On Saying It to Their Faces

Tracy Letts Tonys 2013I didn’t watch the Tony’s. I wasn’t making a statement – I just don’t own a TV. Although I probably wouldn’t have watched it anyway, because even when I did have a TV I tended to skip through the commercials. But that evening, I was casually checking my Facebook and Twitter feeds, which included quite a few people providing commentary on the proceedings, so unfortunately I felt as if I was there. It was pretty uneventful until the award for Best Actor went to Tracy Letts, at which point there washed through my computer what I can only describe as an electronic sigh. One after another, theatre people quoted the final words of Letts’ acceptance speech, like football fans with banners declaring John 3:16: “We are the ones who say it to their faces and we have a unique responsibility.” Ahhhhh. This outpouring of Twitter-love is somewhat understandable – you could quote Letts and still have over 60 characters left for “I heart you Tracy” and a hashtag. But I found myself thinking, “Really? That’s the message that inspires theatre people?”

Let’s be clear: I kinda like Tracy Letts. I liked his acerbic comment when he accepted the Tony for August: Osage County: “They did an amazing thing. They decided to produce an American play on Broadway with theatre actors.” Boom! A snark is born! And at 103 characters, eminently Twitterable! But this time, as a harsh edge suddenly crept into his voice that seemed to indicate that he was getting serious now so you people better listen up, what came out was like the last gasp of the Modernist theatre myth, the last words of Robert Brustein’s emaciated theatre-priest cavorting in front of the distorted mirror of the Theatre of Revolt. Or the first words of the Theatre of Increasing Irrelevance. “We are the ones who say it to their faces and we have a unique responsibility.”

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First, let’s get real: ever since Richard Wagner decided to turn off the house lights on the audience, theatre people don’t say anything to anybody’s faces anymore. “We’re the ones who say it to the gaping void” would be more the case, but doesn’t really have the same ring to it. And “We’re the ones who say it to the shadowy figures out there who damn well better arrive on time, sit down, shut up, clap when we tell them, and turn their damn cell phones off” has more than 140 characters. Anyway, I’ve been told that Letts was just referring to theatre’s liveness and nothing more – Brad Pitt would say, I suppose, “Our shadows say it to their faces” or something equally inspiring. But if you listen to the tone of Letts’ voice, it’s hard to believe that’s what he’s on about.

No, I think his words reflect very clearly an attitude that “serious theatre artists” have had toward the audience since we got kicked out of the palaces in the 18th century and had to appeal to the middle classes to make a living. We’ve been cranky about that ever since. By the time Ibsen showed up on the scene, “We say it to their faces” had become something of a slogan. As Nietzsche said in Will to Power, “the declaration of war on the masses by higher men is needed.” And of course, artists are higher men indeed, because Shelley said so: we’re the “unacknowledged legislators of the world.” To which Margaret Thatcher might have responded, if you have to tell people you’re powerful, you aren’t.

We’re not.

At least once a year on my campus, we are paid a visit by street preacher who tells jeering crowds of undergraduates that they are going to hell for sexual promiscuity and rampant homosexuality. No doubt, at the end of the day, the preacher goes back to his congregation and tells them proudly that he said it to their faces. Does he affect anybody? Indeed he does – the students come to my class outraged and angry. Does he change anybody’s mind? Not that I’ve noticed. Indeed, the effect seems to usually be the deepening of the student’s commitment to, um, sexual promiscuity and rampant homosexuality, I guess. I try not to think about it. But I’ve noticed over the years that the preacher’s ability to provoke wears off as time goes on. The shocked outrage of freshmen gradually is transformed, by the time senior year arrives, into an eye roll and a tendency to avoid the area when the circus comes to town. Sort of like people feel about the theatre today.

Listen, I understand the need to trumpet one’s self-importance. God knows, as Letts admitted earlier in his speech, there are few worldly rewards that go with working in the theatre, so we might as well claim the role of preacher-man, raise our middle finger to the void and speak truth to power… and then run away to our dressing rooms until they’re gone. And I am certainly not promoting as alternative the empty glitz represented by the other junk being celebrated at the Tony’s. But if we really want to affect people, if we really want to make a difference, if we really want to have an impact we need to change our orientation away from Letts’ slogan.

Rebuilding the Front Porch of America CoverIn an essay in his book Rebuilding the Front Porch of America entitled “The Deep Voice,” Patrick Overton tells about being invited to speak at the dedication of the Huntsville (MO) Vietnam Memorial. As a poet, a theatre director, and a Vietnam war veteran, Overton at first refused, fearful that he would be unable to do the topic justice. But after thinking about it longer, he accepted the invitation and the result was a long poem (reprinted in the book) entitled “The Healing Wall” that he read to the assembled veterans. When the last line, “No more walls, please, no more walls,” was spoken, Overton remembers:

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people were very quiet, still. It reminded me of my visit to the Wall in D.C. Slowly, people began to move, looking through the crowd for someone to hold, to hug. There was a need to touch. There was not a lot of talking. I saw men of my father’s generation with tears running down their faces, something that is all too rare for them. I saw sons and fathers embrace – with a kind of knowing and understanding that may not have existed before. That afternoon in May invited a small community, deeply wounded by the war, to heal. My speech and poetry did not do the healing. The people did. What I did was extend the invitation.

