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.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Succession in the Arts

Andrew Taylor, the Artful Manager, draws our attention to a recent report concerning the succession of youth into non-profit arts organizations. Since many of my fellow bloggers are young(er) artists, I wonder if they might care to comment on this report.

Why We Should Care About Theatre's Effect

Over the course of the last year and a half, there have been many arguments as to whether theatre actually has an effect on the audience, and if so, whether theatre artists should care about the effect. I have argued that all human beings, artist or not, should be committed to making our world better, not worse. It is a foundational value that I continue to hold, and that I try to live by.
However, there have been many who have doubted whether the arts have any effect at all, particularly among those who oppose government funding of the arts. But artists themselves have been very selective about promoting this idea, tending to rely on it when writing grant proposals, and abandoning it when creating their work.
Below are excerpts from two recent books that seem persuasive to me, and I think should give us pause as we decide on theatre's contribution to society.
This is from Malcolm Gladwell's Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, pp 52 - 55:

1. Primed for Action

Imagine that I'm a professor, and I've asked you to come and see me in my office. You walk down a long corridor, come through the doorway, and sit down at a table. In front of you is a sheet of paper with a list of five-word sets. I want you to make a grammatical four-word sentence as quickly as possible out of each set. It's called a scrambled­ sentence test. Ready?

01 him was worried she always

02 from are Florida oranges temperature

03 ball the throw toss silently

04 shoes give replace old the

05 he observes occasionally people watches

06 be will sweat lonely they

07 sky the seamless gray is

08 should now withdraw forgetful we

09 us bingo sing play let

10 sunlight makes temperature wrinkle raisins

That seemed straightforward, right? Actually it wasn't.

After you finished that test - believe it or not - you would have walked out of my office and back down the hall more slowly than you walked in. With that test, 1 affected the way you behaved. How? Well, look back at the list. Scattered throughout it are certain words, such as "worried," "Florida," "old," "lonely," "gray," "bingo," and "wrinkle." You thought that 1 was just making you take a language test. But, in fact, what I was also doing was making the big computer in your brain - your adaptive unconscious _ think about the state of being old. It didn't inform the rest of your brain about its sudden obsession. But it took all this talk of old age so seriously that by the time you finished and walked down the corridor, you acted old. You walked slowly.

This test was devised by a very clever psychologist

named John Bargh. It's an example of what is called a priming experiment, and Bargh and others have done nu­merous even more fascinating variations of it, all of which show just how much goes on behind that locked door of our unconscious. For example, on one occasion Bargh and two colleagues at New York University, Mark Chen and Lara Burrows, staged an experiment in the hallway just down from Bargh's office. They used a group of under­graduates as subjects and gave everyone in the group one of two scrambled-sentence tests. The first was sprinkled with words like “aggressively, “bold,” “rude,” “bother,” "disturb," "intrude," and "infringe." The second was sprinkled with words like "respect," "considerate," "ap­preciate," "patiently," "yield," "polite," and "courteous." In neither case were there so many similar words that the students picked up on what was going on. (Once you be­come conscious of being primed, of course, the priming doesn't work.) After doing the test - which takes only about five minutes - the students were instructed to walk down the hall and talk to the person running the experi­ment in order to get their next assignment.

Whenever a student arrived at the office, however, Bargh made sure that the experimenter was busy, locked in conversation with someone else - a confederate who was standing in the hallway, blocking the doorway to the ex­perimenter's office. Bargh wanted to learn whether the people who were primed with the polite words would take longer to interrupt the conversation between the experi­menter and the confederate than those primed with the rude words. He knew enough about the strange power of unconscious influence to feel that it would make a differ­ence, but he thought the effect would be slight. Earlier, when Bargh had gone to the committee at NYU that ap­proves human experiments, they had made him promise that he would cut off the conversation in the hall at ten minutes. "We looked at them when they said that and thought, “You've got to be kidding," Bargh remembered. "The joke was that we would be measuring the difference in milliseconds. I mean, these are New Yorkers. They aren't going to just stand there. We thought maybe a few seconds, or a minute at most."

But Bargh and his colleagues were wrong. The people primed to be rude eventually interrupted - on average after about five minutes. But of the people primed to be polite, the overwhelming majority - 82 percent - never interrupted at all. If the experiment hadn't ended after ten minutes, who knows how long they would have stood in the hallway, a polite and patient smile on their faces?

"The experiment was right down the hall from my of­fice," Bargh remembers. "I had to listen to the same con­versation over and over again. Every hour, whenever there was a new subject. It was boring, boring. The people would come down the hallway, and they would see the confeder­ate whom the experimenter was talking to through the doorway. And the confederate would be going on and on about how she didn't understand what she was supposed to do. She kept asking and asking, for ten minutes, 'Where do I mark this? I don't get it.'" Bargh winced at the mem­ory and the strangeness of it all. "For a whole semester this was going on. And the people who had done the polite test just stood there."

If taking part in such a small activity as participating in a word game can have such powerful results, imagine the effect that watching an entire play would have.
The second quotation is from Martin E. P. Seligman's Authentic Happiness. In this paragraph, he is discussing the social behavior of optimistic people versus pessimistic people. Aftre noting that happy people have more friends, are more likely to be married, and more likely to be involved in group activities than unhappy people, he goes on:

A corollary of the enmeshment with others that happy people have is their altruism. Before O saw the data, I thought that unhappy people -- identifying with the suffering that they know so well -- would be more altruistic. So I was taken aback when the findings on mood and helping others without exception revealed that happy people were more likely to demonstrate that trait. In the laboratory, children and adults who are made happy display more empathy and are willing to donate more money to others in need. When we are happy, we are less self-focused, we like others more, and we want to share our good fortune even with strangers. When we are down, though, we become distrustful, turn inward, and focus defensively on our own needs. Looking out for number one is more characteristic of sadness than of well-being.

Thus, if we are hoping to have a positive effect on our community rather than a negative one, which the Bargh study certainly implies we can have, we might focus on creating positive emotion in our audience, as implied by the Seligman quotation.
The next thing would be to examine just what makes people happy, but the first step, it seems to me, is to align our stated desires and our actions.

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 ...