Monday, February 18, 2008

How Others See Us

Don Hall at "An Angry White Guy in Chicago" this morning has characterized theatre people as a "Community of Fringe Dwellers" similar to Hot Dog J. Frank - The Willy Wonka of Meat... He concludes: "We're all a bunch of traveling monkeys looking for approval from the Great and Powerful Corporate Mentality. Now, I'm not really trying to make some Big Point here. I just think with all the chest-thumping going on about a new model to work under, it is helpful to have an understanding of what we look and sound like to the vast majority of the population."

What a buzz kill! *L*

OK, first let's look at Don's example: Hot Dog J. Frank - The Willy Wonka of Meat. Sure, his enthusiasm for hot dogs may seem a bit over the top -- most of us do not share his particular passion. However, I would also say that his enthusiasm is contagious, and I'll bet that after about 15 mins with Mr. Frank, you'd want to have a hot dog. I did after I watched the video! He knows his stuff, he knows what makes a hot do great, and he isn't afraid to tell other people about it. If we, as theatre people, could develop his enthusiasm and willingness to look a little foolish, our theatres might be in better shape.

Second, I don't think we are as fringy as Don makes us out. And my evidence comes from the business community, certainly the most non-fringy area of American society. I offer some recent books as evidence:

My point is that theatre has moved into the mainstream business world, and one of the things that is keeping us from taking advantage of this is our seeming need to continue to see ourselves as on the fringe. If we could broaden our idea of theatre a bit, and perhaps learn to listen a bit to the experiences and ideas of people who live a different kind of life than we do -- in other words, if we could learn to diversify our life experiences, and thus diversify the theatre experiences we create -- we might find ourselves a valued part of the community. From my perspective, we have identified a little too fully with the Romantic Outsider hero of most 19th- and 20th-century arts narratives, and have embraced marginalism like a monk embraces a hair shirt -- it makes us feel pure and virtuous. But we do so within a society that has become increasingly flooded with story and with image. And that ought to be changing our own narratives as well.


Nick said...


Agreed we need to shed the notion of "romantic outsider." But are you also saying we need to change the very nature of our work in order to fit into some model that better serves the broader community?

You wouldn’t ask an author or poet with ambitions toward literature to “diversify” and begin serving the broader readership of the local community.

A theatre may have developed a strong aesthetic and ethic in their service to the artistic fringe of a community. The broad community is not the be-all-end-all audience of theatre. Theatre also functions within the “History of Great Ideas” which may or may not find a large audience in any particular community.

Scott Walters said...

Nick -- I am saying that we have given away our true power as the storytellers of our society in order to maintain a self-imposed exile. If there is a "History of Great Ideas," theatre can only participate if our productions are seen, because nothing survives beyond the performance. Yes, if you are a playwright, your script might survive and be appreciated by future generations. To me, that is a cold comfort -- I think theatre people should play a role in our own society, not hold out for some later heavenly reward. And yes, I would ask an author or poet to serve a broader readership, if that means broadening his own outlook to include the experiences of others beyond his little group. The great artists who have participated in the "History of Great Ideas" have done so by having a great soul, one that reached beyond their own tiny selves. This is particularly true of the theatre, which is an art form of the now. The issue is not whether the work actually finds a "large audience" -- the value is not totally defined by the numbers -- but if a play is done in a forest and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a noise? To me, I'd say no. Art that serves the artistic fringe of a community -- art that serves art -- is incestuous and miniature.

We should think of ourselves as bards. "1449, from Scottish, from O.Celt. bardos "poet, singer," from PIE base *gwer- "to lift up the voice, praise." In historic times, a term of contempt among the Scots (who considered them itinerant troublemakers), but one of great respect among the Welsh." We are the bearers of our society's myths, its soul, its heart, the stories it tells about itself. We communicate about what is valued in a society, how we are to live. This is noble and central, not marginal. We have power -- we must care enough to pull the sword from the stone!

Nick said...

Many religions and philosophies have monastic traditions in which individuals commit themselves to a way of life that keeps them in whole or part separated from the larger community. Society and cultures throughout history have given different value to that monastic tradition.

