In Which The Clarence Thomas of the Arts Goes Bye-Bye


Sorry this may be hard to read…it’s 4600 words and digressive and contains no pictures! I may add some later but couldn’t think what to insert. Was just eager to hit “send”. But like I say perhaps, I’ll revisit. 

Thanks to my old school chum and room-mate Rebecca Williams for sharing this great article on/ interview with Adrian Hall a couple of days ago. It proves the perfect touchstone for some random jottings I’d been planning for some time about my philosophy of theatre and my revelations about where that philosophy came from.

For most of my life I’ve felt like a fish out of water, professionally and artistically — that I come from no “school”, that my inclinations don’t jibe with anyone else’s, at least not enough to make that elusive thing “collaboration” truly happen (that thing which theatre is supposed to be about). I’ve never managed to convince a single person to “join my company”, or felt sufficiently motivated to join someone else’s company, or felt so simpatico with colleagues that we would form a company together. Typically, classmates from the same school will do this — they are believers in the same vision and they immediately join forces to propagate it. While I consider many of my old classmates some of my best friends in the world, apart from a few temporary collaborations, none of us were ever tempted to do that.

And yet I do come from a place…and so much of my core belief system stems ultimately from Adrian Hall’s influence that from the perspective of distance I can truly see that in a world without him, I’d never even have been involved in theatre, let alone theatre which somehow reflected his values.

Hall was the founder, in 1964 of the the Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, Rhode Island, thereby becoming one of the key founders (along with people like Margo Jones and Tyrone Guthrie) of the regional theatre movement. For some perspective: professional live theatre was seriously ailing by the mid 20th century. All sorts of exciting things were happening, I hasten to point out. It wasn’t dead. But its footprint had substantially decreased. What had been an ocean a half century earlier was drying up into a few isolated lakes.

At the start of the 20th century, every town of any size had its own theatre or “opera house” (at least one, normally several) which was really the only resort for entertainment, not just populist forms like vaudeville, but legit plays, as well, typically melodramas. But then competition began to emerge: silent cinema, then radio, then talking cinema. And then the Great Depression came to finish off most of the already struggling theatres. By the early 30s, vaudeville had died, and most people seriously wondered if ALL live theatre wouldn’t die as well. Then came television, yet another nail in the coffin.

Ironically, television was one of the exciting developments I mentioned above, for in the early days it brought live theatre into the home on shows like Playhouse 90 etc. But that also meant that people didn’t need to visit a theatre in order to see it. And at any rate, by the time Hall founded Trinity, those live dramatic series ALSO were a thing of the past, diminishing exposure to theatre in any form even more.

I only know part of Hall’s story. I know that he was from Texas. I know that he was flamboyantly gay (probably the first openly gay influence and authority figure in my life). I know that he was stationed in Germany during the Korean War, and started directing there, of all places. Then, as he says in the attached interview, he came to New York in 1955, just in time to be influenced by the still new Off-Broadway movement and people like Judith Malina and the Living Theatre, Tennessee Williams, Jose Quintero, and others. Then he started a company in upstate New York, one of whose members was Katherine Helmond. And then he started Trinity in Providence. If there is a reason why he chose Providence, I’ve long since forgotten what it was.

But the company he started reflected his Off-Broadway influences. A muted version of Brecht’s alienation effect, and elements of Grotowski’s Poor Theatre were among his signatures. He liked to show the guts of the theatre: the brick wall at the back of the house, all the ropes and wires, the machinery that made the fog and the wind and the light, and the backs of the flats. A huge part of his vision was contributed by set designer Eugene Lee, later famous as the long-time set designer of Saturday Night Live. And the other Brecht element was a tendency to tease the actors into “direct address”, taking lines and entire monologues right to the audience. But in an inclusive way, not in a manner calculated to break up our pleasure, as Brecht theorized.

And some of the actors in that company during its glory days! Richard Jenkins! Peter Gerety! Dan Von Bargen! George Martin! Barbara Meek! Ethyl Eichelberger! At the time, Trinity was one of the first companies (since the days of the old stock companies) to employ its own full time resident acting troupe. Now they are one of the last.

