Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Result of Not Telling Our Own Stories

"We know now that, if we don't express ourselves as individuals, if we keep our stories bottled up inside us, eventually we will get sick. The stress will manifest as disease. The human body is, after all, an integrated system.

I suggest that, in the same way our bodies are made up of cells that constitute a living organism, a community is made up of individual people that comprise the organism I call the loving community. Communities are alive and need to express themselves just like people; if they don't, they get sick, just like people. The proof of all this is all around us. As cultural life has become more and more consumer oriented, living communities have manifested more and more disease.

This is because communities have become fragmented into individualized consumers and have lost their ability to collectively tell their stories.

Theatre, like all other forms of cultural expression, used to be ordinary people singing, dancing, telling stories. This was the way a living community recorded and celebrated its victories, defeats, joys, fears. As the Cartesian or mechanistic model took root, and later as colonialism spread across the planet, coincdingin with the mechanization of capitalism, this primal activity of storytelling also evolved in a mechanistic way. Like many other things we can think of, cultural activity became commodified. It transformed from something that people did naturally 'in community', into a manufactured consumer product. Today a vast majority of people buy theatre buy dance, buy paintings, buy books, buy movies; the list goes on and on. We now pay strangers to tell us stories about strangers. But when do we use the symbolic language of theatre, dance, etc., to tell our own stories about our collective selves?

What is the result of the living community's inability to use primal language to tell its own stories? Alienation, violence, self-destructive behaviour on a global level. Living communities have fallen into a stupor, hypnotized by a steady diet of manufactured culture."
David Diamond
Theatre for Living: The Art and Science of Community-Based Dialogue

This is one answer to why it is important that there be more plays by women, by poor people, by people of different races and sexuality, by people from rural areas: because if the stories don't get told, the community becomes sick.

It also raises a serious question about the commodification of the arts, and its effects on art-making itself.
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Response from Joshua Conkel

After asking permission from Mr. Conkel, the author of The Chalk Boy that was reviewed by Rachel Saltz in the New York Times, and that I commented on below in my post "On Ruralism," I am posting Conkel's response. I do so not only to provide balance, but also because I think Mr. Conkel's response illustrates the kind of willingness to thoughtfully reflect and engage in the examination of an issue. Mr Conkel writes as follows:

A friend sent me a link to your blog and I must admit I was a little surprised by what was being written about me and my show. I had seen the New York Times review only a couple of hours before and was still really sensitive, so in a way it's probably better that my comment didn't publish.

While I don't fail to see the irony in a New York Times theater critic accusing me of having contempt, it was still a painful experience to read, particularly because up until that point the show had received mostly glowing reviews. As one of your comments on your original post pointed out, my show is really small and I was amazed that they came in the first place.

That said, I'm wise enough to know that not everybody will like my work. I'm also still an emerging writer and I'm trying to take critiques to heart and hopefully learn from them. This is why I'm still struggling with Ms. Saltz's comment that I have contempt for small town America. See, I'm from small town America. I was born in rural Kentucky and grew up in rural Washington, where the fictional town of Clear Creek lies.

Clear Creek, like my hometown, was once an ideal and beautiful small town that has progressively been taken over by chains and strip malls. My intent was to satirize the grotesque corporate chains that are destroying the character of small communities, not the small communities themselves. As for portraying rural characters as ignorant or boorish, I tried to make the four teenage girls in my play as deeply sensitive and wise beyond their years as possible and not the opposite, thank you very much. Many, many reviews praised me for doing just that.

Since the review came out yesterday I've really been doing some soul searching. Do I have contempt for small town America? I don't think I do. I can say that growing up poor and gay in a rural setting wasn't always pain free so I'm sure a lot of that hurt seeps into the fabric of the play. But contempt? No sir. I simply wanted to portray the type of community I was raised in as honestly as possible, with both its admirable and not-so-admirable qualities represented. A lack of respect for blue collar workers? This son of a sailor and a secretary will thank you to apply that label to somebody else.

