Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Episode III: Revenge of the Pith

I posted a while ago about "Monsterism" -- a movement/aesthetic/fad being carved out by a handful of new British playwrights whose names I didn't recognize. I love it because it's a happy half-way mark for understanding my previous rants about contemporary American playwriting. I found it comforting to know that at least some writers were frustrated with the Rule of Pith: namely, that theatre's best shot at survival in a culture dominated by "Mr. & Mrs. Smith: the IMAX Experience!" was to:

a) retreat uffishly into compact, easily-digestible (i.e. pithy) plays about commonplace topics
b) slobber all over itself and loudly declare its inadequacy by overcompensating with postmodern escape clauses or sensationalist uber-absurdist id-worship
c) only spend money on the dead masters who don't need a royalty check anyway or
d) only spend money on clumsy diorama versions of Disney movies, disaster stories, John Waters films, ANY film, etc.

The ultimatum presented by the Monsterists seems responsible enough. Imagine if the money spent on The Shakespeare Theatre's Tempest went into The Clean House at Woolly Mammoth or anything done at Synetic Theatre? Or if the exposure given to the forthcoming pan-disciplinary Shakespeare-in-art festival went into the forthcoming Capital Fringe festival? It sounds like begging the question because, liberal though we may be, we all still shrug at ticket sales as the best evidence of worthwhile art.

Yes, you do.

Come on, admit it.

Buns in seats, right? Don't worry, it's okay to feel this way. I was hanging out with the venerable Hugh Owen a couple weekends ago when even he confessed, upon seeing the legions of followers at a Coldplay concernt, that "we're in the wrong business." The evidence being, apparently, that Coldplay hits the same basic emotional/philosophical/political notes that say, Tennessee Williams did ... only they're stinking rich! So if no less a busybody leading young male commodity than Hugh will turn his head at the sumptuous chords of the capitalist machine, we should feel no shame in joining him from time to time.

In any event, the re-appropriation of a ghost's royalty money isn't something you can legislate, but it is a choice we can make "in the industry." Besides, if more money really translated into better art and better art always got more money from consumers, The Shakespeare Theatre would never be allowed to fail -- according to the capitalist paradigm. But it has. And how.

Money issues aside, I just love the fact that a handful of playwrights are demanding their right to be imaginative again. And all they're doing is throwing the neo-classicist's rules back at them. The demand for broader license with spectacle and cast size ties into my demand for plays that deal with the literal space a story inhabits. The look and population of the playspace is the greatest advantage theatre has over the other competing entertainments. We charge people $20 for two hours in a poorly-climate-controlled room with uncomfortable seats and no food for a reason. It better be something more than five actors talkin about "fuckin life, man!"

Albee would have you believe that the degeneration of theatre is due to people attending the present-day equivalent of circuses and executions. That's how he dismisses the TV and movie crowd. All that other media is just shit and the cognoscenti of today are basically the same people who were discerning enough to attend the theatre four hundred years ago. I read that in an interview of his from lord-knows-when, so maybe he's changed his mind. Or maybe he's cracked open an actual history book and apologized for screwing it up. Either way, I think the belief you have about the utility of live theatre plugs directly into how well your plays are written (i.e. how theatrical they are). In Albee's case, it's a higher order of sarcasm, manipulation and cynicism. Sadly, "higher order" usually just means "polysyllabic" and "manipulation" usually just means "it was all a lie/dream!" And unless you think we need more sarcasm, manipulation and cynicism in American culture, there's not much else to recommend theatre as a worthwhile venue for your daily dose.

So anyway, the anchoring moral for Monsterism is that the administrative side needs to take a jump if the playwright's are going to take a jump. We're such a tight crowd when it comes to voting for the right political candidate -- so why are we so conservative when it comes to nurturing the lifeforce of our own art form?

That's my piece for Monsterism-as-critique-of-the-status-quo. Here's why I like it in its own right. Besides being a welcome antidote to the above-mentioned problems, Monsterism (from the sound of it) might actually have a shot at making playwrights the Romantics they should be. If theatre isn't the best channel for transmitting news, political discourse, escapism or education, then what does it do better than anything? Ooooh! Essay question for everyone! I'll tell you mine if you tell me yours.

