Tuesday, April 21, 2009

More Thoughts

To start, a little story: a few weeks back, I had a date. (Well, a second date, really, but that's not really important.) The woman I was out with studies psychology, so she's not really in the arts community. She knew I write plays, though and, since it was the second date, we were going to talk about more substantive things. Things were going pretty okay, but then she asked me a question that honestly stumped me. I was going on about community-based theatre making and how important it is, as is my want, and she said, "But...well...you're saying that the theatre should be drawn out of the community, but isn't the point of art to bring something new to the community?" And, honestly, I was stopped in my tracks. I hadn't really looked at it from that perspective before. Good question. Too bad there was no third date. But I move on. To this.

The comments thread there is really and truly amazing. Despite Scott's complaints, there are very few ad hominem attacks or knee-jerk responses. It's like a good graduate seminar (if there is such a thing.) And I'm very glad to get to know Paul Rekk's writing. Very good stuff all the way around. It's dense and long and there's Latin, Nazis and such (of course), but it's worth reading through it.

For my part, I think it connects to the question my date asked me. That question really stuck with me and, in some way, turned my thinking around a bit. Not that I don't believe in community-based theatre anymore, but that my thinking about it has changed somewhat. There's a big question that figures into both her question and the discussion at Scott's: what is the role of the artist in society? And I think that question figures into a lot of the struggles of artists and arts organizations right now. Because there are very different camps and we're having trouble reconciling them.

Is the artist a truth-teller first? Or an advocate? Is the role of the artist to affect change in the society or simply reflect it? Does the artist owe the audience any allegiance? We all have our own answers for those questions and some are mutually exclusive. In my reading of Scott's post and his comments, he thinks of the artist as an agent of change and that connection to the community is the best way to do that. Paul and Matt seem more in the camp of artist as truth-teller and that requires some distance from the community because some truths are uncomfortable.

Answering that question, what do you think the role of the artist is, is one of the most important things a young artist can do, and I don't think we do enough talking about that in our colleges and grad programs. I don't think there's any one answer, but it's something an artist should know about him or herself. Your work will flow out of that, your life choices will be dictated by that. Like the old dead white guy says, "Know thyself." We focus so much on finding the personal truth and being honest with ourselves, but this is an essential part of your life as an artist and it's worth taking some time to think about it.

The problem, though, that we hit in arts advocacy is that everyone seems to see their answer as the right one. And all others as the wrong one. This zero-sum game plays over and over and usually boils down to "What I do is art/theatre. What you do is...something else." How do you really advocate for everything if you think some is selling out, some is dance-theatre, some is boring propoganda? It's a hard line and the major organizations wind up blowing with the winds of popularity a bit. If we can accept a multitude of answers and places for those answers, we might be able to actually pull together more.

For myself...I'm coming from a place of artist as truth-teller. First and foremost. Both personally and professionally. I go with Lester Bangs' advice to the kid in Almost Famous: "Be honest and unmerciful." For me, that doesn't mean being cruel or simply destructive, but sometimes offending is the way to honesty. You can't take it off the table. And sometimes to be truly honest, you have to be separate from the community. You're going to bring them things that they don't want to hear. People don't often respond well to things they don't want to hear.

I really like Scott and I like his ideas, but sometimes they strike me as just ideas and not quite part of the real world. In the real world, if you're a community-based artist, your connection to your community is your lifeline. If you piss people off, you can easily find yourself cut off. And then what are you? Another story: I used to blog, under my real name, on a neighborhood blog here in New York. For a variety of reasons, I'm a bit of a fixture here in my neighborhood and work with some community organizations. I spend a lot of tim hanging out here, especially at one local pub. It's an old Irish pub in a neighborhood that has quite a bit of friction between the old Irish residents and the new residents, many of whom are Latino. As an old Irish bar, it's not often frequented by the Latino residents. Not through any official policy, just...habit. Comfort level, whatever. It's a pretty white bar on most nights. I still love it and on the blog, I wrote a lot about it. I was there on Election Night and I wrote about that, noting that, when I walked in, I was only one of two black people there. I also wrote about how much I loved the bar and how it was where I wanted to be for the election. A few weeks later, the manager buttonholed me and was quite angry that I'd written that there were so few black people in his bar. He works hard to make it a comfortable place for all and he felt I had undercut him. That relationship, while it's still ongoing, isn't the same. And I stopped wanting to write so much about how I felt on the blog. Not just because I ran the risk of hurting people I liked, but, really because I ran the risk of damaging relationships I needed for my other work.

