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April 13, 2009

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Joshua James

What, specifically, do you not agree with in the piece? ... the idea that a NY theatre wouldn't devote a season to works on Afghanistan?

I don't find that necessarily incorrect ... in fact, I find it pretty much unsurprising ...

isaac

I think that I agree with that, but not his reasons WHY. I think the reasons why have far more to do with things like resource competition and structural issues with the non-profit system etc.

It's ridiculous in a season where RUINED is one of the most successful plays in New York to claim that all american audiences want is entertainment and they don't want to learn or have political content in their plays.

Similarly, I agree with him that audiences are wary of overtly political plays but I disagree with him about why, again I don't think it has to do with a desire to be entertained all the time so much as the perception (whether accurate or not) that a lot of overtly political work is second-rate from the perspective of being good drama.

RLewis

I agree with JJ here. If you're going to take a stand on something, then take a stand. This looks more like a post on Adam S.'s blog - link and run is not conducive to community growth. I'm not sure what your problem with JT's article is, but much as I like the playwright, I can come up with 2 or 3 reasons just off the top.

RLewis

Thanks for that, Isaac. Ruined is a good example; I was thinking of Blackwatches rave return, and there are others. I don't think we are so adverse to political entertainment - it has more to do with what issues we are political about and who/how many care about which.

99

This piece made me kind of irrationally angry. I went on about it at my place, so I won't here. But I agree with just about everything here.

Joshua James

His essential point is still correct, in that we won't see the same type of political theatre and / or risk taking in New York that we will in London with regard to subject matter ... but if you agree with his overall point but not his reasons WHY, what do you think the reasons WHY are?

I mean, I have my suspicions (but I haven't seen RUINED, in fact, I've not been able to see much theatre at all for the past year, so I'm probably too far out of the loop) but since I was less offended than most by this (again, to me is was just, yeah, Second Stage isn't going to commission a season of original works on Afghan culture here, that's obvious) I'd be interested to hear why you think it is so, and why that his reasons why are more disagreeable than his the overall point ... if that made sense - LOL!

Sasha

Hmmmm. . .has he been to NYC?
It happens here, just maybe doesn't get the same kind of funding.

99

Joshua- It does make sense and I posted on it over at my place. But the quick and dirty thing is that it doesn't happen here, as Isaac said, more out of financial considerations than any laziness on the part of our audiences. And, the way I see it, the financial considerations feed into the bouts of institutional cowardice (e.g. Rachel Corrie). The British government funds the theatres to a much greater degree. Rich people fund our theatres and are, by and large, the most conservative of audiences. If a theatre pushes the envelope too far, there's the threat of having its funding withdrawn. This kind of endeavor would be a big expense and it would take a certain kind of funder to get it done. And, yes, we do have a more conservative political environment (I don't mean that in terms of politics, but in terms of how we communicate politically), but that's not really it. If there was money for it, you don't think the Public would do this sort of thing (looking at their website and history, I think the Public Theater is a better parallel than Second Stage)?

I find his reasons, though, more disagreeable because he lays the blame at the feet of the audience, not the theatres. That's what bothers me about it.

Joshua James

99, I agree with you, for what it's worth, but ... I don't see how we can prove that it happens "more out of financial considerations than any laziness on the part of our audiences."

I don't see how we can prove that it's more one or the other, or that it's not both, you know?

So in the end, I'd say it could very well be the fault on both end.

The Public is a good example, and I actually admire Oskar a lot ... I remember a couple years ago I went to a reading night of short pieces on the Palestine and Lebonese experience ... my friend Naomi had a piece being read, and much of the work that night (but not all) dealt with the Palenstine experience from a non-Jewish viewpoint.

Most of the work was excellent, and a couple of the Lebanese writers I thought were very good.

But the anger from many in the crowd disappointed me ... unfounded anger at the gall that these pieces were being read from a sympathetic POV toward Lebanese and Palenstian people without a balanced opposing pieces from Israeli POV ... as though there aren't a legion of plays by respected Jewish writers every year ...

But the anger was stunning, for me.

The audience surely plays a part in everything, I think ... so it's fair to bring them up, I don't know if it's laziness or what (it's not laziness with me) but it's fair to make the point ...

Again, I don't know if the guy is right in his reasons why or not ... I just think his overall point is more worthy of discussion.

Abe Goldfarb

Yeah, I think Rogers misses the point. It's a funding issue, not a creativity issue or an audience issue. People are willing to be challenged, and artists are willing to challenge them.

Apart from all that other guff, I'm most offended by his cheerful, smug willingness to throw his countrymen and brothers in art under the bus to curry favor.

Shit sandwich all around, I think you'll all agree.

Tommer

BAM seems to be doing OK both with securing funding and attention for their Muslim Arts festival and conference coming up in June.

http://www.bam.org/view.aspx?pid=862

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Rogers writes, as many expat Americans are prone to do, from an unfortunate pillar of superiority that comes from some success abroad. I say unfortunate, because the real subject of the article is his arrogance, and not the work or the politics.

