Wednesday, July 25, 2007

That There Is Some Bullshit

"Theatre is Territory" is apparently recommending, "if you happen to be in New York," what seems to this former-midwesterner-now-southerner to be an insulting piece of so-called humor called Iowa 08, a 10-minute play festival created and performed by a bunch of New Yorkers about the people of Iowa and their role in the presidential election. These New Yorkers write "Of course, we don't purport to be experts on the topic," but that doesn't stop them from ridiculing Iowans through the propagation of idiotic and insulting stereotypes. If you think I'm being humorless, you don't know humorless until you've checked out their blog and seen their YouTube video, both of which are sophomoric.

This is the kind of bullshit I am talking about when I insist that the NYC aesthetic is not universal, and in fact is openly scornful and dismissive of experiences and lifestyles that take place west of the Hudson and in places with less than 7 million people. There is an arrogance just beneath the surface -- hell, lying right on top of the surface -- that needs to be called out by every non-New Yorker who is tired of seeing good people insulted, and every New Yorker who has even a small conscience left. This happens regularly, and not only to Iowans (who seem to regularly be whipping boys), but also people in the south who are constantly portrayed using insulting stereotypes. Enough is enough.

When are such affronts going to stop being tolerated? When are glib, smart ass kids who think they are "artists" going to be taught a little respect for our common humanity and citizenship? When is liberal respect for diversity going to include geographical and sociological diversity, not just race and sexual preference? When are we going to see the states that make up the rest of this country as having dignity and intelligence, and not simply as what keeps the east coast from bumping into the west coast? When are we going to stop endorsing the idea that the majority of this country is "flyover," as the ArtsJournal site insultingly calls its blog devoted to "art in the American outback"? AMERICAN OUTBACK??? ArtsJournal ought to be shot. And when is the word "satire" going to stop being an acceptable mask for offensiveness, crassness, and insulting behavior?

We've been putting up with this crap for far too long. Whether The Beverly Hillbillies (or its recently proposed "reality show" knock-off The Real Beverly Hillbillies, which proposed bringing people from Appalachia to California so America could make fun of them), or Green Acres or all the "hillbilly" and "farmer" caricatures propagated in the mass media -- enough is enough. We are sick of people like H. L. Mencken writing ignorant and scabrous comments like "Down there a poet is now almost as rare as an oboe player...It is indeed amazing to contemplate so vast a vacuity. One thinks of the interstellar spaces...And yet, for all its size and all its wealth and all the 'progress' it babbles of, it is almost as sterile, artistically, intellectually, culturally, as the Sahara Desert." This is narrow-minded, ignorant bullshit, and should be called such.

Arlene Goldbard (see sidebar), in a recent blog post, writes: " I had speaking engagements in Barcelona and London, and in between, vast conversations about culture and politics. In memory, they have the aspect of those cartoons where the backdrops change—now palm trees, now snow-covered hills—while the characters carry on chasing each other: one long dialogue with frequent changes of scene. My next few posts will be about what I learned from my travels. One thing that stands out is the depth of commonality it was easy to experience with people whose cultures and circumstances are hugely different from my own, but whose commitments and preoccupations feel the same." It is about time we all recognize this fact, and start respecting all humanity, and not just humanity that lives in NYC and LA.


Paul Rekk said...

Wow! I apparently didn't get quite as riled up about this particular group of knobjobs as you did, Scott. (Of course, the Mencken quote made me want to throw heavy objects.) Then again, that could be because I don't idolize NY like much of the theatre world, either. There are tons upon tons of artists worth their weight in the city, but I'm interested in them, not their town.

Chicago may be my new home, but I wear my 22 years of Iowa (and I'm talking good ol' Population One Thousand rural USA) upbringing with pride, and look forward to the day (hopefully sooner rather than later) when Per Diem can head back through small-town America and wash out the bad taste that these smug urbanites are leaving in the name of 'art'.

What we need is to stop listening to the FlyOver faux-haute and put our ears to the ground for the voices from down home Americana. They're most certainly there, and they've got just as much to say.

Freeman said...

"...every New Yorker who has even a small conscience left."

Scott, I've got to say, this is just some smart alec kids being dickheads. Everyone does it. Frankly, people also stereotype New Yorkers as holier than thou, self-important pricks. Sometimes we're guilty as charged, sometimes not. The same is true of everyone. There are times that I am utterly flabbergasted by States that consistently voted for George Bush. That doesn't mean everyone in them is a tool, but it doesn't stop me from being furious.

If the joke doesn't hold water, it will be because it's poorly written and untrue. They'll fail on their own merits. No need to be outraged at the snobs on the Northeast who look down on the masses. It's just not as prevalent here as you might think.

I don't like to be lumped in with idiots any more than someone in Iowa does.

Anonymous said...

Scott, may I politely suggest that you're overreacting? Iowa 08 is political and social satire. Whether it's biting satire, I don't know. The video was cute, not Daily Show level funny, but not bad for Off-Off Broadway. Neither the blog nor the YouTube video is particularly insulting to Iowans, except to portray the Governor as a fool and Iowa to be, well, like the rest of our homogenized mass-market culture (and yes, that includes NYC). As the Mencken quote which you voiciferously denounce as "bullshit," he wrote that in 1917. Do you honestly believe that the level of the arts and general culture of the South (which he was writing about, the essay is called "The Sahara of the Bozart") in 1917 was as good or better in the urban centers of America of the day? I'm not talking now, I'm talking 1917. Mencken might have been meanspirited, his criticism might have been wildly exaggerated and grotesque and he even admitted years later that the piece "dates sadly," but to simply denounce the reportorial value of what he observed in the South as "bullshit" is engaging in the same close-minded provincialism you accuse those goddamn smug New Yorker of. Read the Iowa 08 blog a bit more. They've got a real dialogue going on there with real Iowans. It's funny and much more cordial than yer fightin words. Lastly, I'm from the Granite State, New Hampshire, home of the first Presidential Primary. In 1996, the good folks there voted Pat Buchanan (38%). Nuff said.

