Wednesday, March 31, 2010

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

This is part two of my response to Steven Leigh Morris' LA Weekly cover story, "Why Theatre Matters."  Part one may be found here.

 "The city of Berlin spends more on the arts than the entire federal government of the United States," writes Steven Leigh Morris, ramping into yet another canard:  The reason theatre in America suffers is because the government doesn't fund it.  We need a national theatre, we need more taxpayer dollars to support new works, etc. etc.  The problem with this belief in the benevolence of government is simply put:  He who pays the piper calls the tune.  Or as Thomas Jefferson is believed to have said, "A government big enough to give you everything you want, is strong enough to take everything you have."  It was probably Gerald Ford who said that.  Regardless, the truth of the statement is evident.  Just ask the NEA Four.  Sure, they got their grant money -- three years and a court case later.

I know JFK said the following, as quoted in my blog entry of February 5th, 2009, "A Secretary of the Arts?"
Art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstones of our judgment. The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state.
-- JFK (emphasis added)
Keep in mind, just a few paragraphs above Morris was writing about the role the arts have played in goring "tyrannies of the past."  Is he serious in suggesting that the theatre can serve that role while cashing checks from Uncle Sam?  I'm not against government grants.  As soon as Theatre Unleashed receives its 501(c)(3) status, it's "game on" for any and all funding sources available.  The "lackaday" over an absence of massive government sponsorship of the arts is tiresome.  If in Los Angeles, "the incentives, the economics and the culture couldn't be more different" than New York, as Morris states a little later, surely he would concede that comparing Germany and America is an apples and oranges equation.
It's now been documented -- here I refer to the study called Outrageous Fortune, by Todd London, Ben Pesner and Zannie Giraud Voss, published by the Theater Development Fund -- that the network of midsize regional theaters across our nation has become too paralyzed by fear and the imperatives of institutional survival to move the art form forward, thereby consigning those theaters to a kind of creeping irrelevance.  The evidence for that lies in the aging demographics of their patrons, in a now-staggering system established 60 years ago to provide a viable alternative to the commercial fare of Broadway.
(He is wrong about why the regional theatre system was started -- really, Broadway?  But we'll let it pass for now.  Charles McNulty succinctly sums up the reason for regional theatres in his excellent piece, "Southern California's big theaters need fresh, dramatic thinking."  Read it.)

I would argue that those theatres are "paralyzed by fear" because of the aging demographics.  I submit that the evidence for the aging demographics is the creeping irrelevence.  At the very least, it's a dwindling spiral with each factor exacerbating the situation for the other.  It would be awesome if all our problems could be solved by:
  1. Eliminating the need for ticket sales,
  2. Which would free us from the need to please a particular audience,
  3. Which would embolden us to put some fire back into the theatre's belly.
What's missing from this scenario?  I'll cover that in the next installment.

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.