Theater Around The Bay: Tossing the Baby and Bathwater

Today’s guest blog is by Charles Lewis III, who returns with a record number of links in one article.

In olden times they had to make their own fun.

In olden times they had to make their own fun.

“So the conservative who resists change is as valuable as the radical who proposes it — perhaps as much more as the roots are more vital than grafts. It is good that new ideas should be heard, for the sake of the few that can be used; but it is also good that new ideas should be compelled to go through the mill of objection, opposition, and contumely; this is the trial heat which innovations must survive before being allowed to enter the human race. It is good that the old should resist the young, and that the young should prod the old; out of this tension, as out of the strife of the sexes and the classes, comes a creative tensile strength, a stimulated development, a secret and basic unity and movement of the whole.”

– Ariel Durant, The Lessons of History (co-authored with Will Durant – 1965)

I didn’t attend the recent Theatre Bay Area convention (aka TBAcon14 or “T-bacon”), so you’ll forgive me if today’s topic well-worn territory for any attendee who might be reading. Still, though I was not present, there was a topic of discussion rattling around in my brain.

If you’re reading this, you likely have a connection to the theatre community – most likely that of the Bay Area. As such, in the past few months, I’m willing to bet you or your connections have seen this Brendan Kiley article floating around social media. It’s from 2008, but it’s reignited the same passion now that it did then. I’ll be honest, when I first thought of writing this piece, I didn’t want to link to the article at all; I thought I’d just refer to it as “that article” and everyone would know what I was talking about. But that would have made it sound like some anonymous internet comment that should be easily dismissed. Since the article – or rather, the topic it covers – being something about which we all feel so strongly, I offer you the chance to (re-)read it and decide for yourself on which side of the debate you fall.

Me? I have a major fucking problem with it article and it starts with the very first sentence: “1. Enough with the goddamned Shakespeare already.” From the get-go he dismisses the greatest playwright in history as someone whose work is archaic and obsolete. Shakespeare’s work, he infers, has no place outside of high school – and he doesn’t want to see it there either. As such, if one wishes to “save” theatre from going the way of the 8-track tape, Rule 1 is to eschew the work of the very man from whose work nearly all modern drama draws its inspiration.

And he’s not the only one. Nary a week goes by when I don’t see some new article stating how all traditional forms of art – theatre, opera, poetry, painting, etc. – are just pageantry for the bourgeoisie and in need of the sort of upheaval more often seen in a coup d’état. But whilst these artistic “revolutionaries” argue over whose head to fit in the guillotine, I find myself equally disturbed and amused by their myopic thinking. Disturbed by the way they so easily wish to dismiss history; amused by the way they’re so blatantly repeating it. “Isn’t this something every young person says?” I think to myself. “Hell, isn’t it something I used to say?”

Thankfully I did no major damage in my youth before coming across the phrase “das Kind mit dem Bade ausschütten”. If you’re German’s a li’l rusty, just look at the title of this article and the accompanying woodcarving.

Now let me start by saying I don’t think anyone’s heart is in the wrong place here. I get what everyone is going for: as we keep our ears peeled for the latest news relating to our most cherished art form, we’re easily disheartened by news that the forum for said art – be it theatre, gallery, or even bookstore – appears to be dwindling. You’re not ready to see it disappear and neither am I. So we’re kicking around a series of ideas to make it more appealing to this newly-discovered agoraphobe of the Digital Era: the one less likely to venture out into the real world (with its weather, traffic, and people) and more likely to huddle in a dark room with their digital device watching reruns of Say ‘Yes’ to the Dress.

Friends, I’m not here to slam you for trying out new ideas, I’m just here to give those ideas a little perspective. For instance…

1 – Yes, it’s okay to hate a classic.

Remember that South Park episode where all the kids (8 and 9 years old) are falsely diagnosed with ADHD because none of them can sit through a reading of The Great Gatsby in its entirety? That wasn’t the first or last sacred lamb to be skewered by their show: they’ve fired off on such beloved classics as Catcher in the Rye and A Charlie Brown Christmas. While one’s tastes are entirely subjective, the fact that something has been labeled a classic doesn’t make it invulnerable to criticism. Quite the contrary: being labeled a classic means a work must face even harder scrutiny because it represents the highest of standards.