“If a play is done in a forest and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a noise? To me, I'd say no … art that serves art -- is incestuous and miniature.”

Black Elk was instructed by the fringe group of medicine men that had preceded him. He does his Rain Dance alone in the forest; the elements are his only audience. There is nothing “incestuous and miniature” in the ability to conjure a rain cloud to rain on the community in a time of drought. And thunder is most definately noise.

Alison Croggon said...

Scott, I looked at one of these books. The official amazon review says "The authors cheerfully acknowledge that even the most sacred experiences can be turned into a fast buck for faster companies." (I was too depressed to look at any of the others, but I'd suggest that Robert Graves, a poet who knew more about bards than most people, is rolling in his grave). That's not theatre moving into the business world any more than clown workshops for bank executives are (yes they do happen), that's some schmuck with an MA finding some buzz words on his way to becoming the next best selling (according to him) guru and turning a fast buck.

I don't embrace this "fringe" thing. I'm certainly not "fringe" myself. And I think you'd be better off making your own maps rather than going for the snake oil.

Nick said...

Alison, I'm with what you're saying until "I'm certainly not "fringe" myself."

Is there any "occupation" more fringe in the modern world than being a poet?

Scott Walters said...

Alison -- I have observed that when you provide a comment on one of my posts, it is almost always dismissive in some way. This makes me feel angry, because I feel as if you are trying to score points off me for some reason. I need more give and take in order to feel as if we are in dialogue. While it is fine that you disagree with my ideas (and often, I don't feel as if I express them in a way that does the idea in my head justice), I would like to ask that you try to provide an alternative that I might use to broaden my ideas and make them better. In other words, I am asking for your help.
What I am trying to say is NOT that these business books have something we should be emulating (although I think if you gave some of them a try, they would not be as objectionable as you think), but rather that the position of the artist is not as marginalized as Don would make it out to be. The second step I make is that, if we recognized that we were not marginalized, we could more fully embrace our power as creators and more powerfully affect our communities.

Nick -- I see your point, but I also think there is a difference between a ritual and a performance. While they share certain characteristics, a ritual such as the one you describe is complete in and of itself. The healer or shaman performs it as a representative of a community, and the ritual's audience is God and the shaman. A performance, as Peter Brook elegantly described it, involves an empty space, an actor, and somebody watching to make it an act of theatre. You are right that it only takes one observer to make that transaction live.
My interest, I must confess, is in having a positive effect on a community. I have never been a Kantian, nor embraced Wilde's art for art's sake credo. I trace my idea of theatre's roots to religious rituals ala the Greeks and the medieval mysteries. So being part of a community that extends beyond the artistic circle is important to my values. To me, the valorization of marginalization narrows our circle of influence, and lessens the diversity needed for broad understanding.

Nick said...


I would not want to alter the nature of my work in search of some broader understanding. Why would this not be just as loathsome of any other type of pandering for audience?

Theatre may act as a specialized think tank for ideas. I think much of poetry works within such a realm. Robert Creeley need not find some larger community beyond the artistic circle for his work to have value.

Theatre should not be valorized for being marginal, but if that is its nature, it should also not be diminished in value merely because it does speak to some broad based here-and-now audience.

Theatre might also be a protest against certain community or societal values. For instance, I see “the tribe" as largely counter to the high value our society and most communities bestow on individuality and celebrity.

Alison Croggon said...

Apologies, Scott, if I have made you angry. I am not trying to score points. It's just what I think. I don't feel I have anything to say about regional theatre in the US, so leave it to those who know; it's a worthy thing you're trying to do, and I wish you only the best of luck.

All the same, I'm unlikely to read those books; I've had enough to do with that kind of business cant not to want to read it any further. I'm sorry to disagree, but I do think that kind of corporate guff is poison, and utterly at odds with the kinds of community values you are advocating here. Even if it adorns itself with arty feathers, it's only about the bottom line and a creepy kind of competitiveness. Bards have always existed on other values.

