Malloy’s Manifesto or Silent Dave Speaks His Mind

After Culturebot’s Long Table discussion at Under The Radar, “The Theater of Tomorrow, Today“, Dave Malloy followed up with an email to us that turned into a manifesto that we thought was great. We asked him if we could share it with you all and he said yes.

Dave Malloy Pondering

Hi.

Last Saturday, I sat on a Culturebot panel at Under the Radar, entitled “The Theatre of Tomorrow, Today,” which was intended to explore the impact of technology on theatre and what constitutes “theatre” in a rapidly changing Information Age. I’ve never sat on a panel before (and even this was not a true panel, but a “long table discussion”), but I figured it would be fun, and maybe I would talk a bit about electronica, or how the Internet is solitary and sad, or how cool immersive and/or durational theatre is.

Instead, I managed, quite unexpectedly, to spend the entire 90 minutes literally not saying one single word.

There’s a part of me that would love to just leave this experience behind, or to spin myself as a culture-jamming, Dylanesque non-conformist who shuns meaningful dialogue and revels in absurdist performance art stunts. I have imagined aggressively pursuing a career as a silent panelist, building my reputation as a black-shirted enigma who sits on panel after panel in quizzical yet smiling silence.

However, another part of me just feels a bit bad about the whole thing, and would love to explain what was going on for me, especially to Andy and Culturebot, whom I admire quite a bit.

So:

What I was thinking during my silent 90 minutes was that I was deeply unaligned with most of the discourse that actually unfolded. On several occasions I came close to voicing my dissent, but I missed my first few opportunities, and then as I found the list of disagreements in my head growing to an unwieldy size, my innate sad-clown social awkwardness found the increasingly difficult task of spewing out what was becoming a more and more potentially disrespectful manifesto to be paralyzingly impossible.

Essentially, my own belief is that the many “crises of American theatre” are self-imposed and imaginary, stemming mostly from a simple yet entitled desire to make more money. Among the many points made at the panel: that the word “theatre” and the frame it provides is ineffective and potentially harmful in describing what some experimental theatre artists do; that the many expectations of the institutions, buildings and markets of the theatre hurt or constrict the work; that there is not enough funding and that ticket sales are non-sustainable; that Broadway is artistically bereft; that theatrical art is not valued in the same way as other art forms; that one method of increasing our value would be to frame ourselves as researchers rather than artists; etc.

I started doing (i.e. composing music for, performing in, designing sound for and writing or co-creating) theatre in San Francisco in the summer of 2000. I didn’t study it, or imagine that I would make a career of it. At the time I had just dropped out of grad school (in Music Composition) and was working in a record store, playing electro-jazz in shitty clubs in the Mission. I did a theatre show on a whim, and soon found other shows offered to me as a result of the people I met. For about 8 years I did theatre in San Francisco, making mostly no money at all; for some shows I got maybe $50. I think $300 was an all-time high, which crazily was all from ticket sales, due to director Maya Gurantz’s awesome share-based model of paying theatre fees. I continued to work day jobs, at a preschool, a home for severely emotionally disturbed youth, a test prep company, and occasional stints on cruise ships. I didn’t apply for a single grant during this period, because it honestly just didn’t occur to me. I was so happy doing what I was doing, and I found living on the brink of poverty quite thrilling and enlightening, in a Jack Kerouac sort of way. Furthermore, I was in my 20s, living in San Francisco: eating excellent produce, listening to awesome drum’n’bass music, reading a lot of Buddhism and Taoism. There was a lot of optimism and self-awareness in the air.

I am fully aware that I was also (and will ever continue to be) living life through the prism of straight white male privilege and mild class privilege (though again, there were entire months when I always got off BART using the turnstile-less North Berkeley elevator, because I couldn’t afford to actually pay). I don’t really know of a successful rhetorical way to get around this straight white maleness, other than to suggest that I do what I can to avoid working exclusively with other straight white men. But I don’t think that my philosophy is dependent on my status, and I know a hell of a lot of people who share my status and still bitch all the time. So if it helps us get past this hurdle, then we can say that the rest of this essay is just for them.

Back in those San Francisco salad days, and indeed still today, I didn’t do theatre to make money. I didn’t really do it to change the world, or even to communicate some deep human truth. Ultimately I did it because I liked it; because it made me happy. I can make music at the piano alone or under headphones in my room too, and that can often bring a tickle and a smile, but for me the interaction with both other creators and the audience is divinely fulfilling. It makes me happy. The act of writing a new song is often as simple as asking myself “what would make me so happy to hear at this moment?” And it makes me happy to see other people happy as result, to hear people singing along or quoting scenes or giving a hug afterward. As someone with sad-clown levels of social awkwardness, it is the medium through which I can most effectively communicate in joyful and spiritually rich ways with other people. Most of my hardest laughters have been in rehearsals and my profoundest revelations and catharses have been in performance. Theatre is how I found my God.

So for me, the very thought that I “should be paid” for this work or that it has “monetary value” is shocking, laughable and even blasphemous.