In 1973 they moved into the historic (1916) Emery Majestic Theatre, a former vaudeville house. Six years later, starting at age 13, I was among the thousands of schoolkids who got bused to productions there, where I began to be exposed to great plays and could study the work of those amazing actors. Looking down the list, it looks like I saw almost two full seasons in their entirety during my freshman and sophomore years of high school, and I still can envision each production in my head. In a two year period I saw first class professional productions of Sly Fox, Born Yesterday, Buried Child (when it was still quite new), Waiting for GodotArsenic and Old Lace, Inherit the Wind, and Whose Life Is It Anyway? 

AND, what’s more, I believe these field trips were with my ENGLISH class, not even with my drama classes. For at the same time, I was taking full advantage of the school’s extensive drama curriculum, which practically amounted to its own department. I’m pretty sure in my four years I took almost every drama class the school offered: classes in improv, scene study, script analysis, directing, Shakespeare, children’s theatre, and even theatre HISTORYwhich I guess you know made a solid and lasting impact. With these classes, we actually took field trips to Broadway, where I recall seeing West Side Story and Pirates of Penzance. My drama teacher Diane Falk McNeil was thus also among the biggest influences of my life, as was, to a slightly lesser extent, the head of the drama club Jim Crothers (an excellent director, who also influenced my prose as an English teacher. I constantly flinch when I picture him reading this blog — I imagine I offend his sensibilities with every sentence. With any luck, he doesn’t, for he would probably cry “Where have I gone wrong?!” ).

Unlike many or most of my colleagues, my encouragement and interest in the theatre did not come from the home. At our house, it was strictly television. I watched upwards of six hours of tv a day. I don’t think I ever went to see a live play with my family once. But as you can see, I was hit by a freight train of theatre when I was 13 years old. Young enough for it to change the course of my life forever.

And now I introduce a complication. Nearly everyone I know tries to make it simple, but I think at bottom that is only because they want to get paid. The issue of course is a) funding for the arts; b) funding for education; and c) funding for arts education. You see, the years we have spoken of so far (1979-1983) were back when there actually was some. Or more of it, at any rate. For years now, decades, I have heard horror stories about schools with no arts programs whatsoever. As I think I’ve just made clear, without funding for such programs, I would have had nothing to do with theatre. Without a doubt I am artistically inclined, and my father was an aspiring painter and illustrator in his youth, and my brother was a professional musician. If I didn’t make visual art or music, its inconceivable to me that I wouldn’t at least be a writer of some sort. But as it happened, theatre took over my life when I was quite young, thanks to public funding.

A decade later came the Culture Wars. The National Endowment for the Arts came under serious fire for some controversial funding decisions. Ultimately, Republicans in congress were victorious. In 1995, the NEA (which had already been stagnating for 15 years) had a third of its budget slashed. This was huge. It has increased by tiny increments since then but in real dollars (adjusted for inflation) the budget must remain the lowest its been since the early 1970s. (Read my related article from the time in Reason magazine here).

The unthinkable irony for some of you will be that in the midst of all that I had become a libertarian, and didn’t believe in funding anything reallynot bombs, not butter, not the Bolshoi. It’s too complex an issue to digress about here (perhaps another post, although I’ve already written plenty about it). But at the moment (as we’ve also blogged on numerous occasions recently) I’m having doubts about my former position, so you catch me at a good time. The theatre is far from everything I am, but it’s such a BIG part of who I am. A few months ago I asked myself: “Aren’t you then the Clarence Thomas of the Arts? To benefit so MUCH from a federal program and then turn on it like a traitor?”

Well, yes and no. Let’s discuss the next phase of my education and my early career and then revisit the question (way, way down the page)

So, I graduated high school. I was accepted into some of the best college drama programs in the country: NYU, Carnegie-Mellon, Emerson, B.U., and Syracuse, if memory serves? I am an ambitious person and I aimed high. But I am from a working class family. My guidance counselor kept advising me to make some other plan. I was certain these institutions would accommodate me somehow. But my family had not saved for my education, and the combined household income on paper was too great for me to qualify for need-based financial aid. I did receive my school’s drama scholarship, amounting to a few hundred dollars, which was not sufficient to help with any of these schools. For me, it was all or nothing. So now, it was nothing.

I literally spent the next three years reading the canon of classical literature at my town library, walking up and down country roads for endless hours, and working at McJobs (two of which I quit before lunch time on the first day). I wrote, wrote, wrote: hundreds of songs, some plays, and a humor book which I sent to numerous publishers (rejected by every one). From time to time I performed stand-up comedy (and even won a state wide contest). And I did spend two demoralizing and depressing semesters at the University of Rhode Island.

