Theater Around The Bay: In Defense Of Stirring Shit Up

Co-founding Artistic Director Stuart Bousel talks about why he stirs shit up, why this blog exists, and why any of us do anything besides sit at home and watch TV.

So last week I had reached a saturation point with the seemingly endless status updates about how people couldn’t wait to see Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in a production of No Man’s Land, by Harold Pinter, that was playing over at Berkeley Rep. I am sure you’ve heard of it, if you follow Bay Area theater at all. The production, I mean, not my saturation point with the fans. Though maybe you’ve heard about that too, by now. As usual, you can’t have an opinion here without somebody objecting to it as loudly as possible. Which is exactly how I like it, for the record. More on that later.

Without begrudging anyone their idea of a good time (I am the first to admit that pretty much everything I like and am willing to spend money and time on is, put in the right light, utterly ridiculous), I was surprised to see how much of the language my community was expressing itself with, really centered around unqualified adoration of the stars of the show (both actors I admire greatly myself), with very little excitement ever seeming to be in regards to the play itself, the roles they were in, the production, the writer, etc. Additionally, a lot of the status updates were leading up to the show, often times coming from within the theater itself, moments before the show began, but there was noticeably a lack of discussion AFTER the show, or if there were more updates they tended to remain centered around the stars, pictures of people meeting the stars, excited reports of how close they had come to meeting the stars, etc. Again, very little about the show itself, about the production, the script, the writer, the experience of the work as theater and not just as a star vehicle. You know, very little discussion of the art that these fine actors had ostensibly come here share. Without meaning to be too accusatory, but coming from a genuine stance of simply observing, it was like a whole lot of people were working for a hype machine, the pervasiveness of which rarely seems to manifest itself in the Bay Area theater community, and to my knowledge has never done so around specific actors with little to no regard to the actual work those actors were engaged in. I mean, I certainly don’t recall this level of excitement over Rita Moreno in The Glass Menagerie, you know? But then again, Rita Moreno hasn’t had a string of massive blockbuster movies keeping her in the public eye, has she? Come to think of it, I don’t remember this much hooplah around Kevin Spacey in Richard III either. Which is a show I totally made a point to see, by the way, and loved.  No one ever said I was innocent here.

Anyway, as an active and deeply invested member of this theater community for 11 years, I found the whole thing rather surprising… and progressively grating. I mean, I had no idea we were this obsessed with famous actors, and yes, I was a bit disappointed that a number of individuals I frequently see touting their rigid anti-establishment ideals were amongst the most twitter-pated by the chance to bask in the radius of famous people (and believe me when I say no, no they weren’t phrasing it as “these are skilled people who I am looking forward to watching use those skills in a challenging play I have always been fascinated by”, they were screaming “OMG- CELEBRITIES!”), and then to also crow about it as loudly as possible (this last part is the part I actually found grating). Though I fervidly applaud Berkeley Rep for a brilliant marketing move and I have heard from people genuinely interested in the work as a whole (famous actors included), that it was quite good, the fact remains there were a number of people who chose to make it a point to let everyone else know THEY WERE THERE and because they made that choice, I got to make my own about whether or not I was going make snarky comments about it.

You have to understand, I have roughly 700 “friends” in the local theater community, and so it’s rare that a day goes by I don’t find myself staring at a screen full of people bemoaning (often times quite understandably) one thing or another about the theater community, local and national, that they feel should be improved, changed or ejected as quickly as possible- including star vehicles and plays by white men that feature exclusively white male casts. I, personally, have nothing against either of these things, but I do find it sort of suspicious when you tell me on Tuesday you hate something but seem to have forgotten that by Wednesday after you heard someone you personally like is involved. I don’t think my surprise or stance that it smelled a little strongly of hypocrisy (in some corners) is unreasonable or unfounded, so I ultimately decided it was worth calling people on, knowing full well some people would find that obnoxious- and rightfully so. Doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do it. That my conclusions may ultimately be wrong, or short-changing the community, is one thing, but they weren’t coming from an unprecedented place, they were coming from a “methinks the lady doth protest too much” place, and so the idea that they shouldn’t be shared would have been wrong. It’s only by making assertions, right or wrong, that we have any chance of eventually discovering “the truth.”

