Monday, October 25, 2010

First Principles

“All human constitutions are subject to corruption, and must perish, unless they are timely renewed, and reduced to their first principles.”
- Algernon Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government
It is impossible to chart a new course when you find yourself in the bilges, pumping water out of a sinking vessel.  Nevermind that a new course might take you away from the rocks you keep bashing into -- we have to keep this ship afloat!  In the heat of emergency, attention is fixed on the task at hand.  Little victories give you moments of happiness, but these are fleeting.  A bit like the momentary relief someone sick with the flu feels when he blows his nose; a moment of clear breathing, and then back into the funk.

Sisyphus should be the Patron Saint of Under-99 theatre.  No doubt you remember the myth:
The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.
Locked in the struggle to keep pushing that damned rock up the mountain, we don't take the time to ask ourselves, "Why the fuck are we pushing a rock to the top of this mountain?"

Earlier this year I spent considerable time responding to Steven Leigh Morris' watershed article for the LA Weekly, "Why Theatre Matters."  I revisit this article with alarming (to me at least) regularity, and my respect for Morris and the arguments he makes continues to grow.  Granted, I still think the man is mostly wrong, but I've come to believe that my rejoinder is perhaps a bit lacking.  To wit:
I used to worry about the relevance of theatre -- then I helped start a theatre company.
Sometimes you learn more about the person who criticizes than you do about what they're criticizing. This would be one of those times.

Way back in my college days, my favorite professor tossed me a copy of The Empty Space and said, "If you really care about theatre, read this."  I did, and I've been annoying people by quoting it ever since:
There is always a new season in hand and we are too busy to ask the only vital question which measures the whole structure. Why theatre at all? What for? Is it an anachronism, a superannuated oddity, surviving like an old monument or a quaint custom? Why do we applaud, and what? Has the stage a real place in our lives? What function can it have? What could it serve? What could it explore? What are its special properties?
Brook is right.  So is Morris:
 But the larger point is the divide between the commonly held low regard for theater and its actual relevance — far greater than most are willing to acknowledge. From that chasm emerge the questions of why do theater at all, in these times, and what makes a good producer.
I will  tell you this much, from my vantage point of helping start a theatre company and attempting to steer it as president for two and a half years:  A good producer does not do the Sisyphus two-step up the side of a mountain.  A good producer assesses things before acting, and charts the best course possible.  When emergencies (or "opportunities" if you will) arise, a good producer trims the sails, lets them out or drops anchor as the case may be.  A good producer doesn't double-down on stupid.

A good producer, like a good anything operates on first principles.  Whether they realize it or not, there is a basic philosophy behind the choices being made.  I've reviewed enough plays, I can tell when a company is operating from first principles (such as Sacred Fools or The Echo Theatre Company) and when they're not (names omitted pursuant to Thumper's Rule.)  You can tell, even when the shinola is so thick you can barely smell the shit beneath.

You can whitewash all you want, it won't take the rot out of the wood.  If you want to build something that will last, you need to start with first principles.  Now watch me get all Biblical:
24Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock:

25And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock.

26And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand:

27And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it.
-- Matthew 7:24-27, KJV
Build on first principles.  And Christ would know: His nickname was "The Word." Word.

Are you building and rebuilding on sand, or are you actively seeking out a rock to build upon?  Are you continually pushing the boulder uphill, or are you turning a shrewd eye towards figuring out how to keep it uphill?  Are you pumping out the bilges, or seizing the helm and heading towards safe harbor?

Are you kidding yourself?  I know I was.

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