Theater Artists Must Be Prophets (and an Announcement)

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First, the announcement:

Ideal TheaterAs those of who follow this column probably have figured out, I am a college professor. Two years ago, I began publishing a multi-part series on Todd London’s inspiring book An Ideal Theater: Founding Visions for a New American Art. In it, I published my thoughts on the seven sections of the book: “What Is America / What Is an American Theater?,” “About Us. By Us. For Us. Near Us.,” Amateurs or Professionals?,” “The Genius of the Individual, the Genius of the Group,” ” Theaters or Institutions?,” “Toward a Political Theater,” and “The Artist’s Journey: School, Studio, and Stage.” This semester, I am teaching a course on London’s book, and I have asked each of my 11 students, most juniors and seniors, to provide a short essay concerning one of the book’s theater pioneers who appeal to them. This is not to be a book report, but rather their opinion concerning the relevance of the ideas contained in their chosen essay to today’s theater world.

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My intention in doing this is twofold. First, I would like to introduce the readers of The Clyde Fitch Report to the ideas of young people just starting out in their exploration of the theater. What is on their mind? What do they think is missing? What do they believe has been lost and gained? Second, and perhaps more important to me, is to expose the students to what it is like to share one’s opinions with the broader profession. My experience throughout many years in the blogging world is that my ideas benefited from coming into contact with the thoughts and criticisms of others. Until one is able to clearly articulate one’s ideas, one cannot truly be said to be a thoughtful artist.

This is where you, the reader, play an important role. It is my hope that you will, if you are so moved, comment on their essays, sharing what you agree with, what you disagree with and where their ideas seem unclear or mistaken. I encourage you to be honest, keeping in mind that most are barely twenty years old.

So starting Tues., Sept. 15 and going for 11 weeks, you will be introduced to undergraduates from the University of North Carolina at Asheville‘s Drama Department who are in my course “Founding Visions.” I hope you will find them as interesting as I do.


ON PROPHECY

There is a connection between what I am about to say below and Todd London’s book which forms the basis for the series mentioned above. Near the end of his introduction, entitled “Tickets to a Revolution,” London confesses,

I began this project at a moment of searching in my professional life, when I felt my own lack of inspiration, and looked around the country in hopes of feeling a jolt from my contemporaries. I found the jolt I was looking for in the past, the forefathers and mothers of our current theater.

It is the gap between those two sentences that forms the basis for this essay — the gap that implies, intentionally or not, a failure to find a jolt of inspiration in today’s theater scene.

The contemporary theater — indeed, all of the arts — has lost its jolt, its vision, its sense of power and purpose. And I would argue, perhaps as importantly, it has lost what theologian Walter Brueggemann calls a prophetic imagination — the ability to “cut through the numbness, to penetrate the self-deception” of the present while vividly, dramnatically, poetically describing a better future.

Walter Brueggemann
Walter Brueggemann

This prophetic task, which Brueggemann associates with the prophet as artist, has three parts. First, it is,

To offer symbols that are adequate to confront the horror and massiveness of the experience that evokes numbness and requires denial. The prophet provides a way in which the cover-up and the stonewalling can be ended.

The second task, he says, is,

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[T]o bring to public expression those very fears and terrors that have been denied so long and suppressed so deeply that we do not know they are there.

Finally, he concludes, the task of the prophet is to,

[S]peak metaphorically but concretely about the real deathliness that hovers over us and gnaws within us, and to speak neither with rage nor with cheap grace, but with the candor born of anguish and passion. That deathliness among us is not the death of a long life well lived but the death…[that] is manifested in alienation…and questing for new satiations that can never satisfy [in which] we are driven to the ultimate consumerism of consuming each other.

That is where we find ourselves today in America: the numb consumerism of consuming each other. Our lives and relations, whether on the economic, political or moral plane, have become truly Hobbesian in their nastiness and brutishness, if not in their shortness. We have reached a time when, as Hobbes described it,

[E]very man is Enemy of every man…wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withall.

Perhaps the frequency with which the musical Cabaret has recently been revived is a clue that we unconsciously recognize that we are fast becoming a 21st-century Weimar Republic, with African-Americans and immigrants standing in for the Jews, and artists, like the amoral MC at the center of that show, alternating between the smirking titillation of “Two Ladies” and the pandering collaboration of “If You Could See Her through My Eyes.” (Today, we see those same themes echoed all too closely in Seth McFarlane’s Academy Award song “We Saw Your Boobs” and Avenue Q‘s “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist.”) Meanwhile, Donald Trump and his cohorts warm up for a rousing chorus of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” while companies like Amazon look more and more like work camps than enlightened 21st-century companies.