So here is what I posted:

God, I had no idea how many rabid PINTER fans were in the Bay Area until this recent production of No Man’s Land. You crazy kids- I hope all of us producers are taking note and planning next season accordingly. Stop with the original works and the female playwrights and the Stoppard and the Becketts and the what-have-you, everybody! Hey- kick that Billy Shakespeare to the curb, even he’s out because, didn’t you hear? It’s PINTER! The people want PINTER! They can’t get enough PINTER!

Pretty obviously (or at least I think it’s pretty obvious), I’m poking fun (in a dry, glib manner that is pretty characteristic of who I am) at what I perceive as a community, often proudly defined by its inclination to tub-thump for various causes and ideals, having succumbed to a rather unprecedented and amusing spasm of un-abashed celebrity worship. Not everyone, of course, but a noticeable enough trend that I alone hadn’t noticed it: something that became quickly evident by the number of people (over 100 responses) who either agreed, disagreed, or were just amused enough by the witticism to reflect that it wasn’t exactly hard to get (and thus not without validity). Whether or not my conclusions were correct (and I still think they are, albeit with caveats, including the perfectly viable question “Is there anything wrong with celebrity worship?”), clearly I had fired a shot directly into a point of contention that had been waiting to erupt. Since I had made my pointedly barbed post with the intention it would get an interesting array of responses, I consider the endeavor successful, and yes I do think it would have been less successful if I had been less arch in my observation and so I stand by my method as much as I celebrate the results. Some good conversation was had, even despite a personal drama that unfolded on the thread, and the far too expected attempt by the local thought police to shame me for “shaming people” even though calling people on their public, self-published conduct isn’t exactly shaming them so much as giving them the attention they wanted, albeit perhaps not as they intended. Oh well, get used to it. If you didn’t want a reaction then you shouldn’t have said anything, and if you think you get to just say whatever you want in public and not have people react to it (including critically) then you are horribly naive or horribly self-absorbed. The constant possibility of reactions beyond your control are just the nature of a life where you have elected to live big and loud over quietly tending your own garden and being satisfied with that.

To be honest, if you are “shamed” by someone making a snarky but incredibly general, non-individualized comment about a community in which you self-identify it may be worthwhile to ask yourself what insecurity within yourself causes that immediate self- identification (“I know he’s talking about me!”) and that obviously guilty reaction that lashes out and tries to suppress the critique (“How dare you suggest this!”) rather than confront it and challenge it back with the truth as you see it (“Fuck you dude, I do what I want, for any reason I want, suck it!”). The fact is, I didn’t finger point anyone (though I could have), but made an intentionally broad observation, in pointed jest, and then sat back and watched the guilty creatures sitting at the play do all the work for me. Well, sat back isn’t exactly true: I definitely kept inserting my two cents into the conversation, but that’s because I say the things I say expressly for that reason: to start a conversation. A conversation that I feel usually needs to be had, but isn’t being had. Pushing that conversation via the Internet, where it is incredibly easy to ignore any conversation you don’t want to be a part of, is about the least hostile way I can think of to get what needs to be done done, but more and more I’m aware of a certain perspective that maintains that questioning of any kind is akin to a personal attack and I have also noticed that the people most likely to try and shut down any line of questioning they don’t approve of are usually the people most vocally and pervasively expounding their opinions on a regular basis. The caveat there being that they tend to think of their opinions as facts, when in fact they are opinions.

And what’s wrong with that?

Well… honestly… nothing. I mean, I do the same thing. Which is my point. There is nothing wrong with expressing your opinions, and there is nothing wrong with taking your opinions seriously if you feel you have been given substantial reason to believe what you believe to be true (and ideally, so long as you are also open to being challenged, but I recognize that could be asking too much from humans as a species). From my perspective, debate is absolutely necessary if we are to retain the most important freedom of any community that seeks to grow and improve, let alone a community that is supposed to be centered around expression: the freedom of ideas, both the freedom to think them and the freedom to express them as best we see fit, so long as it’s not with violence and threats. With an acceptance of this basic premise (and if you don’t accept it, that’s fine, feel free to add it to the debate list) needs to come an understanding that provocative ideas and provocative expression of those ideas are not only to be tolerated, but also expected and to some extent encouraged.

Why?

