Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Mad as Hell

Uh oh.

So I just saw Network. Incredible. Incredible film. If you want a film that predicts our current entertainment situation, heck, our current cultural moment see this film. 34 years ago Paddy Chayefsky got it scarily right. Not to mention that news has become the absurdity of what the news program in "Network" becomes...my good friend Naren rightly pointed out that Jon Stewart and Colbert are rightly criticizing and making fun of this phenomenon (happening on CNN, MSNBC and god help us, FOX NEWS). I mean, is there anybody who is more the next coming of Howard Beale than Glenn Beck?

I could go on about the whole movie, but it's late and there's something that sorta terrifies me. (spoilers? maybe).

The scene where William Holden's character is breaking up with Faye Dunaway's...basically he explains to her that she's completely incapable of real human connection. She's a humanoid - like Finch's character (howard beale) says we've all become. But it goes deeper. Howard Beale says in one of his rants: None of us are human. It's the end of the human being, we are humanoids - it's the beginning of the "network". And Chayefsky gets it right - since that film we have consistently deteriorated the human-ness within us, and replaced it either with commercialized versions of ourselves (facebook) or with the models and idols of Reality television, which rather than imitate the reality on which it is based, turns everything else into Reality. (we may laugh at outliers like Jersey Shore, but they shape our culture more than we care to realize). Anyway, back to Holden. He tells Dunaway that life isn't a script, it's got real human beings in it. Well, in the end he tells her he's human, he can still feel, have good old 'traditional' emotions. She's incapable, she's been raised on television narratives, on flattened ideas of identity, that create someone extremely successful but also completely amoral to the pointing of talking about the murder of a man as if it were just a network merger, perhaps with even less zeal than that.

What does this matter? Why am I writing this on a theatre blog?

Well - unfortunately for us theatre makers, theatre relies on real human beings. The point of theatre is the presence of people onstage and other people playing the audience (sure we can play with these parameters, but after the dithyramb this is what we got). But what happens when we no longer behave like "human beings". When we are more humanoid? We get what happens now, reality tv appeals to us more, formula appeals to us more because believe it or not, I think we've lost WIlliam Holden - we can't really feel. We say we feel, we obviously "feel" in a biological sense, but any feeling we have is unfortunately conditioned by the idea of what we're supposed to feel. We're all either building melodramas or romantic comedies, or sitcoms or reality shows in our head whether we want it to or not. That's what appeals to us now...so how can we create a theatre with real people and not seem like we're playing false to those who are already playing false by playing "real"? The sad part is that the "real" is now the false, the fake the constructed. None of this is new this was made in 1976, 30 years ago.

Let's take a back track for a second, and say that slowly with our jaws agape and confusion in our eyes. That was 30 years ago. And we didn't somehow annihilate ourselves (though it was a distinct possibility and still is). So that means 30 years. 30 years of becoming falser and falser and more constructed and more separated from our own ideas or senses, but now we can't even go back before then and say whetehr these ideas were ever authentic or whether we were guided by stronger more traditional and conservative social values...and maybe that's also true. But think about it, Holden is talking to Dunaway as if she's from a different generation, but now we're all this generation. Perhaps there are outliers, but we are completley and utterly consumed, to the point where this consumption is not just old news, it's the status quo.

It makes no sense to talk about postmodern this or postmodern that, we are living in postmodernity, in a world devoid of the 'real', and when something is being "postmodern" (as in the way that some oft pretentious artists tend to use it) that's not necessarily true, it's acting 'postmodern' that is, it's imitating a social movement that once used to demarcate an idea that is now the status quo. It's inescapable...

So...um this is where we are now. So what happens now? What do you do when your theatre is incapable of real? What do you do when the crux of your art, the ontological reason for it existing somehow presupposes real flesh and blood people capable of being people - narrative as the essence of human experience, god how many times have you heard that? Except humans have become inessential, our humanity, our human-ness, has become inessential to us. How can you create naturalism, when the very bonds of our culture, the very way we conceive of ourselves is completely unnatural?

Then we are really 'acting'. The lie takes place on both sides of the stage. And perhaps this isn't a bad thing. Perhaps it is merely the madman looking at his own shadow before realizing that the whole world is thrust in darkness. Shadows don't matter.

I am being exceedingly nihilistic. Maybe the result is resignation? No, that would be easy.

I don't have answers, it's sort of a black hole. But I want to keep doing theatre? Why? Madness probably. Some light one though nothing heavy. Maybe if we keep throwing paint on a canvas we'll make a shape, learn a lesson, create something meaningful. Maybe we'll just waste a lot of paint.

