Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Definitely Not Tarhearted

Even if you don't know Josh Conkel or didn't get a chance to see MilkMilkLemonade, if this doesn't warm the cockles of your heart, bring a tear to your eye and fill you with something along the lines of real, actual hope, well, then, pal, you're a little dead inside and your heart might just be a craisin. You should have that looked at.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

That's What He Said...

...and I agree. More on the whole NEA flap, with more info and follow-up from Ian David Moss at Createquity. Less vitriol and spewing like some people who will go unnamed (cough, me, cough).

Things That Make Me Go Hmm...

Hmm...what are the possibilities? I left some thoughts in the comments. I'd read that article a couple of days ago and the first thing I thought about was the festival and how weird it must be there right about now.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


Really? Outrage? Because...why, exactly? I'm honestly not really being facetious here. So...an open submission policy isn't quite as open as advertised? This is news?

Way back when, when we were talking about our delusions, open submission policies came up as a big fat old lie theatres tell so they seem like they're looking for new voices. It's useful for funding and press. But it has no actual connection to reality. Example number one? Right here. Seriously, are we going to get our panties in a bunch over that now?

These get filed under Things We All Know. We all know that all of these summer festivals and conferences have open submission policies and we all know that the slots aren't really filled by the stuff that comes over the transom. Some are solicited, some are submitted by an agent, some are actually submitted, but by someone already connected. After all of this hullabaloo, are we really surprised to find that open submissions doesn't mean open submissions? What does anything mean, really?

Is the outrage about the submission fee? Yeah, okay. Maybe. But...then...don't submit. I'm not against submission fees as a rule, for most of the reasons Isaac outlines here. It's a relatively minor thing to me. And, honestly, I'm saving my outrage for other things these days.

Still Angry

I read about this today and felt a mix of feelings. In the interest of full disclosure, a company I worked with was involved with this project at an early stage, so I've met some of the folks involved and like them. I like the play (at least as I remember it; I didn't get to see the production) and wish them all the best. In fact, I think this is the kind of play that should be done more: smart, funny, about about something socially relevant and significant, yet without being overly preachy or didactic. Also home-grown for that company (which has the playwright as the A.D.- also good). So it's not about the play, the production, or anything like that. I don't begrudge them their success.

But it makes me think about this. And this.

I'm sure that there are lots and lots of legitimate reasons, lots of sensible reasons for the difference in the fortunes of the show, timing, all of that. But, honestly...it still makes me mad.

As I'm finding my way back into the world of theatre, with the new fall shows starting, I find that one thing isn't changing. I'm usually the only black person in the room. I'm used to it, granted, but it never stops shocking me. It never stops upsetting me. And what upsets me more even more is that there's no conversation happening about it. No articles discussing it, no other blog posts about it. Just like there was no discussion about why Ruined didn't transfer.

If you want to figure out why the audiences are leaving, why the circle keeps shrinking, look at this.

Sports and Wine

Thinking about the parallels between sports and theatre today, I started thinking about this whole issue (I hate to go back to the well, again, but this is worth something. Trust me.) and I came up with a name that has some relevance here:

A-Rod. Alex Rodriguez.

Come with me in the wayback machine, to the long-ago year of 2003. A-Rod was a Ranger and the highest paid player in the sport. For all of that cash, though, the Rangers blew. A-Rod's contract was tying up tons of their money and they were hurting. He wanted a ring to go with his piles of cash, so he tried to head to a contender, the Boston Red Sox. But going to the Red Sox would have meant a reduction in salary and the Players Union nixed it.

Now under the logic some have been throwing around, he should have allowed to do it. It was voluntary and it would have meant that all parties were better off. He could still be a player, the Rangers would be off the hook and the Red Sox would have the key piece to finally bring them a championship. All good...but then the lousy union rained on everyone's parade and said no.

Why would a union do such a thing? Why would a union deny a player an opportunity they wanted? Why would they block an owner from making the deal?

Because what a player does matters. Because how much someone is paid for their work matters. Is someone else going to get an A-Rod size contract again? Probably not. Will someone else be in that position again? Probably not. But down the line, someone will be in the position where an owner will ask them to take a paycut and the union has to be there for that. Even if the player agrees. Because what they do has worth and making a deal for less degrades the work everyone else does.

One of the things we lack in our industry is that sense of worth. The underlying belief is that this is something we love to do and we'll do it for free. Actors Equity exists to defend against that. My beef in all of this has been with Equity. The producers are trying to make money and, honestly, Lord love 'em for wanting to keep the show open. The actors face a hard decision: keep doing the same job they've been doing for less money or go without work. Equity was supposed to be there for them so this didn't happen. By all of the reports, Equity worked this deal out with the producers and without the knowledge of the cast. Whose side does it sound like they're on?

