Friday, December 7, 2012

The End of Theatre

A combination of illness and end-of-semester crunch means that I do not have a post for the second half of this week.  Instead, I would very much like to pose the following question to you, dear readers.  I'd love to hear what you have to say down in the comment section.

What is the end of theatre?  Have we reached it?  If we have, why next?  If not, why not?

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Thespian and the A-hole

Don't we all know the feeling?

To paraphrase a childhood hero of mine, it's a dangerous thing going out your door.  A-holes seem to be everywhere, cutting you off in traffic, mowing their lawn at 7am on a Saturday, and generally making life unpleasant for everyone around them.  Mo Rocca explored the A-hole in his segment on this morning's CBS Sunday Morning, and it appears that antisocial behavior is on the rise.

We should begin with some semantics, as almost everyone has used the word A-hole with gusto at one time or another but lack a working definition.  Much like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart (1958-1981) on pornography, we know it when we see it.  But with a little bit of thought, almost everyone can develop a working definition.  According to  the American Heritage Dictionary, an A-hole is either the literal, anatomical opening, the worst part of a place, or a stupid, mean or contemptible person.  Historically, this epithet was popularized by American GI's in the Second World War, who often used it to refer to officers that were particularly arrogant or unpleasant (George Patton may be held up as the Platonic Eidos of the A-hole).  It would replace milder epithets in the English language like cad or heel, particularly in American English.  One of the best working definitions of A-hole comes from linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, who defines them as "Somebody who walks around saying, 'Do you know who I am?' but doesn't seem to know themselves."

I find Dr. Nunberg's definition particularly compelling (which is understandable, he did write the book on the subject, after all), but feel the need to tweak it just slightly.  They ask "Do you know who I am?" but do not seem to grasp their place in the world around them.  Dr. Tom F. Driver, in his keynote remarks to the 2012 SETC Theatre Symposium, asserted that a number of our problems in the world today are symptoms of the fact that though our society fetishizes liberty and individualism, modern living conditions force us into closer and closer proximity to one another.  I find, in essence, that the quintessential A-hole does not grasp how crowded and unpleasant this room may be for everybody.  From the rise of greed is good capitalism (Gordon Gecko and Ayn Rand are Light years from De Tocqueville's Self-Interest Properly Understood) to the nasty and unpleasant place the internet can often be, it seems the whole thing might just be a lack of empathy.  A crowd can be a lonely place, after all.

The internet, with its insulation from direct contact, is a particularly strong example of what heights the A-hole can rise to.  This article on, for example, shows reactions to the reelection of President Obama.  The use of language that made my skin crawl just typing it into google to try and find the site seems common and almost casual for these individuals.  Though it is one of the marks of web 2.0 that anonymity is on the decline, it is still there and giving license to terrible behavior.  Nunberg pointed out in his interview with Mo Rocca that before the internet, if you wanted to criticize things anonymously in a public forum, all you really had was the walls of public restrooms (which seems the perfect venue for an A-hole).  But the world today has become a very large public restroom.

However, I would submit that there are no A-holes at a really good play.  If there are, they are congenital cases and that is why we have house managers (though there are times I would like to arm mine with a taser).  But if the modern rash of A-holes comes down, at most basic, to a lack of empathy, to a narcissitic isolation, then really good theatre is the perfect remedy.  When everything falls into place, and the audience is identifying with the characters onstage, the sense of isolation drops.  Even in plays or events which do not hinge on the emotional identification of contemporary Realism (Brecht, Boal, performance art), effective execution still creates a powerful shared experience among the observers and/or participants.  Though they may sit in the dark, come from separate places and experiences, there's little anonymity in the face to face contact and sharing that comes with the theatre experience.

It is incumbent on the theatrical artist to always remember the audience in this case.  It isn't a matter of pandering, but instead of opening up the windows and doors to invite them in.  I found myself thinking recently of an exercise conducted by physical theatre and clowning director Christopher Bayes which, for lack of a better name, is called "Hey guys, lookee."  It embodies the beginning of theatre as it gets one person in front of many and encourages them to share.  Not self-centered narcissism, but a fervent, almost childlike, desire to share oneself.  Almost an "Anti A-hole remedy."

