Saturday, January 07, 2006

Poem by Delmore Schwartz

I just discovered these two poems, which I wanted to share -- there seems to me to be the spirit of the artist in them:


"I am cherry alive," the little girl sang,
"Each morning I am something new:
I am apple, I am plum, I am just as excited
As the boys who made the Hallowe'en bang:
I am tree, I am cat, I am blossom too:
When I like, if I like, I can be someone new,
Someone very old, a witch in a zoo:
I can be someone else whenever I think who,
And I want to be everything sometimes too:
But I don't tell the grown-ups: because it is sad,
And I want them to laugh just like I do
Because they grew up and forgot what they knew
And they are sure I will forget it some day too.
They are wrong. They are wrong. When I sang my song, I knew, I knew!
I am red, I am gold, I am green, I am blue,
I will always be me, I will always be new!"


Once, when I was a boy,Apollo summoned me
To be apprenticed to the endless summer of light and consciousness,
And thus to become and be what poets often have been,
A shepherd of being, a riding master of being, holding the sun-god's
horses, leading his sheep, training his eagles,
Directing the constellations to their stations, and to each grace of place.
But the goat-god, piping and dancing, speaking an unknown tongue or the language of the magician,
Sang from the darkness or rose from the underground, whence arise
Love and love's drunkenness, love and birth, love and death, death and rebirth
Which are the beginning of the phoenix festivals, the tragic plays in celebration of Dionysus,
And in mourning for his drunken and fallen princes, the singers and sinners, fallen because they are, in the end,
Drunken with pride, blinded by joy.
And I followed Dionysus, forgetting Apollo. I followed him far too long until I was wrong and chanted:
"One cannot serve both gods. One must choose to win and lose."
But I was wrong and when I knew how I was wrong I knew
What, in a way, I had known all along:
This was the new world, here I belonged, here I was wrong because
Here every tragedy has a happy ending, and any error may be
A fabulous discovery of America, of the opulence hidden in the dark depths and glittering heights of reality.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Has Anything Changed Since the 1920s?

From Harold Clurman's inspirational book, The Fervent Years:

"I enjoyed seeing plays -- my flesh had a natural hankering for the atmosphere of the theatre, even when the plays were contemptible -- but my mind was left dissatisfied. At that time I might have put it this way: In the books I read, in the painting I see, in the music I hear, in all conversations, I am aware of the presence of the world itself, I detect a feeling for large issues of human concern. In the theatre, these are either absent or diluted, frequently cheapened. The composers and the painters are searching for new words, so to speak, new forms, shapes, meanings. Aaron Copland tellsme he wants to express the present day, he wants to find the musical equivalent for our contemporary tempo and activity. Where is the parallel to all this in the theatre? There are little avant-garde performances here and there; Copeau speaks seriously about the theatre. Of course, the greaest poets of the past wrote for the theatre. Yet, despite all this, what I actually see on the boards lacks the feel of either significant contemporaneity that I get from even the lesser concerts of new music -- not to mention the novels of Gide, Proust, D. H. Lawrence -- or the sense of a permanent contribution to my inner experience that I get from some things at the Louvre, from the finale of Beethoven's Ninth, or even from the simple reading of certain classic dramatists. Where is the best thought of our time in the theatre, the feeling of some true personal significance in any of its works? Either there is something inferior in the theatre per se or there is something wrong about the practical theatre of today that escapes me. I can't live without the theatre, but I can't live with it. The theatre gives itself lofty graces, claims a noble lineage, but has no more dimension than a bordello!"

