The passion of the blogs


A look back on a good year in the theatrosphere
By Simon Ogden and Ian Mackenzie

Time to put 2008 to bed? Good idea. But not before we take one last look at the year that was in theatre blogging. And what a year it was! From epic online dust-ups to Internet-wide collaborations, here’s our list of last year’s greatest moments in theatre blogging:

The Empty Spaces – Or, How Theatre Failed America.
The American monologuist Mike Daisey’s scathing editorial for the Seattle-based The Stranger newspaper argues that American theatre has been irreversibly damaged at the hands of corporate commodification. It quickly becomes the most widely discussed theatre essay of February.

The Great “Value of theatre” Debate.
For one day in March, the Ohio-based blogger Matt Slaybaugh of TheatreForté organized a theatrosphere-wide discussion to answer one simple question: “What is the value of theatre?” More than 32 different blogs from around the world weighed in on the topic that day – and yet surprisingly few common themes emerged. That theatre’s online diarists could not reduce the craft to tidy soundbites is welcome evidence of the art form’s complexity.

The SummerWorks “Expression” video controversy.
The Toronto-based SummerWorks Theatre Festival promo video depicts some of the city’s most highly regarded women playwrights acting like bimbo valley girls – up-talking and saying “like” a lot. “Expression” sparked an all-out brawl among Toronto’s theatrical intelligentsia. Some called it demeaning, some called it transgressive, others called it smart marketing. But no one called it late for dinner.

Professor Scott Walters “retires” from theatre blogging.
After a lengthy monologue explaining his Tribes model of running a theatre company, and some highly personal bare-knuckle scrapping in his comments section, the resident professor of the theatrosphere calls it quits again in May. He’s back posting within a couple of days; posts sporadically for a few months; and then officially reboots his blog again earlier this week.

The proliferation of the Canadian theatre blogs.
Although theatre blogging exploded in the U.S. a couple of years earlier, 2008 was the year theatre blogging officially took flight in Canada. Here’s a quick, incomplete survey of the current landscape:

And the list keeps growing. Thankfully.

Canadian artists rally online over $45 million goverments arts cuts.
The Canadian arts community unites against Stephen Harper’s Conservative government following its controversial $45 million cuts to Canadian arts programs; sets the national theatrosphere ablaze – including dozens of reprints of playwright Wadji Mouawad’s scathing response to Harper and the birth of the arts advocacy group Department of Culture.

Content is king for a day.
Well, several days actually – after Tony Adams drops a post called “Content” in which he wonders aloud why no one on the Internet ever discusses the content of their shows. The topic has legs.

The age of the guest post.
Theatre is territory and its west coast sister blog The Next Stage host a series of guest posts that help inspire their writers to think outside the blog:

Don Hall gets divorced.
The usually irascible Don Hall blogs about the dissolution of his marriage, morphing the normally incendiary Angry White Guy in Chicago blog into a tender and affecting piece of Internet theatre.

The Globe and Mail gets its theatre blog on.
After showing all of England how to theatre blog (by founding the Guardian UK’s theatre blog roundup Noises off), J. Kelly Nestruck returns home to Canada to fill the prestigious national theatre critic slot at the Globe and Mail. He promptly starts a Globe theatre blog – Nestruck on theatre – and seals the deal on theatre blogging’s legitimacy in Canada.

Canadian theatre critics invite unprecedented dialogue with artists.
Notorious Vancouver theatre critic Colin Thomas challenges theatre artists to change their status quo and engage him directly about his opinions online – none do (yet). J. Kelly Nestruck does likewise.

How Mike Daisey failed American Theatre.
“The Daisey” goes head-to-head with American Theatre Magazine.

The theatrosphere unites to say goodbye to Harold Pinter.
Legendary American playwright shuffles off his mortal coil and goes on to join the choir invisible; the chorus of the theatrosphere sings his praises down here.

