Friday, June 08, 2007

Salon Hits Back As Well

Salon's Peter Birkenhead in his Open Letter to the Theater World. (Yikes. Maybe we shouldn't wish for Salon and Slate to cover theatre more often.)

If you keep doing shows like that, keep producing plays that sound like they were written by people who might read Michael Chabon, or listen to the Decemberists, or watch "Weeds," I promise you, more of those people will come to the theater.

But right now they're more likely to see plays that sound as if they
were written by the light of a candle in a Chianti bottle. Plays filled with cringingly unconfident writing that muddies the waters in order to make it all appear deep; writing full of insufferable name dropping and artless declaiming of Big Ideas, with a campy, brittle sense of humor right out of 1959, performed in a teeth-gratingly earnest, over-enunciated style that has become a parody of itself. Richard Greenberg's insistent assertion of his bona fides as a collector of intellectual arcana in "Three Days of Rain," the late August Wilson's dogged refusal to trim his character's verbal output to a level that would articulate their inner lives rather than the playwright's high regard for his own ideas in plays like "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" and Jon Robin Baitz' determined obtuseness in plays like "A Fair Country" are symptoms of a theater community that has been too cloistered for too long.

Hasn't our culture moved on a bit since, say, William Inge, and don't
we all kind of take it for granted, for instance, that sexual repression is bad? Why do we need to see yet another sexual awakening story, even if it's by Terrence McNally ("Some Men") or Jon Robin Baitz ("The Paris Letter")? A lot of the better television shows, even back in 2003 or 2004, were weaving what was happening in the world into their stories in subtle, surprising, even funny ways, like it is in life, but the theater gave us two David Hare plays solemnly breaking the news that war is bad and George Bush is an idiot.

Some of you seem to think the problem is with the audience, and that
the only prescription for what ails the theater is to redouble your commitment to doing work that is "important" and "ambitious." I've got news for you: People aren't staying away from the theater because it isn't ambitious enough. They're staying away because it's relentlessly "ambitious," because it keeps insisting on its own unique and righteous importance, despite all sad evidence to the contrary


Do any of you think that there have been enough theater productions of note in the last 10 years that achieve the creative unity, the complexity, the appreciation of moral ambiguity, the timely insight, humor and, most important, entertainment value, of "The Sopranos"? Or "Six Feet Under" or "Arrested Development" or "The Simpsons" or "The Wire," "The Larry Sanders Show" or "30 Rock" or "Deadwood" or "South Park" or "Prime Suspect" or "Curb Your Enthusiasm" or "ER" or "The Office"?

This is not accidental. It's because the theater has been hijacked. It's been commandeered by grant-proposal writers and dramaturges, by panel-discussion moderators and chin-in-hand bureaucrats, many of whom brook no more dissent than the Bush administration. To even suggest, at any of the endless symposiums that the theater community can't get enough of these days, that the problems facing the theater might be solved by respecting the audience more instead of less, that perhaps, instead of designing condescending "outreach" programs, the theater might try educating itself, and listening to the people it's been reaching out to, is to tempt the derisive wrath of a community whose motto might as well be "You're with us or against us."

This is why the theater many of us grew up with, that was so often moving, funny and fun, has been replaced by a bloodless, sexless, outdated facsimile.


Joshua James said...

Man, I've been blogging about this for awhile . . . in fact, I've written more than a couple posts about it, but you bet, absolutely . . . mainstream theatre is mired in the past . . .

Thomas Garvey said...

What an embarrassing rant. Of course there's plenty of weak theatre, but surely it pales next to the vast wasteland of abominable television! And is this "critic" really suggesting that theatre hasn't moved on since William Inge? I hate to remind Mr. Birkenhead, but since 1959, the theatre has given birth to "Happy Days," "The Homecoming," "Marat/Sade," "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," "What the Butler Saw," "Buried Child," "American Buffalo," "Streamers," "Accidental Death of an Anarchist," "Company," "Sweeney Todd," "Six Degrees of Separation," "Angels in America," "The Possibilities," "Far Away," etc., etc. Is Mr. Birkenhead really suggesting that "The Sopranos" or "Six Feet Under" - very smart, but basically derivative, entertainment designed for savvy consumers - is equal to, much less better than, ANY of these plays? Okay, so Richard Greenberg and Jon Robin Baitz are overrated. So, honey, is "Curb Your Enthusiasm," much less "Deadwood"! As for "weaving what was happening in the world into their stories" - buddy, Kushner's "Homebody/Kabul" didn't just respond to 9/11 - it nearly PREDICTED it. So get off your high horse and resubmit that script to the Public Theater! Maybe they'll accept it this time!

