Saturday, November 28, 2009


Below is a lengthy excursus written by my colleague Matthew David Wilder. Those of you who believe we should have dispensed with the messy, frustrating endeavor of theater years ago may want to skip this post. Otherwise, read on. Whether you're struggling within the "mainstream" theater (a risible oxymoron for an increasingly invisible art form), or like me you've been dumped by that system and discovered there's more to life anyway, or whether all that was always irrelevant to you, you may find a kindred spirit in Mr. Wilder.

* * *
FOR SHAWN-MARIE GARRETT: UPON EXITING THE AMERICAN THEATRE (LONG AFTER, IN FACT)Shawn-Marie asked me to write a piece, to collaborate with, or collate with, or ___________ with, her own, about the State of the American Theatre, and in particular why I ejected from it.

This may take a moment.

Many years ago I was a literature major at Yale. This meant that you studied various theoretical, philosophical texts relating to literature; and you read literature. While there I was swayed by various evangelical speeches made by Peter Sellars, the great opera and theatre director. What was most swaying was that, as a mere student, you could *create work that would interface with the greatest texts ever written by human beings--for zero dollars!* That's right! You and your friends and three folding chairs and a parking-garage roof!

Needless to say, I almost instantly subsequently spent many years with friends and folding chairs on parking-garage roofs, as my classmates can attest.

I later was mentored by and worked for--well, haplessly interned for--Peter; and then for Richard Foreman, who now, many decades later, has become a dear friend; and for Robert Woodruff, perhaps the most underappreciated and in some ways the freest and ballsiest of them all.

So I was rolling with some pretty heady characters before I was twenty-five years old. And I was drinking it in. And I was working in my head 24 hours a day to figure out how to sit at that big-boy table.

A detour: there is, I see in retrospect, one reason for this in particular. I grew up an enormous fan of seventies cinema and its auteurs: Altman, Scorsese, Cassavetes. By the eighties--when I was entering college, and entering Theatre-Orbit--these gentlemen were having troubles. Cassavetes was dead. Scorsese was struggling mightly. And Altman was making films out of...well, stage plays!

But in the eighties, the Theatre Auteurs were ascendant. Richard Foreman directing Botho Strauss' profoundly difficult structuralist play "Three Acts of Recognition" AT THE PUBLIC THEATRE? Or how about Woodruff doing a punk-rock "Skin of Our Teeth" as big as three Six Flags attractions crashed together at the Guthrie? Or maybe Lee Breuer doing his epic foley-session "Lulu" at the ART--right before Sellars bumrushed their season with the ENTIRETY of a four-hour plus baroque opera with Handel's "Orlando"?

Clearly this was where the action was, creatively speaking--not moving to L.A. and getting in line to write a Shelley Long vehicle. "Troop Beverly Hills II" could wait till later.

In grad school, I was a hit, an enfant terrible in a small pond. My productions of Gertrude Stein and Shakespeare made most of what plays on Broadway now look like a flea circus. The great Des McAnuff hired me *before* I graduated to direct "The Hairy Ape" at La Jolla--I was the youngest guy at that time to direct in that theatre (beating Peter by a year or two).

A few more regional gigs followed, but the writing was on the wall. I was a combination unwanted bull in a china shop, and was more often than not considered a little kid in dad dress-up clothing. Old actors used to crossing to the martini glass didn't want to hear from this Gen-X shmegegge in a "Natural Born Killers" t shirt.

So I downshifted to the indie world. You know, that Erik Ehn "Big Cheap Theatre" thing. Austin, barbecue, girls with extensive Lilith Fair cd collections, lotsa readings, lotsa poetic monologues that don't make sense, lots cutesy set design with little Hot Wheels cars on strings.

In brief: it always felt a little bit like being at some hipster couple's Sunday barbecue. They seem an awful lot like their mom and dad, but they dress real weird, and play this slouchy/depressing music that's nothing like Mom and Pop's Stones and Kinks vinyl.

