? Matt's determination is less clear than Ian's, but I sense a burgeoning Harold Clurman who may, like Clurman, inspire a group of artists to break away from the mainstream and follow a vision that he creates through his words and dreams.
Both alternatives have their plusses and minuses, but my point is that whatever direction Ian and Matt take, the theatre will benefit from their struggles as long as they keep their eyes focused on true north, their own vision of artistic vibrancy. It is my hope that both will continue to bring their insights and thoughtfulness and questions to an art form badly in need of all three. And I wish them the best of luck. I have little to offer by way of advice. I waffle between the two alternatives -- while rejecting a third: completely adapting oneself to the demands of the marketplace. That, it seems to me, is a waste of talent. There are many ways to make money in this world, and most are easier than trying to make money doing theatre. Theatre must be an end in itself, because extrinisic rewards are scant. How to face that dilemma seems to be the most important artistic we face at this point in history.
Friday, September 15, 2006
What Makes You Want to Work With Someone Again
So here's a question: what are the characteristics of someone you would like to work with more than once? What is their personality like? Work ethic? Work behaviors? Other things?
Wednesday, September 13, 2006
More On Political Theatre
"I have been thinking a lot about bowling and football. I think a lot of theatre gets made like bowling. It has an inevitability that builds but never goes away. [It] sets up the big ideas they are going to try to knock down and then sets about knocking them down. But really good theatre is like a fumble. All really interesting ideas are shaped like a football. When they get loose, there is no telling which way they are going to bounce and the whole contest is up in the air. Political theatre should aim to fumble more."
I like it. I like it!
Check out the whole thing.
Tuesday, September 05, 2006
Billy's story is my own. I grew up in an industrial town in Wisconsin surrounded by factories, tool and die shops, and taverns. My mother didn't go beyond the eighth grade, and my father finished high school and worked as a bookkeeper in a small factory that made guns; my grandfather had been a lumberjack when young, then oversaw the power plant at the J. I. Case tractor factory in town until heart problems forced him to retire a few months shy of receiving a pension.
Like Billy, for me the arts were a way to escape. While I did not have to overcome the resistance from the family that Billy did, nevertheless for a boy in my town the question concerning the future was whether you were going to work in the factory office or on the factory floor. And like Billy, I had a dream and some talent, andlike Billy my dreams and talent took me away from home and I could never really go back. So Billy's story has a great many personal connections, especially those of channeling my rage and sense of being an outsider into my roles, and of feeling "like electricity" when I was onstage.
But I'm 48 now, and this time when I watched the film I found myself watching Billy's father. I watched his desperation and narrow-mindedness turning to painful bafflement at a son whose passion was released by something totally foreign to him. Whereas before, in the scene on Christmas Eve when Billy's father discovers him teaching his friend how to dance in the gym and Billy performs a defiant, passionate, and committed dance in his father's face, I was focused on Billy; tonight, I found myself riveted by Billy's father, standing stock still like a block of granite, completely paralyzed by the realization of his son's possibilities. I could feel how much it cost him to take the last few pieces of jewelry he had from his deceased wife and pawned them for Billy's audition money, and I thought of my own father, and the fact that I went to acting school on the life insurance and Social Security money he had after my mother's death from cancer when she was 42. I watched Billy's father's awkwardness, and sense of being out of place in the immaculate halls of the Royal School of ballet, but his passionate desire for his son to succeed against all the odds. And his wild and joyous run up the street of the town when Billy was accepted into ballet school.
And then what I felt most strongly came after Billy's departure, when we see his father and brother slowly descending once again into the mine, eyes empty; and his dance teacher alone in the gym. The sense of a light having gone out of an already bleak town.
But then -- then there comes the moment that really hit me hard. The final moment of the film when Billy's father sits in the topmost rows of the ballet waiting for his son to make his premiere entrance. His father looks as if he can hardly breathe as he waits, and then Billy enters with a high, high leap that seems as if he is flying, he is electricity, and he is never coming down -- and his father's eyes widen and he gasps as if he were coming to the surface of the water after nearly drowning. It is a moment that lasts only a split second, but in that moment, in that one sharp intake of breath, I see all the hopes and dreams that he has invested in his son, and in his ability to fly as far above the earth as he himself toils beneath it. It is a moment Billy the artist will never see, and the father will never be able to explain, and yet it is the reason that Billy, and that I, do what we do. When all the theorizing is over, and all the discussion of purpose and aesthetics, the reason I do theatre, and believe in theatre, and try to inspire young people to pursue theatre is to give people the gift of that gasp, of that realization of the wonder and beauty of life, and the possibility of rising above the earth for just a moment and feeling like electricity. That electricity flows through me to the spectators -- to my father and grandfather and mother and sister -- and for a moment lifts them higher than they thought possible. And in that moment, in that single gasp, I know why I spend my life doing what I do. It isn't about me -- I am just a conduit; it is about them.
Taking Aim At Isherwood
Of course, in Part 2 of his essay, Isherwood proceeds to undo everything he wrote in Part 1, so it is hard to know what to think.
But very often the issue of "preaching to the converted" comes up when discussing political theatre, and in fact George asks, "But if the people who form that society don't show up for the performance, who is confronted? If agit-prop is performed in an empty theatre, is ti still agit-prop?" My quibble to that question might be whether political theatre and agit-prop are synonymous -- the latter might more usefully be defined as a subset of the former. But let that go. The dismissal of theatre that preaches to the converted is a topic I encountered just this morning in Jill Dolan's brilliant Utopia in Performance.
