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The New Testaments Toward Theatre

By Nick Fracaro at 12:46 pm on Tuesday, July 31, 2007

A recent post by Mac Rogers started me thinking about the reason and nature of blogging itself.

As Isaac would say, read some Hunka, then read some Walters. Both, I fear, showcase two of the leading lights of the theatrosphere with their powers a bit under a cloud, but it’s interesting to think about why.

If there is a literary form that certain blog posts in the theatrosphere have come to resemble, it is the epistle. In a similar way that students of literary history are able to distinquish between the letter and the epistle, perhaps one day they may be asked to make distinctions between species of literary and critical blog entries.

Both the letter and the epistle are substitutes for a spoken conversation. However, where the letter (now also the email) is essentially spontaneous, ephemeral, intimate, personal and private, with no pretense toward the literary, the epistle is written in lieu of a public speech with a specific audience or community in mind. And as literary form, the epistle also displays an artistic or critical effort aspiring to some degree of permanence.

In history, the most prominent use of the epistle was by the early Christians in the establishment of their community. Often didactic in nature, giving advice or instruction on belief and behavior, the epistles of the New Testament became the main tenets of Christianity.

The writers of Superfluities and Theatre Ideas each argue their aesthetics and ethics of theatre almost as fevently as any religious sect. There is also no denying the didactic nature of the “epistles” emanating from these blogs. So not surprisingly, writers George Hunka and Scott Walters often find themselves debating in the comments section of the theatrosphere from opposing poles of some polemic. These comments append the publication of the epistles in many unique ways, and Scott and George, as do many bloggers, write at least as much in these other “domains” as in their own.

Scott Walters informed his readers six weeks ago that he was establishing a New Code of Ethics within his domain :

I will no longer be addressing the NYC theatre scene, nor will I be responding to defenses of the NYC scene, nor attacks emanating from the NYC scene. If such posts appear in my comments box, I will ignore them or delete them. I will no longer define my ideas in terms of the dominant mode of production. I plan to be more utopian.

At that time I wrote a couple blog posts examining Scott’s and others’ criticisms of New York theatre. I used the poster image from Clint Eastwood’s 1992 revisionist Western masterpiece Unforgiven in the second post as a visual to underline the meme I saw at play in Scott’s call for Law and Order in the Wild Wild West of the theatrosphere. I used that image also because I suspected that after turning over a new leaf and swearing off verbal fisticuffs, Scott would have relapses. Like all those old gunfighters in Westerns from Shane on, I figured that even though Scott would take off his six-guns and bury them deep in some storage truck along with his tin star, circumstances would never allow him to retire. Some affront or injustice would arise demanding the reluctant gunfighter’s return to action.

Shane represents the Goody-Two-Shoes pole of the Christ-like hero, but a much stranger beast slouches toward Bethlehem in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven character Bill Munny. Like all the other forsaken gunfighters in Westerns before him, he also is trying to escape his reputation or past, the old self that he no longer believes he is, but in this revisionist take, the Old West Hero is haunted and hunted by his own repressed psychology as much as his violent past.

Clint Eastwood (Bill Munny): I ain’t like that no more. I ain’t the same, Ned. Claudia, she straightened me up, cleared me of drinkin’ whiskey and all. Just ’cause we’re goin’ on this killing, that don’t mean I’m gonna go back to bein’ the way I was. I just need the money, get a new start for them youngsters. Ned, you remember that drover I shot through the mouth and his teeth came out the back of his head? I think about him now and again. He didn’t do anything to deserve to get shot, at least nothin’ I could remember when I sobered up.
Morgan Freeman (Ned Logan): You were crazy, Will.
Clint Eastwood (Munny): Yeah, no one liked me. Mountain boys all thought I was gonna shoot ’em out of pure meanness.
Morgan Freeman (Logan): Well, like I said, you ain’t like that no more.
Clint Eastwood (Munny): That’s right. I’m just a fella now. I ain’t no different than anyone else no more.

Like Bill Munny, Scott hoped that by dramatically and publicly stating he had a New Code of Ethics, his blogging would become more “utopian.” In the film, the audience knows where Bill Munny’s continual recitation of “I ain’t like that no more” will lead. So when Munny hears that his friend Ned Logan has not only been beaten to death by the town sheriff, but is also in an open casket display of frontier justice to the citizens of Big Whisky, there is no surprise that he breaks his vow of sobriety. As Munny dramatically brings the bottle of whisky to his lips and gulps deeply, the audience knows the avenging Angel of Death is saddling up for his ride into town.