Now don’t get me wrong; I love earning money from theatre. It’s something that’s only started happening in meaningful ways in the last 4 years or so, but I continue to work a day job (teaching the GMAT to business school applicants), and there are still lean times. But fundamentally, I don’t actually think I deserve this money. I mean, out of simple fairness, I think if tickets are being sold I should get a cut; but I think of theatre and music as valuable in spiritual and intellectual ways, not in monetary ways. Not the way food or clothing is. Or even computers and cars, or doctors and teachers and policemen (actually there are a quite a few Communist bones in my body that don’t put monetary value on any of those things either, but that is another essay, one I’m too ill-read to write). For me art is ultimately a profoundly selfish act, though paradoxically the reason I pursue this act is that it brings me close to other people, and other people closer to each other. But it is selfish, it is not needed, and probably you’d be better off just staring at the ocean for 2 hours than seeing any of the plays I’ve ever made.

So the fact that I have managed to get paid for theatre in recent years is both delightful and amusing to me. As the fees have gotten bigger, so have the resources, and thus I’ve been able to make progressively more and more involved and thoroughly executed pieces. But there has never been in me this feeling that I find so prevalent among my peers in NYC today, that I need more money/grants/commissions/institutions producing me to be able to execute my art. It just seems like a fundamentally backwards way of looking at the situation. I’ve always created pieces based on the resources that were available to me at the time, and found all of these experiences to be quite fulfilling. Some were better than others, and I’ve grown as an artist and I think gotten better at what I do. But I never felt this entitlement that I needed/deserved money or opportunities to properly create. Interestingly it’s mostly only since I moved to NYC that I’ve heard these conversations; in San Francisco most everyone seemed quite happy chugging away, but again, the produce there is really quite phenomenal.

A theme at the panel was that the institutions we work within are antiquated and stilted, following old models and not funding/producing daring work. But my experience is that this is clearly not true; as someone else brought up at the panel, there has been so much work created and/or presented in NYC in the past few years that defies conventions and standard producerial models, takes risks (both at being experimental and at being not experimental), and plays with the frame through extended forms, non-theatrical spaces, different audience/performer relationships, and un-“play”-like content (I’m thinking here of Gatz, Lily’s Revenge, Sleep No More, Roman Tragedies and other van Hove pieces, Life and Times and Nature Theatre’s work, the Woodshed Collective, Untitled Feminist Show and We’re Gonna Die, 13P in general,Radiohole at the Kitchen, Foreman at the Public, the Wooster Group of course, Habit, Then She Fell, Zee, Einstein on the Beach’s remount, Richard Maxwell, Jay Scheib, Temporary Distortion, Witness Relocation, Two-Headed Calf, 600 Highwaymen, ETG’s fabulous combustion, Half Straddle, Toshiki Okada, Rotozaza, Gob Squad, the founding of JACK, the TEAM taking over the world, Catch and Little Theater, a lot of the programming at the Armory, works produced by the Bushwick Starr, Soho Rep, Chocolate Factory, HERE, PS122, etc. Plus my own experiences at the ever-awesome Ars Nova, Incubator, NYTW, ART, and Collapsible Hole, and the hundred things I didn’t see or am just forgetting). So it’s totally out there, whatever it is that the community laments is not there. It’s right there! And many of these pieces were performed in spaces that are often described as antiquated institutions. So in the end, to me, the complaints that are so prevalent in this community seem based more in a selfish, sour grapes, “but why don’t I get that” mentality, than in an actual crisis of the system itself. Yes there are olden, sad theaters that produce play after boring play by straight white men, and there are olden sad critics who write about interesting work in ill-informed ways, but there are and more and more alternatives every season, and those genre-pushing theaters and pieces are often the ones that get the most attention. It seems to me that the olden and sad will die with their audiences, like Republicans, but we shall see.

And for me the issues people have with the state of theatre criticism is just such a non-starter; the idea that someone writing about my work is in any way relevant to my ability to find joy in creating theatre is just absurd. Again, like getting payment, it is nice when someone writes good and insightful things. Writing on theater can be rich, beautiful and artistic in it’s own right, as pieces on Culturebot and HowlRound exemplify time and time again. And it is hilarious when other people write idiotic things, and sure it’s annoying that I’m doomed to always just get theatre reviewers and never have cool music critics write about my shows. But again, the one-to-one relationship with the audience and creators, the moments of joy that I do this for, are so utterly unaffected by critics that I just can’t imagine spending real mental anguish on whether my work is considered, for example, “music theatre” or “musical theatre” by some Tumblr, or whether Brantley’s Radiohole review was “good” or “situated the piece in the right context.” I mean ultimately I see every piece I see in the context of my own life, not of a bunch of shows made by Richard Foreman when I was 6. But I digress.

