Monday, March 29, 2010

Deadly Assumptions:
A Response to "Why Theatre Matters"
part one

"And from all sides the same answer -- the risk is too great, too many disappointments. Here we see how the vicious circle is drawn. Steadily the Deadly Theatre digs its own grave." – Peter Brook, The Empty Space
In the March 25th edition of LA Weekly, theatre editor Steven Leigh Morris published a Jeremiad on the state of theatre in Los Angeles. Odds are if you haven’t read his article, the following won’t make much sense, so I do recommend reading it. I have a lot to say about this article, so I’m going to have to do this in parts.

The article kicks off with a lamentation over the lack of respect for one of Morris’ college professors. Morris comments on a press release that crossed his desk in January, listing in some detail the college professor’s screenwriting CV. Morris writes:
Next comes the sentence that stands out for me: “He also wrote some on- and off-Broadway plays.”
That’s it. Theater. Broadway theater! He also wrote some … plays. Might those plays have a title?
If only this were some West Coast aberration, but in fact it’s indicative of a far more pervasive, waning regard for theater in our culture.
Or perhaps it’s indicative of a publicist who knew the only way to net significant coverage would be to wet the beak of theatre journalism with TV credits. Indeed, perhaps this tells us more about the state of theatrical journalism than it does the prevailing attitudes and interests of our audiences.

That “waning regard for theater” that Morris laments has been waning since the dawn of "something else to do on a play night". It’s pretty waned out by now. He goes on with the boilerplate for this type of article (the NEA says arts attendance is dropping and arts programs are being eliminated in our schools; I’m surprised there are any arts programs left to cut at this point) stating along the way, “But the larger point is the divide between the commonly held low regard for theater and it’s actual relevance ….”  I would say that there is no divide between the two, but that would involve taking resonsibility as a theatre professional for my role in "waning regard."  And we can't have that.

We come to this:

This apathy toward the arts, and toward artists, is nothing new in America, but with text-messaging, tweeting, cell-photo–taking and social-networking technologies all tied into the escalating global-corporate control of almost all our affairs — now including unlimited corporate spending in political campaigns under the guise of "free speech," thanks to our Supreme Court — we appear to be surfing on a slow-moving wave toward a kind of globally engineered beachhead. On this beachhead, the sort of independence of thought and language that gets expressed through the arts in general, and in great theater in particular, gets dashed on the rocks.
First, to quote the great Richard Linklater, “Withdrawal in disgust is not the same as apathy.” Morris seems genuinely concerned about the lack of “relevance” for theatre, but not once does he mention the obvious: If theatre lacks “relevance”, it is because the audience has been a secondary concern too often, and they are simply spending their entertainment dollar elsewhere. This isn’t rocket science. If I have Netflix streaming through my Xbox to my HD flatscreen, I can sit at home and watch Laurence Olivier play Henry V. What would motivate me to sit in traffic, search for parking and plop down $15 to see a live production?

The remainder of the quoted passage, and the following several paragraphs veer into the heart of “woo-woo” territory. He starts by impugning Twitter and social networking as part of the “escalating global-corporate control of almost all of our affairs ….” This is simply delusional. The fact that Iranian protesters were able to tweet news updates to millions of users on a moment to moment basis; the fact that citizen journalists break stories faster and with greater reach on YouTube than the old, grey Fourth Estate can affect in print; and the fact that we are more connected to each other now than at any point in our history is a complete and utter refutation of his premise. Theatre is story-telling. Social networking and lightning-fast communication is a boon, not a threat. (Although It may be a threat to traditional journalism.)

Morris asks, “Do the people who belittle the arts do so because they’re too expensive, irrelevant, or because the arts have the capacity to say unpredictable and unpleasant things?” I would ask, “Who are ‘the people’ you speak of?” The most onerous belittling of the arts I’ve seen may be found in professional and amateur reviews of plays.

“History shows us that the tip of the spear that gored tyrannies of the past was laced with the arts,” writes Morris, who then attempts to draw a comparison between America, circa 2010 to Soviet Russia, Communist Czechoslovakia, and South Africa during Apartheid. Steven, what Los Angeles are you living in? Sure, we have our share of problems, but people were vanished in the Soviet Union, killed or imprisoned in some gulag. Vaclav Havel was banned from the theatre in Czechoslovakia and spent time in prison. By comparison, we live in a country where “Bush is Bad: The Musical” opens to rave reviews and packed houses and no one gets arrested or shot.

But Morris has to draw these comparisons and make the melodramatic statements he makes because that’s the only way to support his a priori conclusion. So why does theatre matter? “Because fighting for the arts is fighting for our humanity, and fighting for our humanity is fighting for our lives. I can’t think of a more trenchant reason to be producing theater in the 21st century.” Oh, I can think of a few other reasons. But I’ll get to that in due time.

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