Wednesday, July 22, 2009

What You Wish For

This busted me out of my latest semi-possibly permanent-retirement. There's always something.

I have a shit-ton of respect for David Cote. Seriously. He's got a real downtown sensibility, and he's very open about that, but he also doesn't let it blind him to the good parts of other styles and genres. He's put together a crackerjack team of reviewers for Time Out New York. This is just abject suckuppery. I feel about Time Out's stuff the way I feel about movie reviews in The Onion: they say what I'd want to say, but smarter and stuff. And his wish-list is a good example of what I mean. It's smart, simple, insightful and generally, right on.

Of course, though, I have a quibble. You can guess with which one.
5. Bloggers: Engage/enrage
This item will generate noise (and that’s the point): I wish bloggers would mix it up more. Does it take a Rachel Corrie fiasco to generate heat? The theater blogosphere has been dull, insular and quiet lately. We need more arguments, more dirt, more bloody knock-down-drag-out fights. Not just self-promotion, obscure manifestos and production diaries. And here’s hoping for a new breed of long-form critics worth reading.
No surprise that I have some thoughts on that one, huh?

First off, I agree with him. One of the reasons I haven't been so active out here lately is that...well, there hasn't been a lot going on, at least here in New York. There's been some serious talk about a couple of things, in particular, Emily Glass Sandberg and her study on sexism in theatre. And a lot of gushing about Les Ephemeres. Aaron at Mission Paradox is, as always, doing yeoman's work. But that's about it.

But I don't blame that on the bloggers. Not at all. It's a larger problem with our community. David is asking the bloggers to "engage and enrage" with a community that doesn't want to engage and certainly doesn't want to be enraged. We're on the outside and, in fact, as long as we seriously attempt to engage, in the blogosphere, or enrage or criticize, we're going to stay on the outside.

Part of what wore me out is the one-sided boxing match of the internet. When you set out to start a blog, you have something to say, something to share, and, let's be honest, something to gain. It's a platform for your thoughts and ideas, a bully pulpit and a microphone, a billboard on the highway. In this small, tight-knit community, let's say you're a writer, a playwright who's worked with a lot of people, built a certain kind of reputation, done a lot of administrative work, know some of the players, most of the game, and have opinions about it. So you want to start a blog. If you do it under your own name, you're hamstrung: it would hurt your career to criticize theatres you want to work at, hurt your friends' feelings, make you a pariah. So you stick to promoting your shows and doing production/development diaries. If you do it anonymously, well, then you're just some anonymous person, obviously sitting in your pajamas in your parents' basement (or your crappy studio apartment in Astoria or somewhere similarly far-flung from the Main Stem), who doesn't know what they're talking about and all of your ideas are dismissed as obscure manifestos or inchoate, long-winded rants. Either way, there's no real engagement, not with the folks that can actually change things.

You can engage with the other folks on the blogosphere and that's great. We band together, talk about the same things over and over. But is this where engagement happens? Or are we just a group of seven-year olds playing soccer, chasing the same ball down the field? It's hard to tell. But it gets draining, either way.

Not to call him out, but if you look at Time Out's blog, Upstaged, it isn't exactly a model of engaging enragement. It doesn't even really point out the engaging enraging going on. Engage us, out here, too. It's got to go both ways.

Like a lot of the information/entertainment fields right now, we're struggling against a lot of entrenchment and credentialism. Only certain people are invited to join the actual conversation or, even more important, the actual doing of things, contributing, and once you get your ticket punched, you're in and you're not coming back out. Talking to the people howling outside the gates is now beneath you, or at least possibly damaging to your credibility and credentials. So you don't.

I don't know. Sometimes it all feels like a fool's game. I write (wrote?) this blog to help make theatre in New York more interesting, more vibrant, more exciting. I chose anonymity in order to make my case more forcefully and honestly, especially since I feel a fundamental lack of honesty and openness and transparency is what's killing us. But, in the end, I found that the only thing people on the inside seemed to care about were flame wars and gossip spitting. And it's hard to shout so long into a vacuum. Especially about things you care about passionately. Sooner or later, you run out of passion.

So, David, I agree with you: I wish deeply for more engagement, more enragement, more questioning, more courage of our convictions. I just don't think it's the bloggers who aren't coming to the table.


George Hunka said...

I hate to rise to David's flame bait, but his comments about the blogosphere are, as you point out, 99seats, somewhat disingenuous. It's interesting that he'd like "more arguments, more dirt, more ... fights," but doesn't suggest what these arguments and fights may be about or what he expects to come of them. Or, really, why they'd do anything except generate quite a lot of heat and little light. I'm sorry that he finds us dull and obscure, but that may say more about him than about us, and fortunately none of us decided to begin and continue blogs for the ongoing amusement of David Cote.

Again, agreed that there's little of that engagement from Time Out's own crew, whose blog posts are rarely longer than Time Out's reviews (so much for the long-form critics he hopes for; others can turn to Jonathan Kalb's fine, where they'll find what David seems to be looking for, though David doesn't mention it) and often are composed of bluster and little else. (As well as inaccuracy; Helen Shaw's recent bizarre post wondering why there aren't more plays set in outer space says that Jay Scheib's Untitled Mars "transported us to the red planet," but the play itself was rather deliberately set in a simulation of Mars located in the Amercan desert -- an important distinction especially relevant to the themes of the play.) But I'm also sure that anybody looking for truly engaging criticism and essays about theatre will have to look elsewhere than the pages of Time Out New York.

Anonymous said...

"Only certain people are invited to join the actual conversation or, even more important, the actual doing of things, contributing, and once you get your ticket punched, you're in and you're not coming back out. Talking to the people howling outside the gates is now beneath you, or at least possibly damaging to your credibility and credentials."


By the way, I feel the way about your blog that you feel about Time Out and The Onion. I don't have the strength to blog about theater. I blog about bad hair and old sitcoms. It's easier.