Wednesday, December 30, 2009


Quality is relative. Diversity is relative.

I said in an earlier post that relativity is not an excuse to give up evaluating relativity. I realized that there are two tests for statements in terms of relativity. One is to test the statements for internal consistency and the other is to test it for external consistency.

The August Schulenberg "distinction" between value and quality, in a way, is actually the same proposition, except that the former measures external consistency and the latter measures internal consistency: "Value" being comparing the production to its impact in the community. "Quality" being comparing the production to its internal logic, its effectiveness as a unique piece of theater, and to its place in the aesthetic world.

Obviously, we don't want play to be as only matching up to the internal logic. That is the definition of "Truthiness." The extremists of the world spin a web of information that only has to agree with itself. Does it matter what the health care bill actually says -- it only matters that it fit into the narrative. That's the downside of internal logic.

Something that has only external consistency, but no internal logic, is like Wikipedia without links, neurons without synapses, words without grammar. It's like an excel spreadsheet of raw data: each point may be accurate, but they don't add up to anything.

Diversity IX: What I Learned From Dawkins

What I hope will turn out to be a quick thought (although I think I've said that before and I think I've been wrong):

Richard Dawkins' book The Selfish Gene is a must-read, folks. Dawkins' ability to explain evolution is second to none. I promise you, you may think you understand evolution, but you don't really understand how it works until you read The Selfish Gene. One of the key points, for instance, is an explanation of individual benefit as opposed to gene benefit.

Anyways, the other important idea that Dawkins instilled in me -- I mean, I knew it, but I didn't really know it (it wasn't reified as my teacher Mary Overly would say) -- was an understanding that genetic benefit is extremely contextual. The point where he excels at demonstrating this is when he shows that "enlightened self-interest" tends to win out over "greed" or "altruism" (that's an extremely reductive interpretation of an already extremely reductive example).

I think we need to remember that not only is quality/value extremely contextual, so is diversity.

To explain.

I ran some demographic analysis on my theater company this week. It's very weak and shorthand and everything, but I learned the following:
  • Major regions in the United States are about equally represented: North-East, South, Mid-West are just about equal; North-West is under-represented, and California (my home state) is over-represented.
  • Regions outside the United States are poorly represented. Obviously the sample size is too small to make too big a judgment, but the island territory of Puerto Rico is more represented than usual. Not that surprising, because one of my fellow leaders in the organization is Puerto Rican and it was her show to direct, cast, and staff. Other than that, it's just Germany and Israel, one each.
  • Gender is actually almost over-balanced in favor of women. Only 2 of 9 of our permanent staff are men; there's only one man in a leadership position out of five (that's me). When you include non-permanent members (people who are only involved on a per-show basis) men are better represented, but they don't break 40%.
  • Age diversity is a complete failure; with the exception of our upcoming show Hamlet, our age range is firmly 20-23, with an outlier at 19. If you include Hamlet, we've got someone in her seventies and the median moves further up, but it's still mostly recent-graduates. This is partly because Hamlet was trying to recruit more older folks, but found it difficult to get older folks to commit a lot of time to an unpaid show, the first fully professional show of a brand-new company.
  • Educational diversity is basically a complete failure, with almost everyone involved in the company coming on board because they have a recent BFA in NYU. Plus side - no one has an MFA!
  • In our little NYU world, though, we have diverse approaches to theater; folks whose primary training was based on Grotowski, Strasberg, Mamet, Adler, and Meisner. Of course, that's like saying we have a broad diversity from within Manhattan's boroughs (we don't, actually, we're very solidly a Brooklyn/Lower Manhattan gang).
  • Ethnic diversity is also low -- after Anglo-Saxon, Hispanic is the next category, but there's low turnout from Africa or Asia, nothing Native American, and I'm not sure I qualify as Middle-Eastern "enough."
Speaking of nationality versus ethnicity, it is difficult to decide sometimes which box to place some of my companions in. I'm half-North African and half Polish, was born in Israel but grew up in California. Also, being Jewish makes me ethnically distinct from the North African or Polish sides (I once had a daydream about running for office in Greenpoint and using my Polish ancestry as a way to get the foot in the door, but I realized that as soon as I explained that the reason I left Poland was because the Polish tried to slaughter every single person in my family and their community, it would turn out that we don't have as much in common as I thought).

Recently, NYU paid another attempt at diversity -- a play that a teacher was passionate about, set at the moment when the Civil Rights movement and the Women's Rights movement decided to split.

I thought about auditioning. I walked into the office and said, "Can I have the sides for the audition?"

The lady at the desk (who is my friend and who I know quite well) said, "Here are your white man sides."

Good lord. Is that the sum of who I am?

It reminds me of how the "dark-skinned Southern Europeans" used to not be considered white. Certainly, Jews weren't considered white until the second half of this century. And definitely, definitely this isn't a bad thing. And definitely, definitely I wouldn't equate my struggles with anyone who comes from genuinely discriminated communities.

All I'm saying is, if you're going to talk about increasing diversity, it might be important to talk about which diversity you want. For instance, the proposal to increase access to public school to arts education will address income diversity directly -- and racial diversity indirectly -- but it won't do a lick of good for international diversity.

So has my company accomplished diversity? When my professor talked about the low percentage of women in leadership positions, I smile -- it's hard for me to find talented male men to recruit to fit my needs. On the other hand, when John, who is directing our Hamlet, insists that we have to find more older people, and turns down perfectly qualified people my age because he wants to find someone older, I want to blush with shame.

Anyways, the reason I bring up this contextual diversity because I feel like this current generation of theatermakers is more diverse than the previous generation. For instance, calling for 50/50 by 2020 is a goal that I think is very achievable. In fact, if you look at womens' participation in my arts program, men have become quite underrepresented.

On the other hand, I don't see the same shift happening for low-income communities (in which certain ethnic communities are overrepresented). In the economy as a whole, the disparity between rich and poor is increasing, and access to equal arts education has been declining (even though education appears to be slowly improving in general).

Things to think about.

Diversity VIII: Scott Returns to Quality... And Value

So, Scott brings up an interesting post by August Schulenberg (whose blog I also could swear I'd been subscribed to... what is going on, Google Reader?)

Schulenberg introduces a second concept, value, as distinct from quality:
Quality is concerned with the use of a medium within an aesthetic tradition.
Value is concerned with the role of that tradition within a society.
Quality looks at how art works. Value looks at why.
Okay. That's not how I'd have defined the two words, but that's a semantic difference and one that's unimportant -- let's use the way he speaks right now.

Scott acknowledges that the first half of his post uses the word quality to mean quality, and the second half of the post uses quality to mean value, in the Schulenburg formulation (I hope you're glad I used those two words back-to-back!). He acknowledges that his shift in the use of the word formed a contradiction in his argument. So we're in agreement again.

It was this that led me to propose the play lottery model: sort out those plays that we all would likely agree don't meat[sic] levels of dramaturgical competence, and then, at the point where agreement yields to individual values (which we sometimes call "subjective," as in "quality is subjective"), allow chance to take over. Why? Because otherwise, the decisions that are made concerning plays that are produced are strongly reliant on what devilvet calls "resonance," i.e., the way a particular play vibrates within my individual soul, what I personally "value."

In this passage, it doesn't look like quality and value are two separate ideas anymore. Instead, "competence" (which sounds to me like "basic quality") is merely the approximation of the most "shared value." But at the same time, if we're talking about one group of folks (the "in-crowd") trying to evaluate the basic quality of another group of folks (the disenfranchised), they're going to use their "shared values" (read: monoculture) to resist another group of folks' shared values.

I think that most of the screening that shuts out diversity actually happens at the "basic competence" level, rather than the "subjective resonance" level.

Take a play like The Lily's Revenge. It reflects a set of values that are decidedly not in the monoculture: significant parts of it are attacks on theater, the basic message is that of free love in the actual, literal sense, it attacks the institution of marriage (not "hey gays should have marriage too" but "marriage is an oppressive, out-dated institution" -- a lot of people who are perfectly comfortable with gays marrying would be very, very hesitant to imagine a culture without marriage, no matter how falsely that construct resonates today in the era of Clinton/Sanford/Woods/Spitzer/Paterson/Edwards/Palin/Giuliani/Rove/etc.).

