Radical Thoughts for World Theatre Day

I Dare You to Say Anything Negative About My Hair

For World Theatre Day, some stray thoughts. I’ve penned many an essay expressing many of these ideas over the past decades, but for various reasons lately new iterations have been bouncing around my head and so I’ll try and lasso a few and send ’em down the chute to the killing floor.

Art and criticism are, among other things, processes of self discovery. There are some I suppose who adopt a certain yardstick at the outset of  their careers and never veer from employing it for all future measurement. But I do not think you can escape who you are. In many ways, as you grow older, you become who you are. In other words, if you’re fortunate, you become more AWARE of who you are. You learn your own prejudices and predilections and preferences, and why you have them, and where they came from. If you’re good at what you do as a critic, an artist and a person, you use this self-knowledge to pursue truth and not to perpetuate error.

Some things I know about myself that seem relevant:

  1. I’m a working class person who was exposed to the theatre through Federal arts and education programs and excellent public schools
  2. I am descended, on both sides, from four centuries of American farm people.
  3. I am a member of Generation X
  4. My childhood was marred by violence, abuse, and relative instability
  5. I was raised in the liberal Episcopalian faith, where I had my first experiences as a performer in church pageants
  6. I am a voracious autodidact, with a preference for classical literature over most contemporary writing
  7. My intellectual orientation tends to be philosophical rather than scientific or religious, (although my worldview excludes neither and indeed embraces both though with a greater degree of caution and skepticism than others seem to share)
  8. My professional theatrical training stressed the value of Poor Theatre; most of our productions were presented in an attic studio, with garbage for props
  9. I studied at NYU, one of the birthplaces of independent film, where I was influenced by radical French criticism
  10. My introduction to professional show biz came through my brother’s involvement in the music business (i.e., rock bands, as opposed to “musical theatre”)

These all inform what I have to say, and how I choose to listen. I feel like it’s important for me to articulate this because I frequently find myself at odds with many of the attitudes and expectations of people around me. (My social media presence STILL hasn’t recovered from my taking on the entire theatre community over the issue of cellphones in the theatre. I am PRO cell phone and anyone who isn’t is elitist scum.) So it may be necessary for me to step on the toes of some people I love and care about in articulating this, but it’s a good idea to get things on the record, if only to prevent those who don’t know you well from the shock of bewilderment at behavior they don’t expect. “You like [some slick show biz guy]?” “Nah, I fuckin’ hate that shit!”

Many people, when they know about my work in vaudeville, even after they read my writing on the topic, form an incorrect assumption about what that means. So first let me spout off about some of the things in theatre I hate and distrust. These include commercialism, inaccessibility, “professionalism”, and the placing of procedures over people and art. I am not so much an anarchist in politics, but I am definitely one in these matters. I am against all dogma, rules, restrictions, policies, and received notions. When you respond, “Yeah, but you have to…” you’ve already lost me at “have to”.

Theatres and theatre workers (i.e. producing organizations and labor unions) strike me as about equally inimical to the creation of anything I would find valuable in the theatre. Yep! That’s what I said. The enemy of theatre is the organized apparatus set up to make theatre. Kills it in the crib and then displays its animated corpse. Where compromises must be made in order to fund the making of theatre, there is no point in making theatre.

In aesthetics, I prefer rawness over polish, investigation over “product”, and connection over distance. While I don’t object to using any particular tool in the service of art, I am completely uninterested in any sort of technology in the theatre where it becomes an end unto itself. I am cool toward the use of video, hostile to the use of amplification, and impatient with the preoccupation some people have with the pointing of lighting instruments. I am for PALEO theatre. One person talks and moves; another person watches them do it. Any embellishment beyond that progressively degrades the essentials.

Clearly, I am not against spectacle! I adore it. I am for the “wow” moment, or what Eisenstein called “The Theatre of Attractions”. What I object to is the primacy we now give to skill over expression. Movement without expression is mere athleticism. Design without expression is assault. But expression is the entire raison d’être of art. I have no bloody, fucking interest in your “excellence”. I REALLY hate those national TV talent contests like America’s Got Talent. From what I can tell, the mission of that show is to declare that “Only ONE person has talent. The rest of y’all America can go home and stop singing.” I love the egalitarian rough and tumble of open mic nights, and poetry readings, and public access television. I love independent visionaries. I love community theatre, and pageants, and parades, and street theatre at protests.

How does that jibe with vaudeville, you wonder, where everyone competed to be the best? Well, they did and they didn’t. They actually competed to be THEMSELVES. Each performer strove to find a distinctive niche of her own and to connect THAT to the audience. Copycats were greatly scorned. So every possible flavor and color and type of person could go out on the stage and do their thing. And that’s what I love. I love the FOLKISH. I love a platform where everyone who’s got something to say can do it. I love the truth of the old Sly Stone song: “Everybody Is a Star.”