I too think that the categories of the margin and the mainstream are much less clear than some make out, but I look elsewhere when I make that argument. But this is a serious question, Scott: how different is what you're urging here from a producer reshaping a work to its artistic detriment because he/she considers that it's not commercially viable? I may well have misunderstood you, but I can't see how it's different.

Nick, in my work as a poet, I pursue a minority art, absolutely. And I am right with you on what you say here about the significance and importance of such activities. I just don't consider minor artforms "marginal" or "fringe" per se: significance isn't bought by a work's bigness or immediate popularity, as any brief survey of art history shows. But I also do many other things, some of them works that even Scott might approve as reaching out to wider audiences.

Scott Walters said...

Alison and Nick -- First of all, thank you both for the civility and seriousness with which you have responded. I am trying to learn how better to collaborate and exchange ideas, and that means that I am trying to respond in less combative ways. Alison, I hope we can agree to disagree about the poisonous nature of business writing -- I think it isn't necessary for us to agree in order to have this discussion.

Both of you are asking me similar questions: Nick, yours about pandering, and Alison, yours about the producer making changes. Let me see if I can respond first by surfacing a foundational principle for my own beliefs: theatre is about communication. While I could go on to explain that more fully (and would be happy to), for now that rather bald statement is all that is necessary.

When I write a post about an idea, I try my best to put it in such a way that it is understood. When I see from the comments that it hasn't been clearly perceived, then I will try to edit it to make it clearer. If I were going to publish the idea in a book, I would do further fine tuning and editing in order to have the best possibility of communicating what I feel is most important. I would not alter the basic idea in order to be more "popular" (although I would alter it, I suppose, if I had been persuaded that the idea was misguided in part or whole), but I wouldn't feel that I was betraying my talent as a thinker if an editor suggested ways to make my writing clearer so that the idea had a greater impact.

I feel the same way about theatre: while there is more than mere clarity involved in an effective piece of theatre, and there are many different "channels" through which meaning is communicated, I want my theatre productions to be created to have the most powerful effect possible on the audience. To me, this isn't pandering, which would involve altering my ideas to match someone's expectations, nor are my ideas diminished if the effect is more powerful.

Alison Croggon said...

I don't think anyone would argue that attempting to make a work or thought clearer is a good thing. The devil is in the details: what if what one if attempting to make clear is very complex? To return to poetry: some poets I admire highly are accused of being obscure and therefore wilfully elitist. But I don't believe they are at all: they are simply attempting to communicate very complex thought, and they are doing so in the simplest way they can find (I think, as a rule of thumb, this is true about all good poetry, and maybe all good art). So the argument isn't about clarity, but about whether thought is allowed to be complex.

However, no matter how clearly that thought may be manifested, if it is at all original, it will be at odds with the received conventions. The received conventions are what most people are happy with, it's what most people like consuming. There's nothing wrong with that, up to a point: but art, in its truest activity, is not about received conventions at all, which are thought patterns that obscure perception through habit, but about the attempt to perceive. This is where the conflict happens. An artist may not be being wilful at all if he or she refuses to adopt the received wisdom about how something is, they may not be "choosing" to be marginal. That's where you mistake intention. It's more that their desire to see clearly can put them an odds with a society that would much rather wear blinkers.

Scott Walters said...

Alison -- I agree with you wholeheartedly regarding complexity. To speak from my own experience, there are times when academics are accused of being willfully obscure when they use a technical vocabulary. Sometimes, I think this is justified-- for instance, I get cross when I read Herbert Blau because I know he can write clearly from the power of his Impossible Theatre, and I don't know why he feels that his ideas are better communicated using labyrinthan sentence structure; but sometimes, the technical vocabulary is the best way to state a complex idea clearly. Sometimes, when reading a poem, for instance, the power for the reader comes from first being baffled about what is being said, and then piercing the surface to connect with the real power. There are times when I have experienced this with Beckett, for instance.