Dolan speaks about having Holly Hughes perform her Preaching to the Perverted (her one-woman show that examines her experience as a member of the NEA Four) at the University of Texas at Austin. She writes:
"Hughes remains an activist artist, who performance work and public presentations insist on examining culture and politics through art. She was eloquent in her meeting with my class and in her public interview. She deconstructed the notion of 'preaching to the converted,' an issue that already concerned my students, who feared that political work reaches a too narrow audience of people already persuaded to think progressively. How, they wondered, could more people be persuaded, so that performance and its potential for social change wouldn't be ghettoized far from the notice of those who perhaps need to see it most? Quoting theater scholar David Roman and performance artist Tim Miller's writing on this issue, Hughes proceeded to shake up some of these notions by suggesting that 'conversion' is always unstable, that people are never, finally, converted to anything; there's always ambiguity, ambivalence and doubt. Performance, Hughes insisted, is a renewal of faith, and progressive politics are always faith-based."
In a footnote in which she provides the citation for Tim Miller and David Roman's "Preaching to the Converted" in Theatre Journal 47, no 2 (1995), she also notes Vicki Patraka's interview with performance artist Robbie McCauley, in which McCauley says about preaching to the converted:
"I think that criticism is a cop-out. First of all, how much fo the converted know? And things resonate, ripple out. This is not to say that you do not work constantly for audience development; we need to grapple with ways to expand audiences. But we don't need to put that problem in the way of doing the work, making our work clear and beautiful for our audiences. The whole issue is just a block."
To be fair, Isherwood says just that:
"“Preaching to the converted” is the dismissive epithet easily hurled at plays that air a social ill in front of audiences predisposed to share the playwright’s view. But why shouldn’t theatergoers draw the same kind of sustenance from the collective experience of theater that congregants do from sermons at church? We all have spiritual lives of some kind, beliefs that are articles of faith more than reason. And they are nurtured by a sense of common feeling, the knowledge that we are not alone in our perceptions, whether they consist of general religious tenets or specific moral stances on social or political issues."
But he precedes it with this declaration, as if to put this thorny question finally to rest:
"Can art save the day? More specifically, can theater rouse the populace from a sense of numbed anxiety? Can a stage play change minds, or help channel passive beliefs into active commitment? Short-term answer: a resounding “Nope.” Long-term answer: a less resounding if hardly less dispiriting “Probably not, alas."
"Does this mean that theater has a perceptible or quantifiable impact on the issues raised? As I suggested earlier, not necessarily, or not much. I haven’t rushed to the barricades, hand in hand with the fellow in seat G102, any time recently. But I have left the theater with a more vivid sense of the painful human cost of public policy or a deeper knowledge of the gritty specifics of a specific historical event."
This is a red herring. To charge any individual event, artistic or not, with causing people to rush to the barricades is nonsensical. It is, as McCauley notes, a block -- an attempt to dispirit those who care by undermining any sense of hope that one's actions might make a difference. If political theatre does nothing else, it can serve to recharge the reserves of courage and commitment required of those who would enact social change. The changing of minds is a slow process of building empathy, making arguments, and exerting peer pressure (and probably the latter is the most important). Political theatre can be a player in the first two, and can provide courage and persuasive power for the last.
An additional red herring is to bemoan the lack of "masterpieces" in political theatre. The first critical question Geothe propounded was "What is the work trying to do?" The purpose of political theatre -- what it is "trying to do" -- may promote the expression of a clear and powerful message over artistic issues. While it is true that a combination of political power and artistic power might lead to a production that would be able to reach beyond the "converted" to touch a larger number of "average" theatregoers, this does not diminish the usefulness of those works that do not. I am not a fan of the aesthetics of plays like The Exonerated or Guantanamo, but I do value their power to bolster outrage and moral fervor. There is no doubt in my mind that Weiss' The Investigation or Kipphardt's In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer are much better plays, but every once in a while, when the chips are down, we need to trot out Are You Now, Or Have You Ever Been to remind people that America has a history of political bullying and a tendency toward fascistic behavior -- even though Bentley's play is, aesthetically, a rather flat affair.
The problem lies, it seems to me, in "One Size Fits All" theatre criticism that wants to measure every production using the same critical yardstick. When that yardstick measures the inches of "pleasant entertainment," what goes unmeasured is a powerful giant whose practical effectiveness may tower over the Liliputian entertainments being worshipped as aesthetic gladiators.
Sunday, September 03, 2006
--Jill Dolan, Utopia in Performance
Tuesday, August 29, 2006
Wednesday, August 23, 2006
The Artist's Responsibility
"Narrative art has the power to make us see the lives of the different with more than a casual tourist's interest -- with involvement and sympathetic understanding, with anger at our society's refusal of visibility. We come to see how circumstances shape the lives of those who share with us some general goals and projects; and we see that circumstances shape not only people's possibilities for action, but also their aspirations and desires, hopes and fears....[The narrative imagination requires] the ability to imagine what it is like to be in that person's place (what we usually call empathy), and also the ability to stand back and ask whether the person's own judgment has taken the full measure of what has happened."
In the hands of a lesser, and less honest, playwright Psychosis 4:48 could have been a self-indulgent work. But Kane's tone poem of pain, rage, and bewilderment is so thoroughly felt, and also so carefully crafted, that I felt as if I were inside of the head of a severely depressed person.
It is, however, a tone poem more than a work of drama. The conflict is all internal, and the focus is more on the image than the narrative. "This is what it feels like," Kane seems to be saying, "to be constantly in pain." When I say it isn't a "work of drama," I do not mean that as a slight -- the gift of hearing powerful language honed to a slicing knife edge is most welcome in a theatre that is all too often sloppy and pedestrian in its language. But structurally, the piece owes as much to the collage as it does to the drama; as much to James Joyce as it does to Aristotle.
As someone who has had several members of my family struggle with depression (thankfully, not to the extent dramatized by Kane), it gave me a deeper insight inside an experience that many of us will never have ourselves. That is profound.
Thank you, Allison!
