Saturday, May 27, 2006

On the Nose!

Alison describes a recent performance she attended where the house was filled with young people. She writes:

The point is really that there are young urban people who routinely read, who buy zines, who take out dvds by Jim Jarmusch and other alternative film makers, who listen to interesting music and go to gigs. (At least, here there are, and I can only assume that it is the case elsewhere). Why don't they go to the theatre? Because what they are given is not as exciting and interesting as the books, films or music they immerse themselves in, all of which take feeling seriously. Young people are feeling people (this is why young people go nuts about my books - because they are honest about emotion, don't cheapen it). When feeling is taken seriously on stage, intellectually and aesthetically - I'm thinking now of Black Medea, a breathtaking adaptation of Medea done here last year as another example, or of contemporary cabaret, which is black, funny, moves from poignancy to irony and back again - those young people will sit there, riveted. They don't care if they don't quite understand it. They don't subscribe to seasons, they are sceptical about advertising, they have grown up in a world saturated with media and are alive to all its spin, and they listen to word of mouth. What they don't like is being patronised or bored. That's the audience theatre has to go for if it wants to survive.

Absolutely! That's the audience I want to appeal to. That's the future of the theatre, if the theatre is going to have a future. Alison prescribes authentic feeling onstage, and if I'm not mistaken (and correct me if I'm wrong, Alison, please) the piece was very movement oriented. What else might make theatre appeal to a younger audience?
Alison replies:

I'm yet to review Kage, but will early next week. Yes, phsyical theatre, which is to say close to dance. But I also mentioned Black Medea, a play, which knocked the socks off some young people who went - contemporary theatre, with one of the most beautiful set and lighting designs I've ever seen, a text (yes, tragedy) based on the Greek but adapted to a contemporary indigenous fable, and lots of BIG acting. My test audience - I don't only take my kids, but their friends too - also adore full-on cabaret. I've noticed that they particularly like work thought of as avant garde, even if that's not quite the right word for it. One thing I took Zoe to and that she still remembers was a wonderful monologue based on the short story The Yellow Wallpaper. Berkoff's East was a big winner too.

All this theatre looked amazing,in different ways - it's not just about spectacle - sounded great, and was intelligent. It didn't "explain". (Film and tv means they're used to elisions). And they were all intense, demanding experiences, going beyond "entertainment". And often quite bleak. They react negatively to conservative theatre (even when I quite like it). They find it boring. But I think what they respond to is work which acknowledges their own feelings of confusion, despair, comedy etc about the world they find themselves in, ie this world. It doesn't have to be literal. Often better if it is not.

As a teacher, this rising generation fascinates me. They combine, as Alison says, "feelings of confusion, despair, comedy etc about the world they find themselves in," and yet at the same time they are quite determined to have a positive effect on someaspect of it. It is almost a sense of Negative Capability -- the ability to hold opposing views without reaching for certainty. There are so many possibilites for theatre in this.

Welcome, Cool as Hell Theatre Blog

Welcome, San Francisco Arts blogger Michael Rice, who says he is "extremely interested in attracting a younger demographic to the theatre scene, and increasing the number of people attending theatre." His podcasts are quite good, and I particularly recommend Podcast #52 of Monday Mic Mayhem, which deals with the idiocy of regional theatres refusing to cast local actors out of some misbegotten belief that a 100-zip code makes actors better. Welcome, Michael!


Courtesy of the "Borderland" blog maintained by Doug, a teacher interested in blogging:


By Doug on lists


Artists to my mind are the real architects of change, and not political legislators, who implement change after the fact. Art exerts a profound influence on the style of life, the mode, range and direction of perception. Art tells us what we know and don’t know that we know. (William Burroughs)

I was down at the creek at the bottom of the hill behind my house. I took my camera and looked around. Space. Quiet. I was listening. Trying to quiet the noise of my own thinking. Too much trying-to-understand. Not enough Being. It’s time to cool off. The end of school always leaves me feeling blown-out. I need to practice listening.