I often find myself blaming New York for much of what I hate, (‘cuz as a rural person one is apt to blame the culture of the city) but that’s really, really REALLY not it. Indeed, some think the origin of the word “vaudeville” is “voix de ville”, i.e., “voice of the city”. In most ways, I am completely ABOUT New York — just a certain side of New York. The New York of the Bowery, Coney Island, the Tenderloin, and aspects of Times Square, which was after all the home of burlesque and New York’s last dime museum. I am emphatically NOT about formulaic million dollar musicals. But this isn’t about being anti-Broadway, it’s about being anti-establishment. Almost all of my performing heroes were great Broadway clowns — ANARCHISTS of the stage. Like the misunderstood Nietzsche, who wanted not to defend evil, but to be “Beyond Good and Evil”, we do not seek to be “bad”, but rather to be beyond meaningless categories and value judgments — to make expression and not formalism our main concern. Which is to say that definitions of “good” and “bad” exist to serve a vision, not the other way around.

As I grope toward self-awareness, I do find myself gradually becoming reconciled to that rather drastic word to describe myself, at least as far as art goes: anarchist. It’s a way of articulating a radical embrace of folk expression — the people’s voice. I defiantly defend what others call the “bad”, unless the bad was made by millionaires trying to buy their way to being good. The little guy, just trying to make art the best way he knows how, out of odds and ends, in the precious hours outside of his day job? Fuck you, anyone who knocks what he’s got to say. Fuck people who hear tunes through their sphincter, fuck people who groan at puns, and fuck people who chortle “It’s so bad, it’s good!”. If that’s the case, it isn’t bad; it’s just good, isn’t it?

It doesn’t just apply to theatre, but it needs articulation. The visual art world is WAY ahead of us here. There, they appreciate folk art and naive art and the individual voice with much greater liberality of spirit. For some reason, the performing arts are like an existential referendum.

Cinema criticism is a bit better but not exactly where I’d like it to be. (See previous pieces I wrote about Ed Wood, Roger Corman, Russ Meyer, John Waters et al)  I had been planning an essay about the connection between classic comedy and the psychotronic, my two favorite film genres. But I realized that it was completely relevant to THIS essay, so just this little digression. It occurred to me that one of the facets that I love MOST about classic comedy (beside the fact that it’s funny) — that is to say, that it’s old, crude, anarchistic, raw, imperfect, etc — are qualities that I love in psychotronic films. Very few classic comedy films (with the exception of Keaton and Lloyd perhaps) are NOT technically “bad” in one way or another, by today’s unforgiving standards. The collage like, held-together-by-chewing-gum aspect is one of the things that lend it charm for me. I’ve always loved a moment in the Marx Brothers’ Animal Crackers where, due to a censor’s edit, Groucho’s cigar suddenly, abruptly shifts from one side of his mouth to the other. I have come to cherish that “blemish” as an integral part of the art, until it is not a blemish at all, but a beauty mark.

What is this relentless tendency to formalistic control that obsesses some humans? It has progressively ruined all the great American performing art forms. Society brings a taming spirit which invariably smothers genius before it can leave the incubator. In American music, jazz, blues, rock and roll, be bop, punk and folk all got the beans boiled out of them over the past century. Have you listened to hot jazz from 1915? It is precisely what its contemporary critics called it: a chaotic cacophony of clashing simultaneous sounds. Some of us love it for that — others feel the need to slowly destroy it by making it “right”, regulating it, and making it harmonious. Great folk forms emerge, like Delta and Piedmont country blues, containing complex, impossible to quantify howls of untutored pure expression…then it travels up to Chicago, and becomes clean, digestible city blues and then next it becomes British Blues and thereby (as a black co-worker once called it) “white people music”, and who could argue with him?). I was excited to be in some shows recently that purported to feature folk music, and was dismayed to find the laudable impulse instantly squelched by the presence of charts, music stands, and a conductor from Julliard. Because “that is what theatre expects”. By definition, such an effort is delegitimizing. It has been done for centuries quite another way. Put down your baton. Let people find their own voice.

We wrote here and here about the Anti-Folk movement, which means not (as the name might imply) a movement against folkishness, but quite the opposite: a movement against the polishing and packaging and phonying of folk. There’s a stripe of punk running through what it represents, an indifference to what any “industry” wants or expects. A willingness to say what it says, how it says it, with no need to adjust for how OTHER people say it. At any rate, at the moment I am delighted to be in what is essentially an Anti-Folk musical, Jason Trachtenburg’s Me and Lee, and that is one of the precipitating causes of this renewed rant about what I love and hate in the theatre. Jason (an indie musician with a substantial personal following) has broken the rules a hundred different ways in this show — he doesn’t even KNOW half the rules he’s broken, and that’s kind of the point. It’s how things get exploded and reinvented and reinvigorated and reborn. That’s exceptionally important right now, as we find ourselves decades deep into the Age of Closed Minds and Fatal Incuriosity. Open minds will save the world!