Well, it’s clear that our list could be twice as long and still wildly incomplete. Lest we forget Isaac Butler’s oddball Hair Blogging, George Hunka’s syllable-heavy Organum series, Matt Freeman’s awesome Star Wars fixation, Nick Keenan’s constant innovations, James Comtois’ horror film posts, Leonard Jacob’s prolific flamboyance, Paul Rekk’s island of insight, Adam Thurman’s paradoxical mission, those anonymous ponderings at 99Seats, Travis Bedard’s extreme connectedness, Alison Broverman’s fashionesta quipping, or Chris Wilkinson’s succinct reporting of this whole fine mess . . . oh theatrosphere, we hardly know you and yet we bleed for your love.

Suffice to say, 2008 was the year that many will remember as the year theatre finally made a successful transition to digital.

You can also find this here.

Flaccid, superficial, intellectually lazy

University of North Carolina drama professor Scott Walters is up to his old tricks again – alienating the nation all in the name of Theatre Ideas, Whatever:

“Is there anybody actually thinking out there anymore? George Hunka and I have never seen eye to eye as far as theatre values, but damn it, he makes an effort to actually put some ideas out there. I click around my RSS feeds, and the only blogs I see addressing anything approaching ideas are the management and marketing blogs. Otherwise, it is an alternation between self-promotion, political musings, and open threads on general topics.

“To me, much of the theatrosphere seems flaccid, superficial, and intellectually lazy.”

Oh Scott. Praxis Theatre loves you so damn much. Even if you wouldn’t know Broadway if it came up and bit you on the ass.

If it’s broke . . .

. . . fix it. University of North Carolina theatre professor and Theatre Ideas blogger Scott Walters argues the case for the theatre generalist:

“. . . given the economics of theatre, the generalist is vastly more valuable than the specialist, and that theatre history bears this out. Moliere was a great playwright AND the leading actor for his company AND the head of the company. Shakespeare was a great playwright AND and actor in his company AND one of the owners of the company. The specialist is a symptom of our industrial approach to the creation of theatre art, a model that is fast becoming economical unworkable.”

– Scott Walters
Mike Lawler – on travel

Walters is back with more Theatre Ideas

After a 40-day hiatus, University of North Carolina theatre professor Scott Walters has revived his popular and controversial Theatre Ideas blog. Back in early May, Walters closed the doors on his blog and expressed disappointment with the regional bickering that had begun to dominate the debate:

“I have used this blog, especially during the past five months, to develop my ideas about theatre tribes. I have floated the first drafts of ideas to see what needed to be clarified, fine-tuned, or scrapped entirely. It is now time to truly focus on the development of those ideas. It does not serve my purpose to continue scrapping with the usual bloggers about whether the theatre tribe idea will work – I know it will work; or whether it is worthwhile – I know it is worthwhile. I am wasting my time, and I don’t have any to waste.”

“Despite being filled with progressive minds, theatre is currently a conservative art form – conservative in the traditional sense of clinging to the past and resisting the siren call of the new. We currently have centralized theatrical power in a few places, and we know from other situations that those with power rarely give it up freely. While I have nothing against New York or Chicago, I believe the future of the theatre lies in geographical diversity, sustainable values, and a local focus, and the need to constantly address those two cities on this blog is wresting my focus from where it ought to be.”

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: the theatrosphere is simply a more exciting place to be when Walters is in the ring. So whichever direction Walters decides to steer his blog, we can’t wait to see what happens next!

Theatre school in the age of compliance

If its broke – fix it
By Scott Walters

Hello, Fellow North Americans! Ian Mackenzie has asked me to write a guest post for Theatre is Territory, which I am happy to do. Ian inflated my ego far beyond manageable bounds last spring when he interviewed me here, and I am pleased to have the opportunity to continue to provide abrasive American crankiness for my northern compatriots.

One of the things Ian gave me an opportunity to discuss in that long-ago interview was theatre education. As a college teacher, you can imagine I have a few things to say about it. I mean, beyond that most of it sucks.

As a teacher, I have always harbored the secret belief that we all have to kill Daddy. Education is Oedipal – when you come to a crossroads (also known as graduation), you have to free yourself from the past. If you find, as a teacher, that you have created acolytes who bow to your chariot at the crossroads and ask to follow in your train, you should have your tenure stripped in a ritual ceremony involving honey and ants. That’s not education, that’s evisceration. So when I have students who learn what I have to offer, and then noisily go in a different direction flipping me the bird as they depart, I inwardly celebrate. They’re ready for the world.