Art v. Commerce, Round Eleventy-One

So I've found a bit of time and I want to come back to this. Since I posted that, a couple of other folks have chimed in. And Ian David Moss at Createquity posted an extremely comprehensive look at this study (as well as a helpful summary - Thanks!), which touches on some of the things Chris Ashworth brought up in the comments here. Our old friend, Scott, has some cogent thoughts in the comments at Don's place. Good stuff all the way around. Obviously, I have thoughts about it.

First, though, definitely go and check out Ian David Moss' work summing up the salient points of this study. It overlaps with Richard Florida's work that Chris Ashworth mentioned. All good points. To give the super short version, for those who don't like to click links, it's all work that makes a good, strong, well-supported and rational case for the arts as economic engine and therefore something good and right and worthy of governmental and business support. It's largely deemed a necessary argument because, as Chris, Scott and many others have pointed out, the argument that the arts are a necessary good has failed, the argument that artists are worthy public servants has failed and another tact is needed. Since in our capitalist world, cash is king, why not make the argument that the arts make underperforming areas economically viable. (If I'm making a hash of the argument, please, please correct me. It's a lot of stuff to digest, even with a couple of weeks' layoff.)

First off, a warning: this will be a long post. Sorry. (Well, not really.) And it might just be rambling, discursive and quite possibly insane. So...you've been warned.

To begin with, whenever we have this conversation in theatre circles, the terms get messy. We use words like "art" and "artists" somehow interchangeably with "theatre" and "theatre artists." When we say that "art is necessary," are we talking about making art, enjoying art? Is a play the same kind of art as graffitti or a movie or a well-designed cereal box? Is it all one big pool of art? Will an economically depressed area be equally revived by an art gallery or a dance space or a theatre? What the hell are we nattering on about? I'm a theatre artist, so I can really only speak to that. In the spirit of that, I want to start off with three numbers.

$ 943.3 million.

$188 million.

$1.1 billion.

Those three number tell me that no matter how well-supported your argument that the arts are an economic engine is, no matter how much information you have at your fingertips, there are larger forces at work here. And some of these forces are in the hands of artists. But a lot of them aren't.

Again for those who don't like to click links, those three numbers are:

- the 2008 total revenues for the 43 shows on Broadway.

- the 2008 revenue for the New York Yankees.

- the amount of money New York City contributed to the building of the new Yankee Stadium.

If you want to argue that art is unnecessary, then you better be ready to argue that sports are even less necessary. And, yes, many, many people argued that it was a poor use of public funds to build a stadium. But that didn't stop it.

Now, let's do a thought experiment: imagine Mike Bloomberg announces tomorrow that he and the League of Broadway Producers have come together to honor the single, largest revenue generator for the city and will now build five new Broadway houses at $50 million a piece. Let's even say that they planned to build them in depressed neighborhoods as economic generators. Now...really. Stop laughing. And try to imagine the outcry, the reactions in the press.

Are you seeing it? John Lahr once said that the theatre's natural competition is sports. And I think there are a ton of very good parallels and differences to notice between the two, both in terms of internal structures and its place in the cultural landscape. The idea of spending billions of dollars of the public's money on a sports stadium is not a ludcrious, career-ending proposition. And, fundamentally, the two experiences are analogous: large groups of people gathered together to witness a live event. The city and state make money from taxes, local business gain patrons, all of the attendant income. Even roughly the same number of people on any given day: 43 theatres x 1,000 people in the audience (actually, that's probably low, but I don't want to do any more research) ~= 50,000 at a ball game. But that leaves out matinees, and the 8 show-a-week schedule. Not to mention: no away games.

I don't think this is all news to the city. Really? They haven't noticed a billion dollars flowing in and out of the city? Yeah, they don't need a study to show them that theatre can generate some bucks. But...it's still not a priority, is it?

The economic argument falls short. It just does. Because it's not really about the money. It's also about the culture.

Sports win out because, despite the number of people who don't like it, who can't afford to go to the stadium, despite the overpaid players and despicable owners, it's still perceived as a thing of joy and beauty for the whole city. Theatre can't shake its rep of being just for the moneyed elites. A sports team is part of the fabric of a city, the spirit of a town. Theatre is a luxury. It's controversial, a political hot potato, and nothing anyone wants to get caught dead supporting, unless it's something that's going to turn a quick profit, or get them in bed with a comely chorine.

This is the bedrock truth of the thing. This country is, especially at present, incredibly hostile to the arts as a whole, in principle. My argument about making theatre necessary is about trying to change that. That's where we start. The economic argument will always be unpersuasive. We have to dig deeper than that.

This is at the root of all of our problems in the theatre. We don't rate enough for real government support. We're a public good incredibly underfunded by the government. We don't have the resources to provide our artists with a living wage or to make ticket prices low enough to reach a wider audience. Now we're caught in a death sprial of dependence on a consistently shrinking portion of the community. That dependence leads to more separation and less support from the majority of the audience. And here we are.