Suppose I was going to try and establish "basic competence" about this play, as a package
  • It has 40 characters
  • It has 6 director
  • It has five acts and spans five hours long
  • Ass-licking occurs frequently
  • The audience is forbidden from using their cell phones during act breaks as part of the show
  • Much of the dialog is lifted verbatim from an extremely esoteric book of essays by a quite out-of-the-mainstream philosopher in extremely technical language
  • Act two is written in verse and haiku
The show, on paper, looks like it will take a fortune to produce, take far more man/woman/other-power than you could ever expect, and is very, very likely to alienate even the avant garde theater audience. I'm fairly sure any average measure of competence would drop that script in the "REJECTED" pile without so much as a glance-through.

Why did that show get produced and wind up on many New York critics' top-ten theater lists? Because of resonance. This show resonated for the producing team very strongly, and they were willing to fight for it as hard as they could.

And then, separately, there's this ending for Scott:
However, given that our commerical and regional theatres are mostly not producing using a permanent or even semi-permanent ensemble, but are instead jobbing in artists for individual projects, then wouldn't it be possible that an artistic team could be put together that was, in fact, passionate about a play that has been chosen via weighted lottery? Couldn't resonance be hired?
You can put together a team that's passionate about anything. If you watch talk shows as much as I do, you'll see some very, very delightfully passionate people who, unfortunately, are working on shows that nobody outside of their theater is passionate about. To borrow from a cultural touchstone, I'm fairly sure that the cast and producer of Moose Murders were passionate about their show. In fact, think about the people who knowing its reputation as one of the worst plays in history decided to stage it anyways. And hell -- maybe someone out there managed to turn Moose Murders into a relevant show. If they did, I hope they sent Frank Rich some tickets, because that man needs closure.

One of the most inspiring things I've ever heard in this industry was a Broadway understudy who told a group of students (including me) that if you strive to be the best person you can be, you're striving to be the best artist you can be. That person was understudying All Shook Up, which was one of the more morose theater-going experiences I've ever had.

So my feeling is actually getting stronger, that not only does a lottery system not improve diversity, it actually gives away quality without giving anything in return.
And if so, what happens to our belief that a commitment to diversity leads inevitably to lower quality? At what point do we give priority to our values?
I don't have a belief that a commitment to diversity leads inevitably to lower quality. I believe the following:
  1. Diversity can be grafted on, or grown in.
  2. Diversity that is grafted on lowers quality.
  3. Diversity that is grown in increases quality, because it increases resonance.
If we want to grow in diversity, we do have to water the diversity that's out there (give them more opportunities, fight on their behalf more, etc.), but at some point we have to tackle the roots of diversity. Arts education, not just for those who go to elite schools, but for those all over the country.

Again the demand for us to choose when we'd be willing to sacrifice "value" for diversity. It isn't us who believe that diversity will lower value, it's you, Scott. I just simply don't believe we will get more diversity with a lottery, not if there's a "basic competence" test -- and if there isn't a basic competence test, how will we get diversity?

I'm not saying that the lottery system wouldn't work sometimes. Obviously no matter how random an event is, eventually it comes true. I just think that the odds are lower than proactive attempts to massage towards betterness.

After all, wasn't one of your original contentions that the current system is basically random? If that is true, then why wouldn't it have surfaced the next great diverse writer? My answer is because a select needed few have too much power, and people don't have equal access to put their slips in the jar. I don't see how how a Lincoln Center lottery would fix that. But I can imagine it reducing diversity, as well as reducing value.

Unless your "Basic competence" test was really just a test of "is this playwright black." But I don't think that's what you were proposing, I really don't think so at all.

Anyways, I'm really glad that you're sticking by your guns, Scott. I'm sitting at home having come home early terribly ill, and it's a treat to sit here and distract myself with the big things in life.

Diversity VII: Death of Monoculture

This is going to be a short post because I'm starting to come down with a bad cold and my brain is getting fuzzy, but to tack on to my last post, where I talked about how diversity in theater is also going to be partly about diversity in audience.

I happened to re-look over Isaac's recent post about the death of monoculture in response to an NPR segment which I happened to hear as well, when it aired.

Isaac uses the death of monoculture meme to talk about our frustration that theater isn't changing fast enough, and briefly at the end gets to what the death of monoculture meme is really about:
We experience (To some extent) this sea change going on all over the place and wonder why the art form we love the most, that we are the most dedicated to, isn't changing at the pace of everything else. It's frustrating. And meanwhile, those who do not care about or are actively opposed, particularly those who define "good" as "coming out of the aesthetics of white male majoritarian culture" feel particularly threatened. With everything else changing, there's something comforting about institutional theater to those attached to that monoculture.
I think that's what 99Seats and Scott Walters mean when they talk about the "quality dodge." They're assuming that we're all rallying behind the artistic director in terms of perpetuating the monoculture (or, if you'd prefer, the "European patriarchal system" if you're in the 1960s). Some people are, but some of us aren't, in the same way that some opponents of the Single-Payer System are against health-care reform and other opponents of the Single-Payer System just don't think it's the most effective form of health-care reform.

If you reread Scott's post, it makes a lot more sense if you rephrase the argument as "Quality is irrelevant if you define quality as matching the whims of monoculture. Quality is relevant if you define quality as relevant to the local culture." That's a statement I could definitely get behind. I still would disagree with him that a lottery system would accomplish that shift, but it'd be nice to have common ground.

It doesn't surprise me, by the way, that after Isaac talked about monoculture, he reflected on why the Audience Matters.

So maybe what we need to do is figure out how our culture became mono-culture and take aim at that. The MFA-problem is one aspect of that, the New York centrism is another aspect of that, the inequity in access to arts education from an early age is (I think the most important) aspect of that.

And whereas Isaac is correct in his post that YouTube doesn't making doing theater any cheaper, one of his commenters (Deaf Indian Muslim Anarchist!) points out:
People worry that the art of theatre and live performances are dying, but I disagree. In fact, I would argue that youtube (and Vimeo) have helped people to have a better appreciation for the arts and would introduce them to something new, something different. Now all you have to do is look up "Kabuki theatre" or "Bali puppet show" and you'll find a clip. This, in turn, will inspire people to read up on this and even get involved.
In a way, what technology leverages to us is an audience that has equal access to culture. Hopefully that'll be a more diverse audience, and then we'll start to turn the tide on this.

Diversity VI: Quality is Interactive? No, Diversity is Interactive

This diversity thing is fun!

I fell asleep thinking of Scott Walters' post discussing quality last night. I want to take something he said as a jumping off point for a reflection this morning. He said:
I think quality is interactive. Like a rainbow, which exists only when rain, sunlight, and an observing eye are in proper relation to each other, quality exists when a play with certain characteristics in a production with certain characteristics interacts with an audience who recognizes, appreciates, and is able to interpret those characteristics.
I agree. But maybe that speaks to our problem in diversity: a problem that has just as much to do with the audience as it has to do with the playwrights and the artistic directors. I couldn't find any good statistics on the demographics of theater-goers (I found plenty on Broadway, but I don't know if that's representative of theater as a whole -- I mean, I bet it's not), so I'll try and research more when I'm not jotting this down in a hurry to get my ideas on the page.

The problem is, if a play is considered to be quality based on its interaction with the audience, what does it mean to have a dwindling, educated, homogenizing audience?

I will say this: one of my classmates is the child of illegal immigrants who grew up in South Central LA. When I heard on NPR recently that California's latest round of budget cuts had basically decimated what was left of LA's arts-in-schools program and its ground-breaking jazz in parks, my heart broke to think that I would have even less of odds of working with anyone else from that same background.

Before we reach the level of MFA or not MFA, there's a moment in elementary school where students either get involved in the arts, or they don't -- even if they won't become art-makers in the future, they will become the arts audiences. As budgets get cut and public school scale back their programs, increasingly that moment is becoming only available to school districts in wealthy neighborhoods, or to private schools.

If that's the case, then the cards are being stacked against the arts to begin with. If arts are something only the wealthy, educated few receive, then no duh the arts are going to be made by the wealthy, educated few.

