Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Next Innovation

Contributed by Guest Blogger of the Week, Trav S. D.

My philosophy, political, ethical and aesthetic, can be summed up by this recent quote by Ken Burns: “Right now we have too much pluribus going on and not enough unum.

It’s not an argument for conformism. It’s a search for commonality and a bridging of barriers while still retaining the special qualities that make us all unique. From many states, one nation. From many ethnicities, religions, orientations, creeds, generations: one people. For a metaphor of how that works in practice, look no further than vaudeville, which created a single show out of acts representing every possible human diversity, with each retaining that diversity, yet each contributing to the show.  The alternative is a show of, by and for some faction. In other words, market segmentation, which is what we live with now. If we are not talking to each other, we run the risk of being at each other’s throats. Cooperation is always better than strife.

So, in this age of factionalism, here’s a little New Year’s plea for the continued breaking down of barriers.

IN THE BEGINNING…there was just The Theatre.

Then, in the 1950s, there came The Great Schism, when it was decided that the existing theatre was “too commercial” and an alternative needed to be created: Off-Broadway and regional theatre. Not-for-profit arts corporations were created, with mission statements that stressed art over commerce.

Then, in the 1960s, a younger generation came up that found even Off-Broadway too stifling, cautious and uncreative. Anarchism and pure experimentalism was pursued and the term Off-Off-Broadway was coined by the great Village Voice critic Jerry Tallmer. Much of this work, I might add, was what might be called community theatre, as it involved “non-actors” in support of political pageantry and the like.

By the late 1980s, another paradigm shift began. The original Off-Off-Broadway companies and many new ones were now conceived as “arts institutions”, reliant on funding from a variety of institutional sources that generated new types of conformity and conservatism (of aesthetics if not of politics).  Some out of necessity chose to step outside this universe. This new movement went nameless for a long time, “Off-Off-Off-Broadway” being too ridiculous (although that phrase was jokingly used from time to time). The phrases “alternative” and “fringe” began to be used in the ‘90s, and they stuck for a while.

And today, the reigning concept is “indie”, which to my mind casts a wider net than “alternate” or “fringe”, because it implies independence without necessarily being contra.

I am a roots man. I am always looking to get back to Ur. In this case, Ur is The Theatre. It seems to me that there is a danger in being locked into categories that no longer serve us.  And they really don’t. Aside from Equity’s arbitrary categorizations about the size of houses, none of the old assumptions or snap judgments make a jot of sense any more. For all intents and purposes the commercial theatre is no longer the commercial theatre and the non-profit theatre is no longer than non-profit theatre. What do I mean by that? Well, for one thing, for whatever reason, today’s commercial theatre seems vastly more vital and creative than when I moved here 25 years ago. I won’t start an irrelevant fight here by naming the old shows I find dreadful and the new shows I think are terrific, but I do think it’s safe to say that Broadway has been bold in recent years in supporting  highly original shows from the non-profit sector, and also in developing creative new shows of its own. Would I call these shows experimental? For the most part no, but many of them incorporate the experimental, and that’s heartening.  Meanwhile, during the same time period, not-for-profit arts institutions have grown increasingly conservative and corporate (as funders have demanded, let me hasten to point out), basing their seasons on market research, for example. And what, may I ask, is basing your artistic direction on a marketing survey, but commercialism?

I think, because of that history I outlined above and where we are in the wheel of that history, many of us, having been taught at school by people of the Off-Off-Broadway generation, bring a certain Off-Off-Broadway bias to the table. We all have our heroes in that generation: Richard Foreman, the Wooster Group, the Living theatre, Charles Ludlam and the Ridiculous, Sam Shepard, Lanford Wilson, etc etc. And yet though we might begin with that orientation, I (and some others I’m thinking of but won’t presume to speak for), are also dissatisfied with outsider theatre’s distance from the mainstream.  And so we seem to have been searching for a reconciliation, finding inspiration in popular culture forms that have become acceptable because they are now sanctified by age: vintage cinema, old time radio, comic books, vaudeville, and the like.

But I would take a step back from that.  I know it’s true of myself, and I’m certain if I polled a bunch of friends it would be the same:  truth be known, we all actually started out with a set of commercial assumptions and aesthetics in our nonage (being as we are children of television, not of theatre), and then were gradually inculcated into the avant-garde.  My first exposure to Brecht as a teenager was extremely negative. When I enrolled in the acting conservatory I was bound and determined to retain that mindset --  I wasn’t going to go in for all that self-conscious crap, I was going to do something important, like be the Shakespeare of sit-coms! But, of course, I drank the Kool-Aid, and became the worst of offenders, as anyone who has read my early plays can attest. Still, the search is on for that rapprochement.  Piper McKenzie (whom I don’t speak for but can quote) presents “Theatre for People Who Hate Theatre”. Vampire Cowboys are more influenced by Jackie Chan than Henry David Hwang.  Nosedive Productions explore the possibilities of live horror.  That’s 3 out of 300 companies I could name.

So where does the heart lie? It seems to me we are striving for the same destination as many commercial theatre people but from a different direction. I happen to know that Orson Welles is a hero to many of us, and think about where he spent most of his career -- Hollywood. It seems to me ultimately many of us would like to be working WITHIN the system. Swimming upstream perhaps, fighting philistines no doubt, but IN it.  Why? Because we secretly  (or not so secretly) love the commercial – we just don’t want it to be SO commercial. Popularity without compromise. It is a  Romantic ideal.

And if we have secret “commercial” longings as playwrights, producers and directors, this is even truer of us as actors. My short list of dream roles is corny perhaps but also revealing. It’s mostly characters from 19th century literature: Svengali….Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde…Long John Silver! Fairly conventional, Hollywood type roles. I must admit that DiDi, GoGo, and some guy who turns into a rhinoceros are not at the top of my list, as an actor at any rate. I think I would be deliriously happy to cut loose and play in some Neil Simon or George S. Kaufman or Philip Barry thing.  And frankly it’s not so easy. How many of us have the chops for it? I for one would relish the test. If the script is the farthest thing from experimental, let’s not turn up our nose at the art of acting, which predates the written drama in the theatre by several millennia. And lighter plays are often superior vehicles for the actor’s talent than many other plays which may be more poetical, philosophical or otherwise intellectually challenging.

Is such a theatre “innovative”?  I think Oscar Wilde would say that it is downright subversive! The New Commercialism? A Fifth Wave?  A frank disavowal of the hair shirt and a loving embrace of – not Mammon – but the audience?

Or – what is even more likely – a lack of a better idea for a column?

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