That's why I support less non-profit and more for-profit ventures. More theatres eating what they kill, so to speak. More independence from donors and less need for government money, actually. Theatre can be expensive and needs full funding to provide the artists with a living wage. Because our society de-values what we do, we wind up de-valuing it. (I'll have some more on that shortly.)

Value isn't actually measured in money. If it was, Broadway would have more value than the Yankees. But it doesn't. We have to build our value to the city, to the country.

In my mind, I have two visions for an ideal world of theatre. In one, it's a world of maybe less actual artists, but more companies, more local work, more connection between the artists and the communities, more companies supporting themselves financially and needing less and less from foundations and government organizations (at least on the state or federal level). In another, it's a world more like ours, but with more theatres, more government and state funding, lots of large institutions doing a wide variety of work for incredibly cheap and for the enjoyment of all. The hope is that one of these is on the way to the other. I think the former is more where we're heading. I think that's a good thing.

I just think we have to be clear-eyed about the world we're in.

Once More, With Vitriol

So this little thing has busted out wide. The usual poo flingers are flinging the usual poo. I considered just re-posting my previous thoughts, because they're still operative, but then I saw this post from The Mirror Up To Nature and I thought it was worth some new observations. Mostly because I took his advice and listened to the whole thing (well, almost the whole thing...but more on why I stopped later).

You should absolutely go and listen. Seriously. Go ahead. Go now. It's late, but I can wait. But I do ask that you go and listen to the call itself and not the scary, scary excerpts posted on Big Hollywood. Listen to it all, in context. Go on now.

Did you listen to it? Did you make it all the way through? I got through the "sca-aary" parts and then I kind of lost interest. Because it's all pretty boring. It really, really is. It's a lot of safe, fuzzy, very liberal chit-chat full of buzzwords and mutual appreciation and rah-rah-rah stuff. And, yes, the artists are encouraged to do public service and, yes, they are encouraged to go out and support the President's initiatives. Yep, indeed. All very true. And all pretty anodyne and relatively harmless. Seriously.

This is beyond tempest in a teapot. Mostly because it wasn't really a random assortment of artists, gathered together by the NEA to discuss new funding initiatives. Let's just start there. To hear the conservatives and certain other folks tell it, this call was a search for a new Leni Reifenstahl, with the NEA providing the funding muscle to tempt those weak-willed (and, let's face it, already degenerate) artists into creating loving, hagiographic tributes to Dear Leader and his socialist designs on the country. None of that is true. At all. To begin with, the main sponsor of the call is United We Serve, the federal service initiative. Buffy Wicks and Yosi Sargent were very clearly guests on the call, joining in briefly to talk to artists they clearly knew (though there were obviously people they didn't know on the call) and to talk up serving. The main thrust of the call was about service, getting artists excited about doing service for their community. And, yeah, since apparently many of the artists had been involved in the campaign, there was clearly an assumption that the people on the call shared the same priorities and want to help the administration acheive its ends.

That was dumb. Absolutely. And probably improper. And like some, I think clarifying the rules for this kind of thing would be a good thing. It is interesting that the two folks most recently targeted by the right's monkey squad have backgrounds in community organizing. It's funny; during the call, Buffy Wicks makes the point that governing is different than campaigning or community organizing and they're all still figuring it out. A lesson was definitely learned.

But anyone who is beating the drum that this was troubling or dangerous or a slippery slope to government-sponsored art is just plain wrong. I'm sorry. Depsite my anger about this and my usual flamethrowing 'tude, I do hate to just flat-out call people out. But this call wasn't anything like that. After listening to it, I really feel that. It was a call for artists to get engaged in community service and in speaking to their communities. That is all. Really.

As I said before, this enrages me because the people raising this stink have a very clear political end in mind and are just making a huge mess in order to acheive it. They hate the NEA and they want to gut it. Art and Leonard do have it right: this is a fishing expedition. And we all know where those wind up. They are not to be trusted.

Laws weren't broken, no one was pressured, nothing was promised or implied. At worst, the people on the call would feel like they had a friend in the White House. That's about it. One of the things that chafes my ass about it is the brazen, shameless hypocrisy. I'm not going to pretend like I wasn't upset about the Bush initiatives and I don't mind the idea that conservatives are upset about Obama initiatives. But I do mind that they don't fight fair and I do mind that when liberals were making these claims, they were treated like wild-eyed radicals and now accusations with even less basis in reality are treated like sensible comments.

But again, I have to say: there is nothing wrong with encouraging artists to connect to their communities. That's what we should be doing. That should be the point. If those communities are conservative and those artists are conservative, they're as deserving of support. If the NEA were to somehow be funnelling money away from artists who disagreed with their political stances, that would be bad and I would definitely be out in the streets arguing about. But this ain't that. It just isn't.

