29 June 2007

Poetics (or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Downtown Theatre Scene)

The very first show I did here in New York was one I auditioned for within my first two weeks of moving here. I wasn't even going to audition. I felt like it was a bit quick for me, and I barely had a day job yet. But, considering it was why I moved there in the first place and that my then-girlfriend was auditioning as well, I screwed my courage to the sticking place and auditioned and got a part (girlfriend, not so much). The show was called 13th Avenue (this would be the 2000 production, not the 2003 I just found out about), and it was an experience. I learned a lot about doing theatre in New York (especially original scripts) in a very short amount of time. I won't go into details about the show (you can thank me later), but I will say that it was an interesting experience in meta-theatre, being a show entirely about "below 14th Street" characters and performing it at the Gene Frankel Theatre, just south of Astor Place.

Not too long after (say, two or three shows later) I wrote a play (no, you can't read it [looking back, it's pretty terribly done]) called Tangled Up in You that addressed two subjects I had trouble getting my head around: the nature of love/obsession, and the downtown New York theatre scene. I was very much influenced by every experience I had had thus far in terms of the shows I had been involved with in the city, and my perspective hasn't changed that much in the years (SO MANY YEARS) since. In spite of it being the only sort of theatre I've done in the city thus far, I'm not a big fan. I wonder at a lot of aspects of it. Who are these people who choose to experience this extremely varied, often distressing genre of theatre? What do they want, or expect from it? Why does the more-adamant downtown theatre scene so often seem driven to avoid entertaining or providing catharsis? What drives so many of my fellow "creactors" and sundry to invest so much in shows I find so often incomprehensible, or unnecessary?

Get not me wrong. I'm a part of this movement. I have worn the Bauhaus costume. I have pretended my hair was on fire. It's just that, at heart, I'm a really basic guy . . . at least in terms of my appreciation of theatre. Just look at my sense of humor, and the work I've done the most of: Zuppa del Giorno. I like the classics; I like fart jokes; I like stories that surprise us, but accomplish a sense of ending. Call me simple. It's how I roll. I'm a fan of the unities. For those of you who managed to avoid Theatre History class (and this would include a great many theatre majors I know personally), "the unities" is a colloquialism used to refer to a parameter for tragedy described by Aristotle in his treatise on the subject: Poetics. Namely, a set of conditions that helps define, or rather contour, the shape of a tragedy. For instance, a play having a beginning, middle and end, and themes and actions complimenting each other. Aristotle mentions the word "unity" a lot in this document. Twelve times, actually. Eleven, if you're not including headings.

Last night my plan for the evening was very basic. I figured I needed rest, given my travels behind and ahead, and I knew I needed to do laundry and pack before a brief visit to my hometown this weekend. So the plan was only complicated slightly by needing to see my sister later that night, but it was a singular, welcome complication. Enter the complication master, stage left . . .

Todd d'Amour, ladies and gentlemen! Let's give him a big hand!

Actually: do. At about 2:00 yesterday Mr. d'Amour calls me at my office, completely freaking me out by leaving this voicemail, "Non esisto. Forse." ("I don't exist. Perhaps.") It doesn't take me too much longer to figure out who it is, and soon after I'm hearing the master plan. It seems Todd is inviting me and fellow Zuppianna Heather out to see a show with him at The Kitchen, one which features a favorite (downtown) "creactor" of his, David Greenspan. Oh, man. Now I have to change my sedate plans. Have to, you see, because when Todd calls it's always a good time. When Todd calls in relation to theatre, it's a good time with the potential to be life-changing, with reduced risk of hangover. So I anted up, and was in and rolling.

But I had my doubts. The show(s) was(were) The Argument & Dinner Party, based respectively upon Aristotle's Poetics and Plato's Symposium. The theatre was at Nineteenth Street, but way over between Ninth and Tenth Avenues, which somehow makes it in every respect way more downtown. And the guy taking me to this extravaganza is part of the team responsible for Stanley [2006], which, though I loved it entirely, is exactly the kind of "downtown theatre" that perplexes me under different circumstances. We were only on the wait list for the show, this decision to attend being rather last-minute, and as we sat in Trailer Park awaiting the time of reckoning on that point I found myself perhaps not minding so much if we didn't make it in.