Monday, August 21, 2006
Robertson Davies on Theatre
--Robertson Davies, Happy Alchemy: On the Pleasures of Music and the Theatre
Friday, August 11, 2006
Calling Allison Croggon
I'd like the first participant to be Allison Croggon, who long has suggested I ain't readin' the right books. Allison, recommend a play for me! What is an important play I need to read?
Thursday, August 10, 2006
I may be stubborn and dense, but when enough people hit me in the head with 2 X 4s, eventually I get the point. While many of you had a hand in the process of getting through to me, the ones who pushed me over the tipping point were Allison and Isaac with a good assist from Joshua.
To cut to the chase: I was wrong.
I felt that I had figured out a way to remove a point from abstract theory and give it a dramatic, emotional life. I didn't expect that others would have such a sense of personal betrayal, and at first I thought expressions of this sense of betrayal were simply an attempt to shift the conversation away from my point. Such is the effect of tunnel vision.
And while I tried to maintain a sense of objective calm, I know that the personal insults made me dig in my heels even more, and defend myself from accusations that I thought were not only unjust, but really hurtful.
But this morning as I walked across campus, I realized that I was wrong.
I was wrong from the first post on. The blogosphere is not a place for social experiments, and you don't use Invisible Theatre on people who have come to trust you over a period of months. That is betrayal.
So I apologize to you all for behaving like a stubborn ass.
Wednesday, August 09, 2006
I tend to look at the play more as myth than realism. Dodge, the pioneer and founder of the farm who hasn't planted a crop since the Depression; the next generation of sons, All-Americans all, and all crippled (physically, mentally) or dead, and lost; and the third generation, Vince, who is an artist (jazz musician).
For me, the last image of Tilden bringing the remains of the buried child up the stairs -- to confront his mother? -- is haunting. But what fascinates me is the question: why now? Why, after all this time, can the baby be unearthed now?
I think the answer centers on Vince, about whom, despite his long absence in the middle of the play, I think the play is about. Vince is an artist returning to his roots from the big city. At first, nobody recognizes him, which seems very, very strange. But when DO they recognize him? When his returns drunk and violent, having seen his ancesters in the rearview mirror back through generation after generation, into the heartland.
It is his return that is the catalyst for revelation of the family secret. It is his return that releases Dodge from his death-in-life to real death, following the ritual burial by his son under the sheaves of corn. This is the story of the Fisher King -- a decaying land ruled over by a wounded King that needs to be restored by a young knight who asks the right question.
The question that fascinates me, and that causes the most energetic discussion amongst my students, is what we are to make of the ending, when Dodge (in surely the most unnoticed stage death in dramatic literature) is replaced by Vince, who, drunk and violent, assumes Dodge's exact position on the couch. The play comes full circle: Hallie is chattering on upstairs, only this time she can SEE the fields of vegetables that on her son could see before. Are we to see this ending as negative: Vince has given up his artistic aspirations and been sucked back into the decaying family atmosphere and assumed the same abhorent characteristics of the now-dead former King Dodge? Or is it positive? Vince, the young artist who previously had denied his heritage and become a city boy, has returned home to claim his heritage and heal the wounded land -- past secrets will be unearthed, and the harvest will once again be bountiful.
While strong arguments can be made for both interpretations, I lean toward the latter. While Vince is drunk and violent, and while he does assume the same exact position on the couch as his predecessor, I think his realization in the car -- when he was running away from his home, but had a vision of his heritage stretching back into the mists of time -- is that you can't run from your family, you can't deny your roots, you must claim them. Initially, he must re-enact the ritual drunkenness and violence of the past -- a Bacchanalia of sorts -- before settling down to restore health to the kingdom. I think it is significant that he is an artist -- that it is an artist that must, in this generation, uncover the sins of the past, and heal the present using Dodge's inherited tools as well as new tools that he plans to acquire. The buried secret of America's past (this is, after all, an All-American family in America's HEART-land) must be dug up, acknowledged, even embraced, so that the rebirth can occur.
What is that buried secret in America's heartland? I don't know -- there are so many possibilities. And that is what makes Shepard's play so rich, so fascinating, and such a masterpiece.
The point was to show that even the most self-described open, reflective, and insightful members of our society -- our artists -- will react in the same way we have seen other groups react, and that artists have condemned for their reaction.
The pattern, borne out in the past few days, is as follows:
1. Personal Attack -- insult the person with the unpopular ideas on a base, personal level.
2. Circle the Wagons -- gather together those who share the idea under attack and reinforce, through reiteration and mutual congratulation, the value of the original concept
3. Attack the Outsider's Motives -- question whether there is something other than the stated idea that the outsider really wants to do
4. Intimidate -- threaten real life retaliation
5. Blame the Victim-- assert that the person being attacked and intimidated brought it on themselves through their actions
6. Silence -- cut the discussion short before cooler heads can prevail
7. Spin -- reinterpret the attack in ways that make it sound foolish
8. Act Bored-- tell the questioner that they have belabored the question and they should "move on"
We can trace these tactics through many of the major social revolutions we have seen over the past several decades: the anti-Vietnam Movement, the Black Movement, the Feminist Movement, the Gay Rights Movement, and now we are watching it unfold with the Immigrant Movement.
The point is not that my minor incursion into blog controversy has anything approaching the scale or importance of these major social movements. The point is that the reaction we have seen is 1) not in the least surprising, and 2) occurs even at the smallest level.
To those who would say that sometimes people need to be "slapped around," I would not argue -- the only way that injustices are addressed and change is undertaken is through provocation. But I would assert that, for change to actually occur, a two-part process must be undertaken.