Let's talk about actual corruption. Or this. Or this. Or...well, just about anything else. Seriously.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Don't Mean To Leave You Hanging

There is very good, thought-provoking stuff in the comments here and I've been stewing on them for the last couple of days, but haven't had time to put together a cogent post about it, due to being caught in DayJobLand. But I will get back to you, Chris, et al. Just gimme a couple of days...

Nice Work If You Can Get It

Shorter Actors Equity:

Hey, actors! Fuck you! You're hard up, so, you know, suck it.


Shorter’ concept created by Daniel Davies and perfected by Elton Beard. We are aware of all Internet traditions.™

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Even Shorter David Mamet

A Jewish Guy and A Black Guy Walk Into A Bar...

Shorter David Mamet:

Why are all you black guys so angry all the time? After all us white guys have done for you, and maybe some Japanese guys this one time, all these years? You're just like a nagging, bitchy wife. And you know how us guys feel about nagging wives. (This guy knows what I'm talking about.) Why can't you just face the truth that you're not as good as us? It's okay.

Oh, and all good plays are just like my plays: a bunch of liars playing word games with each other. Have you seen Heist? Best. Movie. Ever.

‘Shorter’ concept created by Daniel Davies and perfected by Elton Beard. We are aware of all Internet traditions.™


Chris Ashworth and I have gone a few rounds in the past, and he's responded to this post with this. I know this is a bit of a well-trod subject, but it's always worth talking about, I think. Because it gets at the heart of a lot of what's going on here.

To quote his closing:
A necessary act is an inevitable one. You will eat today because you must eat today. You will sleep tonight because you must sleep tonight. Necessary means inescapable, and inescapable means the universe is imposing itself on you.

But art! Oh, but precious, unnecessary art! It is escapable, and that is was makes it so special. If you sing today, it is not because you had to sing. If you dance today, you did not have to dance. You have the power to impose on the universe. You may do the unnecessary.
Needless to say, but it's always worth saying anyway, I disagree with his argument pretty passionately. And, yes, I'm an artist and trying to make a living and all of that, so it's not a purely philosophical point for me. My career depends on me convincing people that producing my plays is a necessary act (and a profitable one) and my eating generally depends on my career (okay, yeah, I have a day job for that, but in some perfect world, right?). So I acknowledge that.

Still...I believe passionately that art is a necessary thing for humanity. Not a nice thing to have, not a luxury, not a fringe benefit, but something hard-wired into our brains, bodies and souls (if you believe in such things). It may very well be the thing that actually makes us human (though, in my deepest, darkest, hippiest heart, I also believe there are some pretty amazing artists in the animal world. We just don't have the vocabulary to appreciate their work). This is not a thing of comfort. Art has existed pretty much as long as humanity has existed. That's not something that's unnecessary.

We sing to express things beyond words. We write to communicate what we feel. And when these things are cut off, we fall apart, die, become miserable. Free expression, often in the form of arts, is the first thing a repressive government controls. There's a reason for that. I think we have to honor that history, that place. And even the place the arts hold in American life. It's a weird, odd, not entirely healthy relationship, but they do hold a significant place in American cultural history. At this point, culture is our number one export. We may not like to place the works of Michael Bay or Brittany Spears in the realm of art, but, really, they are. We are, all of us, bathed in the arts from the time we're born. Through song, words, colors, art shapes and fills our lives. I don't think that can really be argued.

Now. Do I think that we, as a community of artists, make this argument well? No. As Chris has noted elsewhere, we too often argue that artists are essential, not art. That's a poor focus problem, a language problem. It's part of the creeping credentialism that is taking over our community. The art, the work should be primary. I do believe that the artist should take a backseat to the work, and that artists need to get out of their (our) cocoons and shells and stop talking to other artists so much. The work will be better for it.

I also don't like the argument that "arts have other benefits." I mean, they do. But the purpose of a Mozart symphony isn't to make you smarter. The purpose of a Shakespeare play isn't to teach you new vocabulary. Their purposes are to make you better people. To put you in someone else's shoes. To show you how someone else sees the world. If there's anything I believe more than anything in this world, it's that the arts are necessary to make people better.

That's where I believe that public funding is so key. Because, in the end, we do provide a service. We provide a service on the same level as libraries. And like the libraries, we should be free for all, open to all. The only way that happens is through public funding. What we have now, in some ways similar to our healthcare system, is kind of the worst of all possible worlds. We have just enough public funding that we have to answer to the politics of a given situation, but not enough to provide comfort. So we have to supplement it with private funding (including foundation support) and that comes with its own set of strings and restrictions. But none of that support, either governmental or private, is enough to keep ticket prices low enough that all can participate. So, in general, only the wealthiest get to enjoy the art, and that, in turn, affects the artists and we wind up with the closed system we have. I believe this is a crisis and it's hidden by the fact that, in terms of dramatic art, there is so much available, few people feel the lack. They can turn on their tv and get their dramatic art jones fulfilled. But there is a difference between live performance and CSI. They do still need us. We just have to make ourselves available to them.