Back to the buildings: some institutions are better than others at taking risks on experimental work; some make great work and some do not. But for me it’s a simple matter of aligning myself with those theaters that I respect and avoiding those I don’t; to lament that these other theaters aren’t falling into my worldview is, to me, akin to complaining about the rain and snow. There is a world as it is, and the route to joy and enlightenment is through understanding it and finding the places that align with your beliefs, while being at peace with the places that don’t. I recognize that this philosophy taken to its extreme undermines many of the causes of social justice, and that’s a problem I continue to work through; I do think there is great value and joy to be had in nudging systems, moving them towards a more enlightened, all-inclusive place, and that theatre can actually do that, which is pretty fucking cool. But in something as petty as the institution of American theatre itself (where lives and human rights are not actually at stake), I will say that for me personally, I find the Taoist route of assimilating to the world as it is and playing in the slipstreams to be a far more fulfilling path than bitching about the current. I mean yes there is more money in Europe than America for theatre; but American theatre artists can also just go to Europe. It happens all the time. To be upset that some of the funding is not in a geographically convenient place just seems absurd to me; the money can’t be everywhere at once. I imagine the amount of money for the arts to be had in NYC is significantly more than that in Wichita or Tahiti; that is the world as it is, and to spend time complaining about it rather than just going where the money is seems like a waste of breath to me.

And no, not everyone gets to have that money. I mean we can’t all get to make giant Richard Serra metal things. And that’s fine; a lucky few get to that level of financial and artistic support, and can create giant things that make the rest of us sad sacks shake to the core. But not every one is entitled to those resources. There is another deeper truth at play in all of this, I think—dirty words that no one dares talk about in mixed company: Talent and Appeal. Talent is the true dirty word in our field, in an art so based in the communal. But there is an objective truth to it. Vertigo is clearly better than Troll 2 (YouTube it if you’re uninitiated), and to argue otherwise is just to reduce language and aesthetics to absurdity. And I adore Troll 2, but if I heard Claudio Fragasso bitching about the lack of funding in the film industry I would be inclined turn my head silently away. I’m not at all saying that any of my peers or the other people on this particular panel are untalented (in fact I quite like all of the work I’ve seen of those participants, and I’m shaken by things I see almost weekly); but it does seem to me that when the problems of funding in our field are talked about, they are discussed in vague and sanctimonious ways that don’t acknowledge any kind of meritocracy in the system. A flawed meritocracy, run by a disproportionate number of straight white men, but nevertheless a system in which talent is to some extent a deciding factor.

Even more salient to me and my peers though, I think is the concept of Appeal; there is a simple truth that experimental theatre, no matter how good it is, is just not that appealing to a large portion of the population. At the panel someone mentioned that the hundreds of thousands of people that attended a Banksy exhibition in LA would have loved the experimental theatre programming down the street, if only they had known about it. I don’t think that that is true. A lot of experimental theatre is hard; it requires critical thinking skills, attention spans and knowledge of esoteric cultural and intellectual data that the average person just doesn’t have. The belief that these new, bigger audiences are “out there” if we only we could reach them seems to be at odds with everything I know about the tastes of popular culture. And again I think that is just fine. Of course there are people out there that haven’t found their way to this work yet, and we should continue to court them. But there is no model by which a Wooster Group show is ever going to be more broadly appealing than Book of Mormon.

It’s hard to talk about this without feeling massively elitist and arrogant, but there is a lot of objective data that tells us what kinds of things attract large audiences and what do not. And I loved Book of Mormon, and don’t look down on it for a second, and love the Wooster Group too, in different ways. Each opens my mind to a different realm, neither more valuable to me than the other. If you want audiences and applause and ticket sales, they can be gotten, but the work has to be broadly appealing; Christian Marclay’s The Clock is a 24-hour experimental film, a format which doesn’t have any business being successful, but it’s massively appealing due to its content and sheer audacity. (And it’s being screened in giant old institutions).

I’m fortunate that some of my own artistic tendencies (i.e. the musical form) align with broad market appeal; but that’s a happy coincidence. I’ve never found myself adapting or altering my work to make it more appealing or fit more easily into accepted forms. Again I just do what I like to do, whatever brings me the most happiness at the time. Some of it is commercial and some of it is experimental and strange, and I love riding the line between the two.

The craziest thing to me is that there is money in theatre, tons of it; if you want to make money just do a Broadway show. But that’s a hard and specific path, one that requires a certain amount of talent, and if it goes against your artistic tendencies it may not be worth it. As I listened to my peers talk about the problem of funding, the simple after-school special truth that money does not bring happiness (or, in this case, fulfilling art) was ringing through my head. Now I know that my peers are not talking about wanting money to spend on bottle-service nightclubs, but rather on things like health care and dental work. But still, as someone who was quite happy making art for free and getting fillings at dental schools for 8 years, the tenor of the room was discomfiting.

There is a difference between what is nice and what is deserved. I don’t think that art deserves money. Again, I take it when it is offered to me, I’ll ask for a cut if it is being made by others, and if I’m working for someone else I’ll insist on it. But to make my own work is a private necessity and spiritual gift, and not something I feel entitled to payment for. Pretty much all the music I’ve ever made is available on my website for free, I’m a fierce believer in giving out as many comps as I can, and I email people sheet music whenever they ask for it. I’m realist enough to still look for the bigger paychecks, but again that’s just because it’s nice to not have to worry about money things, so if I can make a living while doing what I’d be doing anyway, well that’s great. And if I want a more dependable lifestyle, I can move somewhere where the rent is ¼th of what it is here and work my day job there. Living in NYC as a theatre artist is my choice, and I make that choice fully understanding and accepting the consequences of it.

