Voices more fashionable than mine continue to say that Seattle is poised for an artistic revolution. It all seems quite unlikely in the Seattle of now, where laziness and anti-intellectualism in the theater seem to have sunk to a depth that makes the Mariana Trench seem like the High Himalaya.
While I remain more skeptical than most, I do believe that if there is to be some sort of revolution it should have some guidelines to prevent it from lapsing again into recidivism. Of course there is no such thing as a Rough Guide to Cultural Revolution and even if there were Penguin USA would sue someone for breach of copyright. One alternative, which I offer here, is a series of maxims for thinking. Not for thinking about, but for thinking with. They are as likely to be remembered by anyone in the Seattle theater community as the first hundred digits of π or the last time any artistic director in town opined that his position was in fact unnecessary to the liberation of humankind.
One of the last great revolutions was lead by a theater writer. Perhaps the next will be. A Soft Revolution is an ideal revolution. Exactly what that means I will leave to you to figure out. Proceeding from the self-evident truth that I can help no one’s career and am therefore an irrelevant part of the theatrical process, I realize that my role in that velvety revolution is minor, perhaps nonexistent. Nevertheless, just as in the parable of the sower, I write and hope that some ideas actually fall in fertile ground. Just don’t blame me for planting them.
Theater: Death and Dying
Axiomatic, if one equates theater with the people who make it: The theater is always dying because people are always dying.
Poor craftsmen blame their tools. Theater practitioners blame television, the movies, iPods and the Internet.
Once upon a time our nation was glued nightly to the radio for their entertainment. Americans no longer sit listening to Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar or Gunsmoke, yet radio stations have not gone out of business. How dare they remain in business when theater is dying!
The best audience for drama is not to be found in theaters but outside of them. The largest audience for theater is not to be found in the theaters but outside of them. Meanwhile, there are arguments over not enough spaces for theater.
In the quest to find themselves their next job, theater artists forget to find themselves the next audience.
Theatre Values Project tells theaters that audiences are too old and youth are the future. The response comes: more electronic devices.
Question the assumption that your audience is illiterate. Question the assumption that your audience is intelligent. Question the assumption that your audience is your audience.
Argument: theater is losing its audience to video games and television. Reality: one can play video games, watch television and still attend theater.
Many people recommending ways of appealing to youth have no children and do not work with them daily. No one considers this an irony.
More choices does not mean smaller audiences. More choices means more audiences.
Stanislavsky: “A good idea, badly shown, dies for a long time.” The contemporary theater avoids this deftly—by having no ideas.
Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Little minds discuss people. Theater people discuss themselves.
Market Research insists that the more likely a play is to appeal to a company, the less likely it is to appeal to an audience. Both sides, however, prefer pabulum.
Anyone who can claim with a straight face that one city in the world is the location not only of the best but also of the only ideas worth consideration is a comedian.
Anyone seriously interested poetry should be familiar with poets like Salamun, Szymborska, Tranströmer; anyone interested in music should be familiar with Mark-Anthony Turnage, John Adams, Kaija Saariaho. Anyone seriously interested in theater should believe that nothing has happened since the rise of American naturalism.
Ideas belong not to space but to time. This is why theater hates ideas.
The Theatre Values Study insists that education of the audience is necessary yet lacking; theaters respond by blaming schools.
“The good experimental film teaches you how to watch it.” The good experimental play teaches other theaters to bitch about what is theater.
All calls for theater education rest on the tenuous assumption that people whose lives are consumed with mediocre costume plays, half-baked notions of classic theater, brain-dead musicals and vacuous attempts at hipster chic are somehow qualified to teach people who can scansion a sestina correctly, comprehend the sonata-allegro form of a string quartet, and analyze the composition of mural painting. Not to mention those who cannot.
Forty years of direct assault against the theatrical canon by groups crying for representation have not expanded the canon; they have simply dismantled it. Moral: representation fails as a zero-sum game.
Education occurs in the mind, not in a building. The problem unique to theater is that there are no minds and a surplus of buildings.
The theater critics of today are most intelligent when they are silent, and more persuasive.
The critic who one fine summer eve magically fell in love with theater will assuredly feel rage whenever a performance does not make her fall in love all over again, and blame not herself of course, but the performance.
The critic loves the theater—the theater he remembers from the days of his youth. Nostalgia is the prison from which the critic writes his letters.
It takes no special audience member to understand boredom and drivel. It takes a quite special audience member to endure it and smile. It takes an even more special member to find a voice that returns boredom and drivel to their rightful place: the Seattle Rep.
To the actor, the critic is a potential stepping stone; to the producer, the critic is a potential cash influx; to the playwright, the critic is a frustrated hack; to the board member, the critic is immaterial. In this way, the critic is a mirror for the theater.
Many people will read a review of a movie they have no intention of seeing. Many people will read a review of a book they have no intention of reading. Theater people believe that no one has any interest in reading reviews.
Money is not the goal. Money is the lure.
