Thursday, October 29, 2009

By Analogy: Alexander Chee on Annie Dillard

This has nothing at all to do with theatre or theatre education, and everything to do with theatre and theatre education. It also has something to do with blogging -- the communication of ideas through words. This essay by Alexander Chee describes his experience taking a writing class with Annie Dillard. Please use the comments as a discussion thread: how does this apply to what we do? The essay is entitled "Annie Dillard and the Writing Life," and it was posted on October 16th at "The Morning News." (Big h/t to Patti Digh at 37days)

Comment Moderation Now Turned On

To those who think that rude, ad hominem attacks are worthwhile, I suggest you keep them on your own blogs. On this blog, they will no longer be approved. Period. Next topic of conversation.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Tom Loughlin on Quality

Over at A Poor Player, Tom Loughlin has written an excellent post entitled "A Question of Quality," in which he worries about his increasing crankiness with the general level of mediocrity he sees in theatre -- mediocrity that insists it be treated as excellence. What troubles Tom, and is of particular interest on for those of you following the development of the CRADLE(arts) philosophy, is how the issue of "quality" plays out within a commitment to participatory arts. What "keeps me from fully embracing a retreat from the concept of the “professional artist,” Tom writes, "is my fear that, given the propensity of 21st century society to raise the mediocre to the level of excellence, there will soon be no excellence at all." He goes on: "The question of quality is one that I think is tiptoed around when we speak about participatory arts. When we work to open the arts to all (an idea I fully support), in this current cultural mindset we run the risk of reducing the quality of art. When everyone can get a hamburger from McDonald’s, they begin to think that McDonald’s makes a pretty good hamburger. We know that dedication, full-time commitment, experience, and an intense passion for excellence can create high quality, and that is what we have traditionally meant by “professional artist.” Trying to ascertain what is the best process and best practices we can put into place to increase participatory arts while at the same time maintaining high quality will be the trickiest part of the entire enterprise."

The issue of quality is one that has plagued arts criticism for millenia: what makes something "good"? What if one critic "likes" something and another doesn't -- doesn't that mean that the concept of quality is "all subjective"? What if one era dismisses something, but a later era loves it -- or vice versa?

When the term "quality" is introduced into the participatory arts / community-based arts discussion, it is usually used as a way to suggest that amatuer artists don't (indeed, can't) create work with a "quality" as high as that made by a professional whose "dedication, full-time commitment, experience, and... intense passion for excellence" gives them a greater likelihood of achieving excellence. Indeed, in Malcolm Gladwell's wonderful book Outliers, he devotes most of an entire chapter to the "10,000 hour rule," which says that, no matter what it is, you have to do it for 10,000 hours before you are truly able to make a lasting contribution. The most memorable example he gives is The Beatles, whom Gladwell argues benefitted from the 8-hours-a-day gigs required of them when they were playing in clubs in Hamburg. It's a persuasive argument. On the other hand, Charles Leadbeater and Paul Miller make an equally persuasive argument in The Pro-Am Revolution. They write: "From astronomy to activism, from surfing to saving lives, Pro-Ams - people pursuing amateur activities to professional standards - are an increasingly important part of our society and economy. For Pro-Ams, leisure is not passive consumerism but active and participatory, it involves the deployment of publicly accredited knowledge and skills, often built up over a long career, which has involved sacrifices and frustrations."

Let's start with a quibble: I don't like the use of the word "quality" in this argument, mainly because it is too broad, too difficult to define. I have the same problem with its synonym "excellence," which I too often see as being defined as "those things I think are good." The characteristic that Loughlin is defining as "quality," I suspect, I'd be more comfortable calling "virtuosity," meaning "technical skill, fluency, or style." If we use that word, then I am more willing to admit that an amateur might be less likely to have put in Gladwell's 10,000 hours to develop virtuosity. (Although this is not always the case -- there are many people who devote as much time as do professionasl to their art, while not making their living at it. I question the linkage of virtuosity and money making, but that's probably best left for another discussion.)

However, I think virtuosity is only one part of "quality," and perhaps not the most important one. Virtuosity is something that is contained within the artist, and expressed through the work of art. It stands alone. For me, however, quality is an interaction, it is something that is created between an work of art and its audience.

A work of art can exhibit virtuosity, but fail to connect to its audience in any way. For example, a concert pianist might be a virtuoso playing a Mozart concerto, but if he performs before an audience for whom the Western tonal system is foreign and meaningless, then for me the performance lacks "quality." On the other hand, a story told by someone who lacks virtuosity, but whose story connects to its audience in a powerful, immediate way, for me, is a higher "quality" performance. In other words, "quality" exists not in the work of art or performance itself, but in the experience of the art by a specific audience.

Which brings me to what I consider more important than virtuosity: authenticity or genuineness. The characteristic of being "free from pretense, affectation, or hypocrisy; sincere:; or "Honestly felt or experienced: genuine devotion." This is a characteristic that exists both within the artist and the audience. The works is genuinely felt by the artist and authentically experienced by the audience. To me, more than anything else, this is what leads to a "high quality" performance -- the authentic communication of a genuine emotion or idea from artist to audience.

Sometimes, authenticity is enhanced by virtuosity -- for instance, think of when you watch figure skating in the Winter Olympics and you have been informed how difficult a particular move is and how long the skater has been working on it. When that skater successfully executes that move, you as an audience share in his or her authentic emotion and you appreciate the sheer virtuosity of what was accomplished. But all too often, virtuosity becomes an end in itself, and it stands between the audience and the epxerience. The form has taken precedence over the content, and the result is an empty experience and a lower "quality" experience for the audience. For example, much modernist art is incomprehensible to the average spectator, and while it may exhibit a high level of virtuosity, the experience is one of bafflement.

Would that experience be improved by a degree of knowledge, so that one might appreciate the technique? Absolutely, and such knowledge might release the authentic emotion contained within the virtuosity. But again, that rests not in the virtuosity itself, but in the interaction between audience and work of art. Which in turn means that the "quality" of a work of art changed with each audience.

Like Tom, I find most theatre that I see mediocre at best. But for me, it isn't because it lacks virtuosity, but rather that it lacks genuineness -- I don't believe it, I don't feel it. It doesn't speak to me, because I have no connection to the artist, the story he or she tells has little connection to my life, and all the virtuosity in the world won't bridge that gap.

Obviously, the ideal is to combine virtuosity and authenticity. The question is which element is primary. For me, a work of art needs to first be authentic; virtuosity is frosting on the cake.

Inexplicable Dumbshow Interview

The good guys at The Inexplicable Dumbshow have posted the podcast interview they did with me last week. Check it out, and while you're there, check out all the other great stuff they do.

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 ...