I tried to do my Gesamtkunstwerky thing in this laid-back, slow-poky, slackerrific setting. Most of what I worked on were new plays. It was kind of like an awkward party where Otto Preminger had to sit around making conversation with Dinosaur Jr.

And so, inch by inch, I found my way back to my first love, cinema. In recent years, I made a film about Philip K. Dick with Bill Pullman, Taryn Manning, M. Emmet Walsh and other great actors that has toured the planet on the festival circuit and will soon appear on a laptop near you. I am working on a second feature, about the porn star Linda Lovelace, and am writing a script for Brad Pitt's Plan B and for other excellent establishments. I feel I am in the right place.

There are caveats to this. I often sit with development people in beautifully appointed offices with Japanese or Polish posters for Polanski or Altman or Wakamatsu movies on the walls. We talk about how we wish we could be making "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie" or "3 Women"...and then we get down to the business at hand. So! A sequel to "2012." Like, "2013." What's left to blow up?

The boxes of what is possible within the system in movies grows narrower and narrower. Mainstream bread-and-butter fare gets worse and worse. It's tougher to be an auteur in THIS medium as well.

There is a difference: Paul Thomas Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, Woody Allen, Steven Spielberg, Wes Anderson, Sofia Coppola, David O. Russell, Steven Soderbergh...not to mention the very very many great non-American filmakers...they are part of the cultural conversation. They are not (entirely, at least) doodling in a corner. A sizable portion of the filmgoing public anticipates their next move avidly.

In theatre...well, it is my theory that when the American theatre hit a frightening financial crash in the early nineties, it made all the wrong moves. Those who had jobs lusted to keep those jobs, period. And so the theatres locked themselves into their graying audiences. With the exception of certain intelligent outfits in New York, you know what you're going to get from an average season in an average American regional theatre. One black musical; one one-person show (usually musical); an American chestnut for the seniors, a "Golden Boy" or "Our Town" or "Glass Menagerie;" and one biggie, either a Shakespeare with a cast of eight or a big-kahuna musical. This is pretty much the formula. Occasionally some venturesome soul sticks in a newish play that did well in New York a year or two ago (generally something that in some way resembles "Sex and the City").

When I first entered theatre, this lean upon the old folks and their tastes...well, selling regional theatre as good old entertainment versus television and film was ridiculous, and made theatre the poor, crippled cousin, the old lady who can't get out of her rocking chair. Now, in an era of iPhone apps and Facebook and Grand Theft Auto, it is ridiculous to pretend this is any kind of proper "entertainment." It is--let's face it--a night out for tired businessmen and their wives.

Tired white businessmen who are not venturesome enough to be dragged to an Asian-themed restaurant or a modern-dance concert. So, okay, I'll see the damn Tennessee Williams thing. And at intermission, depending on where their blood sugar is at, they will roll their eyes at Bob from down the hallway at the office and say, "How'd we get roped into this?," or, if they're feeling noblesse obliging, "The girl is actually not half bad."

This is tragic. In Europe, theatre is considered a living thing, and waxworks approaches to classics are anathema. It is considered that the audience is familiar enough with the dramatic literature to deal with a fresh encounter with the meanings of the text. In America, no one cares one way or the other. Not only is no one shocked by a "deconstruction" of a classic text; they can't be bothered to hear a foursquare version of the original anyway!

Were theatre to be of any currency, of any value at all in America, it would have to have been allied more firmly with the fine arts--with painting, with dance, perhaps with experimental fiction. It would--let's put cards on the table now--have to put its snooty-toot hat on a bit. It would have to say, "I am Art now. I am not vaudeville, not burlesque. My actors are no longer in danger of being buried at the crossroads with a stake in their heart. I am a different thing now. Times have changed, culture has changed, above all money has changed."

This would make David Mamet angry and might make a few tired businessmen sad. But I think we'd have a much richer theatre culture than what we have now...which is a bunch of people with theatre jobs hanging on to those jobs until they, or their graying patrons, expire.