Of course we did. Only six folks did, but we four were first on the list, thanks to Todd's enthusiasm to get our names there early. The space was cavernous, and immediately made me wish we were seeing some kind of circus show. Sadly, I knew the first act was simply a man talking. I sat and waited for the entrance I had read about in reviews all day--said man simply walking on and beginning to talk, sans cell-phone warnings or lights dimming. And then it happened. He came in, and started talking, and the first thing I noticed was that he had a slight sibilant lisp. "Oh man," I thought. "How rough is this going to be?"

That's the trouble with expectation. It's the dumbest human capacity ever.

The Argument was the best thing I've seen on a New York stage in years. I'm still mulling over what exactly it was about it that made it so engaging for me. It's possible that it was owing largely to the performer's charisma. Mr. Greenspan has a remarkable talent (skill?) for making himself inviting on stage, not just taking it by force, but literally giving you the option and making you feel as though it is continually your choice to pay attention to him. It's also possible that my interest in the subject matter--that is, the construction and mechanics of an effective living story--dominated my insecurities vis-a-vis the downtown scene. My fellow gaming geeks will no doubt agree that the construction of a good story is a topic of conversation that can inspire endless debate. Finally, there's the possibility that it was sheer empathy on my part. I've had to create my own work and hold a stage alone before (though rarely have the two conditions coincided [thus far]) and I am impressed on quite a personal level when I have the opportunity to witness someone achieving both.

But I hesitantly contend that there was a fourth factor to my renewed opinion of the scene. When I was doing 13th Avenue, the writer/director said something about going to school for years to learn all the rules and, with that production, intentionally breaking every one. I have since heard this sentiment expressed variously and in various contexts, and it invariably makes me hitch my shoulders in an effort not to throw a piece of furniture into something(-one) breakable. As I've said, I'm something of a classicist, but I feel I have good reason. Like an actor who (to pick a personal foible) makes a choice that gratifies his performance more than the story, people today are eager for an excuse to "break the rules." So eager, in fact, that this act is more often excused than it is actually motivated. I don't trust most people to understand the rule they're breaking well enough to understand what they stand to achieve by breaking it.

Watching Greenspan willfully but sensitively break some of "the rules" in his performance and creation of The Argument and, better yet, making it work in light of those rules was thrilling. I believed he understood each choice, and trusted the reasons behind them even when the literal purpose eluded me. Best of all, he was quoting these thousands-years-old "rules" to us as part of the performance. I can't even say for sure if it was theatre in the technical sense (Friend Geoff and I have a running discussion over the merits [or lack thereof] of the dreaded monodrama), but then again I suspect that's how the Greeks felt when Thespis (so it's rumored) stepped out of the chorus and began orating all by his lonesome. I can understand why the appeal of being such an originator might draw some artists to some unfortunate conclusions. Just remember, you lot: Picasso could really draw.

Sadly, Dinner Party did not thrill as The Argument did, and didn't even really entertain me until Mr. Greenspan actually entered the stage at the last. It debated the nature of love, and so should have held me pretty good (love being the only subject more likely to inspire discussion in me than "poetics"), but alas it succumbed--in my humble opinion--to my fears for the evening. Some people really loved it, methinks.

That may be the real lesson in all this: Downtown theatre is a gamble, and some of us are addicts.


Moheggie said...

You know makes the downtown scene so great? The ONE audition I pick to go to, the guy asks us to dance the phrase as if a sock puppet was on our hand.

I was the only one who started laughing out loud (but they didn't know it was from excitement!).

I've got a baby seal in one hand and a club in the other. The comedy begins when I.....

Davey said...

"now do the lines as if you are both..."
1. being attacked by zombies
2. trapped by a flood
3. in a musical

Only one of these is made up. I've been in a situation where I was asked to do two of the above.