Extending the invitation. That is truly what it means to say it to their faces. But to say it in a way that invites healing, invites understanding, invites introspection, invites emotion. And to say it not from a position of accusation and moral superiority, but from a place of humility, of solidarity, of meaning-making. We need to look people in the eye and resist the impulse to stuck our thumb in it.

HeadwatersI have an essay coming out in the July/August issue of American Theatre Magazine about the series of community plays called Headwaters that has been performed in Sautee Nacoochee, GA, for the past seven years. Their last production, Did’ja Hear?, is about “the things people in northeast Georgia can and can’t hear, and do and don’t want to hear,” including the story of a group of White County high school students whose desire to form a gay/straight alliance in 2005 led to protests by the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, protests that catapulted the students to national prominence. A description of Didja Hear? shows how approaching a painful subject with an attitude of humility may have contributed to the ability of the community to incorporate the story of the high school students into its larger sense of itself. Overall, the description says, the play seeks to “portray the fiercely independent spirit of mountain people” through the stories collected from area residents, including “a moonshiner whose ‘heritage’ demonstration gets a visit from a pair of ATF agents…a Deaf girl who wants to learn Japanese, and an older woman whose hearing is diminishing but who still connects to her community.” In addition, “we’re telling several stories of people who stand up for what they believe in, by protesting on the square, and by organizing to combat anti-gay bullying in the schools.” And finally, just for fun, “we’re imagining what dogs say to one another, and what we can learn from them.”

This is classic Headwaters – a mixture of whimsy and gravity, pride and suffering, all held together by cussedness and a respect for the multiplicity of perspectives and personalities that make up a community. “Simply recounting a painful story just opens up old wounds,” Headwaters co-author and famed community arts playwright Jo Carson wrote in her book Spider Speculations. “To be about healing, I need to reframe it,” not changing what happened, but instead “changing how you think about it.” Placing the gay/straight alliance story firmly within the tradition of the “fiercely independent spirit of mountain people” does just this, turning a painful hot-button issue into one with the potential for creating solidarity. As Lisa Mount, who directed Did’ja Hear?, said about her community, “This is a fragile and beautiful place, and we do all have to live together.”

Yes, we do have a “responsibility,” but whether it is a unique one is arguable. It is a responsibility to construct meaning out of the seeming chaos of life, to celebrate what is best in people, to acknowledge that there is pain and evil in the world, and to provide a larger context for small actions. It requires that we look people in the eye, not to spit in it, but to acknowledge our common humanity. The gift that artists contribute, I would argue, is not a moral superiority, but rather an ability to put into resonant words, into voice and movement, those emotions that we all feel at some level. As Overton says at the end of his essay, “Art transcends. Art transforms. Art is the deep voice that heals the wounded heart and lifts the human spirit.”

That also is fewer than 140 characters. Perhaps we could tweet that a bit, too.


Scott Walters is a Professor of Drama at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, as well as the founder of the Center for Rural Arts Development and Leadership Education (CRADLE). He is the long-time author of several blogs including Theatre Ideas and Creative Insubordination. He also writes for The Huffington Post, American Theatre magazine, and is the co-author of Introduction to Play Analysis. He lives in Bakersville, NC.

COLUMN: Interrobang?!
CATEGORIES: Ideas, Stage, Theater

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  • Chuck

    You take the quote out of context and create a strawman to aggrandize your moral position. Letts was referring to the store-front theater scene in Chicago who do “say it to their faces” often due to the size of the rooms. But there is an aesthetic double entendre to the statement because it also implies the style and content of the Chicago theater, which is often confrontational, an expected element of this town. Sometimes this visceral reality is the true benefit in the Chicago store-front theater for both performer and audience. You might not want to quote-mine to make a moral point. It’s bad form.

  • With all due respect, Chuck, watch the speech. There is a clear break between the Chicago valentine and the final sentence. Regardless, he says “We.” “WE say it to their faces.” Not “YOU say it to their faces.” No “CHICAGO says it to their faces.” But regardless, it reflects a clear appreciation of a “confrontational” orientation, as you put it. It is an orientation that is certainly not confined to Chicago, but is actually an orientation that goes back to Ibsen, who famously said that the only mistake God made was that he didn’t “torpedo the ark.” No, I don’t buy that this is a narrow statement about Chicago. Sorry.

