Wednesday, April 29, 2009
These two things are related. At least in my head...Trust me....
Monday, April 27, 2009
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 obviously have a ton of respect for Scott and I agree with him on many, many things. But I have to disagree with that comment and with a couple of his comments from that thread. I think there's a priority problem, and that's at the root of the whole discussion. The real question is what is the role of the artist in society. This is a fundamental thing. Here's where Scott and I part.
If you view the artist's role as a public servant, doing a public good, then what Scott says makes sense. The artist become conduit and messenger, serving the needs of the community before his or her artist goals. The artist plays a part in shaping and crafting, but the community's needs are prioritized. In that case, it's not about you, as he says. It's about the community first.
If you view the artist's role as commenter on society, then the priority is on the artist's goals and story. If it offends the community, then it does. If the community doesn't want to hear it, it doesn't have to come. If the artist is really unwelcome, they can go somewhere else. The level of interaction is up to the artist. The artist has something to say and that's where the priority is.
In the comments thread I linked to, Scott implies that these two things aren't in conflict. But, from where I sit, they very much are. I think an artist has to stand at least a little bit apart from the community and society. They need distance in order to see clearly and write what they see, what they hear. But really, they need to prioritize differently.
In a workshop I did a couple of years back, we did this exercise. The facilitators had us make a list of things we liked. We started at 25, then had to cut it down to 15, then 10, then 5, then finally down to one, each time selecting the ones you valued most. Finally, at the end of the day, you had to pick the one thing you valued most. That's the story here. If you're writing a play, you have to choose what's more important: the story or the impact. It's still not about you, but it is about the story you're telling. And that's what you're following.
What people start thinking of as bad theatre, agitprop or whatever, is theatre that sacrifices the story for the needs of the community. It pulls its punches, because something other than truth has taken priority. A good artist, especially in theatre, has to go for the truth.
As a wise man once said, you have to make a choice. I seriously don't think that attitude is what's created this schism between theatres and the community. Mostly because, well, the Romantics were around for some time and theatres thrived. Even during the '60s, the high point of the selfish artist, theatre was still relevant and connected. I don't think the attitude has changed all that much in the last twenty-five years. There are a lot of other factors. Now, as I've said here before, I write this blog from the point of view of a writer. Some of the things I talk about here are really about theatres as organizations. I don't think most artists need to change their attitudes or approaches. It's not the work. It's the organizations.
An artist needs to write freely, write honestly, and call it as he or she sees it. If they want to be closely connected to a community and respond to the community's needs and wants, good for them. If they can balance their artistic needs and goals with the community's needs, double good on them. But it's a choice they make.
Now theatres, I agree, as organizations, need to be much more responsive to the needs of the community. And they find the artists that fit best and bring them into the community. In the story about Arthur Kopit in Scott's original post, Actors Theatre fell down on its job by letting him just go away without a discussion. Now, if Kopit had refused to sit down with their community, then ATL should have re-considered producing his play. I think that's more encumbent on theatres.
How does it all jibe together? Well, I put the weight on the artists. I think we do need more rounded, more complete theatre training. Artists should be able to produce, build theatres, raise money, absolutely. But that may not be what they all want to do or what they're most suited for. There should be room for all of that. But to say that all artists must choose public service...that ain't it.
So, sorry, Scott. You can't sell me on it.
And then I see that the Public Theater is making a big announcement about, seriously, renovating their lobby. They're going to raise $13 million dollar (and have already gotten 35% of that) to renovate their lobby. Compare that to this.
The real question is where are our priorities? I'm not question The Public's commitment to new works and new voices, not precisely. It's a bigger question than that and not one that we ask, at least not a lot: why is it easier to raise that kind of money for buildings and not for people? I'm not even just talking about giving it directly to the artists (not yet). I have yet to see the "capital" campaign that goes: "We need to build up our artistic staff, so we need $1 million to pay a living wage and cover healthcare." In my experience, staff expenses always come from general operating costs and these are the hardest funds to raise. A lot of theatres and organizations assign part of dedicated funds for gen op, but getting someone to give you money for staffing needs seems impossible.
So we raise money for things from people who prioritize things. They want their name on something, want something they can point at and say "I built that." Hiring a staff member, that won't do. The big question is why do we want that money? Could we find people who want to support purely artistic work and get the money from them? Or even can we negotiate? "Sure, fine, you get naming rights on this column and on this developemental program." That would at least be something.
