Sunday, January 31, 2010


Alright, I'll admit it, sometimes I get the feeling that if you send the right email to the right member of government, you might get a response. Below is an open letter I've just sent to Department of Justice Office of Professional Responsibility lawyer David Margolis. I am less than hopeful that I'll get any sort of meaningful response, but hey -- it is always worth a shot, isn't it?


David Margolis,

According to this article in NEWSWEEK, it seems that you have reversed the judgment that Jay Bybee and John Yoo showed "professional misconduct," but rather that they displayed "poor judgment." However, the Justice Department has failed to give any explanation as to why the memos by Bybee and Yoo do not constitute Professional Misconduct.

Considering as the implication of this opinion is that it is an understandable accident that the United States found itself performing acts of torture which had been clearly condemned in violation of both US law and our obligations under our treaties, it seems vital to the public debate to have an explanation as to why this has occured. We don't want to leap to the conclusion, as journalist Andrew Sullivan does, that the Department of Justice is simply trying to minimize scrutiny of its previous mistakes to avoid accountability. But in the absence of any defense of this position, we in the public have very little alternative but to speculate along these lines.

It has been well documented that actions such as waterboarding have been considered torture by the United States for decades, and the United States has prosecuted both soldiers and law enforcement officials for performing this task. But Jay Bybee's memo clearly states that if the President of the United States decides that acts previously defined as torture should be used, his authority as commander-in-chief overrides our treat obligations, and our laws. When pressed on this subject in public, John Yoo has repeatedly stated that the President "would never want" to crush a child's genitals, but admits that his memo would grant the President that authority.

Perhaps it is because I am not a lawyer, but I simply cannot understand how this point of view does not completely run in the face of the very reason we have an Office of Legal Counsel. In another context, perhaps, this might be poor judgment, but I have difficulty in understanding how this does not constitute gross misconduct in their role as the President's legal advisors. If their very purpose was to communicate to the President the legal boundaries that constrain the President, then advocating any-and-all powers to the President (a position which doesn't seem to me to be legally defensible on any previous-case grounds) would seem to be the height of professional misconduct.

Thank you in advance for your help. I look forward to hearing your response.

Guy Yedwab

On The Meaning Of What We Do III, Haiti Pt. 2

A few days ago I started ruminations on a project that's going on at my university about Haiti, and its tragedy. I wondered where exactly the difference between the historical and the present day, about the immediacy of the pain.

Scott Walters places the project in context:
If you want to look for the precursor to this assignment, look no further than Anna Deavere Smith. She was interviewing people in LA not long after the riots. And what you are being asked to do, I suspect, is what Smith describes as her technique in the article "The Word Becomes You," and interview in The Drama Review, Winter 1993. Her belief is that if you listen and listen to someone speaking, and gradually begin to imitate them fully, that "the word will become you" -- that the emotion is contained within the words, the inflections, the phrasing and can be sort of channeled powerfully.
I can't speak to how Twilight was received and the emotional tenor of how people felt watching it in the immediacy of the Los Angeles Riots, because I was (I must confess) 4 years old at the time. By the time I reached the age to interface with Twilight, the Los Angeles Riots had become a historical event -- at least in the minds of the public. Attempts to continue performing Twilight, reading Twilight, etc. serves a different purpose: to return to the immediate something which is historical.

There is a good reason to revisit the past, to make the inaccessible accessible. See, today in 2010, the grief process has taken place over the Los Angeles riots and has left us at the end of the process: acceptance. To attempt to revisit the Los Angeles riots serves the purpose of the returning to the mind an event which may think is over, but is not yet over, to bring the lessons from that past event to the fore.

This is not, however, the purpose of the Haiti project. Scott is right to say that the aim of the project is to let "the words become us." But the question is, to what cause, let the words become us?

We don't have any lessons to share from Haiti. We still don't know what's going on. It would be like trying to tell Matthew Shepard's story while he's still in a coma. The only thing we know is the brutality and the pain of the event. Food is only just starting to be distributed. We haven't had the time to speak to the Haitians, to really understand -- we can only snatch bits of their screams and present that as something. (as I'm typing this, a Save the Children call for help ad is playing on Hulu again)

Which brings me to the question Scott presented me with:
By the way, I would sort of question an actor who was afraid of experiencing emotion too powerfully. Isn't that what you do?
Oddly enough, this brings me back to the subject of self-producing that's been in the air lately. When I first came to NYU, I was definitely not a producer. I was not yet a director or a playwright, I came to be an actor. But slowly I noticed something that really, really pissed me off: actors bitching about how much they hated their plays. It was seriously wide-spread. You'd see an actor auditioning for Tommy, and I'd say, "Oh, you want to be in Tommy?" and they'd say, "No, I don't really like that play." "Well why do you want to audition, then?" "Well, I need to do a musical" or whatever the reasoning was.

I didn't want to be in plays I had no passion for. I didn't want to just read the lines that someone else wrote, and perform the actions that someone else had put forward to me. I wanted to be part of the purpose of the play, and part of its creation. This doesn't mean I wasn't willing to perform or work on other playwrights or directors' shows, but I realized very quickly that the acting "industry" is just that: actors are often treated as disposable labor.

(don't get me started on cattle calls, and actors with numbers on their back...)

But I have enough friends for whom the creation and portrayal of emotions is the end-purpose of performance. One of my friends hated a drama she was in, but when she got a convincing cry onstage she'd feel vindicated. But why?

Well, okay, that's not an original question. I guess I should just point you towards the inevitable Aristotle (the goal of theater and therefore performance is emotional catharsis in-and-of-itself) versus Brecht (the goal of theater and therefore performance is to jolt the audience into new awarenesses). And I admit that I am very heavily Brecht-influenced on this and many other issues.

This may be my personal inclinations more than a global idea, which is why I am hesitant to out-and-out condemn this Haiti project. For me, emotional catharsis is not a positive end. It may, at times, be an effective means -- but just as often, the mitigation of catharsis can be equally or more effective towards those means.

The question isn't necessarily whether it is about the actor channeling the emotion too powerfully. The question is, what does it mean to have the audience channel that much emotion? Does it tie them any closer to Haiti than they are already are? Or is it just as likely to trigger defense mechanisms, bring up walls, irritate and enrage. After all, there's a lot of people trying to get at you through Haiti, and not all of them are benevolent. (As I'm writing this, former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton have just appeared on Hulu to ask me to send money to Haiti). Take the solar-powered audio bibles. And it's not because these people have poor intentions in their heart. Everyone sees this tragedy and they want to step in, to do something -- that's a human nature. If we're just living through this, what are we giving them?

But unless someone can articulate to me what the direction of this piece is, it leaves me more full of questions and doubts than certainty.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Solutions VI: New Solutions!

Nothing makes me more excited to get on the internet than to get up to see young enthusiastic minds cranking away at the problems of today.