Once we start down the road of "the arts are nice, but unnecessary," we wind up in a place where artists are paid shit, don't have healthcare, job security, the arts are a luxury for the rich and the elites and the people go without and don't miss it. Wait. That sounds pretty familiar. We're all a little unlucky to be living in a Calvinist, puritanical country that has, written into its DNA, a distrust of the artists. And we're even more unlucky that all of that has been exploited by a segment of the cultural elites to increase their stature and personal power (cough, Jesse Helms, cough, Rupert Murdoch, cough). But this is the hand we've been dealt. As has been said many times, don't mourn, organize. Which was my whole point of this, to begin with: theatre artists should be champing at the bit to be dealing with the issues of the day. We should be rushing out to join the frontlines of the fight, no matter what side we're on. And it shouldn't be a matter of "put down the art and organize" but of using our art TO organize, advocate and debate. Theatres should have been planning festivals of plays about healthcare, the way they did about the Iraq War. They should be commissioning plays about the economy. Why let this moment pass us by? For fear of offending our funders? Then we shouldn't complain that it's okay to think we're unnecessary.

Art is necessary. Artists have to make that argument and stand up for that belief. Otherwise, we're chucking ourselves on the dustbin of history.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

We Can Write Letters, Too.

You know, sometimes we do forget that. Isaac is right. If you're as pissed as as I still am about this, you can do more than stew, write angry posts, or rage against the machine. We can write letters, or even better, e-mails. I just sent one. You should, too.

UPDATE: Make sure to check the comments here for more thoughts on the best way to have your voice heard. And it should be heard.

Way to Go. No, really. Nice going.

I heard about this yesterday. It pissed me off. A lot.

I remember, way back when, the theatre blogging community was all a-buzz about having an "Arts Czar," a cabinet-level person with the ear of the administration to advocate for the arts as an essential part of the American landscape. And then this happened. And quite a few people in the arts community jumped on the Glenn Beck, "Obama is a-takin' over our lives" bandwagon. I'm not linking to any of them and, honestly, I'm not going to link to any of them again. I know I'm strident sometimes and say ill-advised things often even, while I'm not Don Hall, I can't let this one go. Anyone who got their panties in a bunch about this phone call, without being on it or getting another perspective or opinion, well, you're a useful idiot. I hope you feel good about yourself, because you hurt the field. Good job.

I don't even think of this as hyperbole. The consevative wing of this country and the GOP have made it their life's work to minimize the role of arts in public life. They have spent twenty-five years teeing off on the NEA, gutting it, in an effort to, as Grover Norquist says, make it small enough to drown in a bathtub. They do not have the best interests of artists in mind. Not to mention the fact that, if you read something about govermental overreach by the Obama Administration, double-check those facts. And then triple-check them. You're dealing with a bunch of liars. So there's that, to begin with.

And, as I said here, you're just reinforcing this notion that art shouldn't address real-world issues, shouldn't be involved in advocacy or the public sphere. Which just makes us all the more useless. Again, as I've already said, I'm against the notion of government-sponsored propaganda, but that wasn't what anyone was talking about here, except lunatics. You wanna listen to lunatics?

My third and final outrage is that we bitch and bitch about the commercialism of theatre, about how hard it is to make a living with your art and, if you do, that means serving some corporate master who is going to keep you from writing what you want. Well, the way out of that system? More governmental support. That's how they do it in Britain, and we all want to be more British. We all envy other countries and their vibrant arts communities. Well, they acheive it by having more governmental support, not less. If we're going to do things that make the arts less indispensible or central, then we're going to be thrust into the arms of rich people. We don't have it both ways. Someone is calling the shots and naming the tune. Personally, I think government support, in general, is more likely to be neutral. But that's me.

Which brings me to my third point. We're not all a bunch of dirty hippies out here in the arts world. I know that. There are conservatives, libertarians, LaRouchites in the arts world. So, maybe, your political philosophy is that the government shouldn't be involved in the arts. Maybe when you read this story, or when you were reading Big Hollywood (which I'm also not going to link to again), like you do, because you agree with it, you saw this story. But if that's the case, tell us about it. The thing I hate the most about the conservatives in the arts is their cowardice. I know it seems like you're outnumbered and that's a sucky place to be. Ask any liberal how it feels to be different. But stand up for your fucking selves and speak up. I make no bones about about a dyed-in-the-wool liberal and I know it shows up in my work. I'm okay with that. It drives me crazy that the conservatives in our community hide what they think and believe, hide behind a facade. If you think that government involvement in the arts is bad, then say so. Upfront.

Okay. Rant over. For a more even-handed version, plus someone who was actually on one of the calls, read this.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Grad School in A Blog Post

Yeah, this pretty much sums up everything I've learned since grad school. This should be a required text.