Table of Contents

I am starting to pack up my books for a move to a new office at the end of the month. I came across and anthology of plays from 1921 entitled Chief Contemporary Dramatists, which the introduction says is filled with "plays of the first order of excellence" from "the theatre of Europe and America." Here is the table of contents:

Milestones by Arnold Bennett and Edward Knoblock
Abraham Lincoln by John Drinkwater
Mixed Marriageby St. John G. Ervine
King Argimenes and the Unknown Warrior by Lord Dunsany
The Easiest Wayby Euguen Walter
The Piper by Josephine Preston Peabody
The Yellow Jacketby George C. Hazelton and Benrimo
The Loving Wife by George de Porto-Riche
Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Eostand
Pateur by Sacha Guitry
"Moral" by Ludwig Thoma
Living Hours by Arthur Schnitzler
The Concert by Hermann Bahr
Giocandaby Gabrielle d'Annunzio
The Bonds of Interestby Jacinto Benavente
The Lower Depths by Maxim Gorki
The Tragedy of Love by Gunnar Heiberg

Made me look at my copies of contemporary anthologies a little differently...

The Audience

Over on Parabasis, Isaac Butler quotes DF Wallace on the relationship between artist and audience, and I must admit that I am totally in agreement with Wallace, and am envious that he was able to put so succinctly what I have been writing about on this blog for well nigh 4 months! Check it out.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Crime Against Reality

In the midst of his review of the film The Chronicles of Narnia, Isaac at Parabasis (see sidebar) find himself musing on the effects of realism in film and theatre:

"The problem is, by literalizing all of this on film, the reader's immense imaginative capacity is replaced by that of the director and his (in this case, his, anyway) design team. As it must be in most film. The more literal an image becomes, the less the audience's imaginative capacity can be realized. This is not bad, it is simply the trade off. This is why some in the theater are getting very sick of realistic sets (see George's review of Celebration and The Room, Will Eno's interview in American Theater, or, well, my own directing work). The more realistic the set, the less complicity with the audience... the artist does too much work for them and their brains stop working on some level. It also becomes a much less wonderful experience for the audience, because watching someone else's complete imaginative act can at times be about as interesting as listening to someone else's stories about their children."

While we could have an interesting discussion about the different imaginative demands of books, theatre, and film (and I hope we might have such a discussion in the future), the phrase I find most interesting in Isaac's post is "The more realistic the set, the less complicity with the audience." Complicity. My dictionary defines this word as "Involvement as an accomplice in a questionable act or a crime." Perhaps Isaac did not consciously mean to use a word with such nefarious, transgressive overtones, but he did use it nonetheless, and it set me to thinking.

The "questionable act or crime" with which the audience is complicit in this case, is a crime against realism, against reality; it is a crime of imagination. A visit to the thesaurus' listing for "reality" revealed the following:

absoluteness, actuality, authenticity, being, bottom line, brass tacks, certainty, concrete, corporeality, deed, entity, existence, facts, genuineness, materiality, matter, object, palpability, perceptibility, phenomenon, presence, real world, realism, realness, realness, sensibility, solidity, substance, substantiality, substantive, tangibility, truth, validity, verisimilitude, verity, what's what

The listing for "imagination":

acuteness, artistry, awareness, castle-building, chimera, cognition, conception, creation, creative thought, creativity, enterprise, fabrication, fancy, fantasy, idea, ideality, illusion, image, imagery, ingenuity, insight, inspiration, intelligence, invention, inventiveness, mental agility, notion, originality, perceptibility, realization, resourcefulness, sally, supposition, thought, thoughtfulness, unreality, verve, vision, visualization, wit, wittiness

An interesting contrast: "what's what" versus "what might be." Is imagining what "might be" a crime in contemporary America? Is "castle-building" a crime against the "bottom line"? On the one hand, we are always searching for the next Big Thing, the new invention or idea that will catch fire. This is corporate imagination, firmly tethered to the reality of the market. In the theatre, corporate imagination takes the form of shows that take formal or stylistic baby steps: The Lion King or Avenue Q, for instance. Audiences flock to them because they can get a whif of the bracing air of imagination, even if there isn't so much that their hair will get mussed. The come to the theatre filled with hope that they might be transported.