Paul Rekk said...


While I do agree that there was a bit of overreaction on Scott's part, there is a large sense of provincialism propagating ignorance towards and thrusting ignorance upon rural America in today's society. (I would imagine the same goes towards the South, but I have no experience with that.)

I was in DC for a youth (meaning late high school/early college age) convention a few years back, and being one of the representatives from Iowa, I was taken aback at the assumptions made about me -- apparently it's generally accepted that Iowans don't have malls or movie theaters, all own cattle, and make their own clothes. And that's just for starters. This convention was more politically than artistically related, but still, this was no average cross-section. These were the supposed leaders of tomorrow.

Just sayin', is all. (Although that dialogue on their blog absolutely smacks of fabrication.)

Scott Walters said...

"...just some smart alec kids being dickheads"

"Iowa 08 is political and social satire..."

Right. Watch Spike Lee's Bamboozled if you want a sense of how stereotypes are propagated and continued. Pay particular attention to the last montage (or the documentary Ethnic Notions), in which popular images of black people in cartoons and movies served to support racism. I'm sure all those cartoon and film makers would have said, "Hey, we're just having fun. It's a joke. You're overreacting. It's satire!"

Geograph-ism (yes, I just coined a new term -- you heard it here first) seems to be the last socially acceptable form of bigotry, and we aren't going to stand for it anymore.

And Paul is absolutely right: their blog "dialogue" is clearly manufactured.

The Mencken quotation was meant to illustrate how long this bashing of the south and midwest has been going on. It was bullshit then, and it still continues. Review the discussion about "blue state theatre" if you want to see stereotypes flying.

As far as Patrick Buchanon is concerned: get over it. Political opinions has little to do with intelligence or culture. If you associate intelligence with agreeing with you about politics, then once again you are propagating the notion that, to be considered "sophisticated," everyone needs to think how NYers think. Nonsense.

Anonymous said...

Scott, as an Aussie not familiar with the plight of white Iowans in the US and seeing how you draw parallels with the bigotry suffered by African Americans I was hoping you could provide me with some statistics.

How are white Iowans discriminated against in terms of social services, education and employment compared to other white Americans? How many white Iowans were lynched in the last two hundred years and when were their ancestors freed from slavery?

Scott Walters said...

Abe -- We are talking about representations and stereotypes. How many women were lynched? Yet many people are concerned with the effects on female self-image of how women are portrayed in the mass media. How many African-Americans have been lynched in recent times? Yet many are concerned with the way African-Americans are portrayed in the mass media. People in the midwest and people in the south must constantly contend with sneering stereotypes from the Eastern establishment media, who present them as rubes and racists. It is said that history is written by the victors, and that is certainly the case as far as the arts are concerned -- NYC and LA have controlled the arts and regularly used that control to dismiss and insult those from outside their enclave. That needs to stop now.

Freeman said...

Are you comparing racism to provincialism? Because I think those problems are not, remotely, comparable.

Ian Mackenzie said...

Hey Scott,

Let me get this straight: IOWA 08 is a piece of NY-centric bigotry that actively perpetuates negative stereotypes about people from Iowa, and, more broadly, against anyone who doesn’t live in New York of LA?

And you’ve arrived at this conclusion based on a close reading of its blog and YouTube clip.

Having not seen the Iowa 08 piece, I don’t feel properly equipped to wade into the debate about how this particular play fits into the larger problem you’ve presented. But I will say that from where I stand, Toronto (which is not nowhere, though neither is it the perceived “centre” of the theatrical universe), it doesn’t read to me the way you’re presenting it.

What do I know about Iowa and its people’s struggles with national representation? Not much. Less than I know about Saskatchewan’s, for example, which is also not much. (Though I did see an excellent play called The Saskatchewan Rebellion, earlier this year.) But I’m worried that your sweeping dismissal of this play based solely on its media communications is as dangerous as any ignorant or prejudiced opinions that the play itself may or may not contain.

Can artists in major cities not talk about things that happen outside of those cities? So what if they get it wrong? Smart people like yourself can call them on it, we’ll have a dialogue and we’ll all be better off for it.

As for Praxis Theatre’s “apparent recommendation” of this show. We no more recommended this show, or the ideas contained within, than we recommend the ideas put forward in the interview series that also appears on our blog. We respect the ideas, and we’re passionate about reaching into our communities to learn from our peers, but we’re not ever saying “this is how it should be.”

We’ve posted dozens of postcards for shows without screening them first for “objectionable content”. That’s not what we do. I hope you’re not suggesting that we start.

That said, Bamboozled is one of my all-time favourite films, and I love that you’ve drawn a parallel between how destructive ethnocultural (and geographic) representations can be normalized though media and depictions of Middle America by the NYC intelligentsia. We should all be vigilant – and I think your raising of the question here does a great service to all involved, even if not all parties agree on the exact phrasing of the argument.

BTW. I sat beside Spike Lee at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival for his 4-hour Katrina documentary: When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts. He hissed loudly every time images of George Bush appeared in his film. It was by far the best and most vital documentary I’ve ever seen.


Scott Walters said...

