Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Borrowed Kettle

I think it's possible to absorb the first third of Slavoj Zizek's book Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle (2004) without a working fluency in Lacananian psychoanalysis or Hegelese. Here's a fun passage that samples Zizek's freewheeling cold fusions and metaphorical mashups:
According to Jewish tradition, Lilith is the woman a man makes love to while he masturbates alone in his bed during the night -- so, far from standing for feminine identity liberated from the grip of patriarchy, as some feminists claim, her status is purely phallic: she is what Lacan calls La femme, the Woman, the phantasmatic supplement of male masturbatory phallic jouissance. Significantly, while there is only one man (Adam), femininity is from the very beginning split between Eve and Lilith, between the ordinary hysterical barred subject ($) and the phantastmatic spectre of Woman: when a man is having sex with a 'real' woman, he is using her as a masturbatory prop to support his fantasies about the nonexistent Woman ... The catastrophe occurs when the two women collapse into one, when the 'ordinary' partner is elevated to the dignity of Lilith -- which is structurally perfectly homologous to the Zionist elevation of the 'ordinary' Jerusalem into the Jerusalem the Jews had been dreaming about for thousands of years ...
At one point in the '07 workshop, Jason pointed out that for all its digressions and blind alleys, the emotional currents of This Storm Is What We Call Progress still follow a basic love triangle. Lily and The Woman With the Silver Skin have some kind of erotic tie apart from the tutor-mentor relationship they exhibit when we meet them. Adam enters the scene and falls for Lily, but falls harder for the world of the Silver Skinned Woman because her knowledge of Kabbalah offers clues to his Gentile father's madness and suicide.

There is another female character who we never see. God is repeatedly referred to with a feminine pronoun, but I'm speaking of a character who's never even mentioned. Her existence and identity fuels the power dynamic that binds the three on-stage characters as they grind through the necessary convulsions of the love triangle. She is the Jewish half of Adam's hyphenated soul* and for all the fallen-father drama on display, it's a little odd (but maybe appropriately spooky) that we never hear about her -- I didn't even think about her until a couple weeks into rehearsal. I'm speaking, of course, of Adam's nameless mother.

I can only imagine how Adam would tell the story of his parents courtship! "Starving, Gentile, artist father" meets Jewish woman. Father falls deep into the spell of Kabbalah and starts talking to walls, seeing faces and speaking in tongues when Adam is 7 or 8 and continues his descent through Adam's adolescent years, then dies trying to fly off the Golden Gate Bridge when Adam reaches manhood. Bracketed by two powerful women in the foreground drama, Adam eagerly hurls himself into the same thicket of gender/power dynamics that seduced and killed his father.

Not surprisingly, Adam has an op-ed in his pocket about the State of Israel and its spooky overlap with the fascist persecution that catalyzed its creation. Zizek points out a literal overlap in his book, too:
Anyone who is interested in the history of anti-Semitism should remember 26 September 1937: on that day, Adolf Eichmann and his assistant boarded a train in Berlin in order to visit Palestine: Heydrich himself gave Eichmann permission to accept the invitation of Feivel Polkes, a senior high member of Hagannah (the Zionist secret organization), to visit Tel Aviv and discuss the co-ordination of German and Jewish organizations in order to facilitate the emigration of Jews to Palestine. Both the Germans and the Zionists wanted as many Jews as possible to move to Palestine. The Germans preferred to have them out of Western Europe, and the Zionists themselves wanted the Jews in Palestine to outnumber the Arabs as quickly as possible.
He goes on to state that both groups, therefore, were pursuing a kind of "ethnic cleansing." I'm sure there's a great Kosher joke to be had here, but damn if I can summon one. It reminds me of another passage from Storm, where Adam compares an aliyah to membership in the IRA. He's half-Jewish and half-Irish, so both branches of the family tree are marked by terroristic religious warfare.
Because, you know, because, before recently I was no more likely to do an aliyah than I was to join the IRA. But, but, but Zion is descending into this fanaticism and mediocrity. Jews are finally white people, but all that being a white person gets you is the right to be as brutal and vicious and banal as you like without having to say you're, uh, sorry. To build these ugly-ass suburban tract houses on someone else's land because God told you you could have holy sod lawns and holy, holy, holy, aluminum siding.
Like any good artist, Adam holds banality and ugly-ass suburbanity as morally equivalent to brutality and viciousness. Hannah Arendt makes an appearance later to paraphrase her own insight about the "banality of evil" by dismissing the whole Third Reich as "an old and oft-recurring story and not particularly original."

