Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Endless and Boring Bashing of the American Theatre

I'm going to say this and let all of you slam me as you always do.

Everyone who blogs, it seems, seems to have fingers capable of typing all kinds of pissy rants on the American theatre -- regional theatre, I mean -- and everything that is wrong with it. But with the exception of the Zach Mannheimers of the world, I don't see very many people getting off their computer chairs and doing all that much about it. You've got Mike Daisey penning his misty and elegiac boo-hoo, The Empty Spaces; Or, How Theater Failed America, lamenting a system that would allow a "fantastic actress, one of the best" in Seattle, "with an intelligence and precision that has taken my breath away for years," to give up on her career, the human waste of an industry that would let someone talented feel "the fire go out of her from the relentless grind of two full-time jobs: one during the day in her cubicle, the other at night on a stage." And then Daisey plays -- and not without a certain amount of strong justification and ammunition -- another round of America's favorite pastime: the blame game. Oh, it's Actor's Equity's fault; it's the fault of the cruelly overgrown weeds of the institutional-theatre system; it's the evil nexus of arts administrators and the "increasingly complex corporate infrastructure"; it's "the removal of the artists from the premises"; it's ticket prices (and the apparently innocuous unwillingness of theatres, already battered financially, to cut them); it's the fear that the "oldest, whitest, richest donors...will stop supporting the theater once the uncouth lower classes with less money and manner start coming through the door" as a result of cut ticket prices; it's that corporations "make shitty theater"; it's dyed-in-the-wool liberals see no irony in being part of a dysfunctional aesthetic and fiscal dynamic while proferring "another Bertolt Brecht play." Omitted from this list, I'm sure, are all kinds of things, but I'm busy making sure I have enough armor to join the latest class war. Good thing there aren't any lunch counters I can't sit at.

But what is Daisey doing about it? He's creating more and more one-person shows because he knows he can and does make a living -- however much of a living it is, and I'm quite certain it's not what he ought to be paid -- doing such shows. He even admits as much in his piece. So he despises the nonprofit business model (that has undoubtedly hired him to perform), he loathes the over-corporatization of the American stage (that he undoubtedly paid for many of said performances and their development), and he dismisses with a swat of his all-seeing, all-knowing, all-generalizing hand the efforts of thousands of people who I think frankly do terrific work in regional theatre more often than not -- and yet he still solicits and takes their bookings, doesn't he? Here's what I think: STOP PERFORMING IN NONPROFIT VENUES. Will he do that? Will he guarantee that he will never, ever perform in a nonprofit venue of any kind again? How about it? How about putting one's money where one's mouth is. And, at the same time, offer some concrete alternatives to the byzantine and corrupt system he rails against.

Oh, wait. That's right. He's performing a new piece. Yes, I know. And how nice of the nonprofit Public Theater to help him along. Doesn't anyone find some cognitive dissonance in this?

Meanwhile, we've got Marsha Norman writing a New York Times piece called Playwrights and the Theater, lauding the extraordinary August: Osage County as proof positive that the idea of the resident playwright is still viable -- indeed, must br viable -- for more plays of that caliber to be written. Here's the graph:

If we wanted to do one single thing to improve the theatrical climate in America, we’d assign one playwright to every theater that has a resident acting company. People wonder why so much great work came out of Actors Theatre of Louisville in the early days. I was there, so I know it was simply that you had everything you needed: actors who wanted to work, empty stages ready for plays and an artistic director who gave everybody a chance to do whatever they wanted as soon as they could think of it. Playwriting in America has suffered a devastating blow from the development process that keeps writers separate from the rest of the company, working on the same play for years. What playwrights want is what Steppenwolf has given Mr. Letts: a way to get a new play done, see what works, and then go on to the next one. “August: Osage County” is way more than a wonderful play. It is how we get back to having American plays on Broadway. We get them written for actors who want to do them, then producers get on board and start selling tickets.
Funny thing, this, because to make it happen, we would need to actually burnish, financially and aesthetically, the nonprofit business model for the regional theatre system in the US. Hard to do that when we're bitch-slapping people for being insufficiently leftist to revive Brecht.

And what drives me nuts is how the bloggers react: "Yeah, go for it, Mike Daisey!"; "Yeah, Marsha Norman's right"; on and on. You know what the problem is? There's no unified theory of anything in the theatre anymore. Everything seems predicated on rallying around who can be the most ballsy-sounding, who can be the most petulent, who can weave together words to bring forth the necessary tear, who can sound most revolutionary, who can seem most maverick, who can jockey for position with whom, who can be the biggest twit. (Include me, thank you.) There's just no unanimity anymore -- well, there never was, I guess -- but today it's all far worse. What does the blogosphere stand for? Seriously, what is being accomplished beyond a sort of collective vomiting of dissatisfaction without having to present solutions? Oh, overthrow the commercial theatre system and the nonprofit business model and replace it with...what, exactly? Plays that are written or directed by, oh, I don't know, the bloggers? THAT'S what it's about, folks. It's all about jealousy -- well, maybe not all about jealousy, but there's an element of it. It's "Why did Sarah Ruhl's play get produced while I'm still working in some crap-hole?"