I am comparing one of the MECHANISMS of racism (the repeated use of stereotypes to control public attitudes and perceptions toward a group) to provincialism. And at that level yes, they are comparable -- in fact, they are identical. You can minimize this issue all you like, but the fact remains that the mass media and the arts continually, blatantly, and offensively portray people from rural backgrounds and the south as uncultured rubes and virulent racists. And they think it is funny to do so. It is wrong. It was wrong when it is done to African-Americans, it is wrong when it is done to women, and it is wrong when it is done Hispanics, and it is wrong when it is done to Iowans and to southerners.

Scott Walters said...

Ian -- "Can artists in major cities not talk about things that happen outside of those cities? So what if they get it wrong? Smart people like yourself can call them on it" -- I am calling them on it. Do I have to go to NYC and sit through "Iowa 08" to get a sense of the general tenor of the piece? Surely you are not suggesting that, once I sat in the audience, I would find a series of 10-minutes plays that looked with sympathy and understanding at Iowans. Their YouTube video created a governor who couldn't pronounce "gubernatorial." Please let's not pretend that this "festival" is anything more than it presents itself to be. And I say that it is a slur. I am calling them on it. There is a level of civility that needs to be restored to this country.

Ian Mackenzie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ian Mackenzie said...


Artists make fun a politicians all the time. Are you arguing that NYC artists are producing all kinds of reverent depictions of NY politicians but saving their hurtful caricatures for Middle American politicians? I just don't see the hillbilly-banjo stuff you're accusing them of.

But I'm not from the US. Maybe the nuance of harm is lost of me.


Mark said...


I have a question for you: can you please list the last three shows you saw in New York and when they took place? Since you spend so much time criticizing the theater that is created here, I don't think it's too much to ask for you to be willing to discuss the experiences you have had, when they took place and why they've left you with such a negative impression of New York theater.

I have no idea about the quality of Iowa 08. But I do know that it's not an especially high-profile endeavor. Cherry-picking examples of work you haven't seen isn't really the best way to support your arguments. (Your last example was a quote that Edward Albee gave to a newspaper.)

Also, please respond to my question here when you have a chance.



Scott Walters said...

This play isn't making fun of politicians, it is making fun of Iowans, and its underlying message appears on the blog: "So really, we have a small minority of people in a state who's main export is pig refuse deciding the political fate of the entire nation. Honestly, does that sound right or correct to you?" This is pure arrogance and pure stereotype. Enough is enough.

Paul Rekk said...


I'm wary of some of the directions this whole discussion is taking (it does seem a bit extremist from both sides and it's slowly starting to focus on Iowans alone), but the harm is very subtle. I would venture to say it's lost on non-Middle or Southern Americans just as frequently as non-Americans.

Middle American politicians are absolutely fair game for mockery, but mockery because they are Middle American seems petty and useless. If someone from the writer's program at the U of Iowa wrote a piece lambasting Giuliani but only by using NY stereotypes, I can't see that it would be met with great success in NY, and with good reason.

I jokingly knock on Iowa and the Midwest all the time, but it's out of love and because I know the stereotypes do have plenty of living examples but at the same time are two-dimensional and limiting. When these guys joke around about Iowa, it seems to be 'it's funny because it's true' style exaggeration. Perhaps they have a layered appreciation or interest or just respect for the Midwest. They haven't shown me any reason to believe it.

Scott Walters said...

Mark -- I'm not allowing this conversation to get sidetracked by discussion of my NYC theatre experiences. It is irrelevant to this discussion, which is about stereotypical representations.

A sample quote from Leonard Jacobs: "What exactly does speaking the concerns of red state conservatives mean? Do you suggest the American theatre devote an entire wing of itself to the promotion of hatred gussied up as Bible studies?"

Ian Mackenzie said...


"So really, we have a small minority of people in a state who's main export is pig refuse deciding the political fate of the entire nation. Honestly, does that sound right or correct to you?"

You're saying this is outright bigotry? I don't have that strong of a reaction to it. But, again, I may be ignorant to the particular power dynamics involved and thusly the slight is less visible.

It does seem a little like you're positioning Iowans as victims. Are the people of Iowa defenseless to combat inaccurate depictions of themselves? Are Iowans fundamentally compromised by some kind of Big City tyranny?


I don't have a deep understanding of how comedic writing works, where lines should be drawn, comedic intent versus outcome, etc Are you saying that comedy of this ilk needs to be written from a place of affection or it risks perpetuating stereotypes?


Anonymous said...

I break my vow of silence, simply because I am from Iowa, born and raised . . . my brother still lives there, in Ames . . . and he doesn't need you to defend him, Scott . . . no one does . . .

I joke about Iowa all the time, as does he (Iowa is said to be an acronym, meaning Idiots Out Wandering Around) but despite that, I have set much of my work IN IOWA, I believe THE UNIVERSITY OF IOWA is a great place, and No Shame Theatre began in Iowa.

And the FIRST thing No Shame would make fun of was Iowa, and itself, need I add.

Freedom of speech means people can say what they want. They can make shows that say what they want, bashing Bush or Clinton. They can make fun of Iowa, they can make fun of New York (I do both) and make fun of "red" states . . . and people can call them on it, if it's bullshit or not, as per the freedom of speech thingie.

But your argument that this show is "bullshit" doesn't hold water, per se . . . you're neither an authority on Iowa theatre or New York theatre (or Iowans or New Yorkers) and yet you're assigning things to both sides . . .

And it neglects to mention that the spur of the show is politics, and that they're only using Iowa because it's traditionally the first state to caucus, isn't it?

Which is, in itself, funny if you've ever been to Iowa. How'd they decide Iowa should be first, I'll never know.