-----

"Shit sandwich all around..." Thanks for this great phrase, Abe. Can't wait to use it!

99

These guys got there before me and said it all. You can't judge from Israel-Palestine issues, since that's a third rail in this country. But nothing more than shit sandwich needs to be said.

Ken

As clumsily and un-nuanced as his argument was, I think Rogers did have a point. There is, in general, a greater acceptance for popular art that discuss politics in Europe than there is here. In America we often pride ourselves in the insulation we have from the chaos going on around the globe--we are living free and peaceful in our bubble as the world burns. Something like 9/11 can be a small prick in that bubble of complacency, but even that event is met by many with a clamor for escapism.

Yes, the problem does stem from a lack of funding from official sources, but that lack of funding is based in the belief that public money should not go to anything that insists on confronting people with hard, cold reality (not with MY tax dollars, buddy!). And since subsidy is the only real way such work is going to see the light of day, we are not likely to see such a wide-ranging comprehensive look at an international situation as Rogers' Afghanistan pieces.

The Brits aren't smarter than us, or more caring, they just have a better system of subsidy for the arts--although the conservatives there, just like ours here, would gladly wipe all that out.

99

Hmm...I do wonder how connected those two impulses are: the desire for art to be "comforting" and the resistance to funding it. It usually appears to me that the resistance comes more from a Puritan place of "well, if you enjoy it, you shouldn't get paid for it" and "the arts are frivolous." Taken from that perspective, I do get Rogers' argument. Man, I wish I was a serious economist or social scientist. Maybe I've been reading too much Malcolm Gladwell and stuff lately, but I'd love to see a study to see if theatres that did controversial, political work suffered a drop in donations the following year. I think there's probably a lot of "conventional wisdom" about theatres and audiences that wouldn't be born out by the facts.

Jump

As a script reader for a few theaters in DC, I can confidently say that there is no shortage of political plays in America. There is a shortage of good political plays. Honestly, plenty of companies avoid the arts and politics intersection because few artists can find it without sacrificing either their craft or the complexity of their socio-political argument. Clearly, some writers can spark a great political discussion through the medium of a great play ... but not everyone is Lynn Nottage or Tony Kushner. What they do is unbelievably hard! And just in terms of its history, Europe has had more practice in that area that the US had. The Greeks were holding arts and politics festivals about 2,500 years ago. Our theater community is still finding itself. We're pretty young.

RLewis

I vote for Jump. That's gotta be the wisest comment in this thread. Just writing a great play is a lifetime of hard, and writing a great political play is off the charts. Not only is it entirely difficult to get the point of view down, but to also have an engaging story and drama not too sappy to follow, without being too theatrical for those who know your cause or too boring to those who don’t, while keeping the didactic hammer in the tool box, well, isn’t that why we revere those who accomplish it? Especially the didactic part – even bloggers hate sitting through that politics, and it happens way more times than we’d ever want to admit. But we have no choice but to keep trying, so I cheer JT for bringing it up (even though he’s really just promoting a festival) and everyone here who took a shot at him... I mean this important topic. lol

Ben TS

I don't think it's ever wise to say that we need more "political" theatre in the US. Few playwrights are able to distinguish theatre that is polical from theatre that is basically just a book report on stage. How many plays have we seen that take place within a specific political or historical context that end up being nothing BUT that context? Audiences need plays that are recognizably human right now; not tepid, expository theatre entailing copious program notes. I frankly don't want to encourage that kind of crap, which is why I'm very wary of anyone claiming we need more theatre that is "timely" or "urgent" or whatever other empty adjectives Rogers used.

Another big problem with Rogers' article is that he's misclassifying Americans' relationship to theatre. Our problem is not that we only go to the theatre to be entertained. Quite the opposite. I would argue American go to the theatre for any reason BUT entertainment, whether vaguely motivated by cultural obligation, dilletantism, children, or (God help us) the sometimes ugly variety of reasons that THEATRE people go to the theatre. That's a discussion for another day, but it's indicative of how tone deaf Rogers is that he thinks Americans go to the theatre for the same reason they watch TV.

Also, the entire article is based upon the bullshit assumption that somebody finding the Tricycle's Afghanistan-themed festival odd somehow belies our philistinism. Because, honestly? A festival of plays about a poor, Central Asian country written by mostly white, mostly British playwrights performed in a country with few immigrants from said country is, yes, actually a little bizarre.

Joshua James

" Our problem is not that we only go to the theatre to be entertained. Quite the opposite. I would argue American go to the theatre for any reason BUT entertainment, whether vaguely motivated by cultural obligation, dilletantism, children, or (God help us) the sometimes ugly variety of reasons that THEATRE people go to the theatre. That's a discussion for another day, but it's indicative of how tone deaf Rogers is that he thinks Americans go to the theatre for the same reason they watch TV."

Uh, I guess that I have to disagree with this statement ... my experiences and observations lead me to believe that, yeah, people go to theatre mainly to be entertained ... now sometimes folks like their entertainment to be challenging, that may be one argument (and in my experience, most American audiences don't want it too challenging, see, BLONDE, LEGALLY, THE MUSICAL) but my experience is that is the primary reason the majority of folks spend their cash money on plays and musicals.

