Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Tap Tap Tap

In Made to Stick, the authors describe an experiment in which two people sat opposite each other across a table. One person was instructed to use the tabletop to tap out a well-known song ("Happy Birthday to You," for instance, or "The Star Spangled Banner"); the other person was supposed to identify the song after listening to the tapping. Prior to each test, the person who was to do the tapping was asked to predict the likelihood that his partner would successfully identify the song. Most predicted a 50/50 chance. The actual percentage was much lower: they got it right 2.5%. The authors wrote:

In the experiment, tappers are flabbergasted at how hard the listeners seem to be working to pick up the tune. Isn't the song obvious? The tappers' expressions, when a listener guesses "Happy Birthday to You" for "The Star-Spangled Banner," are priceless: How could you be so stupid?

It's hard to be a tapper. The problem is that tappers have been given knowledge (the song title) that makes it impossible for them to imagine what it's like to lack that knowledge. When they're tapping, they can't imagine what it's like for the listeners to hear isolated taps rather than a song. This is the Curse of Knowledge. Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. Our knowledge has "cursed" us. And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others, because we can't readily re-create our listeners' state of mind.

There are times on this blog when I have the same frustrated feelings as the tappers in this experiment. I keep determinedly tapping out "America, the Beautiful" and my readers keep guessing "New York, New York" and "The Theme to Fame." My former father-in-law used to experience this same frustration when playing Pictionary. He would inevitably scratch some totally indecipherable marks on a piece of paper, and then spend the rest of the allotted time exasperatedly pointing over and over at the drawing with the tip of his pencil. When time ran out, he'd throw up his hands and proclaim to his baffled partner, "It's 'My Fair Lady'!" with the unspoken addendum: You Dumb Ass!

I am trying to remind myself about this Curse of Knowledge as I respond to a few comments some of my recent posts have received. I am doing this in the hope that, by addressing these comments, the song will become a wee bit clearer to my readers. We'll see if I can go beyond exasperated pointing.

On TV, Film, and Commercials

THE ARGUMENT nicely put by RLewis: "Much of this discussion seems to assume that all actors are stage actors when many just do stage work until they book a good commercial (3 of those = all the $$$ one needs for the year). I'd bet more actors are in nyc and la, not because they have theaters, but because no other cities have advertising agency communities as large as they do. Actors don't buy a studio in Queens with money from stage acting, they do it with commercial residuals."

MY RESPONSE: He's right -- this blog is focused totally and completely on the stage. Period. Yes, actors make additional money by doing films, tv, and commercials, and that's just fine. They make money by waiting tables and doing temp work, but I don't feel the need to address those activities on this blog, either. This does not represent judgmentalism or dismissal on my part: I think doing film, TV, and commercials are all admirable endeavors when they are done well, and I applaud everyone who has devoted their artistic life to them. But they are different media with different issues and problems and challenges that are outside of my area of interest. This blog is completely focused on figuring out how theatre artists can lead a reasonable life by doing theatre. Not by doing theatre, movies, TV, commercials, and industrials.By doing theatre. Period. So the argument that theatrical activity should be centralized in NY, LA, and Chicago because that's where the film-tv-commercial work is located, for instance, is totally irrelevant to to this blog. To me, it is like arguing that theatre should be centralized in those cities because there are more restaurants there for actors to make money. Irrelevant. Where can people do theatre? This blog is called Theatre Ideas, and that wasn't an accident. I chose that title purposely -- it is about theatre. (And a sidenote: if anyone writes in the comments to this thread anything about my "idealism" versus their "pragmatism and realistic thinking," I will track you down and personally pull the homefries out of your ears.)

On Theatre as an End in Itself

THE ARGUMENT: A nice, personal description contributed by Mike Dailey: "I was born and raised in St. Louis. I love the city still. I have just had a baby and would love to live in a place like that and be an actor but feel it would be, as an actor, throwing in the towel and closing a door. No more commercial work. No more real thoughts of getting tv or film work." A more general description comes from Nick at Ratsass: "most theatre people are divided in their ambition. The inherent obscurity of producing theatre at the community level is a continuing challenge to one’s self-esteem and most theatre people are at least half desirous for recognition if not success by the yardsticks of the dominant culture in which we are all immersed."

