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January 19, 2011


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Tony Adams

Who decides what the difference is?

Ben Layne

Boy, I'd be interested to know who exactly you were talking to up here...


Oh, where is Artaud when we need him?

Paul Willis

I think the challenge is simply moving the audience so thoroughly that they cannot help but be emotionally captivated by the deeper subject of the performance--the point of the show.

I am a very inexperienced writer myself who chooses to challenge the audience through showing society's mistakes etc (as every "challenging" new artist does at first), but a lot of new writers take it to an Antonin Artaud-ian Theater of Cruelty extreme and violently harass the audience. I think this view of challenging is shallow and stupid.

However, a challenge is always welcome to a mature audience, and I think artists are finding ever more creative ways to challenge the audience and redefine exactly what the "challenge" itself is, in fact.


Abusing the audience's humanity is the same as celebrating it. "Challenging" the audience is strictly for the pencil neck geeks.

But one of my favorite moments in a theater ever was being sprayed with breast milk straight from the teat at a Collapsible Giraffe show, so there you go.



That first sentence sounds nice, but I'm not entirely sure what you mean by it. Please explain in greater depth.


In real life it is no fun to be abused, but in the context of a make-believe performance abusing the audience's humanity is fun and cathartic. And quite popular.

I would think that "challenging" the audience is the watered down version of abusing them. In most cases they would prefer to be abused. Because it's more fun!

Unless you're talking about abusing the audience in a GG Allin sort of way, which I think does kinda cross the line, unless you are in fact GG Allin.

Maybe you just don't find Sarah Kane funny?

Jack Worthing

It's to do with skill.

Bond stones the baby to death at the end of Act I because the subject of SAVED is torture, our complicity in it, and the possibility of redemption. He subverts our instinct for moral judgment at every turn, and forces us, through the use of humor and subtle humanity, to follow the story to its conclusion.

Sarah Kane did her thing because she thought the world was an irredeemably ugly place, and the fucking-pissing-shitting-amputating-raping-sobbing work reflects it. It's a youthful, cynical, immature world view and her assault tactics are beloved of youthful, cynical, immature writers. Sarah happened to have more talent than most of them, but she never gave herself the chance to grow up.

Major artists - Shakespeare, Chekhov, Beckett, Bond - Christ, even Harold Pinter! - get right in your face, in their ways, and they despair. But there's always the ghost of a better world behind their work.

Jack Worthing

By the way, I think Beckett is hilarious.

Jack Worthing

And Caryl Churchill is far more radical, challenging, and important than Sarah Kane.

Scott Walters

Tony writes, "Who decides what the difference is?" I love that question, because the implication is that it is supposed to shut down the conversation. But what is ignored is that, whether a specific somebody decides or not, a decision IS MADE. If it isn't made consciously, it is made by our corporate unconscious. I would argue it is time that we start making conscious, explicit decisions, rather than let our social unconscious decide for us.

I agree with you and with Jack about Sarah Kane. And I would say that if you find her work funny, you are not somebody I would want to associate with. I find "4.48 Psychosis" compelling, because it is written with empathy. The other plays are written in vitriol and vomit.

Beckett is brilliant, especially Beckett's late, short plays like "Rockabye" and "Ohio Impromptu." But I see 99 seats' post about Romulus Linney and uplift as being a natural addition to this one.

nicely said, Isaac.


I do agree with Scott on the "Who decides?" point. That's an invaluable question when you're talking about like policy or law, but when you're talking about art and opinions about art, it doesn't seem applicable to me. In a (relatively) open society like our own, everybody decides, it seems to me.

And I largely feel the same as Jack W. on the Sarah Kane, though I like her plays better overall. In Blasted and Cleansed, in particular, I feel like she wanted to confront horror in order to find a kind of transcendence that didn't feel pat or sentimental to her. They might be clumsy plays, but I don't find them to be mean-spirited, and as Jack W. says, she had gobs of talent. I like most of the plays she did write, but I mourn the ones she didn't.

And in continuing the agreeing-with-Jack-W vein, I think the work of Caryl Churchill (up until her two most recent plays, in my view) offers a master-class in actually *challenging* audiences, rather than putting on an obnoxious show of challenging audiences. They're not necessarily confrontational, but you have to burrow into them, and it's always worth it.


There's really no way to gauge what offends some people and what is catnip to others. I bet you can line up people to watch me shoot myself in the leg, and just as many to protest. The more extreme you get, the more you polarize the audience.

It might not be to your taste or whatever, but isn't that part of being creative? Taking risks? If you calculate for the most offensive you think you can 'get away with' without having people walk out, you're already doing the wrong kind of algebra, I think.

Tony Adams

actually Scott, my intent was not to shut down conversation. I think it's a pretty important question. Otherwise it's a pretty facile conversation around taste.

I know it when I see it is a slippery slope when talking about abusing audiences, no?


I'm down with Tony on the question of who gets to decide, because, as Mac and freeman imply, there are matters of taste involved. What's challenging to me isn't necessarily what's challenging to you, depending on whatever baggage we're each bringing to the table. This is, in some ways, the place for good criticism, not the show reviewing we usually get, but full-on critical thinking and writing about the work. That doesn't leave it purely to the province of the critic; a playwright can write critically about another writer's work. And more should.

There's also the author's intent. The quote that Isaac refers to above, about the playwright who seeks to have audiences walk out, that, to me, is indicative of abusing the audience and not really caring about challenging. If you want them to get in a state where they can't sit in the theatre any longer, you're not engaging them. You're assaulting them. I've seen plays that featured some dark things and some difficult things to watch, but they also made me stay in the theatre to deal with the work. I don't think we can overlook the author's stated intent with the work. Sometimes they don't achieve it, but often they do.


