Friday, January 22, 2010

A Reminder

The drama's laws,
The drama's patrons give,
For we that live to please,
must please to live.

--Samuel Johnson

Definition: Ageism


1. discrimination against persons of a certain age group.
2. a tendency to regard older persons as debilitated, unworthy of attention, or unsuitable for employment.

(h/t to my wife)

Let Me Be Clear

I want to make certain that everybody is clear: any comments I have made about Outrageous Fortune, or about the Arena convenings, are in no way meant to be criticism of the book and especially of those convenings. Todd London and David Dower are doing extremely important work for the field of the arts. London et al have brought the dysfunction of the theatre system as it intersects playwriting to us in living color. It is important that their work lead to changes, and not simply evaporate in a shrug of "that's just the way it is and ever shall be." It only changes if we make it change. Part of that involves discussing the issues.

The Arena Stage convenings are part of that discussion. David Dower continues to bring together interesting groups of people, and then creates an open space for them to converse. There doesn't seem to be an agenda beyond allowing intelligent, smart people to share ideas. As with Outrageous Fortune, we must not let the first step be the last.

We must create change.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Outrageous Fortune: Chapter 5: It's About the Audience

A Gripe
I'd like to start my comments about Outrageous Fortune's fifth chapter entitled "Whose Audience Is It, Anyway?" with something that is starting to gripe me more and more. On April 30, 2008 I turned 50 (no, that's not th epart that gripes me). My hair has been white since my early 40s; my skin has been white since I was born. Since getting a job as a university professor in 1998, I have been middle class. So if you look at my picture to the right, you will see a picture of the audience member who is most regularly and unashamedly bashed in Outrageous Fortune, and just about every forum, including the theatrosphere and the various convenings put together by the Arena Stage, where theatre artists discuss what is wrong with the American theatre.Even Chris Jones, who doesn't like much about Outrageous Fortune, feels called to defend the Goodman Theatre against the apparently outrageous charge that the audience there is "all over 60 and all white." Heaven forbid!

This seeming disdain for the people who are actually among the few who are still buying tickets for theatre these days is baffling. Take a look at the latest studies about the arts in America, including the most recent report from the advocacy group Americans for the Arts (nicely outlined at Real Clear Arts), and then tell me whether theatre is in any position to be bashing anybody.

Who Are These People Really?
But let's go further. Those people in your audience who are currently 60, the ones who get hammered as "conservative" and "unimaginative"? They were born in 1950, which means they were graduating from high school in 1968. Maybe you've read about 1968 (Laura Axelrod did an amazing on-line book about it): it was the year America was on fire. So these people that you write off so easily were the ones who were protesting the Vietnam War. They were the ones who were putting their lives on the line for civil rights. They were the ones who were leading the feminist movement. These were radicals, folks, a generation that was committed to questioning the status quo. Do you really think that somehow they have lost that mentality as they've aged? Here's a news flash: I got MORE radical the older I got. And here's part 2 of that same news flash: that isn't uncommon. The most radical thinkers I know are over fifty.

And that's actually the real problem with this audience: we are smart enough to know BS when we see it. You know why middle-aged, white-haired, middle-class spectators like me aren't rushing out to buy tickets to many new plays? It isn't because you're too "out there," too "radical" for us to appreciate; it's because what you write about is stuff we've already lived through and moved past. We've been to the puppet show and we've seen all the strings. Most of you have little to say that we haven't heard before, and thought about before, and probably lived through before. Being shocked isn't that big of a thrill anymore. Tell us something important about life. Something with some depth and complexity. Something with some heart and soul, some deep understanding.

Formal Experimentation
All this conjecturing in Outrageous Fortune about how older audiences don't like "formal experimentation" is nonsense. The fact is that people who are over 60 invented postmodernism, and most of the other formal experiments that are happening were invented in the early 20th century. Are you integrating video into your performance -- Robert Edmond Jones suggested that in The Dramatic Imagination in 1941. Are you experimenting with ambiguous narrative? Akiro Kurosawa was doing that in Rashomon in 1950, and it was onstage in 1959. I could go down the list -- most were invented by the Dadists, Expressionists, Futurists, and Symbolists of the late 19th and early 20th century. How old is Richard Foreman? Seventy-two. Judith Malina? Coming up on eighty-four.

We're down with formal experimentation. but we also are experienced enough to recognize when formal experimentation is just a mask for having little to say, and we're not patient with that anymore. Patience is no longer one of our virtues. Our time is short, and we don't feel like wasting it while you rediscover Absurdism.

