Thursday, June 11, 2009

Theatre and Poetry and Fetish

I was having this conversation with my friend a few days ago and thought I would transfer it to the blog. This is a different kind of blog post -- more of a ramble than anything else, thoughts off of the top of my head. I look forward to having all my opinions corrected in the comments, as I fully expect much of this to be just WRONG.

Theatre and poetry used to occupy a central position in the culture. Having lost that position to film and television, they are fetishized -- look, for example, at the sentimental treatment each gets in Slings and Arrows and Dead Poet's Society, just for starters. As much as I wanted to, I never became fully and casually conversant in psychoanalytical theory, but I do remember two things, at least sort of: Freud said the fetish is designed to cover up for something essentially lacking (the ultimate origin of fetish being the child's impression of the mother's castration); and Lacan said a person can be between two deaths, the symbolic and (I think) the real, a point which Slavoj Zizek illustrates by talking about the Looney Toons image of the cat who walks over the cliff but does not fall until he looks down. It seems to me that this is the position of theatre and poetry -- they are fetishized to cover up the fact that their centrality has been cut off, and they are over the cliff but not yet fallen.

I wanted to get tickets for Waiting for Godot but -- oh the irony -- I waited too long. But I did sign up for the theatre defense fund or whatever (TDF) and got this back in an email: ""As a TDF Member, you are part of one of the most educated and committed theatregoing audiences in the world." I don't necessarily deny the accuracy as far as the demographic goes but that is some self-satisfied stuff right there and it is the same kind of stuff I see on the mailings I get to my house about poetry societies I can join if I pay X amount of dollars (these people all found me through work somehow, I am sure of it). I have learned not to flaunt the Oxford D.Phil. in polite society any more -- well at least I try to be less of a jackass about it -- but I feel like with these folks it would be an Aaron Sorkin festival, everyone putting their alma mater into conversation as often as possible (I can tell you off the top of my head where everyone on the West Wing went to grad school, and it was a punishing lesson to learn I should not emulate Sorkin's dialogue in this respect).

T.S. Eliot has played a weird conflicting role in the fetishization (I feel like that should not be a word but spell check claims it is) of poetry and theatre. In pop culture he seems to stand in for poetry, second only to Shakespere (who is sort of beyond all these mortal things): he is quoted at the opening of Showtime's Nurse Jackie (so the reviews tell me), in Southland Tales, and that great TV Warhorse Law and Order (Lenny and I think it is Benjamin Bratt arrest a college professor who is discussing TS Eliot in a graduate class at the moment of his arrest -- one of my favorite moments in popular culture, a kind of "well that is what you get for doing THAT.") T.S. Eliot declaiming the collapse of everything in the Waste Land (not the Wasteland by the way -- even academic books make this mistake) becomes the quotes that shore up the ruins of poetry in the popular imagination. He FEELS like poetry because he is dense and difficult and no fun and so on. Because at the end of the day you can't have a poet like the inimitable Ron Padgett (click the name for a sample) be poetry in the popular imagination -- no one would be able to determine it IS poetry, even though one of the things we want from poetry is to be expanding itself so that people are always not quite sure this is really it. "Did John really write Paradise Lost in ENGLISH? Latin, really, is what you want for an epic." People first reading the Waste Land did not know what it was; ironically it is the most POETRY poetry we now have. Ironically, I feel one of the reasons people fetishize poetry -- by which I mean not really engage it -- is because they long for some kind of spiritual center in literature; once Eliot got that spiritual certainty he started being really bad.

As for theatre, I think the fetish is not only for some kind of centrality, but also for the LIVE aspect in an increasingly technologically mediated world. I do not deny that there is an electricity in the room -- interesting, possibly ironic metaphor -- because there is a GUY on STAGE performing LIVE, but people go MAD for it: Theatre has a lot of basic structural similarities to movies -- people in seats watching a actors enact a story four about 2 hours -- and yet charges 10 times the price tag. Obviously this is a necessity for other reasons, and of course you can find cheaper tickets, but to me it points to some kind of OVERSELLING of the live aspect, a powerful nostalgia for what it means to be LIVE. And there is TS Eliot again -- his poems the inspiration for CATS, which went on forever and -- am I wrong about this -- has no redeeming value whatsoever. And yet theatre has this tremendous abstract power -- the same power poetry has -- because the marginal, once central, now fetishized, now expensive thing MEANS HIGH CULTURE whatever the CONTENT. You get this every time you watch some movie and someone points out sagely that Ian McKellen was actually trained for the STAGE, you know -- as if a) his film roles are somehow his coming down to our world in mortal form and b) that somehow legitimizes his hilariously campy turn in something like the Da Vinci Code.

