Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Ten Little Fixes

Over at the Stranger, Brendan Kiley has got "Ten Things Theatres Need to do Right Now to Save Itself." It's passionate, provocative, well-stated, and worth the read. And naturally, I have some fundamental disagreements. Let's take them in order.

Uhm...okay. Hold up for a minute. I understand what's driving this sentiment. Kiley uses the terms "enabler" and "crutch," so, yeah, I get it. The only thing worse in the theatrical marketplace than bad Shakespeare is mediocre Shakespeare - staged museum pieces, full of fealty, flush with that feeling of We Are Doing Something Important. The problem with deification, is that most worshipping is done on one's knees. But look: rather than go on and on about how Bill's plays contain multitudes and are the roots of realism and have made substantial contributions to the English language, let's focus on the fact that from a marketing standpoint, this is a New Coke idea. Like it or not, Shakespeare is an entree to the theatre for a lot of mainstream audience-goers, and the opportunity to take on those roles fuel the ambitions of the employees you want and need to hire. Beyond that, it's terribly important that theatrical practitioners keep Shakespeare from falling solely into the hands of the English Departments of the world. I'll spare you my lengthy harangue on this score for another time, but trust me: English majors DO NOT GET IT and they NEVER EVER EVER WILL. You turn Shakespeare over to them, for even a month, and it's coming back damaged. Besides, hearing my friend Heather Haney speak in iambic pentameter is one of the eight or nine hottest goddamn things in the world, so: no thank you!

That would be nice, of course. It's great to be known as a conduit for the best new voices in playwrighting. Theatres that hit their stride working that side of the street, and get an audience investment for their troubles are wielding fire. The only problem is that most plays written in the past twenty years are shit sandwiches. Life's too precious to spend an evening watching actors on stage, hatefucking Neil LaBute's brain. In American playwriting, we're not anywhere close to the remarkable, sustained output of 1935-1955. We're not even in the vicinity of the few worthy wheezes of the two-plus decades that followed. And we won't get back there without those good models of playwriting. Frankly, plays have gotten so small and so nauseatingly minute in their psychobabbliciousness, that we could all afford a trip back to the nineteenth century, where people at least figured that they needed to give audiences something huge for it to be worth their time. As it is, I can sit home and jerk myself off for free, thank you very much!

Now this I can get with. I think dark days are opportunity costs. I've also been radicalized by the late and missed Cherry Red Productions to believe that if it's possible to produce something crowd-pleasing in 24 hours time, why wouldn't you do so regularly? Not everything needs to have production-value jizz drenched all over it. Frankly, if you get people in the mindset that five nights out of seven, they can stop in at seven and see something fucked up that they aren't going to see somewhere else, you're probably on the road to making mad bank.

Yeah, I understand the need to plant those seeds, and keep a hold of that demographic. Gotta keep things fertile and vital. But it's important to have balance. That core audience you grew five years ago is five years older now. So are you. Together, you have packed on some world experiences. You're maybe even "adult" in your sensibilities. I think that there's actually not enough "adult" in the mix (and I mean both in terms of MATURITY and LIVE ANAL/ORAL PENETRATION).

YES. And teach those kids! For actual money. This isn't the best time to start those kinds of programs, with the down economy. But if the economy recovers enough for household incomes to intersect with the average parents' desires to get their motherfucking kids out of the house for a few hours so that they can get up to some LIVE ANAL/ORAL PENETRATION, with rubber toys and/or foodstuffs (not my bag, but to each their own!) and/or Heather Haney performing monologues in iambic pentameter, BE THERE TO CATCH THOSE KIDS. In the first place, you are breeding that audience called for in #4, and in the second place, who knows? You might actually be GOOD at teaching kids some theatre, and then you're building out your reputation.

This sort of goes without saying, and it's weird that the author captures this as something that theatrical practitioners are opting out of doing when in DC, at least, this is the battle. Stop supporting local pols who aren't serious about the arts, and lampoon them mercilessly, with scandalous intimations of improper ANAL/ORAL PENETRATION.

Yes. Indeed.

Kiley calls for "Boors night out" and crazy audience participation and the fomenting of bad behavior. I approve this message. I had a friend in school who worked at a theatre in Texas that staged wackadoo old-timey melodramas. Everyone on stage and off got wasted, and the actors overacted like their lives depended on it, and the audience bought bags of wadded up paper to throw at the stage whenever the fuck they wanted for $5/bag. And everytime the pulled the curtain on the scene the ASM's would sweep up the paper wads and rebag those fuckers and resell them to the same drunk idiots and that was the entire night and nobody wanted it to end. THERE IS NOT A BAD IDEA IN THERE. I for one, have always had this love/hate thing with the requirement that Helen Hayes puts on theatre companies for award qualification, namely, that they do sixteen performances. I would love to see a company tweak that by scheduling one of the sixteen performances as "Naked Stab For The Helen Hayes Nomination Night," where the company is encouraged to devour the scenery and act like complete jackasses for a night. I also have never seen a play at eight o'clock that wasn't worthy of a lampoon at midnight.

This is kind of a duh. But I imagine that's hard to take from somebody who makes money blogging.

This is the typical thinking of people who either didn't get into grad school or got into a bad one. Since neither case applies to me, I have a different perspective on the matter, and am not the sort to throw a blanket discouragement down on the idea. But look: the problem with many MFA programs is the rampant anti-intellectual strain that's allows students to earn degrees in a subject without actually understanding anything fundamental about it. This breeds too many people who enter the marketplace conditioned to follow orders and expect spoonfeeding, when what the marketplace badly needs are people with bona fide vision. If all you want to do is learn rudimentary Stanislavski from some hack, there's no need to go into debt to do so. You gotta shop around. You also have to acknowledge that if you go that route, chances are, you'll emerge with some debt. I lucked out on a partial scholarship, but my price tag was still pretty substantial.