It is possible to have diversity, or a discussion about diversity, without bashing the only audience you have these days. Jokes about these groups are the 21st centuries version of mother-in-law jokes in the 1950s. Are we going to be more enlightened in the 21st century, or just shift the narrow-mindedness to new groups? Are we ever going to grow up and recognize the value of all human beings?

Our entire culture is set up to worship youth. Movies, television, music -- all relentlessly focused on the 18-25 year old demographic. You want to talk about diversity? Maybe that's something that ought to be addressed.

Who Are We Writing For?
That is the question that is asked as a heading in Chapter 5 of Outrageous Fortune. Here are some of the answers -- these are actual quotes, mind you:
  • "I write for the perfect audience that is in my head..." [maybe your head will buy enough tickets to pay your royalties]
  • And the follow-up from a teacher of playwriting: "The hardest thing is to encourage students to write for themselves. That's our ultimate responsibility, to have a writer write for themselves, to please themselves, to entertain themselves, to shock and move themselves. That's our job." [And then expect the marketing director to figure out how to sell tickets for you.]
  • "There is the downtown tier of theatre spaces where the houses are under 100 seats and the run is not so long. There is a sense of actually writing for an audience. Most of the audience is people you know or the cast knows. It's a theatre community that changes totally when you go into a larger house." [or when you, like, graduate from college.]
  • An artistic director inquires: "Do playwrights have communities? I mean, are they living in communities that they're writing about, from, to? Or are they into artistic enclaves, writing about each other?" [See above for your answer.]
  • "I want continuity of an audience. I want my audience to have seen my last play and the play before that and the play before that." [But I'm going to keep moving from theatre to theatre, city to city -- and damn it, you better be there!]
  • "Hopefully the theatre is where we can come together and have a dialogue and a relationship back and forth. It's not just sitting in the velvet chairs and watching something." [Nope, it's about sitting in metal folding chairs listening to me talk to the ideal audience in my head while you shut up.]
  • A literary manager: "How do we get [the audience] to come to all of the theatres to see new work because it's new work?" [You can't -- the audience comes to see plays that connects to them somehow, stories that sound interesting.]
  • An artistic director: "How do we become more relevant to the audiences is the question I keep coming back to in one way, shape, or form or another. And I have no answer." [Hint: read the prior quotations, and then do the opposite. And if you can, get the playwriting teacher's tenure revoked so we don't keep creating these solipsistic artists.]
Hint #2
  • If you want there to be a community for your plays: 1) stay put for a while, 2) listen to people, not just the voices in your head, 3) write about things that connect to those people, 4) write in a way that allows them to connect.
I know: sounds simple, and it isn't. And most artists will see these suggestions as censorship, and abridgement of their God-given right to be self-involved and simultaneously nationally known and well-paid. But let me ask you: about the current system, how's that working for you? Yeah, I thought so.

The Real Shock
Initially, what shocked me about Outrageous Fortune was the obvious dysfunction within the system. Now what shocks me even more is the seeming inability of anyone in the book to question the premises that underlie that system -- to question the idea of a "national market" for new plays, to question the migrant worker life, to question the idea that plays are commodities to be sold, to question the desire for ever larger audiences. It also shocks me to see the obvious contradictions: for instance, people thinks it is really cool to write for specific, homogenous communities as long as those communities aren't white or middle class. Apparently, the concept of community is limited.

The next chapter of Outrageous Fortune will be suggestions for the future, and I have this queasy feeling that it is going to be about itty-bitty reforms. I hope I'm wrong, but I suspect I'm not.

Oh, by the way, I wrote this blog post for the ideal blog reader in my head. He read it, and really liked it. Those of you who take exception to some of the ideas expressed in it: pfffttt!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

On the Meaning of What We Do (A Response to Tom Loughlin)

In a post entitled "Trivial Pursuit" over at A Poor Player, Tom Loughlin is examining the value of what he does as a theatre professor in light of the events in Haiti, the recent spate of bleak statistics regarding American's lack of interest in the theatre, and the 1957 Academy Award (tm) winning film The Bridge on the River Kwai. It is an excellent self-examination, one that would benefit more theatre artists to undertake; indeed, one that would benefit all people to undertake. (And, truth be told, one that most all of us do when we get to be people of "a certain age." Ahem.)