MY RESPONSE: This is the Cinderella argument, and it is the theatre's version of crack addiction. Like most addictions, it often leads to self-destruction and collateral damage. It's connected to the first argument above, in that it blends theatre with tv, film, and commercials. But the center of this argument is that it sees theatre not as an end in itself, but as an instrument for acquiring something else: commercial work, TV, film, critical recognition, or ultimately (although rarely spoken explicitly) fame. Once addicted to this viewpoint, to step outside Nylachi is to "throw in the towel" and sacrifice self-esteem. [Note: from here on out on this blog (as long as I can remember), I am going to abbreviate NY, LA, and CHIcago as Nylachi.] Thus, your identity is a function of geography rather than accomplishment. If you work outside of Nylachi, when you go home for Thanksgiving, you lose the cache of saying that you are a Nylachi actor, even if you are primarily an Nylachi auditioner. In short, you have been Sinatra'd. While you may be able to actually create more theatre and practice your art more consistently in St. Louis or Omaha, and might be able to control your own artistic life rather than be at the mercy of the Nylachi moneymen, you will choose Nylachi because it makes you "feel" like an artist. To those of you who suffer from this addiction, this blog is not for you. This blog sees the creation of theatre as an end in itself. This blog has no interest in fame, only work. This blog sees the creation of theatre as more important than the location where you it is done. This blog believes that a Nylachi audience is no better and no worse than a St. Louis audience or an Omaha audience. This blog is deeply populist, and deeply regionalist. If you do not suffer from the Cinderella addiction, and you are considering creating your own theatre tribe/ensemble, I encourage you to avoid at all costs these addicts, for they do not want what you want, and they will dump you to run after the next shiny object. Seek those for whom the work is an end in itself. (Note: if you live in Nylachi, you are not necessarily addicted. It is entirely possible to be focused on the work as an end in itself, and to simply love Nylachi as a place to live. I say all power to you. Your challenges will be greater than those who do their work elsewhere, for you will have to focus on the work itself within a context that does not understand that orientation. I wish you strength and luck.)

Actors in the Big City

THE ARGUMENT: Made by Don Cummings: "However, I think the draw for artists to consequential urban has been around since before Rome and Athens. It's more exciting. More ideas, energy and let's face it, interesting sexual partners can be shared in lager arenas."

MY RESPONSE: Ancient Athens had a total population of roughly 250,000, most of whom were slaves. The adult male citizen population was 30,000, or roughly the population of Bartlesville, OK. And yet, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and the gang found enough people to trade ideas with. But if you want to include the slaves and women, it is a bit less than the population of Jackson, MS. Rome came in at a million at its peak, or about the same population as St. Louis County in Missouri. Although why you'd look to Rome for anything theatrical, I don't know. Paris in Moliere's time? Approximately 425,000, or the population of Omaha. London during Shakespeare's time: 250,000 or the population of Mobile AL. If Euripides, Plautus, Moliere, and Shakespeare were able to be inspired and energized in cities of that size, why can't you today? It is a specious argument, one that universalizes a personal preference. In a world where cell phones and internet connections allow artists to interact with ease no matter whether or not they share geographic proximity, the belief that Nylachi is the seat of energy and ideas is antiquated. As for your sexual partners, I have no opinion, except to say I don't give a damn-- it has nothing to do with theatre.

In Summary

1. This blog is devoted solely and exclusively to theatre.
2. This blog is focused on theatre as an end in itself, not an instrument for the acquisition other things.
3. This blog is premised on the belief that population is not a determinant for artistry nor appreciation.

Tap tap tap. It's "America the Beautiful"!


Joshua James said...

With all due respect, I feel it's important to note that this blog is authored by someone who doesn't make their living at theatre.

Nick said...

Playwrights Mac Wellman and Jeff Jones both wrote essays on what they termed "Geezer Theatre,” rants against the state of the union of regional theatre that were very influential to the “rat” revolution. When we came to understand that there were more (b)rats than rats in the revolution, we closed it down. The playwrights writing the essays for the rat conference were brats as well. Young geezers, all of us, to some degree.

Holier-than-thou is a good place for the rant but that's about all.

During the Communist reign Havel believed that only half of his self was truly a dissident, the other half of his self actually supported the totalitarianism under which his country suffered. Further he believed each of his Czech countrymen were split in a similar manner.