My personal tastes are pretty eclectic: I get the same thrill from the cinematic majesty of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis that I do from the chuckle-inducing sight of Sting in a blue speedo in Dune. When recommending musicals, I’ll mention Jon Waters’ Cry-Baby with the same enthusiasm with which I’d mention West Side Story. I love the exploitation films of Larry Cohen just as much as the masterpieces of Alfred Hitchcock.

But I fucking hate Vertigo.

I’m not kidding, I hate it. I find every character unlikable, I find every action unbelievable, and instead of appealing to my suspension of disbelief, I find the film an insult to my intelligence. I think the critics of its time were right in calling it Hitchcock’s failure. I think it’s bullshit that one list recently named it “Greatest Film of All Time”. I think the only good to come from the film was Brian De Palma ripping it off for Body Double. Seriously, fuck Vertigo.

And it’s perfectly all right to feel that way. Not every work is for everyone. It’s okay for someone to say they don’t like the work of Shakespeare, Euripedes, or Lorraine Hansberry. Each one of their works was composed a long time ago in places unfamiliar with characters and dialogue that don’t quite fit today. They’re old. They’re ancient. But being old doesn’t mean something is obsolete.

And it’s perfectly all right to feel that way. Not every work is for everyone. It’s okay for someone to say they don’t like the work of Shakespeare, Euripedes, or Lorraine Hansberry. Each one of their works was composed a long time ago in places unfamiliar with characters and dialogue that don’t quite fit today. They’re old. They’re ancient. But being old doesn’t mean something is obsolete.

You can argue that Shakespeare is taught in schools only because of outdated curricula; you can also argue that the reason Romeo & Juliet continues to resonate with youngsters is because it’s about two horny teens [/LINK] whose over-the-top emotions lead to disaster. You can say Raisin in the Sun is a quaint piece from the pre-Civil Rights Era; you can also say that in this time of racist headlines and record evictions, that it could have been written yesterday. TheaterPub’s own Stuart Bousel is currently directing a production of the quintessential “American high school play,” Arthur Miller’s The Crucible [/LINK]; a play that takes place in a time (1692 – Salem, Mass.) that was outmoded when it was written (the 1950s). Do you think of it as a heavy-handed – and sexist – anti-McCarthyist parable of Good vs. Evil? Would you believe me if I told you that it’s a complex meditation on three-dimensional characters not speaking up when they should? That the women are the strongest characters because they exercise the most control, whilst the men spend the entire playing trying (and failing) to catch up? That its themes of paranoia are even more powerful in this age of surveillance?

You don’t have to like a classic, but when you call for its removal from regular academia, you’d better prove its obsolescence. Nobody likes a cry-baby who whines “I don’t get it, so it must be worthless.”

They give new meaning to the phrase ‘What fools these mortals be’

They give new meaning to the phrase ‘What fools these mortals be’

2 – What’s really “new”?

This past February I got to see The SF Neo-Futurists’ weekly show, Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind. Though I’d heard about from a good friend – troupe member and ‘Pub regular Megan Cohen – and from Will Leschber’s ‘Pub write-up of the Chicago branch, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Everyone kept describing it in such mythic terms (“A whole new form of theatre!”) that I wondered what frame of reference my mind would even have for what I was about to see. No sooner had the show begun when I immediately identified their type of performance: Sketch.

That’s not at all criticism of the work I saw (some pieces were brilliant), but it was still Sketch. Yeah, they “don’t do characters” and pieces can be dramatic, comedic, insightful, and everything in between – but it’s still Sketch. Hell, I went to the show as the +1 guest of a member of Killing My Lobster – one of the Bay Area’s best sketch groups (one of their Creative Directors is ‘Pub’s own Allison Page) – and y’know what? He was the one who kept insisting to me that it wasn’t sketch; that the Neos’ intense workshops are what distinguish it. Having never taken one of those workshops, I can’t speak on them. All I know is that what I saw that night was part of a long tradition that goes as far back as Vaudeville and is as recent as Key & Peele.

And what’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with acknowledging that you’re part of a long, great tradition? I know everybody wants to sell their products and services by saying “This isn’t your grandfather’s whatchamacallit!”, but our grandparents had some really cool shit. Sure, we have a more enlightened socio-economic perspective (or so we think), but they had things that were built to last – that’s why they still do.