It was well past time for me to get my shit together when I began to hone in on three possible things to shoot for. One was the undergrad program at St. John’s College. This is a unique school where you read classics, many or most of which I had already recently read, but at St. John’s you could discuss them and write about them  and get credit for it. But this was just another dream. It was just as expensive as those other schools and I had no more money than when I started. (And even I concede that I have no idea what such an education would prepare me for besides a career as a 19th century philosophy professor.) So it was really now down to two options.

The first is one I have often kicked myself for not having chosen: Ringling Brothers Clown College. As I recall it was either free or very cheap — the premise is that it would be paid for after you joined the big top as an indentured clown. At the time, it seemed an enormous risk. I knew no one who went there, and I don’t think I even heard of anyone famous who went there, except possibly Bill Irwin. The irony of course is that just a few years later I would meet dozens of people who attended, including close friends. I might have thrived there, might have loved it, and it turns out it wasn’t the gamble I had feared. I know tons of people who make their living as clowns. For a working class kid though…not so easy. You have people hovering over one shoulder going, “Um…how you gonna eat?”).

The final choice, the choice I ended up making, probably helped me even less in the eating department than Clown College might have, but seemed the safer choice at the time. And, lo, that was the two year theatre conservatory at Trinity Rep. I’m certain that I must have learned about it from Leslie Molson, Barbara Meek’s daughter, whom I dated briefly. As I blogged here a few days ago, I worked hard one summer, saved some money and enrolled in 1986. What it amounted to was a very intensive avant-garde boot camp. Don’t get me wrong when I say avant-garde. The drilling in fundamentals (in movement, in voice, in scene study, in Shakespeare etc etc) was most rigorous. What I will say is that maybe my overarching takeaway from the WHOLE program was perhaps a legacy of Hall’s interest in Grotowski. This was Poor Theatre at its Poorest, ensconced in a few makeshift studios in the attic over the theatre’s mainstage, with things like pieces of fabric and pillows and whatever we could carry in a shopping bag for sets and props, and scoops for lighting, and boom boxes playing cassettes for recorded music. Most often the onus would be on us as actors and directors to create a world using the most minimal means.

Most of my fellow students were veterans of undergrad college theatre programs. In general I found that I was as well read as many of them, although with different areas of concentration. What they had, and which I lacked, was experience and training in large, professional houses with all the bells and whistles. To this day, I have had to fake it when it comes to technical aspects of theatre (though that stuff never interested me anyway) and I have very rarely acted before audiences larger than 99 people. My training was tailor made to fit many of the venues I would later work in a lot, like Todo Con Nada, Surf Reality, Under St., Marks and the Brick. I am very comfortable with the basics…humans in a room. I am much less comfortable with gimcracks and gewgaws. And like the actors at Hall’s Trinity Rep, I am more than comfortable talking right to the audience. Hence, vaudeville.

My Conservatory experience was like the “other shoe” in my Trinity education. For I got to see every production they did (some of them quite incredible, or of brand-new plays; or both) during those two years 1986-1988: The Visit, Our Town, All the King’s Men, A Lie of the Mind, The Real Thing, Hurly Burly, Glengary Glenn Ross, The House of Blue Leaves, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Aunt Dan and LemonMensch Meier, Mourning Becomes Electra, The Man Who Came to Dinner, and Camino Real. And I got to work as a production assistant on Peter Gerety’s version of their annual production of A Christmas Carol. Me and Michael Sexton (later the artistic director of The Shakespeare Society, brother of performance artist Lucy Sexton) lifted the Ghost of Jacob Marley on a rope!

It dawned on me years later how much my personal aesthetics were shaped not just by Hall’s directorial style, but by his choice of plays, as well. This is one of the things that separates me from many of my colleagues, I think. As I said, my family didn’t go to the theatre. Musicals were not a part of my upbringing; I never did more than dabble in them (and then almost entirely in the context of high school or our local summer stock house Theatre-by-the-Sea). Almost my entire frame of reference was regional theatre, a regional theatre closely aligned with the aesthetics and assumptions of Off-Broadway — NOT Broadway. I was taught to appreciate very serious plays, and that’s what remains my favorite kind of theatre to watch. (Whereas my favorite kind of theatre to make has serious satirical objectives but tends to be aesthetically influenced by other forms of pop culture, things like television, films, radio and popular music). This confuses people. The other day, an acquaintance wrote saying, “I heard you say your favorite kind of thing is light entertainment, blah blah, blah” but I assure you I never said any such a thing. What I may have said is “I’m beginning to see the virtue” of it, which is a hugely different thing.

