The Playgoer: NYTW Panel #4 tonight

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Wednesday, April 26, 2006

NYTW Panel #4 tonight

The fourth and final New York Theatre Workshop panel is tonight. I myself won't be going. (I'll be a few blocks away at Stuff Happens, as it happens.) But if you go, please do share your opinions and observations in Comments here.

Here's tonight's details:

The "C Word": Is Contextualizing A Work of Art Essential to its Reception?
Can a work of art stand on its own? Is knowing the historical, cultural, political, and social background of the artwork important to deepening understanding? Dramaturgs and educational leaders present highly different views on the subject.
Participants: Mark Bly (Senior Dramaturg, Arena Stage, Washington, D.C.), Jayme Koszyn (President/Founder, Jayme Koszyn Consulting), Michael Lupu (Senior Dramaturg, Guthrie Theatre, Minneapolis)

Moderator: Karen Newman, Professor of English Literature, New York University

Hm, "C-Word." Where have I heard that phrase recently...

Seriously, the chance to see Mark Bly alone is worth any dramaturg's time. I'll be especially curious what he has to say. Then again, as dramaturgs I expect all these folks to defend all kinds of "context" since that's what dramaturg's do! But dramaturgs should also know better than anyone that all their painstaking contextual work is routinely tossed aside by an indifferent director or playwright. And you learn to live with that. Your research is always in service of the play and the production.

Here's a good index card question for anyone who wants it: In your experiences, would you say "My Name is Rachel Corrie" is the first play ever put off for more dramaturgy?

In my account of last night, I naturally realize I left out a lot. (And see the previous comments here for some perspectives taking issue with my own.) Let me add some quick addendums while they're still fresh.

I'm sorry for neglecting Irondale's Terry Greiss entirely. He was certainly an engaging speaker. Just not there really to address "Rachel Corrie." But he did offer a nice little soundbite: that a political play is "not a play about Nazis anymore, but a play about the Nazi in us."

It has been telling that in both sessions I attended, the analogies Nicola kept reaching for of "controversial" work he had done in the past were really cases of aesthetics more than politics: producing "More Stately Mansions" against the O'Neill estate's wishes, for instance. He even brought up Bach at Leipzig in an example of an author unfairly criticized since Itamar Moses was given lots of PR as the next Tom Stoppard only to see the comparison held against him. I found these totally unrelated to the issue at hand. Alisa Solomon proposed a better counterpart from NYTW's production history: Paul Rudnick's Most Fabulous Story Ever Told which mischievously retold Genesis with "Adam and Steve." Of course no one like the Family Research Council was invited to give a talkback, she rightly pointed out.

I also didn't mean to imply the only audience shout-outs were for those calling for the heads of The Jews. Yet again, someone asked Jim Nicola why his proposed contextualization process would have taken so long. An older man concurred "It doesn't make sense!" He could barely be restrained by his wife in entreating NYTW to take on the responsibility of presenting difficult material, proudly without apology. The most sentient comment, for my money, came at the end by a young actress in the back, who, without grudge or malice, tried to explain how important she felt it would be for NYTW to simply acknowledge that people were upset for what is, in principle, a very good reason--even if they deny the particular charges against them. She was absolutely right that the anger being expressed stemmed from this frustration of not being fully acknowledged and respected in all the company's communiques and the setup of the panels themselves.

I actually would have been very curious to see where tonight's discussion goes. The context discussion is one I'm eager to have. Last night Nicola again offered in his defense his premiere of Kushner's Homebody/Kabul back in Fall, 2001. As an example, he told us how important it was someone researched the importance of different turban styles in Afghanistan. This is the kind of out-of-the-box dramaturgy/outreach they're calling "idiosyncratic" in their latest statement? Hey, I'm glad they did it. But I would expect no less of a serious professional production and costume designer.....And about Homebody: I've been holding this in, but I saw that production and I must say that as a routine ticketbuyer I experienced no extra "context" whatsoever. No talkback, no special displays or opening remarks. I still have the program and it is NYTW's usual little booklet. I do remember, yes, some xerox insert, with, I think, a chronology of Afghanistan history, and some routine articles. In short, the kind of program notes I would expect from any decent regional theatre or even ambitious undergraduate production. (Still all too scarce in NYC theatres, to be sure.)

My point is that whatever extreme consultations they may have done before or outside of the production process, I was not at all aware of it in the audience. I simply watched the play, which was apparently left to "stand on its own." And for that I was grateful.


Anonymous said...

Cloning is a very controversial subject, but I don't remember any contextualizing literature at A NUMBER a couple seasons back.

But let's be honest: The whole contextualization riff was and is a smokescreen, put forward only after the original justifications for the pulling the play were recognized to be unpopular.