But I have to say, I don't think you've made your case here. If you want to say they've done a bad show (based on the clips), then fine . . . but if you are trying to say this is an example of all New York theatre community's snotty attitude toward Iowa (and other states in general), you haven't made your case, in my view.

Really, I believe you're mostly interested in your own agenda . . . whatever that may be.

Which is why you dodged Mark's question.

I'm sure you'll have pointed and barbed things aimed at me in response, and all I can say is that I'm an Iowan and, based on your own argument, I don't think you should pick on me - LOL!

Anonymous said...

And I would also say Mac refutes your position much clearer than I could . . .

Which is why I probably should have just stayed quiet and out of it, and let evolution decide. I now go back to the Dojo for more political porn and screenwriting fun . . .

Mark said...

You say: "the NYC aesthetic is not universal, and in fact is openly scornful and dismissive of experiences and lifestyles that take place west of the Hudson and in places with less than 7 million people. There is an arrogance just beneath the surface -- hell, lying right on top of the surface"

I'm not sure how you can claim that your personal experience with NY theater is "irrelevant" to this discussion, as your opinion of NY theater comprises the main thesis of your post. To support your strong opinions about the "NYC aesthetics", please cite examples of theater productions you have seen in New York City and when you saw them.

Paul Rekk said...


All I'm saying is that if one writes a comedic generalization of a group of people without an appreciation of or at least respect for that group (which need not necessarily be stated overtly), it would seem to be disrespectful. Is Iowa 08 and example of this? I can't say for sure, but it certainly feels like it.

The bigger question, which I fear has been officially lost in the mess, is whether or not this has become an accepted attitude (primarily from the coasts perhaps, but it's not exclusive) towards the American Midwest and South, what harm that can cause, and how (or whether) change can (or need) take place.

Anonymous said...

Dear Scott,

I feel like you're not taking into consideration the fact that Iowa 08 is functioning within the realm of political theater (quite possibly lame political theater, but political theater nonetheless.) Iowa plays an important (and many would say TOO important) role in American politics. More to the point, they seem to enjoy the way the national spotlight turns on them every 4 years -- witness the hooplah anytime another State tries to move up its own primaries. This makes them a perfectly legitimate object of political critique.

I'm not arguing that the critique offered by this production is going to eye-opening and incisive. But at its core it could be an attempt to express a very real frustration with the fact that a group of people 1000+ miles away (with different values, a different culture, and very different economic concerns) are able to exercise such power over a national election -- not for any concrete reason, but because of a random confluence of scheduling, tradition, and the rapaciously short attention span of the national news media. Are they not allowed to express their frustration with the political situation, just because they're from New York? If they were a conservative theater company from a Southern state (one with a late primary), would their frustration with, and critique of, Iowa be more valid because they are not members of "the cultural elite"? Are you primarily taking umbrage with the mean-spiritedness of the stereotypes in that clip?

I also think that you're underestimating the size of the theater community in NYC, which is making it easier for you to lump us all together into some monolithic Northeastern Elite group-mind. As an example: I am pretty well connected in the Off-Off-Broadway world, but I can tell you that the bloggers whom you read and respond to are for the most part people I've never encountered professionally and know only thru their online presence. This despite the fact that, when you look at the spectrum of NY theater as a whole, we occupy a very similar range. There is just a lot of theater happening here, with very different goals, interests, ideologies, etc.

I mention this as a way of supporting Freeman's comment: don't lump us all together. New Yorkers get stereotyped as much as the poor downtrodden Iowans, and it happens in the very same media outlets that you present as being controlled by the coastal cultural elite. How many movies have you seen where someone goes to the big city (New York, LA), loses their moral conscience and then returns home to Iowa, Kansas, Carolina to find their true self, true love, the meaning of life?

I say this not out of some "more-oppressed-than-thou" victimology, but just to say that geographism (nice, though do we really need more -ism's?) goes both ways, and I don't think that the members of any one part of the US have more of a stranglehold on popular culture than those elsewhere. Television programming is determined by blunt economics, and the festering propagation (my own, snobbish, New York cultural elite p.o.v., mind you) of reality TV a la Real Beverley Hillbillies is as much or more due to what people "in the middle" want to watch as it is the viewing taste of New Yorkers (many of whom absolutely *adore* reality TV.) The elite may be responsible for Studio 60; the sheer masses of American taste in pop culture are responsible for Real Beverley Hillbillies and Wife Swap.

Anonymous said...

Oh dear, look at all the comments that were posted while I was writing mine, most of them making the same points I was. Apologies for the repetitious post.

Scott, I do think there's a very good point in the issue of Iowa's role in American politics. You are viewing Iowa 08 as an example of mean stereotypes of Iowans that are held by New Yorkers and presented for no other purpose than to be mean and derogatory towards people who live in another geographic region. But the bit you quote from their website puts the lie to that argument: they are making a political argument about the role that Iowa plays in our electoral system (and yes, they are doing it -- in the YouTube video at least -- by utilizing mean stereotypes.)

Isn't there a difference there?

David M

Anonymous said...

"The bigger question, which I fear has been officially lost in the mess, is whether or not this has become an accepted attitude (primarily from the coasts perhaps, but it's not exclusive) towards the American Midwest and South, what harm that can cause, and how (or whether) change can (or need) take place."


If you go to No Shame Theatre's website,, click on Iowa City (for Iowa City's No Shame organization) go to script library and read some of the scripts written by Iowans for Iowans, I'd bet it wouldn't be terribly different than what's being presented in Iowa '08 . . .