Waiting for Lefty
Waiting for Lefty

And where are the prophet-artists? Where are the visionaries sounding the alarm for our immortal soul, and doing so in a way that touches people emotionally? Who is our version of Clifford Odets, whose Waiting for Lefty prompted a wealthy Broadway audience to leap to its feet and shout “Strike! Strike!,” or our John Steinbeck, whose Grapes of Wrath humanized the struggles of the victims of the Great Depression’s Dust Bowl? Newspaper articles and opinion pages, which appeal to logic and the analytic mind, can do only so much. It takes an artist-prophet to make us truly feel the brutality of our society, feel the shame of it, and return us to our better angels.

Robert Brustein, in the first pages of his powerful book Theatre of Revolt, metaphorically described the modern artist as an “emaciated priest in disreputable garments” grotesquely cavorting in front of a “distorted mirror,” a mirror which he turned upon the audience “sitting stupidly on the rubble” before turning it “on the Theatre of Revolt covervoid.” If this image reflects artistic reality, and Brustein makes a strong case that it does, it has at the center of the metaphor a major problem for the artist: the mirror is distorted. Such distortion reflects a basic cowardice on the part of the artist, an unwillingness to look unblinkingly into the abyss and clearly describe what is seen there. In a funhouse society like our own, a distorted mirror serves only to further obscure the reality already obscured by our popular ideologies. It is the job of the prophet-artist to bring reality back into focus.

“I believe that the proper idiom for the prophet in cutting through the royal numbness and denial,” Brueggemann writes, “is the language of grief, the rhetoric that engages the community in mourning for a funeral they do not want to admit.” But grieving is only half the job of the prophet-artist, for the “alternative prophetic community is concerned both with criticizing and energizing. On the one hand,” he continues,

[I]t is to show that the dominant consciousness…will indeed end and that it has no final claim upon us. On the other hand, it is the task of the alternative prophetic community to present an alternative consciousness that can energize the community to fresh forms of faithfulness and vitality….to bring to public expression those very hopes and yearnings we have been denied so long and suppressed so deeply that we no longer know they are there.

That is a powerful mission statement for artists.

This requires artists who understand that their purpose is larger than mere entertainment, and who have done the thinking, the reflecting, and the observing to profoundly communicate the human condition as it stands in the 21st century.  We have allowed ourselves to become jesters in a corrupt and brutal court, and have learned to marinate our insights in irony and serve them lukewarm to a sated public. We have lost our dignity, and in the quest to become celebrities we have lost our true roles as seers in possession of a “precious, awesome moment of speech,” as Brueggemann says in his equally profound book, Finally Comes the Poet: Daring Speech for Proclamation. This moment of speech is,

not time for cleverness or novelty. It is not time for advice or scolding or urging, because the text is not any problem-solving answer or a flat, ideological agent that can bring resolve. This poetic speech is a rendering in a community that has come all too often to expect nothing but prose….I hear anew that possibility overwhelms necessity in my life.

“When that happens,” he concludes, “the world is set loose toward healing.”

It is not too late.

As Walt Whitman says in Leaves of Grass, in a passage from which Brueggemann draws his title:

Perhaps even now the time has arrived.

After the seas are all cross’d, (as they seem already cross’d,)

After the great captains and engineers have accomplish’d their work,

After the noble inventors, after the scientists, the chemist, the geologist, ethnologist,

Finally shall come the poet worthy of that name,

The true son of God shall come singing his songs.

The time has arrived — it is signalling to artists through the flames, to borrow the words of Antonin Artaud. We summon the poet worthy of the name prophet.

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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.

  • As someone who covers theatre, film, and opera in the San Francisco Bay area, this article sends up flaming red flags about cultural isolation, academic myopia, and the inability to see much contemporary theatre simply because of one’s economic situation and geographical location.

    I attend performances of many new works being produced by small companies such as Wily West Productions (“I Saw It”), Left Coast Theatre, and CentralWorks. Some plays are excellent, some not. But there is plenty of imagination and gripping theatre on display.

    From new musicals like “Triangle” and Amelie” to works seen during the annual New Works Festival produced by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley; from the Aurora Theatre Company’s Global Age Project to events like the San Francisco Olympians Festival, a lot of good writing is being heard in formal readings as well as fully-staged productions.