Americans (and even American artists), however, tend to run from imagination that strays too far from reality, that dares to imagine a new reality, a new way of doing things, a new way of being, and of being together. We want it so badly, but we are so afraid. Kushner's Angel crashes through the ceiling, promising a new American beginning, and we hold our breath in anticipation. But the Angel never really gets around to describing what the shape of the approaching millenium looks like. She's a tease, an angelic Tony humming "Something's Coming" without ever delivering. "It's only just out of reach, Down the block, on a beach, Under a tree. I got a feeling there's a miracle due, Gonna come true, Coming to me!" Ultimately, for all its good intentions, this is a failure of imagination, an unwillingness to take the leap of faith necessary for imagining a better tomorrow, the portrayal of even a small slice of utopia.

We use our imagination in a limited way by inventing dystopias. I say limited, because dystopia is firmly tethered to reality. It takes the current situation and magnifies it until it is monstrous (and these days, the magnification required for monstrosity is not very great). But at root, it is realism nonetheless. We are much more comfortable excoriating reality, denouncing its injustices, condemning its abuses. We are much happier pointing at the ugliness and shouting, "See! That's how it is! That's what's what." Pessimism is based in material reality; it takes optimism to imagine something different.

Gandhi once said, "We must be the change we wish to see in the world." But before we can be it, we must imagine it. Nothing comes into the world without it first being imagined. And imagination takes courage -- the courage to defy the crowd and free ourselves from reality. Artists dream, it is their primary skill. But it is so easy to lose courage. In The Master Builder, the architect Solness says that he started off his career building churches, but following a crisis of faith, he began building "homes for human beings." The young woman who bursts into his life, Hilda, inspires him to build "castles in the air," but after so much time on the ground, Solness finds the view from the top dizzying and he falls to his death.

It is a powerful metaphor for the theatre, which has its early roots in religion, but has come over time to focus on homes for human beings. You can sense playwrights like Kushner and directors like Taymor eyeing the castle spire, and even beginning to climb, but ultimately backing away in the face of Solness' plummet. At the bottom, most of society stands shoulder to shoulder, thrilling at the ascent, but also shouting "You're a dreamer" at the top of their lungs. It is no wonder artists get dizzy.

In this month's Utne Magazine, there is an interview with activist Robert Gass, who says that it is necessary for activists and leaders "to really become part of the solution rather than part of the problem, we must, even in the midst of chaos and struggle, go beyond railing against what we don't like. We must learn to keep our hearts open, and to dream the positive future we want to create." In other words, we must use our imagination, not our realism. But we don't have to do it alone.

Going back to Isaac's word "complicit," by definition it involves being an accomplice, "one who aids and abets a law breaker in a criminal act, either as a principal or an accessory." The artist and the audience are accomplices in an act of imagination, a crime against reality. It is a partnership, a relationship, and a unified assault on the way things are, a breaking and entering into the possible. This is why, it seems to me, true artists form the avant garde: they imagine what isn't, and they lead search parties into dangerous, new places that only they have explored.

We can give each other courage -- the courage to imagine. The courage to free ourselves from reality, from realism. Let films fill in all the blanks for us -- the theatre can ask the audience to use its imagination to create a new world, and once they have done so in the safety of the theatre, then perhaps it will be easier to use its imagination in the world. As Willie says to Sam at the end of MASTER HAROLD...and the boys, "Come on -- let's dream."

Books I'm Currently Reading

A fascinating book that describes the techniques involved in facilitating "conversations that matter." Foreward by Meg Wheatley, afterward by Peter Senge. A new theatre project I am working on this semester will incorporate these ideas into the performance.

I picked up this book at the library on a whim a few days before New Year's Eve, and it was one of the most fortunate whims I've had for a while. Kay Redfield Jamison writes about the "passion for life" in an -- well -- exuberant fashion. The book begins with a chapter on Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir, then a chapter on exuberance in nature, and playing in animals. When I closed the chapter on Roosevelt and Muir, I thought, "I used to be exuberant. How did I let myself become so cranky and uninspiring?" This led to one of my resolutions for the new year: Be Exuberant. So far, so good!

