There's an old Married with Children that sticks out in my memory when Al Bundy is, for whatever reason, in Hell, and has and makes a bargain to do something redemptory with some devil or angel, and goes over the terms of the agreement, at the end of which he says for reassurance "Then my life will go back to the normal hell I live in, right?"
Thursday, July 29, 2021
Saturday, July 24, 2021
James Earl Jones turned ninety this year, which should be a surprise to all of you because most of America thought James Earl Jones was 90 since Field of Dreams. And here he is playing King Lear about as well as it's ever been played in an extremely multicultural cast: a grand old man of 43, playing an 80 year old, which in 1600 is a bit like being a centenarian, yet playing him with the energy of a 25 year old.
If you can afford it, go to the UK and spend all your money at theaters, you will experience a revelation unlike anything you can get in the US. English film isn't much, and English TV shows rarely last for more than 12 episodes; but whether it's Shakespeare or Caryl Churchill, theater in England is 100x the priority it is in America. Actors in the US are fundamentally trained to act for a camera. You'll hear a lot in acting classes about creatively inhabiting your role, but by many accounts, the actual technique is not emphasized nearly as much as it is for acting students in the UK, who are trained for the stage - to project and get nuances registered in the back row, to learn to adapt to the other actors in a uniformity of conception from part to part.... Back in the day, even the stars would be part of a repertory company in which you'd play Hamlet one night and night watchman #3 the next - and even if there isn't much repertory theater anymore, that ethos is still perpetuated from generation to generation. In the UK, it's not about the individual, it's about the show. But the one place where the best of the best still go into American theater is the minority artists: black artists, hispanic artists, and the gay artists who want to play shows that relate to their lives. These are all artists who know that they won't get a fair shake in Hollywood, so they go to New York, or they stay local, because they know they have better opportunity to do elsewhere what Hollywood won't allow them. The 1970s were a kind of Golden Age in American acting. You had the new, naturalistic school of method acting jivng with the old school that prized stage training. I could list a couple dozen names you might vaguely remember, but the 'crown jewel' of the period was the Public Theater and its extremely volatile director, Joseph Papp. Papp was the pioneer of 'Shakespeare in the Park' which still draws in tens of thousands to Central Park every year to see big names take on the big roles. But more importantly, Public Theater is the longtime home of multicultural theater - thirty years before identity politics was a debate, Papp was sponsoring all kinds of plays with unique identities that became huge hits of their times: African-American plays like "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf," "No Place to Be Somebody," or conspicuously gay plays like "The Normal Heart." Even after Papp's death, Public Theater was responsble for "Bring In Da Noise, Bring In Da Funk," the conspicuously pansexual "The Wild Party, Susan Lori-Parks "Topdog/Underdog", the homophobia and racism centered "Take Me Out," Tony Kushner's "Caroline, or Change" about Jewish-Black relations, Stew's "Passing Strange", the musical adaptation of Alison Bechdel's "Funhome," and..... HAMILTON. Papp was also America's greatest pioneer in 'non-traditional casting', and not only promoted James Earl Jones but also Raul Julia (known to you all as Gomez Adams), whom when he was younger would play Shakespearean roles with a thick Puerto Rican accent. Papp, as was the mean of the period, was as womanizing as a high-profile director was supposed to be, but he produced 'A Normal Heart' with an eye toward attacking Ronald Reagan and Ed Koch for their response to the AIDS crisis. Politics is politics, but diversity for diversity's sake is the state of things in theaters all around America. It is the place where the voiceless find voice, and talent too unique for movies finds its space for a display only it can provide. Outside of the theaters and galleries, diversity for diversity's sake is a bad argument that will win no people over predisposed to think that diversity precludes quality. All it's generated so far is empty noise. Millions of conservatives who haven't read Shakespeare since high school suddenly care very much about the idea that white men must now play Othello as white. And face the truth, millions of progressives who never buy tickets to August Wilson suddenly care very much that playwrights of color get a chance to show their work on the major stages they couldn't care less to attend. None of these debates get more work for people in the arts because it makes the arts an inconsequential sub-reddit of politics that distracts from political issues where lives are at stake. Plays and music and books that are only championed for political reasons will be a failure, and only set back the causes they're willing to champion. But if the argument were made artistically rather than politically, people would think very differently of this proposition. So here are three arguments that matter, and they matter very much, because they're grounded in the arts, not politics. 1. When we think of whom we would regard as the greatest creators of the 20th century, so many of them are from groups shunted off to the marginal hinterlands. Of color or white, they speak not only for themselves, but for peoples never heard from before until that moment in history. Whether it's because each culture has so many unwritten stories in the oral tradition, or because there's little work yet that articulates their demographic's unique worldview, these artistic creators speak not only for themselves, but for every unheard person of their origins of, after, and especially before their lifetimes. Great artists don't just speak for themselves, they speak for everybody. So read what the great Mexican writer, Carlos Fuentes (and read The Death of Artemio Cruz), said about precisely this in an interview: 'There is only a great desert between Cervantes (the Spanish writer of Don Quixote) and ourselves... ...I remember ten years ago I was talking to an American writer... and he said, “How do you do it in Latin America? "How do you manage to write these immense novels? Come up with all these subjects, these very, very long novels? Is there no paper shortage in Latin America? How do you do these things? We find we have great difficulty in the United States as American writers to find subjects. We write slim books, slimmer and slimmer books." But what I answered on that occasion is that our problem is that we feel we have everything to write about. That we have to fill four centuries of silence. That we have to give voice to all that has been silenced by history... we had a whole past to talk about. A past that was silent, that was dead, and that you had to bring alive through language. And so for me writing was basically this need to establish an identity, to establish a link to my country and to a language which I—along with many other writers of my generation—felt we in some way had to slap around, and wake up, as if we were playing the game of Sleeping Beauty.' 