Diversity V: Quality Again

I just realized now, as I was going through my media contacts figuring out who I should invite to my production of Hamlet in the Spring, and I realized that my feed for Scott Walters' Theatre Ideas blog was broken. No wonder I've been missing out on him.

I'm glad I did spot it, because he just put up a post answering the blogosphere's response to his lottery idea.

The post begins with a recap of the debate so far. He notes, not inaccurately, that he has largely been dismissed and belittled on the idea. Before I launch back in to disagreeing strongly with him, I want to say what I've been saying every time I've posted on the subject: that he's a very sharp and provocative thinker, and that my disagreement on this subject doesn't lessen my respect for him. He uses a lot of verbs like "howling," "decrying," "huffing," and "puffing" to characterize the blogosphere's response to his ideas. I have no idea if he's come across my post (he apologizes for not being able to track all of the comments he had read, and I don't blame him, considering the viral nature of the post, at least in the realm of theater-blogging).

Alright, meat and potatos time:

Which leads to the thesis for this post: quality doesn't exist.
Ho boy. The thesis of that post is exactly the opposite of the thesis I'm about to embark on for my degree. In a way, I'm really lucky he's advancing this argument. It's time to tangle.

Let's follow the argument:

The reason it doesn't exist is that we define it, when we bother to define it at all (usually it is some vague assumption), in contradictory terms that simulatenously reveal the arbitrary and ideological source of our concept.
I don't disagree that quality is very difficult to find, seemingly very arbitrary. I think the excellent book for this purpose is The Reasons of Love. Frankfurt's argument is very subtle, but the best way for me to recap it is thus:

  1. Caring about things is inherent to us.
  2. If we try to objectively define why what is important to us is important, we can't--because we can't evaluate importance without having some sort of standard of importance to compare it to.
  3. The reason we care about things is because we need some way of determining how best to act.
That's the central important that caring -- love -- importance -- quality -- has to play in our lives. If we have no way to evaluate theater, how can we care about it? Why not just roll around naked in honey? Why would it matter if theater is diverse? Why would it matter that we participate at all?

Given our seeming attachment to the status quo, given our belief that this system of conscious "choice" and single-minded focus on "quality" leads to excellence, shouldn't there be some kind of evidence that the system works? Shouldn't there be a helluva lot more masterpieces around? I must say I don't see many. In fact, I can't for the life of me think of a really, really good, powerful, profound play that has been done on the stages of Broadway or the regional theatre since, well, since Angels in America almost twenty years ago. I see a lot of average, faintly interesting, or adolescently "provocative" work, but nothing that really stakes a claim to become canonical. Indeed, when I look at most new plays, they seem like they could have been written by Paddy Chayefsky or A. R. Gurney, or if they are "experimental," Frank Wedekind or Alred Jarry. No, if this system is so effective, we ought to be able to come up with more than a single masterpiece a generation.
Well, I guess here is the center of the problem. For Scott, apparently nothing worth defending has come out of the system at all. I guess I have to disagree: to take a random sampling of theater experiences that have really moved me, I'd go with Thom Paine (Based On Nothing), The Lily's Revenge, The Team's Architecting. I would be willing to put forward all three of them as a masterpiece of a generation. Scott is, of course, free to disagree -- I don't believe quality is absolute. But if I was involved in any of the theaters that produced that work, I would be proud of my work.

By the way, neither Taylor Mac's nor Will Eno's education isn't listed, Rachel Chaivkin comes from Columbia (in terms of MFA).
The problem with this argument, which is a form of relativism, is that, if every person has his or her own equally valid opinion as to what constitutes quality, then the claim that any play is better than another becomes by definition absurd.
I disagree that relativism reduces every argument to absurdity. I think that in our post-modern times, a false opposition was created: Objectivism versus Absurdity -- Objectivism versus nothing. If there's no objective truth, there's no truth at all.

I think both options are bollocks. I think we each have the right to have our subjective opinions, to stand for them, to argue on their behalf even knowing that they're wrong. Why do we expend so much time trying to separate the wheat from the chaff? Why does Ben Brantley show up to work every day, even knowing that he'll never prove that The Wooster Group did a good job and Julia Roberts didn't.

Think about applying this argument outside the realm of quality of theater, it becomes incredibly corrosive. Should we pull our political convictions out of a hat, because they're relative and therefore absurd? I can in no way prove that Barack Obama's health care bill will reduce the cost of health care in this nation. I can't definitively prove that it will increase coverage. I can't prove the opposite either. I guess that makes the attempt to lobby for or against the bill absurd.

So how can we reject for reasons of quality the use of a lottery to choose a play, when quality is an individual opinion and any given play is as likely to have its champions as its detractors?
To repeat my point: the difference between a lottery and an artistic director does not have to do with guaranteeing that nobody will have issues -- as though there has ever been an artistic director, from Oscar Eustis all the way down, who has ever produced anything that didn't have detractors. Hell, theater critics in the 1600s saw no distinction between Shakespeare and witchcraft (I took a whole course on that and boy howdy is that a fascinating discussion).

The point is that if you run an organization, and you are constantly striving for quality, and you're constantly failing, and you're constantly applying Beckett's Law ("Fail better."), then you may not be able to say that you've created the great masterpiece, but you can say one thing: you believe in the work you've promoted. Taking pride in our work, being passionate about it, and working to communicate that with the audience, sharing that moment.

That's the Ian Thal method of diversity: making the work we're passionate be diverse work, and championing it.

What we mean, really, is not that quality is totally s ubjective -- that the cab driver's opinion is as good as the artistic director's -- but that among trained, informed, knowledgable, and experienced people (i.e., experts) quality is subjective. Which brings us back to education again. There is, after all, a 2500 year conversation about what constitutes quality in the arts, and those whose opinions ought to matter more are likely to have absorbed enough of that conversation, usually through formal education or extensive independent reading (auto-didacticism being a respectable form of education) to arrive at an "informed opinion" about a play's quality.
No. That's not my position at all. After all, one of the great mysteries about Shakespeare is how a man with so poor an education wrote the works that he did -- which has lead so many to try to ascribe much smarter, more educated men with his works. My position is that if quality is subjective, passionate is the qualification. If your straw-man cab driver really, truly loves theater, and can really passionately engage in it, he will come to informed and interesting decisions about theater.
In other words, there has never been consensus, and so the best an educated person can do is pick and choose which part of the conversation they find most attractive.
I'm glad you used the word "conversation," because it's my favorite frame for thinking about the arts. It's a conversation. But whereas you're positing the that the artistic director's job is to select other people's parts of the conversation, I disagree. I think that when artistic directors select plays, they make a statement in the cultural conversation. It's how they participate in the artistic conversation that they care about.

That's why artistic directors (myself included) were emotionally upset by the proposal. It's basically saying, "Your participation in the conversation? Probably not as good as flipping a coin."

Now remember: I'm not pretending that artistic directors have used that conversation well. I'm not pretending that the MFA-centrism is not a problem. But there are better solutions. You proposed it yourself.

Then his argument shifts.

Which is why I say: quality doesn't exist. As a pure, usable, non-ideological, objective concept quality doesn't exist.

Unless we define it differently.
Alright, so what's the definition of quality that takes stands behind the lottery?
But I don't think that is true. I think quality is interactive. Like a rainbow, which exists only when rain, sunlight, and an observing eye are in proper relation to each other, quality exists when a play with certain characteristics in a production with certain characteristics interacts with an audience who recognizes, appreciates, and is able to interpret those characteristics. You need to have all three elements for quality to exist. It is a gestalt. An excellent play in an excellent production that is performed in front of an audience that has no interest in it is not an excellent play and production.
I agree. Quality is interactive, like a conversation. I don't see how this strengthens your point, however. You propose an equally, if not, more so, relativist standard of quality (I mean, "It is a gestalt"? That's the most relativistic thing you could say).

But your last sentence is key: "an excellent play in an excellent production that is performed in front of an audience that has no interest in it is not an excellent play and production."