I had a group of students who formed a weekly lunch group with me called the Dead Dramatists Society, and by the time they graduated they were widely regarded by their peers and the rest of the faculty as loud, opinionated artists who questioned everything, including just about every word I said in class. I loved it. They became independent thinkers who could look at the status quo, decide what worked for them and what didn’t, and take their own paths. To me, that’s what education ought to do.

Instead, most education is about compliance. Teachers try to mold compliant students who do what they’re told the way they’re told to do it. And that, my friends, is how the theatre became what it is today: boring, unimaginative, cautious, and conservative. Everybody is still trying to please Daddy! Even the rebels are that way – their idea of rebellion is to simply reverse whatever the status quo is, which is as mechanical and boring as just following the mold.

Ian asked me: “Why do so many artists graduate from post-secondary education and then flounder for 10 years in the wilderness? Shouldn’t art/drama school be teaching us how to actually making a living at this?”

Hell no. The reason they flounder in the wilderness for 10 years is because it takes that long to get over their addiction to having every idea provided for them by teachers who have made them co-dependent. They keep waiting for somebody to give them a syllabus for their life. Until they take control of their continuing growth, which includes doing a lot of independent reading (theatre people don’t read nearly enough, either within the field or outside of it) and independent thinking (is what Michael Shurtleff says about auditioning really the extent of what I need to know to get a part?), they are stuck.

And let me ask this: how in the heck are we supposed to teach you how to make a living at this when the current system is set up to make sure that there is 80% unemployment so that directors have a “choice” when they cast? You can’t make a living like that, and anybody who says they are “training” you to do so is lying through their teeth while they drain your checking account. It’s like training people how to win at playing the slot machine.

The best thing we could do for young people is to spend the first week of their education showing them the sheer dysfunctionality of the system, and then let them spend the rest of their education trying to figure out a better way to do it.

And that means empowerment. Teach independent thinking (no, that isn’t an oxymoron). For instance, instead of providing a bunch of “mainstage productions” where young people passively do the bidding of the faculty, get the hell out of the way and turn the stage over to the students. Let them follow their passions, let them experiment, let them stink up the place if necessary – the air clears in no time, and none of it is carcinogenic.

And teach collaboration. There are actual techniques that can make collaboration work effectively and powerfully, but nobody teaches them. Instead, we pretend that a hierarchical system where the director allows everybody to share a few ideas before telling them how it’s really going to be done is collaboration. It’s not; it’s just more compliance training. This is especially true in college, where the director is likely to be a faculty member, and everyone else are students. Can you say power differential?

In my opinion, our theatre is floundering because our theatre teachers prefer adoration and obedience to challenge and independence. Until that changes, other changes will rely on a few outliers who somehow emerged with their minds intact. And those people need to speak out, to write blogs, to undertake noisy experiments and show that new ideas are not only possible, but successful.

Maybe that’s you?

Support Local Artists Working

Over at the Theatre Ideas blog, Scott Walters has created an intriguing new project called Support Local Artists Working (SLAW). In Walters’ words, here’s what the project is about:

  • The Goal: to increase the hiring of local talent by major regional theatres.
  • The Pay-Off: Increased employment for local artists, increased ticket sales for the major regional theatres.
  • The Justification: Audiences like to follow the development of local artists.

Sounds like a wonderful idea and a great example of turning theatre ideas into action.

Check out, for example, his idea for the “RIP protest” – whereby local audiences protest the import of a non-local, big city actor by ripping their bio out of the program and leaving it on the floor of the theatre.

If you’re in a regional theatre situation that’s suffering from big city brain drain (and its blowback), this could be just the spark to set a new theatre revolution alight in your town.

Take a look at the introductory post here, and then skip on over to the new website Walters has set up to keep track of the action, here.

Theatre education series

U.S. theatre professors Scott Walters and Tom Loughlin recently put their heads together to produce a great five-part blog post series on the state of theatre education in America.

One of the arguments that emerges from these posts is the idea that theatre education has lost the ability to critically evaluate its own process – that it has become a system not for making artists, but for creating “replacement parts for the current creaking theatre machine . . . ” Radical change, they argue, is essential for the long-term vitality of the form. And it likely needs to come from outside the system.

