The Playgoer: NYTW Panel #2 tonight

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Thursday, April 20, 2006

NYTW Panel #2 tonight

I won't be attending Panel #2 tonight. (I'll going to see Bart Sher do an Awake and Sing talkback at Lincoln Center, then checking out John Clancy's new production "Screwmachine/Eyecandy.")

But here is the info for those curious ones among you:

Thursday, April 20 Controversy in the Eye of the Beholder, Part II-Writing Challenging Work

Writers who have created plays based on documentary and primary source material will speak about their specific experiences developing and producing such work. Participants: Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen (Playwrights of The Exonerated), Stephen Karam and PJ Paparelli (Creators of the upcoming NYTW production, columbinus), Emily Mann (Playwright, Artistic Director, McCarter Theatre, Princeton), Anna Deavere Smith (Performer, Playwright, Director)
Moderator: to be announced

If you go, please do drop a line in Comments here to fill us (including me) in.

Did I mention there were only 50-60 people there last night? (NYTW is a 199-seater, I think.) It was notable to me that the crowd was decidedly not young. (Most of the younger folk there I recognized as "artists"--either invited guests or paying "what they could.") A few academics. But mostly what seemed the usual NYTW older subscriber/donor crowd, who seemed pleased and entertained for the most part.

Here's a revealing anecdote from Mark, a.k.a. "Mr. Excitement": this young theatre lover, eager to actually partake in this community building event turned away at the door for being late and not in possession of that $10 ticket. What message does that send?..... Perhaps the box office staff were just doing their job. But there again, you see the result of treating this has a closed ticketed event, rather than a truly open public gathering.... So if you're going tonight, 7:00 sharp!

Mark also reports, by the way, from another related public event held by THAW (Theatres Against War). Apparently Kia Cothron became another playwright to go on the record--but defending Nicola, who she says has stood by her better than the Royal Court has! I admire Cothron's work and understand her loyalty. But I would love to ask her what she thought of NYTW closing her last play there considerably early due to low sales. (I was upset because I had booked a student group for one of the cancelled performances. We never got to see it.)

I got a kick out of all the "Peace Cafe" jokes in response to last night's notes. Indeed, must be some grande mocha context going on there. (Or, to fully exploit the Starbucks lexicon, tall.) But I'll cut Ari Roth and his Theatre J some slack. (Yes, there is a Peace Cafe link. But no menu! What kind of service you call this?) Roth's theatre is housed inside a Jewish Community Center, he clearly defines his mission along those lines, so if that's what he wants his theatre to be fine. At least he does it aggressively and consistently. I think NYTW invokes the rhetoric of "community building" but is still basically just a place to put on plays.

My final impression from last night is this. There was something ultimately very disconcerting about the underlying assumption that one can't or shouldn't put on politically provocative plays without some kind of outreach/healing/"dialogue." That this kind of activity just naturally goes hand in hand with such plays. Admittedly the panel consisted (deliberately) of all Artistic Directors. Our nonprofit institutional leaders are probably under greater and greater pressures to fill some sort of parental and "responsible" role. So I guess this is just how an Artistic Director thinks nowadays.

But you had to ask at some point--wait a minute: what would Brecht say? what would Shaw say? Would they ever stand for some producer insisting on "contextualizing" Mother Courage or Major Barbara lest any audiences get their feelings hurt? When Edward Bond faced censorhip and public excoriation when he depicted the stoning of a baby carriage in Saved, did the Royal Court have to assemble panels on child abuse? Totally lost in this discussion was the fact that no theatre for thousands of years (yes, think of Medea) has seen the necessity to go to these strained measures to purge conflict in the audience. (And wasn't the play supposed to do the purging, anyway?) Let's face it: these efforts are all of a piece of the culture of therapy we now live in, where argument is a bad thing. Unless it leads to "healing." Yet we theatre folk are happy to argue against evil George Bush and not expect any healing with the Red States, right? Since when has theatre been removed from the normal assumptions of political discourse? (i.e. where things do get messy, sometimes, and stay that way.)

Of course people have always talked with each other about plays afterwards. That's why we go to the bar afterwards. No one is against talking about the play. But since when did theatres have to take on the responsibility of supervising that? Since when did they have to create artificial communities of their own rather than simply exist in a community where people can have spontaneous discussions on their own, thank you very much.