At the very end of the panel one of the other panelists turned to me after my absurd silent performance and jokingly said “well what do you think Dave!?” I rather too quickly said “I don’t think there are any problems!” and then mumbled something about hating these kind of conversations. Which in retrospect probably means that I shouldn’t have agreed to be at the table in the first place, and I apologize to Andy, the whole Culturebot team, and my fellow panelists, who I must say did make a lot of great and generous points as well (many of which are paraphrased above), and whose work I admire. But in the end these circular conversations do drive me crazy, because I just don’t really think there are so many big problems with our little world. I do encounter small problems, all the time, connected to individual projects, and they almost always get solved; and that’s part of the appeal of it all, solving these puzzles…in one of my companies, every show we would joke that we needed to try to make it 3% better. Just to give us all 3% more happiness. I still believe in that, in these tiny nudges, making things a little better, the plays, the institutions, the discourses, 3% at a time. But the overwhelmingly negative view of the theatre world as it is as profoundly problematic is, to me, profoundly problematic.

I didn’t really intend to write a manifesto, but well, here we are. Again, you probably would have been happier spending this time staring at the ocean. But live and learn—and live, and learn, and live.


Dave Malloy is a composer/writer/performer/sound designer/musical director/pianist/theater slash artist. He is the winner of an OBIE Award, Glickman Award, Jonathan Larson Grant, and New Music USA Grant, a recipient of the 2009 NEA/TCG Career Development Program for Theatre Directors and Designers, the 2011 Composer-in-Residence at Ars Nova, and the composer for the Brooklyn based ensemble Banana Bag & Bodice. He has written the music for seven full-length musicals, most recently Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, an electro-pop opera based on Tolstoy’s War and Peace, for which he also wrote the libretto and performed as Pierre. Great Comet was commissioned by Ars Nova and premiered there in October 2012 to rave reviews and a sold-out run. He is also one of the co-creator/performers of Three Pianos, a drunken romp through Schubert’s “Winterreise” that premiered at the Ontological-Hysteric Theater in 2010 and subsequently had sold out runs at New York Theater Workshop and American Repertory Theater.

16 Comments

on “Malloy’s Manifesto or Silent Dave Speaks His Mind
16 Comments on “Malloy’s Manifesto or Silent Dave Speaks His Mind
  1. So glad you wrote all this out, Dave. And even glad you didn’t try to get it out during the panel – one of us chattering nabobs would surely have cut you off before you’d finished. ;)

    I’m sure you’re quite right, that accommodating oneself to what IS in a spirit of non-attachment is the key to a happy life (as an artist and otherwise.) But even so, I find myself grateful for the dissatisfied agitators of the world. Despite so much evidence to the contrary, they still insist we can all do everything better, and they’re proven right just often enough that they continue to try.

  2. Framed in terms of artists, I agree the constant cries about lack of funding sound self serving. But framed in terms of the audiences, less money for artists correlates directly with less art for audiences. If art is important and good for audiences, then it should be the goal of artists to expand the reach of their art. This isn’t about bottle service or dental school appointments, this is about the simple fact that more money in the arts means more art, and full time artists, all else being equal, make better art than part time artists do.

  3. I agree with many parts of this. However…

    As an artist, I am not interested in witnessing a 3% nudge.

    I want to witness the fallout created by attempting a 300% seismic shift. And inasmuch as such a shift is impossible: the epic failure resulting from running full speed headlong into our walls.

    (A more thoughtful response to Dave’s essay to come.)

  4. This is a scalding and honest truth– that much of the constant hand-wringing and lamentation about the permanent invalid that is the theatre is more a wailing of the entitled than it is a true appreciation of what it takes to have purchase on the public’s attention. Or if you have the stones, to ignore that aim and, as the author states, make art unto yourself for your own delight. I will only quibble with one minor point, though the author does make note of his straight, white-male privilege: It is a hard and ultimately demoralizing truth that part of one’s appeal, in the business of theatre, in the productions that are funded, and even in doing one’s own work for one’s one delight, can and often are based on race. The degree to which one is not even allowed to audition for parts for not being the right ‘type’ is appalling. Still, the world owes no one a living. You have to make your own way and see if it results in some dalliance with or even a firmer grip of human truth.

  5. I do really appreciate the total honesty, combined with a clear and complex thought process, and a writing style that does justice to the nuance. And I like Dave’s work a lot. Please indulge my sprawl here for a moment.

    I am also tired of the kind of complaints that I think Dave is referring to, the ones that stem from an attitude that seems to say “simply because I made it I should be paid,” whether or not anyone else wants to see it or present it. But I also think what he responds to is the context: I have sat through so many gripe sessions that lead to absolutely nothing constructive because we are all complaining to people who agree with each other, that I now generally try to exempt myself from those conversations. And like Dave, I don’t care much about whether the NY Times is covering the right work in the right way. I just don’t. I probably should more.

