Wednesday, February 27, 2008

On Rants

Because I value Nick's observations, I spent some time last evening reflecting on his criticism of my tendency to occasionally use this blog for rants against the current way we create theatre in this country. I asked myself what purpose I thought such rants served, and whether I could put those reasons into words that would make sense to other people. Because I want this blog to be more than a place people come for entertainment; I want it to be a place where people come for inspiration, and for hope, and maybe for some guidance. And the more I thought about it, the more I found myself thinking back to when I was a senior in high school in 1976, and the effect that Paddy Chayefsky's brilliant film Network had on me. I thought about how electrifying the scene below was at the time. If you have never scene this film, please rent it; if you have and think you remember, I hope you will watch this scene in its entirety anyway to remind yourself of the details.

(Isn't Peter Finch great?) The importance of this scene was not in Finch's Lear-like, water-drenched rant, but rather in the last minute of the scene where William Holden's daughter opens the window to find that, one after another, people have come out of their apartments and are expressing their rage. And it isn't the expression of that rage that is central, but the fact that everyone on the balconies hear that other people share their frustration -- suddenly, they realize that they aren't alone, they are a part of a large community of hurt and angry people who don't want to take it anymore. And that's important.

It is important to realize that other people are equally frustrated with the fact that the current way of doing things forces people to work a full-time job and then choose between doing theatre or spending time with their children and/or their spouse. It is important to realize that other people resent having to leave places they love and move to New York if they want to be cast in the so-called regional theatres. It is important to realize that other people want to devote themselves to theatre, but have to do commercials and TV and film in order to make ends meet. It is important to realize that others are frustrated that they can't get their plays done on the stages of the regional theatres because those theatres are focused on Guthrie's 50+-year old classics.

That is why I encourage lurkers to stop lurking and express themselves in my comments box, even if it is just to say "I agree." This is why I created the Theatre Tribe discussion site so that people can join and connect with people who share their experiences and frustration.

There are some who will call this whining. They will tell us to suck it up and deal with it. But change only happens if people express the fact that the status quo isn't working, or isn't working for many people, or isn't working for you. We can't afford to keep losing intelligent, creative artists because the economics force them to make either/or choices about their lives. We should not only feel sorry for the Seattle actress Mike Daisey describes in his essay, but we should feel upset that the art form that we care so much about has been diminished by the loss of her talents, and the talents of thousands just like her.

Nick is right: it isn't enough to just rant, isn't enough to just express frustration. But it is the first step. It may be preaching to the choir, but sometimes you have to preach to the choir if you want them to sing. And sometimes the choir needs to hear all those other voices, the voices of the congregation, raised along with theirs to give them the courage to sing in a voice that is loud and clear and confident. And that's not whining.

There is one other moment in the Network scene that is important. It is the moment that immediately follows the opening of the window, when William Holden cocks his head in surprise when he hears the first voice raised in anger outside his apartment. Holden is an insider, and the frustration he hears being expressed is unanticipated. He didn't know that people felt that way.

One of the great things about the internet is the ease with which ideas can be spread. Seth Godin calls these "ideaviruses." You can cut and paste posts into emails and send them to other people you think might need to hear those words -- I urge you to do that. And you can send links to people you don't know, but who you think need to hear something -- I urge you to do that. If you know of a theatre in your town that is importing actors instead of using locals, send them a link to my post about this. If you want regional theatres to do more new plays, send them a link to a post about this. Use my blog, use my words, to be heard. Email the TCG at and include some of Mike Daisey's words or my words or some other person's words, or use your own words, or a combination of all of those -- but raise your voices so that you are heard. Let people who can do something know what the problems are on the ground. Let them hear your experiences. Give them a chance to see the world from a different perspective, to empathize. The only way things change is if you communicate.