We did it when I was there, we wrote sketches about Iowa, theatre, politics and everything (one of my favorites, by Eric Johnson, was a skit called Sandford Meisner and Son, from 91) and I can tell you right now, as a fellow Iowan, we made fun of Iowa . . . not only Iowa, but Iowa wasn't discluded.

So this ain't a New York thing, not at all in my view.

Paul Rekk said...

Oh, believe me Joshua, I'm trying to avoid the New York/Iowa battle lines as much as you.

I mentioned earlier that I make fun of Iowa repeatedly as well, but it's a bit different when it's an outsider. Sure, part of my reaction is probably coming from an overly possessive(slash)defensive "that's OUR word" mentality, and I'll admit to falling into that trap, but there's got to be more to it.

It's similar to the Jeff Foxworthy redneck phenomenon. At the outset, Foxworthy had big Southern appeal because he (and his audience) knew that the material had a foot in reality even as it was pushed to ridiculous generalizations. But now it's gone Blue Collar national and the 'all in good fun' nature seems to come into question a little more. Foxworthy hasn't changed and the jokes haven't changed, but the audience has. When someone in New York (or Iowa City or L.A. or Montana) laughs at a redneck joke, they are still laughing at a generalization. But are they aware that it's a generalization?

No doubt No Shame and Iowa '08 are working with material in the same vein. I'm just curious (and a little doubtful) if Iowa '08 also has the knowing wink, whether stated or not, that is naturally built in to No Shame's self-deprecation.

Anonymous said...

Sure Paul,

But what you are referring to is simply one of America's many cultural identity generalizations (like the trailer for the movie, Who's Your Caddy, I think is the title) which offends some and amuses others . . . it is in no way a product of just New York City, but the whole of our country's identify . . .

I mean, Scott can get worked up about Red State bias's, as we know he can, but those same bias's are trumpeted MOST in THE RED STATES . . . not by all the denizens, sure, and not everywhere . . . but that's where it happens more than New York . . . just like the idea that New York is filled with rude people (not really, not anymore, not like in the nineties) who are pushy and selfish.

That view of New Yorkers was most trumpeted by New Yorkers, in the beginning.

Just like those country folk who proudly hold up Larry the Cable Guy as the epitome of their identity.

But a constant discussion and exchange of ideas is what makes this evolve, in a sense, and makes it work in a country of free expression. This group can make fun of Iowa, and we can make fun of them for making fun of Iowa . . . but to assign a label as that it's the product of New York elitism is more than a stretch, don't you think?

Because it happens everywhere . . . in DC they make fun of San Francisco, in Iowa they make fun of city folk, in Chicago they make fun of everyone (except the Polish, and even then, only very carefully) and in the South, they make fun of liberals and atheists.

Shit happens.

It's really just a product of our country's freedom of expression, no more, no less . . .

Paul Rekk said...

Totally on the same page, Joshua.

I hope my comments haven't been implying that I'm attempting to single out New York -- I'm not playing that angle from either side. I'm just trying to call out ignorance one bad joke at a time.

As an addendum: even the Polish are becoming fair(er) game in Chicago, and don't forget the the pesky Minnesotans that we Iowans have to suffer.

And a further addendum: Morningside, eh? I'm a Lyon County boy through and through -- similar neck o' the woods.

Scott Walters said...

Exactly, Paul, exactly. Well put.

Anonymous said...

"It's [making fun of people] really just a product of our country's freedom of expression, no more, no less . . . "

but that's the problem, isn't it? Nobody likes to be made fun of. The humor comes from mean-spiritedness. You can jokingly call your best friend who wears glasses four-eyes and still be friends, but the deep down underlying joke is mean. Your friend is inferior because he needs glasses. No matter how small or seemingly insignificant the meanness, it is still mean.

Anonymous said...

"Exactly, Paul, exactly. Well put."

Confusing, because Paul explicitly says he ain't singling out New York, whereas you obviously are, Scott . . . so can you clarify?

Me, I think bad work should be made fun of no matter where it comes from (and I would posit New York produces more bad work than anywhere else! That's just my opinion, of course) and good work celebrated . . . but there sure as hell ain't no conspiracy in New York to chortle at the rubes in Iowa . . .

Basically, we're back at square one again . . . sigh.

Anonymous said...

my curiosity piqued by this and other discussions, i saw iowa 08. and, unfortunately, it makes you look a little silly. it's actually quite an intelligent portrayal of topics surrounding the state, and while it has its problems (it's an off-off summer festival, after all), it's not much like the marketing. so really, what you've done is not push up from your keyboard, and chosen to lambast a group of artists for the *marketing* for their production. the bunch of new yorkers who created the festival seem to have done their homework, at least good enough to fool a midwesterner in the crowd - it's too bad their marketing is bad and sophomoric, but what's worse is that you made no effort to distinguish between the two.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes it is mean, Danielle, you bet . . . sometimes it's not.

I mean, the core of freedom of expression is that whatever someone says, it's bound to offend someone else somewhere . . . I'm offended by televagelists, myself . . . others are offended by porn, some by socialism, some by neo-conservatism . . .

The fact that some of it is mean to some and not to others is irregardless to the fact that it happens freely . . .

The times when people have been seriously repressed, as a culture (I think back to black folk before civil rights) was when they COULDN'T express their positions, beliefs, any of it, freely . . . because it offended the white establishment in power . . . nonetheless, people prevailed and spoke truth to power, no matter how it offended some, and change happened.

when freedom of expression goes, so does everything else . . .