2) Follow-up by a moderate voice offering a less-aggressive alternative
Martin Luther King Jr now has a national holiday and is seen as the leader of the Black Movement for equal rights. Very true. But without Malcolm X and the Black Panthers rioting in the background, MLK would have been shut down by the FBI and ignored by the media and general public; without MLK, Malcolm X and the Black Panthers would have alienated the media and the general public, and eventually been arrested and silenced. The relationship between the provocateur and the moderator is symbiotic.
If someone like YS at Mirror Up To Nature, or Joshua James, two members of the group who took a moderate stance throughout, had followed up behind me saying, "Wait a minute -- let's see what might be learned from the past few days," there valuable discussion might have ensued. The problem was that I, as provocateur, continued to provoke, which did not allow a moderate voice to be heard. There needs to be a cease fire before negotiations can occur.
So for those artists who feel that it is necessary for audiences to be "slapped around" occasionally, I say "Hear! Hear!" But I would also encourage you to find some way for a follow-up moderator to help create something of value from the first step you have taken. In my opinion, one of the reasons that the NEA Four was defeated is that there was nobody strong enough to manage the process I described above and provide an acceptable alternative. We almost had it when Joseph Papp declined his NEA grant in protest of the inserted clauses concerning offensiveness, but it was too late -- the spotlight had moved on, and he was not supported by enough additional respected insiders to raise the profile of his protest.
Tuesday, August 08, 2006
Reactions (Bah, Part 3)
What an interesting day yesterday was. I continue to learn a great deal from the theatre blogosphere. While George Hunka has officially declared the Great Theatre Blogosphere Dustup of 2006 officially ended (Daddy, apparently having had enough, has turned around to tell the kids in the back seat "I can turn this blogosphere around and we can just go home!"), I would like to review the responses that I have gotten on my blog, and the comments that also were contributed to George's blog, as well as a few late posts to various blogs. At the end, I will respond to George's calling me out: "Scott describes himself as a man who "err[s] on the side of NOT stepping in and expressing my opinion, but rather allowing them to wrestle through things together." All right. Here's your chance, buddy. We're all listening. What do you really think?"
So, the comments. I'm just going to skip past the additional insults to my person, because...what's the point? But I am going to note one thing: read back through the dozens and dozens of posts on this blog -- you will NEVER find me insulting people personally, calling them names, or denigrating their professions. One of the reasons that I don'tmention specific productions on this blog very often is that I prefer not draw negative attention to specific people. In the original "Bah!" post, you will notice that I mentioned nobody by name or even hinted at specific people -- my attacks were completely in the realm of abstract ideas. That the responses so often took the form of personal insults was quite disturbing. I expected negative reactions -- I didn't expect them to be personal. At the end of the day, things got real ugly.
KILL THE BASTARD
The award for the most shocking response goes to none other than George Hunka, who took the incredible step of suggesting I be fired! So as not to beleaguer my poor colleague with a bunch of emails, I am going to delete the email address (if you want it, George has it on his site), but here is what was written: "Comments about the wisdom of allowing Prof. Walters to continue his tenure at UNCA can be directed to XXXXX, the chairman of the drama department there, at XXXXX@XXXX.XXX. I especially urge those of you who still believe in the value of a university education in the arts to look at this response." I guess the body of these emails would go something like this: "Dear Mr. Drama Dept Chair -- Please fire Scott Walters because he is mean and he doesn't agree with the rest of us. Thank you." To his credit, Joshua James immediately expressed queasiness about this approach: " I dunno George, it's a bit raw to take to the head of his department, don't you think? I'm as much an activist and rabble rouser as the next guy, but I don't really believe Scott or more or less equiable as a professor than anyone else teaching theatre at his college. not to say I'm defending him, I'm not. I don't think I'd like to have him as a professor. But I do think that it should take more than a nutty, provocative post on a theatre blog to cause someone employment difficulties, don't you think? I mean, it's smacks of something I cannot descibe but makes me feel kinda, I dunno, not right?" Thank you, Joshua. And while it may smack of something that you can't describe, I can describe it quite well: intimidation. The message he sent to the rest of the theatre blogosphere is: if you fall afoul of George Hunka, he will take you down. In the past, George has liked to use the word "chilling" when responding to certain of my posts. Welcome to the deep freeze, George. It is liable to be kind of crowded in there, because out of all the bloggers and blogreaders, only Joshua was even in the least troubled by the sound of your intellectual jackboots marching down my street. Over the past couple days, I have had just about every type of personal insult hurled at me short of "your momma wears combat boots," but this particular was the single most disturbing. Good job!
This was another fun game in which commenters delved deep (and not so deep) into my psyche, where they claimed to have found all kinds of nefarious reasons for what I have said. The award in this category goes to kim, a self-identified stage manager who, despite admitting that that she "was unaware of the existance of this whole mess until recently," felt that she knew enough about me and my past opinions to declare that I was really covering up a blogging social gaff! "It sounds," she declared, using her stage-manager's inate ability to "get down to brass tacks,"" more like you took an unpopular position, were challenged on it, and are now trying to pass it all off as a joke; I tend to mistrust people that can't hold on to their own opinions." To my amazement, George followed by admiring kim's ability "to make the most salient points," and then took me to task for stubbornly holding on to the same ideas I have expressed in the past! Which is it? Am I backtracking in the face of blogger backlash, or stubbornly refusing to change?