But the corruption runs deep. Look here (I swear I'm not picking on them, but...). Look at the distribution of staff. 2 literary staff members. 9 development staff members. What are the actual priorities here?
This is so standard, we seem to just accept it. The art stuff is undercapitalized and understaffed, the development staff is full-time. At some point, it becomes more about the raising of money than the spending of money, and our imaginations have atrophied (well, some folks' imaginations) that Olson at ASTC can't even really conceive of how you can just add artists to your staff or ways that you can spend $4 million to support artists. It's not even a consideration.
I think some of this comes from the origins of the standard model, coming from the foundation world, not the business world. The whole point is that the artists "can't" manage the money or organizations. We've invested in theatres as the middlemen, armies of managers who make it all possible. But is that the only way?
We need to be asking our theatres what their priorities are. And the theatres need to be asking themselves what their donors priorities are. If your big donors really only want to open their wallets for walls and lobbies, do you really need their money? Or can you split the donations, balance the scales. And this can happen from the other end, too. What if TCG said, "No support to any organization unless the development staff is half the size of the literary department." This system is not static or unavoidable. It could be shifted, changed, abandoned altogether.
And that priority includes the lives and wellbeing of staffs. It's not just about the art and the artists. Here's a story: I knew some folks working at a theatre a while back. The theatre had hit a rough patch, financially, and had to lay off most of the staff, even though they were still owed money. There was a show going at the time and it was in danger of closing. In order to keep it open, the theatre needed to raise a large sum of money, in roughly an afternoon. The artistic director got on the phone, worked some friends and got a check in about two hours, hand-delivered and the show went on. Much merriment and celebration all around. But one of the laid-off staff members, one still owed money, was rightfully pretty pissed. "You can raise that money for the show, but not for the staff? That's fucked up." And it is. It is fucked up. It's fucked up that the hierarchy seems to go buildings, then art, then people. And we wonder why no one wants to work here.
What are our priorities?
Friday, April 24, 2009
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
So what do you do when you're bored?
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
I've actually spent a couple of days trying to figure out if I even really care. I like Young Jean Lee a lot. I like her writing, what I've seen of it and I certainly like her personally and dig her vibe. So I'm certainly not inclined to rip her. Which meant I had to think about it for a while to make sure I wasn't giving her a pass.
It is definitely hard to hear a smart, talented and pretty successful writer call theatre a backwards art form. But...can you really fault her? It is a bit of a weird, backwards regressive thing these days. Every thing she says about the brain drain is right on. When we talk about it, and I know I fall into it, we tend to put the onus on the writer. The writers are just trying to make it to Hollywood for the fat TV cash and looking for the pay day, we tell ourselves. But Jason's right in the comments: it's become the ass-backwards way to actual freedom as a playwright.
What I find interesting is the way that she basically calls theatre out as entertainment for rich people, but then goes right into how little the artists get paid. If there's a word for this, it's regressive. And, yeah, that's right on.
But what really hurts is that she kind of calls out the folks working in theatre as the remainders. That does indeed sting. Essentially, if you haven't landed a TV gig, you're writing sub-Two and A Half Men jokes and being paid pennies for the privilege. That's a hard pill to swallow. If there's anything, that's controversial, it's that. But, hey, who hasn't said that the theatre's full of hacks these days?
And maybe it's the place. Not in a magazine that's primarily for theatre folks, but in a national magazine. Airing a little bit of dirty laundry, there, aren't you? That might be what's got folks riled up.
But you can't really fault her. Someone has to say this stuff.
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.
Monday, April 20, 2009
Saturday, April 18, 2009
Most, if not all things that happen on stage, are not natural. Same as on television or in film. I think we're so used to thinking live=natural and it's just plain not. That's why so rarely do you see the most common tricks of the theatre trade work on film: double-casting, the unity of time, place and action. Because we're used to naturalism on film and that's not what we get on stage. I've mentioned it before, but the closest I've ever seen to naturalism on stage was Adam Bock's The Thugs. And that made it down right experimental. We exist in a realist art form, the representation of life, not an exact reproduction. Mamet famously said that if you take all of the repititions and false starts and banality out of regular conversation, you have dialogue. But we want it to feel real, to feel natural. It's a tricky balance. And, in general, it doesn't really work in other mediums. Almost every time a play gets turned into a movie, the usual knock is that it's too "stage-y." People, especially in movies, don't sit and talk to each other the way we do on stage. It's an advantage I think we forget about, in pursuit of some moment of stagecraft or whimsy, or revolutionary storytelling. People just talking can be theatrical. There, I said it.