It’s difficult to explain the muddiness, the irrelevance, the pointlessness of anything I can think of to say. It’s a writer’s problem. I was looking for a word, an edge to grab. I lost my grip. I was out on my bike - the bike is a meditation machine - on a road cruise. There. It was Kerouac’s word. I’m beat. That’s all.

I got to wondering what Kerouac would have done with a weblog. From “Belief & Technique For Modern Prose: List of Essentials”, he offered some advice to writers.

1. Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy
2. Submissive to everything, open, listening
3. Try never get drunk outside yr own house
4. Be in love with yr life
5. Something that you feel will find its own form
6. Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind
7. Blow as deep as you want to blow
8. Write what you want bottomless from bottom of mind
9. The unspeakable visions of the individual
10. No time for poetry but exactly what is
11. Visionary tics shivering in the chest
12. In tranced fixation dreaming upon object before you
13. Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition
14. Like Proust be an old teahead of time
15. Telling the true story of the world in interior monolog
16. The jewel center of interest is the eye within the eye
17. Write in recollection and amazement for yourself
18. Work from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea
19. Accept loss forever
20. Believe in the holy contour of life
21. Struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in mind
22. Dont think of words when you stop but to see picture better
23. Keep track of every day the date emblazoned in yr morning
24. No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge
25. Write for the world to read and see yr exact pictures of it
26. Bookmovie is the movie in words, the visual American form
27. In Praise of Character in the Bleak inhuman Loneliness
28. Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better
29. Youre a Genius all the time
30. Writer-Director of Earthly movies Sponsored & Angeled in Heaven

There’s a lot of stuff broken and in need of repair around here at the moment. Living in the country a few hundred miles south of the Arctic Circle brings challenges that can’t really be ignored. Summer is short and sweet. Intoxicating endless daylight for two months. I come unhinged. There’s magic in it. There’s plenty to do, too, and the joy of getting the days and nights mixed up is beyond telling. For anyone who cares to look in, keep an eye on my recent photos. The edge of nowhere is where the work is now.

A little more Kerouac:

…And for just a moment I had reached the point of ectasy that I always wanted to reach, which was a complete step across chronological time into timeless shadows, and wonderment in the bleakness of the mortal realm, and the sensation of death kicking at my heels to move on, with a phantom dogging its own heels, and myself hurrying to a plank where all the angels dove off and flew into the holy void of uncreated emptiness, the potent and inconceivable radiance shining in bright Mind Essence, innumerable lotus-lands falling open in the magic mothswarm of heaven. I could hear an indescribable seething roar which wasn’t in my ear but everywhere and had nothing to do with sounds. I realized that I had died and been reborn numberless times but didn’t remember because the transitions from life to death and back are so ghostly easy, a magical action for naught, like falling asleep and waking up again a million times, the utter casualness and deep ignorance of it. (Sal Paradise, Ch. 10, On the Road)

“Belief & Technique For Modern Prose: List of Essentials” comes from a 1958 letter to Don Allen, in Heaven & Other Poems, copyright © 1958, 1977, 1983. Grey Fox Press.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

My Rules

I've been back a total of a few days, and already Lucas is complaining about my attitude. So let me make explicit the rules that I am operating under this time around on my blog.

First Rule: I have decided to use my own blog as a site of cheerful and enthusiastic provocation (ah, yes, the irony that I would use that word). My new stylistic idol is Tom Peters, whose book Re-Imagine! is innovative, energetic, and blunt. I plan to float new ideas, reshape old ones, and try to think outside the box. It is my hope that others will join me in building on and tinkering with those ideas -- consider them first drafts. As Isaac over at Parabasis writes in "Moving Forward," apparently in response to my "Irrelevance 2.0" post, "We don't really know how to build anything positive or new, and rather than learn to do so or endeavor to create, we tear each other down." I am always amazed at how quickly people use comments boxes to attack, dismiss, or find fault with what has been written. Which leads me to my...