Because it’s our jobs as intellectuals and artists and creators and fonts of inspiration to stir shit up and the beauty of it all is, we get a variety of ways to do that and all of them are good so long as nobody’s human rights are compromised and nobody gets physically hurt (your feelings, contrary to much of what society is telling you, are not anybody’s responsibility but your own- and yes, I say that as somebody who is constantly wondering why nobody cares about my feelings), or stands up in the middle of your show and starts the debate then. The best thing about the Internet (and maybe the worst thing too, but there is no free lunch) is that it has created a field of battle onto which anyone can step, at any given time. Or step off of. Or chose to ignore entirely. If only real war was as easily managed as a flame war, right?

But really, why is it important to have any kind of debate or war or whatever at all?

Because it stops us from becoming drones, that’s why. Because as lovely as it is that so many people are publishing essays, books, articles and blog upon blog telling us how to run our companies, and how to make our art, and how to conduct ourselves as actors, producers, writers, directors, and general applicants for a life in “professional theater”, and because as genuinely helpful as some of this information is, there is a noticeable dearth of material encouraging us to be truly engaged as artists and audience members, perpetuators and participants who are all part of a lively and active conversation, and there is even less telling us to say what we really think and feel, even though there seems to be an awful lot out there telling us what we’re doing wrong and basically trying to scare us into SAYING NOTHING. Something which isn’t hard to do because hell yes, it’s a scary world out there and as soon as you step up to the mic to address it you have opened yourself up to endless possible showers of feces and I can’t change that. All I can do is encourage you to get up there and do it anyway.

I could not be a louder tub-thumper for a community that works together and cares about one another and is invested in each other’s projects and prosperity, but if you think that means I’m looking for us to be intellectually and aesthetically homogenous then you are missing the point of why there’s supposed to be more than one of us doing this or why, for instance, this blog has more than one person writing for it, and why everyone who does write for it are pretty much given the freedom to write whatever they want and are certainly under no obligation to agree with me or anyone else about anything. Case in point, Dave Sikula, in regards to the last paragraph of your 8/30 blog, calling people on why they go see No Man’s Land is not about convincing anyone anything or perpetuating the idea that one motivation for going to see a show is any more pure than any other; it’s not about me saying I’m right: it’s about getting people to just think about why they do anything at all, let alone why they go to the theater. And yeah, I hope they’re thinking about that when they chose to come to my shows. Or chose not to.

The point of art and the reason why artists are necessary is to challenge the world, whether it’s by showing it a mirror, or showing it a window, or showing it the middle finger. We’re here to keep the conversation going in a battle against apathy, conformity, cowardice, intellectual laziness and intellectual tyranny and everyone is welcome because seriously, we’re going to need everyone or the battle is sure to be lost.

Which is why, even as you rush off (whoever you are) to write your scathing response to all of this and what an evil, tyrannical, intellectually lazy, self-serving, self-obsessed, self-righteous bastard I am, I just want you to pause for one moment so I can say, “Thank you. Thank you for listening and thank you for caring and thank you for engaging and thank you for contributing whatever ridiculous bullshit or certified gold is about to come spilling out of your mouth. If I hadn’t wanted to hear it, I wouldn’t have said anything in the first place, but I truly do believe the world is better for both of us being in it.”

Emphasis on “both.”

Stuart Bousel is a founding artistic director of the San Francisco Theater Pub, a prolific Bay Area writer, producer, director and actor, and loves hearing what you have to say. No, for real. Find out more about his work at http://www.horrorunspeakable.com.

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3 comments on “Theater Around The Bay: In Defense Of Stirring Shit Up

  1. […] thrown down a gauntlet, Mr. Bousel, with your “In Defense of Stirring Shit Up” column — and since that piece of writing is so clearly begging for a response, yet has gone […]

  2. robertadal says:

    I followed the convo you had with Marissa tonight and remembered I forgot to post a response to this original article. Whatever our disagreements on any other issues, I think this article said EXACTLY what needs to be said to many well-meaning members of the theater community. And I don’t see you as expecting others to stir things up in the same ways that you do – we all have different energies and ways of communicating. But the big picture idea I loved was that who are artists if not shit-stirrers? It is our responsibility as artists to be messy and outspoken IN WHATEVER WAYS MAKE SENSE TO US as individuals. Bravo.

  3. […] with Stuart centered around the way an artist’s work is received out in the world. Stuart had written, “The constant possibility of reactions beyond your control are just the nature of a life […]

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