So, too, in Scott’s current post “That There Is Some Bullshit”, the old gunfighter is back, riding into Big Whisky via the Big Apple with his guns drawn and firing.

This is the kind of bullshit I am talking about when I insist that the NYC aesthetic is not universal, and in fact is openly scornful and dismissive of experiences and lifestyles that take place west of the Hudson and in places with less than 7 million people. There is an arrogance just beneath the surface — hell, lying right on top of the surface — that needs to be called out by every non-New Yorker who is tired of seeing good people insulted, and every New Yorker who has even a small conscience left.

Will Munny: Who’s the fella owns this shithole?
Will Munny: (To Fatty) You, fat man, speak up.
Skinny Dubois: Uh, I own this establishment. I bought the place from Greeley for a…thousand dollars.
Will Munny: (To the men behind Skinny) You better clear out of there.
Man: Yes sir
Little Bill Daggett: (As Munny takes aim) Just hold it right there…HOLD IT!
[Munny shoots him]
Little Bill Daggett: You, sir, are a cowardly son of a bitch! You just shot an unarmed man.
Will Munny: Well he should have armed himself if he’s gonna decorate his saloon with my friend.
Little Bill Daggett: You’d be William Munny out of Missouri; killer of women and children.
Will Munny: That’s right. I’ve killed women and children. I’ve killed just about everything that walks or crawls at one time or another; and I’m here to kill you Little Bill for what you did to Ned.
Little Bill Daggett: [walking toward Will] All right boys, he’s only got one barrel left. When he fires, take out your pistols and shoot him down like the mangy scoundrel he is!

The angel of death is indiscriminative when it enters town. Men, women, and children…the good, the bad, and the ugly will all fall beneath the cleansing scythe.

Many in the theatrosphere are New Yorkers, so of course this scattergun attack on the community, along with its prescription on how those with “conscience” should behave, has its predicable reaction. Scott, the mangy scoundrel that he is, knows this, but like the little kid standing over the anthill with his stick, he just can’t help himself.

Yet perhaps this particular anthill stick has become predictable as well, less disruptive; most NYC bloggers have kept their responses in the comment sections on this occasion.

Scott’s scattergun attack wounds not just the innocent, but allies as well, as he does here.

When are we going to stop endorsing the idea that the majority of this country is “flyover,” as the ArtsJournal site insultingly calls its blog devoted to “art in the American outback”? AMERICAN OUTBACK??? ArtsJournal ought to be shot.

If Scott had read the Flyover blog before he criticized it, he would have realized that, in their short exisitence, the journalists writing there had already instigated many thoughtful discussions aimed precisely at concerns surrounding the NYCentric perspective. Scott’s epistles would readily find an audience there.

Let’s cut to the heart of what inspired this blog in the first place. In his keynote address to the NEA Institute mentioned in the first post, New Yorker senior theater critic John Lahr stated, with what at least appeared to be a straight face, “If it’s not in the New Yorker, it doesn’t exist in the culture.” He went on to explain his belief that the New Yorker serves as the de facto publication of record for theater in America.

While it’s true that the New Yorker consistently has some of the finest and most thought-provoking theater criticism in America, this assertion seems the exact kind of New York-centric thinking that is common in the arts world. If you’re serious about theater, you go to New York. If you’re serious about film, you go to Los Angeles. Yada Yada.

So the blog was initiated as counter to the above Yada Yada, and in the hope of serving a broader American artistic community.

It’s a way for arts journalists and artists outside the major American urban areas to celebrate, discuss, critique and share what they do. While it was established to continue a conversation begun at USC Annenberg’s 2007 NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater, we hope it will ultimately grow to serve a larger community of journalists, artists and institutions involved in the arts in America.

Scott has escaped for the weekend from the current Shootout at the O.K. Corral to be among “people who are thoughtful, generous, intelligent, and gracious”, something he suggests cannot be found in the theatrosphere.

