The New York Aesthetic?

The New York Aesthetic?

Scott, with assistance from Mac, has successfully beaten the dead horse to death again. Six weeks ago in a post I characterized the meme that animates the hoary horse’s life-like twitching at its ritualistic floggings.

“In historical retrospect we know that many of the urban v. rural and North v. South tensions of the American Civil War were still erupting during the Tombstone era in 1880. Interesting how this is only slightly different in species from the New York v. Hinterland and Red v. Blue state arguments currently being hosted in the Theatrosphere. Memes don’t die as readily as they mutate.”

Isaac and Parabasis’ comments box duplicate previous forensics on the corpse and Don Hall tries to step over it this morning to get back to making theatre. Of course once the current examination has been completed, this Rather Dead Horse will not be buried, but will be stuffed and mounted in the theatrosphere’s long established Department of Redundancy Department.

Once we were fighting words. We rose as flesh in dawn’s light to duel at fields of honour. But now the decrepit, senile debate merely mutters incoherently through its drool. Like the effete theatre engendered by grant-speak mission statements, proposals for action from the towers of privilege, the chat-fest of leisure, full of sound and fury.

In the comments section of my last post, Mac has asked me to arbitrate in the squabble.

I agree with you that bloggers shouldn’t be afraid to argue, and that it doesn’t mean that the theatrosphere is degenerating when we do.

Although, Nick, you are uncharacteristically reserved here. Do you endorse the ideas contained in the “That There Is Some Bullshit” post? As a longstanding participant in theater in New York and in many other communities, woud you regard the post as an accurate critique?

Let me also ask you a question about building community. In my post in response to Scott, I suggested that he might be interested to learn about the work being created by the New York bloggers with whom he is in contact, to know whether or not that work contains the prejudices and insular thinking he decries. If it doesn’t, he might come to see the New York community as just one of many communities around the country where his ideas are playing out in an interesting way. Would you agree with this?

Scott is an academic. Academics are not artists per se, but I consider them important peers in my theatre work. Theory, criticism, and documentation give relevance and context to theatre within the History of Great Ideas. Mac is an artist. As such, I could consider him either as a collaborator or a competitor; or, if I entertain the notion that theatre can be practiced in the ideal as athletes do during the Olympics, he could be both competitor and collaborator simultaneously. At the Innovative Theatre Awards gathering recently, Mac sat with his clan at one table. I sat with my clan at another. The hype of this ceremony is that we are all of the same tribe, and although it’s hype it’s not pretense. The off-off, downtown, independent theatre community does actually exist in New York, and most, if not all, New York bloggers Mac references identify with this off-off theatre community.

Scott bristles and doesn’t “take kindly to those who feel it is OK to insult academics.” Yet he would differentiate his Theatre Ideas from the “jargon and obscurity in academic journals.” Similarly Mac gets “cranky” about insults thrown at that old whore “New York theatre” even as he insists he can differentiate his clan and the other NY theatre bloggers from some “single NYC aesthetic.”

Broadway is unique in that it produces and/or validates a “theatre product” that is exported to other cities around the country and the world. So Mac is wrong if he thinks that the New York theatre community is “just one of many theatre communities around the country.” In most ways of measuring, New York is the recognized theatre capital of the world and the home and exporter of commercial theatre in this country. For many theatre ensembles and individuals from around the country, New York represents either figuratively or literally, the supra-community and audience for their work.

New York functions as a mindset more than it does as reality. “Can I have a career? Can I make a living from my art? “ New York serves as an aspect of the “sour grapes” psychology in all of us, including those of us living in the city, with the conflicting goals of a career in art versus a life in art.

These meetings happening around the Showcase Code are very telling. The producers pushing for reform give many reasons, but the main one is that 16 performances with the short four-week run stymies any attempt at finding the box office necessary to pay actors mini-contract wages. So these producers claiming to represent “independent theatre” are not really different from any other producer in the New York theatre. I mean other than they are allowed to work with Equity actors without the benefit of a contract as they attempt to become commercial.