Anonymous said...

Please allow a cranky old retired theatre bitch to presumptuously presume to have an opinion in this matter, even if she’s jumping to the wrong conclusions (her favorite cardiovascular activity).

Allow me to say – and this is in no way specifically directed at the beloved blogger, but at the multitudes I used to work with – there is a big difference, in my opinion, between “amateur downtown” and “professional downtown.” NOT that the latter is always brilliant, or successful, or even interesting. But it is usually much more informed, much more skilled, and much less
“I’ve-been-spending-too-much-time-in-my-own-sandbox.” To coin a phrase. (This is also assuming that "downtown theatre" implies non-traditional theatre, for the most part, or includes non-mainstream theatres/theatre companies.)

Way too many actors that I worked with (and possibly directors too) back in the day had no role models from within the field. As far as I know. If asked to list their role models, I imagine they would have said David Mamet, probably, and then listed some film actors. I think the problem with forming a community of like-minded folks is that one’s world may then remain confined to that community. (Okay, confession, I am definitely speaking of frustration with a particular theatre community. So I should repeat again that this is not directed at the author of this blog, but merely sparked by this posting. And by frustrations I share with the author.)

So I invite anyone who has ever been frustrated or bored to tears by a “downtown” show to – if you have not already – go see a show at New York Theatre Workshop. (They often have some sort of discount tickets, or last-minute deals.) Maybe they’re expensive, but you can see one good show there for the price of three or four bad ones elsewhere, and maybe once you go, you won’t want to bother with bad ones anymore.


(And actually, every production of the season is either written, directed, or performed by someone I have great admiration for or have wanted to see for a long time.)

So here are some names, from the days when I used to appreciate theatre. Just some folks that – while their work may not be perfect, and I’m sure is not to everyone’s taste – I think have actually earned their chops in “downtown theatre”, and I think their work is generally worth seeing. Maybe one could Google them, and see if they have any upcoming or current shows. And if you do, let me know what you think.

New York Theatre Workshop
The Culture Project
P.S. 122 (okay, a mixed bag, but the shows are usually interesting and damn cheap)
The Wooster Group (and a confession – I did not like or “get” “House/Lights” in the least, but the work is fascinating)
Elevator Repair Service (also performing at NYTW this year)

Elizabeth Marvel
Kathleen Chalfant
Cherry Jones
Will Bond
The family trio of Valda Setterfield, David Gordon, and Ain Gordon
…and Kate Valk (Wooster Group) is an EXTRAORDINARY performer, even if she’s triple mic’-ed and being fed weird lines while licking her lips at precise moments – maybe everyone was doing that, and you had no fuckin’ clue what was going on, but you still couldn’t take your eyes off her

Ivo van Hove (who will be directing a production at NYTW in Sept.-Oct. Anyone who’s ever been bored by 25 year-olds “breaking the rules” should see it. Warning: he WILL deconstruct. It IS downtown theatre after all. But he DOES know what the hell he’s doing.)
Will Pomerantz
Tony Kushner
Andre Gregory (playwright and director)
Naomi Wallace
Douglas Hughes
On the fence about Anne Bogart’s directing results, but I think she’s cool
Richard Foreman

That’s all I could think of for now. I’d love to hear of others. Also, one could check out past winners of the Obie awards. Usually a good bet.

Forgive my late-night, spewed-out, first time ever response to a blog. It just struck a chord, and I’m posting without mulling it over first.
Certainly interested in any responses.

OTB, ret.
(Old Theatre Bitch, retired)

Jeff Wills said...

Hoo, boy. I had my suspicions that this post would garner some emphatic comments, but dag. Dag, yo. Keep 'em up! Yes, auditions are funny! Imagine what the auditions for "Avenue Q" must have seemed like, or "Metamorphoses." Yes, directors are funny! I'm guessing "trapped by a flood," Davey, because being in a musical whilst attacked by zombies sounds like something fun to do. Yes, NYTW (and David Greenspan) rules! Believe me when I say I don't mean in any way to trash the downtown scene, simply to express a personal reaction to it.