And storytelling that depends on people talking IS theatrical. When you write a film script or a television script, you have to think differently. In the same way that if you were to try to write a novel, you'd have to conceive your story differently. We tell stories that (largely) depend on people talking, communicating at least, in one form or another with each other. You can't write a play that consists only of the internal thoughts of someone, as he sits drinking tea and eating a madeline. But you can make a novel out of it. All right, yeah, okay, you can, but you're moving into performance art or dance-theatre. Not necessarily playwriting. So, when you sit down to write a play (or when I sit down to write a play), I try to think of a story that can be told in this medium, in people talking, even if they're talking about something other than what's going on. A story that unfolds in action and dialogue and images in a certain way. If I were going to tell the same basic story in a film, the needs of the medium are different.
I don't necessarily think every single play works as a play, or can't work in another medium. But sometimes I think we dismiss the realist nature of our work, to our peril.
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
I recently read Everything Bad Is Good For You by Steven Johnson. It's pretty good. One of his basic premises is that what is often thought of as "junk" culture, particularly television and video games, are actually quite complex; in fact, they've grown exponetially more complex over time and that our brains are growing more complex with them. He notes that even reality shows involve a pretty complex understanding of human behavior and relationships and strategy, and that people crave and need that complexity, maybe more than ever. It's a good read. Check it out.
But it got me thinking about the way, in theatre circles, we talk about television shows. In particular, television writing. Isaac does it here (because what post is complete without a link to Isaac?), when he describes Theresa Rebeck's play The Scene as a "teleplay." Well, what kind of teleplay? Are we talking a Lifetime Nora Roberts movie? Or an episode of 30 Rock? Those are both teleplays, but one is not the same as the other. What made my scene, which strictly adheres to the unities of time, place and action, "filmic?" Apparently, it was the quality of the dialogue and the speed of the scene (lots of overlap and not a lot of clearly spelled out exposition).
It seems to me that we use these kinds of words to talk about quality, not content and that's inaccurate. Just because something has jokes, or topical references, or a certain kind of polish to it, that doesn't make it television, not any more. Sometimes, I think we're mired in the intellectual, academic approach to our work and to the world. Pop culture is bad, simplistic and commercial. When we don't like something, we compare it to television, as opposed to saying it was flat, cliched and uninteresting. And I think we do this at our peril.
Television isn't all Two and A Half Men and bad movies of the week. There are complex, interesting, dramatically engaging stories happening. And not just Lost. Plus, smart people like it now. It's no longer just the province of middle of the road tastes. In Johnson's book, he quotes at length a television executive talking about their corporate philosophy in the '60s, which was offend as few people as possible, the Least Objectionable Programming. It's not like that any more. And I think there are lessons to be learned about the ways people are used to seeing dramatic entertainment.
Obviously, there is one major significant difference between television and theatre: the time factor. A television show can dole out information, keep some details hidden, draw out the drama because it has so much more time. At this stage, a television show has infinite time to make its points, since between DVRs and DVDs, you can watch them over and over until you get it. We got our two hours' traffic on the stage. If someone misses something, they turn to their neighbor and whisper just loud enough so everyone can hear, "What did she say?" No rewind, no pause. So we're used to hitting the points hard and often. The gun in the first act and all.
But our audience might have evolved a little bit more than that. They might be used to getting their information doled out more stingily, more subtly and they get annoyed if it's all too clear. If things are spelled out. We do a lot of lamenting in the society in general that attention spans are so much shorter, but also might be a sign of quicker deducing. We might need to think in terms of more complexity. But I digress.
My point is that TV isn't the province of idiots anymore. And it isn't enough just to say something is like TV or like a movie, because it moves at that speed. And it certainly isn't enough to say those things as a criticism of quality. Here's a storyline: A mob boss goes with his teenaged daughter to visit colleges as she prepares to graduate high school. Along the way, they, for the first time, have a frank discussion of who he is and what he does and how that relates to her life. As they look at one college she really likes, he sees a guy he put a hit out on years before, but has been unable to catch. He has to decide if he wants to pursue this right now with his daughter so near. Pretty compelling story, yes? And it's an episode of The Sopranos. Could that be a compelling play? Hell yeah. What's wrong with that?