Of course these are all quibbles since, as I stated already, I can't make people respond to the play in the manner of my choosing. People's opinions will be what they will be. A quick google search of "The Chalk Boy" will send you to other reviews from people who loved the play and were moved by it. I wish that you'd seen or read the play before you so readily agreed with the critic from The Times who, some valid criticism aside, mostly reviewed the play based on her own attitudes and not the work itself. It seems highly unfair.

Please don't think I'm attacking here. I just wanted to put in my two cents.

Joshua Conkel

We have exchanged a couple emails, and I have enjoyed the exchange. I responded:

Are you sure you don't want this posted to my site? I think it is a good defense.

To some extent, you got caught in a cross-current. My response was less to your play (obviously, having not read it or seen it, I can't really respond to your play) than to a combination of the Saltz interview and Matt Freeman's toss-off comment about contempt. The key here, from my perspective, is not whether YOU have contempt for small town America, but whether your PLAY has contempt for small town America -- even small town America that has been taken over by strip malls.

As far as being from small town America, my experience has been that people who have migrated from a small town to a big city often bear a lot of anger at their treatment -- after all, often they left for a reason. My concern -- and this goes WAY beyond your own production -- is that we have a society that regularly portrays small town America negatively, with very few counter-examples. The effect this has is to make people, especially young people, feel compelled to leave their towns for the city. I think this "rural brain drain" is having a horrible effect on our society, our economy, and our mythology. So I am particularly tuned in to plays, TV shows, and films that propagate that attitude. If you say it isn't present in your play, I'll take your word for it -- obviously, somebody else thinks otherwise, which is what I was responding to.

I don't know Saltz, so I don't know what her values are that you feel are getting in the way.

I don't think you are attacking at all, and in fact I value any discussion of issues of substance, whether I come out "on top" or "on the bottom." Which is why I am suggesting that you allow me to post your email as a post on my site. I think it would lead to discussion.

Finally, Joshua writes:

In terms of small towns, I get what you mean and I hear the same frustration a lot from my family and ESPECIALLY from my Southern family, which is partially why the play takes place in Washington instead of Kentucky. I'm sensitive to your point of view in this regard to be certain. In my case the decision to leave (the gay thing aside) was largely economic. There are NO jobs where I come from.

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Divine Fury

My friends, wanting to spare me my murderous impulses and practicing a therapy I respect and despise, tell me to calm down, give it time, things are happening. Things are happening: I want to look at them and see what's really happening. And to those who share my view of what the theater might be but defer to the sluggard drift of things, I want to say what Brecht's Galileo said to the Little Monk, temporizing in pity for those who, fixed in the old routines, scrape a living somehow -- on the premise that if whatever is is not right, it is at least unalterable -- "I can see their divine patience, but where is their divine fury?"
Herbert Blau
The Impossible Theatre: A Manifesto

I look around the theatre world, both on-line and off, and my mind boggles at the sheer complacency and superficiality. Over at TCG, Teresa Eyring pens a few vacuous ideas and thinks she's done something that deserves comment. Eyring, who as head of TCG ought to be considered an important leader of the theatre world, calls John Connolly iat Actors equity "visionary" because of a few vague generalities that have nothing to do with anything touching on the most important issue of his constituency: 86% unemployment, a migrant lifestyle, rampant under-employment, and the abandonment of the theatre by anyone over about age 35. What other leaders should we be looking at? The members of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education spend their annual meeting wandering the empty theoretical hallways of 1980s Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, blathering on about how many actors can dance on the head of a fresnel, while ignoring the idiocy that the art form has fallen to, and the contributions we as teachers make to feeding that fall. Into the vacuum of artistic leadership steps the theatre blogosphere, which for the most part simply reproduces the same self-involved, anti-intellectual, superficial thinking that exists everywhere else. Where is our sense of rigor? Where is our divine fury?