When the artistic director does his job correctly (not those straw-men failures of artistic directors), then it is exactly that purpose that he serves. Should it be based on education? No. Should it be based on MFA connections? No. But if you take away the lottery, you're not only taking away those points, but you are also removing exactly that interactive element

You're right that we need to restore a set of common language in terms of criticism. How does that coexist with your idea that we should just pull plays out of a hat they'll be equally good or better than the work of an artistic director? I understand your frustration with certain large, established regional theaters, certain big non-profits. But I'm a small time artistic director, and there ain't a single artistic call I've made that I haven't felt passionate about, and which I wouldn't stand behind over a lottery.

That being said, Scott, I want to underline that I spent my time writing this post precisely because I want "to consider the validity of [your] a pure abstraction ultimately productive of nothing more unpleasant than a spasm of conscience and perhaps something as pleasant as a whiff of scandal and a flicker of ire." Again, when it comes to bringing diversity, I still think of you at the top of my list of its advocates. It's just this one point.

(Update: forgot to link to the article I was writing about. Silly me.)

Monday, December 28, 2009

Diversity IV: Ways That Work

Those who support Isaac Butler's "sue the theaters" idea (which I don't think he was honestly advocating) or Scott Walters' "numbers out of a hat" idea (which was serious, if ill-received), do have one sharp retort to those of us who criticize: If not these ideas, which ideas?

Well, I certainly don't want to sit around sniping all day, so... some ideas that work.

Firstly, Thomas Garvey (who I stopped reading the same day I stopped reading Clyde Fitch) reacted last Monday to the Butler/Walters proposals in a post that goes between putting forward the same criticisms I made and some other points I don't know if I agree with. But it ends with:
To be fair, when "diversity" is the problem, maybe real diversity is the answer. But that doesn't mean chance is the answer. So count me unconvinced, although if Scott Walters can dream up more ways to undermine the system of privilege in this country, I'm all ears.
I want to repeat something I said at the time, which is that I think Scott Walters has discovered one of the better methods of encouraging diversity in this country, which is his attempts to decentralize our theater industry with the project formerly known as the Less Than 100,000 Project (I forget what it's called now -- sorry Scott!).

  1. The only way in which it is possible for 7 MFA programs to be the gatekeepers of success is because playwrights are all fighting tooth and nail to break into NYC. There's a limit of number of theaters, which are all being absolutely inundated by submissions (as we've seen by the behind-the-scenes looks at literary departments).
  2. It is much harder to get your work seen in a community that isn't yours, that doesn't share your background and your history. Many of the best works of art surface locally first, before they break-out in a wider realm. If there's no local market, it's much harder to take that first step.
  3. If we developed local-grown theater, then those under-served communities would have a lot more theater-saturated audiences, which in turn develop more artists to begin with.
That's why I felt comfortable dismissing the names-out-of-a-hat idea -- because this idea seems so much more likely to work! I'm a firm proponent of that idea.

Secondly, there's a post by a blogger Ian Thal (who I hadn't read before, but now I will follow) on the subject which puts forward another proposal:
So now for my mischief: I challenge you critics, producers, and artistic directors who should be advocating for great theatre. Find an underappreciated, underproduced, perhaps unknown playwright who should be appreciated, produced and known. Better yet: find six, eight, ten, and advocate for them.
Obviously, this only works to a certain degree if you're inside the gates -- after all, I would love to give a diverse number of playwrights beautiful prizes for their work, but I'm still working on paying my rent with theater myself.

But on my theater company's blog, I authored a post about how producing is about love:

It turns out that a producer is just someone who falls in love with projects that aren't their own -- falls in love so hard that they have to fight to make the project.
If you put diversity in your mind, and prepare to fall in love with a diverse range of productions, and fight for others as hard as you'd fight for yourself, you can make things happen.

I have two projects for that company commissioned (for no money -- I said I was poor); I don't want to talk about them until they're done, but it happens that both are from playwrights of communities whose voices are missing. I didn't select them because of that, but at the same time, they had a voice that I couldn't possibly provide, something new that I knew no one but them could give to the world. It would break my heart not to see it on floorboards soon.

Anyways, that's the post: solutions that I think work. There are almost certainly more, but it's good to hat tip when you see them.

(Updated: I keep mis-numbering my own series. Fixed.)

Grassroots + Power V: Iran

I spent a lot of arts-policy-brainwork on my diversity posts earlier this week, and so now my posting brain is looking back at politics again and getting excited -- probably based on my optimism about the health care bill.

At any rate, if you haven't seen Andrew Sullivan's extensive, expert coverage of today's protests across the country of Tehran, start with this post and work your way forwards. There are a lot of posts, but most of them are fairly short. I highly suggest watching at least a few of the Youtube videos.

A couple points:
  1. Mainstream media fail, per usual. One of Sullivan's readers actually points out accurately that the bigger fail is the MSM's failure to provide the context of the recent bomb attempt, inasmuch as there's basically a war going on in Yemen that we're at least tangentially involved in, against al Qaeda. If you're keeping count, that means we're fighting al Qaeda in five countries: Somalia (where US airstrikes have been supporting an Ethopian force), Yemen (where we've been supporting a largely Saudi force), Pakistan (where we've been supporting the Pakistani government), Afghanistan (directly), and a few remaining in Iraq (directly).
  2. A few months ago, I found myself having anonymous comments blasting my comments on Obama's arts policy. My response was generally "meh," but I was rather insulted by the implication that I didn't understand the relationship between grass-roots and power, considering as I wrote a play about it and it's my favorite topic. So I decided to tackle the subject in a series of posts.

    What's interesting to me about this Iran thing is how it's playing out in a rather textbook example of what President Vaclav Havel wrote in his essay "Power of the Powerless." When Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn asked of the Soviet Union, "For how else can something dead pretend it is living except by erecting a scaffolding of lies?" and Vaclav Havel formulated the same idea by saying that "living in truth" was the way to dismember the state that lives on lies, they would not be surprised to see what's going on in Iran.

    I remember once in school, one of my history teachers said that the original form of democracy was the Greek Tyrants: in order to stay in power, they had to compete for the affections of the military, because without the military, they were nothing. The military were the first constituency.

    Now we see that a new tipping point has been reached in Iran. Take this video, in which the once-feared Basij have been cornered, are begging forgiveness, pleading to be released by angry protesters who shout "are you only brave on your motorcycle." Other videos involve burning Basij buildings or stealing their helmets and their sticks. They are aiming their blow right at the heart of the "Scaffolding of lies" that props up the Ayatollah: the lie that his power is absolute.

    When the protests began months ago, protesters wore masks to conceal their identity. Now, the Basij wear masks and beg to be forgiven; the protesters are the ones with the cameras.
  3. My last point: if you watch any of the videos, you'll see hundreds of people with cell phones in the air, or cameras, documenting the revolution as it happens. All I want to say about that is that no single detail in this entire affair has so powerfully grounded me in feeling that the Iranian students are just like me. When I was at Barack Obama's rally before the primaries, or when I was at New Year's, it was the same thing -- the modern way we document our lives as it was happening.

    It made me realize something: when (not if) the Iranian people manage to overthrow the Ayatollah and create a more representative democracy (which may still be lead by Ayatollahs, but will be far more representative), the face of Iran is going to be transformed: it is going to become a face we recognize. We won't have to whisper between ourselves wondering exactly how insane or simply greedy their leadership is, they won't be born of a tradition and history unfathomable to us. We'll have some common experiences--we'll recognize each other. They'll still want nukes, they'll still resist our foreign policy interests, and I don't want to think about what they think about Israel. But we'll recognize them and they'll recognize us. It'll be the first step.
It's pretty exciting, and a great way to wrap up 2009. We started it with the optimism that change was coming, even in the midst of a falling economy we would have health care reform. In the middle of it, things looked bleak for health care reform as the town halls poisoned the atmosphere, but the response to the Iranian election was moving, gave us hope. Then they faded away, and I feared the worst for them. But now both have come together.