Here’s how the posts break down:

Scott Walters on theatre education

“Most theatre departments justify their production programs as their labs. Like science labs, theatre productions exist for students to put into practice what they learn in the classroom. It is a persuasive argument, but the reality is quite different.

“Departmental productions are focused almost exclusively on putting on a ‘good show,’ not teaching those involved. If in acting class the actors are taught to score their script, directors never ask them to do so for rehearsals; if everyone is taught to research the play’s background, nobody is asked to produce that research during the production process. The casting process is rarely about what the students need to learn, but rather on who can best play the role right now. Oftentimes, actors who play a certain type of role will simply be typecast over the course of their career, and never have the opportunity to stretch their talents. Faculty directors feel that they are being judged on the quality of the final product, not whether those involved furthered their education.”

– Scott Walters
On theatre education, Production

Tom Loughlin on theatre education

Part 1 – How we got here
Part 2 – The big lies
Part 3 – But is it art?
Part 4 – Are we doing any good at all?
Part 5 – A subversive activity

“What can you do? I would offer a relatively simple beginning; become an agitator with your own alma mater. And don’t be passive about it; be pro-active. I often get requests from alumni of Fredonia to be invited as guest artists to talk to our students. This is all well and good, but it’s sort of passive. A more active approach would be to dig out a few Hamiltons, pay a visit to the campus, sit down in the place where theatre students gather, and engage them in conversation. Talk to them about what they’re doing, what you’re doing, find out what’s happening, and then let their professors know about what you heard and what your point of view is. You can even do this at colleges in your area. It doesn’t have to be your own university. Find a way to get involved. Offer students some opportunity to become engaged with what you do. They won’t come to you; they’re not trained to. You have to go to them.”

– Tom Loughlin
On theatre education, A subversive activity

Lots to read here. And well worth your time should you have a few minutes to think about the future of theatre education. (For further discussion, Walters is hosting a brainstorming session here.)

Theatre is dead; long live theatre

In the third in his series of follow-ups to our recent interview with him, University of North Carolina theatre professor Scott Walters has elaborated on this question:

What the fuck is going on?

His expanded answer explores Terry Schiavo and the theatre coma – plus notes on what it means to be a communitarian in the context of theatre.

Check out the full post, called The Schiavo-ization of Theatre, here.

Red-state theatre

In the second in his series of follow-ups to our recent interview with him (and some of the heated discussion the followed elsewhere), University of North Carolina theatre professor Scott Walters has elaborated on this question:

Do you think conservative, right-wing politics are somehow fundamentally at odds with the arts community?

In expanding his argument, he offers the following 10-point manifesto:

Great theatre artists should:

1. Avoid dogmatism and propaganda. Any part of life worth writing about is worth portraying in complex terms. Melodrama has one-dimensional heroes and villains – don’t stack the deck in your favor.

2. Assume that your audience is as smart as you are. Or better yet, smarter.

3. Believe that your spectators are capable of change.

4. Understand that change comes from persuasion and empathy, not nagging.

5. Allow for the possibility that viewpoints other than your own may be valid. As Neils Bohr famously said, “The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.” Strive to create plays that contain profound truths rather than correct statements.

6. Include yourself in any accusations. Remember that when you point a finger, three fingers point back at you. If you must point, that is good dramaturgical advice.

7. Even if you disagree with a particular value, try to understand it deeply, and present it fairly. Don’t turn values into cartoons. The thing that makes Angels in America great is that all of the characters, even Roy Cohn, is presented with complexity, depth, and (yes) empathy. See number 1 above.

8. There is a place for preaching to the choir – as Slay wrote, quoting (he thinks) West Wing: “Sometimes you have to preach to the choir, if you want them to sing.” So true. Sometimes values need to be strengthened and reinforced. But don’t confuse this with creating high quality theatre – this is propaganda. Sometimes propaganda is necessary.

9. Imagine a better world. As Jill Dolan writes in Utopia in Performance, try to “inspire moments in which audiences feel themselves allied with each other, and with a broader, more capacious sense of a public, in which social discourse articulates the possible, rather than the insurmountable obstacles to human potential.” As I tell my dog, Kip, you can point out shit without having to roll in it. He never listens either.

