Monthly Archives: August 2013

John T. Ashton, 1918-2013

I’m going to stray into the autobiographical today and, as you may have noticed, the first person. I loathe the first person, because it’s implicit in this form, but the subject demands it.

My grandfather died today, but I’m not talking about that, yet.

He's on the right. I'm on the far left.

He’s on the right. I’m on the far left.

My father is a minister. Every Sunday he stands in front of a couple hundred people and does his best to provide some kind of magnetism for the compass of their lives. Take away the magic, the fable, the systematic oppression of thousands of years of mythology and indoctrination, and at its core you’ll find people sitting together and sharing a communal event; a collective suspension of disbelief to navigate the troubled waters of everyday life.

As long as I’ve known him, which is to say my whole life, to one extent or another, my dad has been accosted by young potential seminarians. They ask him about pursuing the clergy as a vocation, and his response is always the same.

Can you do anything else?

Their response is predictable; some variation of:

Huh?

His riposte:

-Because if you can do anything else, anything at all, do it.

He keeps it in his back pocket. It’s a wonderful little joke to him and, like all good jokes, is achingly true.

I wish more ministers of theatre gave such advice, but they generally suckle at the academic teat and fear for their own solvency. If they honestly told any of their young charges, “This isn’t for you. Can you do anything else?”, they would be preaching to empty pews. Their funding would be cut. Their dreams of tenure would dwindle. Honesty is just too costly in theatre, because the instructors care more for themselves than their vocation, or the future of their craft.

I’m told I’m too aggressive and antagonistic, but tonight I just don’t care.

My grandfather died today. He was 94 and had a tumor in his lung. He refused treatment. He was ready, and I’m proud of him for that. I’ll get to him in a moment. Don’t worry. He has time.

Sometimes I think I do this, this thing, this gross and sublime display, this Theatre, this theater, this whatever this is, because I’m just in too deep. I earned an MFA at the expense of unspeakable debt, but am cautiously proud of a registered and notarized mastery of this art, yet I don’t consider myself an artist. It feels too much like a choice. I’ve neglected too many relationships, half-assed too many jobs, and abandoned too much comfort to go back now. Credit, I tell myself, is for suckers. An AmEx is a signifier of complicity. It may as well be a red armband around a khaki sleeve.

This thing I do, to which I’ve sacrificed all or most of what is considered valuable by people who value such things, is far, far bigger than myself. That moment when the audience breathes with you, when several hundred people take a collective breath and to one degree or another experience a shade of some shared human something is worth more than I could have earned as a doctor, or a lawyer, or a theoretical physicist (all of which are fantastic things, and more people should do those things for the right reasons outside of the meritocracy and its tired, predictable demands). It’s an instant, but it’s worth the whole universe. Is there a single thing in life better than weakening the walls between people? Success is defined by how many human beings recognize themselves in each other, right?

Could I do anything else?

Absolutely not.

Several years ago, I was doing what was probably my fourth A Christmas Carol. Among other things, I was The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come. I’m 6’3”, and this was probably my most important qualification for the part, because the costume was basically a giant backpack with a puppet that extended two and a half feet or so over my head, with two wide skeletal arms I operated from within a giant black cloak. In costume I was over 8 feet, and my job was to basically follow a robotic light around the stage and make some meticulously choreographed gestures. I could see, more or less, through a fine mesh that was hopefully, usually, in front of my eyes.

One night, well into the run (which consisted of 10 show weeks by and large—this is not to complain, but to give context), when much of the show, particularly the stuff you do inside a giant black puppet that reeks of your own sweat, is pure muscle memory, when your brain can just check out (again, inside a giant puppet), I had a remarkable experience.

Scrooge was realizing the depths of his sins as he watched the Cratchits mourn their poor Tiny Tim. I was bored. I wanted to scratch my nose, but couldn’t justify swinging my giant, bony fingers towards my nose, which was the midsection of my enormous glow-in-the-dark puppet. I took a deep breath, and tried to focus on the audience. There, in the second row, was a middle-aged man, weeping. He wasn’t crying. He wasn’t having a thoughtful trickle of tears slide down his cheeks. He was sobbing; heaving. Beside him, attached to him, was a boy of about 8 with a smooth, freshly shaved head, watching quietly, at peace.

There was a comfort there that you cannot find in any place in the world. They had no idea I was staring at them as father mourned in expectation and son found peace–I still lose my breath at the thought of it–I have no idea where he found that peace, but his eyes were clear and bright and full of understanding.

Theatre is a religion, where we find mutual peace and understanding in our communion. That moment between father and son (and me, parenthetically), constantly challenges and informs my understanding of theater, or Theatre, or whatever this is, this gross and sublime display.

My grandfather died today. He was 94. He fought during the entirety of the second world war. He had two children. He buried two wives. He was kind and decent and grew wonderful, juicy tomatoes. He had a slice of white bread with every meal and drove an ancient Chevy truck until he couldn’t anymore, a moment he recognized before anyone else because he was an examiner at the DMV.

