Tuesday, April 25, 2006

seven questions

I found these scribbled in a notebook. I assume I was asking myself. Any answers would be most welcome.

1. Did you choose the stage for vanity?
2. Did you think it was a place to hide?
3. What makes you think people have time to sit and quietly admire your beautiful work of art?
4. What makes you think you have time to sit and carefully craft your beautiful work of art?
5. When Artaud called for no more masterpieces, did you see some sort of exception that applied to you?
6. Why spend your time saying dead men's words, whispering bedtime stories to a bored and sullen elite, when you can speak your own words, shouting terror, joy and revolution in front of enemies and friends?
7. If you're not entertaining an audience, what exactly are you doing out there?

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Political theatre and melodrama

All theatre is political, just as all theatre is ethical. Theatre is a public act. When you act in public, in front of others, you act in a political and ethical context. Jaywalking is a subtle, but clear political act, as is waiting for the lights to change when no cars are coming. The first says to anyone else watching "I understand the rules and I choose to break them." The second says, "I follow the rules even when I see that they are unnecessary." Not giving your seat on the subway to an elder is an ethical act. Poaching a cab from someone is an ethical act. Giving directions is an ethical act. If you're acting in public you are acting politically and ethically, by what you do and what you don't do.

This is why Barefoot in the Park is political. It beautifully and subtly trumpets the status quo of it's time. How much more political could The Lion King be? Like most Disney work, the monarchy ethos could not be clearer, in this ethical and political universe there are those born to rule and those born to be ruled and the most interesting issue, the question we're asked to spend all of our time and energy focusing on, is: how do rulers evolve and become good rulers? Now that's some old school politics. What a playwright or a producer chooses to put on a public stage, or not put on that stage, is the result of interior political and ethical calculations. This isn't true, or certainly it isn't as pressing an issue, for a painter or a novelist or a musician. The playwright and the producer are working towards a live showing in front of live people. The stage, the theater, exists in a political and ethical zone that other artforms do not.

Political theater, or the lack of it here in New York, is a hot topic this spring. We're hearing a lot of people asking "where's the political theatre?" We've got Stuff Happens, we don't have Rachel Corrie and that seems to be the end of it. Guardians down at Culture Project, sure. But in this insanely hyper-politicized era, in this time of global turmoil and open conflict, you'd think there would be a clearer response. Because there is a response, and that response is maintain the status quo. Keep quiet. Soothe the traumatized audience. Convince people, with your silence, that things are the same as they were four years ago.

The last two shows we've put up in New York, Fatboy and screwmachine/eyecandy, have both been branded "political" by the press. Both are fast, angry, funny at the top and then awful at the end. The only "message" they have in common is "we're in deep fucking trouble, folks". We've tried very diligently with both pieces not to point fingers at an administration or an individual. They're not about us and them. They're for and about us.

Because most theater called "political" is just modern-day melodrama. Do we need to spend two hours being told that the Iraqi war was a collosal mistake? Do we need to spend our money and more importantly our time being told that Bush is a moron advancing an apocalyptic agenda? Why are we saying things that we already know?

There is a difference between "issue" theater and politically engaged theater. Issue theater, be it Guantanomo or The Exonorated or Stuff Happens, actually works against the stated or unstated political agenda of the artists involved. Issue theater puts an issue on stage, tells us all in varying shades of black and white how awful and important the issue is and sends us home feeling better about ourselves because we feel that by sitting quietly and listening to something we already know, we've engaged in an issue. We haven't. We've watched a show. And we've been told, explicitly or implicitly, that there are bad people out there and good people out there and by our applause, we've chosen the right side. How far are we from Dick Dastardly tying Sweet Sue to the railroad tracks?

These artists work against their political agenda by taking the outrage and anger and energy of their fellow citizens and turning it into applause. The energy is released. To what practical end?

I'd like to call for a temporary halt to this "issue" theater. If you're working on a play about an issue, put it down and take the time you were planning to devote to it and engage in the actual issue. I'd also like to see a lot more of us aware of and working more directly with the political and ethical ramifications, opportunities and manifestations of our work.

Political theater, like politics, is messy. It should work to implicate, not explicate. It should be frustrating, not illuminating. It should try to make a dangerous animal growl and attack, not jump through beautiful, artful hoops.

Someone somewhere defined politics as the art of the possible. The art of the possible. That's not a bad definition for theater.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

towards a definition of indie theater

Last fall when Bromley started this discussion, I wrote on Martin Denton's blog that trying to re-define Off-Off was a waste of time- time better spent improving the conditions of Off-Off.