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Demons Begone: An Exorcism, or "What can Theatre Do for You?"

Fluorescent lights.  By god, why is it always fluorescent lights?  Even at the best of times they attach themselves to the nervous system like the Shirime.  Have you ever encountered the Shirime?  This Japanese ghost has an eyeball in his rectum and gladly exposes it to wandering travellers on moonlit roads.  This kind of surreal assault afflicts one with both terror and confusion and drags blood to the back of the brain.  Easy enough to deal with on a dark road outside of Kyoto, but this type of thing is more than enough to cope with in the glair of damn fluorescent lights.

With that kind of light pouring harsh vibes on the brain stem, it's hard enough to retain civil discourse much less explain your carefully researched work to a body of august scholars, but thats the situation that I was facing at my first academic conference, and I was feeling the fear.  When I stood up to read my paper, all I could do was rattle through the woods and hope something stuck.

But then a group from Yale's divinity school made their presentation, and those damn lights didn't seem so bad anymore.  They took the old improv game "lines from a hat," and performed it for the assembly.  But instead of simply having the audience toss random lines into the hat, they had them write down a concern, problem, worry, or other issue with the conference itself.  They then performed it and, though mine wasn't one used, the very feel of the room was different.  Schoedinger's kittens had curled themselves up in every lap and purred contentedly.

I tell this story because it's an excellent example of what the dramatic arts can do FOR it's audience.  This improvisation exercise formed what was, in essence, an anxiety exorcism.  My Shirime vanished like smoke on the wind in the face of this powerful community experience.  It wasn't great drama, but what it might've lacked in craftsmanship it definitely made up for in audience impact.

This story came to mind recently when I was reading Polly Carl's Howlround article "Beauty and the Decline of the Professional."  She asks, essentially, "Has the theatre's generally closed system  and village-like atmosphere distanced us from our audience?"  Have we as a discipline lost sight of what originally kept us in business?  My experience with the "exorcism" reminded me about what we could really accomplish with just a few basic tools.  Had I been forgetting that in my quest for artistic accolade?

I don't want to say yes, but I get a sneaking suspicion that if I turn around, an affirmative will be staring at me like a great big Shirime eye.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Notes Towards a Gonzo Dramaturgy

"Politics is the art of controlling your environment."--Hunter S. Thompson

Make no bones about it, kick and scream all you like, but the theatre is an inherently political art.  Regardless of what you do, what your show choice is, the casting decisions, or venue, the shadow of politics will hang over you like the ICBM of Damocles.  The contemporary theatre needs to either become comfortable with this fact, and embrace it, or resign itself to the same forces that rendered the gaslight, eight-track , and buggy whip the hot seller they are today.

Let's begin with just a little bit of history regarding the relationship between theater and politics.  A little history is good for the soul and, if you do not have a clear idea about where you are coming from, you don't have a chance of knowing where you're going.  But one of the earliest recorded run-ins between theatre and politics was the poets banishment from Plato's "City in Speech" in order to make way for the philosopher-king.  Socrates in the "Apology" even mentions Aristophanes' "The Clouds" as being one of the strongest arguments against him.  And in contemporary politics, theatre (and its close cousin rhetoric) is generally derided.  "Political theatre" sounds only slightly more pleasant coming from the mouth of a pundit than something like "Liver Herpes."  It dredges up everything potentially fake, shallow, and vacuous in the democratic process in a compact two words and effectively castigates a rival.  These two forces have been hopelessly intertwined and at loggerheads throughout their history, which is the natural enough case when really there are two organisms eating out of the same pool of resources.

And let us acknowledge the full spectrum of what generally falls under the "political theatre" spectrum.  You have plays like "Democracy," "Farragut North," and "Leaving" which deal directly with politics, policital figures, and the mechanics of statecraft.  Closely related come agit-prop or issue pieces like "Normal Heart," "Hair," or "The Laramie Project."  Usually concieved with a particular motivation in mind, usually to shake up the accepted wisdom or strip away a cover story and expose the audience to something.  We can spread this even further to cover acts like Pussy Riot and the work of Dario Fo and Augusto Boal as well.  Already we find a great deal of performance that easily falls under the rubric of "political."

