Monthly Archives: May 2004

t minus one week

CLUB opens next Friday.

This week in Jim’s seminar, one of my classmates, a nice fellow named Joe, noted how we all have a precise and wide-ranging vocabulary, both verbally and conceptually, for articulating theater we don’t like; the moment we begin to discuss theater we do like, our language becomes general, our ideas vague. It reminds me of Greil Marcus’ introduction to Lester Bangs Psychotic Reactions and Carburator Dung (one of my Top Ten Big Books, at least from college): “faced with an artist he loved, Lester often wrote poorly, passively,” didn’t write with the same holy rage, conviction, or power.

I’m a leetle guilty of this, though I try to be articulate about things I like, so I can steal ’em. I’m always taking notes in my head when I see a play or movie (or rock show, or art exhibition, etc.); but the most important part of the event is: The Thing. Did the play hit The Thing?

You know what I’m talking about. The Thing. I’ve also heard it referred to as “the Cosmic Orgasm” or “hana, the opening of the sacred flower.” If a play doesn’t hit Thing, I furiously try to figure out why. If a play hits and sustains Thing, my notes are helpful, but don’t really matter. Nothing really matters in the presence of Thing than Thing itself.

Hope that doesn’t sound too flaky, but it’s true.

I’m even less capable articulating feelings or thoughts my own work, especially when I’m working on a play. Especially when it’s about to open, when my gut leaps from disaster to excitement, wonder and the most horrific fear and anxiety. I begin to leave my body, stop eating, stop showering, my sex drive goes into a strange abeyance. Every moment is spent problem-solving, trouble-shooting, putting out fires, etc. According to my friends, I always get like this.

I just want this play to hit The Thing. To work, in the Capital W sense. I think it can.

Send me your good juju, please.

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some things I learned in my year at grad school

1. The unbelievably helpful concept of the theater apparatus. How I made it through undergrad without learning it, I don’t know (probably because I barely showed up, literally and figuratively, to my Contemporary Performance Theories class–sorry, Shawn Marie, I was working on a play!).

Basically, the apparatus of the theater includes, among other things, the actual physical building of the theater, the business mechanism of the theater (producers, etc.) which facilitates production and often dictates play selection, and audience expectations of what a play should be and deliver. The apparatus operates the theater. You can either make work to fit the apparatus, or resist it in some way. Either way, however, the apparatus always wins: it will always absorb and assimilate things that are strange and new (think: The Borg. Or what happened to “punk”). Your only hope is that the apparatus itself changes in the process of absorbing.

2. Look, you theory-head jerks, all “theory” means is critical discourse, which has been going on as long as art has been made and philosophy discussed. (Full disclosure, I have had a ferocious seething hatred of “theory” as a stand-alone discourse since college.) Current theater academia proves its own belief in a false dichotomy between “theory” and “practice” in the very act of (disingenuously) bemoaning the separation between the two, asserting a (disingenuous) desire to unite them. The very act of consistently separating “theory” and “practice” in discussion proves an underlying belief in the rightness of such a split. If not for the fact that practical experience makes a newly-minted PhD more hirable for university positions, I don’t think high theorists would care if their students ever engaged in play/performance-making ever again.

Theory and practice have always been different stages of the same process. The separation of the two is based on false premises.

3. A new appreciation for critical context.

I don’t know how else to describe, but let’s just say I’ve started reading introductions to books more often. TA’ing for Theater History taught me more than the seminars I took–the ways historical/critical context can enliven and open up one’s approach to a text brings me immense pleasure.

4. Undergraduate education is wasted on undergraduates .

5. Teaching forces one to be a much more careful reader.

6. A teacher should replace confidence and control with humility and passion. A difficult task, one I will spend the rest of my life attempting to master.

7. If your program does not encourage conversation, within and between departments, there is no point.

8. Going back and reading the Great Works at an older age reaps incalculable rewards. Reading some of these plays again has been like reading them for the first time. Of course, I’m talking about, among other things, Hamlet.

basketball and "performance"

TDR (The Drama Review, formerly Tulane Drama Review, the pre-eminent journal on, not theater, but “performance studies” (and there’s a difference, and I’ll explain it on the unlikely occasion when it doesn’t bore me to tears)) just sent out its Annual Student Essay Contest guidelines.

They state:

Essays may be on any subject related to performancetheatre, dance, music, media, performance in everyday life, ritual, play, sports, politics, etc….free to tamper with our parameters or invent your own subjects. TDR is actively intercultural, interdisciplinary, and progressive.

Woo hoo. Their request reflects a “performance studies” approach to searching out nodes of performance or “performative” activities in everyday, real life. As opposed to the constructed, hoaried apparatus of the theater, say.

I’m not unsympathetic to this.

But we have a contradiction here: performance theorists seeking out some imaginary “essential” or “authentic” kernel of ur-Performance even in our current day, the age of Baudrilliard’s “end of the real,” the post-modern acknowledgement of the constructed, mediated, contextual basis of all communication and performance, gesture and language.

Which leads to further contradictions, especially considering the anti-theater bias arising from the resultant apparatus of performance studies scholars. Why are we so uninterested in theater, in art that has been constructed–why must we keep searching for some “authentic” “essential” in everyday life? As if art isn’t real life! Art is real life! Only slightly less constructed than the daily habits of life! (My brilliant friend Jen Mitas, currently studying in London and more soon on her, introduced this line of thinking to me a few weeks ago and it’s been taking root).