I don't believe necessarily people should be picked on or mean (and I'm glad Imus was fired . . . that wasn't a free speech issue, but a paid speech issue, he was paid ten million a year for what he does and someone decided that racist comments aren't worth ten million, especially when people began boycotting the advertisters, free speech in action) or nasty . . . myself, I just prefer speech not to be ignorant, but that's my preference, really, it just really needs to be free.

Scott Walters said...

Freedom of expression is a legalistic term that exists in the realm of law. We are talking about "on the ground," where people are part of a community, a society, a culture. Because something CAN be said does not mean that it OUGHT to be said. There is no law that is going to land me in jail if I go up to someone and tell them they are ugly and stupid -- that is freedom of expression; but being a responsible member of a community says that that isn't civil.

Ridicule is legal, but it isn't civil, and I don't care if it comes from a stage, a film, or a blog post.

Anonymous said...

The fact that some of it is mean to some and not to others is irregardless to the fact that it happens freely . . .

Yes, Joshua, I agree that this is true and that free speech and open dialogs is of great importance for us as artists and as human beings. But as artists and human beings we also have a responsibility to ensure that what we produce gets as close to the truth as possible. Stereotypes do have a grain of truth to them, that's why they exist, but they are far from the whole truth.
If enough of us individuals are mindful of our use of free speech, the society will change--your civil rights example.

Vita, if the show was so good why did they have to resort to the bad marketing? The whole point of the initial discussion was that a group used sophomoric stereotypes to degrade a segment of the population and that this behavior is not acceptable. Not in a show. Not in marketing a show.

Anonymous said...

The friggin elephant in the room that no one is talking about:

Worst President Ever.

Don't quote me, it's Jimmy Carter going against all convention about a couple of months ago. So yeah, a lot of people are probably pissed off with all of the mechanisms and people that have saddled their country with and then re-elected The Worst President Ever.

It's interesting to me that the Daily show has necessarily come up in this conversation because that type of satire best way that people who would not like to elect The Worst President Ever are making an impression on he American psyche.

Stewart's humiliation of Tucker Carlson live on CNN may end up being the defining moment in how this The Worst of all Adminisrations was exposed as entirely a fraud supported by a media that had now concept of professionalism or its role as a key player in democracy. Colbert picked up the torch beautifully when he addressed the The White House Correspondents' Association Dinner.

So now some politically minded off-off broadway types in NYC want to make a play and what form do they choose? This very same brand of satire. Scott, you cannot get pissed off about this.
The Bush Administration, Now That There is Some Bullshit.

Anonymous said...

"Ridicule is legal, but it isn't civil, and I don't care if it comes from a stage, a film, or a blog post."

So, Scott, it's uncivil when some theater company's marketing department ridicules the people of Iowa in an ad for their show, but it's ok when you write a post that is based in equally broad stereotypes of New Yorkers?

Personally, I think everyone should take a breath, grab a beer, and laugh at themselves a little more often.

To the question about why would a show resort to promotional material that is unrepresentative of the show itself: have you ever dealt with marketing people? That's what they do. They would use sex to sell the idea of abstinence if someone would let them. I think (based on absolutely no inside knowledge whatsoever) that they were hoping the YouTube video might draw the Daily Kos crowd to the theater.

David M

Scott Walters said...

Mike -- So George Bush makes insulting stereotypes OK? I don't see your point Mike. It's OK to propagate stereotypes of people you don't agree with politically? If the point you are making is about "red states," many of which were in the midwest and south, please review the data. Yes, in a winner-take-all electoral process, the red states "elected" Bush, but the margin of victory in most of those states was razor thin, just as Gore's and Kerry's were razor thin in the states they won. The country is divided, and reinforcing polarizing stereotypes doesn't help.

David M -- Constant, institutionalized insults are not balanced by a single comment about the New York media. Fact: most media and most theatre emanates from either NYC or LA. Fact: most of the people who work in those media live in NYC or LA. Fact: most magazines and most "national" newspapers are based in and/or focused on NYC or LA. So I don't think it is unfair to say that NYC and LA are dominating the narrative images we experience, and that the stories and attitudes reflected in them reflect the experiences and attitudes of the people who work there.

As to whether the marketing misrepresents the show -- the artists OK'd the ad, and they themselves are writing the blog. If there is a difference between what we've seen and what is onstage (and I seriously doubt it), then to cynically play on stereotypes in a craven attempt to attract audiences is reprehensible. It also makes my point: if using such an ad campaign is calculated to attract a NYC crowd, then they must have figured that such stereotypes would win approval from the NYC audience, would appeal to their own prejudices.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, African-American performers used to appear in blackface and deliver stereotypical images of black behavior to a white audience. Actors like Bert Williams, a dignified and educated man who spoke perfect English, was forced to adopt a darkie dialect and a shuffle-along posture in order to make a living. Paul Laurence Dunbar, who could write exquisite poetry, resorted to writing in dialect in order to be published. White people didn't want to hear Williams reciting James Weldon Johnson, nor did they want to read Dunbar writing like Keats. They wanted these artists to "act Negro," i.e., to live up to their prejudices. TV shows like "Hee Haw, "The Beverly Hillbillies," and "The Dukes of Hazard" are examples of minstrel shows for the south.

There is a moment in "The Shawshank Redemption" when Tim Robbins says to the warden, "How can you be so obtuse?" In the face of overwhelming evidence from your own experience that portrayals of rural and southern America is shot through with insulting stereotypes, all I can think to do is echo Robbins.

Anonymous said...

Isn't Rogelio Martinez from Cuba? And John Walsh from Texas? I can't track down the other three listed on the website, but at least 40% of the plays in this blue-state abomination are written by imports from places that are even more dominated by stereotypes?