Second Rule: I am only going to contribute comments on other blogs if I can add to or build on what was written -- no more snarky dismissals.

So, while I don't expect anyone else to follow these rules, this is where I am coming from. Had the first response to my post about pre-show ads been about ways such an idea might be tweaked to make it more palatable, we might have had an exciting conversation -- which I assume is what we all want. Instead, the first things were attacks. Isaac is making a good point.

Now, that said, I intend my style on my OWN blog to be energetic and blunt. If that is a style that annoys you, then vote with your browser and skip my posts. I'd rather have that than snarks in my comments.

Good Shows

In my comments box, Alison writes:

Hmm. Last night I went to see a physical theatre show (a very classy one - if Kage Physical Theatre ever come your way, go see it). The set was a boxing ring, the theme was masculinity, the sound was inventive, the lighting fantastic, the movement/choreography beautiful, and the result so much more interesting than I had expected. The theatre (I guess, 200-300 seats? the format was different from usual) was packed to the gills with young people - even the balconies were full - theatre arts students etc, so around 16-18 - and when it finished they all went crazy, whooping and standing up and cheering.

I reckon that's how you "save" theatre - you put on good, live theatre that doesn't cheat people, that shows them how exciting theatre can be, and how honest, and make sure young people see it. And maybe then they'll come back.

Absolutely! Hear! Hear! Couldn't agree more! But... (you knew there had to be a but, right?) how many of those sixteen to eighteen year olds would have been in that theatre if tickets were, say, $50 each? An idea like pre-show ads, or pre-show endorsements of other shows, is a way of leveraging money so as to keep ticket prices low and accessible.

But the question I want to know the answer to is: how did this theatre get word out to this group of kids? And second, is there a way to reach that same group who aren't theatre arts students? As great as it is that these kids were seeing a play (and don't get me wrong: it IS great), from another perspective it is yet another example of artists theatre people playing theatre to other theatre people. How can we widen the circle?

You paint and exciting picture, Alison -- tell me more!

Mirror-Up-To-Nature Weighs In

Maybe it isn't New Ideas 0, Status Quo 1: the game's still being played -- Mirror Up to Nature (see sidebar) has weighed in on the Pre-Show Marketing theme and has placed the discussion in a broader context. His example of ART is quite interesting, and the question I asked in his comments box was whether a pre-show announcement from ART endorsing a production at another theatre -- not an endorsement paid for by the theatre receiving it, but an honest-to-God "If you like this type of theatre, you'll also like X" endorsement by the ART itself -- whether such an announcement, coming from a trusted human being and not an anonymous slip of paper in the program, might make any of the audience more likely to give the second production a look-see. What do you think? In the meantime, be sure to check out MTN's thoughtful post.

Be Careful What You Wish For

Forty-two years ago, Robert Brustein published his brilliant book, Theatre of Revolt: Studies in Modern Drama from Ibsen to Genet. [Not Beckett, Genet -- a fact he regretted in the Preface to the Second Edition, but not enough to write a new chapter.] On the first page, Brustein presented two images, one of what he called the Theatre of Communion, which he identified as the "theatre of the past, dominated by Sophocles, Shakespeare, and Racine, where traditional myths were enacted before an audience of believers against a background of a shifting but still coherent universe." The other image was of the Theatre of Revolt, the theatre of the "great insurgent dramatists, where myths of rebellions are enacted before a dwindling number spectators in a flux of vacancy, bafflement, and accident." Here is the image:

[I]magine a perfectly level plain in a desolate land. In the foreground, an uneasy crowd of citiz3ens 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 ominsouly and partially disperses. The priest turns the mirror on those who remain to reflect them sitting stupidly on subble. They gaze at their images for a moment, painfully transfixed; then, horror-struck, they run away, hurling stones at the altar and angry impreccations at the priest. The priest, shaking with anger, futility, and irony, turns the mirror on the void. He is alone in the void.

