Friday, August 1, 2008

What should an academic theatre be?

After a reportedly troubled search that lasted something like a year, the ART finally settled on Diane Paulus (left), a Harvard grad and Obie-award winner, as its choice for Artistic Director. The good news is that the search is over, of course, and that we're now free of Gideon Lester's attempts to replicate past ART seasons. The downside of Diane, however, is that her résumé almost reads like parody. It's thick with pop-music adaptations of Shakespeare (The Donkey Show transported Midsummer Night's Dream to a disco and The Karaoke Show set The Comedy of Errors in a karaoke bar, while The Winter's Tale got a "gospel/R&B" treatment), and includes a pitstop in just about every ditzy directorial trend of the last twenty years: Mozart's Figaro got an update, of fucking course, as well as all three Monteverdi operas (they made it to BAM, naturally), which mixed with the likes of David Lynch (Lost Highway) and even Disney (The Golden Mickeys, whatever that was). Meanwhile her résumé lists no Chekhov, no Ibsen or Shaw, no Sophocles, no Marivaux, no Williams or O'Neill or Miller or Kushner, no Beckett or Brecht or - well, no anybody. Maybe she's done them, but she's certainly not advertising it - when it comes to classic texts, besides the Shakespeare travesties, she only lists Strindberg's phantasmagorical A Dream Play.

Titania goes clubbing in The Donkey Show.

You wonder, in short, if her career might have been devised by some imp at the Harvard Lampoon. It's hard not to get the impression of a very bright, very attractive careerist who read her "mentors" like a book and colored relentlessly within the postmodern lines. And note among all the disco and the Disney that there are few, if any, honest productions of interesting new plays by great playwrights; no, Diane was far too focused to do anything as silly that. That would have required, like, slavish obeisance to a text, dude! It would have blown the whole orgy of signifiers - not to mention the scene!

A scene from Paulus's Brutal Imagination, although it might be from any number of past ART productions.

So it's obvious (if you doubt me, check out the photographs of her work) that her artistic directorship will represent more of the same old, same old from the ART, where the late-70's Village never died (or rather, where it went to die). Indeed, it's hard to imagine how the Harvard search committee could have made a more conservative choice. One guesses the ART will remain mired in yesterday's critical theories, and grow more and more isolated from its community, aside from the Dresden Dolls' fan base, which is probably doing handsprings (along with the Dolls themselves, of course).

Sigh. But will the Huntington do much better? Will Peter DuBois, their incoming artistic director (who arrived after a far more smoothly managed search), actually connect with theatre, and with Boston, the way Harvard seems unable to? Maybe. He's done real plays - Chekhov, Shakespeare, and Beckett, as well as Churchill, Kushner, and others (including, yes, politically-correct lesser talents like Suzan-Lori Parks). DuBois has also, it's good to point out, run a theatre - in Juneau, Alaska, of all places (I'm not making that up), and he's been a mucky-muck at New York's Public, certainly a highly-pressured, high-profile perch. Needless to say, he's also acquainted with the New York (and Hollywood) stars that the Huntington, under Nicholas Martin, began to rely on to boost audience interest in their seasons.

All this, I think, bodes rather well - in case you can't tell, I care far less for postmodern theory and rock-n-roll than I do for theatre. And I'm hoping that DuBois will not only continue the policy of engagement with the city that Nicholas Martin was known for, but will also improve upon it. But what, in the end, should DuBois set as his goals? What should an academic theatre be? In Boston, unlike almost anywhere else in the U.S., we've got two of them, and yet their roles and responsibilities have been a topic of almost no public discussion whatsoever. They are perceived as simply adjuncts of the power bases their respective universities represent; local critics seem to think it's almost rude, somehow, to question the assumptions and goals under which they operate (and under which they gobble down public dollars). But in my next post in this doubleheader, I'll ponder what, exactly, should be expected of an academy that begins to operate as an arts practitioner.