When the artist is beholden to the community in this way, a kind of censorship will inevitably creep in. It's benign in some cases, active in others, but it's there. If you're in a nearly all-white community, and you're dedicated to telling their stories, does that mean your community doesn't need In The Continuum? Are all stories in all communities? Do you talk about the lack of minority voices? And what if it's a purposeful lack? And if you do offend people, what if they don't come back? I think this is the slippery slope that a lot of regional theatres slide down. You start off doing a certain kind of work, but find that, as you push the truth or bring the community stories they don't want to hear, they turn their back on you.

I don't know if all of us can be those artists who tell those stories. We have to have many mansions and let artists find their way. If it's their way to offer hope, fine. But if it's their way to offer disdain, let them. It's all theatre and it can find a place.

One sidenote, and forgive me if I get testy about this, but can we put a stop to having MLK stand in for the entirety of the civil rights movement? Seriously, there were lots and lots of people involved from all points of the spectrum. Aren't Malcolm X and Angela Davis and Bobby Seale part of the movement? Just throwing MLK out there as the paragon of social change is kind of insulting, frankly. Especially since he was reviled when he was doing that work that we rever now and he was shot to death for telling the world things it actually didn't want to hear. Yes, the movement, in the end, had some successes, but it does all of the people involved a disservice to attribute that success to just one man and the way we interpret his methods and goals. All of them, up to and including Al Sharpton, used every tool they had to acheive change and it took all of them. Try to remember that. Plus it gets on my nerves. We make theatre, some of us hope to make some change. But, really? We're not leading a movement. Okay. Rant over.

18 comments:

Chris Ashworth said...

Thanks for this post; it seems like a good place to land after that exhaustingly long thread. It's good to be reminded there can be more than one right answer.

Tony Adams said...

Not to conflate the first and second parts of your post, but . . .

"Is the artist a truth-teller first? Or an advocate?"

I don't think they have to be mutually exclusive. Can't we draw stories from the community and bring something new-or see something in a new light?

I think if you do nothing but piss people off, people will turn their backs on you--just as they will if you're afraid to step on any toes and bore everyone.

On your side note, I think the reason we see so many comparisons to nazis, Ghandi and MLK is as a whole we don't really know much about our history other that the key figure heads.

However, I wonder if Vernon Johns might not be a better figure to look at when speaking about our role in our communities. He was on one hand a very popular preacher and on the other hand was ran out of his pulpit (many times) for being a rabble-rouser.

After being removed from the pulpit in Montgomery, he was replaced by a young charismatic preacher who the powers that be thought would toe the line and play nice.

50 years later we all know MLK, who replaced him, but Johns laid a lot of the groundwork before it was a capital-M movement.

Or maybe he's a bad example because he didn't stay in the same place for decades?

Is the difference between making some change and a movement simply a matter of how much groundwork has been laid?

Chris Ashworth said...

As the person who pulled the topic of artistic activities in Nazi Germany into that original thread, I just wanna defend myself by saying: hey, Nazi Germany was a pretty important part of the 20th century. It's not inherently reductive to mention the Nazis, and at times it can be inherently ridiculous not to. They had a little bit o' influence on that whole "culture" thing.

If that part of history is off-limits in online discussions, that's, as the kids say, "messed up".

