How Theatre Failed/Saved America

By Nick Fracaro at 9:52 am on Monday, June 30, 2008

UPDATE: Teresa Eyring’s From the Executive Director column is now online at the American Theatre site. Mike Daisey has responded with a rebuttal at his blog site. As one of his points, he scrutinizes Ms. Eyring’s unfortunate title, the same item that had struck me as the most egregious in her piece.

Ms. Eyring’s title takes one’s breath away. If it were called HOW THEATRE WILL SAVE AMERICA it would still be defensible, if a bit sweeping—it could fantasize about a nearly unimaginable future when theater will reach out from the stage and save all of America from corporate greed, the military-industrial complex, racism, sexism, and human nature itself by reshaping America.

That’s bold. But Ms. Eyring takes it a step further and uses the past tense—HOW THEATRE SAVED AMERICA—informing us that the work is done, the wars have been fought and that we actually live in a glorious utopia right now, one that has been created by the American theater. If one didn’t know better, one might think it is an attempt at wit—a shallow attempt to play off of my title for comic effect, ignoring the actual meaning implicit in the words I’d chosen.

It is a shockingly poor idea to make such an assertion in the title, unless the essay that follows brings some serious arguments to bear, and this is the third problem with the piece. HOW THEATRE SAVED AMERICA, PART ONE chooses to accomplish this goal not by grappling with any of the arguments in my monologue, but instead displaying examples of theaters that are working within their communities as a kind of proof positive that theater has saved America. It specifically cites one example at length, describing the work of Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble.

I find it reaching to claim that one company from a town of 12,000 in Pennsylvania, however wonderful they might be, contraindicates the larger story of the arts infrastructure in a country of 300 million….

Ms. Eyring ends her piece saying, “And this is just the beginning of how theatre saved America.” The implication is that we will see a great deal more of her argument in Part Two. I do hope that this response will make her think more judiciously about the title for the second half of this article, and I hope some of the criticisms I’ve raised may be addressed in its contents.

*****************              *****************

In the July/August issue of American Theatre, executive director of TCG, Teresa Eyring, has written a counter argument to Mike Daisey’s monologue How Theater Failed America. Her Pollyannaism about the state of regional theatre is probably a major part of her job description but the title of her piece, How Theatre Saved America, Part 1, rings almost as parody answer to the serious failures of regional theatre that Daisey’s monologue brings into discussion. And she probably wishes she had heard the news of Theatre de la Jeune Lune’s closing before the magazine went to print. On that point, I’ll be interested if she edits this opening paragraph to her argument in the online version of the “From The Executive Director” page when it’s posted tomorrow.

“While permanent acting ensembles are indeed a rare commodity at major U. S. theatres, typically ignored—even by the popular monologist Mike Daisey in How Theatre Failed America, which ran Off Broadway through June 22—is the array of ensemble companies working across the country. What about, for instance, the long standing acting collaborations of Minneapolis’s Theatre de la Jeune Lune…”

For more discussion about Teresa Eyring’s column see Scott’s and Dennis’ Letters to the Editor.

Filed under: Theatre and Culture,Uncategorized3 Comments »

Staging the N-word

By Nick Fracaro at 3:40 pm on Friday, June 13, 2008

I received some insightful and referenced comments from the dramaturgs on the LMDA listserv concerning the use of the N-word on stage and the struggle of our current production to present it. But interesting how even within the context of a discussion of the word itself, there seems to be a taboo against typing the full six-lettered word nigger onto the digital page, as if not only any utterance, but also any “publicationof the word would easily transcend the intent of the writer.

One dramaturg references a scholarly study, Randall Kennedy’s Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, abstracting a quote that highlights the power of the word and points to why it’s an apt candidate for presentation and study through theatre or other modes of public discourse.

To be ignorant of its meanings and effects is to make oneself vulnerable to all manner of perils, including the loss of a job, a reputation, a friend, even one’s life.

I recently read a related short but insightful blog post referencing an e-mail exchange between cultural critic Greil Marcus and art journalist John Rockwell that provides additional insight to a zeitgeist that seems centered on the parsing of words.

Words, the Arts and the World

Months back Hillary Clinton (or was it Bill, or another primary candidate?) attacked Barack Obama as a mere purveyor of words. Obama (borrowing, it turned out, from his friend Deval Patrick, governor of Massachusetts) responded that words do count, words mean something important. Without too great a stretch, I want to extrapolate that idea to arts journalism, and the need for same.

Recently I had an e-mail exchange with Greil Marcus, who was editing an entry on “Porgy and Bess” that I had written for a Harvard anthology. The last issue to be considered between us was whether in one sentence “African-Americans” or “blacks” worked better.

I finally decided I didn’t much care, ending with “Let’s move on to curing cancer, solving world peace, electing Obama and like that.” Greil replied: “Don’t you realize that the right choice between “blacks” and “African-Americans, whatever it is, is the SAME THING as curing cancer, solving world peace, and electing Obama? Where’s your sense of proportion?”

Point taken. Words do matter. Even the words, the futile scribblings, of arts critics. Take away words, take away critical commentary on the arts, and the arts lose something crucial to their creation and, especially, their reception. So think of that the next time you set out to solve world peace, arrogantly indifferent to mere words, or the arts.

Crossposted at International Culture Lab.

Filed under: Dramaturgy,Theatre and Culture2 Comments »

Avant Yarde Opening Thursday Night

By Nick Fracaro at 9:53 am on Wednesday, June 11, 2008

NYC friends, please stop by to say hi and for a bubbly toast to Charles.