Nice writing, huh? Maybe a little purple, but memorable and dramatic. My students really get the Theatre of Revolt from this image. My guess is that a lot of my readers will find this image of the modern dramatist really inspiring. The rebel outsider, the artistic priest in touch with Great Truth of Meaninglessness, the misunderstand and unappreciated loner howling in the wilderness. Self-absorbed, grotesque, angry, ironic, and wielding a distorting mirror. Oh, and significantly: alone.

One hundred and thirty years after A Doll's House, artists have gotten what they've wished for: they're superior and alone. The audience, who used to have few options when it came to narrative experiences, are now awash in them -- they ran away and never came back. Didn't need to -- they had three DVDs being delivered to their mailbox for less than $20 a month; they had millions of books, and audio books, and music available at the touch of a mouse. They had hundreds of channels providing non-stop entertainment for less than half of the price of a Broadway ticket.

If they think about that poorly-dressed and dyspeptic priest, and they rarely do, they give a derisive snort and dismiss him from their minds because they don't trust him or his vision -- they know his mirror is distorted.

Meanwhile, the priest continues to cavort grotesquely, wondering in the back of his mind where everybody went, and rejecting any suggestion that his antics have become irrelevant and his services unneeded.

MattJ, and all the theatre artists still young enough to not have their identity wrapped up in Theatre of Revolt ideology that gets off on "vacancy, bafflement, and accident," I challenge you to shake off this irrelevancy and make theatre something that is truly vibrant, imaginative, meaningful, stimulating, and most importantly, reflective of the 21st century and not the 19th.

Irrelevance 2.0

Repeat of quotation from below: U.S. Army Chief of Staff (1999-2003) Eric Shinseki once said, "If you don't like change, you're going to like irrelevance even less." Gonna be a mantra here.

So, we're going to start keeping track of all the new ideas that are floated in this space that are rejected because they will change things. Alison shudders at the thought of losing that "breathless, magic moment when the lights go down and the entire possibility of theatre hangs in the darkness" (apparently under the assumption that the lights will no longer go down in the theatre once ads are introduced -- never mind that many, many performances across this country already have a pre-show speech (live or on the God mike) asking theatregoers to turn off their cell phones, subscribe to the whole season, patronize the program advertisers -- horrors!); George envisions a Century 21 ad prior to The Cherry Orchard (apparently under the assumption that a similar ad won't already be in the program -- we'll sell ourselves only so far, I guess); and Lucas Krech is ready to let the whole art form die rather than permit ads into the temple -- even ads for other theatre performances, which was my proposal.

New Ideas: 0
Doing Things the Same Damn Way: 1

All aboard for the Irrelevancy Express!

Stay tuned for the next New Idea -- same bat time, same bat channel.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006


Alison Croggon responds to the suggestion of pre-show "ads":

*Shudder* My local cinema doesn't show ads, and so I go there all the time. I find ads before movies offensive enough. Yes, why not? Product placement on stage, ads before, at interval, etc. So much for that breathless, magic moment when the lights go down and the entire possibility of theatre hangs in the darkness...

I know, I know. And yet... I keep finding myself thinking of Lopakhin's desperate attempts to persuade Madame Ranevskaya to save her home by building tourist cottages. She keeps brushing him off by saying "But cottages -- how vulgar." Consider me a 21st-century Lopakhin flapping my arms and begging our theatrical Lyubimovs and Gaevs to do something or the whole thing will be lost. Of course, you know what happens in the play -- Lyubimov and Gaev continue in their attitude of denial and the cherry orchard is lost. Here's a test: can we learn from theatre?

To Hell With 'Em

MattJ provides a poignant response to my post "On Walls and Bunkers":

"I have mixed feelings about some of this I guess. One sentence from Clancy writes that young artists, since they are busy "finding their voice" (an idea I am not trying to dominish), have very little intellectual resources to contribute to a radical reconstruction of the downtown theatre scene. As one such person, who is of course looking for a voice like the rest, I feel as if I have nothing but resources to offer. It's not a lack of desire, will, strength, drive, etc. It's the need to prove to the existing theratre community of my own merits. The marginalization of theatre has led to a faction of sorts that closes in on itself, needing to be "broken into." It is thatvery insularity which shields out the young artist until they get some kind of break, because it's all based on who ya know. A professor of mine recently said to me "Matt, I think you're really talented. I really do. But, unfortunately, you're not going to get jobs based on your talent for a long time." It's a bit discouraging."