Art said...

Hey Thomas,

That's pretty good.

You should post a comment to the Salon article.

Thomas Garvey said...

Good idea. I think I will.

Anonymous said...

Yes, lord knows that consciously (self-consciously?) developing work aimed at people who read Chabon and listen to the Decembrists is the best way to avoid of-the-moment cultishness and pandering in the theater.

Nothing against either Chabon or the band (actually, I don't know the band's music, so I guess I'm a fogey) -- but whenever someone starts talking about the need to place content in art specifically for the sake of the young'uns, I'm reminded of that episode of "The Simpsons" where Itchy and Scratchy brought in "Poochie," the "hip" skateboarding dog, in order to appeal to the younger generation.

Are younger audiences so hide-bound and conservative that they can only appreciate art that contains their particular pop cultural markers of the moment, that speaks only to their immediate and literal experiences? I would hope not. I think not. Yet time and again I read prescriptive pieces for "how to save theater" that basically boil down to "give the kids what they already like in movies/tv/music, only on stage," without understanding that if they want a movie, or a tv show, or a band concert, they can get those things without stepping foot in a theatrical performance. Not that elements from film and video and live music haven't been making their way into theater for years. But theater is handcrafted, and it happens right in front of you, and it can be a little different every night. That's the money element that makes it different from seeing a film or television show. Though I think an argument can be made that there are closer parallels to seeing a band and seeing a play, there is still an element of predictability at a live music event, particularly for big touring acts -- hell, you can even read the set list from the concert the night before online before you go to the show and guess exactly in what order the songs will be played. I'd rather sit through a live production of "Hedwig" than the movie, for instance.

Then again, I see a lot of theater where the young audiences outnumber the people in their forties, fifties, and beyond. So the problem of the old and out-of-touch theater audience isn't one I'm confronted with all that often.

Tracy Letts just spoke at the Printers Row Book Fair here in Chicago yesterday, and he stressed that one reason he has been able to develop plays on his own terms is that he has been a part of a company (Steppenwolf) that is fully invested in what he does. I think the answer to the "developed to death" syndrome, for film or theater, may lie in more companies bringing in writers (well, Letts is also an actor, of course) as full creative partners in the ensemble or production company. All art suffers when the suits have the final say.

Sorry to be so longwinded. Especially given the famous short attention spans of kids these days.

Kerry Reid

Thomas Garvey said...

Oh, and btw, just to gloat -

didn't the finale of "The Sopranos" suck?

Brad said...

I must say that the Salon piece gave me more than one or two “huzzah” moments.

I think the current state of indie rock has far more to move a “young person” these days than a festival full of cloyingly self-satisfied academic screeds pontificating from the stage.

No need to add any “Poochie” style pandering. That sort of thing attempted by people who don’t know what they’re doing (or people cloistered in the womb of tenured academia) can be smelled a mile off, even by people who have never smelled theater before.

I share the aversion to the “save theater by being more like MTV” idea. It is pathetic and dangerous.

Still, attention to the sort of artistry currently reaching the iPod generation would be welcome. The spirit and art of a Sufjan Stevens or the aforementioned Decemberists is powerful and real and it’s essence can surely be brought to a stage somewhere somehow by someone. And I know it would be successful, and probably popular. I, for one, would be standing in line for tickets, as I will for the next Sufjan album. But, I’m afraid the writers/producers of such a play would find little support among the theater mafia of today and certainly no grant support--there’s no obvious political pov, no glowering Republicans...

My plea is to broaden the theater of ideas. “You’re with us or against us,” is not a mission statement, it’s a death warrant.

Anonymous said...

Please identify those theaters whose explicit mission statement is "You're with us or against us." I smell straw man. For that matter, please identify the festivals filled with "cloyingly self-satisfied academic screeds." If they're so rampant, I'm sure you can knock off a few names, no problem. (Okay, I'll allow David Hare . . . .)

I think some of my ire around this issue comes from being a single, never-married, never-want-to-be-married, childfree, atheist, middle-aged (42) woman living alone in a large Midwest city whose literary tastes run far more to Djuna Barnes, Alasdair Gray, Dawn Powell, Jean Rhys, Elizabeth Smart (not the kidnapped Mormon girl) and Flann O'Brien than to Chabon, Franzen, Lethem, McSweeney's, etc.

If I got het up over lack of representation of "my kind" in any form of media (theater, television, or film), I'd never stop fuming. (Though I will quickly grant that television, particularly cable, has, hands down, done a better job with creating interesting roles for women in the last ten years than the other two.) So forgive me if I don't get that worried about The Young Hipster Demographic not having its ass kissed enough, 24/7, by all forms of entertainment industry. Would it kill them to get outside their comfort zone and their assumption that the world should provide only those things that they find cool and accessible?