Now I'm not saying that all plays should be just like an episode of The Sopranos. Or even that all television is on the level of The Sopranos. Clearly not. But we should be clearer in our criticism. And not be so quick to say that a writer who writes smart dialogue, realistic situations and throws in a joke or two wants to be a television writer. Maybe they wanted to stay in theatre, but got told, over and over, that their plays were "like television." As a pejorative. I'm just saying.
I want to leave you with this. This is one of my favorite pieces of writing, ever. If you ignore the walking and change of scenery, wouldn't you love to see this in a play?
Monday, April 13, 2009
From RLewis, in the comments:
You say that you don't give into despair, but your blog does its best to spread despair to anyone who'll read. Eventually, that has the very effect that you purport to be against. Have you checked out Sheila C.'s blog? She doesn't seem so disgruntled. Any guess why? Institutions of all different sizes are doing really great work, Sheila seems less concerned with their status, but if your problem is that it's not everyone's work, you're gonna be ranting till the end. How do we get the theatrosphere to be a place that supports and grows the theater community, instead of just constantly ragging on it? If you're not part of the solution....
Just...*sigh* Since it's worth saying, Sheila is awesome. Big fan of her work, her blog, her aura. Big ups to Sheila. And maybe I don't seem quite as satisfied as she does...because maybe I'm not. I don't have the writing gig on a TV show. I didn't get a great production this fall to rave reviews and accolades. And if that bitterness comes through, well, sorry. It is there and I try to keep this blog from being all "The way to make theatre good is to produce more of my plays!" That's not what I'm all about.
And since it apparently bears repeating, I'm not a Cassandra. I don't believe that live performed entertainment of scripted material is going to going to die out any time soon, if ever. I do not think that the theatre is endanger of losing all relevancy or becoming a quaint museum piece. I do, however, think that theatre can be more relevant than it is, be more vibrant and be more enjoyable for all, artists and patrons alike. The whole point of this endeavour is to make it better, make a better theatre culture, make a better theatre environment. I do not think the current status quo is working, either for the artists, staffs and boards involved or for the majority of patrons (or potential patrons). And I do think that our current non-profit producing and developing model is not working and we will need to investigate alternatives. That's what this is: an investigation of alternatives. With a little snark added to make it fun. (At least for me.)
And, I want to say this out loud and publicly, this whole "with us or against us" mentality is totally false, bogus, wrong and out of place. I mean that for RLewis and for Scott. It's not one thing or the other. I don't have to endlessly cheerlead for the system in order to keep it a "community" and I don't have to howl for its demise in order to be "honest." If I see something that doesn't work, I'm going to call it out. If I see something that does, I'm going to praise it. And if I see something that I disagree with, but works for some, I'm going to leave it alone. Not everyone wants to move to New York and go to work on Broadway, and not everyone wants to move to Indiana and do community theatre, so those shouldn't be the only choices or the only ideals.
The theatrosphere is full of varying voices, sometime rising in unison, sometimes falling into Babel, and that's a good thing. Sometime I'm massively inconsistent and that's also a good thing. This current NY theatre season is really great and exciting and there's a ton of good new things happening. And it hasn't escaped my notice that the theatrosphere, and the internet in general, and these discussions that we've all been having for the last five years are part of it. This is how change happens.
So...if you do read this and despair, well, read something else. I don't get paid for this and I don't need the hits. (I don't even keep track anymore.) No one should be despairing. We should be acting and pushing and finding what works for us. And then letting other people find what works for them. There's, what, 300 million people in this country now. That's a helluva a lot of an audience. I think we should stop worrying so much about your audience and think about ours.
Okay. I'm going to get a cup of tea or something and chill the frak out.
For those who weren't following what happened, there's some background here. In essence, the founding members of an ensemble company broke away to form their own company when they felt the artistic staff and the theatre's board of directors were altering the company's mission. Many of the ensemble members had been with the company for more than two decades.
Don Hall asks the pertintent question: what do we learn from this? It's a question I connect with very deeply. When I moved to New York, it was always my dream to be a part of an ensemble company. I've been a member of one for a few years now and I've discovered that it's a very complicated creature.
The company I'm a member of is of some longstanding, and has a fairly large membership. But we keep running into the same issue that the American Theatre Company in Chicago ran into. Namely, how do continue to grow and develop while at the same time, honor your past and the contributions of your members. It's a tricky dance. And very, very few ensemble companies pull it off for very long.
