Thursday, February 11, 2010

Pimping the professors

It's really all about kids and Shakespeare, don't you know.

My recent tangle with Bill Marx actually included some e-mail exchanges "off-line," in which he asked that we continue a more "rational discussion" in private. I don't trust Marx, and am hardly interested in any private discussions with him, so I told him to scram, of course. But what has lingered in my mind from his missives was his puzzlement over a neologism I coined in my comment on his blog - "the academic-theatrical complex." What on earth, Bill asked me twice, could I have meant by that?

I was puzzled by his puzzlement. Isn't the meaning obvious? It seemed to me that even those who might not know of Eisenhower's famous warning about the "military-industrial complex" should be able to guess at its sense and significance in a college town like Boston. Our two largest permanent theatres operate, of course, in relationships with Harvard and BU, and what's probably the center of our urban theatrical life - the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center of the Arts - was made possible only through the sponsorship of BU. Boston Playwrights' Theatre, our one producing outfit dedicated solely to new scripts, is likewise an arm of BU. And our local schools cast a shadow even over those theatres normally thought of as independent of the academy; many local theatre figures work or teach at Brandeis, Harvard, BU or Emerson.

Even Bill Marx himself, of course, is employed by a university - he's a lecturer at BU. So perhaps his puzzlement wasn't so puzzling after all. As Mark Twain once said, it's hard to make a man believe something (or perhaps even perceive something) when his paycheck depends on believing the opposite.

But on the other hand, how could Bill's boss be to blame for any of the theatre's current problems? Particularly when it all but built the Calderwood Pavilion?

Well, it's an interesting question, isn't it. But I often wonder if, say, Exxon (or maybe Enron, as I sometimes like to call Harvard our Enron of High Culture) came to town and built a bright shiny new theatre, wouldn't folks be a little suspicious of the kind of shows that played on that company stage? (Imagine whole seasons devoted to arbitrage and hedge strategies.)

I think they probably would.

So why are those same folks so unsuspicious of our universities, which are, in the end, corporations, and often act just as ruthlessly as Enron? Particularly when the plays our colleges choose to produce align so closely with their latest pet theories and projects?

For in the end, woozy theory is largely what the humanities are often selling these days - even if there's not much in the way of practical application to be had from it. Thus it's no surprise that our university theatres should be obsessed with "developing" new theatre, rather than discovering it. Indeed, people are often surprised when I point out that of the great works of the past twenty years or so - the new stuff from Tony Kushner, the pieces from Edward Albee's renewal, the last testaments of Sarah Kane, the wild experiments of Caryl Churchill - none have reached our university stages. Not one. Stoppard and August Wilson are still done by BU, it's true, but in general, our universities could not be less interested in the greatest theatre of our time.

Instead, they home-school their own lesser variant of it and try to pass it off as the real thing. Hence most of the new plays we see come direct from "development" programs, or are produced by the favored playwrights of a handful of graduate schools - or are simply written by the professors themselves, like The Miracle at Naples and How Shakespeare Won the West, scripts obviously designed to pad résumés, which nobody really needed to write or see.

But if the academic-theatrical complex hasn't produced much genuine art, it has gotten the hang of producing pop. Ladies and gentlemen, meet Diane Paulus, the lady who seems to have a special knack for pimping the professors. More on Paulus and her ever-attendant "buzz" in the second part of this series.


  1. It was the obviousness of the academic-theatrical complex in this town that made me realize that if I was going to develop as a writer, that I would have to conduct my development program myself (with the help of a bunch of actors and whomever wanders in, of course.)

    This is why I smirk a bit when I notice that the MFA crowd, with whom I get along a bit better than you do, talks as if they just discovered self-production.

    Hey, if the universities want to throw some resources my way, I can use the patronage if there aren't too many strings, but in the meantime, I can't afford to wait.

  2. Let me second that - it's obvious, and yet it is never discussed. The situation is different in other cities, I'm sure, but in Boston, the academy and the way it distorts the local culture is the elephant in the room. And one has to smile (or maybe cry) at a critical mindset which asks that we ignore, say, Harvard's history as a slumlord, and its refusal to divest in South Africa, yet listen with reverence to its "dialogue" on race. Puh-leeze.

  3. Maybe it's because I started off working out of alternative artspaces that didn't have an academic affiliation, and I started noticing that I could work out of spaces like the Zeitgeist Gallery, Out of the Blue Gallery, and Bad Girrrls Studios-- which did not have significant ties to local schools, but there were also a number of loft and storefront based alternative spaces whose core group were clearly linked with SMFA and MassArt where I simply could not get a gig, even if I knew these people socially(Mobius was the exception to this rule in that they don't ask to see your academic CV.)

    So when I started to transition from "performance art" to "theatre" it was not surprising that I would see the same pattern repeated.

    By the way, you really don't have to appeal to my prurient interest in order to get me to read your blog, Thom.

  4. They are a nice pair of escutcheons, though, aren't they. Speaking as a disinterested party.