Saturday, June 03, 2006

Help with Film Clip

I conjure the power of the theatre blogosphere! O! Great Spirit! I seek advice. I am in search of a film in which somebody essentially picks somebody up, turns them upside down, and shakes all the stuff out of their pockets. Can you help me?

Friday, June 02, 2006

"Stones in His Pockets"

The Stoneleaf Theatre Festival has been happening in Asheville for the past week. I've been doing some house managing for the shows that are taking place in my department's space. Last night, I saw a wonderful production of Stones in His Pockets done by North Carolina Stage Company. The performances were flawless -- two actors (Charlie McIver and Scott Treadway) playing about twenty different roles, each clearly and vividly.

I can't decide how I feel about one-person shows, or even shows like this where two actors play many roles. One part of me thinks that it increases the theatricality and encourages the audience to actively engage its imagination; the other part frets about the miniaturization of the theatre and the slide toward what Aristotle called epic.

Uncharacteristically, I don't have a strong opinion on this issue. Something I continue to struggle with.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Changing the World

"You write in order to change the world, knowing perfectly well that you probably can't, but also knowing that literature is indispensable to the world. ... The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even by a millimeter, the way people look at reality, then you can change it."
--- James Baldwin

Lucas on Brook's "Deadly Theatre"

Lucas Krech over at Light Que 23 is examining Peter Brook's amazing book The Empty Space. His post on "The Death of the Deadly Theatre" asks us to see Deadly Theatre not as a place, a proper noun, but a verb, a gerund, something that happens and can happen anywhere. While reading a blog on technology in education immediately following having read Lucas' post, I came across a post that quoted the lyrics of a Randy Newman song that seemed so relevant to what I had just read. The song is called "I'm Dead," and it goes:

I have nothing left to say
But I’m going to say it anyway
Thirty years upon a stage
And now I hear the people say
Why won’t he go away?

I pass the houses of the dead
They’re calling me to join their group
But I stagger on instead
Dear God, Sweet God
Protect me from the truth


I’m dead but I don’t know it
(He’s dead He’s dead)
I’m dead but I don’t know
(He’s dead He’s dead)
I’m dead but I don’t know it
(He’s dead He’s dead)
Please don’t tell me so
Let me, let me go

The theme song for Deadly Theatre?

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Coloring Outside the Lines

From Jordan Ayan's book on creativity, Aha!, quoted by Tom Peters in Re-Imagine!:

"My wife and I went to a [kindergarten parent-teacher conference], and we were informed that our budding refrigerator artist [Christopher] would be receiving a grade of 'Unsatisfactory' in art. We were shocked. How could any child -- let alone our child -- receive a poor grade in art at such a young age? His teacher informed us that

he had refused to color within the lines...

which was a state requirement for demonstrating grade-level motor skills."

Another quotation, this time from Gordon MacKenzie's Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool's Guide to Surviving with Grace (and also quoted in Re-Imagine!):

"Following his 'retirement,' Gordon devoted a lot of time to the school system, coaching and commenting. He recalled a typical visit to an American elementary school at the turn of the century/millenium:
'How many artists are there in the room? Would you please raise your hands.' FIRST GRADE: En masse, the children leapt from their chairs, arms waving. ... Every child was and artist! SECOND GRADE: About half the kids raised their hands, shoulder high, no higher. [Their] hands were still. THIRD GRADE: At best, 10 kids out of thirty would raise a hand. Tentatively. Self-consciously. By the time they reached SIXTH GRADE, no more than one or two kids raised their hands, and then ever-so-slightly ... betraying a fear of being identified by the group as a 'closet artist.' The point is: Every school I visited was participating in a systemiatic suppression of creative genius."

Like Tom Peters, and John Taylor Gatto in A Different Kind of Teacher, I believe our school system "is a thinly disguised quash creativity."

And it gets worse.

Those one or two sixth graders fearfully raising their hands admitting to being artists -- those were us. Remember? And what happens is that, having held onto our creativity throughout high school (defiantly, secretly, questioningly) we are passed along to college drama departments that, in the interests of "helping" students to be "marketable," deprive us of nearly every shred of creativity, and independence, that we have left. I'm one of those college teachers. I went through a theatre department to get my BA, then another to get my MA, and finally one to get my doctorate, and at each level I learned how it "should be done." And now I, and most other drama teachers, pass this along. "You have to know the rules before you can break them," we chirp, as we deprive students of any sense of independence by casting them in mainstage shows that WE chose, that WE direct, and most of the time that WE design.

I propose that theatre departments start looking, and looking hard, for the kids who color outside the lines, force the Admissions Office to let them in, and then once they're there teach them to color not just outside the lines, but off the page entirely. Don't teach them to "fit in," teach them to question everything, to create plays and productions that they care about, and to produce them themselves in ways that they think speaks to today's audience. Months ago, Joshua James forcefully argued that drama departments should devote their seasons to new plays. I say go one step further -- new plays chosen, directed and designed by students, with faculty present only to facilitate their creativity. Help them to problem-solve, experiment, go one step further. Help them prepare for the theatre of tomorrow, not the theatre of yesterday.

Does this mean they shouldn't study the plays and techniques of the past? Absolutely not! But I think students should hold the figures of the past at arms length in order to pick their pockets of anything that is of value, and then they should be abandoned. Ruthless? Yes. Disrespectful? Maybe. But frankly, it is what those same figures did themselves to such great effect. A theatre history verison of Survivor. American Theatre Idol.