    But I also agree with Annie that complaint in general is vital and necessary. I sometimes think of my projects as three-dimensional gripes with a touch of beauty (hopefully). Or three-dimensional questions designed to provoke.

    I think artists should be complaining a lot more about the lack of a social safety net for everyone in America – the lack of a dignified old age for those who aren’t rich, the lack of health care, the lack of great and accessible education for everyone. Because if I imagine myself living in an America where I don’t have to worry about those things so much, i imagine myself being an artist who takes bigger risks and makes better work. And I imagine myself finding solidarity with other working people, rather than feeling exceptional from them. So complaint, in and of itself, isn’t a problem for me. It’s complaining as if our own concerns and necessities were somehow separate from those of other people who need to make a living.

    Whether I deserve it or not (and how do you measure that, anyway), I need to get paid in order to feed my family in order to keep making art. At some point I would actually stop making work if all the money dried up, because I don’t want to saddle my son with the debt of my selfishness. I’d rather get a job trying to teach people shit or alleviate world poverty.

    So, Dave, even if you don’t feel you deserve to get paid, many of the colleagues you gave shout-outs to in your post, couldn’t do their work if they didn’t get paid. So if you’d do us a favor and pretend to feel like you deserve it, you’d be a continued asset to the field.

    I want to add too that, in my experience, artists are unique among those whose work feeds a deep personal love and mission, in feeling they don’t deserve pay. My sister in law is a priest, who also says she finds a ridiculous and privileged fulfillment from her work. I’ve known doctors, lawyers, teachers and monks who’ve done their work in large part because it is so fulfilling. They feel selfish and like the luckiest folks in the world. They still want to get paid. The two are not mutually exclusive.

    There is a lot to unpack here. Our economic impact as a sector is well-documented to provide value to the places we live in, whether or not that work is popular. Our impact on the value of an education is massive, and so is the impact perhaps on things like literacy. I know seeing great art saved me from a suicidal future. And everyone knows a healthy avant garde feeds a healthy commercial sector.

    But our economic impact has so often made us instruments of gentrification. We work for cheap or for donated space until the neighborhood is cool enough to sell higher, and we move on. And that happens why? Because we do it for the love. And we feel pure and lucky and eat our vegetables. And poor people get fucked out of a place to live. Is that our fault? Not exactly, but it stems, at least in some small part, from this mindset of exceptionalism I find both so pervasive and so pernicious.

    But I guess I have grown up with a sense of entitlement. I have always wanted to get paid for my work as an experimental theater artist. I just think it makes sense. It’s work, I enter into contract with presenters, producers, collaborators, and audience, I live in a place where money makes a difference, where the work artists do is poorly compensated and yet positively impactful, and so I should get paid. Even though I feel stupidly lucky and profoundly grateful every day I get to live this life.

  6. WOW. GOT TO THE END OF TYPING. LOOKED BACK TO THE TOP. FOUND A VERY LONG RANT.

    I agree with Dave on some of this. Then again, some of this makes me crazy.

    It was supposed to be a discussion centered on, “What constitutes theater?” AND “What will theater look like in ten, twenty, 100 years?” I was surprised too by how much we discussed the economics of it. After all, other days were dedicated to “Economy in a Post-Crash World” and “The Politics of Cultural Productions.” (And I was happy not to be asked to participate on those days.) I was expecting something a bit more… about form.

    However, one of the strengths of the “long table” format is that it allows a conversation to go where it will go. Unfortunately (as we all know) one of the places it commonly goes is: money. That being said, if I only read Dave’s essay I might imagine a very different conversation from what (I think) took place on Saturday.

    WAS IT MOSTLY ABOUT MONEY?

    I think our topics were wider in range—actually, much wider. And I find myself wondering if this essay stems more from an ongoing frustration that has been building in Dave? Quite frankly, it seems to relate more with debates I read last year between some people on Facebook.

    I agree with what Aaron wrote. He said it better than I could. And for that reason, I don’t think I got into the economic discussion on Saturday. But listening to what was said, I never heard people saying they needed more “money/grants/commissions/institutions producing” them to be able to execute their art. Nor do I think anyone expressed we fundamentally deserved greater support.

    SO JUST ONE MORE PARAGRAPH (OR SO) ON THE MONEY THING

    Dave’s essay raises questions concerning the value placed on art in our society… and if we, as Americans (vs. Europe), see it as something worth investment. Perhaps I’m misreading him, but Dave seems to suggest: artists should only make money if art turns a profit? While Dave refers to his “Communist bones,” it seems as if his whole argument concerning what types of theater deserve to make money in this country is entirely based on supply and demand, as it is found in the free market economy of the entertainment industry (epitomized by Broadway).

    I want to think I’m misreading him, but I just came across his sentence: “I don’t think that art deserves money.” Well. Fuck.

    I find this super problematic, but admit to lacking the tools to get into it too deeply. It has nothing to do with an adolescent belief that anyone who wishes to enter the arts should be guaranteed to make a living off of it. It has to do with supporting non-populist forms of culture… and do we see those forms as a worthwhile investment for our society. I think we should.