    Whether you look to companies that aim to produce new and relevant work (Magic Theatre, Crowded Fire Theatre, Shotgun Theatre, Berkeley Rep and San Francisco Playhouse) or emerging playwrights like Tarell Alvin McCraney. Lauren Gunderson, J.C. Lee, Marcus Gardley (as well as established voices like John Fisher, Stephen Adley Guirgis, Lin-Manuel Miranda), there is plenty of relevant material being produced.

    I was extremely fortunate to have grown up in New York at a time when I could buy cheap tickets or standing room for theatre, ballet, and opera performances. I got one hell of an education in the audience by seeing characters come to life on a regular basis.

    While it’s an interesting challenge to have your young students analyze the contemporary American theatre scene from the safety of a regional classroom, what they really need to understand is how acutely the economics of producing theatre has changed in the past 50 years and why it is so important for them to see lots and lots of theatre (not just productions in which their friends are performing) in order to understand the process of creating a genuine piece of theatrical art.

    George Heymont
    http://myculturallandscape.blogspot.com/2007/11/about-author.html
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/george-heymont

    • Scott Walters

      Thank you for you comment, George — I guess. I would argue pretty strongly with your opinion that only people who live in metropolises have the right to contemplate the state of the American theatre, and your narrow-minded attitude that the so-called “safety of a regional classroom” (there are so many things wrong with that statement) is a disqualifier. People in “the profession” are so touchy about criticism. I would point out that Todd London, who found inspiration in the past rather than the present, is the former Artistic Director of New Dramatists as well as the former editor of American Theatre magazine.
      However, you will be made immediately more comfortable by knowing that the students main task will be to make connections between the ideas of the past and the theater of the present, not to (horrors) criticize the contemporary theater.
      Nevertheless, as a theatre historian with a doctorate from City University of New York, I DO claim the right to criticize, and to criticize the theatre for EXACTLY the reason you bring up: the economics of theater in the past 50 years are dismal. I would never argue that there is no good work being done — of course there is, and most is being done in the smaller venues, which is awesome. That said, as I have written MANY times in the past, it is time for people who work in theater to examine alternative business models that will allow a greater degree of creative independence. Instead, most sit around the bar after the show complaining that the government needs to provide more funding for the arts. Instead of taking control of the situation, they look to someone else to save them. From the safety of my regional classroom, I teach my students self-reliance and strategies for leading lives of creative independence, which is a helluva lot more than people in the so-called Profession do. The fact is that 57% of Actors Equity members didn’t make a dime in theatre last year, and almost 90% would have made more flipping burgers. That’s not a profession, it is a hobby that occasionally provides a tip. Artists and critics would do better trying to figure out a better way than patting themselves on the back for having uncovered the occasional gem.

  • poorplayer

    Hi Scott,

    I don’t find fault with your argument. What worries me more these days, however, is the question of who is in the audience, or even who is the audience. In short, is the 21st-century theatre audience worth speaking to; do they have the context, understanding, or sensitivity to hear a prophet’s voice? The continued fracturing of society leads me to think that no one prophet, no matter the message, can speak to the concerns of a continuously splintering art form, or a society numbed by consumerism and divided by its insistent demands for more and more heterogeneity and the unintended consequences those demands bring. The cacophony of prophetic voices preaching to their own self-identified choirs leads me to feel that no one voice can prevail. And as audiences dwindle, with the vast majority of theatre audiences composed of people seeking either self-affirmation or entertainment, and not enlightenment, how long before the prophet is merely a voice in the desert, crying into the wind?

    I do understand that this is a rather pessimistic view of the situation, so I offer this quote from Cormac McCarthy (“The Sunset Limited”) in defense:

    “I don’t regard my state of mind as some pessimistic view of the world. I regard it as the world itself. Evolution cannot avoid bringing intelligent life ultimately to an awareness of one thing above all else and that one thing is futility.”

    Perhaps that is more prophecy than either of us would like to hear. Go Panthers! -twl

    • Hi Tom! Well, I would remind you that the character in “Sunset Limited” who said that line has just attempted suicide and is planning to do so again the next day, so while it might not be pessimistic, it probably worse! *L*
      The reality is that the world doesn’t need prophets when things are going well. The Old Testament prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah were in opposition to the dominance of the materialist King David and King Soloman, warning the Israelites that they had lost their way. All of which is to say that disgust with the society is a prerequisite for the prophetic imagination.
      Can the message be heard? Most won’t, some will — just like past prophets. But without the resistance of a prophet, the status quo remains forever. I’m not ready to allow that.
      Good to hear from you!

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