Eventually time catches up to you. You form a company of like-minded 20 year old, or 28 year olds or 30 year olds and ten years down the line, doing a great play featuring teen characters becomes problematic. If your membership is predominantly white, encouraging diversity creates a rift. And that's not even talking about the basics of group dynamics: some people rise up as stars, some people languish in the shadows and it's rarely fair or equitable or even predictable how that's going to break out.
I read a great book on the history of Circle Rep a few years back. In the end, it was both depressing and encouraging. Towards the end of the book, the author noted that, due to the "stars" leaving for television and film and more lucrative jobs, the company was left with character actors. Which is a bit of a rude thing to say, but an honest description. And the nature of things, I suppose, in a way. It was encouraging, though, because the book was written in the late '80s and Circle Rep persevered for another decade. So, maybe it wasn't the end of the world. The company did fold eventually, though.
So...maybe the lesson is this isn't supposed to last forever. Companies can serve their time and their mission and then end. I find that, in theatre, we move pretty quickly from thinking that theatre is essential to this theatre is essential. And that may not be the case. Maybe after a few years, you don't like each other, or you don't want to keep doing it and it's time to let it go. I admire the ATC folks (now of the American Blues Theater) for starting their own thing, rather than, as happens too often, revolting and chucking out the AD.
Part of the corporatization of theatre is the institutionalization of theatre. It leads to mission creep and evening out of the rough edges and individuality. Maybe theatres should only last a short time. Or maybe 501(c)3's should be time-limited and you have to re-apply and gather your founders together and think about what you've done and what you're doing. Just because an organization can last forever, that doesn't mean it has to.
The premise of his piece is that this work could never be produced in the U.S. because we're just a bunch of entertainment-loving phillistines who would never ever want to watch a play with educational value about a different culture or a complicated historical event and certainly not something about a region of the world that's currently an issue in politics or that might take a risky stand on American politics. We just want to laugh and laugh about nothing all the time. What a bunch of morons. No wonder he had to go to London, because controversial plays are just lapped up over there.
Really, JT? Really? It's bullshit.
Right from the start, you can see where he's totally wrong:
I tell them I'm contributing to a 12-play cycle of works set against seminal events in Afghan history. I tell them the cycle will be performed by a cast of 20 and run in rep over three nights, augmented by a film festival and lecture series.
I want you to find me the American theatre that's doing 12-play cycles augmented by a film festival. Go ahead. I can wait. Oh, but also make sure you add that the twelve plays need a company of 20 on hand. Good luck.
[whistles...makes a sandwich...re-arranges sock drawer...]
Any luck? Well, I'll be. It just must be because we're a bunch of anti-intellectuals jerks. Or maybe, just maybe, it's because it would be prohibitively expensive. Especially right now when theatres are paring back. That might just maybe have something to do with it.
But beyond that, his entire tone and premise is so screwed. We produce theatre that has a political point of view, that educates and debates. Fuck, we produce a goddamn Shaw Festival! Many of them! That guy's entirely about debate and discussion. What's hard here is a great big honking play. It's got nothing to do with the Times. I'm happy to blame the NY Times for a lot of things, but this isn't one of them. In fact, as you might have noticed, all of the reviews I posted, including some laudatory ones for JT himself, are from the New York Times. That ain't it.
But my biggest problem is the contempt. We've bred such contempt for our audiences and it poisons our work. Not to keep harping on it, but it's part of the point of all of this. We look down our nose at the people filling our seats and then we wonder why they don't want to come back. Of course, audiences don't want to be preached at, but they're always happy to learn something, something new. They can be confronted and challenged, but not browbeaten. No one likes brow beating. But we've created this world that drips with utter disdain for the "plebes" who come to the shows. It's like we're chefs, turning out nutrious meals, made up entirely of steamed vegetables with no seasonings, and then getting haughty when someone says it's bland. In a way he's right: people do want to be entertained. But this false choice between entertainment and "good" is killing us. All of us.
I'd think that JT, as a fairly experienced playwright and seemingly bright fella, would get this. Maybe not. So, dude, really: if you wrote your play so it can be performed by 4 actors, it'll get produced here in the U.S. You won't even have to cast Michael Jackson. And, FYI, putting Michael Jackson in a play...a bad idea. Even from a marketing standpoint. I'm just saying.
*I forgot the all-important via, but that shouldn't be a surprise.