But what we're getting at is even more basic than that.  ALL theatre is political.  By the very act of bringing people together (both collaborators and audience) you are committing a political act.  That community theatre down the road, with its seasons comprised of the most non-objectionable material possible still brings people together to engage in escapism.  The college that rejects a piece because it's not "middle-of-the-road enough" stands as bosom buddies to the frightened ostrich.  These are political acts to reinforce the status quo.  Though they might not be intentional, the final effect does not change.  "Everything is just fine.... forget about things for a while.  Dr. Feelgood will see you now."

There's nothing wrong with a little escapism, so long as you acknowledge that is what it is.  But why pass up so many opportunities as they present themselves?  GOP Senator Marco Rubio acknowledged his anti-science stance recently in an interview when asked about the age of the Earth.  Why is he not being mocked mercilessly for this?  Why laugh at "Last of the Red Hot Lovers" when there is so much more fertile ground that is being largely neglected by the American theatre?  Hypocrisies are shining like cat turds in the moonlight!  It is time that the American theatre seize control of its environment.  The stage is one of the most powerful communication tools in the history of mankind, and the rise of internet technology has extended our reach further than we ever thought imaginable.  Henry Mencken is dead and gone, so is Mark Twain.  Even Vonnegut and Thompson have left us.  So it is time that the theatre reclaim its rightful place and start telling everyone that the Emperor has no clothes.  It is time for a Gonzo Dramaturgy.

The difference between the pundits who deride "political theatre" and those of us engaged in Gonzo Dramaturgy is that we, unlike the aforementioned pundits, are operating in good faith and full knowledge of what we are doing.  They are hypocrits.  We are not.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Against Appreciation

I have a confession.  I don't like theatre appreciation classes.

Or, more to the point, I am not at all sure precisely why they exist.  Yes, I am familiar with the pedagogical and educational materials on the importance of a "well rounded" education in the liberal arts tradition, and I could not agree more.  However, I find myself confused as to the actual, specific purpose of appreciation class within the dramatic tradition.  The whole thing seems to be a nonstarter.  The broad nature of these classes, running the gamut from introducing the major varieties of theatrical practitioner to an abbreviated history of theatre with a smattering of dramatic literature, seem to come, at the end of the day, to "yup... there's the theatre alright.  There it is."  Yet an entire semester of pointing at something and insisting that it should be valued (which is the abbreviated version of my reading of a variety of apprec course descriptions) cannot be healthy for either teacher or student.  For the latter, they learn less about the operations of the theatre than they would if they auditioned for an extracurricular show, and for the former... oy.  So why do these courses exist?

The argument often seems to run in the direction of "creating a future audience," which is the same line often used by Theatre for Young Audience folks in justifying their distinction (distinction without difference, at the end of the day).  But, aside from the show(s) which the students are required to see during their time in the class, is there any demonstrable evidence that these classes lead to any tradition of attendance in their enrollees?  The evidence suggest a resounding "no."  They see their assigned shows, write their papers, and then stand a very solid chance of never setting foot in a theatre again once the semester has ended.  It hinges on the idea that teaching a student about aspects of drama, about "how it works" will inspire an "appreciation."  Yet the courses focus on cognitive domain development without affective domain accompaniment.  This comes from the survey nature of the course, where one cannot spend enough time on any one thing in order for its value to be demonstrated.  If anything, it may serve to enhance the experience of already dedicated theatregoers.

This model of appreciation seems to be rooted in the idea that, in our media dominated society, live theatre is in competition with cinema and television for hearts, minds, and market share.  Yet, as an inherently social activity, the theatre is truly more in competition with bars, nightclubs, and other such activities.  The decision isn't "Hamlet or CSI: Miami" (at least they both have a Horatio), it is "Hamlet or Hooligan's Nightclub."  Or, given the nature of offerings in many community playhouses, "Legally Blonde or Hooligans."  The community, not the classroom, is the place to fight that particular battle.

