Essentially, like always, there are two beliefs, two visions of where and who we are.
There is the belief that, frankly, it’s over.
The age of achievement and adventure and progress and magic and creation and power is over and done and we’re left to dust things off and try not to knock them over. We are at best custodians in the Museum of Culture, an empty and rarely visited reliquary. The clearest contemporary example of this belief in New York theater is the Actors Studio, where hundreds of talented, smart, ambitious young performers stream every year and are taught a more extreme and explicit practice of ancestor worship than was ever dreamed possible in the ancient East.
“These are the immortals,” the students are taught, “and how sad for you that you did not walk among them.”
This same dangerous and dispiriting belief acts to discourage many contemporary playwrights’ attempts to shake things up a little bit and escape from the arena of quasi-realism or naturalism and write something that isn’t an elaborate act of eavesdropping on the troubles and triumphs of decent, if temporarily confused, attractive, upper-class white people.
This belief is part and parcel of the larger defeatist and juvenile nonsense one hears about the End of History. We are living at the End of History, we are told. This is exactly the same as a wizened old man proclaiming the End of Sex.
Yes, the reply runs, for you.
The rest of us, however, still plan on getting laid.
Yes, a phase is over. But remember, text-based realistic narrative is a relatively recent and extremely provincial definition of theater. The relative exhaustion of this genre and the audience’s evident desire for something else is an enormous opportunity, not a reason for despair.
Uptown you’ll also hear-annually, it seems-that the great individual impresarios and showmen of the past are gone and decisions to mount this show or that one are made by a corporate committee of accountants and dead-eyed marketing teams. You’ll hear people say, you might have even heard me say it on occasion, that Broadway has as much to do with American theater as the Circle Line Cruise, it’s just a highly profitable and successful arm of the New York tourist industry and no one up there will take a stand for Art.
We need to remember that the bemoaning and funeral orations of the great producers of the past are not a contemporary phenomenon. It’s an immemorial, cyclical exercise of our profession as well as our country. Most of my generation doesn’t remember Sam Shubert, Max Webber, Lew Fields or any of the immortals from eighty and more years ago. When the rowdies and riverboat gamblers and roughriders of the past are gone, it’s an American tradition to mourn those carefree, devil-may-care iconoclasts and pronounce the current age as one of humdrum homogeneity and creeping corporatization.
But those hurried historians among us need only to read their history books again to see that the next chapter always brings a new pack of irregulars lining up on the horizon, slouching and ambling into town.
As far as new media, the talkies were supposed to kill theater. Television was supposed to kill theater. Video games, DVDs, chat rooms, whatever new Frankenstein is coming towards us, it’s supposed to kill theater, too. The truth is, theater is just like a plague and only the plague can kill the plague. Theater only kills itself. Yes, our numbers have dwindled since the beginning of last century, as have the number of horse-drawn carriages, but we’re still around. And I think the relative decline and disrepute of our profession has a lot more to do with the lack of imagination and energy on our part than the glamour and ubiquity of our supposed competition.
So that’s the one belief and some days it feels like the majority opinion.
And then there is the belief that is so outlandish and childish that it takes a great act of will to even begin to stutter it out in public, the belief that is actually, of course, the truth, a truth so evident and manifest that it takes an even greater act of will to deny.
This is the belief that we are the geniuses; that life is creating itself right now, this moment; that we are swimming in an ocean of creation.
For those museum guards and curators among you, those whose greatest ambition is to imitate and be placed among the Immortals of time past, please do the rest of us a favor and shut the fuck up and go home.
It is hard enough to maintain one’s faith and vision in the power of theater while living in this country, in this time, but when one’s own colleagues and ostensible peers have already secretly given up the fight and have nothing to offer but empty armories and paper support, it is all one can do to gather the strength to bring pen to paper and scribble out a suicide note.
So please, please, ye of little faith:
Go and get jobs in marketing. Go and get jobs in sales. You are bright, you are imaginative, you are personable. Get the hell out of the way and go find your fortune. You don’t really like the theater anyway, honestly, you stumbled or drifted into it, recognized that you were smarter and more ambitious than most and a career began to appear around you without much effort or thought on your part. Imagine what you can do in a field you actually care about. Imagine how much happier you will be. Go to new media, the internet, real estate, something for god’s sake, just please get the hell off of the stage and out of our theatres.
Now for those of you that have read the following and despite all your best efforts, despite all the clear-eyed calculation you can bring to the question, there is still a flicker, still an undeniable tug towards the idea of a life spent in the theatre, a life mind you, not another few years, not until something else comes up, but a life, if there is still the dimmest sense of a calling towards the difficult, dirty, doomed and damned theatre, then I’m simultaneously sorry and overjoyed to tell you that you’re stuck.
You are infected with Artaud’s plague. You must find a way to honor your whorish bride. You must track your own individual journey across the tightrope swaying ahead.
It’s up to you. The future is up to you.
We change the world. Every day, with every gesture, utterance, breath and thought. There is no one else to change it. We change it into a place of acceptance and resignation and apathy and disquiet and resentment and mutual hostility or we change it into a place of courage, strength, risk and love.
With every action. With every thought. With every word.
And for us in the theater, with every play, every rehearsal, every reading, every entrance, every performance every night.
So, what are you changing the world into?