Friday, July 08, 2005

Romantic Monsters

Responses to the previous post:

H

I think the three scenarios you offer make sense. Just found this post from a blog called, appropriately enough, Mirror Up to Nature:

The Guardian talks about a movement called "Monsterism," which claims to be a doctrine to get playwrights to think bigger and better. I think it will probably prove to be only useful in making the first few practitioners of it famous enough to get regular work before they abandon the church they started. Think Dogma 95.

Their Manifesto for the most part lacks vision or creativity, most of it is a rehash of things one would learn from The Art of Playwrighting by Largos Egri.

Jose Rivera wrote a much more daring and inspiring credo for playwrighting in American Theatre a few years back.

I dug around for that article by Rivera, but couldn't find it in the A.T. online archives. As for Largos Egri's book, I don't recall much more about it besides the fact that it was written in the 50's with an eye toward screenwriting (when the overlap in playwright/screenwriter population was bigger than today). Would like to check those sources if anyone out there happens to have them. Esp. Rivera's, whatever it was.

If one of the dangers of the minimalist, po-mo aesthetic is that anything can be reduced to a semantic or subjectivist flourish (e.g. Buddhism was "soooo '1993'.") -- then Monsterism's greatest weakness may be the fact that it already has a name. Since I believe the romonsterist school (such as it is) would be doing battle with the minimalist/pomo camp that encourages such casual reductionism, these dangers and weaknesses are important -- if for no other reason than the monsterists would have to fight minimalism on its own philosophic playground before effectively carving out a place of its own on the bandwidth. Fight fire with fire, then with water. I think the author of "Mirror" is just trying to say that, as with any new school, there's the danger that monsterism will spawn a flock of annoying fundamentalists who never really knew what the fundamentals were. Now is the time to clarify.

After ten years, Dogma95 films offer little else than the knowledge that the film you're watching conforms to certain rules for lighting, camera placement, editing, special effects, etc. Because many of the rules strike professionals as arbitrary or self-referential, they don't "enforce" clarity of vision or purity of craft as much as they enforce the sustenance of Dogma95 as a movement. Not that great films haven't been made using these rules; just that the rules themselves aren't effective guidelines for making superior art.

Couple reasons I believe monsters won't fall into the same trap:

1. Dogma95 was about the imposition of fundamental restrictions on the craft of film-making (natural light only, no mounts for the cameras, no digital film/cameras). Monsterism is about the re-appropriation of existing resources to more deserving writers -- so that they may overcome restrictions. The lament that spawned it wasn't about economics as much as it was about management.

This ties into what "H" mentions in his/her post: If it's really about money, why are there so many crappy productions at Arena, Shakespeare, and the Kennedy Center? Taken further, this attitude goes from saying "more money's not the answer" to saying "more money's actually the problem." Both are false. The theatre community has money. Lots of it, actually. And while more support from grants and groundlings would be nice, it doesn't change the fact that we have to be smarter about the resources we already have. So while H continues that "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," I submit, again, that the seminal gripe from those early monsterists wasn't that marketing, design, acting, and directing resources were poor -- merely put in service of self-defeating goals.

2. While Monsterism makes certain judgements about contemporary theatre, it doesn't preclude two-person epics, living room dramas, naturalism, etc. I think I gave off the wrong impression earlier when I said something to the effect that Stephen Adly Guirgis's plays would work just as well on the radio. Well, they wouldn't and couldn't -- mostly because half the language wouldn't pass FCC standards. Theatre is still useful for writers who care to let language be the driving force of their composition -- a choice that mainstream media doesn't honor. Bear in mind, please, that print culture does this better than theatre does. Theatre can be a refuge for such writers, but rarely a home. After a while, the freeloaders need to move out and write a novel if they want that much linguistic/psychological sovereignty. Happily, Monsterism is more about kicking the canon forward than excommunicating the writers who've adapted to it. It's a school, not a crusade. And its starting axis is writers qua management, not writers qua writers.