After attending the convocation organized and hosted by the indefatigable Dentons last week and listening to some of the arguments, I'm coming around to Bromley's side. The clearest argument for me was economic. New audience members look at the listings and see Broadway, then Off-Broadway and then Off-Off. We're on the bottom of the menu, most people don't read that far down. But a cool name doesn't create a community or help focus energies. And if we're not able to explain what we mean when we say "independent theater" then it's just a new name for the same old chaos. Clearly, something is happening again in the Off-Off or indie or poor-ass crazy theater world of New York. I can't tell you how gratifying and exciting that is, as someone who rode the last great tidal wave of the 90s and has been crawling through the same desolate desert as the rest of you have during the last four or five years. I've been doing some of my crawling in the UK and Australia, so, personally it hasn't been all bad, but to come back to New York and feel things just drifting and bumping along like a dying hot-air balloon has been brutal. I feel a second wave, brethren and sistern, so let's start paddling.

I don't think it's wise, healthy or even possible to describe a common aesthetic to the work created by the independent community. The diversity, idiosyncracies and individual voices and expressions are the exact things that give the community strength. Mark Lonergan and I are not trying to do the same thing and neither of us are tilling Bromley's field. Also, we lose the game before we begin if we define ourselves opposed to anything, especially if that anything is Broadway or commercial theater. So if we take aesthetics and "not being Broadway" off the table, what are we left with in common?

Our shared experience of continuing to produce work despite financial hardship and scant press and audience attention.
Our budgets.
The places we perform.
Our tenacity.

Like it or not, our broadest and most basic commonality is economic and geographical. We spend and earn roughly the same amount of money and we perform in mostly the same places. I would like to champion the adventurousness and the spirit and the genius and brilliance of the community, but let me lay down two uncomfortable truths:

1. Adventure and risk and spirit and genius and brilliance can be found in all levels of theater. Even Broadway, kids. Liz McCann put Well on the Great White Way. Leigh Silverman, the director of Well is one of us from way back. They put Festen up there, which I haven't seen, saw the London production, straight-out brilliant. I know it feels good to say "This is where the art happens, man, not all that commercial bullshit", but it's naive and inaccurate to say it.

2. Some of the work in the indie community absolutely sucks. I don't have to go into detail here or call anyone out, just, come on. If we can't be honest with each other, we're not going to build anything that lasts. And if we claim brilliance and some stranger comes down and sees crap, we look like liars and idiots.

So if we start with economic and geographical, we have a clear, simple definition. We are artists who work in theaters with 99 seats or fewer. We can all name ten to twenty of those theaters. They are physical sites we can point to and direct audiences, politicians and other artists towards. The advantage of an economic and geographical definition is that it is a concrete definition.

If we define the indie community as those artists working in these spaces, we can move immediately to the next step, which is turning the indie theater community into an indie theater movement. A community has common interests, a movement has common goals. So what are some goals? Top of my head:

All the venue operators of 99 seat or smaller theaters and all the companies that work in them and all of the union actors who have spent years and years doing these goddamned showcase code productions get together and in an organized, patient, friendly and public way negotiate the deal that L.A. has with the 99 seat theater plan. Paul Bargetto from East River Commedia turned me on to this. He is fired-up to make this happen. It's not as complicated as creating a new contract, the contract already exists, it's just a matter of getting it approved in a different territory. This alone would transform downtown or indie theater entirely.

Begin a comprehensive survey of our collective audience. In a year we could demonstrate precisley our economic impact and we use this to get respect, money and access to the city and state politicians.

Begin to advertise together. Obvious one.

Begin to create a National Alternative Touring Circuit by exchanging shows with like-minded, young, poor artists outside of New York who run or have access to similar venues.

So here's my big idea:

To do all of this in an organized fashion, I propose we create the League of Independent Producers. Anyone who produces in a 99 seat theater or smaller in New York is eligible to join as a full member, anyone who produces or is interested in what we're doing can join as an associate member. The League is dedicated to increasing the awareness, health and security of companies and artists who work in 99 seat theatres and facilitating communication and collaboration between 99 seat venues. The League has a chairman and a secretary, all full members get a full vote and all decisions are made by a majority vote. We meet four times a year for a big brawl. Now I'm starting to make this up off the top of my head, but you get the idea. It's the Joe Hill mantra, "don't mourn, organize".

That's why we lost the last Cultural War and don't kid yourselves, that war is over and we lost badly. We're not organized. We're not thinking long-term. How many more small theaters have to flare up, fight for five years and close? How many more bright young artists have to stand backstage and be told that there are only three people in the house? How many more checking accounts will be drained with nothing to show for it? Off-Off, to use the old term, is over 45 years old. It has a legacy. Does it have a future? What are we doing, concretely, to assure that future?

Let me know what you think.