BLAME THE VICTIM
This is a common tactic used by perpetrators of domestic violence: you MADE me beat you up. Mac Rogers, in a post entitled "The Abusive Blogger," writes about me: "My feeling is that the only way to enforce decent behavior on the internet is through silence. If a blogger becomes abusive of his online collegues, the most effective way to correct his behavior is to ignore him, remove him from your blogroll, and not link to his website." Now, I invite Mac and any other blogger to do a simple exercise: draw a line down the center of a piece of paper and put at the top of one column "Abusive Comments BY Scott Walters," and put at the top of the other list "Abusive Comments ABOUT Scott Walters." Then cruise around the internet finding comments (as a starting point, you might start with the comments I have gathered above, and on the previous post). Post your list to my comments box. I think if you are being fair, you will find that my "abusiveness" in my initial "Bah!" post, the one that led to the lion's share of the shit flung, was confined to vigorous expressions of being less-then-impressed with the level of innovation in the American theatre and American theatre education, and that my readers are the ones who applied it to themselves and their friends. Aggressive? Yes. Abusive? Not in the least. But boy, the responses certainly crossed the line, and with alacrity. Special recognition goes to Ian Hill, who set the bar for everyone else.
BACK AT YOU!
These were the most amazing comments, because I found myself finding my very own central point rephrased and then thrown at me as a repudiation! To recap, here is my central point: ATTACKS BY OUTSIDERS, THROUGH ART OR OTHERWISE, ARE INEFFECTIVE IN PROMOTING CHANGE BECAUSE THE COMMUNITY'S RESPONSE TO ATTACK IS USUALLY ANGER, REJECTION, AND A RETRENCHMENT OF TRADITIONAL IDEAS. Now, here are some of the comments that were apparently calculated as repudiations of my methods:
1) Joshua James: "In fact, I may even agree with you on a point or two, had it been presented in a way that was, I don't know, more reasonable or thought out or just was a little less insulting."
3) RBDaug: "Um, if you know that pointless provocation is no way to build an ongoing audience - for a theater or a blog - then why exactly did you undertake this little experiment in the first place? Are you trying to drive readers away so that you can later complain that people are only drawn by pointless provocation?"
4) J Tzanis: "I am one of those 424 who came to this blog only via links from blogs that I actually do read. Provocation may sell, but a one-time hit is hardly a "sale." I can't speak for the other 423, but I'm not sold, and I certainly haven't seen any reason for a return visit."
YES! YES! YES! I agree wholeheartedly! I didn't choose to use attack in my original "Bah!" post in order to change minds, but rather to dramatically demonstrate that when people feel their deeply held values are under attack by someone that they view as unqualified to comment (i.e., an outsider) their natural tendency is to hold more firmly to those beliefs and attack the attacker. As a way of changing minds, my post "Bah!" was entirely ineffective -- in fact, if my main motivation had been to persuade people to accept those ideas, then it would have been a total failure because, in fact, it had exactly the opposite effect. The point is that a post like "Bah!" is no different than, and provokes the same reaction as, a play like Corpus Christi or a work of art like Piss Christ.
Now, that said, is there a place for such theatre? Absolutely -- these are plays for the choir. Beleagured and oppressed groups often need to have their strength bolstered, their spirits lifted, and their courage reinforced. Often, a good way to do this is by joining others in bashing the oppressive group. There is a sense of relief and community in hissing the villain and cheering the hero. But if you aspire to affect those who aren't already singing, you need other tactics, because if the villain is a caricature of me, I am not likely to hiss him.
WHAT IS TRUE
George wants me to speak up about what, in fact, I believe. This is going to be a cop-out, but I am going to begin by quoting someone else. Jill Dolan has a beautiful post on her blog "The Feminist Spectator," which she submitted to NPR's "This I Believe" segment. After briefly describing her childhood involvement in theatre, Dolan writes:
I know of no other secular gatherings at which I’m regularly inspired to laugh and cry with strangers. In those moments of breathing together, the people we watch on stage reach the audience with little bits of their souls through the transmogrifications of character or the illumination of language.
I feel this heightened community, this warm if temporary belonging, watching high school students perform diverting musicals like Guys and Dolls, as well as seeing serious Broadway performances like Fiona Shaw in Medea. Professional or amateur, performance captivates me with its enactments of the possibilities of our lives.
A friend and I, both of us white, middle-aged, Jewish theatre professors, went to see ten young people of color reading their slam verses in Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry Jam on Broadway, an exuberant evening of stories not regularly heard in that forum. We smiled even when we didn’t understand a reference, moved by the obvious delight of the younger people surrounding us.
Walking up the aisle after particularly affecting performances like Def Poetry Jam, I rub shoulders with fellow audience members embraced by the warmth of communal pleasure. These moments elevate us to a plane far above everyday life, and surprise us with a depth of present experience that brings us closer together, if only for a moment.
I prize these opportunities to experience public life in tandem with others, despite whatever differences of upbringing and identity might in other social circumstances keep us apart. I’m filled with hope knowing that strangers keep gathering to see people transform themselves into others or to tell us stories about their lives and our own.
I believe in the power of the collective creating and viewing performance inspires, when we confront each other in all our tender mortality and yearn together toward a common future. That bluebird in my hair as Mrs. Malaprop was a harbinger of belief in the possibility of theatre’s magical potential to let us laugh, feel, think, and dream together.
I have not had an opportunity to read Dolan's latest work, Utopia in Performance: Finding Hope at the Theatre, but I look forward to it with anticipation.
As far as my original "Bah!" post in concerned, much of what I had to say about theatre education pretty accurately reflects my feelings about my own profession. I don't find much innovative thinking there, and all too often I see a system that constricts creativity instead of releasing it. Many of you tasked me with doing something in my own teaching to change that, and all I can say is that I am trying my best.As far as the state of the theatre in general, I am usually disappointed. I see a lot of technically efficient productions that have very little nutrition for my soul or my mind. As far as innovation, there has been some since Brecht but not much, and what there has been has garnered few followers. Jerzy Grotowski had a new idea, and I am glad that someone like George Hunka is trying to build on it; Samuel Beckett was a giant; Robert Wilson is another innovator, as is Julie Taymor. I respect many theatre artists who are not innovators, but rather are building on the idea of previous innovators -- many of the artists that Alison Croggon mentioned in a post fall into this category: Churchill, Fornes, Shepard, Pinter, Brook, Mnouchkine, Kreutz. They are what Frans Johanssen in The Medici Effect calls "directional thinkers." They are extending the art form along already started pathways, and doing so brilliantly, but they are not innovators. Matthew Freeman is right to question whether innovation is important -- perhaps we need a period of directional thinking. But given the speed and severity of the changes happening in our culture today, I hope somebody is trying to innovate at what Johanssen calls the "intersection" of the new and the old. It is a mash-up world, as P'tit Boo says, and I think we need some mashup ideas.