Again, I don't know how we can prove he's wrong, one way or another ... we may not like the conclusion Rogers has drawn (and yeah, obviously a lot of people don't like it) but how can you prove that audiences don't want challenging political theatre or not, how to prove it's a funding issue vs an audience issue?

But I do think that it's not correct to say that audiences go to theatre primarily for reasons other than entertainment ... I think a few folks dedicated to the craft do so, but the majority go to be entertained.

Just my opinion, of course.

99

What kind of proof are you looking for? It's one thing to say that the two problems are related, that theatres have trouble fundraising for overtly political theatre of little "entertainment" value. But so far, no one has pointed out a theatre doing a similarly large event for purely "entertainment" value. Remember, he's not just talking about one play, but a full festival of work. And, already , in this thread, there's been mention of a number of theatres doing challenging, political work, even when it sparks some angry dialogue. It's happening and, yes, it is hard to do it right and not be preachy or make plain old bad theatre. But I don't see anyone shying away from the political themes, at almost any level of the American theatre. But I do see a lot of theatre shying away from expensive ventures.

Joshua James

I certainly see and have been aware of it, myself, political work not being done or avoided, at least in the past, not simply the Palenstine conflict ...

In terms of why, that was my point ... folks saying it isn't this, it's that, and I don't see how one can state it's not definitively one or the other, not that I need proof, I just don't see how his statements regarding WHY it happens are any more or less supported than anyone else's reasons why ...

I get his tone pissed folks off, I get that, but beyond that, I don't see how he's more wrong or right than anyone else.

Again, this is all just my opinion, of course.

And of course, I do think the main reason folks go to the theatre is to be entertained ... for most, it's the only reason.

Abe Goldfarb

I think it's fairly obvious that he's wrong in his patronizing blanket condemnation of New York artists and audiences. We're not sell-outs and they're not idiots. In this, he is wrong. Could not be more wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

If he wished to start a conversation on why more theaters don't do socially conscious theater, then that is fine. I think that it would be great to see more artists tackle the real issues, especially GOOD artists. Artists who achieve more than didactic sub-journalism. There is much to be said for the value of art transfiguring real and painful things. But his high-minded ignorance and self-regard make the article speak more about him than about theater on either side of the Atlantic.

Shit sandwich.

Ben TS

Joshua,

At age 15, I jumped out of my skin with excitement any time I went with my mom to our local regional theatre. But in retrospect, "entertainment" in its purest sense wasn't really why I went. I went because I enjoyed the art form. Most people who go to theatre are there because they enjoy the art of theatre. When I turn on my tube at night, I'm certainly not doing so because I enjoy the "art of television." In America, there's this problematic middle step to finding theatre entertaining, and in some ways eliminating that middle step is the greatest challenge we face. I suppose maybe "entertainment" is too vague a word to use here--point is, Rogers is trying to make the tired old argument about America's puritanical division of work and play, and how we damn art to the "play" column. It's just very inapt, since I would argue that for most Americans theatre is more work than play.

I do agree that perhaps we're being a bit harsh on Rogers. To be honest, his article reads like a poorly reasoned rant I've had in my head at 4AM on a Tuesday. Only for whatever reason, Roger's rant got published.

99

I don't think we're being too hard on Rogers (says someone being hard on Rogers). And that doesn't negate the argument that American theater is less political than English because of audience apathy. That's a fine argument to have. But it's not really the one he's making. I would be fine if he compared the London theatre scene to the NY theatre scene and said, "They're doing work over here that you can never do over there." But he didn't. He said this large, multilevel festival could never happen in the US mainly because US audiences don't want to be educated at the theatre. That's a different argument and one I reject. We can go back and forth about what theatre did what and rejected what, but festivals of that size and scope, about anything, even Shakespeare, for God's sake, are rare in the States. And, yes, I would say it's mainly about money. I'm happy to have a conversation about the state of political theatre in this country and how we got there, but that's not what he's talking about. I'm glad we're talking about it.

Jennifer Gordon Thomas

I'm not offended by this article...I don't find him patronizing. He just sounds like a victim. His experience has formed his reality.

We just finished up Mac's play Universal Robots which was about (among other things)politics, communism, socialism, science, humanity, responsibility...and we played to sold-out houses w/waiting lists, who left deeply moved and wanting more.
And we did that here in good ol' NYC.

Ken

Re: political theater and its usefulness

I was reading one of Mamet's books of essays on the Nature of Drama, and he said something to the effect of theater is for tapping into the unconscious mind, and addressing those matters which the rational mind cannot or will not tackle. Therefore, political plays don't end up as good theater because they are concerned with all-too-rational matters--the stances or poses that we wear consciously, and therefore things that we can take on and off like clothing. They don't touch on the underlying, seemingly irrational responses that need to be addressed for any real change to occur.

Don't know exactly how this feeds into the Rogers discussion, just thought it was an interesting topic to chew on.

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