Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Yes, Stop The Madness

Aggh. Aggh. Aggh. Aggh. I've been feeling a bit ornery and cranky lately, which is one of the reasons I've been running silent lately. I don't think there's much to be gained from being a public nuisance. But. Well. This kind of pisses me off. The whole thing that went on with Tom a couple of weeks back has stuck in my craw for a bit and I've been wiggling it around and around to try to figure out what it bugs me about it and it's taken me until now to get a better handle on it.

To refresh everyone's memory, Tom wrote this. I responded thus. In the comments, Tom said this (largely without edit):
In the first place, I'd like to say that many of my writings have little in common with what I actually do in my day-to-day teaching. They are things I think about, toss over in my head, muse about. I share them in my blogs partly as a way to clear my head, partly as a way to think things through, and partly as a way to make other artists think about these things. These are not necessarily things I say in class, but when I do say them, I always preface them with a caution that these are my personal opinions and observations, that they are not gospel, and they can take them or leave them. I even offer them the possibility of considering that my opinions are, as has been suggested here, the rantings of a bitter old man - I do not hide that possibility from them. What I actually do - every single day - is my best to prepare them for the careers they aspire to - every facet of those careers that I can think of. Obviously, you have only my word for that as well, but if you'd like to investigate it, please do. There are many Fredonia alums in NYC.

For the record, it is absolutely and unequivocally my practice every single day in my classroom to do whatever is in my power to help my students succeed in reaching whatever goals they set for themselves. In the particular case I quoted in my TACT blog, the young man in question was in my office just yesterday where I had a 30-minute discussion with him talking about his talent, his potential for success, and what he needed to do to make his dream come true. We also talked about the scene he had just done, which was in fact pretty good. Never once did I say to him, "You're untalented and foolish and you should think about digging ditches." I made sure he understood how difficult it was, that the odds were not in his favor, and that he would have to have no small amount of pure luck, but he was bringing some good qualities to the table. Never did I express to him I thought he was being unrealistic. Frankly, that's none of my business, and he is paying me to help him succeed. You'll have to take my word that I did that as well.

In other words, the portrait about my teaching practices being painted here have no foundation in reality to them. They are assumptions readers and commentators have made; none of them have actually seen me teach. These assertions and assumptions have been drawn from the private ramblings that go on in my head, the various things I think about and write about. I would encourage the readers of my writings to assume the opposite - that I keep my private thoughts and my classroom practices largely separate, and generally I offer my own private thoughts to my students only when pressed. You, as a reader, are actually getting to read things going on in my head that my students almost never hear (unless they are reading my blogs as well, which could be possible, but I am not aware that is happening). I teach in a pre-professional program, and that's what I train my actors for, but I make sure they understand every single aspect of that career, its warts as well as its rewards. I am working to change that, working to be able to offer alternatives, and working to find those kinds of students interested in a different approach to doing theatre in this country. I don't like the waste of talent I see in this country - it's not sustainable. When I have the kinds of students interested in sustainable, community-grounded theatre, I will leave the pre-professional training to others, and I will switch my practices and focus on giving those students the kind of education they want.
And now this from Scott. This is normally the part where I profess my respect and affection for Scott and my support, though qualified for his positions. But...I'm feeling ornery, so not this time. I think this whole line of...whatever is crap. And, before you start in (and by "you," I mean Scott) with this being about me defending NYLACHI's evil, evil ways, I think it's crap because it's an impossibly, ridiculously and utterly out of touch way of looking at the business of acting and the ways actors make money and live in places like New York. In fact, I think it shows an odd fixation with NYLACHI (and essentially Broadway) as being the way Scott and Tom measure success.

First off, I will say this: I was wrong to imply or even state that Tom's post was or should be taken as a reflection of his teaching style or attitude. I don't know how he teaches or the way he conducts himself in front of his students and I shouldn't imply anything about that. And, yes, I do understand that a blog post can be a good way to blow off steam or give voice to the things you don't think you can say in other situations. That said, I do think it's naive to think that, if you're blogging under your own name, that your students don't know about it. Playing the "I don't know if they ever read it" card is just abdicating responsibility. So, apologies, Tom.

But Tom's teaching isn't the actual question. The question is the attitude underneath it.

So Scott and Tom think it's nuts for 1,000 people to line up for an open call for Hair on Broadway. It's a sign of NYC being bloated and over-run with young actors who are just wasting their talent at auditions for a limited number of roles that they're pursuing, at least in part, because of a TV-fed desire to get famous. The numbers, odds and systemic barriers to they're ever appearing on Broadway make it just ridiculous for them to try, so we need to re-think our entire system, which is based on actors dreaming of appearing on Broadway.