Via. (Surprise, surprise.)

The Big Give

Because sometimes, well, you just need a little giggle.

Submitted without further comment.


Friday, September 4, 2009

Closed Circuits

So, as I mentioned here, I've been stewing on some thoughts, partly stirred by Ian Thal's comments to this post that came along at just the right time. Ian wrote:
There's a real need for arts conservatories to train students in technique and history of various forms, and this certainly has great values when it comes to painters, illustrators, filmmakers, dancers, actors, and techies-- artists who need practical training.
I found this funny because I'd just been talking to a friend about my undergraduate college. I went to a school in a large state college system that was widely recognized as the "second-best" arts school in the system. The top school in the system, our dreaded rival, was spoken of in sneering tones by my friends and classmates. You see, they were a conservatory and we were a regular liberal arts college with a BFA track. Our students, we told ourselves, learned more than just our craft, more about life, more about the art (since we were required to take other classes in the theatre department to fulfill our major). We would be well-rounded artists and individuals with our general education classes in modern history and college math requirements. Those poor schmucks from the conservatory would be ham-strung by having only taken classes in their field, all day, every day for four years. Suckers.

But, of course, out in the real world, the kids coming out of the conservatory far outpaced us liberal arts kids. That's the nature of this field. But in the long run...who knows.

I disagree with Ian about one thing, though. Theatre-making, whether as a playwright, actor, director or designer, is a practical field. You learn most by doing, in a professional setting, over and over again. It's all muscle memory and learning in three dimensions, even the writing. Practice definitely makes perfect. But most of us spend a long time in classroom settings. I think it might be stunting our growth.

As I mentioned here, this is one of the highlighted shows from this year's NY Fringe Festival. In the interest of full disclosure, I haven't seen it, I don't know anyone involved in it, I'm not talking about the quality of the show, just the subject matter. Then there's this, one of the hits from the Midtown International Theatre Festival, this, this, this and the Mamet play here. I know it's not a scientific study or a particular wide sampling, just what I could call back. And maybe it's not any more or less than any other season, maybe I'm just feeling sensitive to it all as I sit in a day job all day. I don't know. But I feel like more and more young writers are starting at plays about pop culture or theatre, more inside baseball stuff, and less things about the "real" world, the world outside the conservatory. And I think the prevalence of training is feeding into it.

For many playwrights, the journey of being a playwright starts in college, takes them to grad school and out in the professional world, with only, in many cases, a glancing brush with people outside of theatre. Yes, there are families, partners, lovers, roommates, day jobs and whatnot out there. It's all true. And Bekah Brunstetter's play is a welcome break from this trend.

I've talked about a theatre I worked at as both a banana republic and Vietnam, in the same post even, but there's another metaphor, too: the Amish. Insular, slightly backwards and odd, incestuous. That's what I fear the whole field is becoming. We spend so much time with each other that we're all we can talk about.

If there's one thing that I would like it would be a moratorium on plays about the entertainment industry, writers, actors, movie making, the evils of Hollywood or whatever. If there's two, a required two year gap between undergrad and grad school. Go out, learn some things, experience some stuff, then start to write. And, if there's three things, it would be a better, more functional playwriting apprentice system. And if there's four things, well, I'll let Steve Martin take it from here.

(Sorry about that embedded video. This one isn't the real thing, but the audio is good.)

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Not-So-Invisible Hand...of the Government

Starting here, a few folks have been looking at this article about a conference call co-hosted by the NEA and United We Serve, a nationwide service initiative sponsored by the Obama Administration. As you can see, a lot of folks (and some others, too) have chimed in, so I'm a bit late to the party, but I had a couple of cents I wanted to chuck into the pile.

First off, I mainly agree with Isaac (little surprise there). When reading these kinds of things, you have to consider the source and Big Hollywood is what we would call in the literary trade an unreliable narrator. They have an agenda and push it pretty vigorously and these charges are pretty well in-line with this kind of thing.

Like most commenters on this, I agree that if the government was muscling artists who didn't agree with them into producing works of propaganda, that's bad. Yesirree, Bob. Whether done by a Republican or Democrat, it's something we should be absolutely leery of and on guard for. I make no bones about being a huge, old leftie, raised on communist sympathies and socialist leaning thought, and still, it gives me pause. Reading that a second person felt creeped out by it definitely makes it something to keep track of.

I definitely think it shows the Administration giving in to a fairly commonplace assumption: artists are left-leaning. It sounds, from the descriptions, like the folks on the call assumed that they were talking to fellow travelers who wanted to help the Administration achieve its goals. A fairly natural assumption, since it does seem like they intended to reach out to artists who had been involved in the campaign. It's a pretty short leap to think that if you helped elect a president, you agree with his goals. But, apparently, some on the call didn't. Better management there, better messaging, Obama folks.