What I hope for 2010:
  1. The investigation into torture yields prosecution.
  2. Our troops are largely withdrawn from Iraq.
  3. Guantanamo closes.
  4. A review of Don't Ask Don't Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act by the end of the year.
I'm also hoping that California sets into motion drafting of a new constitution.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Health Care Kerfuffle III: The Senate Bill

The health-care bill provides:

1) Extension of COBRA benefits, allowing people who lose their jobs to remain on their health insurance for up to a year.
2) New regulations preventing people from losing their insurance due to "pre-existing conditions."
3) New regulations requiring insurers to cover dependents until the age of 27, regardless of work or educational status.
4) The creation of state-by-state insurance exchanges. This is the only part of the bill that's complicated, but it's also the most important part. It turns out that this sort of exchange is the mechanism we currently use to provide affordable car insurance throughout the country. The way it works:
  • People are required to sign up for car insurance, but the insurance companies don't want to carry them because they're high risk and can't afford good plans.
  • The state organizes the people, and divides them between the insurance companies, who are required to accept them.
  • The state dictates the terms of these insurance policies to protect the people from being shafted by the insurance companies.
That's what the health insurance exchanges will do. In this case, the insurance exchange policies will be regulated by the Office of Personnel Management. Why them? To ensure that premiums will be no higher than those enjoyed by federal employees, and that they will offer similar coverage with no annual limits. This, by the way, is also the way health care is handled in the country I was born in, Israel. (Don't worry, this system is not the UK monstrosity that we've been warned about).
5) Subsidies to help those with low incomes afford those health insurance exchange plans.

The health care reform might or might not include the public option (probably not, seeing as the Senate is where the reconciled bill has to pass), but if nothing more than the four points above are passed, millions of people are going to have better access to coverage, and better coverage. That's why I think this health care bill is mostly a good thing.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Legitimacy IX: The Right To Speak

Not much that I want to say on my own, but if you seriously aren't reading 99Seats but are reading this blog (which seems really silly, you should fix that), take a look at this post on the lottery issue.

It encapsulates a bunch of issues but one of them has to do with a simultaneous debate that's raging alongside the debate itself, which is, Who has the right to take part in the debate?

That's a debate I am thoroughly disappointed by. I hate that debate. For instance, I used to read Leonard Jacobs' Clyde Fitch Report. But every time he would link to Isaac Butler at Parabasis he'd refer to Isaac as "trust fund baby Isaac Butler". He often had that sort of casual scorn for people, often based on where they're coming from. Maybe that's a virus that takes a hold of you when you start being a contributor to Fox. So I stopped following his blog, even though it's a wealth of information and a very good blog, simply because it feels unhealthy to me to sit around questioning "does so-and-so have the right to weigh in on this issue?"

We could sit around until the cows come home and debate it. Does Scott Walters have the right to talk about arts administration even though he hasn't been in "the shit"? Suppose Isaac Butler did come from a wealthier background (I have no idea -- he doesn't sign his posts with his parents' income level), can he still talk about ways of lifting up the poor? Does 99Seats have the right to weigh in the debate and keep his anonymity?

Ach who cares! We're not going to keep anyone out of the debate, what with this pernicious free speech thing and the problem that the internet doesn't pedigree people before they register.

I do think his Backdraft metaphor is worth the read. I would have gone with "economists and laborers" or something pedantic like that, but instead I get to be Billy Baldwin for the day.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Relationships II: Avoid Transactions

I've been pleased to see that The Lily's Revenge has been remembered by most people at their end of the year reflection time. The reason I loved The Lily's Revenge so much was because of the breadth of the experience around the actual play. In addition to being a great show and a great experience, it was also a great model for how a theater company should be run (even though Taylor Mac's gig was just a one-time project).

Every moment that an arts organization interacts with a patron, it's forming a relationship. And in that relationship, you treat the patron in a way that you hope they will treat you.

The average repertory theater sees its mission to provide one thing: a high quality play (let's avoid the quality kerfuffle for a moment -- I used the word Kerfuffle again I hope I move higher on that Kerfuffle google ranking!). If the theater provides nothing but that play to the patron, then the patron will say, "Okay. I will pay for that play." The patron will pay for a ticket, he will get a play. That's a transaction, and the transaction seems fair.

The problem is, the theater needs the patron to provide support for the whole range of services that the theater is providing. Ticket sales don't do that -- nor does tuition on the educational program (unless you want to make it really upscale and go the professional academy route). What you want is a donation.

How do you make a donation? Well, you need to provide the added value outside of the play.

Partly, that's about standing for something in the community, like diversity, educational opportunities, etc. But partly that's also about looking for other opportunities to give other things to your patron. Experiences that they didn't pay for--maybe it's web-content, maybe it's art in the community, maybe it's the chance for them to contribute artistically in some way.

If you do that, they're going to feel a relationship outside of the transaction, and then, hopefully, they'll want to support in some way outside of the transactional model.

I wrote about this briefly when I was talking about this woman at work who made lots of cookies for breast cancer, but it was on my mind again thinking about The Lily's Revenge. I paid $70 to Taylor Mac because of that show -- that's more than I've ever spent on any one cause in my life, other than getting my parents to donate $100 to the Obama campaign in my life.

Tim Robbins

Disclaimer: I don't really care about Tim Robbins or Susan Sarandon. I am excited about this, however, which was the lead-in to the story about their split in the LA Times' culture blog:

This fall, Tim Robbins launched a multi-week performing arts festival in L.A. as a last ditch effort to save his theater company, the Actors' Gang. The festival was titled "WTF?!" -- which, Robbins explained to The Times, was his own response to learning about the dire financial condition that the company was facing.

See? Theater people can get headline tabloid treatment too! It's not just pro-golfers and South Carolina governors!

Okay, fine, Tim Robbins is only important because he was in movies. But I can dream, can't I?

Diversity III: Actually Everyone Talks About Diversity

Having just hit "publish" on my somewhat irritated rebuttal to 99Seats I do want to mention that his posting on the subject of diversity has been pretty stellar, as well as the posting by Isaac, and Scott, and Matthew. It's been really challenging to read. As of yet, I don't feel like I see an answer I like.

Scott put out a great piece on how fear of change holds us back from action on diversity--which, even though I rejected his one idea, doesn't mean I don't agree with that wholeheartedly. As a matter of fact, I happen to think that the project that used to be called the Less than 100 K project is a far more persuasive and effective way to change the system -- if we create local community theaters in diverse communities, and then find a way to recruit or tour local breakout talent across the country -- rather than making them all apply to the same ten theaters in New York City and then ignoring them until they rot away, never having been given the chance to prove themselves -- I think we have a much better chance at finding talent than simply pulling names out of a hat.

99Seats has a fantastic piece about the tropes of Race plays, and about his own experiences with race. The one thing I might say is that the whole "when black people write about race, they write about their own communities, when white people write about race, they write about race relations" I think boils down to something like this: when people say "race" they usually mean "minority race".

Is August Osage County a play about "race"? It's a play about a white family, a white community, and therefore, it isn't about race. The thing that has always gotten me about Raisin in the Sun is that its plot is largely the same as Death of a Salesman -- it's not a play about "race," but it is considered to be a "race" play because it's about black people. (And don't get me started on the "Black Family adaptation", as its producer put it to me, of Death at a Funeral)

So if a white playwright wanted to write a play, he has two choices: to write a play about two races interacting, or to write a play set in a non-white community. The latter would almost certainly be terrible. LaBute's story of a small Latino family in the Bronx? Mamet's trilogy of plays detailing the struggles of a family of Cambodians living in Indonesia? Alright, now I'm just having fun imagining poor Cambodian refugees shouting "Fuck" at each other and scratching their balls, but the point is that a white playwright doesn't exactly have a lot of options of how to frame a play "about race" except in that "black meets white" way, or in the metaphorical way.

The pit-fall, of course, is trying to write a play about race. Usually if you see one of those terrible plays 99Seats (I wish he would give up his anonymity just because it feels odd typing 99Seats over and over again) is talking about, the pit-fall isn't just the racial insensitivity, it's the same problem playwrights run into when they want to write a play "about war" or a play "about science."

I'm speaking from personal experience. I saw a play listing once that was calling for plays from Middle Easterners "about the Middle East." I said to myself, "Oh thank God, finally some diversity I can participate in!" and I sat down to write a play "about the Middle East." Well I was born in the Middle East, my family is from the Middle East going back generations, my grandfather fought in two wars personally and was involved in Israel's campaign against the British before independence.