    INSTITUTIONS

    I’m not sure who said it (I don’t think it was me), but I DO agree that our institutions do not produce enough daring work. However, I’m not sure I blame the institutions more than I blame the artists (myself included) for not pushing things further. Or perhaps it is a shared blame. In a recent interview on OK Radio, Richard Foreman (who was making really interesting work when Dave was six) lamented that the text for his upcoming show at The Public is “regressive” (as he claims was his last show at The Public) and that he’s “not daring to do” what he knows “can’t be done.” Apparently Richard’s got another project up his sleeve. He says… “That I would really like to do, but I don’t know how I’ll get it on.” That someone at Richard Foreman’s level feels that only his safer (more regressive) ideas can find support today is really super fucking problematic for me, in a profoundly unironic way. I do think challenging the system is healthy for it.

    STILTED SOUR GRAPES?

    I don’t think that anyone making this kind of complaint about our institutions on Saturday was expressing sour grapes. How could that even be possible? The few of us there are among those getting funded, commissioned, and presented regularly by these institutions. I am flattered to have Temporary Distortion listed above as an example of a company that defies conventions and standard models… but I must admit that I still feel a pressure to conform to antiquated and conservative models—a pressure that is sometimes hard to resist. And I do not think I am alone. (In fact, as an example, a big European producer told me later the same day as the panel: he would love to see Temporary Distortion make our next work with “a really good story.” Adapting Shakespeare and Hitchcock were mentioned—I shit you not. Apparently, I could make some big money if I agreed to slap the Temporary Distortion aesthetic onto the equivalent of a Broadway show idea.) Not to recognize the lure of the conventional (for those of us actually interested in something else) can be a dangerous denial. I would like to see us keep each other honest.

    FRAMES/CONTEXT/AUDIENCE

    I think we should interrogate and question the frames and context that defines our work!

    Because… guess what? This stuff actually DEFINES our work.

    What if “cool music critics” DID write about Dave’s work? Would it change who is sitting in his audience next time? Would it not allow Dave the opportunity to experience his one-to-one moment of joy with a new demographic? Is that not to be desired?

    I think Andy was totally right about his Banksy statement. Obviously, not EVERYONE at the Banksy exhibit would love an experimental theater show. But for that matter, I would be willing to bet that many people at the Banksy exhibition did not love the Banksy exhibition! To dismiss this audience by saying that experimental theater is “hard” is insulting their intelligence.

    I do not agree with Dave’s assessment that to enjoy experimental work requires a set of critical thinking skills outside those of the general public. Or that it requires attention spans and knowledge the “average person just doesn’t have.”

    These arguments are totally wrongheaded. We’ve all seen someone somehow end up at an experimental theater piece (that they didn’t know the first thing about), only to immediately appreciate it and have their entire perspective on performance changed because of it. In fact, didn’t every single one of you reading this post have that happen to YOU at some point? How many of us come from lineages of experimental theater makers? We are not masons or blacksmiths. Few of us were born into this field. There is always a first encounter.

    That being said, I don’t think any of us are seriously suggesting we are ever going to experience LARGE mainstream audiences. But questions about who our audiences are (and why) is a valuable conversation.

    CRITICISM

    This really bothers me.

    I’m not sure why Dave thinks that the state of theater criticism should be evaluated in terms of its relationship to his ability to “find joy in creating.” Theory and criticism in our field is not about making an artist feel “nice.”

    However, it is (supposed to be) about forming an intelligent discourse for the audience coming to see the work. This is where the hardness should be simplified. This is where the general public should be able to gather the “esoteric cultural and intellectual data” that Dave thinks is necessary to watch this work. After all, not much of it is really that esoteric (nor is a good deal of it very intellectual).

    I don’t agree that it is hilarious when reviewers write idiotic things. I could give fuck-all about reviews of my work, except for how they frame the conversation I’m trying to have with an audience. I’m not looking for approval. I’m seeking discourse. So… Yes. I do think that The New York Times should have a chief theater critic that knows how to talk intelligently about a Radiohole show.

    Are we not supposed to be invested in the discourse that surrounds our work?
    Is this what Dave is suggesting? Someone tell me I’m reading him all wrong.

    P.S.

    Dave, I expect comps to your future shows. ;-)

  7. Dave,

    Kudos. I agree with most of what you wrote, and have often felt the same way during circular panel discussions that seem to be essentially complaining to the choir.

    That said, it’s fair to argue that we are far from a true meritocracy when it comes to determining which artists and companies receive grant money and are allowed use of space at leading institutions. Often there is a chicken-and-the-egg effect happening, as the artists that stand out had access to money, space and connections to start with that many others do not have. That doesn’t take away from the quality of their work, but those artists may have not been able to develop to the extent they did if they didn’t have a leg up at the beginning. Along the same lines, the critical establishment also seems to hold some pretty determined biases .