Now, it's fun to snipe at the Philistines (what Zizek might call "the jouissance of the theatre geek"), but the unoriginal thesis that "evil is unoriginal" is only one part of the dialectic engaged in Storm. The preponderance of the play is about how the mundane and the ecstatic converge everywhere. Records descend from the sky. Tupperwear and metro cards become holy totems. Oddly specific prophecies abound ("the next person you see will die in an elevator accident"). Hasidim Jews wear baseball caps and bomber jackets. And "all the bullshit writing that's around us everywhere is some kind of prayer" -- this includes Chinese take-out menus and junk mail. So while Adam can get a lot of reinforcement from Arendt, and a lot of righteous glee by savaging the ugly-ass suburban aesthetic, he also has to contend with the "banality of god" glowing at him from every Manhattan sewer.

On the surface of it, this Kabbalistic code-breaking resembles John Nash's schizophrenic scribbling in A Beautiful Mind or Catherine's madness in Proof.** Any collection of symbols -- random junk mail, magazine articles, Chinese takeout menus -- can be thrown into the cipher-mill and "divined" for paranoid Communist infiltration or, in the case of Adam's father, the emergent life-force of God herself.*** But the question of madness isn't nearly as interesting as the question of power, even when the two seem inseparable. Sex, art, politics, religious ritual -- these are different wormholes into the same ecstatic flush and Jason finds a potent scene for each of them. In Storm, the Kabbalah isn't offered as a subject unto itself; it's mostly another wormhole. Or rather, Kabbalah is the skeleton key that opens innumerable over-the-counter wormholes everywhere.

Near the end, Arendt goes on to explain that the real drama isn't about the banal gray concrete of Nazi power, but the brilliant man who loved her slightly less than that power. How do you separate Heidegger's ideas from his ideology? How does Hannah (or Lily or Adam's mom) separate love of the former from revulsion for the latter? How does any man find common cause between his heart and his solar plexus? And between both and his dick?

For me, these are the questions raised and the dramas activated by Grote's Storm. Also there are great jokes! We're extending through July 27, so do join us at Camp Rorschach in cushy Georgetown where you'll find a veritable multiplex of crazy-fun shit. We just opened Skin of Our Teeth to critical acclaim and the Randy Baker's episodic project Dream Sailors launches tomorrow. You can read a profile of that one in today's Post as well.


*hyphenated soul Adam is trying to write a Sam-Shepard-meets-Tony-Kushner solo show called "American Shylock." We joke backstage that once he fails at this, he turns to the Irish half of his checkered lineage and writes a show called "American Shamrock."

**a treat for veteran readers I've complained about A Beautiful Mind and Proof before and it's precisely because they can't find any space between madness and insight, preferring instead to ape the same Promethean morality tale while fetishizing intellect along the way.

***to divine Interesting how that verb can simultaneously reflexive and active. You can divine odor from a gym sock, or you can divine the fuck out of a gym sock and worship the thing. Transubstantiation is in the hand of the beholder?

Monday, July 14, 2008

Against a National Theatre

Like just about any theatre professional who's lingered in an unpaid Manhattan sabbatical, I've had tons of free time to blog and bitch about The System. I keep waiting to catch the crest of the perennial Why We're Screwed debates, but I always get to the beach at low tide. I also think I'm one of maybe three bloggers who hasn't seen or read Mike Daisey's How Theatre Failed America. But now that Isaac is dedicating four forthcoming posts to the subject, I figure this is as good a time as any to pull out that dusty screed I've been saving on my desktop for the last year and half.

A passage from Parabasis:
... better work results from a system in which more people are making a living from their art. I witness this every time I hold auditions or go into a rehearsal room. Many people who want to work in theatre and also not starve find one of several different options for subsidizing employment. They either (a) work a full-time day job that they do not care about, (b) work a full-time job that they do care about, (c) work a part-time or sporatic job (like temping) that they do not care about or (d) work a part-time or sporatic job that they do care about. I know very few people who belong in category b, who are capable of having two simultaneous work passions that take up fourteen hours of their day. I know a lot of people in Category A, and it is largely those people that I’m talking about here.

For the five years I worked in DC, I was happily lodged in the manic rush of category B. I was a screenwriter/film editor by day and an actor the rest of the time. The living wage came from the former and the latter received all the passion and commitment. My familial, fraternal, and romantic relationships suffered, no question. But I loved my work and felt too much gratitude for the opportunities in front of me to pause and critique the larger system. During this time, many extremely talented friends would call to report on the bleak prospects for meritorious advancement in the LA-NYC theatre scene. I never felt the need to leave the District and I would stump for DC each time they called, but no one ever believed me. Or, if they did, it was no matter because the nominal distinction had become more important that the qualitative distinction (Much has been written about this superficial bias, and it's not my real concern here).