I do, however, differ with you regarding originality. I think originality comes at the edges, when an audience is asked to come right up to the edge of its comfort zone and then step beyond it. As human beings, I think we will do whatever we can to stay within our comfort zone, and the cynical artist exploits that tendency by giving the audience exactly what it already knows. But I think audiences grow bored with this rather quickly and see it as a formula (for instance, the spate of disaster films in the 1970s following the success of Airport and The Poseidon Adventure, which very quickly became a formulaic joke). I have been reading Flow lately -- have you read it? It is pretty interesting, and has interesting application for the theatre. The author (whose name I won't even attempt to spell here) indicates that "flow," the experience of total immersion that represents the highest points of experience, happens when a person is challenged right at the edge of their capabilities, so that they have the possibility of "succeeding," but it takes concentration and a stretch to do so. And it is that stretch that is the source of the exhilaration.

The experience of a Richard Foreman play, for instance, is deeply affected by who is in the audience. If you have previous experience with Foreman and/or are tuned into the philosophical issues he often explores, then he will take you to the edge of your competence and you'll experience flow and it will be wonderful; if your theatrical experiences have been more mainstream and/or your philosophical background is sketchy or even focused in a different area of philosophy (say you are a Rawlsian scholar interested in social justice), you will most likely find the experience baffling and maybe even infuriating. Foreman has chosen to address the former spectator without worrying about the latter, and that is admirable. He has sought out those who can appreciate his vision, and doesn't seem to feel too badly that the mainstream isn't beating a path to his door. If you choose a specialized audience, then you are not marginalized, which I would define as something that is done to you.

Sometimes artists expect spectators to make a much longer jump than they are capable of, and they feel that they are frustrated that the audience doesn't accept them. To me, this represents a gap in understanding between artist and audience; there hasn't been enough interaction between the two to lead to an identification of the edge they share.

This is what I mean when I say I think artists need to experience the community they are in. When we surround ourselves with people who share our own orientation and background, we start to believe that our edges are universal. This leads to frustration, and a sense that people who don't get it are being lazy or willfully narrow-minded.

All of this leads me to the sense that I don't think anyone would rather wear blinkers, but I do think that people will choose the safety of the known unless they are guided to the unknown. Nobody gets up in the morning and thinks, "I think I'll try to be uncomfortable all day." New things are uncomfortable. But if a friend of theirs says, "Come on! I know you say you don't like sushi, but have you ever tried it? No? Well, come with me and I'll order some that I think you'll like." And so, they try the sushi, and maybe they like it, and maybe they don't. Left to their own devices, they will never try it; encouraged by somebody who knows their edge, they might.

Nick said...


You are a warehouse of ideas and an invaluable resource as such. But what can be grating are the blanket prescriptions you often dispense on how we, the practitioners, need to fix our theatre. I believe you mean them to be read more as proposals than prescriptions, so probably it is simply as you suggest, a problem of clarity in your writing.

And now that you concede that some theatre artists like Richard Foreman need not “diversify” and seek some community beyond their specialized audience, I feel as if I want support your proposal.

I would love to see and participate in a reemergence of theatre in our culture similar to the way poetry has reemerged in the forms of Poetry Slam, Hiphop, performance poetry, and spoken word. Of course Def Poetry Jam and MTV's "Spoken Word Unplugged” would never be the right venue for a T.S. Eliot to perform The Waste Land, but I think all the fringe festivals and other types of theatre festivals that popping up around the country are doing important work toward popularizing theatre in our culture. And marketing can be as creative and artistic as the art itself as all of us have known at least since Warhol.


Semantics I think to quibble over fringe, marginal, or minority. Regardless, a very elegant defense of your “minor” artform’s need to counter received conventions. Much of that applies also to certain fringe or specialized theatre. Thanks.

Scott Walters said...

Nick -- Glad that we are able to come to some sort of agreement. That's my goal.

I guess your paragraph that starts your comment surfaces an issue I'd like to raise. I sometimes am irritated by a seeming demand by "practitioners" that I, as a mere academic, should do a lot of bowing and scraping before offering an idea. I find this differentiation between "practitioner" and "academic" very odd and divisive. I mean, the fact is that most of the "practitioners" are making their living doing things other than theatre, and yet they are practitioners because they do plays; whereas I make my living teaching theatre, and I direct plays as well -- so how is it that I am somehow judged to be outside the pale and need to be humble and apologetic for sharing my ideas?