  8. hey all
    this is good!

    first yes i think sam is right on, i am totally looking at this from the pov of the artist only, not the audience. as an audience member i’m happy to pay, whether it’s tickets or kickstarters or subway hats (though i have held on to my student ID). it’s just that for me as an artist making my own personal work i feel weird expecting that payment…for me it’s like asking my girlfriend to pay me for kisses. i mean kisses are valuable, but value and money aren’t necessarily the same thing. and i really, really like kissing her. when i see other people in the world working their asses off at terrible jobs, it just honestly fills me with a bit of embarrassment. i don’t want that to sound as self-loathing as it does; one of my fondest memories is of my grandfather, a hard working carpenter and factory worker from Latvia, telling me how proud he was that i was an artist, and that the “rest of us are just pigs”. so i honor that and my contribution to the world; it just makes me uncomfortable complaining about any aspect of my comparatively blessed life.

    i’m not really saying that we “SHOULD only make money if art turns a profit”; i guess my whole point is that SHOULD is such a weird word. it’s just a realistic observation to note that the serious money to be made is currently found in for-profit theater. and to change the world into one where there is more money being given to experimental theater will mean talking that money from people who don’t necessarily share my values. i’m totally a centrist at heart; like i seriously grapple with trying to really see the other side of most political issues. my heart still lies to the left, and would be saddened if for example the NEA were dismantled, but i also know i would spend a fair amount of time thinking about the thoughts of all the people who think that’s a good idea.

    that falls in with the audience too…i’m not trying to dismiss audiences (or really non-audiences) by condescendingly saying that the work is too hard for them…i just have had multiple experiences hearing/reading comments from or having conversations with people who truly didn’t get the work, and in fact hated it. i mean i’ve had TONS of walk-outs in my life, and my work isn’t as a rule even that experimental. and there’s plenty in the world that is too “hard” for me; eg hegel or classical opera or most modern dance. i’ve been to a lot of modern dance, and enjoyed some of it, but most of it, even stuff revered as great, honestly has left me a bit empty (and the music often drives me crazy), even though i have a fair amount of context and aesthetically am totally primed to like it. i just don’t, and as a result i hardly ever go see it anymore. i’m sure there are shows out there that i would love, but it’s not something i seek out. and again i’m not really criticizing modern dance here at all, just noting that i personally don’t have a taste for it…so if i don’t have a taste for that, it’s pretty easy for me to concede that lots of people don’t have a taste for experimental theater (or even “regular” theater; i’ve been loving the “Bros on Broadway” reviews on TheaterMania) and probably never will.

    definitely i am responding way to way more than what happened on saturday; in fact by facebook-debate standards saturday was quite tame and lovely! just found myself clamming up as i for the first time found myself in the middle of these discourses, where there was an expectation for me to speak. aaron i love it that you are taking some of that discourse to the stage, i loved what i saw of city council meeting (in boston); i guess when artists express their complaints as art i (and i would guess most of us) am way more likely to listen.

    ken that’s hilarious about hitchcock…you probably could make a killing off a theatrical biopic. and i’m sure it’d be great and if you want that money you should totally do it. but i’d be far more interested in seeing this 300% seismic piece. THAT’S where i think the crisis is self-imposed. i don’t buy foreman’s claim that he has something daring that he can’t get produced. again the evidence just doesn’t hold up; daring things get produced all the time. what exactly could be in his proposal that he can’t do? most every convention i can think of has been broken by one of the pieces named above, and on top of all that there’s people fucking dead goats at ps122. what is it, specifically, that you want to do that you feel can’t happen? i know i have my own dream projects which are only unobtainable due to my lack of access to absurd specific spaces (eg burj khalifa) or resources (eg the 100 underwater cellos piece), and those pieces would be absurd beautiful spectacles i’m sure, but i don’t know that those kind of resources are necessary for the 300% shift.

    and yeah the criticism…i dunno, i’m busy enough dealing with my work that i don’t have the time/energy/wherewithal to spend trying to tell others (critics) how to do theirs. and i actually liked brantley’s radiohole review. i though it was kind of an amazing display of brantley grappling with liking it in spite of himself, and giving over to the mess. i’d still be curious to read the “right” review, the one that puts it into context and gives the audience the tools to simplify the hardness (andy, i’m really curious about what exactly jeff jones told those old ladies in cleveland about the wooster group)…my only point about richard foreman’s shows when I was 6 eg is that that context isn’t gonna matter a lot for people who haven’t seen any of the things that are contextually relevant either! and for me that context can enrichen the work, but isn’t necessary…typically i go and seek that kind of writing out (for theater or film or any art) only after i’ve had a visceral experience with the work itself.

    and ken absolutely i’ll comp you in next time! tis not an idle boast, just drop me a line.
    glad we are having this chat!