Remember, in the first NYT article, Nicola said (I'm paraphrasing) that it wasn't the people inside the theater he was worried about. It was the perceptions of everyone else.

So how does providing literature to audience members solve that problem?

Larissa said...

First off, Bly and Lupu were fabulous--Lupu had an unapologetic irreverance for "contexualization" of any sort beyond the inherent context of a person with a history and beliefs (audience context) seeing a play's production which is always the product of a director's interpretation (production context)-"either the play is good literature or it's not!" and Bly spoke of the sudden extinguishing of audience interest in Execution of Justice when Dan White killed himself, as an example of, as I understood it, context making itself known without the help of the theatre's dramaturgs. Koszyn, more impassioned than in her previous panel appearances as moderator, went on the attack against her attackers ("I admit I've never been so obsessed with a blog!!"). While I understand that as it was her very beliefs that she felt had been disparaged by so many of the complainers, and she made it quite clear that she felt contextualization was an integral aspect to the understanding of any artform, not just theatre and not just politically controversial plays, she described the critics of NYTW's treatment of MNRC in such a way that they (we, you) came across as beligerent and unthinking. At no point in this whole controversy did I get the idea that the outcry over NYTW's handling of MNRC could be paraphrased as, "how dare you focus on the intellectual aspects of MNRC when this play is about passion!!" but that's how she described it. I can understand how a prolonged and unrelenting debate over something which first of all, she or they thought would not and should not be a controversial decision at all, and secondly, which proved not only controversial but with the controversy hinging on a tenet (necessity of contextualization) that she (they?) hold to be nearly indisputable. I realized that my own difficulty in understanding the situation really just stems from the fact that i hold the opposite view regarding context, that is, that it is unnecessary to comprehending a work of art, if that work is any good. I wonder if any other of the commentors on the subject feel the same way? Tolstoy does not need a readership pre-armed with knowledge of Napoleon's wars, the burning of Moscow, or the Battle of Borodino, in order to get his point across in War and Peace (neither does one need to read up or be briefed on these subjects after reading the novel to finally "get it")--Tolstoy says what he has to say to anyone who can read and think. I was frustrated that Koszyn, in offering an example of the advantages of context in the examination of other art forms such as literature, used Ulysses--the TRIPPIEST book ever! Her premise being that, well you can do something as masochistic as read an unannotated text of Ulysses, but that's so preposterous that why should we give it a second thought? and yet she also expressed shock at the British disdain for offering context to theatre productions--but I'm sure she wouldn't dismiss the entire British theatre-going tradition the same way she dismissed the kooks who read unannotated James Joyce? but, ok, she believes it's necessary and I don't maybe others don't either, but it's NYTW's prerogative to conduct their biz, (which, if I haven't said so before, has in the past given me some of the most moving artistic experiences of my life), so be it. That being said, Moffat mentioned some things tonight that were news to me, but I don't know if that's becauuse I came late to your blog, Playgoer, or don't visit NYTW's website often enough, or what--she mentioned that they had to ask for an extension mostly for logistical problems like the fact that getting the actor's VISA would take 2 months, trumping the 4-week deadline and they couldn't fit the set in the door, which meant building a new set altogether (I don't know how long that should take, I'm not a builder). reasonable worries, it seems, and not necessitating four panel discussion's worth of context talk, but......if she had said that at first I'm sure there wouldn't have been this big outcry over the whole thing, right?

Playgoer said...

Larissa-- Thank you for that valuable summary.

It's a shame this is now being spun as a debate over, essentially, program notes. Of course we're all for that! And as for the Brits, they do THAT as well as, if not better than, anyone.

The Ulysses example: yet again, just as with Nicola invoking "More Statelt Mansions" we have a purely aesthetic case instead of political. I'm confused. Did NYTW fear the reactions to MNIRC would be analogous to the way unitiated readers respond to Joycean syntax and allusion?

And by the way, we do all know Ulysees did very well when it first came out with the aid of no notes whatsoever, right?

Playgoer said...


Pretty close, but the exact quote from the 2/28 NYT article is as follows:

"But Mr. Nicola said he was less worried about those who saw the show than those who simply heard about it.

''I don't think we were worried about the audience,'' he said. ''I think we were more worried that those who had never encountered her writing, never encountered the piece, would be using this as an opportunity to position their arguments.'' "

So I guess that could be construed either way. He could mean "not the audience" who's already seen it and loved it. But your reading actually stretched logic less!

Larissa said...

did it? I thought it at first only really enjoyed notoriety over its frank sex-talk, and that it took the small echelon of readers who could indeed supply their own context (in figuring out all the wierd stuff) to raise it to its present place in literature as a "great book"--and who eventually made it go down easier for everyone else by supplying the notes. in any case, I didn't feel Ulysses was a just example of why we need context, as it is understood to be a far more obscure (in terms of comprehensibility, not fame) work of literature than our ordinary, run of the mill, masterpiece.