In other words, no blue or red states. No liberal and no conservative. But everyone and everywhere a blend of both. More like a purple America, the Beautiful than the devisive red/blue map graphic we usually see.


Anonymous said...

The population figures for Athens, Rome, Elizabethan London, etc. were very interesting, and I enjoyed the illumination of the present-day population comparisons.

It's worth noting, though that apart from Mr. Cummings' note about what the sizes of those cities offered and what it may point to in terms of attraction for artists, those cities were also the dominant cultural centers of their day, or were rising to that position of dominance. There may be something to look at in how and why theatre artists are drawn to be in the middle of the dominant cultural places -- where they are part of the power structure, or can speak to it in their audiences, or can siphon off its resources to feed the work...?

Scott Walters said...

Joshua -- With all due respect, the same could be said about Andre Antoine (a gas company worker), Constantin Stanislavsky (owner of a textile factory), and Harold Clurman (odd jobs). Those who wish to change the status quo rarely work within the status quo.

More to the point, your description of me could also be applied to the majority of the membership of Actors Equity, whose median number of work weeks last year was 17 at $425 a week -- not a living wage. And that's the point: to change that, to make it possible for more theatre artists to make a living in theatre, rather than being forced to cobble together a variety of other income sources. If you want to devote yourself to theatre, shouldn't you be able to do that?

I must confess to being baffled as to why that would be objectionable in the least. Nobody is proposing the dismantling of Broadway or the regional theatre movement, but only the development of another viable alternative. This requires identifying what is not working in those areas so as to focus one's attention on the development of an alternative that can address those issues. Again, what is the problem?

Anonymous -- that is an interesting point, and one that becomes problematic for a country the size of ours. England is 50,352 sq miles, or about the size of Louisiana; Greece is 119,394 sq miles of about the size of Arizona, and Italy is about the same: 116,305 sq mi; France, the largest country in Europe, is 211,209 sq miles, or somewhere between the size of California and Texas. All of which is to say that America is too large to be said to have a dominant cultural center, and when we declare one we slight a much larger part of the population than in England, Italy, Greece, or France. At best, we should have about 50 dominant cultural centers, one for each state. However, I would contend that if we wish to have the NEA supported through the taxes of all Americans, we should probably be focused on spreading the largesse as widely as possible.

Nick -- I appreciate your insights, and I tend to agree with you. That said, I also think that a clear statement of values is very important for defining what an alternative approach stands for. It allows those in agreement to self-identify, and those in disagreement to go in another direction. All movements that were effective had a clear set of values that were supported, which, of course, implies another set that are rejected. Most people who find themselves in the rejected set of values will understandably feel somehow slighted or insulted, even if the movement is not explicitly "against" those people. It is the nature of the beast: definition both includes and excludes.

Anonymous said...


I find it amazing that, after all of this time, you still return to this blog with unhelpful remarks that are organized around a single false and rigid premise: that there is necessarily a deeply entrenched division of labor between thinking (or academic life) and doing (artistic life). This appears in your unhealthy obsession with constantly reminding people that Scott is an academic who does not make his living doing theatre.

This is so limiting! The division of labor between theory and practice, abstraction and embodiment, is arbitrary and, like all binarisms, a booby trap. Both areas of knowledge are vital if the theatre is to change and remain relevant! The maintenance of rigid hierarchies, on the other hand, only reductively solidifies the status quo.

After all, if we go the one-way street of abstraction (theory, ideas put forth by academics), then we cut ourselves from the "real" experiences of artists. However, if we go the one way street of practice (e.g. leave this to the working "professional" artists on the ground), then we will only drive ourselves further into an isolated corner (or an artist's colony). Theatre in both scenarios becomes irrelevant.

If the theatre is going to change and succeed, all of these remarks that are meant to differentiate are going to have to stop. It is unhealthy and, in terms of the future status of theatre, unproductive.

Joshua James said...

I felt the post was more than a bit condescending toward working actors, as if they're prefer doing commercials over theatre. It's not that, it's simply that it's they have to pay the rent.

And it seems that, and I could be wrong here, that you're sneering at them for thinking anything other than exclusively of theatre.

That's all. I did say, with respect, right?

How about this, then, Scott?

The author of this blog does not have to worry about food to eat or health insurance.