  9. ..inhale…
    I believe strongly that art needs be provided for by a civil society to safeguard its own mental health. Especially in capitalist cultures arts is responsible for most things that are not part of the economic system, for the fragile things that fall through the cracks (…neither bottom line nor profit…), yet are essential to the well-being of individuals and society. This includes deep reflection, criticism and the proposition of (potentially utopian, nevertheless real) alternative ways of seeing and conducting one’s affair. It is at the heart of a societies interest to employ workers in art to be somewhat ‘stateless’, to be the much quoted canaries in the coal-mines, to life in flesh for all of us who don’t. Hence, institutions that provide interfaces for citizen to experience ‘the other/the unkown’ in controlled and non-threatening circumstances are to be funded publically, just like hospitals and roads. Some old societies in Europe know that well (and as faithful defenders of Western thought have their own issues to deal with…). I strongly believe that the notion of exchanging money for citizens to engage with art is obscene and this particular, dominant epistemology will come back to haunt the artist and audience alike.
    …exhale…

  10. I don’t think what Dave is suggesting here is an either/or proposition. I read it as a gauntlet thrown down to artists to remember that no lack of funds or bad review or institutional indifference or what have you can actually come into your private space and prevent you from continuing to make your work. To me, this is not mutually exclusive with all kinds of maybe seemingly contradictory points like: people often expect playwrights (for instance) to just be so grateful that someone has taken an interest in their work that they end up being the only person involved in something who doesn’t get paid, or that terrible critics with literally no idea what they’re talking about can prevent valuable work from having much of a life, etc. etc. All these things are also true but Dave’s point (as I see it) is that even if all those things are true, and more besides, that isn’t our job to just go on making the work? Which might sound to some people like an abdication of some responsibility, like to get personally involved in changing funding structures, or shifting the critical conversation, but since a) every minute an artist spends doing that is a minute he/she does not spend actually working and b) it is entirely possible that the best way to do those things is, in fact, to go on making work, it’s not clear to me that one isn’t potentially dodging some responsibility with way (in the other case said responsibility being to one’s own work and devoting as much energy as possible to making it good), and that being the case, maybe the work wins. In other words, I don’t think Dave is saying that the many obstacles and indignities of theater-making do not exist, he’s saying that to be demoralized by them is, in a sense, the only thing that truly makes them obstacles. Is this totally %100 true? I don’t know. But I like it as a provocation and a challenge. Or, to put it yet another way: the answer may be in the striving to make what Dave says true.

  11. Art is necessary for us to maintain our humanity, and should be underwritten, in part, by our government. One of our greatest periods for the creation of art in our country was when it was funded by the WPA. However, public funding for artists is not sufficient to pay the rent or feed your children. What do you propose to permit your artistic pursuits to flourish while not leaving the rest of us responsible to feed,clothe and house you? Or are you suggesting that a designated percentage of the population be subsidized to be artistic for the greater good of the whole?

  12. I find myself glazing over when the tone turns strident and everyone says what the think we should all do or want. I think that by admitting I need to get paid to survive as an artist, and to thrive as a human, is humbling, as are many of the difficult and intractable aspects of contemporary life, and it’s through that humility that I become a more soulful and engaged artist.

    Now, show of hands: how many people here advocating for artists not getting paid have kids? How many pay for the health care costs of one or more dependents?

    Perhaps the tension between what we wish the world could be and what we know it to be is the fertile ground to mine. One or the other by themselves become barren.

  13. Too bad this conversation didn’t happen at the Long Table. It might have made it easier to keep from nodding off. I appreciate all of these comments, and agree with all of them… and disagree with all of them. It’s the same fight I’ve been having inside myself for 30 years now.

    I really like the idea of the Long Table, but I think a lot of this thread has more to do the shortcomings of a moderator-less discussion than any specific idea or objection. As I sat on the outside, I kept thinking, “if that guy’s not going to say anything he should get up and make room for someone else.” I know the instructions were to just tap someone’s shoulder if you wanted their seat, but I’d never do that, because I’m either saying that you’ve talked too much or you haven’t talked enough. Either way, the implication is negative.

    By the time the panel was over, I was glad Dave didn’t get up. I might have rushed down there and said something very similar, and then contracted it all in the very next breathe. I know that moderators are often horrible. I study them. But not having one wasn’t the answer either. If I were moderator, I would have at least said, “Dave, we’ve not heard from you. What do you think?” And then, we might have had this discussion in a more full-throated, typing-less way.

    Can I also point out that the word “complaint” has been used often in this thread, but for those who weren’t there, I’d caution against characterizing this panel as such? Sure, there was some expressed unhappiness, but I’ve heard much worse. It was shoptalk, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Perhaps someone started things off by trying to be provocative, and that started the discussion down a particular path (“theater” as a frame is absolutely necessary, or how else will we know who’s outside of it? Having something to push against is imperative.). Discussion rarely got to the actual topic of the panel. A good moderator could have gotten things on track. Moderator-less discussion also tends to go in circles, and this panel was no exception. And when people keep saying the same things in different ways, everything starts to sound like complaining. It did, but it wasn’t.

    All-in-all I was happy to be there, and hope there will be more such talks. Culturebot is providing an invaluable service to our community both online and in the real world. In the future, I’d hope for more diversity of thought, more generosity of discourse, more give and take, more leave and return, more enter and depart; and god please, if I hear the word “agency” one more time, I will throw up. Ha! Thanks Dave, and thanks Culturebot.

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