I’ve got no use for “businessmen’s theatre”, or “theatre as diversion”. I usually find myself at odds with knee jerk lovers of any musical, and have to hold my tongue in mixed company, for there are very few I can sign off on. A few years ago we went to a Tonys party and left when the Tonys came on. I’d just gone there to see some theatre friends — I had no idea whatsoever about the rest of it. On occasion when I’ve had the opportunity to cross paths with successful Broadway actors, my normal response has been sort of “Whoa! That’s the aspect of theatre you’re interested in? How is it possible to say that we practice the same art form? Physical feats by pretty mannequins? How is that any different from, like, a basketball game?”

What about I’ll Say She Is? You may be (too) quick to ask. As Alexander Woolcott saw so well, I’ll Say She Is is superb modern art, and a smattering of classical art as well. Aesthetics matter for their own sake. But you better fucking well be formally brilliant and original and not middle-brow if your game is to capture me on that level. In a certain sense that’s what vaudeville IS. Pure theatricality. But the middle-brow is everywhere. If your thing is Brigadoon or something, really, get the hell out of my way.

I’m trying to get better at my snobbery on that score, I really am. In general, in something that’s theoretically populist, it better goddamn well be populist — that’s one of the prime reasons we all love Hamilton so much. Lin-Manuel Miranda is a kind of savior, doing what theatre used to do routinely 80 years ago — marry big ideas and wit to music that most people in the culture at large actually listen to.

It will always do my heart good to see people from OUTSIDE posh realms attending the theatre. Bring your cell phones! Plug ’em in! Bring your beer and snacks! This is how it’s been done for centuries. Only when this art form became some sort of exclusive club for the bourgeois has there existed some freaking behavior code for the convenience of the actors. I ranted along these lines on social media a few months back — it was me against the rest of the world, and that’s how I know I’m right. If you don’t want it to die out utterly, you’d better meet a changing public halfway and not preach at them like a bunch of elites.

But increasingly theatre has been an art form by, for and about elites. Great article here about actors in Britain, but it’s the same in the States. Part of my love affair with show business is that it was a traditional way for those at the bottom (people like me) to get ahead. But the entire fabric has changed. In the ’50s, the television comedy writers were the children of immigrants, many of them with high school diplomas at best. By the ’80s, they were all Ivy League graduates and the nephews and nieces and children and grandchildren of producers and network executives. The dynamic is quite similar in the theatre

And so we return to the issue of funding. Because at every step down the line there was just enough to get me started and never enough to sustain me or employ me. I had to leave Trinity Rep Conservatory: twice. The program only cost a few thousand bucks, but each year I’d only earned most of the money.  When the money ran out, there was no talk of a payment plan (oh, believe me, I had discussions with Trinity’s management and they wouldn’t hear of it), and there were no loans available (oh believe me, I talked to banks and they wouldn’t hear of it), and no help from my family (I talked to them, too and they wouldn’t hear of it). So I left Trinity without the certificate, and a wagonload of bitterness. I wrote a self righteous letter to the director (as 20 year olds will do), “I will not REST until theatre is no longer  the sole property of lawyers and the children of lawyers!” He took offence: “Surely, you’re not suggesting that that’s our mission!” Oh, of course not. On the other hand, you just forced a somewhat promising pupil — a product entirely of your education programs — to walk away because he didn’t have the money. Never pat yourself on the back in my presence. Again. Ever.

A few years later, when I figured out that I could qualify for enough financial aid, I attended NYU for a couple of years. (I attended for film rather than theatre, which was only partially foolish. The skills I inadvertently acquired there as a critic have stood me well over the years). But then THAT funding ran out. There were needs-based loans, but not enough to cover tuition. A very generous relative helped me out a little but I couldn’t ask for more from her. So I left NYU without my B.A. , once again entirely for financial reasons. I’m still paying it off.