I may not be able to attend his funeral, because last minute tickets to Louisville are unreasonably expensive, and because when someone asked me

Can you do anything else?

I said no.

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On Apathy and Despair

“All over the place, from the popular culture to the propaganda system, there is constant pressure to make people feel that they are helpless, that the only role they can have is to ratify decisions and to consume.”

― Noam Chomsky

“We have to be better friends of reality: all of man’s activities – including of course, all the arts, especially theater – are political. And theater is the most perfect artistic form of coercion.”

– Augusto Boal

 On February 15, 2003, between 6 and 10 million people in over 600 cities poured into the streets to protest the coming war in Iraq. It was the largest political protest in the history of humanity. We were met with batons, pepper spray, and, most damaging of all, indifference. It wasn’t just that there were no weapons of mass destruction (there weren’t), or that there wasn’t a connection between the regime of Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden (other than mutual disdain). For many of us, it was the simple premise that violence solves nothing. Ever. In fact, Iraqi civilians suffered anywhere from 100,000 to 1,000,000 deaths as a direct result of the American invasion, but who’s counting?

In the final analysis, it doesn’t matter how right or righteous we were. We were met with a solid wall of utter and absolute indifference. The influence of corporate and political power coupled with the narcissistic fear of the comfortable was unbreakable and unimpeachable.

With some notable exceptions, the response to the general apathy towards THE MOST IMPORTANT THING HAPPENING IN THE WORLD AT THAT MOMENT (emphasis mine) was despair. Between 6 and 10 million people threw up their hands and went back to whatever it was they were doing. There were arrests, beatings, some imprisonment, but in the end most of us just went back to keeping ourselves as comfortable as possible.
If the united voice of between 6 and 10 million people couldn’t be heard, what could one possibly do? Why stand up? Why speak out? What good is howling into a hurricane?

Why theatre?

Look at it: In the experience of the populace at large (what I like to think of as a thing called “the audience”), the American Theatre is a system of endowed institutions supported in large part by corporations and, to a lesser extent, government funding, and, to an even lesser extent, ticket sales.  They’re mostly run by middle-aged white men and employ mostly middle-aged white men. They present productions which aggrandize the bourgeois experience by making it epic, by writing it large, by reifying it. Even in the context of an illegal war, a revival of All My Sons–a Greek tragedy-inspired, protest play–would do nothing but expunge guilt over murderous complicity. In the predominant climate, it would fail to make one re-examine one’s relationship with atrocity. Rather it would expunge our negative feelings associated with the commodity of violence, relegating the audience to “viewer,” a passive ticket buyer, who watches, goes home, and gets back to the business of passive consumption and apathy.

Catharsis, as Boal points out, in many respects is the ultimate tool of the bourgeois state apparatus. Those people up there on the stage feel things so that the audience can sorta feel those things and then go home. That’s it. That’s the story.

Image

easy to assemble. batteries not included.

But the Theatre is better than that. It ought to be better than that and therefore can be better than that. It must.

The entire notion of what constitutes an audience must be redefined. The Theatre must find a way to reach the least among us. We must speak to the millions of people (again, what I like to think of as “the audience”) who have never been directly addressed by Theatre. How? The theatre must be free. So long as there is an economic barrier which prevents vast swaths of our democracy from being engaged by the civic laboratory that is the Theatre, there is no Theatre.

We must redefine the audience-spectator relationship in a meaningful way. The us/them dynamic of the proscenium must be relegated to the dustbin of history, where it belongs. There have been strides in this in the last 50 years, but they are glacially slow and rarely up to the challenges of the information age. You’re annoyed by people texting and tweeting during your play? It’s easy: make the play more viscerally engaging. Make it impossible to look away. Try making your play more interesting and informative than 140 characters. Do better work.

It is necessary to view every decision as sociopolitical. Every choice is not just about you, the institution, but about us, the community. The theatre is describing us at that very instant. It’s asking us who we are, not telling us who we have been, or might be.

If we want to combat the twin poisons of apathy and despair that prevail in the mass consciousness, we must begin to believe that the Theatre is the antidote.

Boal, quoted above, was kidnapped off the street, tortured and exiled for attempting to de-pacify the spectator. Was it such a threat to Power, this notion that someone at a play might feel as though they were an active part of that play and that a citizen might feel as though she were an active part of the world, as though she were alive, that a theatre director should be persecuted by the state?

Yes.

We may not live in that time, or under that regime, but wouldn’t it be delicious to put something up that might get you arrested? To start a conversation that could end in sedition?

Wouldn’t it be nice to feel alive?

The crisis of the American Theatre, the why theatre? question that lurks around every corner, is simply that the Theatre doesn’t take itself seriously enough; as if it were afraid of its own power. It’s a shameful question to ask.

Why Theatre?

Because: Theatre.