The artist's life comes with an implicit poverty vow that gains extra charm because most of us are already some flavor of socialist. I'd like to take that view seriously for a moment to see if a simple inventory of our "means of production" would reinforce the general anywhere-but-new-york meme that's been gaining traction for the last few years.


We forge theatre in time, space, and people. The production of theatre, the actual live event, requires actors and real estate before it requires anything else. The presence of the playwright -- the very reality of the playwright -- is the first thing the audience pretends away when they suspend disbelief. Contra Albee (Mamet, et al) good writing cannot redeem bad acting the way great acting can redeem mediocre writing. A quick perusal of any New York theatre review will tell the same basic story: competent, even compelling acting put in the service of bad directing or playwriting. This critical distinction persists because it is not the actor's job to imagine the intentions or inner conflicts of the playwright. However, it is the job of the playwright to imagine the intentions and inner conflicts of genuine characters. To sustain the illusion central to live theatre, actors employ the (intensely creative) art of forgetting. We must unlearn the plot, the ending, the secret appraisals of other characters, previous productions in history and previous performances within the current production. In a sense, we must also unlearn the identity/pathology of the playwright.

Not surprisingly, the Mamet/Albee school loudly insists that actors are not creative artists, but interpretative artists. More compelling theorizers like George Hunka will simply say that the playwright is the Origin of the theatrical experience, but this amounts to the same judgment. Forgetting for a moment that the very phrase "creative artist" is about as redundant as "smart genius" or "strong bodybuilder," what possible distinction remains for the "interpretive artist"? True, we judge some actors against a literary Ideal when it comes to Shakespeare. But Shakespeare endures and earns this standard because interpretation remains an inexhaustible task. Any "definitive" production of Shakespeare -- satisfying and refreshing as it is when it emerges -- will always gather some friendly mockery in succeeding generations because we discover that Hamlet has as much to tell us about post-modernism and the War on Terror as he does about Freud and existentialism, etc.* As Walter A. Davis put it in Get the Guests (his wonderful analysis of Albee and others), "representation exceeds intention." Or, to paraphrase Marx, what we create is always ahead of where we are. If we accept and internalize this, we see that the quest for airtight interpretation has no place in live theatre. It is therefore foolish and insulting to relegate the actor to the status of "watchable" meat-puppet when a true understanding of their primacy only expands what is possible in dramatic literature and dramatic performance.

That's a much bigger subject, of course, but indulge me on this point for a moment because I think the mistaken primacy of the playwright comes to bear on Isaac's econ questions.


A quick hand count. The word "commodity" is still anathema to authentic theatre folk, right? We despise the corporate model that exports mass-produced, tangible widgets through a franchise system with some alienating bureaucracy at the top. Well, without veering too much into the debate about intellectual property or royalties, consider first that the script (primary or not) is the only thing can be mass-produced and disseminated with perfect fidelity. We hamper ourselves enormously and abandon all pretensions for a "National Theatre" or "American Theatre" when we treat actors as commodities instead.

The publishing industry requires a centralized-product-producing model to function. The Internet may be gradually undermining this model the way it's started to undermine the monolithic status of the New York Times, but that's only made things easier for the playwright. Actors, unlike scripts, are still living things that cost a lot of money to shuffle and relocate, never mind the interpersonal costs of migrant worker life (see, again, Isaac). This bizarre, inverted model -- where the lifeblood is commodified and the commodity is sacrosanct -- owes its continued hegemony to the New York Centrism that dominates our present conception of "American Theatre."

An example of the surcharges built into the NY-centric system. I was playing a supporting part as a local actor at Arena's Kreeger Theatre in DC and got $850/week gross. A good friend of mine was playing one of the leads and came to the project by way of NYC, where her agent had talked up her contract to $1000/week – but 10% of that new figure went right back to the person who secured it, leaving her with $900 gross. One of the other leads came to the table with an established history of DC theatre and Arena work and consequently, didn't feel the need to engage his NYC representation to get a fair deal. So an agency can help you get a part and pay for itself along the way, but the whole process of negotiation and commission is completely redundant for the community surrounding the venue.