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

After the Show

Over at Gasp!, Laura Axelrod posted a thoughtful response to the Frederick Turner manifesto that she called "Defining Art." Near the end, she responded to my own addendum: Artists should create opportunities for spectators to share ideas and emotions with each other and with the artist. Laura wrote:

"Speaking as someone who has written plays that have caused great reaction in people, I don’t find it helpful to present myself as a target for their emotional processes. If they need to talk amongst themselves, that’s fine. But I’ve been yelled at, raged about, sobbed on and have had a whole other range of emotions tossed at me after production of my work. When I given people an opportunity to discuss what they’ve seen with me, they’ve often put the focus on me rather than their own thoughts. “Why did you write that? How dare you write that! Did you experience that?” etc. I’ve found that it’s just not helpful or me to make myself available. I'm sure there are others out there who feel the same way."

I emailed a response thanking her for her thoughts and briefly explaining my reasoning, and Laura sent me the following:

My objection (and that might be too strong of a word) about your last point on that entry was based on personal experience. I've been a part of discussions, both as an audience member and as the writer. It seems that those "post" discussions can often become a car crash of people "processing" what they've seen. Perhaps if you talked a bit more about what you mean on the point, we might agree. Who would lead these discussions? What would be the point (besides building community?) What role would the writer/actor/director have in it? Would the artists be forced to "defend themselves"? What is the intention and what would everyone get out of it? I'd love to hear your answers."

Laura makes excellent points, and raises important questions. A post-show discussion that is poorly run, like a playreading or workshop that is poorly run, does more harm than good. I don't think a post-show discussion should be an opportunity for artists to be attacked, and in the case of a new play, I don't think it should be an opportunity for audience members to tell the playwright how to make the play "better." The best way for a playwright to learn what an audience thinks about a play is to do what playwrights have been doing since time immemorial: watch the audience during the performance. Spectator's reactions in the moment are more true than any attempt on their part to explain them later.

But I do think that a well-run and focused post-show discussion can be important for both the spectators and the theatre itself.

Recently, there was a study done that revealed that people went to different cultural events for different reasons, and that the majority of people went to theatre to socialize. Now, one way to interpret that is that people are looking for, in John McGrath's phrase, "A Good Night Out" -- going to a theatre to be entertained with friends or loved ones. But if that was the total meaning, then why not simply go to a restaurant or a bar and have a conversation? No, in this case, I think "to socialize" also means be part of a group, to share an experience. This desire is what Jill Dolan (quoted below) calls "utopian performatives," which she defines as "those moments when you go to see a performance and feel yourself in the presence of a group of strangers experiencing a moment together that fills us with hope that our world might be better than the way we currently know and experience it." My theory, which remains untested, is that often spectators would like that moment to be extended.

I believe people like to share experiences. They like to share their own thoughts, and even more importantly they like to hear the thoughts of others. They want to feel like they are part of a community, a group of people who together experienced that unique performance and who had specific reactions to it that perhaps were shared. Using a play as a common bond, for a little while the barriers between people that we have come to call privacy can be breached, and people can talk to each other.

I have been to quite a few post-show discussions, and I have facilitated quite a few as well. They all have had the same format: the spectators who want to stay and talk gather in a section of the theatre, and either some of the artists or a panel of experts chosen according to the play's subject matter gather on the stage; the facilitator either gets the ball rolling by asking a question first, or he opens the floor to comments. Either way, what transpires usually isn't a conversation, but an interview; and if a conversation does happen to evolve, it is usually spectator-to-artist-to-spectator mediated by the facilitator. These can be lively and interesting, but they are also rather artificial. And what is missing is what I consider to be the most important element: conversation between spectators.

I think that a post-show discussion would be more enjoyable and vibrant if the audience and artists were mixed together and broken into small groups of four or five, and perhaps provided with a focus question, or developed a focus question themselves. After a certain amount of time, everyone would change groups, and the conversation would continue, with each person explaining the main ideas discussed in the previous group and then extending the discussion from there. Depending on the amount of time you had, this could happen again. At some point, everyone would come back together as a whole and share the main ideas that had developed with the entire group.