Playgoer said...

Sorry, one more response to something Larisssa reported.

Actor's Visa? Will someone please confirm then whether or not the ONE actress for the play, Megan Dodds, is an American citizen as I have all along assumed. She's certainly American born and trained. She has apparently been working in London for the past decade, so I suppose it's possible she switched. This should be easily verifiable, perhaps by Dodds herself?

freespeechlover said...

Belligerent? Has anyone on this blog invading a sovereign foreign country or even advocated a preemptive strike against the NYTW?

Okay, so now we hit the maybe third cylinder of the engine driving the NYTW. They call it "context," although I still remain sceptical that what they would have wanted to do with the production wouldn't have in some way undermined the main voice that was too hot to handle--namely Rachel Corrie's. I sincerely hope that whatever negotiations Rickman is in take care with that, since it was Corrie and her voice that sent everyone into the agony and the ecstasy.

It sounds like Koszyn cares deeply about this thing called "context," which is another word for "meaning" or "framing" the production. There is nothing neutral about it, no matter how high blown the rhetoric around it. Koszyn knows that. So does everyone else.

What is contentious is when you "frame" the production in ways that deviate from what you do with other productions. At least, for me, and I readily claim this as a point of view rather than the god's eye view that these folks at the NYTW like to regularly grab onto when things get heated. (Again, I have to say, at least Nicola was transparent--as in "I don't want to fight this battle" as in potentially offending what he conceived of as some "edginess" among the Jewish community with which he is familiar).

Why do I take this position? Because if you claim to be a progressive theater, and you are located in a large, urban heterogeneous center, and you believe in democracy, you aren't squeamish about political "controversy." You lead through example, and others follow.

If you really HAVE to do the heavy "context" thing that these folks sound like they're into, here's one model--you call together members of the respective communities with stakes in the production. You do not claim that what you're doing is not limited. In fact, you announce it as an "experiment." You acknowledge your limits as a way of being accountable to "the community," which will always exceed your networks and range of perspective.

Then you give the community "reps" the task of setting up whatever "political" discussions they want to have. You co-sponsor and find a venue away from the theater. You insist that the reps work things out and you stand back and let it happen. You give people deadlines, so you can function. You are available for occasional mediation should people have problems coming to agreement. You don't allow hate speech, etc. and you do not choose religious leaders as reps.

But in the end you let others collaborate and thus become the "community" they can within the limits you've given them. You keep "the community" separate from the actual production, and you give it a limited role--like one of two nights. You live with whatever the reps come up with, because you're job is to facilitate not control.

Then you work on your job as a theater.

If the NYTW is listening, wouldn't that model get at some of your concerns without putting you in the untenable position in which you find yourself? Isn't that in some odd way what you ended up doing anyway?

As far as Jayme Koszyn's anger--well at least there's life there instead of this bad public relations strategy of being "shocked," and "injured," etc. etc. etc. Somebody had to express the passion of the theater's perspective.

Again, what strikes me and I find frankly worrying is how much the theater seems to have grasping certain concepts from basic American civics. The first one being that the citizen is robust. That means the citizen is not only permitted but expected to have stakes in the institutions that matter to them, with which they identify, etc. It also means that citizens get to engage each other in heated disputes and even try to passionately persuade each other to change their point of views.

What I find depressing about Koszyn's calling us "belligerent" is how far this country has gone down the road of suppressed freedom since 9/11. It seems that the Bush administration's rhetoric--we have been attacked, and therefore, things have to be different, we have to be different, may have seaped into places without anyone recognizing it. It's tragic and does not bode well for our future as a country that supposedly values liberty.

Larissa said...

let me specify: Koszyn did not use the word "belligerent" but her description of the tactics and arguments of the opposition and critics made them, us, in my opinion, sound belligerent (and unthinking) rather than legitimately concerned and critical. This may or may not be an accurate assessment, but the word itself was mine, not hers.....the "how dare you focus on the intellectual aspects of MNRC when this play is about passion!!" sum-up of the critics' outcry was hers, though.

freespeechlover said...

thanks for the correction. In other words, she was saying the play was about "passion," while dubbing us "the intellectuals." Intellectual passion is a form of passion to be sure. Maybe not Koszyn's cup of passion (sorry, bad mixing of metaphor).

Alison Croggon said...

Actually, I read it the other way - that the NYTW critics were being the passionate anti-intellectuals, whereas the NYTW were being intellectuals. Which I must say seems a total mischaracherisation of the debate: it was never about either of those things.

Larissa said...

exactly! thus my befuddlement...