For someone in their position, the real profit (and the second NY-centric surcharge) comes from the free housing and transportation provided by the theatre. Deft subletees can maximize regional work to live rent free for months at a time – which is great, as long as you don’t mind not having a permanent home. The Round House columbinus production had two out-of-town actors: one ensemble member from Alaska and one lead from NYC (Will Rogers, who had been with the project since he was a student at NCSA). Round House put them up at the Hilton down the street for three months. By contrast: when I was called to re-join the same project at New York Theatre Workshop as one of the leads, such amenities were not forthcoming. In fact, I was told I needed to have an NYC address, and my own housing in the city – in essence, to fund my own semi-permanent relocation and become a “local” NYC actor overnight if I wanted to keep my job.

So the NYC system doesn't just trade on expensive exports that have to be reinforced and mediated by an extra layer of bureaucracy in the form of agents and managers. The system is also hostile to imports. The exchange of talent is a rigidly one-way transaction. Some artists relocate to New York because their school plants them there; others move at their own peril and at great expense. At this time, it's worth introducing some figures from the closest thing I have to a control sample: the regional and NYC productions of columbinus.

The world premiere happened at Round House Theatre's Silver Spring, Maryland stage. This 150-seat venue charged $30 a ticket and paid $400/week -- I was non-Equity at the time. NYTW is a 199-seat venue that charges $60 a ticket and pays an Equity Off-Broadway contract at $500/week. As it happens, the NYTW salary falls just underneath the commission-able threshold for agents and managers. So an actor can work there without sacrificing 10-20% of their gross pay to their “people.” But even then, taxes and union dues leave you with, perhaps, $400-450/week. Depending on how farsighted you are with taxes, this money can go a long way, but $1600-$1800 net pay per month doesn’t leave much room for savings or Equity's new health care premiums, to say nothing of the disproportionate cost of living in NYC. By way of comparison, New York unemployment insurance caps at $405/week before taxes. And that number is purposely designed to be unlivable as a motivation for finding employment.

Try swapping any of the variables in those two examples. To find an Arena salary in a NYC theatre project, you’d have to be on Broadway, simple as that. All the mid-sized and larger venues in DC routinely cast the majority of their parts with local actors and pay a wage that has no NYC correlate outside Broadway. At any rate, if a 150-seat house in suburban Maryland can pay non-Equity actors a wage that keeps pace with an esteemed 199-seat Off-Broadway house we might want to ask where the 100% ticket price increase comes from and where it goes if its not being used to accommodate visiting talent or provide a more livable wage.


The answer is the second of the two main ingredients I identified as our means of production earlier. Real estate. Now I'm sure we all reserve some extra admiration for the ice sculptor who manages to carve a perfect Venus on the surface of Venus ... but surely this basic environmental liability isn't what makes it a masterpiece. The top-down orientation that informs Albee's script-bound view of theatre has a structural match in the NY-centric model surrounding it. If we dare to reverse this, we open ourselves to a founding recognition: The Theatre is a dynamic place bound in time before it is a piece of "timeless," easily-reproduced literature.

At present, New York is the only place where bad art constitutes a territorial affront** and good art remains undersold and oversupplied. In any supersaturated market, marketing itself becomes as prohibitive as real estate costs. So in addition to agency, casting and real estate, theatres must spend still more energy and money playing with reductive "brands" and vying for the fractured attention of audiences who already have a couple dozen masterpieces to chose from in any given season.

If we wish to exempt ourselves from the vagaries of the late capitalist system that keeps us beholden to markets and real estate, we have two significant internal revolutions available to us.

1. Theatre, as a medium, must recover its roots in dance and improvisation to escape from a script-bound conception of the aesthetic. As long as we insist on reducing the theatrical event to that which can be symbolically codified -- and as long as we appropriate musical, verbal or televisual standards to enforce it -- we will kill what remains of the medium's vitality and immediacy. We will make architecture, not art. I know actors can be annoying as fuck, but that's why the biggest challenge here falls to them. It would be nice if theatres returned to the company system, yes, but a truly radical theatre would build itself from the ground up, with performance, not text, as the ground. So rather than call for another lame moratorium on Shakespeare, I suggest that fellow actors become the proprietors first. Sadly, too many actors remain content to treat themselves as commodities, as sexy objects of fascination.