Want a little enthusiasm for your own morning?
  1. RVCBard is getting together a group of Playwrights of Color together to learn about what they need to get themselves produced. Their ad on Craigslist is here. I'm almost jealous that my 50% Jewish North African roots don't count me as a Playwright of Color. But seriously, the sort of community that they're hoping to build is priceless, and I wish all of them the best of luck.
  2. August Schulenberg has a simple plan for the producing community: The Homing Project, a process to help theater companies home in on playwrights that don't have a home of their own, and basically performing a marriage: a commitment to present three plays by the playwright over the course of three years. Sign my company up!
Both of the projects can trace their genesis from one of the conclusions of Outrageous Fortune: that one of the hardest parts for playwrights is the lack of sustained development and promotion. The two projects oddly mirror each other -- one creates a group of playwrights in search of producers, and the other creates a group of producers in search of playwrights. Either way, it seems like positive movement.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

On The Meaning of What We Do III: Haiti, Pt. 1

Okay, so as basically everyone knows, on January 12th a 7.0 earthquake hit Port-Au-Prince in Haiti and displaced 1.5 million people. (By the way, when I googled to get references, I saw that there have been three 4.0+ earthquakes in the last 48 hours). I wasn't going to blog about it at the time because there seemed nothing to say. There was a huge devastation, there was some actually passionate reporting going on, and that was the fact. A huge wave of death and destruction.

The first On The Meaning Of What We Do post was a response to Scott Walters and his response to Tom Laughlin's post Trivial Pursuit. What does what we do matter?

So I put up a defense of our craft in general and I moved on with my life. But it turns out there's another big thorny issue in the room, and I only stumbled across it when I returned to school.

Yesterday, one of our professors began our speech class and told us what we would be doing for the first half of the semester. We would be listening to recordings of survivors from Haiti and trying to find a way in to the tragedy through our voices. He began the project by sharing with us a quotation from Brecht (which unfortunately I can't find verbatim right now) which said something like 'I will show the world who I am and what my life was like, rather like holding up a single brick and saying This Was My House.'

He tried to lead us into the moment, and we tried to explore for a few minutes what it would be like to face a pile of rubble, listening to hear if there was some quiet, nearly fading sound of life underneath it. He tried to lead us to engage with the sounds of human grief.

Needless to say, within ten minutes of hearing this project the class had devolved into figuring out whether this play was... acceptable? Responsible? Ethical? Now, as the debate unfolded, it turned out that there were a number of strains of dissent about the project. I've broken up the different strains of debate into multiple posts, simply so that I can focus on them.

The first line of debate: "Theater is about events in human history. And that history is now."

It brought to mind a lot of anxieties that come out of dealing with current events (particularly contemporary tragedies) as opposed to history. The concept of creating a work of art around the Holocaust is not, in and of itself, controversial. If someone said "and my play is set in the Armenian Genocide," very few eyelids will bat. But people -- including myself, had a strong negative reaction to the idea of doing a play directly in the wake of one of contemporary society's harshest tragedies.

And it doesn't have to necessarily still be going on. You can do a play about 9/11, for instance, but how you represent it is going to be deeply scrutinized. I get very upset and angry when I see a play that simply invokes 9/11 in passing, or tosses out the phrase "Hurricane Katrina" to remind us that shitty things happen.

Yet, at the time, the Holocaust was just as deeply effecting as 9/11. Even something like the destruction at Troy should have that same horror and trauma behind it, although it doesn't.

One of my classmates put his finger right on the pulse. He said, "Everyone's in a different place in Haiti. I've already gone through my grieving process. I've cried my eyes out already about it. And now I've moved on. But I understand for people who are not, this is too much."

The core concept behind this project is to use the empathy of the theater to try and take on others' experiences and pass them along. But when this project was presented to us, many of us seemed to feel that we wouldn't be adequate to that task. That we might be too emotionally frail to serve as a proper conduit for the current moment. One of my classmates protested with the obvious: "Too soon, too soon!"

We usually think of the "Too soon" charge as being just one of those ways in which people with conservative tastes try to tut tut the edgier section of society from having their fun -- I think mostly of South Park and their line-crossing. I also remember the bated breath about who would make the first film about 9/11; and the strange anti-climax when United 93 and WTC came out. What were we expecting?

At any rate, this is an open question to me. When there's such a deep wound -- whether personal or global -- what is it about the historical that makes it acceptable? Is it just the sum collection of society's grief process taking place? To what degree should we wait until the grief passes?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Intellectual Property Stupidity II: What You're Paying For

Don Hall, as previously noted here, got a cease and desist over a review he was responding to, which he posted in full on his blog. After a few days of mulling it over, he has posted his response here, which can basically be summed up with the words "indignant bafflement."

He does a little rudimentary rooting around to try and figure out the cost of the intellectual property, and then decides that the answer is about $300. And then he wonders, rightly so, how it would possibly be in the interest of the paper to pay for such a thing.

Well, I don't know much about the relationship between the paper and the law firm involved, but I might hazard a not-too-outlandish guess that the firm may not be charging by the hour (as Don Hall's projection puts it), but is rather on retainer. This is what they do: they generate hundreds of contracts, hundreds of C&D letters, etc.

And there, I think, is the real problem -- more than greed or spite, I think the real demonstrable ill behind all of this is simply impersonality. The letter Don received is clearly from a form, and although someone clearly entered in the facts of the case, the amount of thought that was put into it was clearly little to none. After all, their website shows them to be a national firm with lots and lots of important clients.

The thing about Fair Use is that it takes thought to apply. Whereas enforcing intellectual property can be fairly automated. Did they reprint your work? Cease & Desist. It's easy to find, and easy to respond to.

My parents have always been distrustful of accountants. Not because accountants are bad people or anything, but my parents have this theory, that if you pay an accountant, they will try to be a "good" accountant by trying to save you as much money as possible. And my parents worried that an accountant who tries too hard to be a "good" accountant may be overzealous in money-saving, and may file taxes incorrectly. If an accountant simply fills out the forms, the client will wonder, "Well why am I paying for this?" An accountant who wants to keep his job in the face of TurboTax will say, "Look, see this money I saved you!" And this is with the best of motives. They're just incentivized that way.

I bet it's the same with lawyers on retainers. Look at how they're defending your rights, Ms. Sullivan! Aren't they a good law firm?

Monday, January 25, 2010

Self-Producing: "Playwrights"

Okay, okay, sorry David Dower. I didn't RTWT with regards to Outrageous Fortune. In my defense, when I began to read posts on the report, I saw things like "Aristotle Said There's Supposed To Be Catharsis... but there isn't. Not in this book," and I just had no taste for it. It doesn't sound like I missed much -- much as, when I read the reviews of Bye Bye Birdie, I can decide I don't want to see it. (Adam Feldman: "Bye Bye Birdie; hello, turkey. The featherbrained revival of this 1960 musical is sure to be roasted in so many critical pans that it seems almost cruel to add to the fire...")

But I was fascinated by most of the writing in response, and obviously there are hat-tips all 'round. As the blogging wraps up, I did want to point out what Scott said about self-producing:
As the Outrageous Fortune - a-thon got underway, more and more people seemed to find themselves at a tipping point, with OF providing the fatal push. With the arrival of the new year, J. Holtham revealed his identity (gasp) and indicated "I'm going to be looking very seriously at self-producing, about starting a production company, probably under the name of 99 Seats. More about that as it comes. At any rate, it's a new year, a new decade. Time to turn the page." Josh expressed admiration, and then Matt Freeman and Travis Bedard issued a call for a guide to self-producing. James Comtois obliged, creating an ongoing series entitled "Little Jimmy's Guide to Self-Producing," which provides an excellent how-to for playwrights who want to take control of their own productions in NYC. And suddenly everybody was jumping ship and following Don Hall into self-producing.
To which Matthew Freeman rightly responds:
4. Self Production isn't a bandwagon people recently got on. I've been hearing "self-produce" since I got started writing. Everyone has. I just think people need to know how to do it.
I recently became a student member of the League of Independent Theatres, which is basically a group of folks who've been doing this for probably a decade on average per group. If you look at the number of theater groups in New York (which Robert Zimmerman of NYSCA estimated at about 1000 when I saw him in person -- btw, you were there, Matthew Freeman? I was there too!), you'll see that there are quite enough foolhardy individuals who have been on that bandwagon for years (one of the more recent of which is me).