Okay. Where do we start? I guess, I start with Dennis' video. Yep, that's a lot of people! And yep, Equity open calls have a lot of people there! And yep, an actor needs to take all day sometimes to go to one. I've known people who couldn't, people who had to leave, people who got screwed over by it. I'm not saying it's the fairest way of doing things, but you know, job interviews for any position rarely are. We also don't get a sense of who got seen, what the experience was like, what happened next for any of them. Did any of them get cast? How many? How many parts were they looking to fill? The full cast of Hair is 32 people. Not great odds, no, but not the worst in the world. One three minute video of a lot of people doesn't actually tell a story, other than there are a lot of people who want to be in a Broadway show. We don't even know what kind of training, if any, these folks have. We know nothing about them except they want to be in a show. We don't know if any of them are already in shows or have other arts jobs or

My issue here, though, is with Scott and Tom's very, very narrow definition of success and waste. Not being on Broadway, not winning an Academy Award is a waste, is talent thrown away. Scott fixates narrowly on the unemployment rate for Actors Equity as the definition of success. As far as Scott's concerned, New York theatre begins at 40th St and ends at 53rd, in a way that, as a New York theatre artist (and a native New Yorker) is not what's it like here.

This isn't the part where I say how great the talent is here. That's not what it's about. It's about the path of an artist and the path of an actor and that there are lots of ways and roads to satisfying work. From outside of NY, maybe it looks like making it to Broadway is the goal of everyone, but from here, you know what? It's not. I'm not saying the city is swimming in lucrative acting jobs, but there are other paths and options. And some of them don't involve the stage at all. And I don't see it as a waste.

It can be a struggle and there are trade-offs and hard choices involved. And, yeah, some people wind up leaving the field. But that's going to happen, no matter what. And some do go back to small communities and form theatres. And you know what? Some get jobs in television. Some make commercials. There are a whole raft of things between not acting and being famous, a whole lot of other ways of being successful. I think that Scott and Tom get that, but instead focus entirely on the narrowest bandwidth as "successful" and want that bandwidth to stay just as narrow, but move a few spots down the dial.

I really don't understand the whole attitude. I actually I do understand it. It's bitterness. When people say, "no one owes you a career in the arts," it's that bitterness that they're responding to. We're all familiar with the stereotypical acting teacher who couldn't make it and pushes his or her students to succeed. This feels to me like the flip side of the same coin. I'm sorry to say it, but it does.

I think CRADLE's a grand thing, I do. And necessary. But if these guys want to stop the madness...well, stop the madness. Let it go. The kids will be all right.


Scott Walters said...

*sigh* Do you have any idea how many times I have seen the "bitter" card played? This is the last gambit of the NYLACHI Myth -- that anybody who didn't do the NYLACHI thing is "bitter." Followed by an accusation of a "fixation." It isn't even worth responding to it -- it is ten-cent psychology that says more about you than me.

If NYLACHI is your fondest dream, more power to you, but the idea that it is the only path is nonsense, as is the idea that there aren't way more theatre people already in NYC than are needed. The fact is that most theatre people, especially actors, spend more time and money LOOKING for a job than actually DOING theatre.

Yes, there is a lot of great work happening OOB, and that is great, and I have never had any problem with people who do that. In fact, I think it is admirable, and I wildly applaud you all. At the same time, 99 people in a NYC audience are not automatically better than 99 people in Peoria (our esteemed NEA chair to the contrary), and a production in one of those NY OOB houses is not automatically better than a production in Peoria. Artistry and audiences exist all over this country.

The focus should be on the work itself, not where the work is done. But that isn't how theatre is taught at universities across the nation. It's all about the zip code, and the "training" reflects a narrow understanding of the options available and the skills that are needed.

I am not as sanguine as you are about the "kids being all right." And I speak from actual experience as a person who has devoted his life to teaching young people about theatre. The "kids" only learn about other options if you TELL them about other options, because the NYLACHI myth is the only one promoted. The "kids" only will acquire the skills necessary to work in a small community if you TEACH them those skills. Across America, acting teachers are spending entire semesters teaching audition skills, which are useful only in a saturated market; are there an equal number of classes in storefront producing techniques? In writing grants? In fundraising? Are young artists being cross-trained so that they can contribute their labor as equals in a small company, or are they being narrowly trained as specialists who can do only one thing?

So you can dismiss Tom and I if you like, and ascribe all kinds of tenuous psychological symptoms to us, but the fact is that NYLACHI is overrun with artists, and the rest of America is not, and unless you are just dying to live in NYLACHI, then you should be given the skills needed to create an artistic path elsewhere. And that just isn't happening, and that is what TACT is about.

