VIRTUES AND VICES OF THE KALEIDOSCOPIC TREADMILL
In the Tim Burton film Ed Wood there is a scene – wholly fictional – in which the title character, the world’s worst film director, sits in a bar having a heavy conversation with Orson Welles, the world’s best. What’s odd about the pairing is how easy it easy it to associate the two men – categorically — in the mind. Sure, the differences are obvious. Wood was a naïf, whose ignorance of the laws of dialogue and cinematic grammar combine with an obsession for the lurid and outlandish to create a kind of unintentionally humorous folk art. Welles, by contrast, was an erudite world traveler, well-versed in every art form; he combined his knowledge from all these areas to reinvent cinema, after having conquered the theatre and radio. Yet both men were possessed of strong, highly idiosyncratic visions which they pursued farther and farther into the fringes of Hollywood. When Hollywood turned its back on them, they proceeded undaunted, making films on shoestrings, piecing together financing in pitifully small, hard-won lumps.
Why was it so hard for them to get their films made? They were individuals. Their works were the product of a single imagination. Whereas, almost from the beginning, Hollywood has been about group-think, rule by committee, audience testing, and a multi-layered approval process. The product overall is generally pleasant, entertaining, diverting. In a word, mediocre. Brilliance and ineptitude are equally rare in the industry. The spectrum of quality consists of a fat band in the middle and two skinny ones on the sides. Wood and Welles stand at the extremes of that spectrum, like tempestuous poles on an otherwise Edenic planet. Ah, the poles. Who but a reckless and arrogant madman — a Shackleton, a Scott — would be drawn there?
For years now, I have been associated with a sort of loose theatrical stock company. Interestingly, this company has no formal existence. It is actually comprised of several micro-companies, many of which are “companies” only in the megalamaniacal imaginations of their founders, since they technically each consist of only one or two members. The loose confederation of these micro-companies, the mother company, if you will, adds up to the real company, which, like the Hydra, has many heads.
Like I say, it is informal. There was no moment of foundation. It has no name. There is no paperwork to verify its existence. While it is strongly associated with a certain venue, (as it was strongly associated with another one before that), many of its members just as often work at other theatres. And the membership itself is fluid. No one can say who is “in” or “out”. It has evolved organically over time, its members drawn together by a mysterious force, just as gravity once pulled together random bits of matter to make the solar system. Likewise, it has organized itself spontaneously, the various members taking on particular tasks according to their natural gifts. Onstage, the company is represented by various useful “types”, whose appearances are anticipated by a devoted (if small) audience from performance to performance.
Many different glues bind the group together: mutual admiration, shared interests, a consonance of professional and artistic philosophies. Among the thousand connecting capillaries I do note one that is particularly robust and perhaps unique. Our organizational model and working methods seem less derived from examples drawn from the arts or even from the professional theatre than from low budget commercial cinema.
By observing this, I do not mean merely (though it is often true) that we draw our inspiration for our content from movies. Certainly we have done productions that are literal adaptations of films, or ones that simply ape the aesethetics of film and television, and others that are parodies of, or homages to, or smash-ups of genres. While we may be vastly more expert at these types of sprees than most, such outings are neither exclusive to us, nor represent our own exclusive interests. We all periodically return to our various high-brow wellsprings, almost to “keep a hand in”, as it were.
What I find more significant and unique among the group is a tendency to emulate the production methods of cinema—especially the low budget cinema. A very no-nonsense, results-oriented approach: a landscape defined by hitting one’s mark, delivering the right line reading, classical Hollywood triangulated lighting, the building of soundtracks out of pop songs and stock FX, and the staging of plausible fist fights and gunshots. There is the embrace of the sensational, of course. Not unrelated to these qualities is the sheer volume of product, a number of productions delivered in such profusion, with such turnover, that the phrase “assembly line” would not be unjust.
The obsession with cinema as subject matter requires no explanation. It has been the most important art form and cultural force in the world for the better part of a century. Yet this group is far, far beyond campy, dilettantish “film buff” dabbling, the sort of thing that has been common in the theatre for close to 50 years. More remarkably, the key players in the group are all either trained film-makers and/or encyclopedic film scholars. The cinematic skills and knowledge represented here are significant – certainly significant enough to actually make some films, which we only occasionally do.
And yet we make theatre. Why? I suspect (and I can only speak for myself) it is some combination of A) convenience, and B) a certain romantic tradition that links the two art forms.
The convenience part is easy to explain. As hard as it is to make theatre, even at the bargain basement level, its apparatus is accessible. While few of us are given to rolling around the floor in leotards, there is one important message we have taken away from Grotowski: people and space are all you really need to make theatre. Cameras and editing facilities have traditionally been expensive investments. On the other hand, you can produce theatre out of thin air. Like stone soup, I have made shows happen when I was so broke that even food, the rent and subway fare were a struggle. On one occasion, when some unexpected New York Times publicity was actually pulling in audiences to my vaudeville show, the only performers who showed up were myself, a clarinet player, and my crazy friend who does ventriloquism with a towel. Somehow we made a show happen. I’ve gotten to where I don’t even need the ventriloquist or the clarinet player. It’s part of the ethic of trouping. I don’t claim that the results always (or perhaps ever) satisfy an audience, only that there’s something to be said for soldiering on. In the bleakest moments, I always remember that quote from Beckett: “I can’t go on…I’ll go on.” This is where we can look at someone like Ed Wood and see the virtue. (The vices of Woodism are obvious; we’ll get to them.)