10. Believe in hope. As Barack Obama says, “the audacity of hope.” Cynicism and despair is the idealist’s wound. Always open up your heart, even though it seems dangerous to do so. (And if someone brings up Beckett as an example of a great artist that writes about despair, I would beg to differ. All of his characters have hope, in my opinion, and in their hope is their tragic heroism.)

Check out the entire post at Scott Walters’ blog. Lots of insightful feedback in the comments section, too.

Anyone care to argue in favour of cynicism?

The New York City problem?

In what he’s said will be the first in a series of follow-ups to our recent interview with him (and some of the comments that followed), University of North Carolina theatre professor Scott Walters has elaborated on the “centralization of theatre” issue.

In this post, he argues that the centralization of American theatre is sapping regional, non-NYC theatre of its vitality.

A sample:

“Over the course of the 20th century, the devotees of modernism have successfully stereotyped all non-urban, not Eastern, non-Northern people of the US as unsophisticated hicks, and it has all the characteristics of most bigotry – a stubborn refusal to respect ways of being that differ from one’s own. This extends to class issues as well, as most theatre artists are college educated beyond their class (I know this is true of me) and often have a great disdain for their roots (something I have had to work through as well).”

And later in the post . . .

“When young actors graduate from college and feel that they must go to NYC if they want to work, even though they would prefer to live elsewhere, there is something wrong. Why can’t they live where they want to live? Because the regional theatres who might offer a living wage are all casting out of NYC. I freelanced in Minneapolis for a number of years, and it was just an accepted fact that no local actor was ever going to get cast in a decent role at the Guthrie, because they cast in NYC. And that’s centralization, and that is wrong.”

Interesting stuff. Check out the full post at his blog, Theatre Ideas. And if anyone has any related thoughts on the Canadian condition, the floor is yours . . .

10 questions: Scott Walters

1) What the fuck is going on?
We’re witnessing the Schiavo-ization of theatre as an art form – it’s dead, but we keep pretending it isn’t. People keep pointing at record ticket sales on Broadway and at regional theatres as proof that there’s life in the old girl yet, but Terry Schiavo probably had more visits from her parents when she was in a coma than she did when she was going to work every day. It’s hardly proof. Where’s the vitality?

2) Do you have any unifying theories about the role of formal education in shaping theatre artists?
The key word in that question, in my opinion, is “artists.” Most theatre educators, unfortunately, aren’t trying to create artists, they’re trying to create replacement parts for the current creaking theatre machine, which, as my answer to question #1 implies, is about as responsible as teaching kids how to do punchcard data entry as a means of getting a high-paying job.

Have you ever noticed that all the ads for theatre programs in American Theatre magazine brag about “training”? Training? Dogs are trained, not artists. But that should give you a clue that most theatre education is about obedience, not artistry. What’s my unifying theory? See the answer to question #3.

3) What do American theatre educators need to do better, generally?
Teach students to value, above all things, innovation, creativity, thinking outside the box, questioning the status quo, taking big risks, failure. In order to do that, theatre educators themselves would have to be innovative, creative questioners who take big risks and value failure. Fat chance, but I can dream.

Let students fail! Give higher grades for risk takers who really make a huge flop! So what if somebody stinks up the place – the air clears and no greenhouse gases are left behind! Theatre educators need to commit to creating gonzo theatre artists. It’s our only hope.

First thing I’d do if I were appointed the theatre education czar is burn every copy of Stanislavski’s books. Tell me any other discipline that relies so completely on theories that are over a century old. It’s pathetic! Surely we’ve had a better idea in a hundred years. And I’m not talking about Stanislavski-juniors like Meisner, Adler, and Moore, either. Throw them all out and try to think it through from scratch: how do we communicate with an audience TODAY? Think!
4) How have your experiences as a theatre blogger influenced your ideas about theatre?
One thing that blogging and reading blogs brought home to me was how little respect many theatre people have for the audience. For some reason, artists see themselves as spiritual, emotional, and intellectual Gullivers tied down by millions of low-brow Lilliputians. It’s all about “personal artistic vision” and “authentic self-expression.” Or else it is about making as much money as you possibly can, which is built on a similar scorn for the audience: “You never go broke underestimating the public.” It’s not the basis of a healthy relationship.