Let's hope for both.

- J

rant rant rant, but we'll get somewhere i promise.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The State of the Form (not good...)

Before I go into what I think it a bit of a bummer of a post, I want to state my absolute and total happiness with what was a wonderful weekend for THE KING IN EXILE. Great turnouts, thoughtful and enthusiastic crowds, and a great chance to see this work which is challenging, entertaining, and my first foray into the intense world of downtown NYC theatre. More to come later...but after such a lovely time it's important to do some much needed reflectin. It's not great, but I hope that by highlighting what I feel to be some of the challenges before the genre that we can begin to make theatre important again (I don't know why, but thats a question for another time...).

I think we can all agree at this point that theatre is not a dominant cultural trend. To be truthful it hasn't been for a while. Here is what I think defines a cultural trend. Art, when it is a dominant (and popularly consumed) trend both synthesizes and reflects upon culture. It is in this way that you see the cross-genre influence of film, television and popular music and art on the way we think of ourselves, the way we define our generations, and the way that we make our art. The effect of films transcends its own genres, in such a way that you see their influence on everything from other popular art forms to even our dialect and the way we speak.

When's the last time you saw a theatre production having that kind of widespread cultural effect? Perhaps Angels in America may be the last one - (maybe musicals, but I'm not well versed in them and will let someone else opinionate on them).

I'm not saying that theatre has to have the same pull of reality shows, but even high/low aspects of the genre become dominant culturally. Look at the indie-music blast in rock, or the indie-film phenomenon in cinema - a movie like Little Miss Sunshine, nominated for an Oscar, featuring indie music in its soundtrack, and reaches widespread audiences. Television that is critically acclaimed such as The Wire, or Arrested Development or Mad Men or Lost, all these things as well becoming part of a national artistic narrative that theatre is not participating in.

Let's face it, when less than 10% of the American public goes to the theatre we are in crisis mode.

Instead what do we have? Rather than have a cultural art-form that participates in the national cultural narrative while also in some way constituting it, we have a cultural-diasporic form that is relatively tiny that synthesizes its own narrative, creating a group of artists and theatregoers that are increasingly invested, even while their own numbers are shrinking and being increasingly ignored by the populace. The result is higher numbers of people making theatre, a more competitive market to get this theatre made, and increasingly conservative and minimal abilities for this theatre to be made by institutions that are both overwhelmed and economically struggling.

Yep, it's dire straights. I don't mean this to be a condemnation, just a reflection, and perhaps I am being to harsh, or perhaps I am woefully uninformed, but it doesn't look very good; and judging by the blogosphere's reactions to Outrageous Fortune (I havent had time to read it), it's not a very good time to be a young playwright who creates work certainly out of the mainstream.

I know I've only talked about pretty mainstream things in this post, this is not to say follow the mainstream it's all that matters, I actually avoid a fair amount of the mainstream and spend most of my time at underground theatres...

But the problem is that even the theatrical mainstream is out of the main mainstream! The only way high-falutin productions seem to make money is when they borrow from Hollywood's thunder - (A Steady Rain does fabulously featuring two famous Hollywood actors, while classic shows such as Brighton Beach Memoirs fall flat).


There is also the problem that both film and theatre are mediated experiences. Theatre is not.

In fact theatre requires the unity of time, place and MONEY. All this is out of an audience member's control. With something like Hulu, all of these variables can be controlled by the audience. The entertainment is provided at an audience's convenience. Even a three-week or longer run, is just an extended event. It occurs then it dissipates and if you've missed it, unless it does extremely well, you've missed it. There is no Hulu, no reruns later that night, no dvds to purchase (usually).

The problem is how do we make theatre attractive as an event, how to generate the excitement that hollywood award shows gather, or rock concerts do, how do we generate the numbers of a political rally? There needs to be a way for theatre to continue to be an unmediated experience, while at the same time participating and perhaps expanding into a mediated place, so that the participation expand beyond the stage.

I don't know. There are too many questions at this point unanswered, this is not meant to answer anything, just meant to reflect and perhaps build a way towards answers.

How do we change this? And if we can't change it (which I feel to be the case), what should theatre's purpose be. Why make theatre when we know it can't have the dominant cultural effect it used to have - why is still important? I don't know. All I know is I want to keep making theatre. Theatre is essential and important to me, and hopefully to other people, but I don't know why. All I can do is convince myself that I'm not deluding myself - then again, we entrust ourselves to the world of illusions, hard not to live in them sometimes...

- J