And I can see the ancestry of classic formats in all of these “new” productions that have popped up recently: the much-lauded “interactive theatre” show Speakeasy, the popular Tony ‘n Tina’s Wedding, and even the upcoming SF Dungeons Tours are part of a trend that extends back as far as the 1930s and ‘40s. Even the new so-called [LINK: http://www.wqxr.org/#!/story/top-5-participatory-opera-experiences/%5D “Participatory Opera Experiences” [/LINK] (including [LINK: http://www.operaontap.org%5D Opera on Tap [/LINK], which I’ve attended several times) owe their history to fourth-wall-breaking that took place long before any of us were born. Hell, I performed Sarah Kane’s Blasted in an actual hotel room with the audience mere inches away.

The only difference between the aforementioned productions and elementary school history tours is that the former allow – nay, encourage – heavy drinking. But that’s great because there’s just as much room for these experiments as there is for a traditional theatre setting; especially when they recreate history. It’s easy to laugh at Renaissance Faires and Civil War re-enactments, but they bring you face-to-face with a piece of history you otherwise wouldn’t experience. And history will always be necessary, even when it isn’t trendy. Remember the “Kissing Cousin” episode of Frasier, where Zooey Daschanel played Roz’s young cousin? Roz tries to keep up with the early-20s party gal, but soon realises she can’t. When said cousin gives her lip about Roz’s songs all being on the “Classic Rock” station, Roz replies “For your information, Classic Rock is both classic and it rocks!”

Kudos to you for experimenting. Just ask yourself this question from time to time: Are you performing in front of an audience? If you answered “yes”, then very little of what you’re doing is “new”. But that doesn’t mean you can’t distinguish yourself. Speaking of which…

3 – Innovation vs. Gimmick

Four or five years ago I got into a very heated on-line debate with the social media admin. (possibly the artistic director) of a highly-renowned SF theatre company. I was voicing my displeasure at their new implementation of “Tweet seats” – a trend where a certain section of audience members spend the entire show dividing their attention between the action on stage and commenting on said action via social media. The admin and a few supporters said it was somehow more immersive with the show, even if the actors don’t always have their undivided attention. As I said then: the action on stage should always have your undivided attention! What the fuck do you think all the lights, costumes, make-up, and who-knows-how-long rehearsal period was for? To be ignored? It’s one thing to zone out during boring show, it’s another to pay admission just to look at the glowing box in your hand.

Technology will always be a double-edged sword in the arts: on the one hand, it opens up a host of new possibilities for both the creation of work and the promotion/distribution of said work; on the other hand, it can become a crutch to distract from a creatively bankrupt production. Tweet seats remind me of someone going through a mid-life crisis: so desperate to maintain relevance that he or she will adopt the most ridiculous contemporary fad in an attempt follow the zeitgeist. The only thing missing is cheap hair dye, plastic surgery, and an expensive sports car. Tweet seats don’t compliment a performance, they contradict it.

Can those people up there be quiet? I’m trying to update my Pinterest board

Can those people up there be quiet? I’m trying to update my Pinterest board

But there are many great strides in the marriage of classic theatre and modern technology. From its inception, PBS has been bringing theatre and opera into the homes of millions. The rise of digital projection cinema has allowed this idea to flourish into full high definition presentations on giant screens. And now independent theatres are getting in on the game with live-streaming outlets, including HowlRound TV. As this trend grows, everyone will have to keep up-to-date with things like internet access, internet speed, and how to get cameras and microphones in key places to best capture the performance, yet not be noticed by the audience. None of which is impossible. None of which takes away from what the performers fought so hard to put together.

I’ve been a tech buff since I was four years old and the only one in the house who knew how to set the clock on the VCR. I’ve seen “the next big thing” come and go without so much as a blip on the national radar (does anyone even remember MiniDisc? CD-i? HD-DVD?). It’s near-impossible to predict which new technology will most influence the future, but as artists there is one thing we can do. When we come across some new tech – be it a new shade of blue to add to an illustrator’s palette, or the ability to project on the side of a skyscraper – we can ask ourselves “How will this make it easier for me to say what I want to say?” Hitchcock and Kubrick were always innovative in the technology used in their films, using bluescreen, matte paintings, etc. Do you honestly think they wouldn’t have used CGI, had they lived? Terence Malick uses it. To an artist, everything is a potential tool. Everything.

