Friday, April 27, 2007

Daisey -- Late to the Party

It is the last week of school, and it has been one damn thing after another, so I didn't really have time to follow the Mike Daisey dust-up. Yesterday, I watched the You Tube video, and today followed a few links.

To my amazement, given that Garrett Eisler and I didn't really see eye-to-eye on the Rachel Corrie issue, I found myself sharing Eisler's evaluation of the situation. Often in this space I have engaged my fellow bloggers over what seems to me to be the hypocrisy of theatre artists who create performances that are designed to provoke and then are outraged when somebody actually responds to the provocation! Such artists love to be outrageous, but then are outraged when their spectators adopt the style themselves. So much of In-Yer-Face theatre is built on the assumption of the passive audience who will sit quietly while the artist assaults it. This is a fairly recent model.

Theatre audiences at least since Shakespeare's time, and probably long before that, have regularly thrown all manner of projectiles at the stage when dissatisfied. In many ways, this kept the artists honest. They knew that their job was to address the people in the seats, and please them in some way. It didn't have a "chilling effect" on the playwrights -- Shakespeare didn't start cranking out dozens of simple-minded comedies as a result -- but it did keep them mindful that the audience is an active and central part of the theatrical experience.

This tradition of an active audience continued through the Romantic Era (when spectators regularly rioted -- c.f. the Hernani dust-up) and throughout the era of melodrama. At some point in the 20th century, politeness became the default. And on the one hand, actors breathed a sigh of relief because they felt safer -- but on the other, they may have mourned the loss of a truly involved spectator.

Eventually, playwrights began to use that passive spectator for their own purposes, using them as a theatrical punching bag knowing that retaliation was unlikely. Peter Handke, in Offending the Audience, was not the first or last to do this, but certainly was the most forthright about his intentions. Unfortunately, I don't think that the spectator who poured water over Daisey's manuscript represents a movement back towards a more active audience, and I think that is a shame. It might lead to a level of respect between stage and auditorium.

Garrett has taken a lot of heat over his opinion, but it is entirely consistent and serious, and I applaud his courage in taking a position that will likely allienate him from many so-called right-thinking bloggers.

For my part, while I sympathize with Daisey's disorientation of the departure of 1/3 of his audience, and I suspect I would find few points of agreement between myself and the water-pourer, I think it is about time that audiences reclaim their right to not only walk out, but to disrupt performances they feel unworthy. And I think it is time that artists learn to deal with it.


Mike Daisey said...

Huh. I think I agree with most of your post, though I will say that I don't really fit in the camp of artists who are provacateurs--I'm more interested in engagement than provocation, and I can't really recall anyone calling my work "outrageous" in the past. As a lot of your post regards artists who work in this idiom, I can only assume it is meant for them, and not for me.

I'm very interested in an engaged audience, and the work does help create that atmosphere owing to the lack of scriptedness and the dissolving of boundaries between myself and the audience. I think it's compelling work, and I'm delighted that this incedent is receding into memory so that I can get back to work.

Scott Walters said...

Mike -- From what I saw of your work, I wouldn't call it especially provocative, either. There wasn't anything particularly "in yer face" about it. Much of what I have written on this blog over time has been about the artist as part of a community. What you were doing is perfectly acceptable among the theatre community and the type of people who go to less traditional types of performances. What we saw in the case of your performance was an encounter between two different communities -- a heterogeneous audience. The rules of conversation that applied within one community was seen as a safety issue in another. A question I might ask is whether you, as an artist, would be willing to adapt your conversational rules in order to communicate with the audience that walked out, or whether it is a take-it-or-leave-it type of thing. I think if you know your audience, you also know the rules, and that allows certain freedoms. It seems to me the larger you expand that circle, the larger you have to expand your own artistic vision in order to comunicate. So my question is: had the 87 come back and sat down, would you have, or could you have, presented your material in any different way?

Mike Daisey said...

Scott, I'm not trying to be combative, but I find that responsely hideously elliptical.

I think what you're asking is if the 87 had engaged me in conversation, would I have had a conversation with them. The answer is yes. Would I have eventually woven it back into the performance that evening? The answer is also yes.

This talk of heterogeneous audiences is academically interesting, but I believe that any adult in our culture (and most of the young children) know it is wrong to deface and destroy other people's personal property--so I don't think their composition plays a very large role in this conversation.

Alison Croggon said...

Again, I'm curious to know who these assaulting artists are. I can think of one troupe that actively assaults audiences - comedians. I saw brilliant duo Los Trios Ringbarkus in the 70s; they were outrageous. They poured water in people shoes, and dropped custard on them. Or Barry Humphries, who attacks anyone in the front row of his audience. They were enormously popular, on the the other hand, because they were also incredibly funny. So in those cases, audiences enjoyed the assault (except maybe the man with the shoes, but even then...).