And how about grants to fund my art? Don’t get me started. Most grants are highly targeted. One’s work must be in a category — the funders underwrite a certain, specific kind of work. Very seldom is their support simply for an excellent “person who practices the creative arts” (as the dictionary defines an artist). The vast majority of grants seem pre-weighted to “Persons from either Iowa or East Timor, with a missing left ear lobe. We are especially seeking plays about school bus drivers with less than two cast members”.  After a while I stopped applying, and began subsidizing my own work from my day job, straight fees and commissions as an artist (usually amounting to checks in three figures) and box office receipts.

And gradually my attitude became “Fuck you and fuck your funding! My head is held high, I get right back up after every sucker punch, and I keep going. Like the title of that Beckett play: ‘I Can’t Go On…I’ll Go On.’  Funding always comes with strings attached anyway. Forms to fill out. Egg shells to walk on. Mine fields to avoid. So fuck it and fuck everyone who whines about it. If you can’t make art without money you’re no artist. So quit now and get the fuck out of my way.”

Sour grapes? No. It would only be sour grapes if I actually quit and then moaned about it.  But you couldn’t make me quit if you sawed off my arms and legs and fed them to piranhas. In that case, I’d just sit on a table and yell a soliloquy, like Boxing Helena, or…like a Beckett play. (Wait a minute, now that you mention it, for THAT there’s probably a grant…).

Do I sound angry? I’ll let you in on a little secret. All men (and some women) have a special gland that converts sorrow into anger. It’s so secret that even they don’t know it.

And I’ve gotten a new lease on all this anyway. And its not just because I’ve enjoyed a bit more success and satisfaction and I’m older and wiser. By the hour, I still earn less than the kid who works at at McDonald’s. My earnings are more like the homeless guy who holds the door open at McDonald’s. But many other things have been bothering me. You know where I got some of my first civics lessons? See above. Inherit the Wind? Whose Life Is It Anyway? Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom? Get the picture? The most sickening thing for me about the Trump phenomenon has been the startling wake-up call that apparently there are millions of people in this country who neither know nor care about millions of other people around them (people with different backgrounds and points of view), nor the system that was designed to protect us all. Not that I think theatre should be an ideological brickbat for pounding messages into the brains of children. But theatre in and of itself is a lesson in getting along. The arc of most plays is by definition designed to inspire empathy. It’s the opposite of most Hollywood cinema, the narrative arc of which is “Kill. Kill. Kill.” And in a theatre you are communing in a space with other people. But yes, it doesn’t hurt to inspire caring in the people who will be casting ballots someday. It certainly hurts NOT to do that, I know that. (Todd Robbins had taken this tack with me in a discussion almost 20 years ago. “THERE’s your reason for funding for the arts!” he said. He was right).

So even if you don’t fund careers per se, I think free ticket programs, not just for school kids, but for anyone demonstrating need would be an amazing thing. (Some places do that, BTW. It’s very reasonable to sit in the nosebleed sections of the Metropolitan Opera, for example. I know because I’ve done it. And such a nose bleed I got!)

And well, Bernie’s call for free college education did pull awfully hard, awfully hard at my heart strings. Yeah, I KNOW I’m arrogant, but I feel I am arrogant with good cause. Do you KNOW my work? I know a little bit about the theatre. In 2001, I was Affiliated Writing Fellow at American Theatre magazine. I wrote a book that is used in colleges and libraries across the country. I’m a frequent lecturer. I’ve written for the Village Voice and  The New York Times. I am a really hard worker. But I could NOT AFFORD GO TO COLLEGE, or at any rate to finish it.

And yeah, I’ve done work in the theatre that deserves support. Keeping the historical form of vaudeville alive. Or my most recent (underfunded) production at LaMama, which I and a large company worked on for five years, and celebrated an important historical figure, and was cast with important contemporary artists.

Part of me says, “Maybe I should go the other way. Maybe without that initial education funding you wouldn’t have gotten this fool notion to go down this Primrose Path, after all. A path that turned out to be overgrown and covered with weeds and leads nowhere.” But, nah, I think I have contributed/ am contributing/ will contribute something, maybe even something important to this culture. If nowhere else than on this very forum.

So yeah maybe I’ve changed my mind on some things. Maybe from now on it’s not “fuck my funding” but “fuck your swimming pools”. I’ve been making sacrifices for 30 years. I’m done hearing about you complain about paying your taxes. If you want to twist that into ME being self-involved, so be it.

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