Anonymous said...


Does Stephen Colbert portray insulting and polarizing stereotypes of conservatives? Probably.

Is he doing a damn good job of expoing the lunacy that underpins the current Republican mentality? Definitely.

I am curious to know why you feel this brand of satire may be applied to political pundits, but not the people that actually elect people (the people). Alternatively, why it is acceptable on television, but not in theatre?

And yep, in 2004 Iowa went 50 -49 for Bush. In the midterms, Dems were the big winners. It seems like something is working. It only takes 2% of the electortae being shamed into realizing the error of heir ways to gain 7 electoral colleges.

Anonymous said...

"This is the kind of bullshit I am talking about when I insist that the NYC aesthetic is not universal, and in fact is openly scornful and dismissive of experiences and lifestyles that take place west of the Hudson and in places with less than 7 million people. There is an arrogance just beneath the surface -- hell, lying right on top of the surface -- that needs to be called out by every non-New Yorker who is tired of seeing good people insulted, and every New Yorker who has even a small conscience left."

Wow. For someone who's railing against stereotypes you've certainly done a wonderful job of painting an entire population of people with the same brush. If there's such a cultural hegemony present, then why is New York portrayed so badly in so much TV and in so many movies? Do you know that film crews regularly add garbage and graffiti to New York street scenes to match the perception of the city as dirty and dangerous? You yourself have just perpetuated the view of New Yorkers as rude and arrogant. "...every New Yorker who has even a small conscious left?"

Let he who is without sin, sir.

Scott Walters said...

It is fascinating to me how sensitive New Yorkers are about the way that they are portrayed, while simultaneously denying that others are being insulted. Please see my July 31st post, in which I outline the definition of stereotype. Pay particular attention to item d.

Anonymous said...

Folks, I think this has become flamebait. Pity, because there's an interesting point or two buried in this whole discussion, but I think maybe we should give it a rest.

I look forward to Scott's next post, which have recently offered cogent, thoughtful and insight-filled blog entries about theater practices and communities that are not based in New York. But I sincerely hope that he can find his way back to arguing for their value positively, instead of negatively attacking the artists who do choose, for whatever reasons, to pursue their work in New York City.

Hope you had a lovely weekend fishing.

David M (who is not David Alan Moore)

Scott Walters said...

David -- I don't see standing up for the dignity of a large part of America as being negative. You have chosen to focus on the "attack" on NY artists rather than the injustice that is my focus. So you see it as negative. I have chosen to stand up for a more balanced, non-stereotyped representation of society's members. So I see it as positive.

Anonymous said...

Scott -- agreed about there being some positive elements; if I inadvertently made it sound like I thought the whole thing was some hate-filled screed, I apologize for that.

But there's a lot of anger there, too, and some of it veers a little to the petty and spiteful. I came away from this series of posts feeling like you had some serious personal issues that you were venting on New York and all artists who lives there, as opposed to the tone of many of your posts in the last year or so which have simply made persuasive arguments for the theater community to expand their horizons beyond the confines of New York City.

I think your more recent post clarifying your definitions of stereotypes was very helpful -- I wrote my last comment before noticing that post. And I get what you're saying about the difference between a stereotype of Southerners engendered by those holding cultural power and authority, and the stereotypes held by the Southerner of those Northern elites -- the former is more damaging because it is backed by an authority with a pervasive means of distribution which the latter lacks.

I simply question why you felt the need to engage in harmful stereotyping at all in order to make your point? The sins of others don't justify sinning against them, and they kind of weaken your moral authority. Plus it just makes people angry, and then the original point gets lost in the fray.

David M (who is not David Alan Moore)

macrogers said...

"ArtsJournal ought to be shot."

"There is an arrogance just beneath the surface -- hell, lying right on top of the surface -- that needs to be called out by every non-New Yorker who is tired of seeing good people insulted, and every New Yorker who has even a small conscience left."

Scott, do you regard the two above statements as being free of negativity?

Scott Walters said...

David and Mac -- Sometimes in order to be heard one must be loud and angry. If that has gotten in the way of being heard, that is unfortunate, but it the hostility is also a byproduct of frustration. When the dialogue first started, people thought I was "overreacting." They didn't see there was a problem. Sometimes you have to shout to be heard.

macrogers said...

Then, given your description of the hostility that appeared in this post as a byproduct of frustration, is there anything you would like to retract? For example, given a few days rest and reflection, have you reconsidered your contention that most New Yorkers have little to no conscience?

Scott Walters said...

Mac -- I didn't say that New Yorkers have little to no conscience. Here is what I said: "There is an arrogance just beneath the surface -- hell, lying right on top of the surface -- that needs to be called out by every non-New Yorker who is tired of seeing good people insulted, and every New Yorker who has even a small conscience left." Note the word "even" -- as in "even if all you have is a small conscience left." That does not say that New Yorkers have no conscience, but rather that they should use what conscience they have to call foul. Of course, we saw what effect that particular call to conscience had -- the foul that was called was about themselves, not others. I would like it if the NY blogging community was as sensitive about the insults to others as the perceived insults to themselves. That would be an indication of empathy rather than self-absorption.

The fact is that every time there is a bruhaha about something I wrote, the NY theatrosphere tries to get me to apologize. Not gonna happen this time.

"Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day." -- Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance

macrogers said...

"Mac -- I didn't say that New Yorkers have little to no conscience."

Then this is an excellent opportunity to clairfy your position. Do you think that most New Yorkers have had their consciences eroded? Or only the artists? Or only the theater people? How eroded? How many are left with a complete conscience? How many have no conscience left at all? Given your answer to these questions, upon what do you base your perception?