It is time for schools, from kindergarten to graduate school, to actively promote coloring outside the lines. Such coloring isn't accidental, it isn't a sign of a lack of socialization, it is exactly the kind of thinking that is going to lead to success in this new world that changes at the speed of light.

So what will I do in this effort? Well, I teach in a department, and like most departments, and most theatres, and most theatre people, it is pretty traditional. Want proof? Visit the webpages for almost any theatre department in the nation and see for yourself how similar the curriculum is no matter where you go. The old joke goes: QUESTION: "How many college professors does it take to change a light bulb? ANSWER: CHANGE??????" If anything, theatre departments are even worse than other departments -- why else are we still teaching Stanislavski almost a century after Creating a Role was published in America? It's as if
the ideas were brought down on tablets from Mt Sinai. Hasn't SOMEBODY had a better idea in the last, oh, fifty years? Oh, sure, we have Meisner (Stanislavski lite), and the really risky ones get some Viewpoints and some Suzuki, and their is a smattering of Mamet at oddball schools around, but mostly these courses are taught after the students have been innoculated with Stanislavski -- they are "advanced" courses, right? Only OK for students who have already had their legs hobbled.

All of which is to say: I'll do what I can. I'll make my courses as forward-looking as possible; I'll figure out ways to give students the freedom to color outside the lines; I'll encourage the oddball, and entertain the off-beat. I'll figure out ways to teach theatre history that isn't like piling stones on the souls of young artists, and play analysis in a way that opens up possibilities, and directing in a way that encourages the development of a new vocabulary. And I'll keep pushing for more student productions, more student involvement in play selection, more questioning of the "way things are done." Baby steps -- I must learn to be patient.

But dammit, it pisses me off!

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Pursue Failure (Damn It!)

Andrew Eglington, over at Desperate Curiosity, achieves a fascinating insight concerning his photographs that he calls "Vain Pursuits of Perfection." He writes:
I have uploaded around 150 photos to flickr over the past year, I even joined some of the photo pools, encountered the work of others, made some contacts, had my pictures rated and commented on, but it’s only now that I realise what has been troubling me about all this: the collective striving for perfection in the image. Good composition, balanced light, the right subject matter, in focus/out of focus, good depth of field/ miscalculated angles, erasing the elements that jar, the obstructions to beauty, hindrances to perfection, these pursuits are the mark of the amateur photographer. These pursuits mark my photos. I am an amateur photographer because I dare not depart from these rules lest my work be deemed unconvincing. I do not have the photographic conviction to present a medicore photo as a work of art.

What a great realization! Tom Peters, in his fascinating book Re-Imagine!, has a section that I've used as the title of this post: Pursue Failure (Damn It!). In it, he writes:

Consider this exchange between Regis McKenna, Silicon Valley's premiere marketing guru, and the late Robert Noyce, co-inventor of the integrated circuit, co-founder of Intel, and Silicon Valley legend:
McKenna: "A lot of companies in the Valley fail."
Noyce: "Maybe not enough fail."
McKenna: "What do you mean by that?"
Noyce: "Whenever you fail, it means you're trying new things."
Or, as futurist Paul Saffo puts it: "The Silicon Valley of today is built less atop the spires of earlier triumphs than upon the rubble of earlier debacles."
Kevin Kelly, author of Out of Control, makes the point this way: "The secret of fast progress is inefficiency, fast and furious and numerous failures."
If nothing goes awry, then nothing new can emerge. That is the Iron Law of Nature.
The secret to Success is...Failure.
The secret to Fast Success is...Fast Failure.
The secret to Big Success is...Big Failure.
It is failure, not success, that makes the world go around. Because failure typically means that someone has stretched beyond the comfort zone and tried something new...and screwed it up...and learned something valuable along the way.

I wish that theatre people would develop this attitude, because then I think we'd start getting somewhere. It is difficult, however, because we see the margin for error as so slim in theatre. With the economics of theatre becoming ever more desperate, the tendency is to play it safe, to hedge your bets, to create a variation of what has been created before (a better variation, of course, but still a variation).

Harold Clurman, in the wonderful video tribute to him called "A Life of Theatre," said that we don't need more masterpieces, we needed more flops, because if you have a lot of flops it means that there is a lot of activity and a lot of people taking chances, and masterpieces come out of that kind of environment. I couldn't agree more.

I think we have to embrace failure, because when we do, we can pursue risk, and that's what creativity is all about. This is not only true on the level of individual creativity, but institutional creativity as well. Regional theatres should embrace failure and seek risk, the NEA should embrace failure and seek risk (the current head of the NEA, Dana Gioia's recent crowing about how great it is that the NEA hasn't been the object of controversy sounds the death knell for the arts), college theatre departments should embrace failure and seek risk (especially college theatre departments, who simultaneously are educating the next generation AND are shielded from total financial destruction). We need to try things -- things we believe in, things that are wildly imaginative, and backed up by incredibly hard work. We're so afraid we're going to "ruin" theatre that we're letting it go to seed.

My friend, mentor and co-author, Cal Pritner, is fond of referring to theatre as "bio-degradable," and he is right! We may stink up the place, but eventually the air will clear. Nothing about theatre survives, and that's a GOOD thing -- it should give us great courage. Unlike an embarrassing film performance, which will hang around in perpetuity, a bad theatre performance disappears into the mists of history, unnoted and unremembered. What a great sense of freedom that should give us!

Of all of the art forms, theatre ought to be the most daring. George Hunka proposes "Erotic Tragedy" -- that's a risk. John Clancy proposes a League of Independent Producers, and that's a risk. Who's next? What are some of the other risks people are taking out there?

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 ...