The Avant Yarde is located in a four-story private artists’ residence in the landmarked area of Brownstone Brooklyn. The site hosts artist salons, art potlatches, and commissions and installs temporary sculptures throughout the year. Avant Yarde proposes an alternative to the traditional performance and gallery space, attempting to position the exchange and experience of art outside the confines of the market while also examining conventional notions of public and private space within the community.

Curators: Russell Busch, Katie Merz, Paul Benney, Nick Fracaro, Gabriele Schafer

Avant Yarde accepts proposals for installations and sculptures on an ongoing basis. Write to avantyarde@intlculturelab.org

Current Installation

Big New Fountain by Charles Goldman

Opening reception: Thursday, June 12th from 6pm to 9pm at 214 Dean Street, Brooklyn.

Past Installations

Artist: Jason Gandy

What’s Up With That

Boat Mystery Solved!

Filed under: News Leave A Comment »

Dramaturgy and PR

By Nick Fracaro at 1:06 pm on Monday, June 9, 2008

Plays are part and parcel of their productions. Zeitgeist, site-specific elements and the actor/producer’s explicit talents and ambitions all inform the reality.

Does the “event” of the production have any historical importance to theatre or the world? The “audience” of this event is not something that will be measured at the box office or necessarily in popular success.

Jarry’s Ubu Roi and Chekhov’s The Seagull both premiered in 1896 to disparaging audiences. In most ways contrary to one another, both plays went on to become important seminal works.

Imagine being the dramaturg in 1896 commissioned to champion these plays into historical importance. Your work with the playwright would have nothing to do with “the script” and everything to with the “signature” production and its aftermath. Perhaps that would mean engaging Jarry in his lifestyle of drunken anarchy and talking pataphysics late into the night. Or perhaps, more soberly, coaching Chekhov not to express his loathing for Stanislavski’s performance as Trigorin and encouraging him to consent to the newly founded Moscow Art Theatre as producer of his plays.

Although none of us will likely be involved in such historically significant productions as these two, we need to approach each script and production with an expectation that the event will capture the Zeitgeist of its locality. Same as the local hero is more vital to the community and our lives than any American Idol could ever be, theatre is most potent when striving to be specific and relative to the ambitions of its particular family, kinship, and tribe.

In my practice, being a dramaturg means also being a producer, so I am often collaborating as diligently on PR as I am on analyzing or collaborating with the artists on the script and other production design elements. Finding an audience is not synonymous with achieving a box office. Stardom seeks and produces fan-dom, but theatre seeks a more engaged and critical participation from its audience. So PR should be as centered on the dramaturgy of a new script as the production is. Similarly to how a production might put out a casting call seeking specific actors for specific roles; the audience sought should also possess a particular and detailed character.

SlowLearner and DevilVet have suggested a public production process both as it fits within this realm of promotion and as civil discussion point in the theatrosphere on aesthetics. I am not convinced that we are actually interested enough in each other’s artistic processes that we will closely read one another’s posts and comment in depth, but I have been publishing part of my dramaturg’s protocol and other collaborative aspects of our ensemble’s process at our theatre’s blog in hope of such an interaction from fellow theatre peers.
Design Proposal/Collaboration
The Big Suit
Gestus for characters

In his series of posts DevilVet aptly asks: Is It Worth the Risk – Documenting Creative Process.

The primary risk of course is that any public representation will negatively affect either the process itself or the future relationship between working peers. The secondary risk is that because any documentation necessarily highlights only certain aspects of a production, the reception of the work by critics and audience will be prejudiced by this prior representation.

The new play we commissioned from an Austrian playwright was written for a specific ensemble of four actors. The play has already been performed before an audience in Germany and America, in both languages, but in our October mixed-language production in New York, we have begun exploring the script at a more complex level than previously, deliberately employing certain facets of Brechtian performance and production techniques.

I am especially interested in the dilemma posed by one particular word in the script and production. The N-word from an actor/character on stage reads differently in Germany than America. By “publishing” our ensemble’s deliberation in this, I am perhaps unduly highlighting an element in the script that may have relatively minor significance to the overall production, but could easily generate a controversial debate.

The N-word is probably the most politically potent word in America today. Of course that potency is mostly diffused if its utterance arrives on stage only from within the crippled psychology of a particular character. But it speaks to the power of words in our social relationships, that even within the safe haven of “it’s the character saying it, not me”, Roger as actor has been struggling to spit it out in some “natural” way. If the N-word were taken out the safety box of naturalism and employed as gestus, the whole of the production would need to struggle with its presence.

I put this question of the N-word in front of the private/public list-serv of dramaturgs of LMDA. I have received private email on the dilemma from the listserv but no one has yet answered in front of others. This speaks to the volatility present in any discussion of the subject. (Update: Meanwhile a few ‘turgs have braved comment but the aura of taboo surrounding even the mere discussion of this subject in public remains strong.)

The potential for the theatrosphere is that it not just supplements the criticism, review, documentation, and other theatre-talk of print publication, but supplants and leads toward a new representation of our art that has a more in depth and interactive relationship with our peers and audience. I appreciate the various Chicago bloggers (Paul, Tony, Don, Bob) taking the lead and exploring the most difficult and complex new relationship posed by artists reviewing/commenting on other artist’s work or process. There will be no easy answers or codified rules in this new relationship to our work and our peers.

Crossposted at International Culture Lab.

Filed under: Artist/Critic,Dramaturgy3 Comments »