Wouldn't it be better if we all just joined forces?

Anonymous said...

Hey, Scott, this is Jeff from Tulsa. I've been trying to catch up with your blog since we met in LA, and feel a need to weigh in on this one.

I take offense to the notion that "We're all a bunch of traveling monkeys looking for approval from the Great and Powerful Corporate Mentality." While I love to be characterized as a traveling monkey, I could frankly care less about corporate mentality, corporate America, or corporate theater. While I see their place, purpose, and necessity, I do not wish to share my bed with any of them. And my theater is my bed.

From our experience in the Midwest, Corporate America and the mainstream business world see the arts and theater as a novelty. My troupe is continually contacted to bring a performance to a business retreat or fund-raiser until the organizer realizes we won't be performing a melodrama, have no mimes in our troupe, and do not perform aerialist feats. Modern theater has been corrupted and perverted by blue people and sun circuses; it seems our popular culture and media outlets equate this glitz with theatrics, yet give no distinction between theatrics and theater.

@Nick: I'm not sure we can shed the "romantic outsider" notion as we are increasingly competing with screen time. If we are not beamed in to a box in a living room, we will forever be outside of that box.

@Scott: I don't believe we have given away any power as a storyteller. If there is a story to be told and someone to tell that story in an open forum, there will always be someone to listen. There is a fine line between performance and ritual; performance is ritual, but a ritual is not always a performance. The act of a performance itself can influence reality, whether heard or not. Never underestimate your power as an individual. But that's best discussed in a religion and spirituality forum...

I agree that artists sometimes expect too much of their audiences. Having an audience in itself can be a leap. The edge starts at your theater's front door; it may end there and it may not. The key is realizing these leaps and understanding that any leap is good.

Corporate theater, academics, practitioners, fringe - we're all working together whether we realize it or care to admit it. Any benefit, either individually or collectively, is good for all. You need not talk about joining forces as we are already joined...

Paul Rekk said...

Quick question, just for my clarification, Scott: What do you see as the difference between an artist who has chosen a specialized audience (a la Foreman) and a "Romantic Outsider"?

I think a lot of the dissonance between my ideas and yours might stem from that divide, which I'm not completely clear on.

Scott Walters said...

Great question, Paul. You have turned the issue so that I can look at it from a new direction.

From my perspective, the Romantic Outsider finds a large portion of his or her identity less from their art than from the fact that their art is rejected by the mainstream. For a Romantic Outsider, the worst thing that could happen would be to suddenly become popular. From this perspective, the value of the art is almost completely defined by how much it is rejected by the mainstream.

Artists who have chosen a specialized audience don't really care what the mainstream thinks about their art. They have chosen a specific community as their audience, and they are totally focused on speaking to that community. This could take many forms. For instance, a theatre like Roadside Theatre is totally focused on speaking to rural Appalachian communities, and it really isn't concerned whether a so-called sophisticated urban audience is coming to see its shows. Perhaps Langston Hughes provides an example in his essay "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain": "We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn't matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too." Hughes, unlike the Romantic Outsider, doesn't feel the need to flip off the white mainstream, because he is not defined by his opposition to it.

Does that make any sense?

Paul Rekk said...

Sure does, and many thanks.

To a certain degree, there are points and counterpoints within that specialized audience definition that would be interesting to pursue, but that's more of an exercise in artistic philosophy and is neither here nor there as far as the subject at hand is concerned.

And as an added bonus, I no longer feel as though my instinctual bent towards a certain (yes, 'fringe') style of art relegates me to the offensive ranks of the Romantic Outsider. Of course I knew from the start that wasn't what you were intending, but it's a lot clearer now.

Nick said...


Most artists came to their love and practice of theatre through the inspiration of an academic or teacher. So we’re all on the same team. Sorry if I wounded you. I wasn’t trying to bring up the rift between the academic and the artist as much as the divide between theory and praxis.

But let’s look at this issue that irritates you more closely by looking at what also irritates me.

What is irritating about your rants against Nylachi or regional theatre and in your prescriptions for curing theatre culture are that they seem to be delivered from some lofty tower. If not the Ivory Tower, then someplace up high, holier-than-thou.