I've spent a lifetime having to dig to find anything closely resembling myself in most art. However, by opening the aperture of the lens, I find myself in lots of places: in the lonely but proud middle-aged seamstress of Lynn Nottage's "Intimate Apparel," unapologetically grasping at a chance for passion, even though she senses it might be a bad thing. In nearly everything Beckett ever wrote. In Sonya's last speech in "Uncle Vanya." I'm a better person for not being spoonfed reification of my "importance" to the culture. I have to look harder, empathize more, listen longer, by being a permanent denizen of the fringe. (Hell, if you're a woman, being over 30 and ten pounds overweight basically renders you invisible in most film and theater, for god's sake. Bit more of a societal problem than those Poor Underrepresented Young'uns, wouldn't you say?)

And again, as I pointed out before, I fail to see where there's an actual problem with "no young people at shows," but that's probably because I cover storefront and smaller professional theaters in Chicago, where the younger audiences aren't scarce at all. It may definitely be a different story in New York, or at larger regionals around the country.

Something else to consider: when Birkenhead argues that the dollars of younger audiences matter more because they are "the audience of tomorrow," does he not realize that strategy is, in essence, setting the stage for more plays in ten or twenty years at regional houses about middle-aged couples in suburbia dealing with loss, i.e., the much-maligned-by-theater-bloggers "Rabbit Hole?" After all, if your audience grows with you, that's where they'll be in not-so-many years.

Now, I thought "Rabbit Hole" was fine for what it was. I don't expect the Pulitzers to reward work that is overly experimental, and frankly, though Lindsay-Abaire's play was conventional, I found it refreshing after his sniggering earlier and allegedly "edgier" work. (Thank god people with disabilities exist so they can serve as convenient metaphors for lazy, would-be wackmeisters of playwrights!) And having seen "Elliot, A Soldier's Fugue," one of the recommended Pulitzer finalists that was passed over, I can say I found it disappointing -- thematically and formally.

But the point remains -- if a theater or any cultural organization is constantly trying to keep up with what "young hipsters" want (as though they, too, are just one homogeneous mass, just like "old people," who of course have never had sex, used drugs, known heartbreak, dreamed of changing the world, etc.), instead of just doing work that has good stories, or interesting characters, or presents aesthetic or stylistic innovations, or whatever other myriad reasons there are for doing shows besides "the kids will like it," they'll disappoint everyone. At best, they'll end up with some Frankenstein's Monster a la Komar and Melamid's "Most Wanted Art" series. ("High Fidelity," anyone?)

And isn't it telling that "Spring Awakening" worked by going back to something from the 19th century, rather than using a contemporary high school setting? Of course, "High School Musical" also has a great following, but I'm not sure that's what is meant by "cultivating younger audiences" by people like Birkenhead.


Art said...

Hi All,

Great points on both sides of this argument.

There is, however, no doubt that theatre's cultural relevance is dying. The hard numbers show that. (Arts and Civic Engagement Survey, etc.) I wish it were otherwise, but I have been in business long enough to know that you can't ignore the hard facts.

Kerry is right to point to Chicago's youthful audience, it is hopeful harbinger. I agree with her mention of Tracy Letts in an earlier post, but But the weird twist is that more people probably saw the opening weekend of the film version of his Bug than have seen the stage version in the entire time it has been running.)

Mr. Birkenhead's screed is generally unfair to the art form of theatre and also shows, as Thomas Garvey succinctly proves, a very shallow literacy in the discipline.

While film and television have all but resigned theatre to obsolescence in some areas, (thriller, horror, mystery, and, melodrama,) television and film have yet to match the theatre's dominance in tragedy or farce.

Mr. Birkenhead talks of unconfident writing, and I think he may be on to something. I think many playwrights should re-read Eric Bentley's chapter on Dialogue in his book The Life of the Drama.

This relates to farce as well. Where are the great farces on our stage? I will agree with Mr. Birkenhead here: Show me a theatre company that allows an author the comedic freedom of South Park or Arrested Development.

This is partially what I think Birkenhead hits dead on. In Film and Television, comedy writers have making us laugh as their number one priority. In theatre it sometimes seems that we start from the other end- Enter the proliferation of the seriocomic pieces. (Guilty msyelf, by the way.)

I'll give a perfect example, (from Richard Greenberg even.) Take Me Out was a seriocomic work, that tilted far more toward the comic than the serious. However, I always felt, while both reading it and seeing it, that Greenberg was hamstringing himself with his solemnity on the subject. And the nail in the coffin was his decision to kill a character, taking the whole play right off the rails.