Someone on Slate I think -- and I may be remembering this wrong -- said when the Wire ended that someone should get all these guys together for a performance of Julius Caesar. At first I though GREAT IDEA, but the more I thought about it the more it seemed mildly insulting, as if some said to Shakespeare "Hamlet was so great you ought to try making frescos," with just the most subtle suggestion that frescos are REAL art.

This is so abstract, and there are of course about a million counter examples. Mitch's Triumph of the Underdog, for example, was a great example of using live theater to really do something that you can't do in another medium -- he was a professor giving a lecture (the performance space was in a school to boot) and we were the audience at that lecture: that was perfect and intimate and smart. I wish I had made it to the live Speed the Plow so I could see whether Piven live was five times better than the recording of Jeff Goldblum I got on iTunes playing the same role, since I think the tickets must have been at least five times the cost. I will be attending more live theatre in the future so we will see.

Comics have a similar position -- once central now marginalized, except now they have this weird position as an idea farm for movies. And I am not sure if I did not like them better before, when no one was paying attention to what they were doing (and so they could do anything -- you can't have gay Batman and Superman analogues in the movies the way you can in the Authority), and comics writers were not using comics to audition for other jobs.

At the end of the day, I care about distinguishing good art from bad art, and these seem like some issues that distort the the faculties of judgement in ways that get on my nerves, so I am trying to keep and eye on them.

And again, the point of this is to start a conversation. I am not married to any of these opinions. I am looking for the comments here to maybe offer a course correction.


Jason said...

This is great. I'm going to forward this to some of my theatre friends.

I have heard theatre people mock folks for making the complaint you have -- that it costs so much more than a movie. You know, a theatre that charges $20, they'll say, "People are complaining about twenty dollars. For LIVE theatre, that's a great price!" Well, sure, because some live theatre costs $60 or $80. That doesn't meant $20 isn't still a lot of money to sit in a cramped little theatre on folding chairs watching amateurs recite their memorized lines, when I can pay $10 to sit in a nice, cushy comfortable chair and watch Star Trek.

I am deeply immersed in my local theatre community so a lot of these issues have been on my mind. It is indeed a hive of smug self-satisfaction, and it is very frustrating. And it's amazing how the "high culture" thing hoodwinks so many people. I think of my mom, who sincerely seemed to think she was exercising her taste for high art when she got us tickets to see Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Phantom of the Opera" (and later, indeed, the irredeemable "Cats").

It's one of the reasons that the musical I'm going to produce in September is deliberately campy as well. As you say, Geoff, there are some things theatre does really well, and I think camp is one of them. The live aspect allows it to be more inclusive, and I think it's unsatisfying to just watch something campy on a screen and not feel like you can participate (hence all those movie screenings of "Rocky Horror" where everybody brings their own props and costumes and acts along -- camp just invites that).

Oh! And here's another annoying thing, which goes back to your TDF comment -- the haughtiness of the theatre actually extends to this notion of acting as if your audience is somehow beholden. Theatre people think the audience owes them something. From actors in the dressing-room during intermission saying, "Man, this audience is dead, what's wrong with them?" (as if it is their job to laugh, not the actor's job to MAKE them laugh) ... to artistic directors telling audience beforehand that they NEED to contribute, to keep theatre alive. "You NEED to keep seeing shows," they'll tell people. "You [the audience] are an essential component of the theatre community."

Because that is just what you want, right? You want to go and see a show and enjoy yourself, and come out feeling guilty because you are maybe not doing enough, and aware that there is an onus upon you, yes YOU, to keep this glorious artform alive. Theatre might just DIE OUT if you do not do more!!!

Can you imagine going to see a movie and having someone give you this kind of schpiel before the show, or during intermission? (Oh but wait, movies don't have intermissions because they don't need to stop the show halfway through to milk you for MORE money via concessions.)