Having said that, H brings up another interesting point: where do the fancypants actors fit into this? Sounds like H believes actors are even more susceptible to the influence of money. How many of us retreat to cushy gigs as third spear-shaker that will pay student loans for a change instead of bold, new works that can't beat off creditors when they knock? How will better play composition affect this? Mamet and Albee are decidedly anti-actor and I count that as their greatest failing. I believe the relationship of writer qua actor ties into this, even though it hasn't been articulated by the monsterists yet. Put simply, I believe acting is a creative, not interpretive, enterprise. Mamet, taken seriously, would prefer that actors not only resist creation, but that they resist interpretation, too. "Mimetic artist" is perhaps the highest calling he enunciates for performers. Why he finds mimicry "courageous" is beyond me. That we interpret goes without saying. It's like admitting that audiences should probably speak English before they sit down to watch Shaw. Beyond that, the distinctions are vast.

The creative v. interpretive issue needs to be resolved in its own right because any overall aesthetic should harness every last bit of creative umph anyone cares to bring -- monsterism is refreshing to me because it acknowledges that writers and producers need to be on the same page. But it's in service of better productions, not just better scripts. Mamet and Albee only ask that the fuckin' actors get out of the way of the true artists. And theatre is weaker for it. To borrow H's example of the lavish treatment of The Goat at Arena Stage -- it was a story that didn't merit its funding because at its heart was a writer who holds essential theatricality in shameful contempt -- after it was written, there was no hope of dolling it up to make it stage-worthy. That's why the monsterist revolution begins with writers, but depends on producers and actors, not as mere tools, but as honorable contributors to the creative process.

Economically speaking, again, the whole enterprise will be stronger and more competitive if actors are given the creative premium they deserve. I know this is hard since many actors are annoying as fuck. There should still be an authority structure that pivots on the vision of the artistic director, but the sad fact is you can have theatre without scripts. You can't have it without actors. If more actors realized the primacy of their existence, they'd be in a better bargaining position for their own well-being and could go about discriminating between projects for more compelling reasons (i.e. the value/utility of the project instead of the paycheck of the project). It'd be nice (though kinda silly) if AEA factored in the value of new characters over dead ones when they designed their pay-scales, but ... maybe they should figure out our dental plan first.

Regarding spectacle, I don't think the idea is to force theatre to keep pace with movies and television -- enough Broadway re-mounts are already in that trap. It's not about paying for an explosion on stage instead of paying for a good monologue or actor. It's about realizing that theatre is a temporal-spatial art form more than a language-driven art form. That third dimension is ours, kids. We should probably do something with it, and quick. The parallax between eyeballs isn't going to cut it.

Sure, we all "know" this -- but rarely are plays written or performed with that knowledge held as an irreducible axiomatic truth. Living room dramas are fine, as long as there's a reason we're in the living room. Naturalistic snapshots are fine, as long as there's a reason we need to visit nature at that time and in that place. Monsterism wouldn't purge these plays, but it would demand a more forthright justification for their respective settings and POV's. The best justification, in my mind, would be that the theme and subject-matter requires them. The very core of the story deals with issues of time and place. This does not hold that the story is strictly unified in time and space, as Aristotle would have it, but that our relationship with time and place is the first goal, however primordially, of the theatre makers.

6 comments:

RennyRu said...

Reading the "monsterism manifesto" and H's response to the previous post, and now this one has got me thinking about an important issue that H brought up regarding the average "lower class" joe-schmoe dude's lack of connectivity to the theatre and how it can effect the outcome of the monsterism movement.

It made me think of one of the remarks that Moira Buffini made in that essay. She said, "I've got to the point where I want to kick down the walls of these boxes." I understand that much of what she was saying was referring to the frusteration of limits in casting and production possibilities, but that comment made me curious as to what would be outside of the black box were she really to kick them down. Fields? Pastures? Towns? Villages? Cities? The greater masses of people? I was under the impression that the black box (as she was referring to it)was a canundrum in and of itself rather than a house that was too small for the family that it housed.

The trouble that I seem to have with monsterism is that it seems to want to exchange the little black box for the big schmancy theatre and all of the resources that comes with it. While I agree with the aesthetic tenets of monsterism as well as the notion that it is important for writers to be able to write thought- provoking and powerful works without being fettered by marketing and limited budgets, I don't see how accessing bigger spaces and the best financial resources will make people appreciate theatre any better-- especially if the powerful and thought provoking works are pushed into an arena that is more elite than the one that it was in before.