99 said...

Scott, your vision of NYC theatre (and possibly any urban-based theatre) bears so little relationship to what I see on the ground. It's not even consistent in your own descriptions. You acknowledge that there's "lots of great work happening" but at the same time, all the actors are just sitting around and not doing theatre. I'm not talking about the audiences or the production levels or anything like that. And I'm not saying that an NYC audience is better than a Peoria audience. I'm not Rocco Landesman or making his arguments.

What I'm trying to communicate is that the experience of moving to New York, of living in an urban setting and making theatre here is not worthless. Every single day, I see young actors here, most struggling to some degree or another, some not, but all of them working, hustling and learning the business and craft of acting. Yes, they probably should have learned more in college and at grad school, but they learn here. They learn by doing. And they work hard. And most of those actors have no active dream to appear on Broadway. Oh, they won't mind it if it happens, but they're doing the work. It's often underpaid, and definitely under-respected, but THEY ARE DOING IT.

When you talk about New York, you talk as though every single day, there's an open call and 1,000 kids line up and 999 walk away to sad trombone music and sit on their hands until the next open call. There are small theatres, small companies, showcases, every manner of possible level of show. I'm not just talking about classes. I'm talking about shows. With actors, working on their craft. And you do them a disservice by dismissing all of that.

The young artists I know act and write and direct and some design and do what they can to get their shows up. Sometimes, they learn on the fly. Sometimes something they learn on the fly becomes something they do for the rest of their lives. The same goes for teaching.

I'm sanguine about it because I watch them grow up and learn. I watch them grow out of adolescent fantasies and into adult goals and dreams. And, yes, some don't get what they want. As is often remarked, nobody owes anybody a career of any kind. But it's not a waste.

What I want is for you (and Tom) to turn all of that vision on yourselves and see how much you, by your own measures, equate success with being on Broadway ONLY. By your own language and rhetoric, moving to New York is a waste of time if you're not going to be on Broadway and it's unlikely that you will. It's a waste of talent to encourage people to move to New York because they won't be on Broadway. You guys are just as focused, just as blindered, just as blinded by Broadway as anyone else. And, yes, I do hear a lot of bitterness and rage about it. I don't say that to dismiss it, but to try to get you to see how much it warps your message and turns it into a vendetta. This isn't a crusade. It's a vendetta.

An artist's life grows through experiences. To say that a young artist won't learn the ropes, won't figure it out and decide for themselves whether they want to live this life or forge something else, sells them short. To think that an audition is only a job interview and if you don't get the job, your time has been wasted shows a serious lack of understanding about how our field works. And to say that moving anywhere to do anything is a waste sells everyone short.

RVCBard said...

I actually LIKE NYC.


Scott Walters said...

You say: "You acknowledge that there's "lots of great work happening" but at the same time, all the actors are just sitting around and not doing theatre."

I say: I've never said ALL the actors are sitting around -- just 86% of them according to AE figures. (P.S. No, I don't care about commercials, TV, or film -- as far as I am concerned, they are different genres. I care about theatre, I teach theatre, I am interested in the health of theatre.)

You say: "I'm sanguine about it because I watch them grow up and learn. I watch them grow out of adolescent fantasies and into adult goals and dreams."

I say: Indeed. Wouldn't it be nice if there was a connection between what they learned in college and what they do later? If not, why do college at all?

You say: "What I want is for you (and Tom) to turn all of that vision on yourselves and see how much you, by your own measures, equate success with being on Broadway ONLY."

I say: I consider being on Broadway a failure, a waste of talent. To do the same show 8 times a week month after month, especially some of the shows that run month after month, is artistically deadening. The long run is an invention of 20th century capitalism. When artists were entrepreneurs and rant their own shows, most of them (James O'Neill to the contrary) worked in rotating rep, a much more artistically interesting procedure. When producers took over, the long run was born, as was the centralization of talent in NYC (cf the Theatrical Syndicate). I consider success living in your chosen community, controlling the means of production, and living the kind of life that you personally find enriching, and that enriches the community you are in.

You say: "To say that a young artist won't learn the ropes, won't figure it out and decide for themselves whether they want to live this life or forge something else, sells them short."