  1. Gosh, I can't wait. Will you be defining the difference between "real plays" and what might be called "not-so-real plays"? Will you be examining the relevance of Chekhov, Ibsen, Shaw, et al for the 21st century when you talk about "engagement with the city" -- and while you're at it, would you define "city" in the context? Do you mean "the elite members of Boston society" or do you mean a larger group? Finally, will you also apologize for your insulting dismissal of Juneau as somehow being beyond comprehension, and will you address the deleterious effect of Nicholas Martin's NYC/Hollywood-philia when it comes casting? Oh, and while you're at it, will you address what a university theatre owes to its students, or are they beyond consideration?

    Or will you, rather, just harrumph a few more unexamined assumptions into the blogophere.

    Inquiring minds want to know.

  2. Well, sorry, but you're going to have to wait a little longer, sweetie, I'm still thinking. Which is something you might try doing before you set virtual pen to paper, as it were. Not only is your comment a pastiche of clichés (you even toss about such tired codewords as "elite"), you even get the facts bizarrely wrong about Nicholas Martin's tenure (or certainly my discussion of it). Yes, he turned to stars to fill seats - but not as egregiously as, say, Steven Maler does over at Commonwealth Shakespeare; and Martin's stars almost always filled the bill (unlike Mr. Maler's). And he did cast extensively from the Boston area - just ask Will Lebow or Nancy Carroll or Jeremiah Kissel.

    To your other questions - Chekhov, Ibsen, Shaw, "et al," are, by definition, relevant to the 21st century - far more relevant than you or I or the A.R.T. are. As to "what a university theatre owes its students," yeah, I hope to talk about that.

    But I do apologize to the good citizens of Juneau, Alaska for my "insulting dismissal" of their estimable burg as "somehow being beyond comprehension." I'm sure they took my comments to heart, and I do apologize.

  3. As an academic of many years, I have thought about this a lot -- sweetie. And while Nicholas Martin may have used more Boston actors than before, he still did not commit to an ensemble of Boston actors. He continued, up through his final American Theatre interview, to talk about the "actors you want" being in NYC, which I take as a dismissal of Boston actors. And while I agree that the classic often have something to offer the 21st century, there is another part of me that agrees with Artaud in "No More Masterpieces": we deserve to have stories told to us in OUR language and using OUR circumstances. Historically speaking, it isn't until the past 50 years that Americans have been focused so relentlessly on the classics, and even in European companies the emphasis has tended to be on doing plays by contemporary playwrights -- think Moliere or Shakespeare, for instance, who were not known for trotting out classics at all, or even Racine, who relied on classic stories but rewrote them using contemporary language and morality ("Phaedra," for instance, is altered to appeal to Racine's Jansenist relatives, for instance). And while the word "elite" may be overused, it is a concept that has a meaning. In the 19th century, all classes and nationalities were welcome in the theatre; since the 1960s, it has been the playground of the upper classes, and an increasingly aged upper class at that. As Dudley Cocke wrote in "Art in a Democracy," if the regional theatre looks like a community, it is a gated one. The reliance on stodgy productions of the classics simply reinforces that gated quality.

  4. Ah, you're "an academic of many years" - no wonder you sound so foolish. I don't really know what kind of axe you have to grind against Nicholas Martin, but while he may have said that "the actors he wanted" were often in New York, frankly, he was an expert caster, absolutely expert; his shows were cast at a level which no other operation in this town has achieved. So maybe he simply knew what he was doing. I'm a close observer of the Boston scene, and a great fan of its actors, but looking over Martin's last few shows - She Loves Me, Present Laughter, The Cherry Orchard, Love's Labours' Lost - I can't think of many roles for which there was an ideal Boston actor whom Nicky passed over.

    As for Artaud - well, if you're a fan of his than we're going to almost always disagree. I'd like to have more masterpieces, thank you very much, not no more masterpieces. The rest of your comment is essentially crude economic observation disguised as social - or artistic! - analysis. You're going to have to do better than that on this blog.

  5. Ah, an ad hominem attack -- always a such a good sign. Yes, as an academic I am a fool, and as a critic you are a artist-envying cretin -- both of those stereotypes bear the same resemblance to reality.

    You want more masterpieces -- unless you are expecting an archeological dig to uncover them, you are talking about contemporary playwrights WRITING them. Which is exactly what Artaud was saying.

    Your comments on Martin start from the wrong point: if you commit to a company of actors, your find plays to suit them and stretch them. Choosing the play first and then seeking out the "perfect" actors for them is the cable TV 200-channel approach to the theatre. One-and-done productions weaken the art form.