Thursday, April 9, 2009
The other thing that struck me is that no one is talking about saving it. No ideas for fixing the standard model. Either it's just ignored, or it's declared non-functional, or it's assumed that the theatre of the future will look nothing like it. At what point does it simply cease to exist? No one seems to know. But these folks are moving on.
Yes, I do like the playwrights' responses best. But even still, the ideas live in such a narrow band. More community involvement. No standard model. More interactivity (in terms of audience outreach). More like rock shows. All good and interesting, and, yep, they're short essays, but nothing that goes beyond that surface. Little reflection on what that means. Like I said below, there's little sense of all of that beyond ways of getting more (or different) butts in seats. Which is a noble goal and might be the place we need to start. But there's little about what kind of art they will be seeing in their club settings that they were texted to attend. Well, beside magnet theater.
What will plays, theatre pieces, dance pieces look like in 25 years? What did they look like 25 years ago? How different are they now? I don't think there's really that much difference, in terms of actual plays. And that might be the larger problem. It might even be an insolvable problem, really. As the old saying goes, there are only seven stories in the world. Well, some folks have even narrowed it down to two. And plays? How many kinds of plays are there really? I don't know. But that might be a good question to answer.
Outliers and The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell (Blink is next)
Remix by Lawrence Lessig
Everything Bad Is Good For You by Steven Johnson
Freakonomics by Steven Leavitt and Stephen Dubner
Microtrends by Mark Penn (I know, I know...it's practically a museum piece now)
Wikinomics by Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams
Let's just say I'm on quite the jag here. But it's been a bit mind-blowing, a bit encouraging, a bit daunting and more than a bit inspiring. There are some interesting things afoot and it's amazing to me how far behind the curve theatre is on some of these things. When some of the concepts come up, especially the Malcolm Gladwell stuff and Microtrends (Penn's co-author came and spoke at the TCG conference last year), it's usually centered around marketing. Which is a pretty limited application, especially for theatre. But it's usually the first thing the institutions think about, in one way or another: we need better marketing! Even play selection, it seems, happens with an eye towards marketing. Pretty soon the whole system looks like this:
But we all know that ain't it. And so the ideas get dismissed. But there's some powerful stuff in there about systems, innovation, how word of mouth works, and a bunch of other concepts that are useful in terms of thinking about how we organize, how we create our work and how we can get it out there.
The reason I asked about new play podcasts (and I'm still working on that a bit, IRL) is because, well, it's a way around the system. And that's where my mind goes. But it's soon followed by the question of what are you going to build and how do you keep it from becoming the same moribund system we have now. Because there was a time when it was revolutionary and exciting and the new path. And look at it today. Thinking about how systems are built and function is my way into it. And these books are added some new thoughts to it all.
First off, where I stand: I'm a playwright. First and foremost. I write plays. I think about writing plays all the time. I look at the world through the eyes of a playwright. I read an interesting story or blog post, I hear a snippet of song, see a fleeting image or catch a snatch of conversation on the streets of New York and immediately I start spinning stories out from it, finding characters, thinking about how that moment, that story, that idea could live on stage. I used to write fiction and poetry, but years and grad school have semi-permanently altered my brain and now I really only conceive in drama. It's how I roll.
I approach these conversations about the nature and state of theatre in this country at this time from the standpoint of a playwright. In this system, I'm largely an individual craftsperson. Sure, to get to completion, I need other artists, but most of my work is done on my own and then lent/rented out to others. If I get paid, I'm paid by the piece. I make my play, usually in some version of isolation, and then give it away. When I think about the problems of development hell or the difficulties in reaching an audience or questions of style and content, I think about them in terms of playwrights controlling as much of their own process and voice as possible and having as much support and protection. It's my bias. I know it and I'm happy with it.
For the better part of a decade, I worked in theatres and arts organizations in artistic development. That's given me an inside baseball view on theatre in New York. I blog anonymously because, sometimes, I tell tales out of school. Sometimes I say less than nice things about people and organizations I like and support. It's a small community and I'd rather not have my career suffer unduly because something I wrote was taken the wrong way or embarrassed someone else. That said, there are very few things I've ever written here I wouldn't stand by, if asked in person. If you do have a massive burning need to find out who I am, e-mail me and we can talk. I may or may not tell you who I am. If you suss it out, please keep it to yourself. One of the reasons I closed up shop a few months back was because someone, in the comments, mentioned my name. Less than cool. Especially since they did it in an anonymous comment.