As a result, my ideas about theatre have become more populist, more grassroots, more community-oriented. I think the arts need to be a dialogue, not a monologue.

5) Do you think conservative, right-wing politics are somehow fundamentally at odds with the arts community?
No, but the arts community needs to care enough about the conservatives to dialogue with them and not just insult them. We’re digging our own grave! Half of America is conservative!

Look back at the Romans: when the Christians were a minor sect on the fringes of Roman society, mimes had a field day making fun of them. Then all of a sudden Christians became powerful, and – surprise! surprise! – they weren’t all that keen about theatre. Augustine fucked us up royally, and we’re still recovering.

Now fast forward a couple millennia. In a decade or two of radical change, when progressives were in vogue, the arts bloomed and America created the NEA. Artists, having not learned their theatre history, were doomed to repeat it: we had a field day making fun of conservatives. And now . . . well, you see how it is.

There’s got to be a progressive way to speak to conservatives. (Hint: it doesn’t involve dehumanizing them.)

6) How would you characterize the relationship between religion and theatre in America?
Depends which side of the equation you’re looking at. Many theatre artists – not having learned their theatre history (hey, I’m a theatre historian, OK?) – love to use religion as a whipping boy. So things aren’t so good from that perspective. But drop in on any American church around Christmas or during the summer and you’ll find lots of theatre being done. There are Christmas pageants and vacation Bible school plays everywhere. This reflects a recognition of the power of theatre to reinforce values through entertainment. This is the bridge across which theatre and religion can join hands. Again, it is about dialogue and openness.

7) If class issues are preventing theatre from being a more vital voice in American culture, who’s responsible and how do we fix it?
I think class is, to appropriate Pinter, the weasel under the cocktail cabinet. Nobody wants to talk about the fact that 80% of the theatre audience is drawn from the top 15% of America’s economic class. Thus, government support of the arts looks like another handout for the rich.

As Dudley Cocke, artistic director of Roadside Theatre in Whitesburg KY says, “the assembled spectators for the typical not-for-profit professional theater production don’t look like any community in the U.S., except, perhaps, a gated one. From such a narrow social base, great democratic art will never rise.” I agree.

Who’s responsible? Tyrone Guthrie. He hijacked the regional theatre movement and made it a haven for the wealthy, educated class who would put up with museum pieces in order to appear “cultured.”

How do we fix it? First, decentralize theatre – get over our childish fixation with the Cinderella story of NYC and perform in towns across America. Second, think outside the box – by which I mean, think outside the theatre building. Do theatre in living rooms, back yards, community centers, bars, parks. Third, learn to speak the language. Different cultures and classes tell stories differently – go to them, don’t expect them to come to you.

8) Do you have a working definition of what it means to be an artist?
James Joyce said it in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: “I go to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” To me, Joyce acknowledges both the necessity of the artistic soul and the importance of its connection to community.

9) What are your current theatre theory fixations?
I am really jazzed about Jill Dolan’s incredible book Utopia in Performance: Finding Hope at the Theatre. She writes: “This book investigates the potential of different kinds of performance to inspire moments in which audiences feel themselves allied with each other, and with a broader, more capacious sense of a public, in which social discourse articulates the possible, rather than the insurmountable obstacles to human potential.”

I sincerely believe that this book could be as important as Peter Brooks’ The Empty Space was for a previous generation. Read it!

10) When you look at the varied landscape of American theatre, what are you most optimistic about?
Grassroots, community-based theatres like Dell’Arte in Blue Lake CA, Roadside Theatre in Whitesburg KY, Los Angeles Poverty Department and Crossroads Theatre in LA, Junebug Productions in New Orleans. Theatre rooted in a community, telling stories of that community, with that community, and for that community.

But what I am equally optimistic about are my students, many of whom arrive at my university with a sincere desire to make a meaningful contribution to the world through theatre. I make it my job to fan the flame of that sense of hope and that belief in the power of theatre to strengthen the hearts, minds, and souls of artists and spectators alike. Every year, when a new group of freshmen arrive, I get to plug into that pure, hopeful energy, and my optimism is refreshed. Thanks so much for asking!