2. The fact remains that part of the resistance to multiculturalism it is very simple and obvious - the pool of jobs may stay the same, but the number of people seeking them gets much larger. If there is a larger pool of talent from which to draw, a greater diversity of people who get the jobs will probably result in a better artistic product, but the lives of the practitioners will be that much harder. White artists will have to work that much harder to keep up. Hopefully, but it's still only a hope, the more diverse artistic representation will result in greater diversity of audience, and that will sell more ticket. Linn-Manuel Miranda aside, this hasn't happened yet, and it doesn't mean much to the rank and file person in theater when one Puerto Rican can write a show that sells $400 tickets. Perhaps this means we need to make the artistic selections still more diverse, but thus far, the audience's demographic pool is still overwhelmingly elderly, white, WASP, and Jewish - all of whom are turned off by any new fare at all, let alone new fare which they feel is being consumed solely for demographic reasons. But that audience is completely dying off, and there is no one to replace them, so whether or not theater continues as anything but street theater, there will have to be nothing short of an artistic revolution to get a new audience - and like most revolutions in American life, who can doubt now it's coming? For a little while, the director of Baltimore's Center Stage Theater was the very fast rising theater director, Kwame Kwei-Armah, who then became director of the Young Vic in London - founded by no less than Laurence Olivier, most famous stage actor of the 20th century. I have to say, I was not very impressed by Kwei-Armah - I found both his directorial work and his selections mediocre, but let's face it, the stuff coming out of Center Stage wasn't all that great before he got there either. Theater in the US is dying, and dying very quickly. I have to imagine that however mediocre or good the selections of multicultural theater at the moment, and some of them are very good indeed, this is the only way forward, and for all the current hemming and hawing about genius, the slate is soon to be wiped so clean that the 'stage is set' for a genius of color who reinvents the whole thing and bares the same relation to August Wilson as Christopher Marlowe bares to Shakespeare. The artistic revolution is coming - we might as well accept it and just wait for it, and as obviously painful as it will be, we may just have to let these older organizations die their natural death to clear the way for something new. In lieu of them, something may take their place that is not only fairer in representation, but so different and revelatory that it will sell like wildfire, and we'll consider the gain worth the loss. 3. Today's million-dollar question in the arts is this, and it's an artistic question, not a political question: is art entirely talent and personality based, or does the 'lived experience' of an artist's identity endow the artist something unique? I have no idea how to answer the question and I don't believe anybody who says they do. But wherever one stands on the issue of representation, we will not be certain which side of that question is true until we truly find a way to view the works of black and hispanic and female and queer artists commensurate to their demographic representation. If it turns out that their creations really are that different, then we will have been missing out on hundreds of years of uniquely great art. As much as people don't want to admit it, the answer still may turn out that it's completely false. Not because of any lack of talent, but because clearing a way inevitably causes complacency, just as it has in the white males who've been given an artificial leg up. Anybody who goes to the theater has sat through all manner of overrated plays that we don't know why we're watching. Artistically, it won't make a difference who's producing the work if a lot of it sucks, and precisely because we've given underrepresented demographics an artificial leg up, we will inevitably promote mediocrities by letting people coast on their identity rather than their merits. But we will not know anything like an answer until we try it. And if the increased representation results in more artistic dynamism, so much the better. And if not, we'll at least give more work to demographics who have it harder. Artists are artists because they're creative, not smart. If you want people who respond sensibly to societal problems, the arts are nearly the last place you should look. A lot of internet commentators these days make think pieces about how 'all art is political'... And yes... there's no question, art is political, but politics are very complicated, and an artists' knowledge of politics can often be fit in a single paragraph. The political aspect of art is just one arm on a being with a hundred arms or more. Many conservatives allege that art's purpose is beauty. Many progressives allege that art's purpose is empathy. Many think that art's purpose is emotion, and ideologues of all stripes think art's purpose is its message. The last one is closer to the mark, but because it's closer, it's correspondingly more dangerous in how it simplifies. All of those concepts are mere tools at art's disposal. The purpose of art is meaning, and artistic meaning is simultaneously very specific and very nebulous, universal and very, very personal. Meaning comes to us in an infinity of forms - forms intellectual, emotional, and spiritual, it always evolves upon reacquaintance, and the meaning is different for every person. It is truly extraordinary how long it took artists to come to the idea that structural forces marginalize the concerns of unfortunate demographics by race and gender and class and sexuality. These ideas have been around since right after World War II, formulated by a bunch of German-Jewish communists who hailed from extremely privileged backgrounds, and it literally took people in the arts seventy years to adopt this idea as their universal ethos. Theater is not a place to look to for ideas - or at least American theater isn't... American theater is a place for self-expression. Nobody knows how increased representation will affect the arts. We don't know if it will result in a better product, and whether audiences are racist or feel condescended to, if they stay away, it won't even result in more work for underrepresented artists. But the sea change is clearly coming, some kind of revolution is coming in people's relation to the arts. Nobody has any better ideas yet for how to increase the presence of the arts in American lives, and I'm willing to stake a significant claim that, in the long run, lived and unique identity is the future of art, and it will begin in the theater. We won't know until it happens, but it may be glorious.
Thursday, July 22, 2021
But, and I write this with all the love in the world to my many many lawyer friends, lawyers take this conversational marauding to an exponential level. If there's any angle of the subject that can be put through some kind of legal rubric, often a rubric designed to be as incomprehensible as possible, you can be sure lawyers will do it. It's not because of any inherent character defect - it's because that's literally what lawyers are trained for. They're trained for verbal combat, they're trained to sound authoritative, they're trained to find miniscule obscurities to gain an advantage. And if they can find ways to make themselves seem like authorities over the rest of us, they will take it.