Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Learning stuff, and stuff

On Monday I went to a panel discussion at the Lucille Lortel, it was the Stella Adler Studio’s closing of their Harold Clurman festival, which I know absolutely nothing about. Enough names for you in that sentence? I wouldn’t have known about this discussion either except my friend Aryana had an extra ticket and her boyfriend would rather have chewed off his own foot than attend (former film major, no respect for the theatre). anyway, it was centered around a book I haven’t read (I read a review, does that count?) called The Necessity of Theatre, which, among other things, broadens the definition of theatre to include things like football games and weddings. Having not read the book I can’t be sure, but I think that the general idea is that theatre is anything that requires one group of people to watch another and feel something collectively. I guess that’s kind of beautiful but it doesn’t make me like or respect either football or weddings. Anyway, the other major thing that I think the book dealt with was what it means to be part of an audience and how watching as well as making drama makes us more human. I’m pretty sure the answer was something about empathy but they didn’t go into much detail about that.

So, the author Paul Woodruff was on the panel, but he’s a British philosophy professor who teaches somewhere in Texas and was barely allowed to speak. Also featured (a bit more prominently) were the director Anne Bogart (who I saw speak at Purchase and liked despite the fact that she directed the god-awful Charles Mee play Hotel Cassiopeia), Ben Cameron from the Doris Duke Foundation, Peter Meineck who translated several ancient Greek texts with Woodruff and I think does something else too, and the woman who head the acting program at NYU whose name I can’t readily find. They were theatre people (which is why they so easily upstaged a philosopher), they cared about the subject, they spoke well, and they loved the book.

The major themes that emerged where education, innovation, technology, funding, a changing of the guard and audience outreach. They talked about how audiences were dwindling, how in a time when people where consuming more entertainment than ever the theatre isn’t a part of their lives, how people feel closed out of theatre. They talked about technology in two senses and moved without warning between stage technology, rotating stages, projections, holograms which could open theatre up in incredible ways but needed to be used wisely so as not to strip a play of it’s humanity, and technology as enemy, the internet and TV that keep people at home and the phone calls and texts that haunt them even if they make it to the theater. Also, they talked about house lights and Anne Bogart called Stephen Spielburg a fascist, Wagner too, but that might be more literally accurate. Bogart also announced that “post-modernism is over”, which is frankly a relief. She seemed pretty relieved about it too, but she also thought it was on us (the young people) to come up with a name for the new thing. A couple of them, mostly Cameron, talked about how nobody believes in “art for art’s sake” anymore and that art need to prove it’s social value if it wants money (and art’s always hungry for money), which he says isn’t such a bad thing for art because it’s been lazy and self referential for too long. Needless to say he’s a funding guy. I don’t know how I feel about that point, I mean I guess I don’t think art or theatre should be a closed circle, viewed only by the people who consider themselves worthy of making it, but if you say that a play needs to promote diversity, or teach kids about STDs (have they changed it STIs, I can never keep it straight), or draw attention to a genocide, or to gay rights, than there’s no place for what I’m interested in. I know that my life experience is considered invalid and over played, that I’m upper-middle class, atheist, white, young, self-absorbed, that my vocabulary is not child-friendly, that my work is generally about how hard it is keep yourself breathing rather than about global warming, but... I don’t remember where I was going with this. Anyway, I don’t like it I don’t like the idea that good work (not that mine is) isn’t valuable enough to society, especially when so much that apparently has social value is such crap. Back to the discussion. The talked about how the current generation of artistic directors is retiring (the ones who where mentored by and took over directly from the people who the theaters are named after) and young directors won’t replace them unless they are allowed to take these institutions in their own directions. That means that turmoil with might mean interesting stuff.

All in all it was interesting and thought provoking, but it ended on a sour note (for me at least). An actor got up and asked the final question which was something like “how can we as actors experiment and express ourselves and connect with the audience and still respect the writer’s text”, okay the truth is that it was an actor question and I wasn’t totally paying attention, but the answer I heard, Paul Woodruff, the author of The Necessity of Theatre and translator of ancient texts said “screw the writer”.

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