From Welles I think we take the notion that true excellence is only possible with a proper grounding. As actor and director, Welles had conquered theatre first, then radio, then film. On the side, he knew about art, literature and music, and he even did magic tricks. The payoff of all that experience was in the richness of his films. Welles represents an older tradition, the stock company tradition. The operative word: tradition. There is the very old school idea that the real trouper must pay his dues by doing it all. At least once in every actor’s career he should have the experience of ripping tickets, sweeping the stage, serving as propmaster, running lights or sound, and on and on. Just as a decent painter knows how to stretch a canvas and mix his own pigments from raw materials, the theatre artist should be intimately familiar with the entire apparatus of the stage. Not for us this Adam Smith-derived concept of specialization: arm-chair playwrights and masturbatory Method actors. When I first met one of my favorite actresses in our little set she was the costumier. Only later did I learn of her myriad other abilities.
One very good reason for embracing this tradition: prior to the advent of cinema, the theatre WAS the cinema. I don’t just mean the well-known fact that audiences attended live theatre several times a week before movies, radio and television displaced it. I mean the PRODUCT that they saw was the direct aesthetic ancestor of Hollywood cinema. The melodramatic formula remains intact to this day. This is not to say that certain directors of art cinema didn’t and don’t ape documentary techniques, or don’t derive inspiration from dance, music or visual art. But on the whole, as a social phenomenon, storytelling in film and television – even silent film – evolved from the formulae of the stage.
A common strategy for dealing with that fact since the early twentieth century has been to attempt to discover what unique properties the theatre possesses that differentiate it from movies. Direct address, improvisation, the alienation effect, street theatre, and movement theatre are all attempts to do that. Another strategy for revitalizing theatre has been to make it mimic cinematic technique: e.g., the scene fragments and time shifts of expressionism, and the increasingly popular use of projected video. Both of these techniques may be said to be modernist gestures. They are part of that 20th century mania to find “new forms”. They regard the techniques of the past as an embarrassment; it is “horse-and-buggy”. But artistic movements work cyclically. From where I stand, ALL of these forms represent the past. Not having been part of those earlier eras, I have no baggage about 19th century melodrama. On the contrary, it shares so much with the movies and television I have been steeped in my entire life that it speaks to me directly and without irony. On the other, the experimental techniques of the twentieth century don’t strike me as being new or vital or daring or any number of those other virtues they were once reputed to possess. They are merely techniques: some of them valuable, some of them as antiquated as the melodrama. As I have said, many of us still do experimental work. But we do it much as many of us love to do radio work, or variety, or movement, or film. It is simply part of being the holistic theatre artist. It is one of the tricks we do, it is not the whole magilla. Like Welles, we tell ourselves, we can do it all.
But I sometimes wonder if ours isn’t like the delusional gentility of Blanche DuBois. Yes, our work is unsullied (or, if you prefer, unprettied) by the hated “producer” (I picture him with product in his hair, the sleeves of his suit jacket pushed back). Constantly working in this manner may make us stronger, but only in the way that “whatever doesn’t kill you” can. With independence, comes compromises. The Show Must Go On, and it does, but often with all sorts of amazing limitations. Actors who never meet each other until opening night…hand puppets filling uncast parts …shows going up with only 2 or 3 rehearsals…shows with no sets. All of these and more have made it before audiences of paying customers, in hopes that the production’s virtues (usually some combination of great writing, direction and/or lighting) will offset the minor – and always unavoidable — drawbacks. Our visions are the battered slaves to the cruel exigencies of the ticking clock and the empty wallet. There are many in the field, after all, who would rather make no work at all than work this way. Personally, I have nothing but contempt for someone who would let ANYTHING stop them from creating art, even imperfect art, and nothing but admiration for the rather insane productivity of my friends (in the case of my own work, let us replace “admiration for” with “satisfaction with”). How often have I paraphrased William Jennings Bryan in the confines of my Messianic interior monologue: “You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of professionalism!” I detest the American Idol mentality. I’d rather make community theatre with two dozen decent human beings than submit to the herd-like aesthetic Fascism that governs mainstream show business. And yet —
Theatre, like all art, as a form of communication, is a two part equation. The other factor, one sometimes neglected I fear by this method of working, is the expectations of the audience. Not our own audience (which knows the drill) but the wider one – some of whom, after all, we occasionally admit we would like to attract. The virgin eye has been known to look at all this hard work of ours and see more of Wood than Welles. A successful producer friend once cut me to the quick with a remark along the lines of “Oh, yes, you do all those cheap, awful shows” – as though one means to make those awful compromises that fate has supposedly imposed. One doesn’t set out to make cheap, awful shows. One sets out to make shows. If the resources aren’t in place it’s either “Damn the torpedoes! Full steam ahead!” or Reconnoiter, and Live to Fight Another Day. There may be virtue in the former, but on the other hand, reputation is like napalm. It both burns and sticks. Now: I have presented work at Joe’s Pub, a fairly respectable gig. I once directed a play of mine at HERE Arts Center which featured an incredible set – the entire side of an exploded ocean liner – which had been designed at a professional scene shop and hauled to the theatre in a trailer truck. But my producer friend hadn’t seen those productions — and the audience only knows what it sees. Reputation, reputation.
As traditionalists, as showmen, we resist those words “process” and “workshop” and laboratory”. Ultimately, though, I do think that is what we are generally about when we present compromised work. If the visions we have in our head are still unrealized, then the work we are presenting is unfinished. We would be serving ourselves and our audience far better if we were to admit it and articulate it when it is the case. Either that, or resolve to discipline ourselves to get off treadmill from time to time, to produce less frequently, only with adequate resources, and to only present our finest finished work to a paying public. In uttering these speculative heresies, I of course employ the Royal “We.” These sentiments are among my New Year’s Resolutions, broken annually.