Yes, I think it is a bit discouraging, too, but for another reason entirely: just what the hell was this professor saying? Not only why would you say this to a young person with talent and motivation, but what is the underlying assumption? I'm certain this professor was trying to be "realistic," and thought he was doing Matt a favor, but think about what he is saying! Name another cutting-edge, innovative industry in this nation that 1) ignores young talent, 2) doesn't take advantage of the innovative ideas such young people have to offer, and 3) thinks it is doing young people a favor by pouring water on enthusiasm!

Matt, I say this: to hell with 'em. Not just this professor, but this general attitude that permeates our theatre education system. Don't think of yourself as having to wait for somebody to give you permission to innovate and create -- if the tech industry did that, Jobs and Gates would be middle managers at IBM waiting for permission to do something other than punchcard data entry and we'd be writing letters to each other via snailmail. The current theatre is moribund -- think in a new way. Look at the TCG listings for the regional theatres -- is that really what you aspire to? Is that really what is going to save theatre from creeping irrelevance? Think of a new way! Jobs and Gates worked in their garage -- what is the theatrical version of a garage? Hell, it may even be a garage! Or a spare bedroom. Or a homeless shelter. Or... who knows? Dare to innovate. Look at the "stuff" of theatre and ask whether there would be a new way to put it together that would be exciting and new. Turn things upside down and inside out -- throw the baby and the bathwater out and start over. Don't let these so-called realists get you down, don't cut your creativity to suit the times -- start your own revolution!

Why Not?

In today's NYT, under the headline "Enter Stage Right: Live Advertisements," Campbell Robertson writes: "Seven fifty-five p.m. A moment, in theater, of whispered anticipation, of studying Playbills, of turning off cellphones. And a perfect time, before a performance of "Stomp" at the Orpheum Theater in the East Village last night, for a commercial. "Give me a picture of the London scene," said an actress in the audience on her cellphone, supposedly talking to her daughter in London on the eve of her own trip there. No, to answer your question, there is nothing sacred."

But after my initial kneejerk reaction, I wondered: why not? Theatre isn't church, as much as we often talk about it as if it were. We're used to ads before films -- what makes us so damned special? Hell, why not use this time to promote other theatre, sort of like Amazon does with its recommendations for other books. "If you like this play, you'd also like..." and then pitch some Off-Off Broadway production. This could be the theatrical version of the Long Tail in action, and actually be a way for theatres to support each other. Sure, we could put it in the program, but why when, as Ken Kelling (the communications dfirector of the Visit London program) said, "They're a captive audience. They can't switch channels or change over or walk out once the thing is started." Exactly. To hell with our purity, these are desperate times. Consider the possibilities!

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

"Profitable" Meaning...?

From Campbell Robertson's NY Times article on the closing of Lestat: "the news of the demise of "Lestat" is only the latest in a two-week tally of theater closings that caps one of the most profitable Broadway seasons in history."

Profitable, as used here, seems to indicate a sense of health. But really...what other way might we define health that would give a truer picture of the wheezing dullness that Broadway has become?

On Walls and Bunkers

I've been following John Clancy's attempts to create a League of Independent Producers (I love the acronym), because he is dealing with a very, very important issue: the means of production. IMO the way we create theatre in this country is inartistic at best, and bizarre at worst. I sometimes find myself wondering what would happen to the novel if novelists had to work under similar conditions to theatre artists, i.e., with rules concerning how many hours a week they could write, when those hours could be, how many weeks they could work on a novel, when they had to take a break, etc. Or what about painters. Or poets. Our current "system" of production reflects the industrial age in which it came into being: there are "workers" and "bosses" who are creating a "product." It is a wonder that anything worthwhile gets created under those circumstances, and I think theatre artists should take a bow for that. But only a brief bow, because all hell has broken loose.