I consider Scott an ally in theatre. I suspect his temptation will be to follow suit with Laura and quit writing his theatrosphere epistles. Laura was the inspiration for the New Code of Ethics he established at his domain, then broke six weeks later. So, as he has advised me, along with “every New Yorker who has even a small conscience left,” I will advise him. To assuage the guilt of having transgressed against his new code, he should link his Theatre Ideas to the conversation at Flyover where his theatre epistles would do much to serve in building community.

No surprise that with a blog named Rat Sass I find Laura much too precious in her attitude toward what is civil discourse. (Laura is giving no reason, allows no comment, forcing other theatre bloggers to speculate and assess their own guilt and others’ in offending her sensibilities, and reconsider their reason for blogging at all.)

Even though I disagree with most of the split-court legal opinions of this Supreme Court Justice, I found an advocate of my viewpoints regarding discourse in a speech by Clarence Thomas.

    Today, there is much talk about moderation. It reminds me of a former colleague at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission who often joked that he was a “gun-toting moderate”-a curiously oxymoronic perspective. Just think of that, dying over half a loaf. I do not believe that one should fight over things that don’t really matter. But what about those things that do matter? It is not comforting to think that the natural tendency inside us is to settle for the bottom, or even the middle of the stream.This tendency, in large part, results from an overemphasis on civility. None of us should be uncivil in our manner as we debate issues of consequence. No matter how difficult it is, good manners should be routine. However, in the effort to be civil in conduct, many who know better actually dilute firmly held views to avoid appearing “judgmental.” They curb their tongues not only in form but also in substance. The insistence on civility in the form of our debates has the perverse effect of cannibalizing our principles, the very essence of a civil society. . . .Again, by yielding to a false form of “civility,” we sometimes allow our critics to intimidate us. As I have said, active citizens are often subjected to truly vile attacks; they are branded as mean-spirited, racist, Uncle Tom, homophobic, sexist, etc. To this we often respond (if not succumb), so as not to be constantly fighting, by trying to be tolerant and nonjudgmental-i.e., we censor ourselves. This is not civility. It is cowardice, or well-intentioned self-deception at best.

Those who care about the artform need to continue to post their passionate, uncensored epistles and testaments under whatever ethic they establish as their own. Whatever audacity or perseverance it takes to continue blogging, they owe it to themselves and their community.

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Theatre Tribe

By Nick Fracaro at 2:39 pm on Saturday, July 14, 2007

homeless actorScott Walters opened an interesting discussion awhile back about new tribalism and theatre centering his reading of a section from Daniel Quinn’s book Beyond Civilization: Humanity’s Next Great Adventure. The discussion became the subject of numerous posts in the theatrosphere. Don Hall picked up on it as did Slay. Isaac asking about the sense of community amongst artists in a particular area is a parallel question. In Scott’s follow-up post he seems to have come to a conclusion on the nature of the theatre tribe in addressing Ian Hill‘s description of his theatre practice.

…tribe is not only centered around an idea, but a place. It is comprised of a group of people who want to do a specific thing in a specific place. It isn’t a launching pad for “stardom,” but rather an end in itself, a way of life. If someone dreams of “moving up” to some more “prestigious” venue, then you don’t want him or her in your tribe. Tribes require a commitment. And they require a place, because it is the place, and the variety of people in that place, that provide constant stimulation and broadening. Ian writes, “When the tribe becomes a single theatre company, it tends to turn in on itself and not work as well — inbreeding produces defects.”

entourageWhile agreeing in part with the analysis, I would describe my own experience and observations of theatre as tribe in exactly the opposite manner as Scott (and Ian) do here. Hollywood and Broadway are actual places, but they are “places in the mind” first and foremost. In that way they are ideas that are in sync or counter to the central ethic of the theatre tribe.

American theatre, more than theatre in other countries, swims in the shared water of the big pool of dominant culture. So the theatre tribe may resemble an Entourage or Posse as much as they do a religious parish or political sect. I doubt Don, Ian, or Slay would turn down fame if Celebrity Culture offered it to them. Few American theatre groups I know are shunning “stardom” or “moving up” to a more “prestigious” venue. Even the ensembles that Scott has often cited on his blog as exemplars of theatre working with and toward community are all adept at representing and propagandizing their ideas. Box office is obviously dependent on the celebrity and fame of their “product,” but so is their funding and support from the NEA and other sources outside the local community.