Anonymous said...

HUH? What are you talking about, Playgoer? I attended the panel and did not at all come away with the sense that everyone on the panel was calling for ways to make the audience comfortable with challenging work by providing "context." And really, you are misrepresenting the "peace cafe" at AJT which did not at all sound to me like a space for creating comfort nor for managing conversation. I mean, there is not a lot of public space left in this overly privatized culture of ours, and one that is also increasingly balkanized. People tend to go to the bar after the show with people they already know and maybe who think like them. Why not create a space for those who want to hang out and talk afterwards -- decidedly NOT in rows in the theater with conversation managers on the stage, but in a cafe. (One of the best things Joanne Akalaitis did when she took over at the Public, imho, was create that cafe space in the lobby -- and Frank Rich immediately made fun of her.)

As far as I could tell, the only person on that stage operating from "the underlying assumption that one can't or shouldn't put on politically provocative plays without some kind of outreach/healing/"dialogue" was Jayme Koszyn, the moderator and NYTW "consultant" who was very baldly trying to package the message, even to the point of reframing what Nicola was saying. I found her to be far and away the most troubling figure up there. But she did not in any way represent the prevailing point of view up there.


Anonymous said...

I think the idea of the peace cafe actually deserves deeper critique. What is troubling is exactly what Playgoer writes -- the sense that a play is now an "experience" that must be managed by the producing organization, as if audiences are children who need lessons, educations, spaces made for dialogue... etc. What all this does is proscribe an experience, and to my mind this takes away from art's power and purpose.

Most theatres now do this kind of nonsense. As Playgoer says, it has not been necessary for thousands of years. It exists to blunt the disruptive power of art.

Playgoer said...

Okay, as much as I am guilty myself, I feel I have to declare a moratorium on all Peace Cafe humor. The "blowing up the peace cafe" joke was the last straw. And also really made me laugh.

Sorry, I can be sick.

Alisa--Yes I guess I was getting a little off topic from the panel by launching into my beef with "context." I guess I'm anticipating that panel next week ON "can a work of art stand on its own." I might as well reveal here that I know Jayme Koszyn and respect her as a dramaturg. But I fundamentally disagree with her whole project here--which is the asserting of the role of the theatre to guide the audience in their responses to difficult material.

Yes, there's a difference between going to the bar with friends, and a structured conversation with strangers who may disagree. (Then again, some of my best post-theatre arguments have been with friends....Or should that read: some of my best friends are arguers?)

But here's a question I'm interested in that hasn't been raised: Who goes to the "Peace Cafe"? Again, not to pick on Ari's brainchild. I of course mean: who stays for the discussions, who partakes in the "context." Or more to the point: who is it aimed at? Are theatre "communitarians" (to try out a term) doing all this just for the self-selecting few--who have opinions and time to spare? If so, then none of this should be a big deal for either side.

Or, is the ideal to envelop everyone in the contextualizing bubble? To annex the context to the play inexoriably? (That sure seemed like what Jim & Jayme were envisioning for "Corrie".) Brian Lehrer complained on NYC that if the community symphony orchestra concert he appeared in could do outreach to its entire audience at a one-night performance, then why can't a theatre? Well duh--because a lot more people come to a play at NYTW--on several different nights--than to one night at a concert in a relatively small community in Westchester (or Long Island, I forget.)

I haven't honed a clear conclusion yet out of these points, but I'm getting there...

Anonymous said...

Contextualizing bubble and managed discusssion; coddled audiences and efforts to contain emotion, programs for "balancing" or "explaining" a play or otherwise watering down the experience: all bad and detrimental to the experience of art -- I agree, of course.

But that is not what I understood the "Peace Cafe" (despite its apparently oh-so-hilarious name) to be doing. I understood Roth to say it was providing space for discussion of Middle East issues INDEPENDENT of whatever play they might be doing and that it was not a MANAGED POST-PLAY discussion -- that even when it was structured, people talked in small groups, independent of any moderator or conversation controller. Here in many posts, "peace cafe" has become a generic term for a stupid and condescending effort of containment -- an unfair description of Roth's theater (as far as I could tell from his description). And certainly, there are ways to OPEN and EXTEND the issues that a play raises with different kinds of conversation. Anna Deavere Smith was investigating how to do that with her Institute on the Arts & Civic Dialogue, which you could argue didn't work, but you couldn't charge that it was meant to close down or envelope or somehow constrain or control audience response.