    As far as your unwillingness to discuss the way class plays out in the arts, you are among a large crowd of Americans. Nevertheless, the numbers don't lie. The American theatre is geared almost exclusively to an upper-class, urban, educated audience, and as long as it continues to do so, theatre will grow more and more irrelevant and uninteresting.

  6. Wow- great post. It's good to have you back on the critical beat Tom. There's some very provocative stuff here.

    I do think you're reading Paulus wrong though- if anything, she strikes me as much more of a populist then an ivory tower intellectual which is probably why she appealed to the people who picked her. You don't direct Hair in Central Park (which may transfer or tour BTW) or "The Donkey Show" if you don't have a taste for crowds and the lowbrow. In fact, where the latter is concerned I'll be totally shocked if it isn't revived at Zero Arrow at some point- I just have the feeling it is inevitable.

    I haven't seen any of her work so I'm withholding judgment until I have, but it strikes me that there is some interesting creative stuff there- Brutal Imagination, for example is a fantastic contemporary play- my friend Laura did a production of it at her theatre in Hudson NY and the show still resonates with me five years later. In fact, the oeuvre of Paulus I'd argue is consistent with the type of director she seems to be- a mix-and-match modernist who dabbles in a little bit of everything. Musicals, opera, spectacles- etc. The question, then, of course is whether or not it makes sense for someone like that to be leading what is (supposed) to be a (at least in theory) theatre predominantly dedicated to the classics. Well, okay, maybe that's NOT the ART's mission, but you've got a point when infer you not-so subtly suggest that theatres funded by educational institutions should be thinking along those lines.

    Appointing Dubois to the position at the Huntington seems much more straightforward- he's a hot young director, rising talent with good cred and a proven track record. The fact that he's younger I'm sure is also a bonus. I wasn't as big a Martin fan as you, but he was (and is still) a supremely talented artist and he certainly did a better job managing the Huntington then Lester has the ART over the last year and half, let alone Woodruff who did some great work at times but seemed to have trouble figuring out exactly what the ART was supposed to be DOING with all their millions. Time will tell with both of them- we've got a full year of what looks like the most tired and cobbled-together ART season in eons and a much more interesting one at the Huntington to get through before we'll really start to feel their influence.

  7. To Mr. Scott Walters - you come into my blog all but sneering and then have the ditzy lack of self-awareness to accuse me of ad hominem attack? You merely dodge my defense of Martin (by making a point that could be made of half the theatres in this country), then you pretend I'm "unwilling to discuss class" when I'm simply unwilling to discuss economics as if it were aesthetics. It's evident you don't even understand Artaud. In short, you haven't said anything interesting yet, and somehow I don't think you're going to start any time soon. Do us both a favor and stop reading my blog.

    To Daniel - well, perhaps I should give Ms. Paulus a chance with an actual production before I go into full attack mode, but I didn't mean to imply that I think she's an ivory tower intellectual. No, like you, I imagine she's taken the standard postmodern pseudo-structuralist syllabus and bent it all the way round to pure pop. (Extreme cultural positions always tend to meet, since cultural space seems to be curved!)

    And, like you, I don't think it's fruitful to imagine that the ART has any meaningful connection to the classic theatre; I'm just trying to help folks to realize that, too. I've long perceived that the Ivy League was a kind of two-headed hydra: one head, decked with round wire-rim glasses, a bow tie around its throat, clutches the canon to its chest; the other head meanwhile disgorges Conan O'Brien, the National Lampoon, and the legions of smart, empty alphas who consume that stuff. The academic world, in short, is now inherently schizophrenic. What is to be done about that is part of what I try to puzzle out on this blog.

  8. So much of what passes for "post-modernism" in the arts, isn't so much art inspired by avenues of thought opened up by the constellation of post-modern or post-structuralist thinkers, as the symptoms of the era that they write about.

    Most of these "post-modernists" have as impoverished understanding of the theories as the cultural conservatives who rail against it. I am looking forward to the day when self-proclaimed "post-modernist" create art that acknowledges that there's more to deconstruction than "anything goes" and relativism.