  • M. Nelson

    Supremely, exquisitely wrong Mr. Walters. Rather than thank his handlers, posse and money cows he threw a bone to the actors out there doing the deed without the big paycheck. Shame on you for trying piggyback on his brilliance.

  • I’m one of those actors and I liked the bone I got. I also appreciate the context or “frame” that Professor Walters creates. If every act of speaking only meant one thing – we’d all be out of jobs, and by that I mean meaningful work. There’s room here for Tracy to be excellent at many things for Chicago Theater to be live, raw, scrappy and powerful and for there to be a conversation about who’s faces we are saying it to and how and when. This is a party y’all. Say some shit and stick around while someone responds, then dance with someone you know or someone else. The watchword that defines the Chicago theater community is courage. But from the sound of it – there’s courage elsewhere too and that’s a good thing. Point of fact – some of us do leave the lights on and don’t ask people to turn off their phones, and do behave as if the joint were live. Some of us live for that. A live audience of folks who we provoke and respond to – and force us to play harder and with more liveness. Some of us double down on that! we celebrate the unpredictable moment that happens between audience and stage – When everyone is in the light and the moment is pregnant with actual possibility in every direction.

  • Andrew Hinderaker

    Dear Scott,

    I debated whether or not to reply. Like you, I didn’t watch the Tonys; there was an NBA Finals game on, and I don’t put too much stock in awards shows, anyway. But what Tracy Letts said seems to matter a great deal to colleagues I care a great deal about (I’m a Chicago-based playwright) And so I feel compelled to respond.

    First off, I understand your point that Lett’s comment was not necessarily directed solely to artists in Chicago. However, it seems abundantly clear that he’s talking specifically to those artists who AREN’T accepting Tonys, or working on big Broadway stages, or otherwise achieving monetary or commercial success. In other words, to artists who more often than not DO say it to peoples’ faces, and not to “the gaping void,” as you put it.

    I’ve been fortunate to have work produced in Chicago, New York, DC, Austin and elsewhere and *not once* have I had work produced where actors speak into “the gaping void.” In the city of Chicago, there are probably fewer than ten theaters where actors speak into “the gaping void” and in my most recent city of Austin, Texas, there’s one. Bear in mind that there’s something like 200 theater companies in Chicago and in Austin something like 50.

    I appreciate that this is not your central point — that we say it to the gaping void, rather than to their faces — but you are nonetheless beginning your essay with a fallacy. Unless, of course, you limit your definition of theater to Broadway and major regional houses. And it seems wildly obvious that Letts isn’t talking to the actor who works regularly on the Goodman’s main stage.

    Onto the next piece of your essay, which essentially likens a modern-day theater artist to a homophobic street preacher. Setting aside the more offensive aspects of your comparison, there’s a pretty obvious distinction I’d like to draw: a theater audience CHOOSES (and often PAYS) to see a performance, whereas a homophobic street preacher thrusts him or herself onto a community. Are you attempting to claim that the theater artist ultimately does the same? If so, please elaborate. And provide examples.

    While you’re at it, please provide examples of theater artists who, like this homophobic street preacher, use their platform to express hateful beliefs. And are more intent on spreading homophobia than healing the wounded heart and lifting the human spirit. And where are all these theater artists who hide in their dressing room until the audience is gone? I’ve worked with hundreds of incredible actors, designers and directors and I can’t recall a single one of them hiding from the audience.

    So again, I ask: who are these artists? Who are these companies? Have the courage to call them out by name.

    Until you do, I’m beginning to wonder what you’re basing any of your arguments on. I mean, “Headwaters” sounds like a lovely piece, but what troubles me is your implication that it’s an oasis in a sea of otherwise hateful, self-righteous theater that treats its audience like they’re lucky to be there.

    And so again, I ask: what kind of theater are you seeing? Where are you seeing it?

    More to the point, are you basing your observations on actual evidence, or in the smugness you detect from Letts’ acceptance speech and the Twitter blast that followed?

    If that were your ultimate point — that a lot of folks got a little self-important in the wake of the acceptance speech — then fair enough. I might remind you that it’s an AWARDS SHOW; self-importance is kind of par for the course. And I might ask you to consider that theater artists, like everyone else, needs to believe (at least from time to time) that the work they do matters. And if they take some solace from a potentially self-righteous Tony speech, perhaps you can forgive them that.

    Above all, I would hope that you would judge a theater artist’s attitude toward her or his community based on the work they actually do, and not on a Twitter feed.

    You claim that theater artists talk to a gaping void, that they hide in their dressing rooms until the audience leaves; you liken us to homophobic preachers and imply that we engage our craft and audience with little humility and compassion.

    This is consistent with very little theater I have seen and made.

    So I would encourage you to see more theater.

    Especially since you teach it.