You'll notice, by the way, how craftily Norman blames it all on the critics. Yeah, that's right, it's always the critic's fault. Bubonic plague, the deaths at Masada, the temptation of the snake -- all the critic's fault. No, no, it's never, ever because the script was weak or the direction unimaginative -- or because the director encountered a playwright who thought because they authored the play, knew absolutely everything about everything about the play absolutely, wouldn't engage. No, they wouldn't discuss, wouldn't consider, wouldn't ponder, wouldn't go off somewhere and think that perhaps they might learn something about their play they didn't even know. That perhaps they wouldn't genuinely explore whether the director -- or actor, or anyone else -- might not have a legitimate point about their precious, Antiques Roadshow-ready piece of priceless dramaturgical pottery. I came across this line in Norman's essay that made me nuts:

Once in the theater, playwrights have a much better sense than the critics or the general public of who did what in the production. Quite often, we’ll see a play the critics hated, and realize that the direction was actually the problem. Directors rarely get more than a sentence in reviews, but at least we’ll know what the deal was and can say something to the writer. Sometimes we’ll see a play the audience likes, but we don’t respond to. That’s usually fine with us. Critics, however, don’t seem to know the audience is even there, and rarely mention how it responded. This strikes us as odd, to say the least. In any case, we take it all in when we go. We can usually tell by chatting with the ushers whether or not a piece is going to have a long run. We read the Playbill to see if any of the actors were in plays of ours, and we always see people we know, and almost always have a good time, regardless of our dinner or our companions — another respect in which we differ from the regular audience.
You know what? Critics cannot fully appreciate the directors work because playwrights don't want them in the room. They put up those terrible and morally insupportable walls, and then they whine, "I'm misunderstood!" Mind you, I'm not suggesting critics should be in the process to voice public opinions or to inappropriately butt into their brilliance, but let us, at the same tme, not indulge in ahistoricism gussied up as a pity party: Critics in the first half of the 20th century were regularly and fearlessly welcomed into rehearsal rooms and readings because they were considered fully legitimate, constructive, essential, objective partners in the act of dramatic creation. What Norman's prattling on about is based on fear, on the "Don't touch my baby" theory of drama that makes directors, for example, sometimes want to leap off a roof.

Bottom line: what is Marsha Norman DOING to change things? To change anything? What?

I loved August. I just loved it. Like my colleagues, I gave it a ringing endorsement and I will gladly shout it from the rooftop of your choice (preferably not, though, the rooftop of the director feeling suicidal). However, there's a risk is suggesting we tie umbilical cords from resident acting companies to playwrights -- that somehow we will standardize the manner in which new plays are developed. Many playwrights prefer to write alone. Many prefer writing for specific actors in mind. Many prefer being surrounded by a multiplicity of voices. Yes, let's have more resident acting companies -- if we don't murder arts administrators, that is -- but let's not get seduced by the assumption that it's the only way to birth a play.

Or maybe we should ask Mike Daisey how to do it better.

Or maybe those who launch criticisms should get off their asses and do something about it. To be honest, that's why John Clancy has so much of my respect. (Speaking of the lack of a unified theory of theatre, you can read John's take-down of Steppenwolf here.) You can agree or disagree with his take on theatre, but he goddamn does something about it and doesn't give a shit what anyone thinks. That's a lot braver, in my view.

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Mike Daisey said...

I have refuted your points at my site, which you can find here:

John said...

Leonard, I think you should re-name your blog Scrappy Clyde. You are one scrapping motherfucker, my friend.

As I've said to you privately, I think your post is dead-on, but we have to begin to save our energy and passion to fight together to win back some lost ground and not spend as much time whacking each other around. And I know how tempting it is, we're like a bunch of beaten-down soldiers sitting in a bunker all day, so its easier to attack the guy sitting next to you than some common enemy lurking out there in the shadows. I'm guilty of it myself, god knows. But I try to have my little rants in front of Nancy and the cat and be done with it.

End of the day, Mike's on our side, right?

Scott Walters said...

Leonard -- Are you suggesting that we should all sit in a circle holding hands and singing a chorus of "Everything's all right, yeah, everything's fine" from Jesus Christ, Superstar? Things are fucked up, and no amount of rearranging the deck chairs is going to help it. This isn't about tinkering. It is about creating a new model. And that has to be conceived first, talked about, brainstormed. It isn't going to be done by going out and creating another theatre -- it must be fully conceived (like Harold Clurman conceived the Group Theatre -- through talk), then executed, and then written about so that others can follow the model themselves.

Leonard Jacobs said...

I don't recall saying that everything was all right, Scott. Leave it to you to go to extremes.

Scott Walters said...

Ah, yes -- leave it to me. Right. Extremes. I remember. Nice chatting!

Ben Turk said...

Scott, I agree that a new model is in order, but I also agree with Leonard that the key is DOING something, not just talking about the new model.

The new model needs to be built bottom up, through trial and error, by actors writers and directors, not bloggers, theorists or critics. (though I also agree with Leonard on getting away from the "critic's can't touch my baby mentality").

And Leonard, maybe I'm too new to the scene, but I'm not so cynical to see nothing but petulant whining and entitlement in Mike Daisy's article, the system is flawed. Sure there are tons of people who manage to do good work inspite of the broken system, but just imagine what they'll be able to do when we're done building the new model.

Anonymous said...

Good points you bring up here, Leonard - a lot of good food for thought. While Mike makes some valid points as well, I'm ultimately more of an "action, not words" man, much like yourself. Good on you for bringing this stuff up!