Cheerio,

Chris "not-try-to-get-into-another-super-heavy-discussion-today,-just-didn't-like-feeling-silly-for-saying-the-N-word-online" Ashworth

Mare said...

There seems to be a sort of moral obligation that settles like a fine dust on the shoulders of playwrights: truth-teller vs. advocate. For me, my responsibility is more to my characters and their story. My obligation is to tell their truth and advocate for their individual points of view. I don't perceive this to be self-indulgent; I view this as the "work." Not every piece of work is meant for every beholder. The visual arts are not required to please everyone, nor are films, novels or songs. Somewhere, somehow, this notion of universal application now haunts playwrights, and yes, now we pander. I hate it and fear it. We are stalked, and our very creative process stunted, by the demand for gated communities with red tile roofs. Shiver.

On the other hand - what about the dirtiest word in theatre: entertainment? When a highly commercial project is well-received and runs incessantly, we, that playwright's very community, dismiss his/her work. I saw a piece of musical farce at the Phoenix Fringe Festival this year that shot the lights out. Really. I wouldn't ordinarily go to that type of performance (I prefer to have my guts yanked out and handed back to me on my out of the theatre), but I have to say, for that genre, it was brilliant. Highly commercial. Does that have to diminish it's genius - its value as a work of art?

Lots of questions and very important conversations need to be generated both within our theatre communities and our communities at large. And, finally, your thoughts about having to tap dance around a community hits closer to home than you can know. Thanks so much for you post.

Tony Adams said...

"For me, my responsibility is more to my characters and their story. My obligation is to tell their truth and advocate for their individual points of view."

Whose stories are being told? I think it's a question we don't ask often enough. And as a result we get the same story over and over and over.

I also think the easiest way to please no one is by trying to please everyone.

99 said...

Tony- I do think that the two impulses can work together, but when the rubber meets the road, the artist has to decide which is more important: serving the community or serving your artistic vision. And the real question comes in, once you've stepped on toes, what's the community's response? If the community chucks you out, or stops telling you stories, what do you do next? Apologize? Or move on to a community that is more understanding or capable of dialogue? We can't assume that every community has the same tolerance for challenging subjects.

And I actually think the Nazis are a great subject for this. What community was Leni Riefenstahl serving? And in what way? If she refused to document their stories, or was killed for telling the truth, would that have served the greater good? Maybe. Maybe not. I think there's also the assumption that all of a community's stories tend towards justice. Let's remember that the "carpetbagger" accusation, which is essentially what Scott throws at Arthur Kopit in his original post, was often thrown at MLK, and certainly at people like Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman. Being an outsider doesn't automatically limit your ability to affect or connect to a community. Though, honestly, I think most of these comparisons have more to do with grandiosity and a desire to see ourselves, as artists, as part of some grand cause.

That said, I don't think there's enough conscious thought about our moral standpoints (or our political standpoints) in our work. I'm of the opinion that ALL art is political, so some conscious thought about it would be good. Especially when you think about what you're bringing to a community.

Scott Walters said...

So much to respond to in this excellent post.

I guess I'll go in order:
"But...well...you're saying that the theatre should be drawn out of the community, but isn't the point of art to bring something new to the community?"

MY RESPONSE: Absolutely. Both. You draw out of the community, and you bring new things to the community. Just because you're part of a community doesn't mean you are hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world.

"Despite Scott's complaints, there are very few ad hominem attacks or knee-jerk responses."

MY RESPONSE: You are right. I complained about one responder who seemed to willfully misread the post, and to resort to ad hominem when no longer able to defend his ideas. Otherwise, the discussion was quite stimulating!

"Is the artist a truth-teller first? Or an advocate?

MY RESPONSE: Who cares about first. The answer is both. Berry doesn't refute that telling the truth sometimes requires that one risk offense in doing so. What he denies is the value of setting out to offend.

Is the role of the artist to affect change in the society or simply reflect it?

MY RESPONSE: Both.

"Does the artist owe the audience any allegiance?"