Do I go to the theatre? Yes, I do. Not as much as I'd like, and I wish I had the money to see more in different places. I have never been to Europe, for instance, and I feel that lack intently. But for some reason, I find less and less in the theatre I see that feeds me. And that may be my problem, not anyone else's.
But the number of times I go to the theatre and see some kid in their mid-20s angrily shaking their finger at me and telling me how stupid and fat and complacent and awful I am -- well, it doesn't help. I am hungry. I am looking for revelations. I am looking for someone who seems to have enough imagination to stand where I am and poitn me in a direction that has meaning, excitement, and purpose. I want, like Jill Dolan, to be "inspired to laugh and cry with strangers." But what I usually get is either jollied and flattered, or condemned and lectured. Surely there could be more the theatre than that.
After three days of this, like George, I am tired. Over the past year, I have tried to make a simple point about what I feel is wrong about the theatre, but to no avail. "Bah!" was my last effort. To those who felt I crossed a line, all I can say is I did so out of a deep belief in the power and beauty of an art form to which I have devoted my life. And while many do not respect that my contributions have, at least for the past 10 years, been in the realm of education, that is where I have decided to pour my lifeblood.
I wish I could write like Jill Dolan. I wish I inclined toward the poetic, which others might find more inspiring. My mind, however, is more prosaic and more dramatic -- dramatic in the sense of being dialectic, living on the clash of ideas. It's what I do.
If I really thought "Bah!" about the theatre, I wouldn't be able to continue teaching it. I would go in another direction. But two weeks from now, I will be standing in front of a lot of undergraduates trying to figure out how to inspire their creativity and their independence. It's what I do, and I do my best.
Monday, August 07, 2006
The Distorted Mirror (Bah! Part 2)
Now, imagine a perfectly level plain in a desoltae land. In the foreground, an uneasy crowd of citizens huddle together on the ruins of an ancient temple. Beyond them, a broken altar, bristling with artifacts. Beyond that, empty space. An emaciated priest in disreputable garments stands before the ruined altar, level with the crowd, glancing into a distorting mirror. He cavorts grotesquely before it, inspecting his own image in several outlandish positions. The crowd mutters ominously and partially disperses. The priest turns the mirror on those who remain to reflect them sitting stupidly on rubble. They gaze at their images for a moment, painfully transfixed; then, horrorstruck, they run away, hurling stones at the altar and angry imprecations at the priest. The priest, shaking with anger, futility, and irony, turns the mirror on the void. He is alone in the void.
First, a nod toward Brustein (the much-admired subject of my dissertation): this is a powerful image, beautifully rendered. If you have not read this book, I recommend it highly. In it, Brustein lauds the great dramatists of the modern period: Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov, Shaw, Brecht, Pirandello, O'Neill, Artaud, and Genet. His writing is powerful, and his insights into the plays are often brilliant. It is a masterwork.
He goes on:
Detesting middle ways, scorning middle emotions, defying the middle classes, the rebel dramatist begins to celebrate, secretly or openly, the values of the extreme -- excess, insinct, emancipation, ecstasy, drunkenness, rapture revolt. Thus, the "damned compact liberal majority," as Ibsen called it, becomes the dramatist's chief antagonist. And since this majority constitutes the theatre audience, the spectator himself comes under attack, either assailed from the stage directly, or represented on the stage as a satirical figure.
For nearly a year now, I have been writing this blog, and during that time I have often questioned the value of this attitude of "revolt" on the part of theatre artists. Is it effective? Does it do anything more than alienate? Is it self-indulgent? Self-congratulatory? What purpose does hostility serve if the goal is to change hearts and minds, to change the way people live and see the world? And time and again, members of the blogosphere have argued that such an attitude is really the sign of the true artist; that to do otherwise was to provide expensive lap dances for the middle class.
Early this summer, I attended a conference on the Theatre of the Oppressed that examined Augusto Boal's fascinating techniques for using theatre as a way to create awareness, bolster empowerment, and encourage critical thinking. In preparation, I re-read Boal's book The Theatre of the Oppressed, and was particularly intrigued by his idea of Invisible Theatre. Invisible Theatre, according to Wikipedia, is "a previously rehearsed play that is performed in a public space without anyone knowing that it is a play. It will address a precise theme concerning social injustice, for example sexism, racism or ageism. It is intended to provoke debate and to clarify the problem among the people whom experience it." The key to Invisible Theatre, according to the Community Arts Network, is that it captures "the attention of people who do not know they are watching a planned performance... The goal is to bring attention to a social problem for the purpose of stimulating public dialogue."
I decided to do an experiment using my blog. On Monday, July 24th I wrote a post entitled "Maybe I Was Wrong," in which I rescinded my hands-off approach of non-confrontational blogging, and promised to try to "post something really extreme in the next week. Just to get the ball rolling." I then left that hanging for a while, waiting to see if anyone would respond. A few nodded encouragement, and eventually I received an email from George Hunka encouraging me to get off my duff and live up to my promises.