The intentionally abusive works of Sarah Kane and her ilk do nothing for me. There's no tragedy to them. I have no reason to care. If the world is really that ugly and that hopeless, then we're all just getting what we deserve.

It's the beauty and possibility all around us that make the triumph of darkness and despair so awful. We can paint the ceilings of Sistine Chapels and compose White Albums and yet we spend so much more time blowing each other up and ripping each other off.

Ben Layne

This is probably an entirely separate topic, but, I liked this line from 99: "a playwright can write critically about another writer's work. And more should."

Artists rarely write in public about other artists' work for fear of pissing them off (I admit, I am one of these cowardly artists, if you will). Because the theatre community is so small (I speak from my experience in Minnesota/Twin Cities specifically) anything you write that might be "negative" has the potential risk along with it that you'll never work with that artist in the future.

And while it might be easy to say that if the artist in question can't take a little constructive criticism then you probably don't want to work with them, the fact is that getting work is hard, and most of us are in a position where we simply must take what we can get.

This, to my mind, is why we do not have real public criticism and deeper dialogue on our work, dialogue which might (to get back to 99's original point) help in getting a better handle on questions like that of taste/offensiveness vs. challenging an audience on a much broader scale. The vast majority of people best qualified to speak on such topics are artists themselves (being both audience and practitioner), but that conversation is hard, because it does not exist in a vacuum.

So what we get is the typical show review from a third party who does get to see a lot of shows but is often incapable of getting past initial impressions of "did I like it or not" to delve further into the meaning of the work and also the reasons why the work did or did not succeed in what it was attempting to achieve.

End rambling.

Jack Worthing

Agreeing with Ben, there's a good reason why I take this Earnest name...

Tony Adams

Kane's actually an interesting example. She said her plays were all about love and the lengths people have to go to find it among horrifying circumstances. (most of which came from newspaper articles. The eye incident in Blasted is apparently straight from Among the Thugs.)

(there's an audio interview with her http://www.archive.org/details/SarahKaneInterview that's pretty fascinating if you haven't heard that)

She also talked about how she hated how some productions ignored that and turned the work into a sadistic brutality show. Is that on Kane or on the producers? Or the directors? How is it different than the brutality in Titus Andronicus?


It's funny how this conversation is framed when it's writers more or less unknown to the literary and theatrical canon (ie, what people study in school when they don't major in theatre or English).

But as soon as it's Shakespeare or Mark Twain, that makes it OK to inflict them on people without examining what it does to them - or even caring. We sort of just go, "Well, obviously these are the masters, so clearly if anyone has a problem with it there's something wrong with them." That's not analysis. That's not discussion. That's regurgitating our indoctrination.

There's this weird sort of doublethink going on where, one the one hand, you want to claim this work as a model of the power of theatre or literature but don't want to claim the racism, the anti-Semitism, the homophobia, or the misogyny as what it is. If we do claim it, it's only to the extent that it only happened Back Then and is no longer relevant to what's happening today.

There's a reluctance to hold contradictions that is the enemy of true growth. People spend all their energy absolving Great White Men of the racism, sexism, and classism in their work instead of owning it and using as a springboard to challenge and change dominant paradigms. Look, I love Tolkien's Middle-earth. But it's got issues. I don't ignore them or minimize them. I use them as fuel to do better.

(Not to take it on too far of a tangent, but I honestly believe that Shakespeare is single-handedly responsible for turning people away from theatre. Him and Oklahoma!. "This is the most boring shit I've ever seen. I have no idea what the fuck these people are talking about, but I guess that's just what theatre is because Shakespeare is the greatest." No wonder people don't show up.)


I'm sorry, RVCBard, but in my experience the kinds of conversations you are describing only happen with a certain retrograde old-guard canonist element. Certainly when I discuss these sorts of issues with the people I make and see theatre with, the politics and issues of representation are not taken for granted in the so-called Great Works, nor have they been given the kind of pass you describe on this site. Just look at this comment thread, where Tony is earnestly asking what is the difference between Titus Andronicus and the work of Sarah Kane and pondering the same very questions that you say people don't ask.

So I gotta ask. Who is saying these things? Where are these conversations being had?


To add to that, the element that keeps getting ignored is power. And the ultimate power is to define what is true and worthy for everyone else.

We've all been conditioned. We've all been indoctrinated. It does influence what we consider challenging vs. abusive - and it often has less to do with the way it interacts with its audience than we'd like to think. As Scott said, you don't have to say it; you don't even have to think about it. That's the point.

For me, there is a difference between the "How dare you!" for ShitPissPukeBloodFuck and the "How dare you!" for a dramatic reading of Huck Finn that uses Negro instead of nigger. Even if we say, "Waitaminute, that doesn't make fucking sense," they still serve an institutional function (What is good/valuable? What is beautiful? What is true?). They're so entrenched that you can't even have the conversation without them. Not if you don't want to feel stupid.

That in and of itself creates a sort of protection (for lack of a better word) regarding what's challenging vs. abusive. And the people ultimately making that decision (consciously or no) are usually not the ones most affected by it.



"It's a youthful, cynical, immature world view and her assault tactics are beloved of youthful, cynical, immature writers."

This seems unkind to me. I've always thought it was the world view of somebody who was mentally unstable, and beloved by the same. Or am I being unkind here?


Also, while I'm not necessarily a great fan of Sarah Kane's, I do often find myself wishing there were more plays that are as raw and guttural as hers. I appreciate it when I see it done well.

Go ahead and flame my taste, if you'd like.



You PLEBE!!!!

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