The stated ambitions of these producers are contrary to many other off-off artist producers working in the city. Many artist producers in the city are not under this mandate of box office growth. Many know that regardless of the fact they are living in a city of 8 million, their audience is kindred, and thus finite in number. They will never make a career or a living from the box office of this audience, but the theatre they are exploring with them finds its value in other ways.

All of us are divided between these poles of career in art vs. a life in art. Scott is no different than Mac in this. The pot is as black as the kettle. Scott in his Ivory Tower talks about community. Mac attempts to practice community in the most commercial of cities.

The NY bloggers are as diverse as their city is. The review of Mac’s recent play by a fellow NYC theatre blogger Aaron Riccio says:

“…with a few tweaks, this play can certainly conquer a larger house.”

So I will finally answer Mac’s question to me, but in the Socratic manner, by asking another question. Yes, regardless of the qualifications I outlined, I agree that Scott should see the New York community as just one of many communities around the country where his ideas are playing out in an interesting way. My question to you concerns the arguments surrounding the “New York aesthetic.”

So does “independent” theatre, in New York or anywhere, tweak plays to find a bigger box office? And would any dramaturg even classify such an aspiration as an aesthetic?

6 thoughts on “The New York Aesthetic?

  1. This is a great post, Nick, with a lot of great points. I promise I’ll be back later to wrestle with them. The only thing I want to say right now is you’re a total choad for not coming up and introducing yourself if you recognized me at the NYIT thing! My picture’s on my blog, yours isn’t! I don’t know what you like! I saw Ms. Schafer’s name in the program, and idly wondered if you were there, but what could I do? You’re an antisocial punk, Fracaro, and I shan’t soon forget it.

  2. You don’t look like your picture. I wasn’t sure it was you until your table cheered when your name was announced. I look somewhat like the rat in the mastheead except that I don’t have beer in my hand these days.

    I’m off to the airport right now. But I’ll beat this dead horse with you sometime down the line.

  3. Nick, your post speaks with the maturity of someone who’s been there, done that. lol. Give my regards to Mary Feast – I miss her so.
    It’s so hard to tell what’s a debate and what’s an argument, but I’m all for it. I mean, where would the Abstract Expressionists be without the Cedar Bar fights? Or MacBeth without the Astor Riots? And almost any other noteworthy artistic movement has a history of dust-ups of one kind or another. I worry/wonder if they are a requirement for posterity.
    I still think that the digital dialogue is mostly to blame. I mean, I hate not having the tools of inflection, rhythm, stress, and volume to get my points across, but it’s what we got… and a day-job. So, enjoy your Butoh ass off, and I look forward to reading me some Gaby soon. -R

  4. I’m workin’ on it, Ralph. The segue is turning out to be harder than expected (the segue from my badhamlet as well as the segue from nick’s Rat Sass), but, hey, now that i got myself one expectant reader already, the challenge is definitely on… -g

  5. Hi Nick! At long last I am responding, and later than I promised, for which I apologize. One small point:

    “At the Independent Theatre Awards gathering recently, Mac sat with his clan at one table.”

    As a small point of fact, they’re actually the “Innovative Theater Awards.”


    Now to your question – actually 2 questions. I’ll take them one at a time:

    “So does ‘independent’ theatre, in New York or anywhere, tweak plays to find a bigger box office?”

    This refers to Aaron Riccio’s review of my play “Universal Robots.”

    Nick, your question’s a little hard to unpack. First of all, I don’t know exactly what “independent theater” is. I know what the term refers to in film – movies not made by any of the designated “major studios.” But I don’t think we’ve all come to some sort of generally accepted agreement as to what the term “independent” means in theater. We all know it wouldn’t include musicals produced by Disney, but beyond that, not much more. Does it mean theater that is produced by a company with no permanent performance space? Or theater that is produced without financial contributions by companies, or relatives, or friends? I get the sense that your definition would at least partly include, “Theater that is not interested in making money or expanding its audience beyond a specific community defined as ‘kindred.'” (I’m happy to be corrected if I’m misreading this.)