The trouble that I have with commercial/mainstream theatre is that it always seems to trickle down instead of build from the ground up. I think about the community theatres that I grew up performing in... season after season we saw little other than remountings of Tennessee Williams, Eugene O'neil, Neil Simon, Arthur Miller, or Rogers and Hamerstein, maybe a classical piece, or a straight play or musical that was maybe a year or two off Broadway. For example, this past season in the Washington DC area, at least three community theatre productions of "Proof." MY GOD!!! It's like that with musicals too. The unfortunate truth that derives from this is that the average "every-day" community member who may happen to go to the theatre every once in a while is only going to experience the pap that gets passed down to them (eventually) from New York or London.

I guess it is possible to say that monsterism could possibly improve the quality of what gets trickled down but that doesn't necessarily mean that people are going to care about theatre any more than they do now. I think instead what we're missing is a theatre movement that starts with communities and builds up to a national and international scale. In order to have that, writers would need to focus their energy on the local in an almost evengelical sort of way. Same with Directors. Yes, good writers and directors are needed everywhere but where I feel we need them the most are in the community/non-profits shows put on by volunteers in churches and school auditoriums. That is where many people learn to either value or devalue theatre. If people can learn to appreciate theatre, not a escapist musical camp or novel ideas played out into a tidy ending, but as living breathing art that puts that mirror up and says "look at what we are!", I think it stands a better chance of serving a greater and more noble purpose than merely fighting for survival in an age where it has to compete with frickin' "War of the Worlds," "Road Trip" and "Not Another Scarey Teen Movie 5."

I guess my point is, that when talking about all of these issues concerning writers and theatre managers and writers and actors, its important to keep in mind the necessary relationship between writer and audience and actor and audience and that relationship shouldn't just exist in a blackbox, but it shouldn't just exist in a fancy-schmancy house like the kennedy center either.

I think monsterism is an important movement... but I don't think its the only movement worth building that is going to improve theatre in the ways that artists would like to see it improved.

Um... okay yeah... I think that's all for now. Can I have that cookie?

-Rennyru

Anonymous said...

I will confess to having skimmed the last few entries and my comment will likely have holes, but dammit, I have holes myself so it's fitting.

The thing that frustrates me about writers and actors and artists and such (never know nothing and never know much...)is that we all talk a big game and then do absolutely nothing. We sit around and whine over funding, season choice, pre-casting, day-jobs, blah blah blah, but we rarely get off our asses and put something up. It's hard as hell to mount your own show - I put up an evening of Dada plays a couple of years ago and it almost killed me but I believe it was worth it.

Most people have jobs they hate. Get over it. Find a way to continue to sustain yourself and then go make something. In your spare time. Just for yourself maybe. But I have heard enough of artist day-job angst to last a life time. I've contributed to it myself, but if I'm selling something that nobody is buying, well...perhaps it's time to consider the product.

There's so much here that I can't comment on all of it, but I want to take this moment to defend simplicity. The best MIDSUMMER I ever saw involved 5 actors in simple pantsuits and a wrestling mat. No big scary funding needed there.

And about audience development...it's a bitch. Theatre tickets are expensive and the work so rarely rewarding for the common 26-34 year old that we gave up going (or we never started). Our exposure to theatre is through schools and we all know what that is like. They're not going to come to us, we're going to have to go get them. Laziness is fatal here, we have to earn their attention and dollars. Both are hard to come by.

As for Monsterism for children...sounds scary. Honestly. Put them in a position to create art of their own if you want them to appreciate yours. Don't just try to wow them, let them wow you. They will.

For the host of this discussion, my question is this:

You know what kind of theatre makes you hungry, horny, twitchy, bored...you've got miles of discussion...you can clearly disect a play, so when are you going to shut up and WRITE one?

-Hester the Molester

arcticactor said...

Hester,

I have.

Regards,
arcticactor

H said...