So anyway, watching the playoffs tonight, struck, as I always am, by the performance of sports. Sports are performative in lots of ways. Ok, big deal.

What I’m really trying to say is: Fuck the Lakers. Fuck ’em harrrrrrrd.

MFA or PHD or WTF?

Two days ago, I quit a PhD. in Theater program, which I started this past October.

I have quite a lot to say on the topic of the current academic apparatus of the theater. But why don’t I start with an (edited version of an) email I sent to a marvelous playwright/professor, whose advice I was desiring, one month into the program, November 2003. Yes, the email is a bit hysterical and overwrought in places.

In some ways, I’ve been proven right, in some ways wrong. Those places will be marked with a **, and I’ll expand more tomorrow.

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

Let me tell you about the pickle I currently find myself in, having started the PhD program. And that might tell you what kind of program I think could actually be relevant in America in 2003, the program I wish existed so I could go to it right now.

I’m a director. What got me into this mess, this demented profession, is my unfortunate love for directing plays and for theater. I have total faith that theater works, and can work anywhere with a wide set of resources–especially after doing four plays in rural Mississippi. Especially after having almost never been able to do a play with, like, a set or lights, but generally a wash board and a piece of electrical tape, usually in a basement somewhere.

Anyway–in my artistic pursuits I developed a concurrent and fanatic inquiry into How Do We Make Theater Work In America in 2003. That’s why I made Living Newspapers in NYC, and went to Cornerstone, and went on that trip documenting Outdoor Dramas, Passion Plays, etc. The desire to finish the latter project has landed me in a PhD program where they couldn’t give a shit if I directed another play again except that my directing “background” will make me more hirable in academia in 4 years.** I’m pretty sure that when I try to take any MFA classes, it will be some kind of an ‘issue’.** There is nothing in my program related to practice, nothing. I don’t know why I came here. It’s rather painful.

So why am I not in an MFA program? The MFA would be preparing me for a future which is only getting smaller and less relevant, aka, preparing me to work in a system of theater which, simply put, ISN’T WORKING. The regional theater system is not working in terms of developing new work, new audiences, or making theater relevant in any way in daily American life. Even if I just went for the connections–I curdle when I confront the $25,000 price tag of Yale and Columbia–who are they kidding? It’s shameful!* (It’s not like law school where you can go work for the devil for 4 years and pay off the loans! You either have to be monumentally wealthy or take on _crippling_ amounts of debt as you get into a profession that puts you into debt anyway!).

The PhD program (I reasoned to myself a year ago) will at least let me pursue my own interests. I’m here–and really don’t see it happening.**

Look, I just want an MFA program that isn’t there to produce regional theater or New York hacks. A program that encourages thinking artists who do research as part of their art-making, and forces them to ask the big questions of How Do We Do This Thing Here. A place that includes required coursework/practicum in community-based theater-making, teaching (of both practicum and dramatic literature), non-traditional theater, and grant-writing and cooking up new feasible economic models for art; which encourages and makes room for a class or two in (or collaboration with) Political Economics and Video and Painting and Dance and History and Popular Mechanics. A place where the directors are required to take Playwrighting and Acting and Design–and vice versa–for the basic empowerment it gives artists to make a piece of theater work no matter who they are in its food-chain. A place that doesn’t have answers but asks the questions, rigorously, that wants to produce the hungry practitioners who are going to make the New Theater. Perhaps that includes required residencies in non-theater centric locations?

Perhaps such a program exists and I don’t know about it–tell me where it is, and I’ll go there, straight away. Perhaps no program like this could ever exist, and I need to stop whining–tell me that too, and I will, straight away.

I literally just don’t know where to go next. In my self-pitying moments (alarmingly frequent of late), I think things like, “*sniff* there’s just no place for me.” Because there isn’t, of course–is there for any of us? Not really, past what we can make for ourselves. I’m certainly not interested in fighting over the five crumbs that currently exist–that’s why I left New York, that’s all they do there, they don’t bake new bread. I’m the Little Red Hen, here–where can I go to plant the field and bake new bread?

*Don’t even start me ranting again about how the practice-theory divide is only perpetuating mediocrity in the most insidious of ways**, I’ve already been going on too long.

shocked

To see that I haven’t written in this long–but I’ve been hesitant about writing when I haven’t had the time to figure out how to do what I want to do with this, layout-wise. I think I should download Dreamweaver and call it a day. Suggestions welcome.

Also been very busy with the play (we have a space! but we lost our stage manager! we have a great cast! but people are really flaky in San Diego!). Also realizing that theater has been my personal life as long as I’ve been an adult and now that I have an actual personal life, I’m not balancing anything very well.

So.

Yesterday’s seminar was surpringly GREAT. Every week, we have to write short papers discussing our reaction to the reading (if you care: mid-20th-century French plays, Genet and Ionesco and Beckett–don’t let’s have that fight now, we’ll talk later–and Camus and Sartre). The professor started discussion by stating that we should write short, that most academic writing should strive for such brevity and clarity.

He also enjoys the “associative reading logic” that dictates these papers. Academia assumes we can write about art the way we write about the news, about science–it focuses on a single idea about a play, thus impoverishing the conversation. We need to fatten our writing with questions. We should read and write associatively–whenever we see a play, he says, we read it in the context of everything we know and ever have known. Once we see a play, it is always still there, in us and with us.