Friday, February 01, 2008

The End of the Theatre Is Near!!!

Thanks to Nick at Ratsass for the biggest laugh I've had all year!


A while ago, I wrote a post suggesting a way of garnering support for using local actors rather than imports. I created a website for SLAW where people could brainstorm. I was thinking about slightly different approach using the same "tear a page out of your program" approach. These can be used for other issues than imported actors, too.

This one involves the same target: a theatre that is importing actors, but is also employing some locals as well. Instead of creating a flyer addressing the issue directly, stand outside of the theatre and distribute a flyer with information about the actors in the play who are locals. Perhaps include their bio's, other shows they've done in Chicago, perhaps quotes from reviews for their previous shows, maybe a brief interview. And then suggest that the spectators show their support for those actors by tearing out the program page with their bio and leaving it in the aisle. So instead of seeming to attack a theatre for importing actors, you are instead applauding them for using locals.

You could do the same thing when a theatre offers a production of a world premiere by an American dramatist. Perhaps distribute a flyer about how infrequent this is happening around the country (you could use the information I published here as a starting point if you like), applaud the theatre for doing it, and suggest that they -- yes, you guessed it -- tear out the playwright bio and leave it in the aisle to show approval.

The SLAW idea got a lot of positive notice when I first proposed it, but there has been no activity on the wiki and no indication of anybody wanting to try it out. So I will make this offer: if you are willing to distribute the flyers, I will write it for you (after you give me the information about the specific situation). Email me if you like: walt eight two eight at gmail dot com. (I actually don't know why you're supposed to write it out, but I've noticed others have done this elsewhere, so it must have something to do with spam or something, right?)

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Fresh Fish!

Check out this new blog, called 99 Seats. It just started yesterday -- get in on the ground floor. I have a feeling that my readers will like this one.

Why Permanent Companies Increase Attendance

The Necessary Theatre by Peter Hall:

"Creative work in a theatre has always been done by a company...A good theatre company is small -- some thirty or forty people;.... This is the size of a healthy tribe. Everyone can know everyone else. A good rehearsal with a creative company can feel like a metaphor for a healthy family, or an ideal society. The work is done well because the exchange is candid and free....

At the Old Vic with our small company of twenty-five actors we found that the audiences' traditional responses were still strong: they loved seeing the same actors in different parts; they had an enthusiasm for seeing young talent develop; a feeling that the group had a strong and intimate relationship with it which was growing with every production. The more cohesive the company became, the more it felt capable of an immediate dialogue with its audience, and the more it felt able to arouse an imaginative response. This is the true process of live theatre.

At the Old Vic, we quickly created a supportive audience who were making regular visits at very cheap prices...So there was a continuing audience with a developing dialogue between those who watched and those who played. This is not fanciful. It was a feeling that became more palpable as the season went on.

Company work makes an actor's life richer. The big part one night is followed by the small part the next. The small part is often richly played by a leading actor who would not normally undertake such a role. Typecasting is avoided. In the commercial world the obvious characteristics of an actor are emphasised so that he plays regularly the same kind of part. More improbable and dangerous casting is always better, because it reflects the unexpectedness of life. In a company, the actor can take risks. So can the director as he casts."

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Betrayal of the Regional Theatre Movement -- The Guthrie

Back at the end of last May, I did an interview at Theatre is Territory where I said, among other things, that Tyrone Guthrie "hijacked the regional theatre movement." I wrote about this more fully in a post called "What Might Have Been" back in September. In the latter post, I quoted the matriarch of the American regional theatre movement, Margo Jones, who said in her brilliant book Theatre in the Round, published in 1951, the following:

I believe it is imperative in creating new resident professional companies to take a violent stand about the choice of plays. Personally I believe in the production of classics and new scripts, with emphasis on new scripts. Our theatre can never be stronger than the quality of its plays. We must, therefore, have a great number of good plays. The classics have proved their value through­out the history of the theatre, and I believe we should draw on them as great literature and great theatre. But if we produce only classics, we are in no way reflecting our own age. Our theatres must not only be professional, they must be contemporary as well. The most excellent seasons in New York are those which bring forth exciting new play-writing talent.

Too many people are saying, "I'll do a new play if I can find a good one." Certainly you must find a good one, but this attitude is not good enough. The plays can be found if you look hard enough. And if you take the vio­lent stand I have spoken about, you will feel obligated to search and search and search until the scripts are dis­covered. I have a belief that there is great writing in America today and that much of it has not yet been un­earthed.

Great theatres have always had their playwrights. Shakespeare, Lope de Vega, Moliere, Ibsen—all these were men around whom theatrical companies were functioning. The Moscow Art Theatre had Chekhov; the Abbey Theatre had Yeats, Synge and O'Casey; the Provincetown had O'Neill; the Group had Odets. We must have our new play­wrights, and we will not have them unless we give them many outlets to see their plays produced. This is the best
way in which they can learn to write better plays.

The production of classics is healthy, but it is not step in the flowering we want to see in the American theatre. We need progress, and the seed of progress in theatre lies in the new plays.
Compare this to Guthrie, who wrote the following in his 1964 book A New Theatre about the founding of the Guthrie Theatre:

It seemed to us that the only way of knowing a good play from a bad was to apply the test of time. Our programme would be classical; only those plays would be chosen which had seemed, to discriminating people for several generations [ital mine], to have serious merit, which had, in fact, withstood the test of time. This would still offer a very wide choice.....