And there are clearly models of success in this path in the industry, the clearest contemporary I can think of is Moises Kaufman on the big stage and 13P on the up-and-coming. Sure, we folks can't necessarily generate the amount of revenue that Kaufman has been able to generate, but hey -- that's the nature of the game!

But to reflect back on Moises Kaufman for a second, I think that the big change in realization that is coming -- and it hits each person individually -- is that the idea of "Playwright" may actually become an anachronism. "Playwriting" was a step along the path of division of labor in the arts, the creation of big centralized artistic machines. What originally was a group of theatermakers became an actor, director, designers, playwrights, dramaturgs, producers, stage managers, etc. ad nauseum. But look back to what Scott said about Shakespeare:
Shakespeare was a shareholder in the King's Men, and also a householder in the Globe. Meaning that he had a financial stake in the theatre's success. As one of the chief playwrights for the company, it was up to him to crank out new material that would bring in audiences hungry for new material. [...] And he not only wrote plays, but he acted, and helped run the theatre space -- hell, he probably swept up the pit after the groundlings spilled food all over it. And they also took in apprentices, for whom they were responsible to provide room and board in exchange for teaching them the theatre ropes and, possibly, integrating them into the company.
Scott was using it to point to self-producing as an injunction for playwrights to be invested in the companies which they work. But I think it points to something else -- Shakespeare wasn't just a playwright. He didn't see play-wrighting as the end of his responsibilities. Granted, he didn't do everything -- he wasn't Atlas, holding up the globe (which, by the way, is a misconception started by Mercator, who named his collection of maps after King Atlas the map-maker but also drew Atlas holding a globe on the cover despite the fact that Atlas held up the sky). But every part of the process was considered part of his purview.

It comes up a lot for me, in the realm of self-producing. People keep asking me if I'm "sad that I am not going to perform anymore." So far I have performed, in minor capacities, in both plays I directed and self-produced. And my goal with my company is to create a group of self-producers, meaning that sometimes I will be able to perform and let them carry the load of producing, and other times I will be there to support their projects.

But we're trained, from fairly early on in our experience of theater, that there's a specific heirarchy in the world of making theater. Each of these roles, we are told, is distinct, and performed by different people. Well, maybe that worked for the regional theaters. It doesn't work for me. I like having actors collaborate on the script, and I like it when they help design the sound. I like them being involved in their costume design. Some things take technical craft that nobody else has, and so sometimes you need a specialist, but even those specialists I'd prefer if they saw themselves as being part of the project, not just someone who points the lights.

It reminds me of how, early in my training, we were told that when we direct we should never tell actors what result we're looking for, rather, we should employ a careful Socratic method to ask the right questions to lead the actor to the right emotional response. Hogwash. If you have talented, intelligent actors, you can speak to them like partners. You can say, "Here's what we're trying to do right now." You do often have to help them get there, but there's no need to pretend that as a director you're some kind of mystical shaman. You partner with them, communicate with them, and then on day 1 of tech week when you realize that there's a problem in your play that you don't know how to solve, you can turn to your cast with upturned palms and say, "Okay, what do you guys think?" So long as you've shown leadership along the way, they can help you when you're lost.

Because rather than being some militarized hierarchy with a ranking system and a chain of command, the self-producing world is a group of people with a task in front of them. Practices that make that task easier will be repeated. Practices that don't make the task easier will be cut down.

The term "playwright" means, essentially, exactly the same as "theatermaker." And hey, look at this, "theater producer" means "theatermaker" too. In our current tradition, we have equated "playwright" with "writer." There's another wave today of playwrights realizing that wrighting a play may not just mean writing a play.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Conversation II: You, Yourself, And Your Audience

Culture is a conversation. I keep saying that. Each of us puts forward our little bits of culture because we want to engage with each other (or the egotistical ones who just want to be heard; just as bad in conversation as they are in culture).

So obviously, I think that any time we actually engage in conversation, we're going to improve our artmaking as well as whatever else we gain in the conversation. In a previous post I mentioned Don Hall's nice approach of publicly communicating with critics. Next, via Rob Wienert-Kendt's The Wicked Stage, American Theatre uses Facebook to actually talk to the audience. Specifically, they decide to talk to the potential audience, as opposed to the realized audience. They ask the question: Why do you not see a particular play? The answers are not life-shattering, but are definitely worth looking over.

Court Commentary:Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission

A brief juxtaposition. Here's Matthew Yglesisas on the campaign finance ruling that just came down in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which basically said that because corporations are people (an idea with its own fascinating court history), there should be no limit on their campaign spending:
Something worth mentioning in the context of the Citizens United decision, though not directly tied to the issue at hand there, is that a group doesn’t actually need to spend vast sums of money to have a decisive influence on politics. It just needs to be able to credibly threaten to spend said sums. Bank of America, for example, dedicates $2.3 billion to marketing in 2008 so it’s clear that they’ve got the budget to mount a $100 million series of scathing attacks on a Senator who pisses them off and basically laugh that off (and note that in 2004 total spending on Senate campaigns was just $400 million). And if you can have it be the case that just one Senator goes down to defeat for having pissed off BofA then everyone else will learn the lesson and avoid pissing them off in the future. You don’t need to actually sustain that volume of campaign spending.

Here's a quote from Anne Bogart (h/t Monica Reida) about Athol Fugard and his views on censorship:
Athol Fugard, the South African playwright, described censorship as hesitation. For him censorship is not necessarily the proximity of government inspectors or a threat of imprisonment but, rather, on the physical hesitation of his hand while writing. Censorship is his own private vacillation provoked by whatever doubts are out to ambush him. Censorship is a physical hesitation in the light of fleeting thought or doubt about how his peers might receive what he is writing, whether or not they will like it or if it will be published.
Two writers writing in different contexts about the same phenomenon. I think both of them speak to the heart of why this case sincerely disappointed me.

Intellectual Property Stupidity I

I have often held (and I am far from being in any way original in holding this) that Intellectual Property law is currently so restrictive in its conception of Fair Use that it restricts the cultural conversation. But as Lawrence Lessig points out in his discussion in the book Free Culture on the Supreme Court case Eldred v. Ashcroft, it is often difficult to prove the impact of so esoteric a concept to policymakers. "What's the real impact," they want to know.

Well if you want to know what cultural conversation looks like when it's restricted by IP law, you can't look for a better example than this: Don Hall has been posting reviews of his newest show, and writing short responses to them. The purpose is clear: he wants to create a dialog between himself and the critics for the general enlightenment of the public. Don Hall is very courteous in defending his work (although it is at times a teensie bit defensive, I'm okay with that, because it's the blog of a creator and certainly we don't want him not to stand behind his own work).

But under the interpretation of the law put out by one of the papers quoted, this is somehow infringing on their "property". I don't often get to use the word "horseshit" but things like this really burn my canoli.

Anyways, law aside, it is clear that Don Hall did nothing "wrong" -- he didn't systemically reprint any one publication's essays, he simply made a review of one of his own works public, along with some notes. As part of the conversation, it was an interesting strategy, a bold move. From the non-stupidity angle, I kind of liked that Don Hall does this, and I hoped that I'd see more playwright's doing something similar. I'd love to see some of the big titans of the industry posting responses to Brantley or Isherwood on their blogs. Provided that people can keep the tone of the conversation as courteous as Don's, it would be a welcome new avenue of keeping a show alive during and after its run.