    All this to say, I don’t know what “independent theater” does because I don’t currently have an understanding of independent theater as a defined entity with a rulebook. But I’m guessing that what you’re actually asking is, would *I,* Mac Rogers, tweak my play to find a bigger box office, and if I would, what does that say about my character?

    Riccio could have meant one of two things by his comment, it seems to me. He could have meant that I should make a few tweaks to make my play more palatable to an undemanding mass audience, or he could have meant that I should make some tweaks in order to improve the quality of the play so that it can garner the good reviews and audience buzz necessary for it to sustain a run at a larger theater than Manhattantheatresource.

    The former assumption means Riccio thinks theater audiences want easy or unchallenging plays. The second suggests that Riccio thinks theater audiences want good plays that have been carefully honed through an artistically rigorous revision process. (I guess it depends on the audience.)

    I think Riccio means the latter, because nowhere in his review does he criticize the play for being uncommercial or excessively challenging or obscure. Riccio’s criticisms focus on his belief that the play has too many digressions from its central narrative, which make the show too long and the first and second acts too different. These strike me as artistic criticisms, which leads me to believe that Riccio believes the play needs to be artistically improved before it’s ready for prime time.

    So if rather than “independent theater” you actually mean me, Mac Rogers, then the answer is: I will tweak the play to make it a better play, in the hopes that it’s artistic quality may at some point attract investors and producers and inspire positive reviews. I won’t make specific tweaks because I think investors or reviewers will like those tweaks; I won’t try to anticipate what I think somebody with money or clout wants to see. But I do plan to make tweaks to make the play itself, as an artistic event, better at being the thing it needs to be – because first and foremost, the play is an artistic statement and inquiry I whish to share – but I will also hope that that accomplishment will attract the positive response described above. This secondary wish is drawn from my desire to at some point make an exclusive living as a writer.

    What that says about my character – whether that makes me “independent” or not, or “good” or not – will have to be up to anyone who cares to decide for themselves.

    Your second question:

    “And would any dramaturg even classify such an aspiration as an aesthetic?”

    Well, I don’t know what a dramaturg would think. I haven’t trained as a dramaturg, so I’m completely unqualified to even speculate as to what a dramaturg would think about your question.

    If what you actually mean is, would *I* classify such an aspiration as an aesthetic, then I can try to proceed.

    The simple desire to move your play into a larger theater so that more people can buy tickets and look at it and you’ll maybe make some money – no, that’s not an aesthetic. It’s a desire, and not necessarily a dishonorable one, but it’s not an aesthetic.

    There’s another way of looking at it, though. If a play moves to a larger house and becomes a longer-running event, that means more people are encountering it, people beyond a particular artist’s or company’s loyal audience. That means that the artists involved as well as the material can be challenged in new ways by new thinkers. (For exaomple, I didn’t know who Aaron Riccio even was a few months ago; now I have his thoughts and criticism to work with.) If the play has something valuable to offer, more people can receive that offering. When I think of the plays written by playwrights I don’t know personally that have moved and inspired me and informed my life in many ways, I’m glad that those playwrights weren’t content to share their work only with a select group of people. I’m glad that they aspired to new and differening venues and circumstances, so that their work could someday find their way to me.

    The belief that a work of art should reach and be accountable to as large a number of people as would like to receive it is, I think, an aesthetic, or perhaps an aspect of an aesthetic.

    I hope that I answered your question as completely as possible. If I haven’t, or you’d like any clarification, I’m pretty sure you won’t be shy about asking for it. I thank you kindly for allowing me to claify my thoughts in this way, and in this venue.

  6. Wow, Mac, you outdid the French deconstructionists with that answer. Thanks for the deliberation. I am at a loss for words for now but I’m sure I’ll visit your thoughts on this down road somewhere.

    I’m interested in this trend of trying to be “popular” that I see developing in many young playwrights. This may be a generational shift. Any sense that a playwright was “pandering to an audience” once created such quick and negative dismissal of any work trying to be “serious”, that I believe some writers deliberately obscured the accessibility to meaning in their plays from a popular audience.

    Hey, and thanks for the “innovative” edit.  I added a link there with the edit.

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