The result was a 1700-word post on August 6th entitled "Bah!" In it, I combined Boal's technique of Invisible Theatre with Brustein's description of the Theatre of Revolt, assuming the role of the priest who "cavorts grotesquely" in front of a "distorted mirror" before turning it on his audience. My intention was not simply to provoke a response -- I have done that in the past, and know that all one needs to do is gore somebody's ox to raise a bellow throughout the blogosphere. No, my purpose was experimental: I wanted to examine whether an aggresively provocative attitude of revolt that Brustein described and that many in the blogosphere defended as being valuable as a way of inspiring thought, reflection, and change on the part of the contemporary audience would have a positive affect on a group of intelligent, thoughtful, reflective theatre bloggers who seemingly shared my love of ideas and of theatre.
I crafted my post very carefully in an attempt to gore as many oxes as possible. I began, like the priest, cavorting grotesquely in front of a distorting mirror, describing my own growing dissatisfaction with the theatre and expressing a wish that the theatre might emulate modern corporate thinkers like Tom Peters, Thomas Friedman et al. Knowing my audience, I knew this combination would start the fire, since a passion for theatre and a disgust with capitalist commerce seems to be a commonly-held attitude. I then turned the distorting mirror on my audience, delivering a sweeping denunciation, filled with broad generalities, that dismissed as uncreative and lacking in innovation everything since Brecht. Of course, since many of my readers are artists themselves, by implication this description of the past fifty years dismissed their efforts as well as those of many admired artists. I then turned my distorted mirror on the void, attacking the state of theatre education, which was the biggest void I could think of.
What I wanted to see was whether my readers (or at least my fellow bloggers) would respond by "hurling stones at the altar and angry imprecations at the priest" (me), or, as many of these same readers (and bloggers) have argued in the past, whether my provocations would lead, rather, to valuable reflection and attitude changes. According to my readers, discomfort is good.
It has now been a couple days since I posted "Bah!" Let's examine the evidence.
The first couple responses, one from John Branch and another by Matt Freeman, were pretty tame -- indeed, John's was even kind. But the third response, from an anonymous blogger, started the ball rolling as things started getting personal. In a comment that I found amusing in its Shakespearean excess, Anonymous wrote that my post was "a wet, gaping void of ideas, under the banner of radical bar-rattling. It's a hydrophobic landlubber who thinks he's rocking the boat. It's a castrated hermaphrodite giving coital pointer at an orgy. It's a flat-Earther plotting course for Magellan." Anonymous then finished off with an unattributed nod to Samuel Beckett, "You are, to be very nasty, worse than a critic." Ouch! Fighting words!
Alison Croggon, in a less flowery but equally personal comment, displayed apparent knowledge of my personal theatre-going habits: "It occurs to me," she wrote, "that maybe you ought to get out more - and not to academic conferences about theatre, but to see some actual live real theatre..." She concluded, in a return trip, "Pull your finger out, Scott. Or open your eyes. Or go and see some theatre." This was a theme that would be repeated later, and which I will try to remember to address below.
By this point, what Matt Freeman called a "blog-lynching" seemed well under way. Ian Hill, who I don't believe I have ever heard from before, contributed a post on his blog entitled "Blood Up" that concluded with a photograph of Johnny Cash (I think) flipping the bird. Writing that "Scott wanted to put out something "really extreme" to shake things up and get a reaction, he gets mine," his reaction was instructive: a 2650-word (!) post filled with anger and invective. A few samples: "We are out here fucking, and you are a celebate, critiquing us based on your vast knowledge of mid-20th Century erotica and pornography." (Like the Anonymous blogger, apparently the biggest insult available is to attack my sexual potency or something. Here's another one, via Lucas Krech: "Reading the Joy of Sex does not devirginize you.") More: "Are you a theatre artist, or just an educator? And I do mean "just." (This also became a common theme: academy-bashing. What interests me about this is that about half of my original post was bashing the same academy. Guilt by association, I guess.) And: "I'm making fucking revelatory revolutionary art several times a year that changes the lives of a handful of people. That's enough. I want more, a whole lot more, but that's enough. You are a tourist with a typewriter."
James Comtois, who I have also not had contact with before, opined that I, a "cynical know-it-all theatre professor" and "a sideline sulker" had "cracked,"
The normally thoughtful, cerebral George Hunka joined the fray, referring to me as a "blinkered academic thinker" who "kill[s] the urge to creativity in their students." (The near universal concern for my students was very touching, and I am certain that they will be heartened to know that they are being protected by the watchful eyes of the blogosphere. But George, as well as Isaac and Matt, have been kind enough to mentor one of my students this summer, so perhaps they have inside information concerning my brutal tactics.)
I could go on -- the invective was pretty intense -- but I think you get the idea.
RALLY 'ROUND THE FLAG, BOYS
Another interesting phenomenon in this Invisible Theatre experiment was the way that the bloggers rallied around each other, cheering each other's ripostes and applauding each other's opinions. Luca Krech seemed to be the winner in this category -- at one point, I followed him through the comment boxes of several bloggers slapping them on their cyber butts and butting chests: " Hear! Hear!," he crowed at Superfluties at 10:56 on Monday morning; " Nice post," he applauded over at Matt Johnson's blog at 12:26; " Wonderful post!," at Matt Freeman's blog 9:32 this morning. There was quite a bit of this, actually: ISAAC: "Thanks for everyone's participation... George, I think you in particular have p'wnd this one. Anyway... carry on!"