MY RESPONSE: Absolutely. If you have no interest in your audience, why put things out in public? Just create work for yourself and leave it at that. There is quite a respectable tradition of closet drama throughout theatre history. But when you open the door to others, then you are responsible to communicate.

"Paul and Matt seem more in the camp of artist as truth-teller and that requires some distance from the community because some truths are uncomfortable."

MY RESPONSE: See above: Berry says sometimes you have to risk offense. It isn't the same as stating that as an intention.

"Answering that question, what do you think the role of the artist is, is one of the most important things a young artist can do, and I don't think we do enough talking about that in our colleges and grad programs. I don't think there's any one answer, but it's something an artist should know about him or herself."

MY RESPONSE: YES! YES! YES! Our colleges and grad schools are so focused on a combination of craft and introspection that students never ask themselves why they are doing what they are doing, and what they are trying to accomplish. In fact, they are actively taught NOT to ask such questions, because it would make them less available for taking any job that comes along. If I could move this topic to the top of all arts programs across the country, I would.

"I really like Scott and I like his ideas, but sometimes they strike me as just ideas and not quite part of the real world. In the real world, if you're a community-based artist, your connection to your community is your lifeline. If you piss people off, you can easily find yourself cut off. And then what are you?" [Followed by the story about the Irish bar.]

MY RESPONSE: Here's a real world idea: actions have consequences -- deal with it. Yes, if you piss people off, they might cut you off. However, I would argue -- and did argue in the post -- that you have a smaller chance of pissing people off if you have a relationship with them, if you know the context of the conversation, and if you have built up some trust. Will people still get pissed off? Sure! Just like your bar owner. However, I have also been in situations where a good, angry confrontation made the relationship closer, because we'd moved beyond polite superficiality to something deeper. I would say that having the intention NOT to offend is as problematic as having the intention TO offend. But the friendship continues because we have an ongoing relationship -- i.e., I have social capital in the bank that I can draw on. Most artist's social bank accounts are empty, because they don't know or care about their audience, so when they need to make a withdrawal by saying something uncomfortable, they find they are overdrawn. That's the key: earn trust, so that you can speak uncomfortable truths when necessary. But if all you want to do is speak uncomfortable truths, then you are doomed. And you let the fear of reaction stop you from speaking, then you are cowardly. If a friend of yours is a drug addict, and you see that it is killing him, but you fail to confront him for fear that he will be mad, then you are not really his friend. But if you do confront him, and you have had a strong friendship over time, then he is more likely to listen, and you are more likely to speak in ways that he will listen to. What is true in life is true in art.

"Are all stories in all communities? Do you talk about the lack of minority voices? And what if it's a purposeful lack? And if you do offend people, what if they don't come back?"

MY RESPONSE: Yes, all stories are in all communities, and yes you can talk about lacks. Bring in In the Continuum? If the play says something pertinent, why not? If the lack is purposeful, and people don't come back? Well, you have to ask yourself a question: 1) do you want those people in your theatre? 2) did you want to change them? If the answer to both is yes, then you need to figure out how to make your point in a way that will have the greatest effect. If the answer to 1 is yes and the answer to 2 is no, then you take the safe route and deposit their money in your bank account and silently disapprove of them and yourself for lacking the guts to say anything. If the answer to 1 is no, then you are in the process of creating a homogeneous audience of people who agree with each other -- welcome to most regional theatres.

Now, about MLK: I don't think MLK was brought up within the discussion as an example of the entire Civil Rights Movement. He was brought up as a community organizer who led the Birmingham bus strike, and was effective because he was well-connected within the community. He was able to organize churches to provide transportation and connect with other preachers to spread the word. In other words, he was effective because he was enbedded in the community.

You are correct that he and others were often accused of being outside agitators once they moved to protesting nationwide. I would argue, tentatively, that across the nation the civil rights movement might have been more effective if the leaders were members of the community instead of relying on MLK. However, MLK quickly became a person whose presence gave everybody else courage, even though the real planning was being done locally. MLK was also a means of attracting media attention, which is about our celebrity culture.