The play I wrote was garbage.

I resolved never again to be deluded into writing "about the Middle East" again. What I needed to write was about what I was passionate about. Eventually, I wound up writing a different play, not consciously about "the Middle East" but actually based on my emotional response to the 2006 Lebanon War -- not focused on the event itself, but based on the emotional manipulation in the media around it. It wound up being a movement-theater piece, and the focus turned away from the 2006 Lebanon War and onto political manipulation. Was it "about the Middle East"? No. But it was the best genuine response to the Middle East I think I've been able to muster.

Lastly, Isaac has a fantastic response to that post and the discussion in general in which, among other things, he discusses his own experiences with anxieties. I think one of the thing he's getting at (and which 99Seats is sort of getting at) is the fact that we can't control when something we think isn't "about race" turns out to be "about race."

I recall my own experiences, in my AP English class, how after every book we read, there was always an essay response by a famous black writer about race issues in the book. Chinua Achebe on The Sound and the Fury, Ralph Ellison on The Heart of Darkness, I forget who I read writing a race issues paper Araby. The arguments range from right-on-target (Ellison's The Heart of Darkness essay is pretty apt, and, well, Joseph Conrad was writing about colonialism and The Congo) to kind of weak, weak tea (Achebe's response to The Sound and the Fury didn't really convince me at the time). Worse than that were the feminist responses we read after each (the one about The Heart of Darkness could and should have just said "There were no women in this book.")

Obviously, there are significant race issues in these books, but what irritated me was the dismissal of any possible content in the play that was not about race. All of the descriptions were reductive.

On the other hand, Ta-Nehisi Coates over at Atlantic Monthly uses Clueless to talk about the real goal: the seamless integration of characters of diverse backgrounds into the story being told.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Scott Walters Talks Diversity II: Don't Give Up On Quality.

99 Seats has a post up tackling the question of "Quality" as defended by those people who are against Scott's idea.

I wrote a much longer post as a response to Scott Walters' original post because, although I objected to his idea, I get nervous talking at length about diversity largely because I'm half North African, but because that North African heritage is Jewish I still usually count as Caucasian, and it's hard not to sound like a status quo apologist when you're arguing against a measure put forward in front of diversity.

Luckily, I get tossed something across my plate like 99 Seats, which is written not with just enough lazy scorn, calling the concern of people like me that the quality of plays might be important "The Quality Dodge."

Let me leave aside the implication that we're talking about the bad ideas of affirmative action and the implicit assumption that work from outside the mainstream system will necessarily be of lower quality. That's annoying and offensive enough. I'm having the most trouble with the circular logic of the argument.
First off, wasn't Scott talking about a form of Affirmative Action?

The numbers are put into a jar. Any play by a playwright that has certain characteristics the theatre wants to seek out (say, African-American or international or lower-class or rural, whatever) has additional slips put into the jar. And then a lottery is held.
In his scheme, he proposes not just a lottery, but a lottery in which the odds are deliberately inflated in the direction of certain groups of people. I'm not actually one of those people who have knee-jerk negative reactions to Affirmative Action--I think it was a very important move at the time, and I don't know if its continued utility pays off in a lot of forums. I also agree with the court's ruling in Bakke v. University of California that it is inappropriate for the government to continue the practice on legal grounds.

Anyways, I'm getting sidetracked. My point is that the "implication that we're talking about the bad ideas of affirmative action" is off-base because what Scott proposed was affirmative action. The lottery was only one part of his idea. The other part of his idea was gaming the lottery. Otherwise there's no guarantee that your lottery is going to be any more diverse than your selection process! After all, who says that an equal diverse group of people are submitting?

Secondly the "implicit assumption that plays outside the mainstream" is not the problem. I would be against a lottery system that only selected plays that have won Pulitzers. I would be against a lottery system that only selected Shakespeare plays. The point is, as someone who is in the position of choosing plays, I want to at least be able to say one thing: I chose that play. This is the play I felt strongly about, the one that I walked away from the process thinking it was mine. I wrote a post over at my theater company's blog about how producing a play is an act of love. I really mean that.

It's related to what seems like 99 Seats' central point about our concerns about quality:

What about the question of quality?, you ask. What about it? I'm sorry, I missed the memo where theatres only produce perfect plays. Did that suddenly happen? Sometimes you set out to produce a play and it turns out well. Sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes you think it turns out well and no one else does. There's always an element of chance in what we do. A while back, Don Hall quoted a Broadway producer who said, in essence, "If I'd produced all the plays I didn't and didn't produce the plays I did, the outcome would have been the same."
I mean, I don't know who that Broadway producer is, and honestly, that's exactly what's wrong with Broadway these days anyways. We're not talking "quality" in terms of successes, necessarily. The Broadway producer that put Assassins up on Broadway, I think, did something of quality that people across the country are indebted to, whether or not he could in any way be called successful. The point is that if I didn't produce all the plays I d and did produce all the plays I didn't, I'd have produced plays I didn't like rather than plays I feel strongly about.

If we're not going to put up plays we feel strongly about, why are we doing this? What is the point of diversity if it's not in the service of plays that we're passionate about, performances we're passionate about? What I'm afraid of (since 99 Seats asked) is that the theater field we're a part of becomes even more about putting on plays for so many reasons other than because we're trying to put on a good show.

99 Seats is aware of that danger. His criticism of many theaters today is not inaccurate:
One of the nice, tidy little lies we tell ourselves is that literary managers are out there, making decisions about which plays are being produced based solely on their personal tastes. That's only true for a small group of theatres. A lot of the major theatres, the ones less interested in new plays, are programming based on an already complicated rubric, one that involves whatever got the best recent review in the NY Times. Basically a lottery in and of itself.
I dunno what self-deluded straw man 99 Seats thinks actually believes that literary managers are perfect people doing their jobs right--but that sort of "oh no they're not the saints we thought they were" applies equally to Congressmen, police officers, and my mother. (By the way, Isaac responds here, and 99 Seats posts an insider response here) But this problem 99 Seats doesn't care about solving. On this problem, 99 Seats counsels:
Why not embrace the randomness, the chance and oddness of what we do?
Why should we embrace our failure on the issue of quality any more than we should embrace our failure on the issue of diversity? It would be equally easy for me to say "Why not just embrace the connection system of the MFA program and just help more black people get in?"

Just because a proposed solution is "extreme" doesn't mean it actually is a solution.

By arguing that there isn't some objective standard of what's good or not, but insisting that the theatres act as though there is, leads us down the same path we're on.
Two separate ideas just got lumped into one there. Nobody (or at least not me) is asserting that there is an objective standard of good, a golden ratio, a well-made play. But one of the most poisonous ideas that Post-modernism (which brought in a lot of great ideas but a few poisonous ones) brought to fore was the implication that because there is no objective standard of good, there are no standards of good at all. And that just simply is not true. The fact that standards might be relative doesn't give us an excuse to simply abandon the concept of good any more than the fact that moral good is relative allows us to just say "well shouldn't we embrace the randomness?"

That last point, by the way, is the subject of a thesis I'm writing and it's something I'm a bit steamed about lately, so I'm going to let it lie there.

My final point: diversity is worth fighting for. So is quality. I don't think we should settle for a solution that guts one for the other.

(also, just as I was finishing up this post, I saw Matthew Freeman's two sentence summation of the same idea I've been writing as:
I don't agree with Scott's provocative idea because I prefer choice over chance. If we stop trusting people to make real decisions, we give up on their ability to make good choices and grapple with complexity.
That's it exactly)

Monday, December 21, 2009

Legitimacy VIII: The Mythology Of Reputation

I went and saw a friend's performance at Lee Strasberg's professional institute, and I noticed something really striking: there appeared to be only one American enrolled. There were Germans, Australians, Swedes, French, Italians--but no Americans. The performances were a rather impressive melange of international accents. It was a little bit of a pity that the archetypal "American" school of acting is really no longer about Americans.

This, by the way, is on the heels of NYU (where I attend) severing its ties to Strasberg, believing that its reputation is no longer enough to justify their poor relationship.