The question isn't whether a theater should provide public space for conversation -- why the hell not? (especially if there's good coffee or snacks in the offing) -- but to what extent it is manipulating that conversation to particular, contradictory (to art) ends.


freespeechlover said...

I agree that unstructured, non-managed space for people who want it is a good idea. When it's independent of the theater, and it's not coercive, who cares? As long as it doesn't turn into something more intrusive...Independent discussion is anathema to the NYTW. Lynn Moffat on the Democracy Now! interview made it clear that they "never" have unstructured discussion. That's too authoritarian for me; I don't want to be guided. I prefer open mikes, but I recognize that there are some people like my mother in law for whom the peace cafe would be an "interesting" evening.

There is something very American about the way "civics" matters are sort of ubiquitous. A namby pamby account of how wonderful our democracy is won't get at this. I don't think the British invoke fostering dialogue in the community as a goal of their theater.

Maybe that's one strand of where some misunderstanding came from with the Royal Court. Each theater certainly has a different emphasis on the art-civics continuum--now there's a clever concept.

I saw the MNRC workshop they did, and it was focused on writing memoir and autobiography. There may have been a timeline for the political conflict, I think, but that wasn't the focus.

I'm afraid I share playgoer's sense of humor. I confess that I too found the comment about blowing up the peace cafe hilarious. I'd like to think it's a sign of mental health in an age of too many managed experiences. And if the NSA is data mining, fuck off!

Anonymous said...


Between LOL and ROFL! I'm not about to make a Peace Cafe comment, but find it increasingly humorous as this site documents the diminution of genuine interest in provocative theatre in the USA, how many "anonymouses" continue to show up. I suppose you can tell one from another, but we can't. Maybe you should make an additional rule that one has to at least pick a "nom de blog", rather than post anonymously here?

Anonymous said...

Two of the anonymous posts here are signed at the end, so they're not really anonymous. The options for "choose an identity" when you go to leave a comment are to give your blog site, your website, or sign in as anonymous. Not everyone has blogs or websites. Should they be banned from the conversation?

Playgoer said...

Quickly, on anonymity: Philip raises a fair point. Altough I won't ban people from posting as "anon", for clarity's sake it would be nice to have at least pseudonyms. And I DO believe the Blogger program allows for that in Comments. You do not HAVE to provide a "website" (that's an optional field). Simply a name (or typed sequence) will do.

2nd, to Alisa's point:
Perhaps I misunderstood the true function of Ari Roth's Peace Cafe. It still may not be something I would partake in, but if others like it, fine. Now that we've had our giggles over the name I can appreciate the value.

And for the record--I definitely like the idea of an unstructured social space in a theatre--like the Public Lobby. I even notice little CSC has opened their lobby as a cafe all day long. Great! What's great about this is the possibilty of actually merging the theatre space WITH the outside world. In other words, the space succeeds most, ironically, if there are people coming in for coffee with no intention of going to a show. (If they check something out later on, all the better.) This is indeed different from cloistering your audience off from the real world in a controlled space to debate public issues related to your play on your terms.

freespeechlover said...

Exactly. Spontaneous conversation actually does more to foster real relations among people. I actually think people will get into real issues more deeply without structure than they will with structure. This blog is a good example of the way freedom facilitates not prevents interesting kinds of relationships to develop.

I have to think more about the social relations of a bar known for post-theater gathering vs. a theater cafe; there may not be much difference, except the alcohol.

freespeechlover said...

I'm sorry but Brian Lehrer is a pain. His interview with Katherine Viner was aimed at outing Viner's politics, and ultimately proposed the arrogant idea of if it works for me it must work for you. What's good for general motors is good for America is not a persuasive argument in this case.

Anonymous said...

all you anons, signed or unsigned,

I don't want people banned from here. And I wasn't referring to those who place their name at the bottom of their post. It IS frustrating to spend time trying to figure out which anonymous is replying to which other anonymous, though.

And, freespeechlover, Brian Lehrer's radio interviews and print article were seriously flawed journalism. I doubt Viner would accept a return invitation to be on his show.