And so I sally forth in a different medium. I enjoy working there. I feel connected in every meeting, in every conversation to the culture at large, rather than feeling like a weird fetishist indulging in his fetish in private. It is difficult to get *anything* going, it is difficult to get challenging things going. But I feel good about what I make.

One last thing. In nearly every harrumphing mission statement for, or defense of, the American theatre, there is talk about the primacy of live human presence. I have almost never found this to be the most important element of any theatrical production, save for a few extremely violent Reza Abdoh shows. What WAS unique, one hesitates to say "magical," about theatre, was the kind of acting and in particular the kind of poetic text it allowed. Cinema does not do well with this. You will note that even the strongest filmic Shakespeare adaptations (enter whichever you love in your head right now) tend to physicalize and image-ize the text more abrasively and needily than any strong theatre production does.

That element, to me, is the most beautiful, the most sublime element of theatre; and one that, in our current climate, seems to me utterly lost.


mrohd said...


You are part of a larger cultural conversation because your work gets seen by more people, because larger groups of film engaged consumers talk avidly about the work of film directors? You feel connected and plugged in because Facebook and Grand Theft Auto and graying audiences make theater as its practiced irrelevant?
Regional theaters and the Austin scene you describe (which bears little resemblance to quite a bit of the Austin scene I know) are the only options?

Dude- you gave up on your first love.
You swung for the 'bigs', you got disillusioned. You went for the local, you got disillusioned. You didn't move from youthful ambition and idealism to the heart of your art- you gave up, and moved to another form, another medium.
(says a guy who knows nothing about you at all, so, i'm just extrapolating of course)
But its all cool.
You are happy. And, film is a great form. Its the twentieth century's art form. And its still with us, showing no signs of decrepitude (other than a massive problem with independent visions getting support & significant distribution within the system...but hey, the internet is democratizing all that, and art should be independently made anyway...Right?)
which brings us to-
Of course you speak truth. Regional theaters made some wrong turns. Breathing the same air isn't enough. Many institutions play it way safe, and have given up any real place in a meaningful civic and cultural discourse.

where theater
and theatre
matters now, and is doing something, can do something, that other forms don't/can't
is in the impulse not just to gather people together in the dark, but make spaces for those who connect. Cornerstone, PunchDrunk, LAPD, New Paradise, The House, Ten Thousand Things, Hand2Mouth...the theatre you made may not have been seen by as many people, but it can impact in a unique way...not a better way, necessarily, but unique. And needed.

I do not challenge your feelings, or your perspective(how can I, they are yours?)- but i challenge in your story the turn of events being due to theatre failing you...the system failing you...fine arts survive, in addition to reasons of context and system, because independent minded artists must and therefore always will simply make what they must...And get it into the world.
And theatre artists accomplish the same thing, and not just on patios for like minded friends at barbecues.
Theatre artists make the work matter.
And matter it does.
But its always been an issue of distribution- its not made to be seen by the millions...its made to be seen in small groups. And if that core aspect of the form isn't enough, is lacking in some way something that you need, than film, by nature created to distribute in a different manner, is a great path.

If you love something, don't turn your back on it because of what it is at its core. Or because other people mess it up. Love its core- love its fragility, its vulnerability, its flaws and limits. If you love something, you love it enough to treat it as the most important thing in the world. Any other love isn't love...its a fling.
But then, you write as if theater/re broke your maybe you did/do love it.
In which case, i sure hope you write a film about theatre with live performances and free food maybe beforehand at the concession stand...because I'd come. And, i'd bring some people.

Thanks for making me think about this late on a sunday night. For real. I wasn't ready to sleep yet.I;m working on a script, and i'm stuck...this helped.

Michael Rohd

Stephen said...

I would love to have a romance with theatre again, really.

I am expecting great things from your A Christams Carol.

I love your writing on your blog.