Anyway, since Tom has put his thoughts out in public, instead of (or in addition to) brooding over them in the privacy of one's own soul, I'd like to respond with my own thoughts, focusing specifically on these sentences:
When you stack up the general public’s statistical disinterest in theatre against the general economic condition of the art and the artists themselves, the rational mind has to question why anyone would continue to pursue such a statistically trivial career. Or worse – why anyone would ever educate or train someone to pursue this career. You can choose to take the high road and produce aesthetic arguments supporting such a choice, but only in a first-world country where basic needs are by and large taken care of can this argument actually take place. There are many places in the world where no one is arguing about how many plays or whose plays get produced every year. You own career, stacked up against these statistics, makes for a sober reckoning.
I am going to try to avoid justifications like the one I responded to during yesterday's Arena Stage discussion with African-American playwrights: "The beat of theatre is truth. We are in the art of truth..." As inspiring as such sentiments can be (and God knows in the climate that has been described for the arts, we can use all the inspiration we can get), the fact is that the beat of theatre is also lies and fantasies and fears.Theatre is a form, a genre, a structure that can be filled with whatever fits. Isaac objected to my admittedly acerbic retort "We theatre people gotta stop with self-aggrandizing cliches. Srsly" by saying that "I don't think it's aggrandizing to have lofty goals for your work's thematic content." But there is a difference between one's individual goals and claims for the theatre in general.

So what contribution does an artist, or someone who teaches young people to be artists, make to the world that has any significance at all? Wouldn't a month working on relief teams in Haiti outweigh a career teaching young people how to scan Shakespeare?

My initial response, which I'll elaborate more fully, is: Those relief workers in Haiti, like people who perform any number of good deeds and make heroic contributions, became those people because of the arts.

Our society is built on stories. We communicate our values, our ways of interacting, our aspirations according to the stories we tell each other over generations. The idea that there is value in helping others who are in dire need, for instance, which underlies the Haitian relief effort, is passed on from generation to generation by the stories we tell that reinforce that value. Without that story, or with a more dominant counter-story, such admirable behavior would likely be scarce.

Most of these stories are told by individuals, and in the overall scheme of things, they are probably the most important. But these individual stories are reinforced and structured by myths, and these myths are transformed into works of art. Such myths have been examined by Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung, and many others. The Nobel winning biologist E. O. Wilson, in his book Consilience, talks about the archetypal stories that follow what he calls the "epigenetic rules" of human existence, of which there are a couple dozen.

Religion is just such a story, and it is why religion is so powerful. Every week, or every day, the stories are told over and over to remind us, at the structural level, about what we value. Taking a broad view, for instance, the New Testament tells the story of the replacement (or at least supplementing) of a vengeful God-the-Father by a compassionate God-the-Son (Pat Robertson might want to review that particular idea), who is then killed by those who support the status quo. However, despite the killing of Jesus, the ideas are carried forward more powerfully. Death is not the end of goodness.

The latter part of the story is an oft-told story that gives courage to those who face danger. We see it again, for instance, in the final confrontation between Obi-Wan and Darth Vader in Star Wars: A New Hope: "You can't win, Darth. If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine. " It is the underlying myth of Pay It Forward.

There are many, many more examples. The point is that people's actions are built on these stories. As Stephen Sondheim says in Into the Woods:
Careful the things you say,
Children will listen.
Careful the things you do,
Children will see.
And learn.

Children may not obey,
Buit children will listen.
Children will look to you
For which way to turn,
To learn what to be.

Careful before you say,
"Listen to me."
Children will listen.
And not just children. We all listen.

This is where the power of the arts intersects with the means of production. When we turned our storytelling responsibilities over to corporations in the marketplace, we lost control of the very bedrock of our society. When parents don't tell stories to their children, but instead allow Disney to do it, the stories start to change. It isn't that Disney isn't basing their stories on the same archetypes, but rather that their focus is less on the effect of the stories than their saleability.

When we teach young people to be artists, part of what we need to be teaching them is a conscousness of their responsibility to their society, their community. This is why we need to stop teaching the Myth of Fame, the Cinderella Myth, as the primary myth of the arts, or the Myth of Self, the Myth of Individual Vision, and replace it with a myth of service, of sacrifice, and of place.

When we teach not only skills (skills are still crucial) but also values, and when those values reflect the importance of story to the healthy and rich functioning of a community, a society, and a world rather than the skills and importance of individual careers, then we are making a contribution to our world that can stand up against the actions of relief workers in Haiti. And my feeling, which is just an intuition, is that if we reached a tipping point where such values were becoming common, then I think the bleak statistics will begin to turn around as well, and the system would change. It all starts with the stories we tell our young about values and purpose.

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 ...