An audience of five hundred people who hate your work is superior to an audience of thirty whose lives are irrevocably improved by your work. Since the goal is butts in seats, of course.
Making a living and making art should not be mutually exclusive. But if one must exclude, exclude art.
Business models for theater are as crucial to audiences as autoionization is to their bottled water, and audiences care about both equally. Never heard in a lobby: “I would have loved that production so much more if it were done by a for-profit theater.”
Poets, painters, dancers and musicians do not wait to write, paint, dance or play; they do not worry about whether their activity is “sustainable.” Theater believes that everything is economics.
Businesses do not exist to make money; businesses exist to serve the community. No service, no money. The fault of all theatrical business models is the fault of American business: they have forgotten there is no need for a cobbler when there are no shoes.
“For years, they were telling me to play commercial, be commercial. I’m not commercial. I say, play your own way. You play what you want, and let the public pick up on what you were doing, even if it takes 15, 20 years.”
“Community” is an individual group among other individual groups that make up an even larger community among larger communities still. Who is the Community art supposedly serves?
Beware the Edifice Complex. Community does not take place in a building, nor does theater.
Those who charge that big theaters do not “serve the community” also go to the cinema Friday nights to watch a constant stream of Hollywood-produced drivel, could not even name a local filmmaker, and see no hypocrisy in the fact. Moral: “the community” only matters when it is to one’s own benefit.
Fact: many playwrights read books not written by authors who live in the same town. Kill them, for they do not serve the community.
Fundamental belief: Theater only profits from insularity, just as the society from which it stems profits from insularity. Or at least, someone profits from it.
“Whole Theater” does not happen outside of a “Whole World.”
Always consider the remote possibility that the local community actually has no desire to change.
A new theater requires new values.
A theater’s choice of productions is a statement of purpose much louder than one’s written mission statement.
It is difficult to accept the seriousness of artists who say they want a better theater for the community when they speak of the right to get paid for starring in tasteless melodramas and vapid comedies.
Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble was created for the spectator with intellectual needs. Grotowski’s Theater Workshop was created for the spectator with spiritual needs. The Bread and Puppet Theatre served people’s physical needs. The Theater of the Oppressed serves people with political needs. Meanwhile, we have the Seattle Rep.
When we make theater in Seattle, we make theater for Seattle. At least, until we are ready to move to New York with our reputation.
Sousa: “There was a time when the pine woods of the north were sacred to summer simplicity, when around the camp fire at night the stories were told and the songs were sung with a charm all their own. But even now the invasion of the north has begun, and the ingenious purveyor of canned music is urging the sportsman, on his way to the silent places with gun and rod, tent and canoe, to take with him some disks, cranks, and cogs to sing to him as he sits by the firelight, a thought as unhappy and incongruous as canned salmon by a trout brook.” The problem has been the same for theater.
Contemporary wisdom suggests that people prefer “canned theater” to the real thing. Contemporary wisdom offers a profound solution to this problem: better canning.
For years, actors and spectators both have been told that theater is not for thinking about. The anti-intellectual posture of such theater finds its just reward in public indifference.
“Too often we put intelligent people into certain situations and then complain when they act intelligently.” Such is the conundrum of the intelligent actor in an anti-intellectual environment–and the intelligent audience.
If people are largely motivated by self-interest, what reward is there for them to participate in the banality of contemporary Seattle theater?
The Life of the Drama
Play scripts are to theater as spoors are to an animal. A grisly death awaits the hunter who cannot read tracks.
Lots of calls for staged readings, more staged readings: no calls for more reading. Because reading is private and intangible, and theater seeks control.
A play is not a play until it is performed. Similarly, books are not books until one has read them and dinner is not dinner until one has eaten it. Therefore the only theater that exists is that which one has personally seen on stage, the only books that exist in libraries are the ones that one has read and millions go hungry for eternity.
Is Not Is
First, Euripides wasn’t theater. Then Menander wasn’t. Then Mystery Plays weren’t (and that was a good thing). Then Shakespeare wasn’t theater. Then Chekhov wasn’t. Then Meyerhold wasn’t. Then Martha Graham wasn’t. Then Beckett wasn’t. Then Alwin Nikolais wasn’t. Then the Living Theater wasn’t. Then the Ontological-Hysteric Theater wasn’t. Now Implied Violence isn’t. Now Mike Daisey isn’t. The history of theater is the history of things that aren’t theater.
People still arguing over what is and is not theater are in no condition to educate to the public on anything. When self-appointed experts disagree, the public knows they cannot all be right but they can certainly all be wrong. And probably are.
The decline in national theater attendance accompanies an insistence on theatrical labels, “audiences” and “niches.” Artists and administrators will tell you there is no connection.
Platitude states that theater is a verb. Some verbs are transitive, some are intransitive, some are modal and some are auxiliary. Even in English.
Melpomene and Thalia got into a fight. Calliope won.
Theater cannot win a turf war. It has no turf. Even if it did, who would want it?
Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net