  • Andrew — Are you trying to tell me that most theatre artists are out rubbing elbows with the audience after the show? Because my experience has been that they are sent back to the dressing room to get out of costume and makeup, and then head out to the bar thereafter where they can talk to each other and their friends. Furthermore, except for the occasional tepid Q & A after a show, they don’t really engage the audience, listen to their thoughts, share their own, and interact as equals, as members of a community. The smaller the theatre, however, the more likely actual interaction will occur.

    As far as the homophobic preacher, analogies are not exact. Nevertheless, there are some in an audience who will feel just a strongly attacked by, say, a production of “Good Woman of Setzuan” or “Angels in America” as people encountering Rev Birdsong. The point was that a hostile view of one’s audience — that THEY need to have something said TO THEIR FACE — is shared by Rev Birdsong and many artists, Letts reinforced that trope.

    The gaping void is created by the house lights being turned off, creating a barrier between stage and audience. Even if the lights are up, unless you step forward and engage the audience directly, your communication is still only one-way. Monologic.

    I wish self-importance was confined to award shows. It’s not.

    Your assumptions about my theatre viewing experiences, as is usually the case in these sort of ad hominem attacks, are based on no knowledge of me.

  • Andrew Hinderaker

    Scott — I confess, I had to look up the definition of “ad hominem” on-line. But I think it’s pretty clear that my post is a point-by-point analysis of your article, rather than an attack on your character. If I stepped over the line at the very end of my post and made assumptions about your theatre viewing experiences, I apologize.

    But I assure you; my repeated questions of “What kind of theatre are you seeing?” were not intended to be glib, but taken at their literal meaning. I actually want to know (and think it’s fair to ask) the kind of theater you’re regularly seeing, that you would imply theater artists prefer to spit in the audience’s eye, rather than acknowledge our common humanity. Without these specific examples or significant tangible evidence, any assumptions I’ve made about you pale in comparison to those you’ve made about me and my colleagues.

    To your specific points…

    I don’t know what you mean by “rubbing elbows,” but yes, in most theater productions I’ve been part of, the artists involved and the audience engage with each other, as equals, after a performance. I would invite you to my home theater, the Gift in Chicago, where after performances we invite the audience to join us for drinks, and where they often do (I would also point out that this is fairly commonplace in Chicago and Austin, the theater communities I’ve most frequently worked in)

    I understand your point, that some could feel attacked by “Angels in America,” and agree that theater should make a place for genuine dialogue between those audience members who feel attacked and the artists who are making the work. And I would argue that many theaters often make that space (see the paragraph above) But there’s still a very important distinction here: I, the audience member, have chosen and paid to see “Angels in America.” I did not choose to listen to Rev. Birdsong. This seems a rather important distinction when invoking the word “hostile.”

    Which brings me to the next point: you seem to prefer work that is not only one-way, or “monologic,” as you put it. Fair enough. I would direct you to the Neo-Futurists in Chicago or the Rude Mechs or Rubber Rep in Austin, or about a dozen other companies that break the barrier between stage and audience, and that involve the audience directly in the conversation (sometimes in superficial, oftentimes in profound ways)

    I love those companies. I hope to work with them. I don’t see why there isn’t a place for all forms of theater, ones in which the audience directly shapes the work (and is in every way in conversation with the artists), and ones in which the audience sits quietly (even in the dark) and simply listens and observes.

    Which brings me to the last, perhaps most important point of all. You have interpreted the Letts’ quote one way — emphasizing the “TO THEIR FACES,” and ascribing a kind of ‘holier than thou, I don’t care about the audience, you’ll take what I give you, self-importance.” That’s fine, and seems to me a justifiable interpretation, but it’s exactly that: one interpretation.

    An equally fair interpretation of the quote is, ‘We’re the ones who still do it live, in front of people, and there’s a value to that.’

    And that’s actually how I interpret the quote.

    I believe that we live in an age where it’s becoming increasingly outrageous to ask someone to sit still for an hour and a half, and simply listen. And I believe that’s sad.

    I believe it’s troubling that we need everything reduced down to a Twitterable-word count, because Twitterable word counts can be interpreted in so many ways, as the Letts quote illustrates.

    The other thing about Twitter is that it allows its users to hide behind a computer screen, to avoid saying it to someone’s face because I can simply hide behind the safety of a computer screen.

    You and I, right now, are flirting with a dangerous lack of civility, here in the safety of our online exchange.

    And so first and foremost, let me apologize again for any assumptions I may have made about your theatre experiences. That was not my intent.

    But my original argument stands: if you’re going to make all kinds of assumptions about numerous members of the theater community — and specifically that we would rather spit in the audience’s face rather than embrace our common humanity, that it’s fair to liken us to homophobes who tell people they’re going to hell — then I think you need more to back up that claim than a single line of a speech and a Twitter feed.

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