I like theatre and I will continue to work in it and see it for the rest of my life.

I think the main thing is that we need to develop a literate, wise and dedicated critical apparatus for the art form.

Anonymous said...

I think maybe we also need to stop treating theater as if it is some delicate hothouse flower in constant danger of extinction if we don't feed it exactly the right formula.

Seriously, how long do we have to hear the "theater is dying" talk before we realize it's been said before, those predicting its demise have never been right, and that we probably tend to overstate its cultural relevance in the past?

Sure, people who saw "A Doll's House" and "Playboy of the Western World" rioted after the first performances. But how many more people back then had no idea those plays even existed, caught up as they were in the struggle for day-to-day survival? Or how many shrugged about the fracas, wondering when "Abie's Irish Rose" or the latest vaudeville headliners would come around their town?

And by all means, let's stop comparing theater to film and television in terms of overall success/market share. Sure, more people probably saw "Bug" as a movie than a play. And? As Erik Ehn once pointed out, more people will see "Roseanne" in a syndicated rerun on any given night than will ever see all the productions of "Cats" that have ever been (of course, if you're smart, you'll opt for "Roseanne" over "Cats" in that scenario). That's not a problem. That's just the difference between the two forms vis a vis delivery systems.

Farce/comedy onstage: Again, I'm probably wrong to keep using Chicago examples, but they're what I cover, so bear with me. The Neo-Futurists. Theater Oobleck. WNEP (Don Hall's company) has staged some seriously funny shows (along with some not-so-funny pieces that were still terrific). Urinetown, the Musical (which, not coincidentally, grew out of Cardiff Giant, one of the funniest and brightest companies of the late 80s and early 90s in Chicago). Emily Schwartz, another young Chicago writer, is staking out territory in the macabre farce genre, a la Edward Gorey and Charles Addams. Annoyance Theater has made an entire franchise out of over-the-top (an adjective I'm sure Mick Napier hates) comedies which have, in the past, had such charming monikers as "The Miss Vagina Pageant" and "Ayn Rand Gives Me a Boner." Second City, ImprovOlympic, and other sketch/improv troupes turn out some very sharp and truly funny work. Not all the time, but they're doing it. And of course writers from these groups often go on to write for television. Can't blame them for wanting a bigger slice.

These are just top of my head. And I'm sure people across the country could find examples in their own cities of companies who are doing strong comedic work. And what about "Avenue Q," "Batboy," and "Hedwig?"

I found it significant that David Hyde Pierce only felt comfortable publicly acknowledging his partner on the Tonys, not at the Emmys. I think that says something about which community is actually "conservative" and "elite" and which is actually more fluid and accepting of different lifeviews. Christine Ebersole admitted last night that she was "over the hill" for Hollywood, but can get great exciting work onstage. That's worth celebrating (not that Hollywood won't use her, but that theater, for all its flaws, will find room for a talent like Ebersole) and it's worth pointing out to those who continue to insist, against all available evidence, that Hollywood is more open-minded than theater. (Though, again, I think the writing for women on cable television, in particular, has been a lot better in recent years than what I've found in mainstream film parts for women.)

Art, I agree with you that there is at least a perception that theater is overly solemn, and I think that is, in part, exacerbated by all the jawing about how "dangerous" it is to do new work and how "endangered" the theater is becoming. It's hard to look at an endangered species, or at least one you've been told is endangered, without feeling guilty, which isn't exactly conducive to laughter. So let's stop doing it. Let's just say "Hey, here's something new, you might like it. Let us know what you think." Put the grand pronouncements about What This Work Means For the Future of the Art Form on hold and let it just breathe. Let people enjoy it. Or not. What's so hard about talking about new plays? People write new books all the time. Paint new paintings. They make new records. Film new movies (okay, at least in the summer releases, they just keep doing the same movies, but . . .)

But remember: they don't give Oscars to comedies, either. How many National Book Award/Pulitzer novels are essentially comedic? Not many. What you've identified is a systemic problem in American culture -- an unwillingness to embrace comedy, esp. the physical or scatological brand, within other works that may or may not have more "serious" underpinnings. They're much less uptight about it in Europe and other cultures. (Good lord, consider "Krapp's Last Tape." Allusions to constipation AND an actual pratfall on a banana peel. "Nothing is funnier than unhappiness," as the master tells us.) I think we're still worried that everyone else around the world will think we're uncultured colonial rubes if we put fart jokes in a "serious" play.

Thank you for letting me vent about all of this. You've provided a really useful touchstone for us all. And if it helps, I think there are many of us who, like you, will be dedicated to theater in some form or another for the rest of our lives, too.