When you write a blog, it is important that your references be accessible to as many people as possible. As a PhD in Drama, for instance, I could spin a long post about obscure playwrights and theorists, but few would get it, or I would have to do a whole lot of backfilling. MLK is a common reference point, as are Nazis, as is Gandhi. Use Vernon Johns, Opera Nazionale Balilla, or Nehru and things get a lot more complicated.

Sorry for the length of this.

99 said...

No apologies necessary. Good points all, and glad to hear them. Though I do think setting out to offend is a very righteous and necessary impulse, at the end of the day. There's a difference between "offend" and "insult." No, you don't want to insult your audiences, or patrons, or friends. But setting out to offend, take the piss out of, get a rise out of...that's another matter. And you can't cut it off as of less value than educate or inspire. All artists risk offense, absolutely and we all know it. Part of what makes that risk possible and fruitful is the separation between the artist and the community. Yeah, in the obvious cases, you're pulling punches, but in the less obvious ways, especially over long periods of time, you can take on your community's ideas and values. It happens in our personal lives and it's happened in the arts. The main community for most theatre ventures are other theatre artists. The plays are full of inside jokes and references, the problems are largely the problems facing artists, it all fits into a neat little circle. I'm with you on expanding that circle and bringing in other voices, but the artist has to keep their understanding of the world at their heart. And, yeah, if you keep offending people, they'll stop going away, but again, I say that may be time to move.

One thing about all of this, though, is this: how much does this land solely on the shoulders of the individual artist? I know you're an advocate for small tribes and self-contained theatre companies, but in the case of the playwright working on his/her own out there in the world, the need to offend, shock or outrage might be central and it's on the theatre that brings that artist to their community to help smooth that passage. Along the lines of what NYTW and Theatre J and other have done with Churchill's Seven Jewish Children, sponsoring dialogues and panels and putting the work in context or at least giving people a place to vent their rage. That's the work of the theatre, not the work of the writer. If a writer enters his/her studio or writing space with an entire community right behind him/her, then writing becomes impossible. The theatre is there to provide a bridge and a buffer.

Tony Adams said...

"MLK is a common reference point, as are Nazis, as is Gandhi. Use Vernon Johns, Opera Nazionale Balilla, or Nehru and things get a lot more complicated."

Scott, isn't there a need for more in-depth/complicated discussions rather than the same bulletpoints?

99, if the theatre is there to provide a bridge/buffer between community and individual artist, why worry about offending the audience?

Tony Adams said...

"If the community chucks you out, or stops telling you stories, what do you do next?"

How often does this happen do you think?

99 said...

Tony, that is precisely what I'm saying. I know it's contra-Scott's push for more local artists, but I think the individual artist can't be too concerned about offending the audience, because then you start to self-censor. And do I think that artists and theatres find themselves rejected by communities regularly? Sure. Scott is right that most communities aren't monolithic things, so part of a community can reject you while others embrace you. But we also hear about controversies, of all kinds, involving the choice of plays and productions around the country. I don't mean to imply that artists are being run out of town on a rail, followed by pitchfork-waving locals. But they do leave their small towns and rural cities to come to (at least what's perceived as) more liberal, permissive large cities.

Scott Walters said...

Well, obviously, I don't agree about offending -- which is what the initial post was all about. As a GOAL, I find it kind of silly, actually, because it is so easily accomplished. Any schmuck can offend; it takes someone with depth to raise an uncomfortable truth in such a way that the spectator rethinks.

As far as what Berry might call "public artists," artists writing to address an anonymous public rather than a specific community, well, wouldn't you agree that most artists go into the studio with a community in their head? In Caryl Churchill's case, that community may be a community of political activists who see things the same way she does, but they're still there. It really is a myth that anyone is truly independent.