Things are changing. No, things have changed. They have changed everywhere in our society except in the theatre, which seems to think we can stay in our bunkers (using Clancy's excellent term -- read the whole post here) and hope all this change will go away. As SpearBearer wrote back in December, "I'm sticking with my general philosophy. As long as the actors don't quit, there will be theatre. And if there's one person in the audience, the show will go on." SpearBearer was right about one thing: pretty soon there will be one person in the audience -- probably another theatre person. Back in December, I wrote that theatre is conservative. I still think that is true, but I think that conservatism is a symptom, not the disease.

The disease is desperation.

Clancy writes: "Activism or organizing or agitating or whatever it is I'm doing when I talk out about a new League of Independent Producers, or a new Alternative Touring Circuit, takes time and thought and energy. Most theater artists in New York have a precious small supply of these three things and choose, wisely, to spend them on their work. This is especially true of younger artists still chasing their own voices and visions. So those with the most to gain from a systemic change in the Off-Off or indie world, the younger artists, have the least amount of resources to contribute." Well said, and so true. After reading this, I found myself thinking about Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Because of the desperate financial situation, most artists find themselves scrambling just to realize their physiological needs at the lowest level of the pyramid -- rent, food, clothing, and all the absurdly expensive things it takes to work in the theatre (e.g., headshots, classes, clothing, etc.). There isn't time, thought, and energy available evaluate abstractions like the means of production -- they're running as fast as they can just to stay alive. But the BBW (Big Bad World) is leaving us in the dust. It isn't enough to stay alive -- we need to do something, or we're gonna die.

Clancy's efforts are a crucial first step. What are the next steps?

U.S. Army Chief of Staff (1999-2003) Eric Shinseki once said, "If you don't like change, you're going to like irrelevance even less." Because we have refused to change our means of production, our relation to the customer (get over it -- if you sell a ticket, those who buy are customers), our sense of purpose, theatre has become increasingly irrelevant. It may be almost totally irelevant already. We need to be reading books like The World Is Flat , and The Experience Economy and The Long Tail and Re-Imagine and The Wisdom of Crowds figuring out how the hell they apply to what we do before we get Netflixed out of business. And rightfully so, if we can't come up with a way of creating art that reflects the 21st century. We need to get out of the Theatre section at Barnes and Noble and take a look at the Business section, because business long ago realized that constant and aggressive change is the only way to survive. Not in theatre -- we spend our time asking the world to change its attitude toward us, whining about the lack of public funding and the supposed shallowness of our audience and the crass anti-intellectualism of the American public. Get over it! The problem is the theatre, not the public! The enemy is in the mirror, even if A Chorus Line didn't mention it.

We need to destroy and reinvent ourselves, and now. Incrementalism is the enemy, because the crisis is here. Tom Peters, in Re-Imagine! writes, "I sincerely believe that in turbulent times bosses at all levels and at all ages ultimately earn their keep by Blowing Things Up and Inventing a New Way...not by preserving and (merely) Making Better the Old Way." It's too late to tinker; it's time to destroy and build anew.

What's the New Way? I don't know. I have a few clues, which I'll try to develop through this blog. But we need to channel a little of that vaunted creativity toward something other than the next show. John Clancy has started the ball rolling. Who's next?


Christopher Isherwood ends his review of "columbinus," a play the NYTW about the Columbine killings, with the following: "The phenomenon we confront in these little monsters, it seems to me, is one that neither journalism nor theater can analyze with satisfaction. It's the problem of evil. Better to leave that one to philosophers."

Leave the problem of evil to philosophers? Tell it to Shakespeare, Webster, Middleton, Ford right up to Labute. I know writing overnight reviews is difficult, and finding a tag line to finish with is particularly difficult, but come on, Christopher, at least avoid writing really, really stupid things!

[Yes, I'm back.]

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 ...