Instead, people are going to look at Don Hall's example and say, "Oh dear. I don't want to be a criminal like him."


Cold War Stories

In addition to being a Supreme Court nut, I am very much a history buff, specifically Cold War history. I'm one day hoping to create a one-man show around my love of telling Cold War stories, but I have other things on my plate.

Why do I love Cold War stories?

Well, the Cold War is an interesting case that makes something I believe about life very clear. In the Cold War, you have events that are driven, largely, because of the Force of History. Each event calls back to the event right before it, each seems like a natural response to the thing that just happened, and yet by the time you're ten events down history has taken baffling turns. Yet things seem to drive towards inevitable events and conclusions.

As a for instance, a lot of ink has been spilled about why the Soviet Union collapsed, and one of the stories -- the one economists tend to favor -- is that the centrally planned economy was inefficient and created a perverse incentive structure which, in aggregate, corroded the economy from Day One, until eventually it was untenable. (the Reagan-killed-the-USSR theory is really an extension of that theory).

On the other hand, the "inevitable force of history" is kind of boring and abstract. And there's a lot of case to be made that Cold War history can be seen through the lens of a few individuals who appear, in choice moments, to make singular decisions that ripple out through history. After all, the Soviet economy was struggling for years and years before the collapse, but the Soviet Union didn't really collapse until Mikhail Gorbachev decided that he was not going to use military force in Eastern Europe, even if Eastern European countries turned away from communism -- that his democratic reforms were more important than territorial integrity. As a point of comparison, Khrushchev was faced with the same decision at the end of the Khrushchev Thaw, when his resolve to end the bloodshed Stalin had unleashed was challenged by an uprising in Hungary. Khrushchev decided differently, and the USSR persisted.

So on the one hand, you have a view of history that is individuals making heroic decisions -- which is, by the way, the theatrical view of history -- or the view of history where large economies of scale overpower the individual and force their hands. These views are not, in fact, incompatible. In fact, the latter emerges from the former.

(That word is very complicated, and rather than explain it, which I would do a pretty poor job of it, I'll leave it to the masters at Radiolab to do that for me. Honestly, LTTWT)

At any rate, I love those moments when a single person managed to change the direction of the Cold War, whether by accident by pure moxie.

Case 1: Matthias Rust, a young West German Teenager who learns how to fly, flies into Moscow, lands outside the Kremlin, goes to prison for a long time, and gives Gorbachev pretext to fire old-guard Communists from the military chain of command.

Case 2: (my favorite) Guenter Schabowski, a party bureaucrat whose single press conference gaffe brought down the Berlin Wall and, in its own way, set a date for the dissolution of the Soviet Union as it had been known for three full decades.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Ayn Rand II

Freddie DeBoer responds in the comments section to my post on Ayn Rand, which in turn was a response to his post:
Someone who I respect has long made this important point: Rand's philosophy was, in its infant stages, a very direct response to her experiences with Stalinism. It would be truly unfair for me to fail to keep that in mind when I think about her. Where I think criticism remains is in the fact that she lived in America for many decades (and could see very well that, for all of its advantages over Bolshevism, American capitalism wasn't some perfect machine for sorting the virtuous), without ever moderating her message; and in the fact that her followers don't have the excuse of intimate exposure to Stalinism, which makes their devotion to Objectivism less defensible. From my perspective, anyway.
There's a lot in this paragraph that resonated with me, actually.

Point one of what resonated: I was born in Israel, and thusly am descended from families that were fleeing the Holocaust. The national trauma that still exists in Israel is hard even for me, as an Israeli of Israelis, to fathom. It isn't often on the surface of national discussion, but if you push hard against most of the positions taken in Israel, it bubbles up suddenly, lashing out. The increasingly right-wing nation can only be understood in the context of the fading hope for a national haven from the Holocaust.

People close in my family will distance themselves from the rabid right in Israel, but sometimes interject something like, "You can understand where they come from, right?" Well, I can understand how they came to exist. But I don't know if I can call that any more or less "defensible" than those whose hatred I can't easily understand. What makes anyone's hatred or anger more or less defensible? It isn't as though there's a hard-and-fast rule that people who survive terrible tragedies are incapable of seeing beyond hate and fear -- for every Meir Kahane, there's an Elie Wiesel.

It's tough. There's a fine line between "understanding" and "defending." There are those who explain contemporary Israeli policy, and there are those who defend contemporary Israeli policy, and it is important to understand where you fall between that.

Also, speaking of Israeli policy, the current lowest of the low points in Israeli is Avigdor Lieberman who, like Ayn Rand, fled the Soviet Union. Do I understand that, growing up in the oppressive, anti-semitic Soviet Union, he'd be willing to stop at nothing to preserve the "Jewish character" of Israel? Perhaps. But I have no desire to defend him. Regardless of what has happened to him, he should be condemned.

On the other hand, Freddie's post deals with people who are Objectivist (I hate that name, by the way, it doesn't line up with what that philosophy means to me, but okay I'll bite). It takes a remarkable generosity of spirit to remain in dialogue with people who hold extreme views. As Freddie aptly puts it, "There's a lesson, in all of this, I think, about charity, and about grace." Scott Walters also commented on the "lack of generosity" with which Ayn Rand viewed the world. It resonated with me, reminiscent of the difficulty of conversations with the arch-conservative I lived with. That's the second point.

One of the lessons I learned there is to figure out where to fight, and where to let things slide. There's a tendency for us to grip each of our ideas as though they are our most important. Over the last year I've realized, for instance, that the government's decision to authorize torture is one of those hold-your-ground moments.

(from the testimony:
Chairman Conyers: I didn't ask you if you ever gave him advice, I asked you do you think the President could order a suspect buried alive?
Yoo: Mr. Chairman, my view right now, is I don't think a president would - no American president would ever have to order that or feel it necessary to order that.
See that? "I don't think a president would bury someone alive. But if he wanted to...")

The last thing I wanted to say is that Freddie's comment only further underscores how interesting it is that Ayn Rand's writings have lasted so long, and with such visceral power. See, she was writing in response to a specific context, the context that Freddie pointed out: the context of having escaped from Stalin's grasp. That is a uniquely gone context. Firstly, the context faded with the end of Stalin's reign of terror (not to diminish the fear and negative atmosphere of the rest of Soviet history, but Stalinism was a whole other league; post-Stalin is Iran, Stalin is North Korea). Then, the context faded with the end of the Cold War, when the "evil empire" left the daily reality for a new generation of Americans.

And remember, although this context was real for Ayn Rand, it was almost diametrically opposed to Americans' experiences. When Ayn Rand was writing, it was the one period in which more people were leaving the United States than were entering.

And also remember that for the Rand-devotees of my generation, the threat of "socialism" has gotten a lot more vague. Even in "Communist" China, the command economy has devolved into some pseudo-communist/pseudo-capitalist nether-economy. Our biggest threats have not come from the socialist countries (although North Korea has always been a managed risk), but rather from collapsed economies -- areas that were marginalized in the aftermath of the Cold War, such as post-Colonial Africa, Afghanistan, or the Middle East. With the exception of trust-fund ideologues like the Christmas Day undie-bomber, our biggest threats are linked to crippling poverty.