I am also an organizational nerd. Honestly, I just am. The other week, I was at a fancy-ish downtown restaurant and I noticed that, at the side table where the wait staff gathered, they had a loaf of bread and knife, laid out artistically. The bread baskets on the tables were filled with bread cut, out in the open, by the wait staff. I immediately thought, "Who made that call? The owner? The chef? Some consultant?" That's how my brain operates. Call it a remnant of a childhood of massively dysfunctional, blended families. When I think about theatres, I think in terms of organizational logic; how do you acheive your goals with the organization you have? What structures are needed? How does your infrastructure relate to your mission? If you're a theatre that is all about new plays, but your literary staff consists of a part-time lit manager and three interns and your fundraising staff consists of five full-time staff members, what does that actually say about your values? I consider myself a bit of a New York theatre geek. I try to learn as much about how the theatres operate, what their histories are, how they fit in the ecosystem. I remember odd bits of trivia (Tiny Mythic + HOME = HERE) and keep them filed away in my brain. I like the wonkery and like a good discussion about the wonkery.
I'd always meant for this blog to be about the life of a (sort of) working playwright, but honestly, I like the wonkery more here. When I talk about my own writing, the anonymity gets in the way and flattens out the details. So I'll be sticking with the nerd stuff. Hope you don't mind.
So...that's how I roll. Just thought I'd let you know.
Wednesday, April 8, 2009
Boring an audience is the one true sin in theatre. We've been boring audiences for decades now, and they've responded by slowly withdrawing their patronage. I don't care that the recent production of The Seagull at the Royal Court was sold out. To 95% of the population, the theatre (musicals aside for now) is an irrelevance. Of that 95%, we have managed to lure in maybe 10% at some point in their lives, and we've so swiftly and thoroughly bored them that they've never returned. They're not the ones who broke the contract. They paid their money and expected entertainment; we sent them back into the night feeling bored, bullied and baffled. So what are we doing wrong?
The most depressing response I encounter when I'm chatting someone up and I ask them if they ever go to the theatre is this: "I should go but I don't." That emphatic "should" tells you all you need to know. Imagine it in other contexts: "I should play Grand Theft Auto"; "I should watch Strictly Come Dancing." That "should" tells you that people see theatre-going not as entertainment but as self-improvement, and the critical/ academic establishment have to take some blame for that.
I can't remember if I mentioned this here already and I'm way too lazy to go back and look through the archives, but I had an experience a couple of years back that really illustrated this. I was participating in a workshop with a large number of other playwrights, largely young-ish, emerging-ish artist types, hosted by a mecca for emerging playwrights. A foreign playwright was in town and moderated a series of exercises and games. One of the exercises involved each writer writing one word that described their work on a big sheet of paper. Then the other writers would gather around, look at the words assembled on the sheet of paper, and then either circle one that they wanted for their work, or put an X next to one that didn't want associated with their work. Sure enough, one with the most X's was "entertaining." (Natch: I had circled that one.)
So many times in theatre, we go for the lazy, snobbish idea that anything "entertaining" is easy, facile and less meaningful, forgetting that many, many works of art are actually quite entertaining. The word itself has become so debased, attached to so many useless things, that it doesn't even really mean anything anymore. But we can reclaim it. Entertaining doesn't have mean mental spam. What's challenging can be entertaining.
And, yes, I do agree that this connects to what Theresa Rebeck was talking about, or at least my impression of it. The most common dis of a new play is that it's too much like television or like a movie. But usually they're talking about things that are completely unlike television (well, maybe except for the quality of the jokes). What they mean is that it's entertaining. And that's bad. I completely agree with Anthony Neilsen that that's where to look for our dwinding audiences. If theatre isn't supposed to be entertaining, at least in part, then what is it doing? Is it strong medicine, hard to take but necessary? Is it brussell sprouts? Who the hell wants brussell sprouts? Unless they're covered with a glop of cheese (Mmm...cheese...), no one really. And in the end, all too often, we fault the audiences for not being interested when we so often give them little to be interested in.
Listen, if Anne Bogart, who Isaac quotes here, is saying that theatre should be entertaining, then it should be okay. She's a real artist! Not like that old schlock merchant, Shakespeare. Or Shaw, who wanted the audience laughing so he could pop the truth in their open mouths. Those guys blow.
Thursday, April 2, 2009
I feel similarly about her essay/Op-Ed as I did about her similar rant on the lack of productions for women playwrights. It's a right on, absolutely important observation and issue for discussion and I wonder how she gets the righteous anger up.