For my own, the theatre tribe is nomadic by nature, always entering new hunting grounds in the pursuit of their idea. The tribe may have a preferred seasonal camp or hub, but its quest recognizes no borders. New members of the tribe open up new alliances and hunting grounds. New cultures are new cuisines of fresh ideas.

The tribe that centers around the idea of ABC No Rio‘s ‘culture of opposition’ goes back over twenty-five years to their founding. Its “squat” on Rivington Street became an emblem of the artistic community’s struggle with the real estate problem in New York City. Thieves Theatre was the first to do theatre there when No Rio commissioned us in an art exchange with Chicago’s Randolph Street Gallery in 1982. Five years later we would produce the world premiere of the controversial Fassbinder play Trash, The City and Death with them. In 1987 No Rio was the perfect performance space for presenting a play about how real estate speculation exploits and destroys the lives of the disenfrachised in a city.

Although the ownership of the brick and mortar building at 156 Rivington was always a rallying point of the contention between artists and the city, the battle was symbolic at best. When No Rio finally bought the building from the city last year for one dollar, it was a small victory for an artistic fringe community that had been displaced decades before through gentrification.

By the time NADA and other theatres Ian references began renting the buildings of Lower East Side near No Rio in the late ’80’s and early ’90’s, the area had already been gentrified out of the rent range of the original bohemian artists who had lived and worked there. Many of this artistic fringe moved to Williamsburg, DUMBO, and other parts of Brooklyn and beyond, where the gentrifying process began anew in a few of these areas. Any pioneering art scenes that may develop are all eventually co-opted. The DIE YUPPIE SCUM grafitti is always a short-lived resistance awaiting its whitewash. The recent announced move of the venue Galapagos from Williamsburg to DUMBO signifies a new trend exemplifying an “enlightened” real estate in partnership with a packaged and marketed “fringe art.” Meanwhile the idea, the philosophy and way of life that once was encapusalated under the notion of the fringe or bohemia, has long been in exile from “place” in New York City.

When Cindy Carr wrote about us in the early ’90’s in The Bohemian Diaspora, the epilogue article in her book On Edge: Performance at the End of the Century, we were living in a tepee in a Manhattan shantytown as art project. The tepee is the American icon of “the tribe,” but you can imagine how alien our “tent city” tribe was to its place. The various artists and homeless living there for three years never really belonged to the neighborhood and community encompassing it except as symbol; the shantytown represents the neglect and decay that are allowed to exist within the richest cities of the world.

tipi DO NOT ENTER
Entrance for shantytown “The Hill” at Canal and Chrystie, 1991

After that project ended, although we continued to live in the rent controlled Brooklyn buiding we would eventually buy into, we began discovering our Temporary Autonomous Zones and tribe outside of New York, nationally within the ratconference we began in 1994. Rat became our community and audience for ten years. But as did most of what was once defined as the “fringe” everywhere, rat increasingly became peopled with more mainstream and/or institutional ambitions. However, even as rat was ending for us, we had rediscovered another vital fringe exploration in the physical theatre and butoh performance work of numerous international ensembles.

Community and tribe for us now are these mostly international friends and peers with an aesthetic that also projects an ethic, philosophy, and way of life that is counter to the dominant culture. And in most ways this is the same “culture of opposition” we had discovered with other NYC artists at No Rio in 1982.

Meanwhile over the twenty some years, our one-time fringe neighborhood in a landmarked section of brownstown Brooklyn has become ultra-chic. Olga and her extended Puerto Rican family have lived at “our place” for over fifty years and by now they are as much family as rent controlled tenant to us. We enjoy the company and friendship of most of our neighbors, old and new alike. Yuppie and bohemian no longer seem valid classifications. The neighbors are all invited to and participate in our art salon potlatches. Gawker Stalkers know celebs Michelle Williams and Heath Ledger live a block down the street, but our landlocked landmarked boat was just as famous a “love fetus” in neighborhood news as their daughter Matilda ever was.

Our landlocked landmarked neighborhood community is similar to how I feel connected to what is now being termed NYC Independent Theatre community. It is and isn’t my community. It’s a friendly enough place to hang, but I wouldn’t want to live there, all the time.

Landlocked landmarked. Most difficult is the escape from the museum of one’s own representation. Fellow travelers, I join my clan on the road just outside the walls.

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