And no, I'm not just pissed that such classes have a notorious reputation among the general undergraduate population as being pure "cake."  I am under no illusions as to how a sizeable portion of the student body (as well as a number of our colleagues in the sciences and business programs) view our general education offerings.  The issue that troubles me is that the course is so general, so nonspecific, and that in trying to encapsulate the entirety of the theatrical experience in a single semester, it winds up spawning generalization.  There simply isn't enough time to give a fair assessment of the theatre.  And, as Stanislavski once told us, the general is the enemy of art.

We do not teach all of mathematics in a semester.  From multiplication tables to theoretical calculus in 16 weeks would be laughed out of schools with no standards of excellence.  Then why do it with theatre?  Hell, why do it with any of the arts?  Music?  Why does it make more sense to create an institutionally watered down course?  And why would any self-respecting student take it?

Might we not be further ahead do find disciplinary classes which are geared towards general student consumption?  For example, what about a course like Storytelling, History of Theatre, or Creative Dramatics?  Each of these courses, pointed and emphasizing a specific element of the theatrical experience and approaching it from a specific methodology would be inherently far more than pointing and saying "this is a good thing.  You should to this."  Wouldn't such course also do a great deal to introduce the students to traditions and techniques of the dramatic arts while also giving them something specific and concrete as well?  In our newly skill/vocation-driven system of higher education, I cannot imagine that this would be considered a superior outcome. (It is interesting to contemplate the higher education was initially resistant to teaching drama because it was viewed as purely practical, vocational education... and now that vocationism is the dominant model... it is resisted as being impractical.)

However, when I have attempted to offer courses of this nature, I have been met with a resounding lack of enrollment, causing my courseload to plummet as students flock to Music Appreciation and Art Appreciation.  Which leads to the real kicker, as a method of self-preservation, I create and offer a number of Apprec sections in the online format.  Yes, I teach apprec.  I teach a lot of apprec.  Hence my trouble sleeping at night, because although I do everything I can to lead a fulfilling and interesting course, I still have the feeling that I am trying to make a silk purse from a sow's ear.  If there is a better way, I'm not sure what it is.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Theatre of the Liminal

This weekend, I had the privilege of presenting at SETC's Theatre Symposium. However, as opposed to talking about that, I want to talk about the keynote address by Dr. Tom F. Driver of Union Theological Seminary. It was, quite simply, one of the wisest pieces on the nature of theatre that I've ever heard. For those familiar with his book Liberating Rites, much of it may not be a surprise.
Theatre is not a dream factory, but the playground of maybe.
In that which Dr. Driver refers to at the "Blessed Assurance of Perhaps," he points out that doubt is integral to faith, and that strong dogmatism will kill both the theatre and religion. In this day of uncertainty, strife, and a feeling almost of mourning the fall of the American nation, what can theatre, ritual, and religion offer that is really relevant to contemporary America? In an America that is ideologically devoted to individualism, but the conditions of the world force us closer and closer together. And so, if performative practices are to remain relevant and healthy for today society, they must embrace liminality. To define liminality, we must take a step back and examine the structure of basic Rites of Passage.
1.) Separation (Creation of a Path)
2.) Liminality (Transition Point- Creation of a Commmunity)
3.) Return (Transformation of the Status Quo)
Theatre and its performative colleagues must begin to reach towards that tipping point that creates the communal experience.  Theatre magic makes a community of strangers, when it works.  However, no single technique will get you there, and we must keep in mind that they are simply tools as opposed to ends in themselves.

By striving for the transcendence and transience of performance, we can create a community out of our individuals, but we as artists must always prepare the way.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

If I start growling now...

Recently, while trying to reform the curriculum of my Drama AFA program where I teach, I found that my students were not required to take a dramatic literature class.  In trying to find room to squeeze one into the curriculum, I felt that it would effectively replace a basic computer literacy course.  After all, with software undergoing major overhauls every 3-4 years, what was the shelf life of that knowledge anyway?

And Business/Technology lost their minds.  The crux of their argument was that the course gave them useful computer skills in office software.  Skills they would need to get jobs when their theatre careers didn't work out.

Anyhow, it put me in mind of this post.  So to all you drama students out there, when you're asked "What will you do with that degree?"  You have a leg to stand on when you respond "Whatever I damn well please."