Similarly, right now you’re reading this on the internet. Chances are you came to this article by clicking over from a social networking site. I currently do part-time work for a company that handles the outsourced social media for corporations. A single headline can make or break a casual patron’s entire impression of a company. It has to short, to the point, and intriguing. We all hate Upworthy’s click-bait headlines, but those fuckers know how to dangle a worm somethin’ fierce, y’all. The impact of social media on the arts cannot be understated. When you work thrives by word-of-mouth, you have to keep track of the words about you that are instantly published and can be seen by thousands a day. Print reviews and postcard advertising are still a part of what we do, but few of those make the impact of someone taking to Facebook to say how much they loved/hated a show, how long the show playing, and where you can donate funds to the producers. These are things that all add to experience.

It shouldn’t be about keeping up with the Joneses, it should be about telling the story the best way possible. Something else to keep in mind…

4 – Scorched Earth

Before I go on, I think it prudent to issue a mild DISCLAIMER: I’m going to address a topic that is very sensitive and stirs up passions for those on both sides. I’d like to say that I’m not trying to throw fuel on the fire, just that I see an unmistakable parallel.

You still there? Okay then…

This idea of dispatching the old to make way for the new is not only a problem with theatre, but with the city of San Francisco in particular. I say that with many good friends in the tech industry. Said friends are good, hard-working people who actually would like to be part the unique culture for which this city is known. Unfortunately, they find themselves employed by companies who have torn down century-old building for the sake of erecting a new Starbucks in its place. When the art galleries on Geary Blvd. are evicted to make way for a new headquarters of a-company-that-might-not-be-around-in-two-years, then that’s a problem. The loss of an artistic outlet is a problem, in no short part because the identities – those of the artists and the town that welcomed them into their gallery – will be lost. History repeatedly tells us the cost of destroying something ancient just to make way the new invaders: something truly invaluable is always lost. And once the new owners of these buildings have no use for them, they’ll just leave the damaged remains behind.

On the plus side: I have a Mad Max fanfic for just this occasion.

On the plus side: I have a Mad Max fanfic for just this occasion.

But I’m not here to blame anyone. Really, I’m not. No good comes from misguided blame. In fact, you might find this hard to believe, but I’m actually pretty optimistic. I really am. I know what you’re thinking: how can I, an independent theatre artist, be remotely optimistic about the future of theatre when even Broadway and The Metropolitan Opera [/LINK] are tearing their hair out over how to save their “dying industries.” ?

I’m glad you asked, and the reason is…

5 – Conclusion: We’re all in this together.

The reason I don’t freak out about the future of theatre is that all of the ideas mentioned above, including the ones I don’t like, mean that there will be a future for theatre. You know what literature, television, painting, and film all have in common? They’re all dependent upon technology. Every one of those great artistic and entertainment format would be impossible without some great technological advancement to make them possible: the printing press, the cathode ray, the feathered brush, and the photochemical process – all of them an inextricably linked with the advanced that bore them. Theatre requires only two things: a performer and an audience. It’s been like that since the beginning of time.

As much as I abhor some of the ideas to “save” theatre, it comforts me to know that it still stirs that kind of passion within people. It’s okay to hate a classic, because it became a classic by being scrutinised over the years. Citizen Kane wasn’t called “Greatest Film of All Time” until the 1960s. Y’know which film held the title before that? Birth of a Nation. Seriously. Hate as many classics as you like. I happen to know of a local theatre company that “produces re-imagined classics and scripted original works, as well as creative and social events, preferably in a casual bar environment or other non-traditional venue, emphasizing collaboration and connection between new and established theater artists and audiences.” What was their name again?

As much as we worry over finding that audience of One , new innovations allow for a wider net to find that audience, no matter where they are. I was there the night my good friends at PianoFight Productions raised all the funds for their new Taylor Street headquarters. After having heard them talk about it for so long, it was amazing to actually walk through the space: multiple stages, a full restaurant & bar, a film/video studio, and a recording studio. There will be full plays, improv shows, stand-up, and live-streaming capabilities. All of the classic qualities of live performance successfully merged with cutting edge technology in a venue where there are no limits. That is how one creates “new theatre”.