Anyways, my point is not to criticize Rand (although you can tell I think her world-view completely unrelated to the world we actually live in) but to marvel at the fact that many are more beguiled by the possibility of dangers that Rand seems to hint at then the real, immediate dangers of the world around us. Compared to, say, Muslim extremism, Rand's dangers are somewhat hypothetical. That's not to say she's wrong -- this is also the power of Orwell's writings, or of the Constitution itself -- but it's strange that it has so tangible an impact (you can't say that Orwell has the same devoted following).

Rand is an interesting case. She strikes so far outside of her context, and she grips the people she strikes.

On The Meaning Of What We Do II

Freddie deBoer (h/t Andrew Sullivan) has this to say about Ayn Rand:
People far abler than I have prosecuted the case against Rand,
and I don't intend to rehash it here. But this tendency of her writings
and her philosophy to compel people to slap concrete on the foundation
of their own ideas, to build a moat around their intellectual life, to
categorize the whole world into the tiny fraction who are worthy and
the great horrid mass that are simply not to be listened to in any
circumstance... this is the greatest failing of the woman and her
teachings. There are a worse things to inspire people towards--
genocide, war, ethnic cleansing-- but still, a philosopher whose
greatest contribution is a vast incuriosity is a dismal thing.

Emphasis mine. What a beautiful turn of phrase, and a beautiful metric by which to judge an author's efficacy: can they really turn their prose into something concrete, through the minds of the assembled?

What's interesting about this is that it points out something to me that has always been fascinating about Ayn Rand. I find her literary style -- not just her philosophy -- to be alienating and abhorrent. I dislike the way she renders characters, and the quality of the worlds she inhabits. But I have seen her prose transform other people in ways that very, very few other fiction writers have. She really was the L Ron Hubbard of her times. Her words carry a power that, to this day, still holds people in her sway. I wish she had chosen a more positive way to make her impact.

On The Meaning Of What We Do

Scott Walters picks up on an important question -- the important question -- posed by Tom Loughlin:
When you stack up the general public’s statistical disinterest in theatre against the general economic condition of the art and the artists themselves, the rational mind has to question why anyone would continue to pursue such a statistically trivial career. Or worse – why anyone would ever educate or train someone to pursue this career. You can choose to take the high road and produce aesthetic arguments supporting such a choice, but only in a first-world country where basic needs are by and large taken care of can this argument actually take place. There are many places in the world where no one is arguing about how many plays or whose plays get produced every year. You own career, stacked up against these statistics, makes for a sober reckoning.
Scott's answer:
Our society is built on stories. We communicate our values, our ways of interacting, our aspirations according to the stories we tell each other over generations. The idea that there is value in helping others who are in dire need, for instance, which underlies the Haitian relief effort, is passed on from generation to generation by the stories we tell that reinforce that value. Without that story, or with a more dominant counter-story, such admirable behavior would likely be scarce.
I think I'll take a crack at answering the question, because the question goes back to what my goal was when I began this blog, the philosophy that underlies how I try to approach theater, politics, and everything.

There's a lot of evidence to support the theory is that what drives humanity to create the complexity of our civilization is our ability to communicate. Mankind makes discoveries, and then it shares discoveries with one another, and passes them down. Mankind discovered other ways to encode that communication -- first carved into stone, then written on pages, printed, broadcast, and then finally put into the digital sphere.

You can look at the history of science. A theory begins with a single man making a statement. Someone responds to it. Someone adds on to it. Someone criticizes it. Someone corrects it, someone else rebuts the criticism. The conversation evolves the ideas, and it only evolves as we respond and add on.

That's what culture is. Culture is an aggregation of everyone's attempts to join a cultural, historical conversation about today, tomorrow, and the future. It's a big conversation, much of which is chatter -- Twitter, in a way, is a microcausm of the language. There are conversational threads like the permanent conversations about sex, about governance, about happiness. There are conversations that crop up and rage suddenly in a context and then fade away as people move on (is the Leno-Conan thing going to be important in 2011?).

I'm reading up on mimetics lately to try and support this idea but the idea is this: our society is built on two things: the fitness of our bodies, and the fitness of our ideas. In fact, at this point, we stress the fitness of our ideas more than the fitness of our bodies, because they are far more flexible and pay back to the fitness of our bodies much quicker.

That's what we're doing here in the theater: we're trying to enter this big cultural conversation in the ways we know how. We've got things to say, memes/ideas to spread, things that we hope will add to the survival of the species. We're a tiny shred of society's conversation, or a sliver of its imagination. We're just individual neurons firing inside the great mind of society.

Can we guarantee that our firings are doing something? I don't know. Ask a neurologist which brain cells are "vital" in the working of the brain. We lose some all the time. Often, it's the connections between brain cells which are more important than the neurons themselves -- and that's the conversation.

I forget who it was who first implanted the meme into my head that playwriting is the supreme act of arrogance -- writing as though people care about what you have to say. But the truth is, people are surprisingly interested in what everybody has to say. And we don't have to reach everyone ourselves -- we just have to be 6 degrees away from everybody.

One of the important memes that this conversation includes is, as Scott notes, generosity. That conversation goes so far back in history we can't remember where it begins, but you can see it in the Gospel ("Give to other people, and you will receive. You will be given much. It will be poured into your hands--more than you can hold. You will be given so much that it will spill into your lap. The way you give to other people is the way God will give to you."), and you can see it in the Gospel of Wealth ("In bestowing charity, the main consideration should be to help those who will help themselves; to provide part of the means by which those who desire to improve may do so; to give those who desire to use the aids by which they may rise; to assist, but rarely or never to do all.")

As we debate the issues back and forth, in sermons and books and advertise and put on plays, the ideas evolve. They get more specific. When I was young, it seemed like people wanted to help Africa, so they sent food and clothes. Then African economists got together and pointed out that buying food and clothes and sending money was counterproductive in the long term. Nowadays, it seems like we've refined our tools for giving. All of a sudden there's microloans, we're debating whether it's more effective to use pesticides or mosquito nets, we're talking about how closely linked government reform is to international aid. A century ago, we didn't even have a movement that believed that people in other countries might be as worthy of our aid as people in our own.

How often is theater at the center of the debate? Not all that often. But then again, how often is any of the 6 billion people on this planet at the center of the debate? The new rabidly self-aggrandizing type of person typified by the Balloon Boy family or the Salahis is the compulsion of Americans who do not want to be at the edge of the debate, do not just want to be one neuron in a mass of coordinated neurons -- they want to drive the debate. The Salahis, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck; people who aren't content with chiming in with their two cents.

Let's just keep the conversation rolling, so that our ideas can literally evolve and hopefully make us more fit as a society.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Court Commentary: American Needle v. NFL

So, if senior year of high school I had realized that the arts had no future for me, I know exactly what I would have done. I would have gone into Constitutional Law and worked my ass off to work towards my deepest secret desire: to be a Supreme Court Justice. Seeing as I'm a non-native born liberal Israeli male, the odds of me getting onto the Supreme Court are low to none, but I might have made a Federal judgeship, and I think I'd be okay with that.

Anyways, I follow the Supreme Court closely when I can, and what I love are cases like this one: American Needle v. NFL.

The case, as I can sum it up:
  • The 32 teams of the NFL license the NFL their logos, and the NFL in turn licenses those logos to a single merchandiser, Reebok.
  • Another merchandiser, American Needle, sued the NFL, saying that it was a trust -- a collection of competing entities that had unified to distort the market.
The claim hinges around whether the NFL is a single, unique entity, or whether it is an umbrella organization for 32 entities in the same market. If it is the former, then it is not a trust. If it is the latter, then it is.