The focus of the discussion would be the play itself, rather than how well the actors performed or how effective the designs were. Artists who were not onstage would have the option of revealing who they are or not -- they could either "lurk" or uncloset themselves according to their preference. In fact, except for a having a facilitator to organize the discussion, artist participation would be entirely optional, because the focus would be on the audience, not the artists.

The result, it seems to me, would be a more complete and satisfying experience for those spectators who chose to participate, and it would be an experience that could only be had in the theatre. I think it would create a stronger bond between spectator and theatre institution. If I were running a theatre and setting this up, I would provide free coffee and baked goods to create the right atmosphere. I'd set up card tables in the lobby with a votive candle on each for people to converse around. In short, I would make it a comfortable and enjoyable event.

None of this is original with me (although its application to theatre may be new). You can check out how this technique has been used for social and organizational change at The World Cafe. The idea is that we can shape our future through conversations that matter. I think theatre can not only be a part of those conversations, but be a catalyst for them. And I would like to see that happen.

Brecht's Lehrstucke were designed to lead into these kind of conversations. I think, if you wanted to go Brecht one better, you would insert these sort of conversations during the performance -- say, between the acts. Now that would be interesting...

Monday, January 02, 2006

Jill Dolan and Film and Theatre

Over at The Feminist Spectator (see sidebar), Jill Dolan in "Holiday Films: Mainlining Popular Culture,"does a wonderful job responding to the films she spent part of her holiday watching. If you're wondering what to see, I recommend you check out what she has to say. Near the beginning of her essay, she has a wonderful description of the differences between the film experience and the theatre experience that I wanted to quote:

But first, this experience of spending so much time in movie theatres instead of
live theatres has made me think about the differences I feel consuming the two
forms. In a brief piece in last week’s Entertainment Weekly—which I read
religiously, since I enjoy the smart, literate film reviews by Lisa Schwarzbaum
and Owen Gleiberman—their “Ask the Critic” column answered a question from a
reader who wondered why it’s so much easier to tolerate plot confusions or
peculiarities on television shows (or films on tv) than it is when you go to see
a movie. Schwarzbaum replied that we go to the movies with so much more hope,
that schlepping out into public to be with people to watch something on the much
bigger screen demonstrates an investment of hope for the experience that shoddy
plotting disappoints.

Her remark seemed right to me, and very much in line with my own belief in what I call “utopian performatives,” those moments when you go to see a performance and feel yourself in the presence of a group of strangers experiencing a moment together that fills us with hope that our world might be better than the way we currently know and experience it. Performances, because they’re live, are richer for me than film: the presence of the actor in front of breathing spectators implies an expectation that sharpens our watchfulness, our awareness of ourselves as a group, and the potential for our hope to translate into action.

These comments increase my interest in getting a copy of Dolan's book Utopia in Performance, because she seems to be writing about something I have been trying unsuccessfully to express on this blog: hope. An ad for a presentation Dr. Dolan gave in February at the Institute for the Study of Culture and Society described a "Utopian Performative" this way:
What is a Utopian Performative? How can it enable us to reclaim the language of
humanism, of commonality, and of hope for a collectively better future? Drawing
on the work of J.L. Austin and Victor Turner, this talk explores how live
performance produces a place where people share experiences of meaning making
and can imagine a better world. The affective and ideological "doings" we see
and feel demonstrated in utopian performatives critically rehearse a civic
engagement that articulates the positive rather than the insurmountable
obstacles to human potential.

Dr. Dolan was the head of the Theatre Department at City University of New York Graduate Center when I was working on my dissertation, and I have always found her to be an insightful and generous human being with a boundless appreciation for a variety of theatre. I have nothing significant to add to the description above at this point, except to indicate my own hope that I may have found someone with a viewpoint I can share.

If I'm not mistaken, one of my fellow bloggers (was it George?) had been reading Dolan's book. Can you provide us with an information?