In short: when playwrights dare to (are allowed to) shoot for the moon ...
  1. They stop hacking out meticulously coded inner-monologues and shoe-horning them into arcane stage directions (see: Albee again) and ...
  2. Start ... well ... trying to explore instead. When they explore instead of interpolate, they usually find out that ...
  3. What we do is more dramatic than what we think. After that ...
  4. The subject matter switches to how the world could be instead of how shitty the world presently is. This orientation demands solutions to bridge the two. Because a Romantic-Monster aesthetic would celebrate and engage the imagination and intellect ...
  5. All solutions offered in the Romantic-Monster canon would have to be compelling on a philosophical/conceptual level. Not just the tactile/emotional/gastrointestinal level. As a result ...
  6. Audiences would emulate the spirit and belief systems of genuine heroes instead of the speeches and mannerisms of useless anti-heroes.
Our imagination is one of the few places where we have a chance to get it right: utopia, true love, perfection or just the funniest joke ever. So let's save the pith for the fortune cookies.


Karl's Dad said...

I thought Fear and Loathing in Las District would be the choice for your banner. But your current choice is simple and direct. I was going to suggest "To Live and Die in Las District".

H said...

Monsterism is great in theory. I would love nothing better than to see new truthful work on the stage, directed and performed with brilliance. You begged the question "What would happen?" Well it would be one of three things.

The first could be that interesting, thought provoking work would abound and we would not have to see some playwright's vision smudged because the theatre did not have enough money to costume someone correctly or some such nonsense. Marketing would be so huge that audiences would flock to see this fresh piece of art and a generation of true theatregoers would be born.

Second, all of the above could happen except that no matter how much marketing was done the audience would still fail to show up. The 'lower class' that put butts in the seats of centuries past has moved on to mass media. The theatre has become a mystery to most of our population. It is something considered elite and henceforth, many are wary of coming to a show, let alone a new one (most would say, if it is Grease I will go, but what the hell is Velvet Sky?) The primary makeup of those seeing theatre are the wealthy and artists (who usually wrangle comps from friends). The crazy part here is that Mr. & Mrs. Smith (to use your example) costs $10 to go see and you could get into live theatre for $15 - less if its a PWYC.

The third 'what if' is the one I fear most and see on a regular basis. It is the jading of artists who become too comfortable in their cushy dressing rooms. Passion is many times the price that is paid for a well-funded production. To go back to Albee - Arena's production of The Goat (what I consider a to fairly preachy and redundant piece, but at least it has drama) looked beautiful, cost a lot, got some great actors and lacked ferocity at every turn. Come on folks...he is fucking a goat...can I please see some real emotion, some direction that looks fluid and honest. No is the answer. I got safe, boring and predictable from every corner on that one. The same can be said for a lot of theatre I have seen on Broadway, much at The Shakespeare Theatre, Arena and the Kennedy Center. Don’t they have the best directors, the best actors? Every now and then I get surprised. And it is just that - a surprise when I truly get bowled over. The reason that the theatre in those poorly ventilated little rooms with uncomfortable seats is better is because every person there is doing it for the passion, is doing it against the odds and it raises the stakes. It makes the moments on stage that much more poignant.

Spectacle does drive peoples butts to the seat. But theatre is not just about spectacle, and we will never be able to compete with Hollywood in that realm. Call me a purist, but to paraphrase Grotowski ‘Theatre is the shared experience between the actor and the audience.’ That relationship is what we need to bank on, not money, spectacle, or cast size.

Having said all that, I am desperately hoping that the first ‘what if’ occurs. I would very much like playwrights, directors, actors, etc. to be paid well (and retain their passion). What great art could we accomplish if we did not have to work a day job?! How grand life would be with theatre in more people’s lives. Shared theatre experiences, especially good ones are unifying in a way that film and television could never be. My belief is that outreach and education are the key. We have to rope them in young a foster little theatrelings, so that when they grow up they will throw money at us to make new work. That is where the monster attack should begin.


Anonymous said...

short answer to posed essay question: "to disperse starlight to casual moths."

longer answer..
Romanticism, possibilities...and PHILOSOPHICAL LUST. What theatre disperses best are the questions and tools to wrestle with our own mortality and reasons for being. Market research shows the average age of theatregoers to be 55-60 (same as in church pews - do we see a trend here?) Used to think it was linked only to wealth and discretionary leisure time, but lately have come to wonder if it takes that long for the average American to work through the noise and distractions of materialism and pop culture -- to arrive at a place of soul-searing need that can only be sated by the visceral and imaginative language of the theatre. We "expose" our young to art but we give them no "burning need" for art - much safer to challenge them with algebra problems than philosophical questions.
Ultimately the size of the artist's imagination is the most important "monster" in the house - and we should honor that animal with whatever he needs.

(Seems Mr. Shakespeare was VERY concerned with "butts in seats" - lots of competition from bear baitings and executions of drawn-and-quartered Catholics just down the street...feed the hearts and minds of the groundlings -- or feed the there's a marketing challenge.)