I say: Yes, Life is the great teacher. Let me tell you a story. I grew up in Racine WI a couple hours north of Chicago, which, when I was there, had the highest number of factories per capita of any place in the US, bar none. My grandfather was a union man who worked the power plant for J I Case Co, and my father was a bookkeeper for a small gun factory. I was brought up thinking that there were two choices for a job: working on the shop floor or working in the office. That was it. It was only because I read a lot -- a LOT -- that I discovered there were other options, and it was only because I was really stubborn that I was able to pursue those options. Now, as a professor -- something my family had no idea it was possible to become -- I take seriously my responsibility to open as many options as possible to my students, because I know that a lot of my friends in Racine never learned they had other options. I don't want my students feeling that they HAVE to go to NY if they don't want to, and if they do I don't want them to feel as if they were failures if they left NY; if they don't want to go to NY, I want them to have the skills they need to make an artistic life elsewhere, and I want to introduce them to the idea that there are other ways to think about the arts than as a transaction, a commodity. I am not trying to close out the NY alternative, because that would be trading one limitation for another; I want to add others too it. And I want them to make an informed decision about their life path, not one blinkered by Tinkerbell thinking.

There is nothing wrong with moving somewhere to pursue a dream -- I no longer live in Racine, so it would be hypocritical to say you should just stay in your home town. But to be compelled by the structure of an industry to move to one or two specific places, and to be taught only the skills necessary for those places, is in my opinion wrong.

99 said...

So...your expectation for the life of an artist is to be totally dependent on one form of work, acting in theatre only. The other stuff..not a way of making money or being artistic or supporting other artistic endeavors. I love theatre, but I think it's not only unrealistic, but unproductive to just pretend like there are or shouldn't other ways of making money from your acting training. That, just as much as any bias towards urban-based theatre, is likely to keep young actors from making a living. But, of course, throwing that in there hurts your image of starving artists in urban hovels.

And it's funny that you're always all about apprenticeships and practical learning, but you want to maintain the college/university system. You just want it to teach the things you want it to teach. Personally, I don't necessarily think college should be a prerequisite for acting training. I think it's an important thing to make a person a well-rounded being, but that can be achieved by moving to New York (or Chicago or Des Moines or wherever you want to experience) and being a curious person. And acting is best learned by doing.

But, really, Scott, this is what I mean by a vendetta that warps your point. You're the first person to say that the pleasure and happiness of artists is the last thing we should be thinking about, but your reasons for the awfulness of Broadway has everything to do with artist health and nothing really to do with the audience. A long run increases the chances for more people to see the work, to be affected by it, to see its message.

I think you're being a bit disingenuous about your motives and tactics. Your posts, your entire online persona isn't really about just building up other options or making urban theatre less central and less palatable. It's about tearing down NYLACHI constantly and completely, in all of its aspects. But when you vent your ire, it's as though every single actor here wants to work on Broadway. That's just not reality.

This isn't about comparing life stories or your higher goals. It's about the way you talk now and the way you make your points now. I think you and I have pretty close general definitions of what a successful artistic life looks like. I think you blind yourself to the big picture by narrowly defining it.

Scott Walters said...

Well, I guess we're going to have to shake hands, and agree to disagree as friends, despite our agreement on a lot of points.

For instance, I agree that we'd be a helluva lot better off if we went back to the old apprentice model of actor training -- and I mean WAY back, Shakespeare apprentice where the actor is apprenticed to a specific actor who provides for his room and board during the apprenticeship. I think every artist should be liberally educated in undergraduate, and I'm with Tony Kushner: we should eliminate all arts majors. Anbd we should substitute an apprenticeship for the worthless MFA programs.

But if we ARE going to have arts majors, then in ADDITION to a solid liberal arts education the education in the major should combine examination of deep ideas and practical skills. Practical meaning entrepreneurial.

No, I don't think people should do one thing (e.g., acting), but rather should be cross-trained within the genre. But I think that seeing acting as the same in TV, film, and theatre is what is killing theatre, because film and TV isn't, well, theatrical. I think theatre acting needs focus, just like oil painting and sculpture are not the same thing and require different skills. Most importantly, though, I want artists to control the means of production rather than sell their labor. Very Marxist of me.

But I do think the NYLACHI light is too often shined in the eyes of all theatre artists, which makes it difficult to see the other stars in the firmament. So yes, I lobby to turn the spotlight down a bit -- not off, just down.

And usually the more effective I make this argument, the more backlash I get from NYLACHIans feeling as if their artistic lives are somehow threatened unless everybody puts NYLACHI at the top of the heap. And I won't. NYLACHI is another option, no better or worse than choosing Amery WI.

99 said...

Gah! You say you want to shake hands and walk away, but can't help but throw in a final dig.

In case you've missed my thesis point here, I'll say it again: you have no idea what you're talking about when you talk about NYLACHI theatre. None. At all. You can talk fine about how college undergrads think and talk about it, but your understanding of it bears the same relationship to reality. I get pissed off about it because you act like you know what you're talking about, spout off and use your stats and talking points, but you don't know what you're talking about. Period.