It hadn't occured to me that reputation rots from the inside out. The last people to hear of your fame will be the last ones to hear of your fall. Your original fans are the first ones to jump off your bandwagon--which I suppose is why Stella Adler and Sanford Meisner were the first to get disenchanted.

(Update: making sure that my part number is correct)

Legitimacy VII: Denialism / Medical Fatalism

The author if Denialism was on the Daily Show recently, and he talked for some length about various aspects of denialism. Most of the points were well taken. One of the things he was talking about, however, was increasing paranoia about vaccination, and there I wonder if he didn't miss another point that's equally important.

I've watched quite a few people in and out of the hospital recently -- family and friends -- and I've started hearing the same phrase come up over and over again.

"Doctors don't know anything."

The story goes just about the same every time. Someone goes to the doctor with some very bad condition. The doctor either comes up with a label for it, or isn't able to make a diagnosis. In one case, the doctor told them that it was psychological. They test them out on some prescription drugs that don't have any effects. Months go by, with a few more trips to the doctor, to other doctors who give wildly different prescriptions. Basic mistakes are made; in one case, it takes four doctors before any one of them considers running a test for mono, despite the fact that all of the symptoms are consistent with mono. In another case, a doctor wants to give the upper layer of skin an acid wash, which another doctor calls completely hyperbolic and unnecessary.

The story usually ends the same: the person in question stops wanting to go to the doctor. They say that sentence above ("Doctor's don't know anything!") and wonder why they should waste money and time for doctors who don't appear to know more than them.

I have to admit that I have had one of the most galling examples of this in my life while I was in a fairly good hospital in the Czech Republic (a private clinic, which was targetted at wealthier ex-pat Americans or visitors). I came in with a condition that I had had diagnosed in the US before I left, but which hadn't improved. I told the doctor all the information I knew about the subject. He Googled it.


I could have done that. In fact, if it wasn't for the fact that the medication I needed to relieve my symptoms was by prescription only, I never would have bothered going to the doctor -- after all, the last doctor had given me enough information for me to treat myself.

It feels like, over time, I've observed a fatalism about medicine taking hold in myself and my friends.

So when the author of denialism was talking about people avoiding getting vaccinations, I have to admit, I have also been avoiding some of those vaccinations myself. That's not so much because of denialism, but because, well, the last two times I got a flu shot (three and four years ago, respectively), I instantly caught a fever with muscle pains and respiratory illnesses. When I went to the doctor, insisting that I had gotten the flu after taking the flu-shot, he told me that what I really had was a "flu-like severe cold." Ah. Well I feel much better then.

(Update: realized I was actually on part 7 of Legitmacy)

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Scott Walters Talks Diversity

One of those posts that stands out amongst the crowd, from Scott Walters.

Isaac Butler's response was:
It has a very simple but very very radical idea at its core, one that's simple enough that I've gotten it but radical enough that I still don't know how I think about it and am trying to fight me knee-jerk urge to reject it and instead actually sit with it.
My initial reaction was negative, although I've been going back and forth about why exactly. I think that when Scott is talking about "giving up some control," I think he's underestimating the amount of control that is being given up. It's a philosophical difference, at the end of the day -- as an artistic director myself, I can't imagine myself putting up a show that I couldn't defend as being the show I had chosen to put up. Will randomly selected shows be good? Maybe. Often not. Scott may be right that regional theaters don't always have the best track record in selecting plays. But at least when they are wrong about plays they select, they are responsible.

I guess the question that has to be asked is this: if you put on a play that is diverse, but is not well accepted by your audiences--it's just another forgettable show--have you accomplished something? Because if the answer is yes, then by all means, use the lottery. But I don't think so.

It is always hard to find the right show. But I don't think you need to trade artistic integrity for diversity.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A Litmus Test For Newspapers

I was thinking about the Wall Street Journal recently, and its seeming decline in partiality and editorial quality ever since Rupert Murdoch purchased it. Then I was wondering, "How did I come to the conclusion that the Wall Street Journal has declining editorial standards, considering I don't read the Wall Street Journal."

I realized that it is because I get my news from Google News, and in Google News I see Wall Street journal headlines and literally it is just the headlines that sometimes get me steamed enough to not ever want to crack open a Wall Street Journal again.

I wanted to come up with a litmus test for partiality in news, and I came up with a simple one that is, almost certainly, reductive beyond all belief. If I ran a newspaper, I said to myself, I would make sure that its headlines contained no modifying adjectives, and could only use action verbs relating to an event. If the headline was about someone something said, it goes in the politics or opinion section. Period.

With that in mind, let's look at the front page of the New York Times.

UN Officials Say American Aide Plotted to Replace Hamid Karzai. Notice that are not only one, but two modifiers between this headline and US Replaces Hamid Karzai, the headline of an actual event. UN Officials SAY that the American Aide PLOTTED. Is this important news? Perhaps. But is it actually true that a plan that went nowhere and might not actually have existed is the top story of today?

M.T.A. Approves Big Service Cuts In Transit. Well, I'd prefer something more descriptive than "Big Service Cuts" since it basically puts the fear of God in your average NYC person. I've also always been torn about whether the New York Times should carry local news on the front page, but I guess it is still the New York times.

That Tap Water Might Be Legal but May Be Unhealthy. Is this an opinion article? I read the article, and it bundles together a bunch of anecdotal evidence (a lack of increase in regulated chemicals) with a bunch of not-very-in-depth-examined studies about the health of tap water in America. The Times appears to be choking on impartiality. Clearly they think our water is unhealthy (as it is a front page story), but then they don't want to say "Your water is unhealthy" so they throw in a bunch of tempering words, making the article easily forgettable. The net effect of this article will probably just to be to convince more people to buy bottled (tap) water.

Pakistan Reported To Be Harassing US Diplomats. Who is reporting it? US Diplomats. In fact, most of the article appears to be an interview with "One senior American diplomat." Is it true? Well, a senior American diplomat said it, right?

I was kind of hoping that one of the Times' headlines would be a statement, like US Commits 30,000 Troops to Afghanistan (which is an event) or Bomb Kills X in Helmand Province (which is an event) or House Passes Temporary Finance Measures (which is an event).

As for the WSJ:

Insurgents In Iraq Hack US Drone (which is an event -- but bonus points for their web edition carrying Readers React - 'We Can't Be This Stupid!')

US Ready to Join Climate-Aid Fund - not an event in the present tense, but a promise of an event in the future, which I think is acceptable news.

Mexican Drug Boss Killed In Raid (event)

The only one I spot which isn't an event (or which doesn't lead with Opinion:) is:

Bernanke Foes Seek to Curtail Fed.

Well, well, I didn't expect the WSJ's headlines to do better for me than the NYTimes. Ah well.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Broadway on Talk Shows

Well, I had never seen it before, but in the span of two weeks, I've seen Mary Poppins on The Tonight Show (which doesn't have a clip, but the full episode is here), and Fela (with Bill T. Jones) on The Colbert Report.

I don't have much to say on the subject except a few loosely collected thoughts:

  • Mary Poppins' segment was, IMHO, terrible. My first impression was "Why did they let the air out of the music of the movie? Couldn't they just do the music the way it was in the movie, which is basically what we're paying for?" The dancing felt less impressive too. When compared with the movie (as I'm sure EVERYONE is doing when they watch -- again, that's basically what they wait for) it suffers.
  • Fela's segment was also a bit odd, but worked a little bit better. It just seems weird in context of the show, in a way. The success of the segment on its own was largely the engaging performance of Kevin Mambo, who plays Fela.
  • However, beside the performance, I was far more engaged in Fela largely because, well, Bill T. Jones sat down for an interview. He talked about why the show exists, why it is important, and he put forward an argument that tells why Colbert Report watchers would be interested, rather than just people in general. The aspect of using music to speak truth to power--well, let's just say it's a good argument to put in front of Colbert's audience.
  • Mary Poppins, on the other hand, kind of appeared contextless: "Here's a Broadway show that wants your money. Enjoy?"
At the end of the day, it's a good step to bring shows to the talk-show circuit (Will straight shows find a way to do this? Will non-profits?) But you can't just plop a big fat crowd-pleaser with no context on whatever show has a good market share. You should get your artists to talk as well as perform, leverage your assets, and make the case for why the TV audience would want to see the play.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Discussing As You Like It

My friends over at the New York Neo-Classical Ensemble (who've put on some good Shakespeare lately) have gotten into a back-and-forth between different Ensemble members on their blog about the merits of As You Like It.