As someone who has stradled the amateur/professional downtown fence during most of his career, I can definitely support Anonymous (A.K.A. OTB, ret.) in her (or his) distinction. There is a difference. However, the gigs I was paid for were not especially good (some were awful), and some of the best work I've had the honor to participate in was amateur. Additionally, I remind my readers that I loved Stanley [2006], though it should--by almost every aspect--have piqued my common downtown frustrations. Why? Probably because I felt a part of the community.

That's my favorite observation of yours, OTB, ret. Part of the intention of downtown theatre (or any theatre scene [apart from Boradway]) is to create a like-minded community through theatrical "conversation," from choosing a season on down to choosing shoes for a character. This, to my mind, is noble. I only hope more burgeoning communities include the audience in their discussions.

Anonymous said...

Just to clarify:
By using the terms "professional" and "amateur", I meant - by putting them in quotations - to take them out of their usually-assigned meanings of paid vs. unpaid.
I should have specified that, though.

My sense of high quality in theatre usually has very little to do with whether the actors are paid or unpaid, and certainly has very little to do with whether anyone is an Equity member (don't worry, I won't go into that old rant here. Someone might guess my secret identity).

I agree with the blog author on that – I mean, hell, the highest paid job I did was for a theme park, and it certainly was far from high art (though it had great pyrotechnic effects). And I think I’ve directed at least 1 1/2 good amateur shows. (And some of the finest work I’ve seen (esp. outside New York) was “amateur” by money standards.)

I meant to somehow express a difference between people who have been doing this work for a long time, who have learned from mentors and from each other, who maybe were doing theatre in the eras when they WERE breaking the rules, and/or a few who are just simply extraordinary at what they do. (I mean, really. Kate Valk. Have you seen her???? I’m telling you: she barely moved. She certainly didn’t “ACT.” I don't know how to describe her performance. But she was mesmerizing.)

I just feel like dancers and choreographers make sure to go see the work of (oh, I don't know this world - danger...) Bill T. Jones, Pina Bausch, Paul Taylor, Merce Cunningham. Musicians probably go rock out to - okay, whomever. But actors - many, many young actors in New York - tend to mostly see the work of their peers. And don't KNOW what's between that and Broadway. (And there's certainly a lot more theatres and kinds of theatre than those I listed, but I was focusing on non-traditional "downtown" work.) I don't know why this is. And perhaps I am wrong. And one can certainly learn from the work of one’s peers, and be inspired by it, but it keeps one within that world, and there is such a big world out there. (I mean, hell, even New York theatre has NOTHING on the theatre of Eastern Europe in terms of “downtown-ness” and “breaking all the rules” – but successfully.)

But thanks for inadvertently reminding me, Herr Rabe (no, not as in David) - I did not mean to leave HERE Arts Center off my list of theatre companies. They were one of my nurturers back in the day, too, and they have presented some very fine work. (And I would have put David Greenspan on the list but I know him by reputation only, and by a glowing review of his current show by Michael Feingold, who hates everything. Plus it seemed redundant.)

So what I was mostly trying to do was list people and places that have “earned their chops” (in my not so humble opinion) and I don’t know another way to say it, nor do I know if that’s even the right colloquialism. I don’t know why young actors will spend $65 to see “Proof” on Broadway but not $25 to see “Homebody/Kabul” at NYTW. (Examples only. I saw neither.) Those who might know me know I’m a big fan of learning from our elders (and thanking them in our program notes, where possible). Probably the youngest person I listed is Ivo van Hove. (Well, he was young ten years ago, when I saw a production he directed that blew my socks off.) Lord knows Richard Foreman has been around the block. As has Kathleen Chalfant. But Elevator Repair Service is fairly young, as a company – still, they’ve proven themselves for several years now.

All right, I think I clarified myself sufficiently. Sorry I didn’t do that in the first place.

OTB, ret.