Monday, October 17, 2011

The Unfashionable Middle

Contributed by Guest Blogger of the Week, Jeff Lewonczyk.

Today I’m going to start with a few bold, indefensible statements on the nature of American life that I feel relate to the theater, in order to indulge my prejudices, provide a moment or two of entertainment in the midst of your hectic day, and maybe – just maybe – learn a little something along the way.

So, America hates the middle. Of anything. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that the founding of our nation was so recent, and remains so vivid, and that this in turn allows us to imagine our various apocalyptic scenarios with the same tender clarity. Everything in the middle’s just crap, a long downward slide – not good enough to be mythic, but still failing to earn the nobility of tragedy.

Or, to cast it in economic instead of historic terms, just look at the current plight of the middle class. Singularly unloved.

When F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “There are no second acts in American lives,” he was speaking at a time when most plays had a three-act structure. It’s not that there’s no ending or second chance – it’s that there’s no middle. We prefer to skyrocket from origin to demise without slogging through the sticky, clingy day-to-day stuff that constitutes, you know, life.

And then you have the theater. On the one hand you have the (mostly mythical) successful commercial theater. Sure, everyone’s struggling there too, but they call it LEGIT for a reason. People are getting paid! To dance around and sew things and turn on lights and stuff! And occasionally someone makes real money from it! And in America, we all know that, unless you’re making money from something, it’s not worth taking seriously.

Then you have the other end of things. The world of codified rebellion, of Art That Is Important. There’s some money here, too – not nearly as much, and it doesn’t come directly from consumers but indirectly, through taxes and contributions from rich folks who see fit to funnel 0.01 percent of their wealth into the arts. In terms of content, we see work here that is bolder and riskier, that doesn’t feel the need to cater to an audience’s desires or expectations. This is a world that hinges upon Who You’ve Studied With, Who You’ve Worked With, Who Your Influences Are. The work can be broadly defined as “experimental,” but, even though it exists on the other end of the scale as commercial theater, it has its own conventions and precedents and hierarchies. Because it is Serious, it is also defensible. (It is also, in practice, about exactly as mythical as successful commercial theater.)

And finally, you have the rest of us. Over the past few years working as an associate director for The Brick, I’ve taken to referring to the world where many of us live, work and play as the Unfashionable Middle. We have neither the pedigree nor the profit to regularly captivate the attention of, oh, say, the New York Times. We’re too edgy for the audiences that seek brand-name escapism, yet we’re not difficult or self-referential enough for progressive minds to pat themselves on the back for understanding our work. Even when we’re doing bang-up, peer-approved work, we still struggle to get other people interested in what we do. We can be snidely derided as “community theater,” but what a horrible state of affairs it is when those two words together have such negative connotations! But the truth is, we’re also halfway between the “community theater” stereotype and the other stereotypes here. We’re hard to categorize, neither fish nor fowl.

And, considering how few people are spending money on theater at the first place, we’re at a double disadvantage. We’re like a sock-puppet sideshow in the parking lot outside the Zeitgeist, begging people’s pennies to share a few minutes in a darkened tent with us when they’d rather be standing in line outside staring at the manufactured dreams flashing from the Jumbotrons or smoking in the corner reflecting with bitter knowningness that it’s all a sham and the only thing waiting for them when they cash in their ticket is… nothing.

Wow, I just wrote that. Sorry. Anyway, the point here is: the extremes are mythical. And, more importantly, they’re boring. The Unfashionable Middle – that dark, dusty tent between the believers and the non-believers, the haves and the have-nots, the professionals and the amateurs, the past and the future, the easy and the difficult, the known and the unknown – that’s where we live. The extremes don’t contain room for experimentation or surprise – anything you add to an extreme automatically mitigates it and reduces its extremity. Whereas the middle is infinitely accommodating. The middle isn’t a dull, boring puree – it’s a thriving place where unexpected combinations occur in unprecedented amounts, where fish and fowl combine to create a new genus. It’s where things are actually what they are, instead of being inferior versions of other things.

And, as I don’t need to tell anyone reading this particular blog, in the theater it’s where the most interesting things are happening. Some of us will creep along the continuum towards one end or the other, and that’s fine. But I don’t think we should fight the Unfashionable Middle - I think we should embrace it. I also don’t think we should institutionalize it – I think we should acknowledge it.

We’re not inadequate to the needs of the extremes: the extremes are inadequate to OUR needs. We don’t need pedigree, and we don’t need profit. We just need to keep doing what we’re doing – creating work that doesn’t fit in the boxes, and conducting our live and business in ways that don’t have easy precedent. America’s never going to care anyway. It’s just another abstraction. And who needs an abstraction when we have us? 

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