I went to see a play the other week and managed to get a half-price ticket, which was only $35 (what a bargain!), then I'm reading their program and there's a big essay in there about how they need donations. Donations!!! "Ticket sales only cover about a third of our operating budget," says this thing. Oh, come *on*. Then the curtain goes up and one of the lead actors in the show actually blatantly screws up one of the most popular songs in the show. And I happen to know, this actor *doesn't* live in Milwaukee, which means he was brought in from out of town, probably put up in a nice hotel for the duration of the rehearsal process and the run -- two months. Imagine how much money it cost to bring this actor in. That is where their "operating budget" goes to. And the tickets that we're paying $30 for isn't covering that. We are supposed to donate more, presumably so they can continue to bring in out-of-town actors to come in and screw up some more.

It is ridiculous. And it all stems out of exactly what you're talking about. This ridiculous sense that theatre is this heightened, extraordinary, exalted thing.


Anyway, great blog entry, Geoff.

Dreadful Rauw said...

I think that as far as theatre is concerned, It's not overselling the live aspect of it if, as you say, you do theatrical productions that take advantage of an audience in a way on stage production can. CATS is a horrible show, but the moment those actors enter the audience and immerse you in their world, you've just gotten something that not even the new 3-d movies can accomplish.

Honestly, I think the realism movement in theatre came at just the wrong time. Stanislavski and Ibsen were making the stage more like real life, when cinema was coming along and doing real life far better than stage will ever be able to do. But with film there is a 4th wall than cannot be breached effectively. Any sort of Wayne's World style talking to the camera will never be able to do the thing that theatre can do, and that's respond to the audience. It's no coincidence that lots of theatres do improv shows regularly to get audience and pay some bills. Improv doesn't work on film (Who's line is it anyway, Curb your enthusiasm and such are nice attempts, but still can't react to the audience watching them), you can really only get it live.

And so I think it's less about a fetishizing of theatre, and more about theatre becoming more of a luxury. It's like original art, or dinner at a high end restaurant. Part of the reason you're willing to pay for it is because you're getting a unique experience, prepared just for you.

As for the "He was a stage actor" bit people pull, I think there's a bit of legitimacy to that. For a very long time, the only way to train as an actor was in theatre. Very few educational institutions focus on film acting, although this is changing. So saying "he trained in theatre" is often shorthand for "He has formal training in the craft of acting" as opposed to "He was a model and looked right for the part"

Geoff Klock said...

Jason -- I am so glad to hear someone who cares about theatre have sympathy for the price thing. Everyone else always gives me these "philistine!" looks.

Rocky Horror is a great example -- half the fun is not seeing the movie, it is seeing the AUDIENCE, which is a live experience and something that cannot be created at home with a DVD.

Dreadful -- in the abstract I agree with you: when actors come out in the audience this is way more intense that a 3D film can be. But this onion article pretty much sums up how I feel about audience participation

Geoff Klock said...

Jason -- I am also glad you like the post since this is me filling in your slot while you are gathering momentum for your final Claremont push.

sara d. reiss said...

my tolerance for participatory theater is really really low. I have a particularly finicky situation because in my field we also have "performance art" which is some bastard child of theater and um, art therapy and I really have yet to see a piece of performance art that I have enjoyed. That has as much to do with my perhaps ridiculous taste boundaries as a lot of performance art trafficks in making the audience uncomfortable and embarassed, like tv shows like The Office like to do, and I just am not one of those people who ENJOYS feeling that way.

One of my worst participatory theater experiences was when my parents took me to see De La Guarda. My parents are HUGE theater buffs. My mom sees everything on, off, off-off and off-off-off broadway. They thought this thing was gonna be hoot and why not bring their artist daughter along, surely this would suit her "bohemian" senses.


This was one of those things where the "actors" work extra hard to get everyone "in the spirit" and focus especially on any audience member (who didn't get to sit but rather stood, and were continually herded/dragged/forced around the room by necessity or physically by the "actors") who did not seem to be "feeling it"

I happened to be one of those crossed-arm, please-don't-touch-me types. One wet (water featured prominently in this show) sweaty homeless looking "actor" after another thought it was great fun to mess with me, they'd move through the crowd "interacting" with us. But i was unmoved. Until one aforementioned one came up behind me, grabbed my arm and LICKED IT.




the end.