And then there was the avuncular chortling. Over at Parabasis, there was the following exchange in reference to my comment about "shouting fuck in an empty theatre": COL: "I have never seen anyone yell fuck in a crowded theater, except in Germany. (Zing)." GEORGE: "Now yelling "theatre" during a particularly good fuck ... THAT'S revolutionary." JOSHUA: " LOL! Damn George, I'm going to be laughing about that one for a long time - and I'm jealous, I wished I said it!" The ever-supportive Lucas: "George, You should consider including a comedy in the Minima programming." IAN: " Oh, damn, George . . . LOL and I wonder how many of us are going to have that line come back to us at EXACTLY the wrong point in our personal lives. Some people might not find it quite so funny." JAMES: " I agree. George, when the hell did you become funny? (Ah, I'm just kiddin, ya big lug.)" IAN: "Oh, nearly forgot . . . Joshua James: "Damn George, I'm going to be laughing about that one for a long time - and I'm jealous, I wished I said it!" Ian W. Hill: (Brit accent) "Oh you will, Joshua, you will." GEORGE: "The only thing worse than having a high Technorati rating is not having a high Technorati rating." JOSHUA: "LOL! Ian, ya got me too." Har har har. The point is not that this sort of thing is wrong, or that it isn't funny (I did my own LOL at some of the faux-Oscar Wilde lines, particularly George's), but rather the function that it serves. Through the backslapping and chortling, each member of the "team" reinforced the other's cherished opinions.
YOU CAN'T TALK TO MY HOMEBOY LIKE THAT
JANE, YOU IGNORANT SLUT
The following comments take me to task for not being a part of the group under attack, in this case practicing theatre artists. Let's start with the heated Ian: "Are you a theatre artist, or just an educator? And I do mean "just." If only the latter, don't you fucking dare call yourself "we" with me. I outrank you. I work on revolutions almost every day. You write blog-manifestos to no point other then "tear it all down," with no idea as to how to do so or what to replace it with. And without bothering to go out and attend the cell meetings, it seems. You will just bitch and kibitz from the side while we pass you by. If we haven't already (let me look again . . . oh, we have . . . bye)." JAMES COMTOIS: "I have no time or patience for people who sit on the sidelines and roll their eyes theatrically and pontificate on matters they know nothing about (while being rewarded for their "bravery" by creating false controversy). This is fraudulent posturing, plain and simple....Mr. Walters, I am not a radical. I am a playwright. My job is to write plays, and to get them staged. Period. It is insulting to have you tell me I'm doing everything wrong. It is more insulting to have you do so when you have not seen or read a single play I have staged or written. It is even more insulting to have you do so after not familiarizing yourself to my work or the work of my peers and colleagues and yet assume that I should give you a modicum of attention when you don't extend me (or anyone in my field) the same courtesy." LUCAS: "You become a better theatre artist by making theatre. Praxis not theory. I am not theorizing here. These are not idle manifestoes written from some dark cubicle. I am describing my life. To quote Saul Williams, "I speak what I see, all words and worlds are metaphors to me." If you want some specific examples look here or here." Again, the message is clear: as an outsider, you have no right to tell me what to do, criticize my work, or really even have an opinion. Only those of us who are part of the club have the right to comment. And to some extent, I think they're right, or at least the position is valid.
THE EFFECTS OF PROVOCATION
In addition to behaviors cited above, the emotional effects were strong. According to the title of Ian's post, his blood was up, and the result is an "angry response." Joshua James, apparently fighting similar feelings, writes "I promised my lady I'd try and not fight so much these day. I told her I'd keep my drama on the page and stage and not in life, if possible." The most disturbing response came from Devore: "You've succeed, Scott, in doing what fifteen years laboring in the theater haven't done. All the starvation, the credit card debt, the working my ass off on one career that funds the other career, the nights and days spent writing, haggling, directing, striving, and producing, the empty houses, or bad reviews have never done. Take the fight out of me. Bravo, douchebag."
THE FINAL QUESTION
James Comtois sums it all up quite nicely: "Mr. Walters, what do you think will happen from this? Do you honestly believe for a second that we writers/directors/designers are going to be taking long, hard looks at our past and future works and figure out how to make them appeal to you (despite that you don't see our work)? Do you honestly believe (say) I'm quietly fretting about my upcoming play because you said modern theatre is no good, and that I'm wondering how I can fix it to please you? Who do you think you are?" Nicely put.
Obviously, this Invisible Theatre experiment is over, although I have no doubt that the invective will continue for a while. What have I learned?
1) That even the most intelligent, sensitive, creative, reflective, and open-minded members of our society, the artists (a group of which, by the way, I do not consider myself a member, just in case you were wondering), -- even the artists, who stand head and shoulders above the mass man in terms of intellect and empathy, will engage in personal insult, wagon circling, xenophobic attack of the outsider, self-congratulatory backslapping, and defensiveness if their beliefs are attacked by someone considered to be outside of the group.
2) That being provoked, even in ways that seem uninformed or unfair, can lead to dispiritedness and even depression by those whose work is attacked.
3) That ultimately, the criticisms are rejected out of hand, without consideration or reflection (beyond a few people, such as Matt Freeman), and do little more than cement even further the beliefs previously deeply-held.
4) And this is the most disturbing: my blog, which during the previous month was averaging 45 hits a day, as of this posting at 5:30 pm on Monday, has had 424 visitors. Provocation sells, and that is sick. My original post had little to recommend it beyond high emotion and vigorous attack --as many noted, there were no specific examples given, no intellectual support, no direct knowledge of most of the theatre scenes attacked -- and yet there has been a 1000% increase in people wanting to hear what I have to say.
To those who attacked me in such personal and violent terms, I did not take it personally. I expected it, I intentionally provoked it, and I actually found much of it admirable. There is great loyalty among the theatre blogaratti, and also what seems to be a deep sense of community.
But it is my hope that the conversations of these two days will be a cause for individual and group reflection as to whether provocation is as effective as the legends of the theatre of revolt would have us believe. The people in our audiences are parts of communities just like yours, and to those communities you are considered an outsider. Do you really believe that their reactions are any different, any more enlightened, than yours?
I am certain I will be attacked for having undertaken this deception, and of course that is everybody's right. But I think I learned more in these two days, both intellectually and personally, than I have learned in the previous year of blogging.
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