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.)


Marissa Skudlarek said...

Is there a way to prevent the Steve Martin video from playing every time the page loads? I keep clicking on all the links you posted then returning to your blog, and every time the video starts up again automatically. Not that it isn't really funny, but...

And I also wanted to say that I have been wrestling with the issues you bring up in this post. I'm a young playwright, one year out of undergrad--and it will probably be at least two more years before I go to grad school, so I'm in "the real world" for the time being. By the way, I thought that grad schools themselves encouraged the "gap year" idea? The advice I always get is "grad schools won't accept you right out of undergrad, so it's virtually a necessity to wait a few years." Do you know of a spate of playwrights who've gone directly from undergrad to grad school?

As for what you say about the insularity of theater... God, yes, it frustrates me. Not just the plays about actors/writers/media personalities, but also the huge amount of plays that adapt or riff off of an existing work of theater, rather than creating original characters and situations. (I love "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern," don't get me wrong, but sometimes I wonder what it has wrought.) And I'm as guilty of this as anybody--my first three plays were a satire about TV, a play about aspiring writers, and a backstage drama. Then I realized I was falling into a rut and have sworn not to write any more plays about people who work in the arts, at least for the time being.

I'm torn between two conflicting impulses, I guess. Sometimes I think that I should be soaking up all there is to learn about my craft--reading plays nonstop, hanging out with other artists and talking shop with them every chance I get--at the risk of being able to talk ONLY about theater. And then other times I think I should scrap all that and focus on just trying to make theater that will get "normal" people of my generation excited about this artform again.

99 said...

Yeah, sorry about that video. That's what you get from bootleg things on the interwebs.

I feel that same torn impulse, the same dilemma, and I'm working on my second decade past grad school now. It feels like this life is so all-consuming that, when you step out to actually live, the space you filled is taken up and the whole thing zooms past you. You have to stay in immersed to stay connected at all, especially at the beginning. I get sick of talking shop, especially when it so quickly devolves into some form of gossip or another, but when you stop talking about that, it's hard to find anything else to discuss, since, if you're working on a show, that's all you've been doing. Maybe it's always been like this, but it feels more recent.

I guess what I feel from the people fresh out of undergrad maybe isn't so much the going right to grad school as it is everything during the "gap" years is about building the resume and the cred for grad school, or building strong enough connections that they'll be there after grad school as opposed to going out and finding a life of your own. I took about a year off between grad school and undergrad, but when I did, it wasn't really a given that I would go to grad school. Now, when I talk to younger artists, it does and what happens in between is just prep. I would rather people be sent out to do something completely other than theatre or writing for a year, do some other kind of work altogether to even be considered, rather than the somewhat standard intern-apprentice company-entry level theatre job path before grad school, you know? Really take a year to build up something to write about.

Cyril said...

Not sure I agree that the profession is dominated by the conservatory kids. There's nothing more boring to me than an actor, director who playwright who's learnt only theatre since age 18. It encourages stubbornness and insularity. The work rarely goes far. I was at Yale (after a gap) with historians, computer geeks and an ex pre-med student. Some of the most talent (and successful) artists I know.

joshcon80 said...

I went to a conservatory, albeit a very strange one. The focus was on making original works for the theater from the ground up, so in addition to traditional acting classes I took directing, playwriting, performance art, ensemble creation, theater history, clown, mask, dance, as well as two credits of English, Science, and History and two credits from another major (dance, art, music etc.) I went to school for 12 hours a day for 4 years in classes that rarely contained more than twelve students. It was one of the best experiences of my life and I would throw down with anybody who would try to discredit my conservatory. Because of it, I've been writing and producing theater since I was a teenager. I don't have an MFA, so I won't speak to that.

I totally agree with you about the insular theater problem and I think the comparison to the Amish is very apropos (and hilarious). One thing I would argue though is your use of the term "pop culture". It seems to me that you were trying to say that writing about the theater is writing about "pop culture". The problem with that is that the industry isn't popular, largely for the reasons we've been discussing. I hate plays about theater, but love, love, love plays about "pop culture". I'd say they're different.

99 said...

I certainly don't want to throw down with joshcon80 over his conservatory. That sounds like a bad idea. I'm not saying it's a bad education or a bad theatre education. But I do wonder what effect being involved in theatre, as a young artist, for that long, can have. Which is more my point. (Beside the "liberal arts" triumphalism, which is at least partly tongue in cheek.) I'm just wondering if, by spending so much time in theatre, we lose touch with what's going on out in the world and lose some of our ability to talk about it.

The pop culture point is a good one, and I probably wasn't as clear as I could have been. I think using and writing about pop culture is a great thing and not something that theatre does particularly well currently (in part because of the long lead time). I'm definitely intrigued by the work created by companies like Vampire Cowboys, who are translating and commenting on pop culture memes in theatre and challenging the boundaries of theatre. That's definitely all good.

What I meant was the inside baseball stuff, the plays about how Hollywood works, about the inner lives of artists, stories told from the point of view from artists. I honestly would even extend it to some of the meta-discussions about storytelling or identity or whatever. I feel like we're at a point where a lot of that's already been covered. Maybe we can push ourselves to reach out past writing what we know.

joshcon80 said...

Oh no! I didn't mean to seem like I was angry or picking a fight. I just really, really love the conservatory that I went to. To be fair, if I had gone to a University I would probably have a broader base of knowledge. As it stands though, I know a hell of a lot about producing theater.

I actually think we agree on all points. I hate plays about plays, as I like to call to them. I hate plays about playwrights, plays about actors, plays about movies, plays about agents, plays about the industry... I really think it helps separate the theater from a potential audience, which is to say EVERYBODY ELSE.

I thought Soul Samurai was one of the best shows of the year. If only more plays could be that engaging.

99 said...

Hear, hear. I didn't catch Soul Samurai, but I did see Fight Girl Battle World. Every time I see Qui and Robert's work, I think, "That's how it's done."

That closed loop stuff really does cut us off from our real audience and reinforces the notion of theatre as "circle-jerk wankfest." And no one wants to watch one of those. (Well, maybe not no one, but not a lot of people.) The more we can push ourselves out of the comfort zone and into the rest of life, the better, I think. And encouraging young artists to do that, to take that time and reach out to things beyond theatre is the way to that.

It also makes for better plays. There's always that.

Ian Thal said...

I didn't see this post until today, so I guess you really do like me just fine. That said, I think we are in greater agreement than you make us out to be.

The quote was:

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. But most of the poets who list these MFA credentials prominently in their bio create work that are at best mediocre, pedestrian, or superficial-- and I have seen much the same with some of the recent theatre written by owners of MFAs.

My point was that the BFA or MFA in writing had not yet come to represent the equivalent quality of work that one expects when presented with a BFA or MFA in acting, design-tech, or dance. In fact, I'm really not sure what it signifies.

I am definitely of the view that playwrights a poet needs to know at least as much about the world outside theatre as they need to know the theatre world in order to create compelling work.

Also keep in mind that conservatory training for actors, dancers, designers, and techies, includes acting, dancing, designing, and techwork. So this is on-the-job training, albeit in a sheltered workplace.