If as you suggest, we need to see you as a practitioner not a theorist, we should look at how you would address your own proposal here. “How Others See Us.” How do the good citizens of your Asheville community view your work as a director of theatre? Whether or not it is developed or even acknowledged, universities and their students have a relationship with the community that surrounds them. So how does Scott’s theatre practice with all its university and theatre resources engage his larger Asheville community? And what part of Scott’s theatre practice needs to stay specialized to his university audience and not care about the “townies” or that broader audience?

It’s not the academic v. artist. It’s presumptuous manner you propose change in other’s households without the equivalent scrutiny and proposals placed on your own.

As an artist I work within the manifesto, the idea and action tied together. If I propose an idea to peers, I am willing to carry it into practice myself. So don’t expect proposals from me too far from what I am already practicing or have practiced. As an academic and teacher first, not an artist, your proposals mainly go to students, not peers. And your ideas are often meant to inspire and instill a love of the artform, not merely provide theory for practice.

I hope none of this comes off as anything other than me trying to be honest about this “issue” that irritates both you and me. Neither of us should feel as if we have to defend our ideas or practice from one another. We share too much common ground to allow that to occur.

Scott Walters said...

Nick -- I tried to answer that with my post "On Taking Action," where I wrote:

"I think we all contribute to change through our particular areas of influence. I am an academic -- I am trying to educate a new generation of artists. So if I am going to walk my talk, as Rebecca seems to be asking, that means that I must begin teaching the values I am proposing, and addressing the skills that such values require to reach fruition.

"But I also must write. This blog is the starting point for more formal writing on the same topics, but that is not why I maintain it. I blog because I have had evidence that there are people out there who are frustrated, who feel as if their talents are going unused, who feel as if they want to live a different life in the arts, and who need to hear that their frustrations are shared. They need to read ideas that question whether the status quo is necessary, or necessarily the best way. They need to hear that their desire to live their life outside of Nylachi, and to have financial stability, to have a house, to have a family, to be part of a community is not out of bounds. And they need someone who is trying, one step at a time, to figure out a new way of creating theatre that might fulfill those dreams....All of this may seem like mere conversation, but as Athol Fugard pointed out in Master Harold...and the boys, we have to first imagine a new reality before we can bring it into being. That's my contribution. That's the action I take."

I think there is value in imagining an alternative, especially when the current way of doing things has such a dominant control over the minds of practitioners. The number of commenters who reply to my Nylachi comments by saying a variation on "But that's where the work is" are testament to the fact the the vision of the status quo is so ingrained that imagining other alternatives can't even occur until those trees are moved out of the way.

But let's be clear: if anyone lives in New York, LA, or Chicago -- or any other large American city with an active theatre community -- and you love your life, your city, your audience, by all means stay put. We don't need a mass stampede to South Dakota! But for those people who are not satisfied, who don't want to go to New York, LA, or Chicago, or who are there right now but want to be elsewhere...well, them I am asking to help me devise a New Model. I have no interest in making happy Nylachi folks feel guilty (as if that were possible). But I have to tease to the surface buried assumptions that might explain the dissatisfaction others might feel with the status quo. That often means I have to point at something and indicate that it is not the only way.

As far as my personal practice is concerned, my last production was Thousand Kites, a world premiere of a play about the building of prisons in Appalachia. Those performances included a third act that was an audience discussion, not with me and the actors but with other members of the audience. Organizations that are involved in the issues raised in the play were invited to send representatives to speak during the third act, or to send materials to give the the audience. Inmates at area prisons were asked to write letters to the audience, and copies were distributed for the audience members to read to each other and discuss. I ran two reading groups composed of students, faculty, and community members who read Gates of Injustice: The Crisis in America's Prisons and discussed the issues raised. The production was filmed and shown on the local television station. I also teach a course in community-based theatre, and in my other more traditional classes like theatre history I constantly ask students to define their own values in agreement or opposition to what they read, and always examine the historical relationship between the artist and the community at different times and places in theatre history.

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 ...