Now the American theatre has not been long enough in existence to have developed its own classics. A distinctively American, as opposed to merely English-speaking, theatre only began to develop around the end of the First World War, at the beginning of the nineteen-twenties. Before that there certainly had been plays, written by American authors for American audiences, such as the works of Clyde Fitch. These, however, were heavily derivative from European and, naturally enough, especially from English-speaking sources....

If it be granted that fifty years is the absolute minimum of time required before a new work of art can wisely be regarded as a classic [ital mine], then it follows that the American theatre cannot as yet claim to have developed a classical dramatist.

All the same, many excellent dramatists have developed between 1920 and the present time. Several of these, it is reasonable to suppose, may be of potential classical status. In planning a theatre which we hoped to establish in an American city, and hoped might have a perceptible cultural influence in a particular region of America, it seemed neither sensible nor tactful to take such a doctrinaire view of classical status that American plays would have -- for at least another ten years -- to be omitted from the programme.

Moreover, Americans get exasperated by Europeans who point out how brief American history has been. That is is true does not make a fact more agreeable. Europeans use the seniority of their culture to give maddening little lectures intended of course for the betterment and instruction of a crude, young and, of course, totally materialistic society. The British, I am afraid, are the very worst offenders. We use the fact that Britain and America write a similar language, and that the British have been writing for a few centuries longer, to take an absurdly patronising attitude towards our young cousins, not only in cultural matters but in everything where so-called "maturity" of outlook and behaviour might be valuable.

We certainly did not want it to appear as if once again Britain were trying to instruct the colonists. It therefore seemed to us essential to include each season one American play of what we considered to be potential classical status; and to let it take its place in a programme of established classics.
Wasn't that nice of Uncle Tyrone to let an American play be performed in an American theatre? Sheesh. There are several attitudes that must be drawn attention to in the above quotation.

1. That there is no way to tell what a good play is unless at least fifty years have passed. First of all, that is sheer cowardice and laziness -- let other people sift through the contemporary plays and take the chances, and then Guthrie will come along and pick up the gold that has been separated out by others' efforts. And has he not thought that if others followed his example, as they in fact did once the Guthrie opened to fanfare in the national press, that nobody would actually be doing this sifting?

2. This fifty year rule turns theatre into a museum whose main purpose is preservation rather than creation. This makes theatre into a dead art form that looks back to the past and has no truck with the present. It is the exact opposite of Jones' view that the theatre should reflect our own age. Instead, the mirror should be turned to reflect our grandparents' age at best, and preferably ages long before theirs.

3. Despite his stated desire not to seem to be instructing the colonies, there is a Eurocentric snobbery in Guthrie's attitude that is offensive in the extreme. It turns the Guthrie into a Trojan horse, an elaborate gift from the Old Country that completely ignores and undermines the value of the native theatre. In fact, he dismisses Eugene O'Neill, America's Nobel Prize-winning playwright, for his "ponderously repetitive style, his limited vocabulary and occasional very purple patches" which he believes will "ultimately keep him out of a place anywhere near the first rank." But he'll produce Aeschylus, whose style is every bit as ponderous and purple as O'Neill's, without blinking. Pure snobbery.

And the American regional theatre swallowed it. Prior to the opening of the Guthrie, Jones was the model for what a regional theatre should be. Her book was taken as a bible, and artistic leaders such as Nina Vance, founder of the Alley Theatre in Houston, and Zelda Fichlander, founder of the Arena Stage in Washington DC, demonstrated a deep commitment to the production of new American and European plays. No fifty-year rule there, they were committed to the creation of a theatre that reflected American life. But once the Guthrie opened in 1963, according to Joseph Wesley Zeigler in Regional Theatre: The Revolutionary Stage (published in 1973), the regional theatre took a major turn. According to Zeigler, "it further legitimated the movement and gave it national weight. It gave hope to all regional theatres that they too could become known on a national level, that the Times might soon cover their openings, and that actors like Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy [and George Grizzard] might soon set aside a season for them." This desire for recognition by the New York theatre establishment -- the quest for fame -- led other regional theatres to blindly follow the Guthrie artistic policy. Whereas before new work was mixed with the classics, after Guthrie regional theatre seasons came to be dominated by the classics.

The result was the slow draining of vitality from the American regional theatre movement and the hampering of the development of American drama. While a few years later, when the Arena Theatre achieved much recognition when it transferred The Great White Hope to Broadway, there was a resurgence of interest in new plays by the regional theatres, it came not from a commitment to American plays and playwrights, but rather to the desire, once again, to be recognized by the theatrical establishment in New York.

In summary, the opening of the Guthrie theatre in 1963 represents the colonialization of the American regional theatre, a colonialization from which it has yet to fully recover.

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"!

Monday, January 28, 2008

No Post Til Tuesday

I'm afraid a new post will have to wait until tomorrow. I have just arrived home from LA after flight delays in California ended up making me go to Phoenix and then take a red-eye to Charlotte. So I've been up for 24+ hours. Also, US Air has lost my luggage twice in three days. Gotta sleep.

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 ...