Mike Lawler at ecoTheatre pitches an article on the "supposed greening of theatre operations in this country" to Jim O'Quinn of American Theatre, and AT is interested enough to take him up on it, but when it is submitted, he is asked to rewrite it because it isn't "objective enough." What does that mean? Mike "contact[ed] theater artists across the country to talk about it, and even ask[ed] those I[he] was interviewing for other writing projects what they thought," so it wasn't just Mike's opinion. But clearly, from the use of "supposed" in the above sentence, the article had a skeptical viewpoint that might have cast a small shadow on the happy talk of American Theatre. We can't have even a small interruption of the self-hypnosis that substitutes for actual thought about what we do and how we do it. Well, eventually, AT decided to publish the article in the latest issue -- as an opinion piece. It is great that it was published, and I congratulate Mike, but it should have been a feature article, not a short "opinion piece."

Here in the theatrosphere, Theresa Rebeck publishes an article on the blog for The Guardian (why does she have to go all the way to London to find a place to publish an article attacking the New York stage? We wouldn't want to interrupt the Happy Talk!) that ends:

There's some feeling in rehearsal halls and writers' retreats and drunken dinner parties, that maybe the American theatre participates rather too enthusiastically in the supposed gender bias that the American media tosses about willy-nilly while discussing candidates for higher office. Mostly it is women playwrights who feel that way; male playwrights think the system is really, really fair and that women playwrights who raise these questions are whiners or dirty feminists. After all, everyone is discriminated against! It's show business! Nobody's happy! We're all narcissistic egomaniacs, you can't expect it to make sense! This is about the work. Which means, apparently, that any woman who cares enough to raise her voice about the fact that women's stories are not reaching the stages for which they are intended is a whiner, a dirty feminist and a lousy artist too - because a true artist wouldn't care.

Honestly I am not making one word of this up.

"Who owns the stories, owns the culture." For the life of me I can't remember who said that, but by God it is true.

That last line alone could have fired some really valuable thinking about the nature of artistic responsibility, the contribution art makes to society, the necessity of a diverse viewpoint. But no, what we got was a link to the article and a collective shrug: Guess that's "Just the Way It Is," huh? Gender bias? I don't know...what do YOU think?

What do I think??? I think some theatre people need to do a little reading, a little thinking, and little reflection and self-examination. Read some good feminist books, and some good book about racism while you're at it. Think about power, think about bias, think about how choices are made within our society and whether you just want to go along with it or resist it. And once you've read, and thought, and reflected, and examined yourself -- THEN SHARE. But publishing kneejerk shrugs that exist at the same level of thought as those who say, "Hey, I ain't a racist -- I never owned no slaves." And if you can't do better than that, then don't do anything at all. Silence is better than superficiality.

Kant to the contrary, the arts are not ends in themselves.

They are part of the larger society, the have a role in forming its self-image, its sense of what is right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable. When I say that making art is a moral act, I mean that it contributes to helping us answer Aristotle's question "how are we to live?"

In his essay "Corn-Pone Opinions," Mark Twain wrote, in the voice of an African-American slave boy pretending to preach a sermon, ""You tell me whar a man gits his corn-pone, en I'll tell you what his 'pinions is." Twain explains: "The black philosopher's idea was that a man is not independent, and cannot afford views which might interfere with his bread and butter. If he would prosper, he must train with the majority; in matters of large moment, like politics and religion, he must think and feel with the bulk of his neighbors, or suffer damage in his social standing and in his business prosperities. He must restrict himself to corn-pone opinions -- at least on the surface. He must get his opinions from other people; he must reason out none for himself; he must have no first-hand views."

The theatrosphere is mired in corn-pone thinking. A few months back, we had a series of discussions about courage, and the general consensus was that nobody is going to say anything that might affect their employability -- about anything, because who knows who is eventually going to be in a position to hire you? Well, frankly, that is not only pathetic, but it is a recipe for continued disaster. We are behaving like theatrical Nero's fiddling while the lobby burns. And the general effect, beyond the continued downward slide, is a theatrosphere mired in malaise and boring as hell to read.