I would not say that Kane, or Arabal, or Beckett or Koltes or Genet are "assaulting" their audiences; that seems to me a total reduction of a certain kind of art. And I would think a theatre without these people in it is immeasurably poorer. These kinds of conversations do make me glad that I go to theatre in Australia; even if high art is difficult to make, as it is difficult to make anywhere, there certainly isn't this kind of attack on it, and it finds audiences. Maybe even growing audiences in Melbourne. Tell me Scott: where does this mindset differ from the condemnation of "Decadent Artists" in 1930s Germany?

Alison Croggon said...

70s? Los Trios were around in the late 80s. I'm making myself older than I am...


Please note the following links devoted to the work and person of Peter Handke.

and 12 sub-sites [the drama lecture]
[pertaining to scriptmania matters] [dem handke auf die schliche/ prosa, a book of mine about Handke] [the current American Scholar caused controversy about Handke, reviews] [some handke material, too, the Milosevic controversy summarized]


Member Seattle Psychoanalytic Institute and Societyi
Visisting Scholar Germanics 1996-2006

Anonymous said...

A couple of thoughts: Scott, it sounds as if, in his second response, Mike was reacting to the part of your comment that begins with:

"I think if you know your audience, you also know the rules, and that allows certain freedoms..."

Mike, based on what you're reported about the incident, it sounds as if you did NOT know your audience that particular evening. That's not meant to point fingers at any of your colleagues -- if finger-pointing were even possible or worthwhile -- but simply to say that you apparently didn't have advance warning of the composition of the audience and their potential reaction. You might not have changed your performance -- nor "should" you -- but you might have been better prepared to handle the surprise/shock or the negative reaction.

I'm not sure Scott's comment raises any questions about whether or not it's wrong to destroy personal property.

As Alison said, I think there are certain types of performances in which there's a pre-existing agreement between audiences and artists that an "assault" will occur, possibly even a mutual assault. But again, that contract is entered into beforehand, for the most part.

I'm pleased that Scott is raising questions about our relationships to audiences, and audiences relationships with artists, just as I'm pleased that you're asking those questions, Mike, rather than letting the freakiness of the situation (as compared to today's standard audience behavior) stop you in your tracks. If we invite audiences into this thing we call theater, then reaction is a part of the game -- as are our choices in how we respond, in turn, to their reactions.

There are so many levels to this discussion, that it's difficult to articulate them all in what is an already overlong reply. So I'll end with this: Non-violent audience response, in my mind, is acceptable. One man's civil disobedience is another man's criminal behavior. We don't expect an audience to walk out in the middle of the performance... but then again, they paid for the ticket. They paid for the privilege of staying or leaving. Either way, it's a conversation of sorts.

But physical intimidation -- which is how I viewed the water pourer's behavior -- is completely out of bounds.

Ramble, ramble... it's too early on a Sunday morning and I haven't even finished my first mug a joe.

Scott Walters said...

Alison -- most playwrights with modernist sensibilities have a hostile relationship to the audience. The Dadaists, the Expressionists, certainly the people who did Happenings in the 60s -- all relied on an audience being willing to passively let itself be disrespected as part of the game. There is a story about Joseph Heller's "We Bombed in New Haven," in which Jason Robards' character "stopped" the show, stepped to the footlights and demanded to know whether the audience were going to let this kind of thing continue. At one performance, a spectator stood up and said, "No, I'm not," and he wouldn't let the show go on. Finally Robards, in exasperation, pleaded, "Give me a break -- I'm just an actor." Perhaps the word isn't assualt, but insult -- an insult of people's sensibilities.

But David is right -- I am not implying that Mike did anything "wrong." What I am saying is that the conventions that would be entirely acceptable among a young, liberal, "downtown" crowd is not acceptable for the 87 who were there that night.

I am not defending the water pourer, but rather the right of the audience to be offended, and to take action with its feet. My impression is that Mike doesn't argue that point, either.

Alison Croggon said...