Marc LeVasseur, from the anti column:
Attention: potential producers and directors of As You Like It! Put your copy on the floor, pour gasoline on it, and light a match. Would you put on a play whose plot dies halfway through? Would you put on a show with completely unmotivated character changes? Would you actually put on a show that had unfunny jokes and an absurd ending? This play should never be produced, you monster!

Why would you shatter the already too fragile opinion of Shakespeare that’s held by most people? All the good writing is entirely in the first half. Characters are drawn, plot is focused, and trajectory is established. Two unhappy children are exiled to the forest with nothing more than the clothes on their backs and the money in their pockets. This will surely be a great survival play, right? What are these uptight courtly young lovers going to do once they reach the hard, gritty world of Arden forest with its lions and hunting and despair? Surely not sit around and write poetry, surely not that?

That's only the beginning. The tract continues, picking specific plot points and gripes with the text. I have to say it's not necessarily all that persuasive, but it does raise a lot of interesting questions about why people produce Shakespeare's less good plays.

Many of those raised questions are tackled by company member Teddy in his defense for the pro column, which wraps up with:
I don’t think As You Like it is and more or less flawed then most (its certainly got a lot more going for it then Two Noble Kinsmen, but Gorilla Shakespeare’s production may prove me wrong). All plays, I find, follow more or less similar paths and it tends to be the points of contention, disconnection, scary and weird shit that makes them individual. The only way that we’ll get more people to “like” Shakespeare is not by staging comfortable productions to protect a fragile opinion held by some, but by bravely staging productions we believe in. Not every will care for any production, but if we continue to stage work we’re proud of, I think we further the case for Shakespeare’s talent far more than if we limit ourselves to a select number of titles. The more scared and uncertain I am of a play when I begin working on it, the more ability I have to get really loud and messy, scratching at the walls of the plot and the sensibility of the character.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Solutions V: Swerve + Collaboration

A while back, I decided to keep a list of arts solutions, different approaches people could take to reforming the arts. Very few of them are ideas I thought of myself--mostly, they're ideas I've seen that I think of as repeatable. Today, as I recover from an AMAZING meal at my brother's fiance's family, I'll add two more that I've thought of recently, and repost the list for the benefit of anyone who missed them the first time around.

Here's the two new ones--new to my list:

  • Swerve - When people travel from point A to point B, if they see something along the way that might have something they were looking for at point B, they'll swerve out of their way to see it. That's the principle behind malls, or areas like the Flower District. Arts organizations can do that themselves by ganging together and attracting interest in a group. Broadway is an example of that, but my favorite in the entire world is Fourth Arts Block.
  • Collaborator Subscription - What I've discovered in my arts training is this: many people feel a much stronger connection to a work if they've been connected to the art along its entire lifespan, rather than just at the moment of its presentation. There's a personal connection in watching an artist learn and practice, especially if you're in conversation with the artist the entire time. So why not offer, aside from one-off tickets or a subscription, something like a Collaborator Subscription: an interested audience member can pay a certain yearly fee, and then they have access not just to any performance, but to any rehearsal, workshop, etc. and they are entitled to give feedback like any professional who would be sitting in your rehearsal. It gives them a personal investment in your work, and you get some good audience-feedback before the big day.
And here are the old ones:

  • Soup-To-Nuts - Rather than approaching the cultural environment in a one-off fashion, approach cultural environment as a whole. This is difficult, and is one of the reasons people are working on developing a quantitative approach to arts cultures... Richard Florida's early work suggests a direction, but doesn't provide the answers yet. One example might be the Knight Foundation's Magic of Music Initiative.
  • Baby Conservatory - The Harlem's Children Zone is probably the current Overachieving Nonprofit du jour, but they're exploiting a very important principle in their Baby College approach to education: children are most influenced between the years 0-3. That may go for economic success, but I bet it works for the arts too. And that means we need a conveyor belt that tracks a child's artistic development, so that by the time they graduate, they have an artistic literacy. In some way, trying to "expand your audience" of 20 year olds is probably far, far too late.
  • Involving Social Bigwigs - At the League of Independent Theater's Get Lit with LIT event, the New York State Council of the Arts' Director of Theater Robert Zuckerman (a good person to know) talked about strategies for getting politicians to notice what we do. He talked about a group in the Bronx (I can't remember their names -- sorry!) that have a Politicians' Amateur Night, basically a talent show for politicians. No matter how terrible the politicians are, it gets them visibly involved in arts--and Zuckerman observed that it also gets their lobbyist friends butts in the seats. Stemming from that, I would suggest that arts groups try to get comp tickets into the hands of politicos and maybe other important social heads. After all, there's no better "application" for support than having them enjoy your work.
  • Instant Reviews - The post that used the phrase Guyyedwabian was actually about a South African group's attempt to start conversation in the immediate aftermath of a performance. Basically, they attended the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, and afterwards tried to engage the exiting audience in a review directly after the performance. The concept is outlined here, and an informative post-mortem is outlined here. (By the way, does your organization perform post-project post-mortems? You really should.)
  • The Less than 100k Project - Built to address the NY-centrism of the theater world (although the principle could apply to any art discipline), Scott Walters is developing a funding approach to cultivate community arts in small communities. The thrust of the idea is to allow theater groups in small communities that lack theaters to apply for a 3 year developmental process that will eventually wean them into independence.
  • Community Storytelling - A conversation I had with Scott about the aforementioned project asked "how do we make such a community theater actually part of the community?" My suggestion was that the theater focus on the stories and history within the community--go into the community, collect their stories, and present them. This invests the community in the product, and serves a needed social function. This idea was inspired by StoryCorps, the Laramie Project, and Anna Devere Smith's work, but as Scott pointed out, rather than having the stories leave the community (such as the way StoryCorps deposits the stories in the Library of Congress), the stories become a part of the community. Not everyone understands what "theater" is or could be, but everyone loves sharing stories.
  • Shared Measurement - The company I currently work for specializes in standardizing business processes for Information Techonology companies. As the aforementioned FSG report documents, there is a rise in non-profits standardizing their tools of self-analysis, and sharing the results. In the same way that these metrics allow the for-profit world to study impact, non-profits need to have a more methodical approach to their role in society, both instrumental and intrinsic. My personal belief is that public policy needs to take this up rather than trying to match the foundation's per-project or per-organization funding model... but more on that when my analysis comes out.
  • Healthcare Reform - We all want Healthcare Reform for a bigger, more universal reason than just the plight of artists. However, the current employer-based healthcare system discriminates against two groups: the unemployed, and free-lancers. Artists are, often, free-lancers (as opposed to the Arts Administrators who are often full-time employees). If a public option for healthcare were to support artists, it would ease the burden of artists attempting to support their healthcare--and might ease the bottom-line of small non-profits that have to spend a lot on healthcare for their employees. It might even help heal the divide between Administrators and Artists.
  • Creativity Education - The current arts education approach has been, in my experience, a largely instrumental one: music training, for instance, teaches you how to play an instrument, not how to listen to music or how to write music. This is a large failing in the arts, because it tells people that art = craft, not art = creativity. Granted, as Theresa Rebeck rightly points out in her discussion on the topic, these two concepts are not mutually opposed. However, our early arts education stresses craft and ignores creativity, which probably creates the anti-craft backlash later on. Augusto Boal describes some very interesting approaches to what he called "Arts Literacy" that were attempted in Peru at the time--my favorite was where he talks about asking children questions and asking them to answer the questions in photographs. One question was "Where do you live?" and the answer was a photograph of a young boy whose upper lip was chewed off by rats. The teacher asked "How is that photo 'where you live?'" And the boy answered "I live in a country where these things happen." A much better understanding of art than learning how to draw a human face properly.
  • Showcase Code - Create an easier and fairer showcase code to let independent theaters reap the successes of popular showcase codes without having a gigantic step up in costs. Also, allow recording of performances for non-commercial purposes.