Or, perhaps . . .

The author of this blog does not create theatre.

These are important points, aren't they?

Brian -

There are plenty of folk who don't work in theatre and / or the arts but who, I feel, contribute valuable observations - in all honesty, I wouldn't exclude Scott in that regard from such list.

However it seems to me that Scott has an unfortunate habit of simply dismissing real world concerns of working actors / playwrights and cutting those concerns down with a "you're not really focused on theatre" type of comment.

I take issue with that.

Casually dismissing the people who actually do the work is as divisive as anything.

That's my polite response.

Anonymous said...


One question that sprung to mind as a result of this post: It is undeniable that the smaller, more minimalist, approaches to acting of film, television, and commercials have trickled down to how contemporary theatre is presented.

In your description of your experience of working with a well known film actress, for instance, you cited her inability to properly "fill the space."

My question is: what do you regard as the preferable performance aesthetic/acting style in your model of theatre? What is the acting style/approach that is valued in your model of theatre ? In past posts you have criticized some styles as being not theatrical enough for the stage, but I'm not sure what your conception of a more effective style looks like.

I ask because the traditional theatrical acting styles (that you seemed to long for--at least in that post) appear better suited to play to larger and more antiquated houses (e.g. the status quo), where actors need to convey their characters in a number of different physical ways to make them vivid for a very large audience.

In many of your posts you advocate non-traditional approaches to theatre, particularly makeshift theatres that develop in communities out of found spaces. Such settings create a greater sense of intimacy and awareness between actor and audience and are, presumably, smaller in physical size. Given the nature of such an intimate space, wouldn't the more nuanced approach that is emphasized in film acting be more beneficial? Scaling the performance down, rather than up, seems more appropriate in such a setting.

My point is that though the aesthetic of film and television has impacted the way actors think of performance, perhaps this change isn't necessarily a bad thing. I'm undecided at the moment. I'm not sure what the most effective performance style would look like, but any attempt to update the theatrical model, while simultaneously relying on previous approaches to acting in the storytelling feels strangely incongruous. As the model evolves, so do the techniques of storytelling. Traditional theatrical approaches to acting parallel conservative approaches to theatrical ideas, which once again leads us back to where we are at now. How does one change the model of theatre, without also re-examining how we tell our stories, through bodies, within this new framework?

Scott Walters said...

Joshua -- I didn't think you were trying to be disrespectful, although I'm not certain that my academic background is a particular secret, so I would gather that your comment had a hidden meaning. So be it -- it is your particular issue, and you are welcome to it. I am not ashamed of being an academic, nor do I consider it a disqualification for thought. (Sidenote: to my list of people who changed the course of theatre and did not make their living from within the theatre -- and in this case, someone who was an academic -- I would add Hallie Flanagan, who before she headed the Federal Theatre Project, was the head of the Vassar Experimental Theatre. I don't think it would lead to a major controversy to say that her efforts had a bigger impact on the future of American theatre than just about anybody in the first half of the 20th century.)

Anyway, I simply ask that you reread the post, paying particular attention to this sentence: "This does not represent judgmentalism or dismissal on my part: I think doing film, TV, and commercials are all admirable endeavors when they are done well, and I applaud everyone who has devoted their artistic life to them."

I am not dissing those who choose to live in Nylachi, nor those who choose to forge their living in multiple entertainment industries. That is a hard life, and I have great respect for anyone who does it. And since affect is difficult to convey in text, please let me emphasize that I am completely sincere in saying that.

My post was an attempt to be clear about the values and interests that form the center of the Theatre Ideas blog. I am attempting to investigate an alternate model that is totally focused on theatre. As far as the other media are concerned, I wrote "they are different media [from theatre] with different issues and problems and challenges that are outside of my area of interest." Consider the post a mission statement. There are many, many other blogs that are written to discuss the triumphs and vicissitudes of the career track you are mentioning, and that is great. That isn't what I'm doing here, and I don't think I should be asked to march to the beat of your particular drummer.

Scott Walters said...

Brian -- Interesting question. I suspect that the business model for theatre that I am in the process of developing will mean fairly small theatre -- 100 - 200 capacity. So intimacy will be central. So how does that affect acting style?