"I would like it if the NY blogging community was as sensitive about the insults to others as the perceived insults to themselves."

As far as I can tell, you still haven't substantiated the insult. Despite repeated requests for clarification, I still don't know exactly what we're talking about with regard to actual plays staged in New York City. I'm aware that I must be seriously annoying you by this point, but I'd like you to step outside your customary safe zone of vague righteousness and start documenting exactly what you're talking about. At that point, we can begin evaluating the value of your points, and discussing what action is appropriate.

Scott Walters said...

*sigh* Mac, I have written thousands of words on this topic. If you can't see the substantiation, then I can't help you. I've done a list, I've done definitions, I've pointed at blogs and YouTube videos. I've tried to make this clear, but apparently I am not giving you what you want, and I am giving up. Others have seen the point, and I guess I'll just have to live with the fact that you don't.

Anonymous said...

"Sometimes in order to be heard one must be loud and angry. If that has gotten in the way of being heard, that is unfortunate, but it the hostility is also a byproduct of frustration."

Let's say I am a theater artist with profound concerns about the state of our political system, and I feel it is a part of my role as an artist in society to give voice to these concerns.

The concern that really bugs me is how, in our current political system, there is a particular state which, for no logical purpose (it represents just 1% of the total US population, and has 1.3% of the electoral college vote) but just a combination of randomness and tradition, exerts a disproportionate pull of the political system.

I've tried using facts, I've tried being calm -- no one really is paying attention. I'm getting a little angry and frustrated that no one even wants to talk about this. I decide to make a theater piece about the situation. I make a promotional video that presents all of my concerns, and post it to YouTube. It is angry, it utilizes negative stereotypes, and it is loud. It glosses over the very substantial concerns I have, perhaps obscuring the genuine article of discussion.

So the question (that you've seen coming from the beginning I'm sure) is: why do you feel that this is bullshit while your own loud, angry, passionately felt arguments, born out of frustration, are not?

David M (who is not etc etc)

Scott Walters said...

*LOL* Bravo, David -- and I mean that sincerely! I read your comment and felt like I used to feel when a good chess player got me to trap myself into losing my queen!

I could quibble with you by saying that I didn't use stereotypes but, rather, generalizations, but that would be like taking your knight in retaliation for the loss of my queen.

So what is the alternative, David? To confront ubiquitous stereotypes with...what? Quiet facts? Close analysis? Off-line chiding? Has this become a discussion about personal style? I'm not certain the point you're making, except (perhaps) that one should not fight fire with fire lest all be burned to a crisp in the process. Yes?

macrogers said...

Scott, close analysis is exactly the right tool. Facts are also good, though I don't know what is meant by "quiet facts." Your tone suggests that you're speaking of these tools mockingly. Am I correctly or incorrectly reading that tone?

Willfully repeating unsubstantiated statements, it seems to me, is the same thing as (forgive the indelicacy) "telling lies." Doesn't a concern with telling lies go beyond differences of personal style? Why or why not?

Anonymous said...

Hey Scott,

I think that facts and close analysis are a great start -- and the facts don't even have to be so very quiet. (And Mac, I don't think he was speaking of those tools mockingly, I think he was asking an honest question.)

I went back and read your original post (5000 comments ago). I had a thought experiment in mind, where I would see what it was like if one removed all references to "New York" or "New Yorkers." Now, that experiment wasn't so very successful -- I think that you do make an important point regarding georgraphy and the biases that are born out of location in the cultural landscape. For example, you write:

"a 10-minute play festival created and performed by a bunch of New Yorkers about the people of Iowa and their role in the presidential election. These New Yorkers write 'Of course, we don't purport to be experts on the topic,' but that doesn't stop them from ridiculing Iowans through the propagation of idiotic and insulting stereotypes." [emphasis yours]

Removing all references to New York renders the point meaningless; your observation is about one group promoting stereotypes of another group, and the defining characteristics of "group" in this case are geographical. However, if you removed the italics from "bunch of New Yorkers" and cut the second instance of "New Yorkers," it reads a little differently:

"a 10-minute play festival created and performed by a bunch of New Yorkers about the people of Iowa and their role in the presidential election. They write 'Of course, we don't purport to be experts on the topic,' but that doesn't stop them from ridiculing Iowans through the propagation of idiotic and insulting stereotypes."

I don't think much content has been lost, but it feels less like an attack, yes? Even better is if you replace "a bunch of New Yorkers" with "a theater company in New York" or something like that. Your original wording takes 8 million people and says, "you're all the same." The latter wording imparts the necessary info (in New York, not Iowa) while laying your critique solely at the feet of those with whom you're angry, the artists who made Iowa 08

Now, having written all that out, I feel a little bit like the PC Word Police. Eew. But, trite as it is, I guess I am advising against fighting fire with fire lest crispiness ensue.

I'm thinking of that quote on Rat Sass from Clarence Thomas (!) about passion, moderation and civility. There must be a way to for us to debate one another and disagree with one another, to feel passionately about a cause or an idea and express that passion, without it being intentionally hurtful. Which is not to say that hurt feelings won't ensue; but there's a difference between having a hurtful truth revealed to me, and finding myself (or my group) under vindictive attack.

I have to believe there is a way, I need to believe we can communicate in that way, because otherwise the only solution to our various artistic, cultural and social problems is to start shooting one another.

David M

P.S. Where in Wisconsin are you from? I grew up in Madison until I was 11 or so, then moved to Virginia. My family still has a lovely cottage on a lake in the woods up near Tomahawk, where I don't get to go nearly as often as I would like.

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 ...