Dreadful Rauw said...

Well, I will certainly agree that lots of participatory theatre is bad. It is the crutch of the weak actor to go up to an audeince member not "into" the show, and try to make them look bad. That places the blame on the audience member and not the actor. It's just like a mediocre band that tells everyone to start dancing several times during their show. It's cheap and I don't endorse it.

But really, the stereotypical CATS style going into the audience isn't that effective for actual audience participation, because the audience is still passive.

More inovative shows try things like Drood!, where the audience can vote on the outcome of certain parts of the mystery, or The works of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, which involves direct conversation with the audience, without demanding anything from those less into participating. And it doesn't even have to be that drastic. A well placed turn to the audience, or a simple acknowledgement of a situational reality will do the same thing.

Too much audience participation is based around making your audience embarrassed. But I would argue that that's poor execution of the concept more than the concept being flawed.

If you make the audience feel like they were part of the show, or if they didn't participate, they got to experience something that no one else will experience exactly the same way, then you've done something that film cannot replicate. And it requires a set of skills a film actor might not have. Whether that experience is worth what it costs is another story though.

neilshyminsky said...

Dreadful wrote: "And so I think it's less about a fetishizing of theatre, and more about theatre becoming more of a luxury."

Luxury, if we're using fetish in the Marxist-psychoanalytic sense of commodity fetishism, is the very definition of fetish. What makes something luxurious is always entirely relative and the source and quantification of its value, because that value is in part derived from its fetishization, is particularly difficult to pin down. And I'd argue that it's difficult because that value is always determined in response to social demands (its cultural value) that are far in excess of the thing's use value.

Personally, I'm also usually unmoved by the participatory factor of live performance - a good book or TV show is just as capable of making the reader/viewer feel a part of it, and there are too many bad examples of performance art.

Geoff: The one amendment to your theory that I might add is that the fetishization of various forms of art is at the same time a de-centering and a re-centering. The fetishization marks poetry or the theatre as both outside mass culture and above it - on its margins, but also the very source from which mass culture pilfers its ideas. And so it's a process that saves art from ephemerality and tries to make it ahistorical.

plok said...

Ah, The Waste Land...I like to say that every discipline has its hazing ritual, and this one's ours. Doctors have to pull thirty-six hour shifts in hospitals; we have to produce two thousand words on The Waste Land straight out of high school...but until we've already written two thousand words on The Waste Land, we don't have the necessary skills to write two thousand words on it.

Definitely a good point; but I've got to admit I'm as uncomfortable following the script of low culture-mass culture-high culture myself, as I am uncomfortable with the way your theatre's promotional material follows it so slavishly. "High culture"...I don't know, I tend to think that expression properly belongs to the self-serving narrative of mass culture, the more modular production systems of TV and movies and magazines and handheld wireless devices -- the "scalable arts", if you like. Anything to do with books you could also shove out to the margins of culture, surely, if you were sufficiently motivated to do so? But that strikes me as the ultimate wish-dream of mass culture, the idea that books aren't it, that a library is a "high culture" institution and so forth...but when you can find the Iliad in any bookstore, and people go out to see a movie of Titus Andronicus for heaven's sake, can there really be so much cultural "centrality" to our more scalable entertainments as they're wont to claim? If you go to see an opera, you'll see people all dressed up to shell out a couple hundred bucks...but you'll see that at a Stones concert or a playoff game too, just with less conventionally advertising-based sponsorship, and though I'm not trying to claim these things are all the same thing, nevertheless once you are in your seat at the opera and watching the performance you'll either enjoy yourself or you won't, and that won't make you a snob or a prole either way, will it? I don't think comics ever enjoyed "centrality" at all, for that matter: but try telling that to a kid, who's never heard of the mass trends to which he supposedly belongs. When I was a kid, my father read me Robinson Crusoe, just because I liked stories about islands -- I had no idea it was a work of great literature, and in a way I still don't. I liked Swiss Family Robinson and Dr. Doolittle better, but that's just because Crusoe had a lot fewer talking parrots and precocious youngsters in it. Now, I have no doubt that Law & Order would certainly like us to believe that poetry is slightly effete and therefore possibly a danger to society -- Law & Order recognizes no margins at all, just insides and outsides! -- but if you ask me, that's just because it's more the cat than the cliff, itself.