2. The Theatre, as a place, must find a place for itself that doesn't require submission to avoidable bureaucracy and scarcity. I have no doubt that there are more than enough amazing actors, directors, and designers to fully populate a dozen regional circuits, but that the overwhelming majority of them are sitting idle in New York. The same things that make New York an invigorating cauldron also make it an insulating womb. If one wishes to divine a sexy "American" imperative from all this, consider this next revolution our Manifest Destiny of the Bodied Soul or something. Artistic cognition can be contemplative, critical, cathartic, kinesthetic, and polysensual ... but it is also the site of something much simpler. It is sui generis and it is pure exploration. I've said this before -- we feel a kindred calling with priests, doctors, musicians, judges, social servants, and gym teachers. It's about time we recognized our kinship with explorers and left mom's basement. Because I'd like to think New York is the Heart, Brain, Soul, Womb, Tomb or Towering Cock of American Theatre, but more and more it looks like the Liver. Now before any of my colleagues bristle at that metaphor, recall: the liver is still the BIGGEST internal organ, and every drop of life blood must pass through it. So I freely validate any claims to size or universality. I only ask that we remember in turn the Liver's true function: to digest and detoxify.

But to back up that parting metaphor, I need to dust off another essay about the nature of criticism in New York and how all of the above fits with what thinkers as diverse as Christopher Lasch and Herbert Marcuse call "alienated labor." Suffice it to say that The Culture of Narcissism and Eros & Civilization both have a lot to teach us about what's wrong with "American Theatre." Far from being exempt from the workaday grind of professional drudgery, New York theatre professionals have crafted a masochistic system that outdoes its secular-corporate counterpart by a magnitude of 10. We work for $1/hour. We log 60-hours a week easily. We forgo relationships and families, health insurance and retirement and all voluntarily. And then we scoff when someone choses to work at Wal-Mart. It's time to take our critique of late capitalism and turn it back on ourselves.

More later ...

* Hamlets In the past five years, I've played Hamlet, and seen the Silent Hamlet, the Digitally Reconstituted Binary Iamb Wooster Group Hamlet, Jeffrey Carlson's directed by Michael Kahn, Wallace Acton's directed by Gail Edwards, Sean McNall's at the Pearl (by far the best of them all), and most recently Michael Stuhlberg's in Central Park. I find it hard, even painful, to imagine a similar string of Georges and Marthas. I don't want to spend all night arguing with my friends about whether or not the latest George effectively conveyed Albee's arcane dialog instructions -- but I can spend hours contemplating the subclauses paused into existence by a new reading of 2B or not 2B. Nobler-in-the-mind? Nobler, in-the-mind-to-suffer?

** territorial affront Could there be any doubt that Manhattan's island-economy scarcity creates the thuggish, gang-like enforcement of theatrical ghettos? Broadway, off-Broadway, Fringe, downtown, Brooklyn, showcase and Indie theatre? NYC is by far the most democratically mobile populace in the country. But you wouldn't know it from the bitching that ensues when someone suggests seeing a show in far-flung enclaves like Brooklyn or (gasp!) Jersey City. In the meantime, bloggers keep complaining about the commercialism of Broadway, but they still feel reverence enough for that 20-square-block chunk of Midtown to defend it from unwashed Midwesterners. I'm guessing most still regard Broadway as the pinnacle of any theatre career, too. I've been reading a book of Albee's essays and if I've learned anything from the dude it's that this gripe goes back as far as 1962, probably earlier. I don't get it. Either we move on or we add the Reformation of Broadway to our list of crusades.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Only the Angel of History

Some images from our production of This Storm is What We Call Progress -- (c) 2008 by Keith A. Erickson.

Peter Marks of the Washington Post wrote a very nice review. I love how Rorschach has carved out this brand for itself -- a standard that carries over into mainstream criticism of the company. If there's a psycho/history play with lots of blood and sex that bites off way more than it can chew, we will pounce on it. As the oft-referenced Tony Kushner explains it, excess and pretension are not liabilities; they are essential ingredients!

It's a rich vein of robust, omnidirectional narrative style that has marked American literature since Melville (who happens to be Kushner's favorite). Another review, from the Washington Times, found the play more scattershot and disorienting. But even that vantage allows for some dizzy pleasure.

For the most effusive review to date, check out Tim Treanor at DC Theatre Scene.

As if the opening night wasn't fun enough, I got to wake the next morning and hang out with Callaghan and Co. over at Woolly Mammoth. Her Fever/Dream will be there next year and I had just seen Crumble: Lay Me Down Justin Timberlake (at this theatre, directed by this gal), so I was excited to be in the same room while she, Howard, and Woolly's literary staff threw noodles against the wall. Now that I think about it, that workshop was one of the more constructive and invigorating I've seen in a while. I hope it felt that way for Sheila because she's got an exciting, ripe monster of a story with this adaptation of Calderon's "Life is a Dream."

In the meantime, Grote's own "Maria/Stuart" will be at Woolly this coming September. We at Rorschach Theatre take great pride in introducing him to DC at least six weeks before that. Ha HA! Nous sommes plus avant-garde que toi!