One other point on the politics of it: as Leonard Jacobs notes, the right is generally fairly hostile to the NEA in general. The ultimate end of this kind of attack is to de-legitimize the NEA, question its management and existence. I'm all for watchdogging, but again, remember the source. There are policy goals here, cloaked in high-minded concern. (There's a term for that.)

But what I find interesting about it, from more purely an arts standpoint, is the high dudgeon outrage of it. The most telling line from Courrielche's original piece, for me, is this:
It sounded, how should I phrase it…unusual, that the NEA would invite the art community to a meeting to discuss issues currently under vehement national debate. I decided to call in, and what I heard concerned me.
Emphasis mine. And then this:
So I’d like to start a little debate and ask you, the reader, the same question. Do you think it is the place of the NEA to encourage the art community to address issues currently under legislative consideration?
In a word, yes. To be completely honest, it should absolutely be the place of the NEA to encourage artists to engage in the political dialogue, as artists. One of the things that I hurts artists is our reticence to get involved in politics or policy, as artists, through our art, generally for fear of offending some portion of the paying public. But then we often turn around and complain about how theatre is no longer a part of the conversation.

Let's say the doomsayers are right about the NEA, and, in an Orwellian maneuver, the Obama Administration offers up grants to any artist willing to take on a project about health care reform. Would that make it, automatically, an unworthy subject to be written about? Even, absolute worst comes to worst, in order to qualify for the grant, you HAVE to write or create something supporting the Administration's point-of-view. Again, this is a major issue facing the country, something people are engaged in, sometimes to the point of actual violence. This isn't something you want to weigh in on? Write about? Maybe you don't. So you don't apply for that grant. You forgo your NEA funding...just like I've done my whole career.

But let's take a less than worst case scenario: the NEA is simply giving grants for politically involved, or socially involved work. It doesn't matter the point of view, or the end-product. You can write a play about what an evil, Kenyan-born, communist the President is and get a grant. Again, why wouldn't an artist want to?

There's a foundation with very deep pockets that's probably familiar to most of you reading this blog. They give away a lot of money to a number of theatres and theatre organizations around the country to create plays about science. I was involved with one such theatre for a time. When it came to get submissions, though, we always ran into trouble, because, ultimately, the number of playwrights interested in science is actually smaller than you might think, no matter how small you think it is. I always thought it was a shame. A lot of playwrights seemed to fear that the foundation, with its deep pockets, would disfavor things that put science in a bad light. Which wasn't exactly true. They wanted honest, real and intriguing portrayals of science, and real engagement in the issues of that world. That seemed, well, frankly beyond most playwrights. Getting out of our world, in our art, seems incredibly hard and it seems like it's getting harder. (I'm brewing another post on this, soon to come.)

I admire in a way, the sentiments expressed by Isaac and Jason Grote here, but I think there's a missed opportunity, too. One of the things that the dastardly NEA folks highlighted in their call was the power of art to affect the community around it and the world at large. It's something that we, as artists, love to tout, but not to really engage with. I guess I'm saying, writing a play about healthcare issues, or green issues can be an effective thing and we shouldn't have to choose to either make real world changes or play make-believe in a play.

One of the ways that long-form improv and sketch comedy is lapping more traditional forms of theatre is in the speed of the reaction time. This is the most recent show from the Second Stage in Chicago. This is one of the plays highlighted in the Fringe Encore series. Which seems like it's going to be more relevant to what's going on outside the theatre? If we're going to insist on "art for arts' sake," then we're going to concede large swaths of the public discourse to other mediums and forms.

Yeah, it probably shouldn't come in the form of a conference call with a government official, but the call for engagement should be heard, anyway.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Torturing Bastards

Yeah, so this whole thing happened and then Thomas Garvey wrote this whole thing. And, well, I guess I'm not one to shy away from a relatively dumb fight/disagreement/what-have-you. Because I'm a sucker. But I did just see Inglourious Basterds and have a number of thoughts. (I will try to avoid spoilers, but they might slip in there, so, you know, beware. You have been warned.)

So, for those averse to clicking on links, the whole crux of the discussion is this: Thomas has asserted that, among other things, Quentin Tarantino's work paved the way for the Dick Cheney and the torture committed by US soldiers and intelligence officers. I (and others) disagree. The connection between Tarantino's work, in particular Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction (as the two that feature the most graphic and brutal scenes of torture), and the actions of our government nearly a decade later feels pretty tenuous to me. Certainly Tarantino has often depicted torture and used in sensational ways, in addition to misogyny and other sensational and distasteful elements. But to make a clean, direct line from Tarantino to Cheney...? Eh, I just don't buy it. And Thomas' various arguments haven't been particularly persuasive.

So now, he posts on it, and seems pretty triumphant about it, because he found a right-winger who liked Inglourious Basterds at Andrew Breitbart's fever swamp of stupidity, Big Hollywood. I would say a little bit more about Big Hollywood, but Isaac beat me to the punch. It's a step above quoting WorldNetDaily to prove that Obama is a Kenyan-born socialist racist bent on devouring our precious bodily fluids.