Sunday, January 01, 2006

On the Good, the True, and the Beautiful

Right before signing off, SpearBearer Down Left wrote:

And what's all this talk about truth? Recently Scott Walters posted a manifesto of Frederick Turner (which irritated more than a few) which contained this phrase: "The experience of truth is beautiful," a phrase which I think has incredible importance in the study of art. Art should put us in contact with what is true. Now immediately I can hear the reaction: "whose truth? who is to decide?" Well that's easy: mine, and me, of course.

Seriously though, each one of us decides, because art is not science—it's not exact, it's not description. It suggests something which rings true. People may be squeamish about the "t" word — worrying that fascism follows shortly behind—but I would argue that the experience of truth is what enables us to call a play "insightful." It's because something in it strikes a chord—we recognize something that's true, even if we can't always articulate it.

As always, SBDL was articulate and thoughtful. I think all too often, we have let the crazies co-opt useful words and concepts. Truth is one; morality is another. We allowed Jerry Falwell and Bill Bennett to grab that one, and now if someone says something about morality we all get the heebie jeebies and we mumble something about fascism while we glower darkly.

But what is it if not morality that allows us to say that intercepting people's phone calls and emails without a warrant is wrong? What is it that allows us to say that it is wrong for corporations to destroy the environment, or to buy goods from sweatshops, or to invade Iraq for its oil, or to lie to the American people about all manner of things? What is it that allows us to say that peddling political clout ala Tom DeLay is wrong? Most of our stronger, and most valuable, opinions are based on a sense of morality, and the fact that we don't put those beliefs into words doesn't make them any less morally-based.

Another word with a bad rap is "beauty." We have allowed Madison Avenue and Hollywood to corrupt that one. Now it means either sentimentally pretty (ala Thomas Kinkaid) or sexy (ala name-whatever-sultry-starlet-you'd-like). But beauty (George Hunka might prefer "sublime") has a long and noble history that we have ignored at our peril.

The Good, the True, and the Beautiful. How could we, as artists, have given up our claim on those old and noble ideas? It seems to me that we must reclaim, and reinvigorate, these concepts in our vocabulary and in our aesthetics. We musn't let the narrow-minded and the hateful redefine those terms in ways that make them untouchable, but we must wrest them back and make them our own again. For without them, our world will continue to slide toward dystopia.

Meme of Four

OK, I guess I'll do it, too...

Four jobs I've had in mylife...
  • Assistant to the Dean of the College of Fine Arts, Illinois State University
  • Associate Artistic Director, Illinois Shakespeare Festival
  • Director of the Illinois Summer School for the Arts
  • Editorial Assistant, Performing Arts Journal/PAJ Publications (same job that George Hunka had several years previous!)

Four Movies I Could Watch Over and Over...

  • Laurel and Hardy's Way Out West
  • Con Air (I can't help it!)
  • What's Eating Gilbert Grape? (for Leonard diCaprio's performance, which is incredible)
  • Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet

Four places I've lived...

  • Minneapolis, MN
  • Normal, IL
  • New York, NY (twice)
  • Asheville, NC

Four TV shows I love to watch...

  • The Dick Van Dyke Show
  • I Love Lucy
  • House
  • The Bob Newhart Show

Four places I've been on vacation...

  • Tangier Island
  • Lake Huron in Michigan
  • Shenandoah Valley in Virginia
  • Cape May, NJ

Four websites I visit daily...

  • Superfluities
  • Arts Journal
  • Theatre Matters'

Four of my favorite foods...

  • Corn on the cob
  • Fresh baked bread (my wife makes amazing bread)
  • Chicken Chili
  • Pizza

Four places I'd rather be...

  • Ireland
  • Greece
  • That's all I can think of! To be honest, I wouldn't want to be anywhere but here...

Think Again: Funding and Budgets in the Arts

Every once in a while, I think I'll post a link or two to posts written earlier in the life of Theatre Ideas that seem worth revisiting ...