On Saying It to Their Faces
I 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.”
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.
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.
In 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:
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.
I 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.