Anyways, as the oral arguments have progressed, it has seemed to me to be clear that the NFL is a trust.
  1. The teams existed before the NFL, and came together to form it.
  2. Teams such as the Harlem Globetrotters have proved that teams don't need the league to exist, and thus are not dependent on it.
But really, that's not the part of the case that interested my brain. I was interested in something my mother brought up. You see, my mother is not a sports fan. She kind of dismisses the entire notion of sports. When I told her this story, she waved her hand and said, "Oh, if the NFL is raising prices on Football hats, why not buy hockey hats?"

It made me wonder how you can define a market. Really, the question is "are the two products equivalent?" If, from the consumer's perspective, you can swap one product for another and they can be comparably equivalent, then they are in the same market.

Silly Illustrative Example 1: If I am shopping for a blue baseball cap, and they are out of blue baseball caps, it is not unlikely that I will buy a black baseball cap. This are roughly equivalent options.

Silly Illustrative Example 2: If I am shopping for a car, and they are out of cars, it is unlikely that I will buy a scooter. These are not roughly equivalent options.

But what about something like a sports jersey? Suddenly, people's emotions come into play. If a person wants to support the Bengals because Chad Ochocinco is the greatest person alive today, they will not accept a New York Giants jersey in exchange (by the way, apparently these are equivalent for Justice Breyer, who doesn't appear to give a shit about sports, unlike Justice Blackmun or Justice Sotomayor). There's some sort of emotionally distinguishing value. Football fans are a distinct crowd from hockey fans, and Bengals fans are a distinct crowd from Giants fans. Sometimes it seems like saying there isn't much difference between a Mets fan and a Yankees fan isn't that far from saying there isn't much difference between Arabs and Persians.

I wonder how that concept pays out in the arts.

This morning, when I first thought up this post, I had a brilliant insight on that score, but I was driving and now it's 1:30 AM and I can't remember.

MSM Win?

By the way, speaking of the media, has anyone noticed the quality of reporting on Haiti? The ability to communicate the magnitude of the suffering to the United States, the round-the-clock coverage, on every network, the paper news, the internet news, NPR. It's almost painful to watch, so I read most of it online in ways I can digest. But considering the failure of news organizations regarding the ongoing turmoil in Iran, it's good that they know that they can do this, when they want to.

Also, dig my use of the question mark to hedge in the post title.

Grassroots + Power VI: Separation Between Arts and State ctd.

So I was wondering the other day about the separation between arts and state, and I want to return to that subject, because I don't think I delineated exactly what I meant. The arts are, for instance, used by the State Department. They're used by the MTA. To discuss "arts" and "the state" blithely as though it's all the same is not the level of specificity I'd like to leave the discussion on.

Let's start with political content. One thing you'll notice is that many artists, even when they strive to be political, try not to be ideological -- they at least say they want to present "both sides" or "provoke debate." They certainly aren't out there to propagandize. I occasionally meet an artist who has an agenda, but rarely, so very rarely. It's a taboo. (I also tend very much not to like their work, so I'm definitely part of the taboo).

The reason I bring this up is because recently, I've been watching some vintage Capra with my family off of Netflix. Specifically, we saw Meet John Doe. What a fantastic, fantastic, film.

Also, a very blatantly ideological one. Most of the characters are incredibly one-dimensional, in a way that isn't bothersome -- the setting is basically that, in unstable and corrupt times, people are reduced to base instinct or strategy. The female protagonist will do anything to keep her job, the paper owner will do anything to sell papers, the politician will do anything for votes. The only character who doesn't fit into this is the film's "John Doe." But he doesn't have an ideology. He's just pushed around, a vessel. You spend the length of the movie debating within yourself which ideology he should allow himself to accept (a sneaky way of saying you spend the movie wondering which strain of thought is right). Finally, at the end, everything ends discredited except common human decency.

Or the Frank Capra we saw last night, You Can't Take It With You. (By the way, I think Eugene Jarecki should have used this instead of It's A Wonderful Life for the Move Your Money campaign -- here too the antagonist is an evil banker). The Turner Classic Movie synopsis says it all: "A girl from a family of freethinkers falls for the son of a conservative banker."

It's a far cry from the way politics is tackled in my favorite film, 12 Angry Men. There, each character is represented, and -- like the trial it mirrors -- each side gets to make its persuasive case. There are shades of emotional complexity and doubt in each character, and each character honestly believes he's out to do something good. The victory of 20th Century Realism over 20th Century pedagogy.

I'm mulling over: what are the rules of making a piece that emphatically asserts an opinion? I've heard before that art is about the question, not the answer. For a while I've believed that. And I still think it's usually true.

But a while back I spoke about my conviction that culture is a conversation, and each cultural act we perform, be it an ad or a play or a book is just a moment in the conversation.

If that's the case, then why the hell isn't there some way of asserting something? Just as we don't have to find ourselves trapped permanently in the passive-aggressive mode as we talk naturally, there has to be some way we can assert the things we believe in ways that are respectful, insightful, and useful.

It's surprisingly tough in spoken language. I've seen plenty a conversation where somebody had the gall to assert an opinion -- on some topics, not others -- and the conversation has ground to a halt.

When I was in Prague, I had the strange experience of living with one of those conservatives we're always seeing on the news. Someone whose approval of Sarah Palin grew when it turned out that she tried to ban books, and who didn't believe that we should have national health care. The fact that he supported Mitt Romney and Romney's health care reform didn't particularly sway him.

He was a very well-educated young man from a wealthy background, he was studying to be in the communications industry, and every time he went to downtown Boston he carried a concealed weapon tucked into the back of his pants.

We were all at lunch, and somehow the conversation turned to gun violence, and someone said something along the lines of how problematic it was that guns are so easy to get access to, and he hotly stated that anyone who wanted to limit access to guns was taking away his right to defend himself. There was a halt in the conversation. Slowly, we tried to discuss the issue. I was fascinated simply watching people slowly figure out what they could or couldn't say. Nobody wanted to argue, but they wanted to discuss, and clearly this was something he was very passionate about, and nobody wanted to say the things that would explode the anger.

At the same time, sometimes he would say things that were absolutely horrifying. I won't repeat them on my blog, but a lot of time people would simply let it slide because it was easier than arguing with someone that angry about issues. He felt persecuted, because every time he would drop one of these incredibly offensive statements, people would get angry at him.

It reminded me that sometimes -- just sometimes -- we have to stand by what we believe. Not on everything. I, for one, believe that a public option would be important. But it's not the battle we should fight to the death, certainly not at the expense of the health care bill as a whole. But on the other hand, the fight against torture is something that I'm willing to say is an imperative. There are some things that we can assert, decidedly.

Some of our most beautiful cultural legacies -- the Declaration of Independence, Edward R. Murrow's address from Buchenwald, the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of the execution from the Vietnam war -- these cultural legacies are not handed down because they were a question. They also were not handed down because they were the "answer," a single, immutable, truth. They don't speak a single universal moral. But they speak to one moment, one crucial crossroads that our culture faces, and it passes a specific judgment, asserts a specific impact.

That's why I get mad about media equivalency, about headlines like Reid's Race Comments: Was There Truth In His Comments? Sometimes -- not always -- you just have to say what the hell is on your mind. There are times when it's simply not appropriate to use the question mark.

This doesn't mean we have to yell, or vilify, or engage in all of the rancor that is attached to fighting over passionate issues. It just means we sometimes have to find the way to make our case clearly, concisely, and with a period at the end of our statement.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Should Literary Managers Be Developing Playwrights?