We're not powerless to affect change. Look at the theatrosphere -- ideas get picked up. commented on, they circulate from blog to blog. Suddenly, everybody is talking about My Name is Rachel Corrie or theatre tribes or the ethics of criticism. If it ends there, something important haas happened, but it need not end there. The next step is to communicate those ideas to people beyond the theatrosphere through emails or letters or phone calls.

So use these rants however you like -- for your personal catharsis, to form a link between you and others who share your feelings, to communicate your experiences to the powers that be. But use them. And use them to communicate.


Anonymous said...

I agree.

And I am taking your suggestion of copying your (and others, and my own) words to distribute to all of my contacts.

If I can't make theatre, at least I can make noise, right?

And it's not that I can't make theatre - I'm just refusing to make it via the way in which it is currently being made in Atlanta.

Perfect example:

Jennifer is SMing for a production of a new play being put up by Synchronicity Performance Group. They held auditions back in October. At that time, one of their leads accepted his role with the understanding that he would get one (one!) full day off every week - off from his day job and from the rehearsal process.

Now, Jennifer is busy making the schedule, and the director is insisting on Day rehearsals on Sat and Sun. Jen reminded her of their agreement with the lead - and she was told that she needed to pass along to the lead that he needed to 'suck it up' or not take the role.

That's some bullshit, right there, folks.

You know what? The theatre is the one that needs to suck it up. They are NOT paying this guys bills. They are LUCKY to get him to work for the pittance they offer ($200 for the rehearsals and one-month run - $200 TOTAL!)

I say "they," but I really mean "us." We need, as theatre artists, to NOT work in this bullshit rubric ANYMORE. We need to spend our time, if we have it, looking to create a new scenario for the creation of theatre - BEFORE we create the work. And if it can't work, then, fuck it, let's wait until it can. Let's concentrate on making it work.

My two cents.

Anonymous said...

This post led to a line of mental inquiry I found interesting.

Short of physical abuse (i.e., your right to swing your fist ends at the tip of my nose) I don't think anybody has the right to require that somebody else change their behavior.

I think you have every right to say, "I'm unhappy! I need to change what I am doing."

I don't think you have a leg to stand on when you say "I'm unhappy! So YOU need to change what YOU are doing."

You want a new model? Start a theatre. Make it work the way you want it to work. This is what I think you're on to with your Tribe idea, but it also smacks of armchair quarterbacking.

Anything other than founding the model in the world, is just so much blather.

Scott Walters said...

Wow, Jess, that is a helluva story.

Anonymous -- Obviously, I disagree. One of the things that leads to change is to create a groundswell based on ideas. Simply creating a theatre that works won't do it, because nobody knows about it except you. But sharing ideas, thinking through ramifications BEFORE putting something into action, that is a valuable and necessary process, it seems to me. As I mentioned in another post, Harold Clurman talked the Group Theatre into existence -- he did absolutely nothing, even when they were creating their first production "The House of Connelly" except talk. And everybody involved recognized that his talk gave them a sense of purpose and the courage to forge on. One has to imagine something new before you can create it. In addition, I am not asking anyone to change unless they want to. I am trying to bring together all the people who share a common frsutration and who have a desire to try something new. If you are good where you are, more power to you. But you can't create a movement without a vision.

Anonymous said...

And the vision means little to nothing if it can't survive in the atmosphere of the planet it lives on. So, to test whether your notion can breathe the air of our time seems absolutely necessary.

On your second point, didn't you write an earlier post urging theatres to stop employing artists from other places? That seems like asking others to change their practice, which you say in the comment above that you're not doing. So...?

Nick Keenan said...

I don't know, youse guys.

In the past three months, I've done both talk and work. I've sat and wrote rants, diatribes and manifestoes and I've done four or six designs on $100 budgets (I can't remember at this point) and I'm sitting writing this while in tech for a production at a big LORT theater.

The more feedback I get from the lurkers, the more I understand that this discussion is important, even while it is not directly "productive." Blogs are not where theater happens, so to criticize a blog discussion for not taking action is in my opinion expecting way too much. This is a discussion about refocusing our collective actions, not about generating that change.