Triumph of the Underdog said...

I like a lot of this post and agree with it. The only thing you are wrong about theater-wise is that TDF stands for "Theater Development Fund" and not "Theater Defense Fund"... though now I wish there was a "Theater Defense Fund."

A few random things I can say about theater - Broadway theater is still one of the largest draws of tourism in New York City. I don't recall the exact numbers but it is certainly listed in the top five. And tourists make up something like 80% of the Broadway audience. Do what you will with this - Mamma Mia sucks intensely, but has been running for years and sells out almost every one of it's eight shows a week, even in this economy. To me, that isn't really even theater. That's a cheap ABBA concert without having to pay ABBA.

Regardless, I think there is an argument for the Fetishizing of more avante garde theater, but not for stuff like that and Phantom of the Opera, both of which tour the country eternally.

Though the TDF email sounds smug, I definitely don't think the theater crowd is as educated as the poetry crowd. Whereas you, Geoff, probably had to read a lot of Milton, Naruda and Whitman; we theater students spent hours of our day on our backs doing breathing exercises, where we are instructed to "use our breath to paint the ceiling whatever color we choose." Maybe theater folks flaunt their degrees West Wing style, but we all know that they are precisely worthless. For instance, I have a degree in theater and have never been made to read King Lear.

And as far as LIVE goes, LIVE is about all we theater folks have left. So yeah, absolutely we oversell it. I am desperate to see Twelfth Night in the park this summer so I can see Anne Hathaway LIVE, as though that will somehow take my crush on her to the next level.

Graham said...

(this is off the top of my head, so apologies if it comes out a little garbled or not completely thought out)

A lot of the high culture aspects of theatre seem to do with the inherant riskiness of live performance. We're paying a lot of money to see them do it right the first time. The anger at someone messing up is understandable, and the price tag is certainly extravagent sometimes, but to go about thinking of theatre as though it's a low budget live movie seems to misunderstand an important part of what live theatre is all about.

This post made me think of your point about live vs recorded hip-hop, and how the medium works a lot better in a studio where everything can be polished and autotuned and only the best takes of each individual verse make it onto the album.

But, I think one is forced to admit that there's something inherently cool about freestyling, where a group of the best guys you can find will just make up rhymes as they go along, improvising beats, and singing their heads off while the crowd around them cheers. Fuck high/low culture destinctions, these people are having fun. No one there is really interested in whether or not your timing is off slightly from how it is on the album, they're interested in whether the crowd is into it. It is a performance in the most literal sense of the word.

Similarly, theatre can do some things the movies simply aren't capable of. Though is seems many folks here hate Andrew Lloyd Weber for being popular and cheesy (and I can't really fault you there, though I enjoyed both Phantom and CATS live, but not out of some sense of aestetic superiority), he has done some of his best to use the space to the best of it's ability. You're never going to see a film version of Starlight Express, for example, because the show isn't the same without the rollerderby occuring all around you. Maybe you enjoy this sort of thing, maybe you don't, but it'd be hard to argue that it's the same expierence done not live, in a soundstage, with tons of retakes for to get it "just right."

Just like that crowd of kids gathered around the two guys rhyming in the center, I'm more concerned as to whether or not the people in cat costumes can get me humming along with the tune, or how they manage to get the lightning to crackle on stage, rather than assuming it was done on a computer after the fact.

As you might guess, I'm a lot more into the "Two Planks and a Passion" element of theatre than I am the "We're better than you" part some people seem to tack on. Musical theatre isn't all that different from seeing your favorite band play live. Just because you own all the Rolling Stones albums, is it not worth seeing them live? Similarly, if you hate Lil' Wayne, why would you pay to see him?

It is what it is, and it is unforuntate that people try to add so much more context to things that aren't there for everyone. Just because you didn't like CATS doesn't mean you won't enjoy Complete Works of Shakespeare Abridged. Similarly, just because you hated Sleepless in Seattle doesn't mean you won't enjoy La Dolche Vita.