Jill Dolan was writing about university theatre programs, but she could have been writing about the theatre blogosphere when she wrote:

I continue to believe that university theatre programs should push at the envelope of cultural expectations about the arts. If we defy conventional beauty and body image standards; if we routinely commit to color-blind or cross-race cast our productions; if we teach students to critique representations of gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, ability, and other identity markers in our own and mainstream productions, along with their aesthetic and ideological values; and if we teach students to reach outside conventional theatre to form their own companies and to create their own plays and performances, then we’ve truly added something to the national dialogue not just about the arts, but about citizenship and democracy. Supporting the status quo is untenable.
Italics are mine. And double-underline it.

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For devilvet

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Wednesday, September 10, 2008


That seems to be the overall tone of the theatropsherians of late, at least when it comes to theatre. "Whatever." But then, much of the theatrosphere isn't writing about anything as boring as theatre anymore, it's all about the presidential campaign. Why actually think up ideas when you can bash McCain and fret about whether Obama is being mean enough?

Even when someone like Teresa Rebeck raises the issue of the dearth of female playwrights, the best we can come up with is a stifled yawn, a shrug, and a relativist mumble? Tony Adams: "If audiences don't seem to care how does one expect a commercial/institutional producer to care? Not saying that's right, but that's how it is." Yawn. Whatever. Matt Freeman: " There may be an unconscious male bias in the decision making...but from where does that bias spring? Any thoughts on this? I'd love to hear them." Ho-hum. I can't actually be bothered to come up with any ideas of my own. I'll just throw up a subject heading -- "Sexism in Play Selection," maybe? -- and see if anyone has anything to say.

Is there anybody actually thinking out there anymore? George Hunka and I have never seen eye to eye as far as theatre values, but damn it, he makes an effort to actually put some ideas out there. I click around my RSS feeds, and the only blogs I see addressing anything approaching ideas are the management and marketing blogs. Otherwise, it is a alternation between self-promotion, political musings, and open threads on general topics.

Bloggers, people read us because we have ideas, not because we figured out how to sign up at Blogger and Typepad. If we don't actually care about the theatre, if we don't actually have any ideas about theatre, then let's just shut down. It's been like naptime for weeks!
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On Ruralism

I can't tell whether Matt Freeman has his tongue lodged firmly in his cheek when he writes that he kind of likes a little contempt in this theatre, and I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt he's earned as a long-time respectful blogger, so I'll just say that I give Rachel Saltz great credit for expressing discomfort with the small town bashing that seems to lie at the center of The Chalk Boy by Joshua Conkel. In her last paragraph, she writes:

A cynicism that too often looks like contempt runs through the play: for Clear Creek and the other nowhere towns that form “a dotted line across America’s grossly obese belly”; for the pop culture inside that obese belly; and, most important, for characters like Lauren, whom Mr. Conkel uses as straw men. If you lead with contempt, it’s hard to make an audience follow.

Indeed. It must have been really bad for a reviewer from the New York Times to be discomfited. I've addressed this topic before -- this constant and gratuitous bashing of small town (especially southern) America in theatre, film, and TV, as well as in the mainstream media, which is seen as acceptable by urban dwellers because they often share those values. It is one of the last acceptable sites where narrow-minded prejudice and offensive stereotypes are allowed to be displayed without censure. Let's call it ruralism, following the examples of racism, sexism, ageism, and all the other isms that we've become aware of as being offensive and hateful. We're seeing ruralism rearing its ugly head yet again in some of the attacks on Sarah Palin which are based on an assumption that population size is equivalent to value. Now, I take a back seat to nobody in my contempt for McCain and his choice of Palin, but it raises my hackles when urban bloggers and MSM journalists portray small town America as backward and unworthy of respect. If you want Blue States to stay, blue, just keep it up. Obama skirted the edges of this prejudice with his "bitter" comment, which reflected the urban-dweller's disconnect from non-urban lives.

As artists, we should be better than that, especially at this time in America that is so awash in contempt and disdain.
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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 ...