I’m optimistic about theatre because I know theatre isn’t dying, it’s evolving. It’s getting more perspectives from women and people of color . It’s thriving in places, even when you can’t find it. It’s refusing live or die by outdated definitions of what it is or isn’t.

Whatever old-school theatre folk think of the new upstarts (and vice versa), the point is that we’re all after the exact same thing. Know how I know? We chose theatre. No one goes into theatre to be cool. They go into theatre because they know there’s nothing like an audience and a performer breathing the same air; nothing like connecting with someone, even when there’s distance between you; nothing like truly losing yourself in the experience of something that you logically know is make believe. I recently read an article of polled theatre audiences who say that attending a live show is just as invigorating as getting a pay raise. And that is what we do, what we have done, what we will continue to do until the end of time: make everyone’s life a little richer, one performance at a time.

But seriously, fuck Vertigo.

Charles Lewis is a local actor, writer and director who is equally adept at mending fences and burning bridges.

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11 comments on “Theater Around The Bay: Tossing the Baby and Bathwater

  1. Reblogged this on The Thinking Man's Idiot and commented:
    A piece I wrote for SF TheaterPub, in which I talk about where theatre is and where it could possibly go.

  2. Allison says:

    Naturally, I’m going to also say the Neos aren’t doing sketch.
    Yes, they’re doing things that are short and there are a bunch of them, but to me that’s not the number one indicator that it’s sketch.

    And being a sketch person who took the Neo workshop – I know sketch and I suck at Neo Futurism. They’re so different to do. I think to watch, someone might think that they’re parts of the same animal, but the makings of them feel totally different to me.

    Part of (all of) sketch is the constant expectation that everything has to be funny. That’s why people go in the first place. And if you do a sketch that ISN’T funny, everyone thinks it’s the worst. I would argue that if you took a Neo Futurist play that was awesome but not necessarily funny and put it into a sketch show, the audience might not be on board because they’re there to watch sketch, and that isn’t sketch. If they’re not laughing, they’re waiting to laugh. They don’t want to care about a personal story. This isn’t true of a Neo show. You know that anything can come at you at any time and that’s part of the experience – the highs and lows of various emotional experiences that you KNOW are coming from a place of reality – and sometimes you even feel for these people if you can work out what’s really going on underneath. No one is going to feel for a sketch performer unless it’s “Heck, Morty, that fella has a lot of costume changes! How’d he get into that nacho outfit so fast?!” The experience people expect at a sketch show is – to laugh. And maybe have beer.

    The simplest way to sum up all the shit I’m blubbering is that there are Neo pieces that I really liked watching, that, if someone brought them into the writers’ room for a sketch show I’d say “That isn’t a sketch, it’s out.”

    The only way I think it’s sketch is if you’re looking extremely broadly at things and saying there are only two categories of scripted performance: Plays and Sketches.

    • I hear what you’re saying, Allison. But I’ll say that I’m not a person that finds the word “sketch” synonymous “comedy”. In fact, that’s one of the things I liked about Neos’ show: it shows that gravitas can be expressed through a format (sketch) traditionally identified by one particular genre (comedy). But I still found the Neos’ format less akin to something like the One-Minute Play Festival and closer to a schizophrenic version of The Muppet Show.

      And again: I mean that as a compliment.

      As far as the workshop goes: as actors we know that the audience won’t be see workshops or developments, they’ll only be seeing the result. I’m reminded of a triptych of plays I was in a few years ago. The director of one of the plays had very specific backstories of the characters, one in particular. When a local critic interpreted the character entirely differently, our director was not happy. But the critic hadn’t seen our rehearsals. Audiences never do. What they’re seeing is the result of a culmination of the work of several collaborators who each had their own interpretation and mashed them together into the final production. No one can control exactly how the audience will interpret that production. And if the audience has to have that sort of supplemental knowledge, it’s shows a shortcoming on the part of the production.

      I’m entirely open to a legit explanation on how the Neos’ show isn’t sketch, but so far all the explanations have pretty much been “It isn’t Sketch because we say it isn’t Sketch.”