But what's really wrong about this argument is that we're talking about Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino's most recent film, made after Abu Ghirab and the black sites and the discussion of "enhanced interrogation." Now that I've seen it, yep, it's sadistic, graphic and vicious. I do agree that Tarantino does love filming violence. He films it the way other filmmakers film sex. But...the movie is very much about torture, about the violent things done in war, and about revenge. It's a meditation on the destructive nature of revenge. I think that is honestly where it stumbles. He makes a point of drawing an equivalence between the (mostly) Jewish US soldiers and the Nazis. Both commit acts of torture, both use torture to get information in very similar ways. The climax of the film (not really a spoiler, since it's been talked about in many places) features a packed theatre of Nazi bigwigs laughing at the slaughter of American soldiers, followed immediately by a bunch of US soldiers slaughtering said Nazis in a manner that we are clearly meant to cheer. I think there's a serious false equivalency going there.

If you're going to say that Inglourious Basterds is a "brief for the kind of abuses that Cheney and the CIA got away with," you can't ignore the conclusion it comes to: the heroes aren't much better than the Nazis; we just like them better. That isn't the point that I think Cheney or the right-wingers who are busily trying to explain that torture isn't torture want to make.

Sorry, Thomas, finding one person, who's not a film critic or film expert, but a politician writing with a clear political bent doesn't actually make the case you're trying to make. I'm taking it that, after combing through Tarantino's own writings and works, he couldn't find any evidence of a conservative bent. So he found someone who already had that bent and imposed it on the movie. By that logic, the Clash and the Who are right-wingers. But also, to make the argument that a movie that came out in 2009 is somehow responsible for actions taken 6 years ago is just plain nonsensical. And to make his original argument, that QT's earlier work is what paved the way, you need to explain how his long gap in filmmaking during the key years leading up to the recent events factors into it.

(And, really? You congratulate this guy for catching the subtle, subtle subtext of this movie? Yeah, it's pretty apparent, pretty obvious and feels pretty much intended, right from the start. I fact, as you can see, from the quote here, it IS intentional, and it isn't just a jingoistic American portrayal.)

To be honest, I think you might have an actual point somewhere in there. I was talking to my friend after the show and he also made the point that, after movies like Inglourious Basterds, the torture we hear about in the real world seems pretty tame. It does help inure the populace, but the bigger problem is when the people who make policy seem to have trouble telling the difference between the movies and reality.

In the movies, in most, if not all movies, torture is 100% effective (Inglourious Basterds is no exception) and only done to extract information. It can be resisted by a superior will or the willingness to die before divulging that information. People who torture are either sadists doing it for the pleasure or good people facing a ticking timebomb (i.e. Harrison Ford in Patriot Games). None of this is how it works in the real world. (For a better depiction of the way torture is actually used in the real world, check out this article and the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode it mentions.) That our leaders were so deluded and, frankly, criminal, that they either didn't know that or didn't care is a bigger problem than one director and his five feature films.

To keep this at least slightly related to the world of the arts, Thomas has avoided my main issue with this whole discussion: so, okay, you think that Quentin Tarantino's films led to torture. Do you think that was his intention? Or do you think that was an unintended consequence? If QT is indeed a big old conservative on the inside, does that invalidate his art? I have issues with many of his films, even though I like most of them quite a lot, but they are, unquestionably, art. Even Inglourious Basterds. It's not a superficial, one-sided, rah rah rah, kill them Nazis movie (though, in some ways, that's kind of what it's missing). It's a pretty serious mediation on the price of vengenance, the cruelty of war, what it turns people into, and what kind of people we ask to fight our wars for us. The Basterds take as much pleasure in the vicious killings they commit as the Nazis do (in fact, one of the few characters who shows some sense of remorse for the murders he's committed for his country is a Nazi war hero...but then he turns out to be kind of a rapist). We are meant to cheer them on, but we're also meant to ask ourselves "What are we cheering for?" as they shoot civilians in the back.

For me, the overlap point of an artist's politics or personal beliefs and what I make of their films is a sticky one. If I reject the work of someone whose politics I disagree with, then can I condemn someone else for rejecting another artist for politics I agree with? Does it really matter? I have a long-standing disrespect for Elia Kazan, due to his actions and politics during the blacklist era (seriously, I mock-spit on the ground every time I saw his name and mutter "rat-fink" under my breath...because he was). It has in some ways kept me away from On The Waterfront. I can probably make the argument that On The Waterfront was responsible for the Vietnam War, because it advanced the idea that Communism was dangerous and should be resisted at all costs. Does that make it less of a work of art? I'm not asking this facetiously. I don't know. It's a legitimate question and discussion. Let's talk about that. Then we don't have to worry about spoilers so much.