Mead Hunter asks:
Do playwrights really want unvarnished honesty? If I say to you, “We passed on your play because we felt your ending was lame,” what subtext do you hear? If you rewrite that ending under the impression that now Theater XYZ will gladly produce it, and that doesn’t happen, then you will really feel had. The danger of specific criticism is that will be received as advice -- or even as a promise.
Isaac responds:
I will respond to this by telling a story, a story of rejection! Rejection of me!
The story is a pretty simple one about an agent who took the time to gave Isaac five pages of quality, incisive, honest feedback. Says Isaac:
This is the important part [of the story] here though: These notes were far, far blunter than I have ever seen notes given in theatre to anyone working in any field other than design. And I'll tell ya... it didn't feel awesome. It took a couple of days before I could get through that I was kind of upset at the rejection to actually see what the notes were. But at that point, I dusted myself and the proposal off and went to work. That project has laid dormant for awhile, because of other writing needs, but when it's time to go back, I'll reexamine those notes and see how I feel.
From Isaac's perspective, the downside from the perspective of playwrights is a bit of bruised feelings, and the upside is higher quality work.

I always favor the honest, polite, incisive commentary. The key, of course, is in the politeness. I believe that there is always a way to phrase criticism in such a way as to remove any of the personal rancor from it. There is no need for you to pretend that things are not wrong when they are wrong, but there's also absolutely no need for you to use the sort of language such as "your ending was lame." In fact, the more specific your criticism, the less likely the playwright is going to be insulted.

The times that criticism really hurts, emotionally, is when you realize it is both right and difficult to fix. If someone gives you a straightforward, clearly true criticism, you tend to just implement the change and be done with it. If someone gives you a complex and clearly wrong piece of criticism, we tend to ignore it. But when something cuts down to the core of what you're working on, boy, that hurts like a raw nerve. They don't have to insult you, or be brusque, or dismissive--the truth and the depth of the criticism does all the pain itself.

I had that recently myself. A friend of mine sent me back a draft with the note that, from moment to moment, the play stands very well on its own, but the logic behind the characters' motivations are confused and conflicted. I stared at the script for hours with a terrible, sinking feeling that the hours and hours of work I had put into it was worthless. It's a really painful feeling.

But what's the alternative? That I walk around with a terribly flawed script without knowing it? Without being so trite as to say "no pain no gain"... wait, I just said it.

Anyways, a separate issue is whether literary managers have some sort of responsibility to do this. And the answer is no. They are busy. It would be nice if they could. But they are not our parents, or our friends, or our mothers. If a theater decides we have potential, then we should be developed. But theaters and their literary managers have the right to decide how to spend their time. I know how much time I spend just responding to my friends' work, and I get something on the order of two or three plays a month. It takes me time to give good criticism. How much time are we expecting a literary manager to spend giving criticism?

To Orange County: A Minor Apologia

In my last post, I did something I frequently finding myself doing: ragging on Orange County, California. It is not a place I particularly like, although it is my home. The arts scene is rather small. But one thing it does have is South Coast Repertory.

Now, South Coast Repertory is, as Repertory theaters go, actually a fairly good one. It has originated a few Broadway plays in its time, it does fairly good productions of quality plays, etc. But every failing you'd like to accuse Repertory companies of, you can basically accuse SCR of.

When I worked with the Stage Managers there, briefly, they all swapped car notes because they all drove 1984 Volvo Station Wagons. I am not kidding. There were four 1984 Volvo Station Wagon owners, and all of them were fretting that their Volvos would not make the next emissions test and they had no idea if they could afford the fees or afford a new car. The actors almost all commuted from Los Angeles, and one of the actors made his primary income doing English voiceovers of Anime imports.

However, whereas SCR normally either commissions plays from prominent playwrights who've found success in New York, or they're doing standards, I do have to applaud them for this:

“South Coast Repertory is pleased to host this remounting of the Chance Theater’s acclaimed production of Jesus Hates Me,” said Associate Artistic Director John Glore. “This partnership is born of an idea that began to take shape among the members of SCR’s artistic staff almost two years ago, out of a desire to make greater use of the company’s Nicholas Studio (SCR’s former Second Stage), to create stronger ties with other performing arts organizations in Orange County and to offer alternative programming that might attract new theatergoers to both organizations. In presenting this Chance Theater production, SCR has an opportunity to try out an idea which, if successful, may well lead to further collaborations of this kind in the future.”

The Chance Theater’s Artistic Director Oanh Nguyen will again direct Jesus Hates Me, which will feature the same cast that appeared in the 2009 production. Chance Dean plays Ethan, Timothy Covington is Trane, Karen Webster is Annie, Jennifer Ruckman is Lizzy, Dimas Diaz is Boone and Ben Green is Georgie.
Now, the play itself, written by Wayne Lemon, is not indigenous to Orange County. It had its premiere in Colorado (according to his website -- it took me a bit to figure out which of the "premieres" was the first one).

But this is the first time in my personal experience or memory that South Coast Repertory has promoted the work of or partnered with another local theater company -- largely because the Chance Theater (only a decade old, billing itself as "Your Off-Broadway Theater in Orange County") is the only non-SCR theater company that I know of in the Orange County area (I may be wrong, there might be one or two others).

I hope that SCR does more of this. The Chance charges lower prices, has more experimental work--it takes more chances. So I hope that when they hit gold, they get some more transfers to SCR, and that money and respect flows back to the Chance. Maybe one day local people will get interested in the arts and find outlets for self-expression, a community to join...

Change I: Move Your Money, Move Your Theater?

So, elsewhere, most of the internet is talking about Outrageous Fortune, which so far seems to be a wake-up call about how shitty our industry can be sometimes (see also: How Theater Failed America). Yet again, the refrain I hear is, "Yes, we know it's shitty, but how do we change it?"

That's not to say that solutions haven't been proposed (I'm going to update my list of solutions-heard soon to take into account more things I've heard), but that when the conversation veers back to what's wrong in the world, we have to remember the major question: and how do we change it?

Anyways, Scott Walters put up a brief post a couple days ago comparing our desire to change theater to the nascent Move Your Money movement spearheaded by Huff-Po. He compares it to the desire to decentralize American theater.

I remember when I first really started thinking about the decentralizing theater problem last summer (when I first came into contact with Scott), I felt torn. I thought his idea was brilliant and necessary, to get the arts out of New York/Chicago/Los Angeles and into the nation. I also thought that I would never leave New York City to make it happen.

It reminded me powerfully of a baseball fan on the Daily Show (sorry, I couldn't find the clip) who, in the wake of the Roger Clemens steroid scandal, said, "This has brought shame on the entire sport of baseball... but honestly, I'll have forgotten about this come next baseball season."

It also reminds me of how, no matter how low Congress' approval ratings get, the re-election of incumbents remains above 90% -- because in general, people may dislike "Congress" but they do tend to approve of "My Congressman." And if each person on average thinks their congressperson is alright, but as a mass of congresspeople they seem to continue to do stupid things, then our usual check of elections will not have any effect. It's a systemic problem -- we want to change not our congresspeople, but the system by which congresspeople as a mass become stupid.

When Eugene Jarecki appeared on The Colbert Report, I had the same impression. See, I bank with a big bank: JP Morgan Chase. I became a JP Morgan Chase client when Washington Mutual, my bank, collapsed.