      • Allison says:

        Oh, I wasn’t saying “it isn’t sketch because I say it isn’t sketch” I was saying “it isn’t sketch because it’s objective is not to be funny and the objective of sketch is to be funny.”

        Not to tote around stupid internet things, but if you go to Wikipedia, for instance, and type in “sketch” you can choose “literature and entertainment” and it will say that sketch is a form of comedy, then of course there’s a page for Sketch Comedy and nowhere is there one, for lack of a better phrase, for Sketch Drama.

        If you’re assigning a personal definition to it and saying it’s sketch anyway, then you can, but that’s you saying “it’s sketch because I say it’s sketch” as opposed to the other way around.

  3. @Allison: I’m certainly not saying it just to say it (nor was I suggesting you were). All I’m saying is that no one has proven otherwise.

  4. Zaftiguana says:

    I think I read the Kiley article differently, so it pissed me off less ;). I didn’t read the “Enough with the goddamn Shakespeare” rant as being a dis of Shakespeare or a statement of belief that it really shouldn’t be done at all (and ceasing to produce it for however long certainly wouldn’t do shit to “save theatre,” because it puts butts in seats), but rather a challenge to stop taking advantage of Shakespeare and use a moratorium to break yourself of the habit. Shakespeare should be there for people who have something inspired that they need to express about and through his texts. Instead, it’s far too frequently produced by people who have nothing to say but just really like Shakespeare and/or know that it’ll sell, which leads to the works being overproduced, audiences being taught that theatre is boring in general, classical theatre moreso, and avenues of success being created for people who have no real creativity, saturating the community with uninspired work.

    • I honestly don’t know of a single theatre or troupe that has gotten rich by putting Shakespeare in its season; not even the ones with “Shakespeare” in their name. Shakespeare is rarely (if ever) done for that purpose, but moreso because someone A – wants to look at it from a new angle or B – they want to see how the classic interpretation holds up in modern times.

      The latter, I reckon, has more to do with its being an academic staple: the setting is historical (or fantastical), but relevance only increases with ever year.

      And as someone who works in independent theatre, I can say that there are plenty of original productions that are cheap money-grabs with no substance. That’s not inherent to being new or old, but to the people putting on the show.

      • Zaftiguana says:

        Well, I think you could get as far as “I honestly don’t know of a single theatre or troupe that has gotten rich” and just stop there, of course.

        But in relative terms and depending on the play, Shakespeare is a draw. Audiences know what it is, they feel a certain way about themselves for seeing it, it has a certain caché, people are more likely to have read it and have a pre-existing attachment, etc. Hell, sometimes local schools and colleges will even require attendance. Some of the wealthiest regional theatre companies in North America build their seasons and their brand around it, and some of the smallest budget theatre companies that pull the fullest houses produce it heavily. It’s also royalty free, and there’s no question that, from a practical perspective, that’s a major selling point of the classics to any producer. There’s certainly no argument that there’s some truly shitty and shallow new work being produced out there. But it’s not either-or, and I don’t think there are a lot of people/companies coasting on the safety of phoned-in new works, and that’s the difference that I think the article was addressing.

      • If Shakespeare is bringing in the audiences you say, that speaks to its continued vitality. People aren’t going out in droves to give their good money for something that bored them in school.

        And it would be easier for me to name to the people and companies NOT “coasting on the safety of phoned-in works”. Throw a rock in SF and you’ll hit one.

        New or old, what do you have to say with this work?

      • Zaftiguana says:

        Well, I just listed several reason why audiences watch it and company’s produce it that don’t have to do with an inspired love of the work (and I’m sure we could both list a dozen more if we were so inclined) so I kind of don’t know what else to tell you about that. And I don’t know of a single even relatively thriving company in the Bay Area that’s relying on the “safety of phoned-in new works”. I know of several struggling amateur groups that produce too many of them, which is a shame given the quality of some of the underproduced newer works out there, and you’ll get no argument that whether the work is new or old, it’s about having something to say. That’s kind of my point. But part of that point is that people who don’t have something to say will be disproportionately drawn to free, familiar, plug-and-play works with a built-in audience draw. Ces’t la vie.

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