Theresa Rebeck writes plays with a strong narrative thrust that happen in realistic, naturalistic setting. It's been forgotten that that old, much-shredded and reviled review of the Humana Festival by Charles Isherwood was a good review for her play. Her plays get produced regularly, all over the place. In a way, I think, "What's she complaining about?"
But then I think, someone doesn't need to be affected by something to complain about an inequality. And there is a definite inequality when it comes to a certain kind of play, a certain kind of narrative structure, a certain form of storytelling. One of the things that I think is confusing Isaac is that in her article, Rebeck uses soft, safe language to describe what's going on in the literary management/artistic discussion circles of the world.
It's not "plot" that's missing, or even "structure" really. There's simply a certain kind of play that's on the outs. The "traditional" play: three-act structure, realistic set and situation, straightforward unfolding of plot tied to strong, clear character motivation. Realism, not naturalism.* This is, as she put it, "uncool." And theatres want "cool." Very, very much so.
When you boil anything down, in any good play, there's a plot. There's always a plot of some kind, really. But the cool thing now is to have as little a plot as you can get away with. If you write a play with "too much" plot or "too much" realism, especially if you're a young artist, theatres aren't so much interested. It's not the plot that's king now; it's the style. Literary departments are looking for the cool, new voice and that generally translates into something that's less dependent on characters pursuing a clear objective and is more about commenting on society and pop culture, adding layers of quirk and "theatricality," and doing things that the audience doesn't expect.
"Theatricality" is the buzzword for a lot of this. And it, usually, just means weird shit. Something rises unexpectedly out of the floor. Characters have odd physical traits or behave irrationally. I'm a big, big fan of Sarah Ruhl's work and I loved Eurydice, absolutely. That work is the pinnacle of what theatres are looking for right now. Somebody who saw it explain to me what the Three Stones were doing in it. Seriously. Beyond being a chorus, a stylistic element, what purpose did they serve? I think that's what Rebeck is talking about. When plot and story was king, it didn't really mean plays were less experimental or weird. Let's remember that Death of a Salesman is NOT a realistic play. But all of the elements served the plot. This is just less important now, if not considered a bad thing. I also really, really enjoyed Sheila Callaghan's That Pretty Pretty. But that's another play where style overwhelms plot or action. I'm not saying that that makes it a bad play, but it makes it a certain kind of play. The kind of play that gets buzz and gets noticed, in theatre circles.
Unless you're already Theresa Rebeck. Then you get to write your straightforward realistic plays and theatres snap them up. Because you're a proven commodity and because the audiences tend to respond to them. That's the other side of it. For most major theatres, the audiences respond better to the realistic plays; they're used to them. Theatres see it as selling out and they let the artists know that. If the alterkockers like it, it's gotta be bad. But if the alterkockers like it, well, they'll buy tickets for it, so we program it.
And if you're not an established writer...sorry, not really interested. Or we'll keep you hanging around on the periphery and encourage you to write a different kind of play, add more theatricality. Make it less "commercial." Yes, I'm talking about my own work. And, yes, you could say I was a bit bitter about it. And if you want to dismiss all of this because of that, the way I kind of want to dismiss what Rebeck is writing about because she's successful, go right ahead. But I do think it's true. There is a style that's popular now. It may not be popular forever, but it is now. And I know I've wrestled with how that affects my work. Because it's a very different style than I work in. So do I keep doing what I'm doing and know that it will mean I get passed over for opportunities? Or do I try to change what I'm doing, maybe just a little, so it appeals to the gatekeepers? Or do I try to opt out of the system altogether?
*If not the only. My memory is hazy.
* Although these words are often used interchangably, I think of them as different styles. A Streetcar Named Desire and Burn This are realistic plays. The Thugs by Adam Bock I consider a naturalistic play. Feel free to disagree.
Wednesday, April 1, 2009
Mead's post, though, has much hope and a fair amount of upside in it. Ol' Scott must be happy that Mead is remaining in Portland and setting up shop there, rather than heading off to the Dread NYLACHI(DC...KFC...MSNBC). I'm very much encouraged by Mead's SuperScript Service for reasons that I'll go into in another post, but mainly because he's building a revenue stream out of his artistic skills (and using the internet to do it). So check it out. As my favorite boys say, I always dream about a unified scene. (I think I might have mentioned them before...still buzzing from the show the other night...)