I have no problem with the fairly "small" acting style that is necessary for film. In a small theatre, it is probably necessary. However, I have a more ambivalent attitude toward the fourth wall that such acting relies upon within the context of a realistic play. I lean -- and at the moment, it is a lean and not a complete topple -- toward more presentational plays that involve the acknowledgment of the presence of the audience. The film actress I've mentioned technically could have filled the space, but she was afraid to look the audience in the eyes, to reach out to include them in the play. This isn't necessary in film, of course, so one cannot fault her for not knowing to do that. In her particular case, she did not come to film from a theatre background but rather from the fashion industry.

So off the top of my head, I'd say that traditional realistic acting styles would be important in the training of my ideal actor, but so would storytelling, improvisation, symbolic movement traditions (mime, mask work, etc), so that when called upon the actor was comfortable interacting with the audience and standing outside the character to provide narration.

Art said...

but so would storytelling, improvisation, symbolic movement traditions (mime, mask work, etc), so that when called upon the actor was comfortable interacting with the audience and standing outside the character to provide narration.

Here in Boston I just saw a production of Little Red Hen, which is a sort of political allegory, (Think Animal Farm,) and the actors played Chickens and roosters the whole time.

Here is a link to the trailers:


This was not a children's show, and it was remarkably refreshing to see a whole cast of actors engaged this way.

I also just read a Kenneth Tynan review from his first collection in which he said that he was more than elated when he would see plays that acknowledged that there was an audience watching them. He seemed to indicate that the proliferation of fourth wall plays, (which he liked just as well,) was making that audience acknowledgement too rare of an occurrence.

Not to keep plugging Boston related companies, but Dan Milstein, artistic director of Rough and Tumble here in Boston has always said that in choosing works to produce he has one overriding criteria: "I am interested in making works that could ONLY be done in a theater."

Anonymous said...


I have always had a bit of a love hate relationship with theaterideas.

You always preference alot of what you say about NYLACHI with the notion that you've been there, you are not speaking from ignorance regarding those citadels, but...I don't always perceive you comprehending the tap tap tapping of all the self appointed NYLACHIers. Let me say that I spent a equal amount of time in life in central Florida as I have divided between NY and CHI. After working at many many theatres within a 100 mile radius of Orlando...I found nothing artistically that sustained me. I meet alot of wonderful people. I had alot of fun, but my goals as a writer and director were unattainable in those areas due to lack of interest in the things I wanted to say and do. What did i owe those communities who be blunt were only able to sustain their community theatre spaces with Neil Simon, Golden Area musicals, etc...theatres that almost had to close their doors when they put on excellent productions of pulitzer prize winning plays? Theatres were only the most vanilla of work provided not financial reward but survival?



Scott Walters said...

devilvet -- I wouldn't deny your experience, nor would I contend that the non-Nylachi audience is perfect. But let me make my point by way of analogy: my first marriage, to an actress, broke up after a dozen years. That could have made me bitter, and made me distrust women for the rest of my life. Instead, I met and married a wonderful woman and we have been happily married now for eleven years and it looks like that will continue indefinitely. In short, one cannot generalize from a single bad experience. There are many who have posted warning here that they have been part of or seen tribes that eventually failed or disbanded, and they offer this as evidence that such an approach is unworkable. While I am temptedin those instances to offer examples of companies that have produced creatively for many years, I ultimately decided that to argue in that way lacks validity. Yes, non-Nylachi communities can be unappreciative; yes, Nylachi theatres can be wonderful. The point is that neither should dominate the other, and there should be attention paid to creating alternative approaches that might make non-Nylachi theatres more viable and respected.

Sarah McL said...

"The Curse of Knowledge"? Good grief. I would take you more seriously if you toned it down a little.

Scott Walters said...

It is a term from Made to Stick, and it represents the difficulty that people who know a lot about a subject have speaking about the subject to someone who doesn't know about it. A term of art, as it were. But if language is what makes you take ideas seriously, rather than content, then maybe the blogosphere, with its fairly unpolished approach, isn't a good place for you.

Sarah McL said...

Not the polish of the argument, clearly you have an excellent command of language. It's more the pontification. I think you have some great ideas... I just have trouble taking them seriously in such a heated context.

Scott Walters said...

Oh, well. I'm a kind of heated guy. You gotta be what you are.

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 ...