I like the idea that the greatest fallibility of Monsterism is that it was given a name. You can be known as the guy that coined 'Romonsterism'. I too searched for the Rivera article to no avail. If you lay hands on it, please post it. I am very interested. I did find this - http://www.ntcp.org/compendium/artists/JOSE.html. But I don’t think that is it.

I may like the idea, but I do not think it is its biggest failing. Its biggest failing at the moment seems to be that you have a better grasp of it then they do. The Monsterists state that their tenets are:
· Large scale, large concept and, possibly, large cast
· The primacy of the dramatic (story showing) over storytelling
· Meaning implied by action (not by lecture)
· Characters caught in a drama (not there to facilitate a polemic)
· The exposure of the human condition (not sociology)
· Inspirational and dangerous (not sensationalist)
On a practical level the implications of the manifesto are:
· The elevation of new theatre writing from the ghetto of the studio "black box" to the main stage
· Equal access to financial resources for plays being produced by a living writer (i.e. equal with dead writers)
· Use of the very best directors for new plays
· Use of the very best actors for new plays
-From The Guardian, June 27

But they are nothing new. Take 13P (http://www.13p.org/). They are not being constrained by what a play has to be, they are simply making sure each writers play is actually produced.

Ok, now onto the rest. I agree that too many resources are “put in service of self-defeating goals.” I will also agree that if you begin with a quality piece of literature, chances are the end product will be better for it. But I going to have to pull the reins in on the statement that actors are more susceptible to money then directors or playwrights. How many a director has taken a show just for a check, or directed commercials or, my favorite, training videos. As for the writers. I know off too many that have eschewed writing for the boards and taken the ‘last train for the coast’ in hopes of a cushy sitcom job; or if they stay and write for the stage, they sometimes compromise their work, because as one good friend put it “…sometimes I just want to hear them laugh, because I want some instant gratification dammit.” We are all susceptible to money, how could we not be in a profession that loves the phrase ‘starving artist.’

But let me get back to my earlier point. Theatre as an art form is not hugely accessible. When I say that we should rope them in young, I mean just that. If you simply demystify the theatre for young people, they will be more ready to go and see it. Being a good audience member is a learned behavior. It is certainly not being learned in a movie theatre where every audience rule of etiquette is broken. It is not only etiquette that is lost in those moments, but the ability to appreciate the work before you. Yes, Williams, Miller, and Wilder, etc. get produced over and over, because audiences will show up. Well why not? This is what was shoved down their throats as early as high school and it is that foundation that needs to be broadened. Sadly though, average America is not ready to sit through Williams, and they would never dream of sampling Ruhl, Wellman, Margraff, etc. Even our own theatre community is wary of a new shows. I recently ran into a certain theatre critic (who I shall refer to as X) after a show and we were chatting about – what else- shows around town. X was griping about several shows in the past year that were too new and edgy, and that s/he just didn’t get them and s/he was so much happier getting to see a classic. The idea that needs to be fostered is that the theatre is an ever-changing medium. The adventure of it is in its newness as well as its reincarnation. So where is outreach and education in the Monsterist agenda?

-H

ps. Hester - He did.

Washington Cube said...

I'm wondering if you mean Lajos Egri? If you are, his book was "Art of Dramatic Writing: It's Basis in the Creative Interpretation of Human Motives", (Simon & Schuster, 1960.) It's earlier title Was "How To Write A Play" (London, Pitman, 1950).

YS said...

Hi there,

I am the author of Mirror Up To Nature. I love all the discussion here about Monsterism.

The Article I mentioned by Jose Rivera was 36 Assumptions About Writing Plays which had great advice. Not so much a call to action, but incredibly inspiring.

I also hope nobody confuses my Egri comment with some type of endorsement of his basic book on the craft of playwrighting as the be all to end all. I merely note that some of the tenets of Monsterism are basic tools to be found in any primer on the craft.

My first impression on reading the article and manifesto of Monsterism is that it really caused me to think no differently about what I try to do as a theatre artist, and I work in Black Boxes all the time. Working in a black box has never affected the scope of any work I have tried to write or produce. I have done large casts and also two person plays. I have produced Complex Multimedia productions, and things as simple as just one chair.

I enjoy reading all the different angles.