And no, everyone involved isn't going to be directly creating theater. Some people will be exploring the theory behind the theater. Is the theory healthier when it's being tested in the real world? Sure.

Frankly, from my view on the ground: it's working. Yes, Scott is entrenched in theory here, but it's generating a lot of real if small change in people's lives right now. No, it's not always the changes Scott anticipates, but it's in some ways even more promising. I have had about twenty discussions with theater professionals who have been looking at these conversations from afar (and don't necessarily have the stamina to think out and post a lucid and articulate response on a regular basis), but BOY do they get excited about the idea of the theater tribe.

Just as research into atomic particles generated a lot of unanticipated practical advancements, this discussion shouldn't be thought of as "model" construction, it should be thought of as research, and seeing how these ideas can resonate. This isn't a conversation that's going to start a single theater or directly generate change. It's one that's going to spread ideas and shared conversation across the country and lay the groundwork for MANY tribes to coalesce and start sharing resources, time and ideas.

If you can't stand the meta, at least don't stand in the way of it. That said, your doubt is also both noted and valued as part of the developing conversation. Maybe instead of attacking each other, we should also look into the source of this doubt a little and figure out why that's resonating as well? Let's address it, and the models will form themselves dare I say organically out of the conversation.

Tony Adams said...

Scott, I've been meaning to ask. Have you looked at how Théâtre du Soleil functions as a company and creates work?

They do a lot of what you talk about with an extraordinarily high level of quality. Also built their theatre spaces in an abandoned bullet plant that now serves as an arts campus with several theatres alongside each other.)

If you're looking for real world examples, you could do worse. (Of course they're based in Paris, which is the French version of Nylachi rolled into one City.)

Anonymous said...

Nick - thanks for your comments. It is so incredibly warming to hear that the day-to-day guys and girls are excited about the Tribe idea.

Scott Walters said...

Nick -- You made my day. And reminded me, as I should have been reminded by the other Nick as well, that a positive vision is what is going to be talked about, not the attack on the status quo. I hope you will keep your ear to the ground and let us know about others who are talking.

Tony -- That's a really good suggestion. I have a book about Theatre du Soleil (wow! how did you get all those accent marks to work?), and every once it a while it occurs to me that they might provide a real world example. Thanks for the nudge -- I'll check my bookshelf.

Nick Keenan said...

One hard and fast example is Chicago set designer Marcus Stephens, who I just encouraged to join the theater tribe ning group. He's designing more than I am but the conversation has resonated a bit differently as he grows older... he's become very interested in finding ways to encourage theaters to a) be more environmentally sustainable and b) more engaged in local communities, through some kind of community contract. Because he's collaborating with six or seven companies at a time, he's in another unique spot to be able to coordinate say, sharing platforms, lumber, set pieces so that stuff doesn't end up in the landfill. And, he's a master collaborator, so he already has the ear of a number of higher-profile artistic directors in Chicago, Indiana, and Iowa. I encouraged him to use the theater tribe site to develop this idea and perhaps his contract itself.

Like I said, small changes. But I think the change comes when the entire theater community starts to be aware that we're all listening and watching each other, and when we start sharing thoughts. A vision for positive change does actually propagate itself - as does vitriol, actually.

What may be difficult to see, and I think will come in time over the next year, is a really effective way to measure the success of the vision. Blog comments don't cut it, because it really only represents people who make the time to post back. That may be a danger we face as bloggers on this issue - when we're out on our own and we're not getting effective on-the-ground feedback, how do we keep focused and prevent ourselves from burning out? I think without that feedback we run the risk of running off the rails - which is what I've been thinking about as my blog lays dormant for the past week. If the goal is to build community momentum, some of us will need to keep careful lockstep with that momentum on a local level and help it along - and the mechanism for that may have to be local contact, not a web tool at all.

Think Again: Funding and Budgets in the Arts

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