As for artists controlling the means of production, DV and webseries is probably the quickest path to that actuality and easier. And I think most working actors would tell you that the acting skills used in film/TV and those used on stage aren't quite so different. A different style, not so much a different medium.

Scott Walters said...

Joshua James used to assert I didn't know what I was talking about, and then refuse to explain. So tell me what I'm missing that I haven't already acknowledged. I would like to be enlightened.

99 said...

I've said in the post and in this thread: you talk about the New York actor as though they're all only focused on making it to Broadway and that, because you've got the AEA stats in your head that they're all sitting around and not working all the time. I know a lot of actors living in New York who meet your definition of success without thinking or caring about Broadway. I also know actors who work on Broadway who meet your definitions.

This is what I was talking about as your vendetta against Broadway. NYLACHI, in the way you discuss it and deal with it, is really only Broadway and seems to be the root and cause of all evil.

I'm not saying it's all peachy keen or better than anywhere else, but I think you have a wholly unrealistic impression of it. Like I said, you really seem to think that the life of a New York actor is just the way it's depicted in Dennis' three minute video all the time. Which is basically akin to me thinking that all theatre between Chicago and Las Vegas is just like Waiting for Guffman.

That's what I mean. I'm not even going to think about speaking for Joshua James.

Scott Walters said...

Thank God. About JJ, I mean.

OK, let's separate out a few things:

1. my focus has always been on decentralization. For years now.

2. within this focus, Broadway is less important than the fact that non-NYC theatres (i.e., regional theatres) cast out of NY.

3. Because of this centralization of hiring, theatre artists believe that they must go to NYC in order to work.

4. Because of #3, there are many more theatre artists in NYC than there are jobs for them, and also because of #3 there are many fewer theatre artists throughout the rest of the country.

5. Because the media is also centralized, the NY theatre gets more focus than anywhere else (e.g., the TONY broadcast), and as a result NY is held up as a benchmark, the "top of the heap"

6. Because of #5, #3 is magnified -- a vicious cycle.

7. I believe that theatre is a localized art, and that it should tell the stories appropriate for its locale.

8. Therefore, a centralized theatre system impoverishes the art form, overcrowds the field, and as a result limits the opportunities for artists.

9. Any educational system that supports this process needs to be changed.

99 said...

Scott, my point isn't that you don't have one, or that you're not right about some things. But you do it again: you say that Broadway isn't actually important to your point, but then start in on how damaging the TONYs are, which is only about Broadway.

The question is how to change that and you seem to have settled on a path of "bringing NYLACHI down" and not so much with raising anything else up.

You can say that your focus is decentralization all you want. In practice, your focus is puncturing the myth of NYLACHI, but the irony is that means you have to buy into the myth.

99 said...

Actually, thinking about it more, your bullet points don't actually make a lick of sense, Scott. Individually, sure, and some of them together, but not as anything like a unified ethos or anything.

So the problem is that regional theatres import the actors from New York. But no, the problem is that New York theatre gets more attention. And there aren't enough jobs (where? In NYC? In the regionals?) for the actors. And New York has a big head about it all. And colleges buy into it. But really, it's all just decentralization that's important. And it's bad because it hurts the art. But the artist isn't important. Which is why we should teach them practical skills and it would be better if they apprenticed with one actor.

But the only thing that really matters is theatre and not the empowerment of artists.

But this entire thing is based on the video of the kids lined up for Hair as an accurate representation of the scene here, of the work that's available.

I find all of this pretty unpersuasive.

Dennis Baker said...

To clarify a point, that I did not make clear in the blog post, I did not shoot the video. An actor I know shot it and posted it to youtube.

I was not at the audition and therefore can not answer any of the questions JJ asks about the video. The video states that they are non-union actors. I assume it was a separate non-union audition, because I can't imagine 1000 non-union actors waiting at an EPA, as they would not be seen.

Scott Walters said...

I woke up at 3:00 with this thought -- maybe it will help, maybe you will still be feeling ornery and find it unpersuasive. It seems to me that this is the disconnect between us:

I am concerned about the image of New York theatre as it is broadcast to the rest oountry, which is focused on Broadway, which says you go to New York because "that is where the work is," and which tells the Cinderella story constantly; you are arguing that that isn't the Real New York theatre.

So I can agree with the point I have attributed to you. But my battle is with the image which seeks to hide the image of reality in favor of a fantasy.

I am also concerned with diversity, which includes diversity in geography, demographics, and story. For that reason, I reject a one-size-fits-all theatre scene.

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