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!