A couple of things. Firstly, how can anyone presume to "know their audience"? How can you really know who's out there, and how on earth do you second-guess their expectations and desires? I think, on this question, which is VERY complex and shouldn't be reduced to merely commercial considerations (actually, I'm with you Scott, on theatre-making being also the making of community) it's all too easy to claim that satisfying an audience is the same as pandering to them. Eg, left wing art that merely flatters an audience's sense that they are people of good conscience drives me crazy, and is every bit as bad as privileged art that simply satisfies a wealthy audience that they are superior to "others". What seems to be lost in this is the point is that - in fact - people enjoy being challenged. Children respond well to challenge, for example. The proviso is that it is a challenge they are able to meet, that doesn't leave them in some way feeling defeated by it. This is where education (in the broadest sense) and context play into the equation. If people feel properly informed and curious, they will go and see and often enjoy things way outside their experience. Kristy Edmunds is working this theory very successfully in her Melbourne Festival programs, which focus strongly on innovative art, and she's attracting growing audiences with it.

It's simply not true that art that is challenging is a synonym for offending the audience, which seems to be what you are arguing here. I think that a lot of modernist art called for much more than a "passive audience", rather seeking a more dynamic, exciting and honest relationship between audiences and art: ONE means of exploring that was through insult, to destablisise the comfortable capitalist equations of privilege that have been associated with artworks and their consumption; but there are many others, and they should not all be equated; nor should you think that offence is the end of the process, but ideally only the beginning. I believe too that it is perfectly fine for artists to be offensive, and that too is a right that artists ought to defend. What's wrong with offence?

Secondly, I never screamed this incident was censorship. But I simply cannot imagine Australian secondary school teachers marching entire classes out of a show simply because the performer says "fuck". I may be mistaken, but I have never heard of such an incident, and can't imagine it happening here. This is simply outside my cultural reference. Australians tend not to get exercised by this sort of thing; urban Australians (and we're mostly urban) are still, on the whole, secular and tolerant. Australians do get offended, esp by violence and blood on stage - eg Castelluci's show at MIAF last year, which featured a long bloody scene in which police officers in Victorian Police uniforms beat some one up, caused some protest in some places, and a Jan le Fabre (?sp) caused political ructions several years ago. We have our share of (mostly threatened) political censorship as well. But audiences here are not especially prurient, and even the most conservative enjoy a bit of ribaldry. So as an incident, the walkout at Daisey's show, which seems pretty mild frankly, is very surprising to me, and somewhat disturbing in a way that perhaps wouldn't strike you so. Perhaps it's more about what it indicates than the actual incident itself.

Thirdly, I defend anyone's right, including mine, to walk out of a show.

Anonymous said...

Alison, you said:

"This is simply outside my cultural reference."

Welcome to America, the land of impossible dichotomies. Where prurience and Puritanism fight it out on a daily basis. Where blue state/red state is very, very real. Where freedom and censorship walk hand in hand.

Not only does all of this infighting, contrariness and hypocrisy take place, in a broad sense, across the country, between urban and rural, between fundamentalist and progressive, between...

...but much of it happens between the ears of individuals. While America, as a whole, may not be unique, in the sense that our society is made up of many disparate elements, it is very unique -- I think -- in terms of the internal war that goes on within the heads of us Americans.

We spend billions of dollars on porn, put it on billboards and in magazine advertisements, then scream "indecency" when a woman dares take her swimsuit top off at a beach. We sell guns by the hundreds of thousands, then wonder how a college student manages to take out 30 other students, along with himself. We declare war on countries for the thinnest of reasons, then wonder why "democracy" isn't taking hold. We give lip service to helping the world's poor and suffering, then impose conditions upon our "help" that ignore cultural norms and often support the very institutions (and dictators) that keep up the status quo. We wonder why we can't get any smart environmental policy written into law, or fail to change the do-nothing political realm, then reject a perfectly good candidate because he or she had the temerity to commit the unpardonable sin of having an extramarital affair. (Worse: Getting CAUGHT in an extramarital affair; as Newt Gingrich proves, it's fine as long as no one knows.)

Blah, blah, blah... I don't hate America, I just think that we're incredibly, deeply, culturally flawed. That our divisions -- within ourselves as much as across the country -- do us a great deal of harm because we're making no progress toward resolving them, or living peacefully with our inconsistencies.

Anyway, a total diversion from the topic at hand. But your sentence, though short, is so very meaningful.

Scott Walters said...

I also think the key to this walkout is parents chaperoning students in a litigious society. Teacher licensure students at my university are taught, for instance, that they cannot have piercings or visible tatoos if they want to student teach! Now, imagine in that context, you are a parent who thought you were taking your wards to see some culture at the ART and then Mike's announcement about cell phones is the first thing you here. Talk about panic! Easy for non-parental artists to say have a talk about the show afterwards, but there is bound to be an irate parent who makes an irate call about the irresponsibility of the chaperones blah blah blah. Which doesn't excuse the water pourer -- let me reiterate that. But it does explain the group exodus. It might have to do with Christians, but it sounds to me that it has more to do with FEAR of Christian PARENTS.

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 ...