If I had to do it all over again, I'd marshall forces for the day after graduation. One of the great shames of grad school is that you spent three years developing collegial relationships with other artists, and over time, you build skills, and a rapport, that could translate into something self-sustaining. But at the end of the journey, what happens is that your tight little theatrical producing team gets scattered to the four winds. UVa. did something with their program that I have to recognize now as innovative: they invited a group of actors, directors, and designers to their MFA program, and then didn't take a new class until that group graduated. What ended up happening is that the MFAs bonded tightly, and when they went into the world, many stuck together. From what I gather, the first two cycles left school and founded two professional theatre companies. Those grads were addressing their ambitions AND whatever debts they had by maintaining their strength and getting it to market. (Sadly, UVA switched from inviting directors to inviting playwrights, and the lack of those strong, central auteur figures have arrested these developments.)

Anyway, here's where I step back and let someone like Karl Miller improve on these two-thirds-baked opinions! I'm sure he'll say I'm still giving short shrift to the need for more ORAL/ANAL PENETRATION.


CultureFuture said...

A few responses:

2) Well, if you want to find new and upcoming playwrights who don't write plays that are "small and so nauseatingly minute in their psychobabbleness," you pretty much just have to look. I think the problem is that people are judging 'new playwrights' based on whether they present something that's NEVER BEEN SEEN BEFORE! Which often translates into something playwrights haven't done before because it's a bad idea. I don't like LaBute, and I don't like Sarah Kane, and sometimes I get really frustrated when I'm told that they somehow represent me. I'm 20, I'm still finding my artistic voice, and the only thing I know is that the plays I write aren't that. But suppose I were to write a play in a living room between a husband and a wife, a psychological drama. What theater would produce my play of that kind over, say, a play by Ibsen? I mean, I disagree with your original point as well--I think that throwing out all of the canon and other older plays would deprive the artist community of a good memory of what the theater community has provided in the past. And perhaps part of this is producing plays we haven't seen 200,000 times before. We've seen David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross. Have we seen his Edmond? Or his Faustus?

6) Yes. Artists should be ingrained into the physical fabric of the community. I went to this ridiculous club in Berlin that was inside of an old warehouse that had been bombed. The ground floor and the sixth floor were this wild club, jumping off the hook, people really having a good time. The fourth floor? Some British guy's studio, where he was creating great, gritty collages. Drunk people looking for a place to have sex and people who were just lost or looking for some quiet time kept stumbling in, and being taken aback by all of the beautiful and aggressive art he had made.

10) I agree with you here, that it's not so much Education? as What Kind Of Education? Way, way, way too much of the artistic education in general is education about industry, not education about art--where art is finding a voice, and learning how to present that voice effectively to strangers. My undergrad education has been absolutely fantastic, and I intend to found a theater company without going to grad school. Grad school is on my cards, later down (when I've figured out how to pay for the sucker), but probably /not/ in theater. Maybe music, because I'm discovering that it's increasingly hard for me to do what I want to on the stage without knowing music. Maybe business, because if we nonprofit theater folks are going to be trying to keep small businesses afloat, maybe we should learn something about that.

Ian Allen said...

Oh god, Jason, keep rockin' it. The LaBute comment just totally killed me. Keep the faith.

lemongirl said...

as an actor, i can honestly tell you that the only truly scary--as in, afraid for my safety--moments i've ever had onstage were all due directly to beer being sold at concessions. drunk people lose their inhibitions. this is not news. people who have lower inhibitions do things that they wouldn't normally do, like yell things at the actors, scary things, things they think are funny ("take it all off!") that are actually aggressive. they also get out of their seats while yelling these things. my drinking along with them wouldn't have made me feel any safer.

just a thought.

oh, and you couldn't pay me enough to let someone throw wadded up paper at me while i'm trying to remember lines, remember blocking, pay attention to my castmates, and not fall off the stage. i think you get EITHER art OR outrageous audience interaction. not that art has to be staid--but modern audiences don't have a vocabulary for interaction that extends beyond talking back to the movie screen. if we want to survive, maybe we have to go the outrageous interaction route--but let's not fool ourselves into thinking that an audience having a good time is somehow art. we've all seen enough bad theatre to know that cast+audience=/art.

the key--and it will be difficult--is to find works that intrigue the artists, engage the audience, and are financially feasible. sometimes's that's Shakespeare, sometime's it's not. but if we're just throwing tomatoes at the stage, all of those actors and directors and designers and producers who really care about the theatre, who HAVE committed to poverty because this is an important avenue of self-expression that they believe actually BETTERS the world around them--all of the Heather Haneys*--well... we'll all leave. let the schlock companies have it. but the result will be THEATAH: THE MUSICAL.

Allyson Harkey
Pinky Swear Productions
*i do not speak for Heather Haney

Thomas Wood said...

Heather Haney *is* awesome speaking in Iambic Pentameter!

Kevin said...

i think that the only way this "boors' night out" actually works is to create a play that utilizes it.

audiences today aren't going to enjoy throwing shit at a cast while they try to continue a show (and allyson nails the reason). but audiences COULD be encouraged to do this in a show where that's anticipated, and actors are free to adlib. but doing this during a tennessee williams play? really?

"Girls that aren't cut out for business careers usually wind up married to some nice man."


i'd bet six dollars that we see this at a fringe show next year.