I loved Washington Mutual. When I had a problem with a vendor, I would call them, and they would call the vendor themselves and work things out. I was never on hold for more than five minutes with them. I had great customer service. When they went out of business, I was in Europe.

My credit card, on the other hand, is from Citibank. Citibank are cruel bastards. Every month, they sneak on average $5 of fees. If I call them and threaten to cancel, they refund me the charges. After an hour on hold and only after direct threats. When I went to go look for other credit cards, however, I can't find any that pays me nearly as much as Citibank does -- they're literally bribing me with their cash-back scheme (which pays more than any other credit card I qualify for, even after the fees take away, I've done the math). I've considered simply not having a credit card, just to get Citibank out of my life. There's the chance that, in the near term, when I get a business bank account I might get a credit card for the business, and therefore I won't be running such large sums on my credit card, and can close my personal credit card and just go with my debit card for personal purchases.

At any rate, the comparison between Citibank and WaMu was what really cemented my loyalty for WaMu. Their website was easy to use -- Citibank's was always broken, and for a full year I had to hit the "stop" button halfway through loading or else it would freeze.

Also, I had some experiences previously with another bank that was at one time a "local" bank (they're now national, with the demise of one of the other big banks): Wells Fargo. When I was heading to college, I went to my local Wells Fargo bank and opened an account. Right before I left I suddenly remembered something. "You do have branches in New York, right?" "Of course we do." This was a lie. Although it was possible for me to pay my bills online and get things mailed to me on the east coast, I spend about a third of my time on the West coast and two thirds on the East Coast.

Jarecki would call having local branches to me whether I'm at home in California or at home in New York "a convenience" that I'd have to do without.

When I was in Europe, the financial crisis struck, and Washington Mutual went under. I was terrified. Who would I be banking with? Citibank? That was my worst nightmare: to have Citibank hemorrhaging my personal finances the way they try to hemorrhage my credit card. And would there be a break in services while I was in Europe?

When JP Morgan Chase emerged as the buyer, I was tentative. I had no idea who they were and I'd never banked with them before. I wanted to see what they were like. They handled the transition from Washington Mutual to JP Morgan Chase seamlessly. By the end of the year, I was a happy JP Morgan Chase person. I haven't had cause to call them for support yet because, well, everything worked. There was one day that my debit card didn't work in an ATM, but they'd warned me ahead of time and told me how to work around it.

So when Eugene Jarecki was telling me to leave my bank, I couldn't see a compelling case to do it. I mean, I knew that Big Banks were a problem. But my bank is not a problem! They provide me excellent service and excellent care, at basically no cost (there's no ATM fee, no fee on my banking, using my debit card like a credit card has no fees, and then they pay me interest).

That's the problem with Move Your Money. Individuals act based on individual motives. My choices are not only positive for me, but most of the time they effect the people I know positively, they are good on the economy, etc.. It's only on the very macro-est economic of levels that my choice is bad, because I'm one of many people who are contributing to the existence of a "too big to fail" bank.

So, Scott threw out this suggestion that moving our theater would be like moving our bank, and that's our hope of decentralizing theater. I'm saying it's got some of the same problems.

In theory, in terms of the artistic future of the United States, I think we need to leave New York City. But there are no institutions I love nearly as much as The Public Theater. My home in Orange County, California not only lacks institutions like that, but lacks the audience and the institutions to create such institutions. As Don Hall pointed out, the first domino in the problem is real estate, and Orange County has such an incredible real estate bubble (even now) that the cost of starting up a theater company is inhospitable, especially considering as there are no theaters for rent anywhere (the concept just doesn't really exist), and car culture means that there is no such thing as a cultural center, nothing with which to attract people who you don't know.

Other than that, following the dream of decentralization means that I would basically pick a community at random and wander in. But that's really just a different form of cultural imperialism. If I can't create theater in my own community, then I guess I should just go where I want to be--to the community I want to live in, which is Brooklyn. I love it. I love the people, I love my artistic contemporaries.

It's a problem. And I'm part of it.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Diversity XX: OOB Diversity pt 2

99 Seats agrees with me:
All of this is incredibly present to me, at 36 years old, single, childless, falling right in the income levels here, working full-time outside of theatre. In terms of finances, there isn't much difference between what happens in the OOB scene and what's described in the lives of "successful" playwrights in Outrageous Fortune. Which is scary, in general.
Well, it's scary if you're on the regional theater side of the playwright equation. In the OOB world, this is basically what I expected my life to be like, and its encouraging to us to know that:

1) We wouldn't be doing any better in the regional theater track (which I am now forbidding anyone who has read Outrageous Fortune and the NYIT demographics report to call "successful")
2) We are better supported by our fellow OOBers than Playwrights are supported by the regional theaters.

Lesson: if you're a talented playwright with a vision, you're better off self-producing or entering the independent producing community with partners who are willing to develop you. And maybe, if you're lucky enough, John McCain will call you out.

Diversity XX: OOB Diversity

The fantastic folks at the New York Innovative Theater Awards have published a report on the demographics of Off-Off Broadway. It seems to fall in line with my previous belief that in some areas we make diversity happen (women are slightly disproportionally over-represented as producers, men as playwrights, just to take one random dataset). One of the more surprising results, actually, his how in many areas we fall roughly along national averages (income, for instance, although most of that income is not from Off-Off-Broadway), or race (I think our slightly disproportionally low percentage of African-Americans might be explained by our slightly disproportionally high percentage of people identifying as "multiracial."

(I say this, by the way, with the caveat that I'm not really highly versed in statistical analysis. These are just my impressions as I read through).

So, I guess the take-away is that we on Off-Off-Broadway are young, well educated, politically motivated, and then... basically average.

Oh dear. I don't know if we're going to like that...

Pithy Thought of the Day

A thought experiment: suppose you showed up to a club to dance on a Friday night, and you had a DJ who had absolutely no idea about what music is popular at dance clubs these days -- for instance, if I was DJing. This DJ might decide that the safest way to keep his audience happy is to open up the Billboard Top #40 and just play them in reverse order, from lowest to highest. This way, he figures, by the time the playlist finishes, he's basically pleased everybody, because he's playing the most popular music, so statistically speaking, he's safe.

Will the people at the club be happy?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Outrageous Fortune II

Okay, I'll say something quick.

August Schulenberg notes this:
...the study is specifically looking at playwrights who are "successful", a term defined loosely in the book, but understood to mean playwrights who are regularly being produced at a regional and Off-Broadway level. The survey focuses on a sample of those playwrights, and the theatres that are able to financially produce at that level.
Matt Freeman notes:
One thing that struck me in particular was the expression of frustration that there aren't companies that coalesce around a playwright anymore. I don't see that, personally. Maybe that's true on the scale of regional theaters 'filling slots'...but on the Off-Off scale, I see it all the time.

I have been working with a single theater company (more or less) in New York City since about 2004. Just over six years of productions. Do we produce on the scale of Manhattan Theater Club? No. Have I gotten reviews and publications and all that other nice stuff? Yes. Do I still work, and work hard, in an unrelated field to make ends meet? Yes, yes I do. Still, when I read chapters about the nomadic lives of playwrights now, I felt a bit happy to know that's not my position.
So if playwrights like me who work Off-Off-Broadway are:

1) Not that much less financially stable than the "successful" playwrights
2) Supported more by companies willing to champion our works (I write plays and have my own company, Freeman notes his own relationship with a good company)

Then the term "successful" appears to be better worn by the off-off-Broadway folks than by the industry writers! Here I was thinking that I had chosen passion over money, but it sounds like all I did was choose to be happier.