The answer to your question, however, is who is responsible, the theatre or the artist. The answer is the theatre, since it is the theatre that has booked the play. And the theatre must ask what play will speak to its audience most effectively, and it is the theatre who builds a relationship with the audience, and it is the theatre whose social capital is on the line. I'd prefer as much as possible to have playwrights connected to the company who know the community and who write with them in mind, as Sophocles, Shakespeare, and Moliere did.

Robert Putnam, in his book Bowling Alone, talks about two kinds of social capital: "bonding social capital" and "bridging social capital." Bonding social capital is community superglue that links people with common ideas together. Bridging social capital is about bridging between differing social groups and is the social WD40 that greases the wheels for that interaction. Theatre shouldn't only be about bonding social capital, nor should it ignore it; but bridging cannot happen without bonding having been created. The two work together.

Tony -- Yes, if it were a discussion about the Civil Right Movement, I'd say that the topics should be more complex. When a figure is being used as an illustration in a conversation about something else, then what is important is intelligibility.

Scott Walters said...

"I don't mean to imply that artists are being run out of town on a rail, followed by pitchfork-waving locals. But they do leave their small towns and rural cities to come to (at least what's perceived as) more liberal, permissive large cities."

Where they encounter exactly the same problems. It is a myth that rural towns are more conservative than metrpolises. What IS true is that people are less willing to just ignore things because they SEE the effect what is happening on their community.

99 said...

But that's what I meant about the difference between "offending" and "insulting." I think that aiming to provoke outrage is a totally legitimate tool. And if that's your artistic goal, have at. Just insulting your audience, either directly or indirectly, that's a lame thing to do, but many, many people do. It seems like every season there's a play that's essentially about how dumb, fat and ignorant midwesterners are. That's insulting. You can pooh-pooh it, but provoking outrage can be a noble goal, in and of itself, especially when you're talking about "activist" theatre. You may have to pay a price for provoking it, but that's up to the artist.

Not to provoke the whole urban v. rural debate here, that's not what I was saying at all. Absolutely there are many, many closed-minded people in urban area, just as there are many open-minded people in rural (non-urban) areas. But there are simply more people and more choice when it comes to communities and, yes, some boldness that comes with anonymity, but also more support. And it depends on the city, too. I just like to take pains to remind you that many young artists leave rural areas for good reason. Not that they find everything they want in this city, or any city, but that they don't all leave their small towns just to make it big on Broadway. Some of them would like to find some good pizza, too.

Chris Ashworth said...

"If you have no interest in your audience, why put things out in public? [...] when you open the door to others, then you are responsible to communicate."

This. Yes.

At various points in the other thread there was the assertion that asking artists to be responsible to their community shows contempt for (or at least distrust and dislike of) artists.

But isn't it the reverse? If I'm making art I want you to consume, but asserting I have no responsibility to you when you accept my invitation to do so, aren't I showing contempt for you?

That's my main frustration, and what I like about what Scott has been saying.

Your post reminded me there can be more than one right answer about how close you knit yourself to your community, or how much distance it might take to tell an uncensored truth. But if we throw out the idea of a moral obligation altogether, I'm not sure how that can rise above immaturity. It might be pretty polished immaturity, but...is that where we want to set the bar?

Chris Ashworth said...

"Your post reminded me..." = "99's post reminded me..."

Chris Ashworth said...

Digging around in the endless hallways of the theater blogosphere, I just stumbled on this post, which makes a distinction between the responsibilities of the artist and the responsibilities of the arts organization:

http://missionparadox.typepad.com/the_mission_paradox_blog/2009/04/whos-first.html

Interesting stuff.

Scott Walters said...

Of course, I disagree. That's the old Romantic idea, which was preceded by a much longer tradition of artist as public servant. It is a tradition that has led to the current artistic impasse, and to the lack of interest in the arts and support for NEA funding. I wrote about it here: http://theatreideas.blogspot.com/2009/02/its-not-about-you.html

So I won't fill your comment box with more. Everybody knows what I think.