Author Archives: bloodinthestone

About bloodinthestone

We are a collective of theatre artists who know better than to claim to know what that means.

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.


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.


Preface

The influence of corporate money has polluted our democracy.
The influence of corporate money has polluted our theatre.
The two are inextricably linked.
We do not have the power (money) to fix our political system.
Therefore we must fix our theatre.
This is the Necessary Theatre, not only because we only use that which is necessary, but because it is necessary for the public discourse that a forum exist outside the influence of corporate wealth.

The Process is the Product.


Occupy Broadway!

When: Dec. 2 at 6:00pm until Dec. 3 at 6:00pm

Where: Times Square by the red stairs, between 46th and 47th streets, along 7th Ave, New York, NY

On Dec 2nd at 6pm, hundreds of performers and artists will occupy a privately owned public space in Times Square with 24 hours of non-stop free performances.

In recent weeks, we have seen a push to tramp on our rights to public assembly, public space and by extension democracy itself.
In response, we join a global struggle from Tahrir Square to Davis, California with occupation as a form of creative resistance. Rather than oppose something, we are using public space to create a more colorful image of what our streets could look like, with public performances, art, and music in once vacant corporate, bonus plazas. Through this movement, New York re-imagines itself as a work of art, rather than a retail shopping mall. With capitalism gone mad, foreclosures increasing, and bank crises consuming whole communities, we are signaling through the flames that there is another way of living. Join us.
Occupy public space. Reclaim democracy. We are all part of the show! and the show must go on!

TEXT LOOP Location release!!!!!:
To join the sms text loop for location updates:
send a text to: 9072446426 with yourfirstname yourphonenumber with no dashes or spaces

it should look like this:

to: 9072446426
your name 5555555555

Sign our Manifesto online here: http://www.change.org/petitions/mayor-bloomberg-and-the-citizens-of-new-york-city-join-the-creative-resistance-occupy-broadway

THE SCHEDULE:

6pm Rude Mechanical Orchestra Meet at Duffy Square and lead to location
6pm-7pm carnival performers for opening ceremonies- Kate Brehm puff on stilts, magician, hoopers, Juggler unicyclist, clowns
6pm-7pm Ben Shepard MC Welcome, manifesto, First Amendment
6pm-7pm Reverend Billy sermon
ongoing from 7:00 PM WashMachine Productions
7:00 PM THE FOUNDRY THEATRE
7:15 PM The Civilians
7:30 PM The NY Labor Chorus
7:45 PM Penny Arcade
8:00 PM Dzieci
8:30 PM Five minute song interlude- Beau Borrero
8:35 PM Hungry March Band
9:00 PM HERE Arts Center/ Kristin Marting/ Jenny romaine MC
8-10 or 10-12 TBD short pieces Adam Ende Puppetry
9:30 PM Urban Research Theater company
9:30 PM tiana hemlock 7 min dance
9:50 PM Great Small Works
10:10 PM Jay stolar
10:30 PM The Living Theater
11:00 PM Bread and Puppet Theater/ Reno MC
11:30 PM jandthe9s
12:00 AM Mike Daisey
12:30 AM Kenny Wollesen’s Sonic Massage
1:00 AM Dramatic Karaoke
1:00 AM Descent Artists- Gravity
1:30 AM Jesse Ricke 5min, UZIMON 10min, Tent Peg Theater 20min
2:00 AM Corporate Scary ghost stories
3am-5am The People Staged
5am- sunrise Kim Fraczek and tango dancers at dawn
7:30 AM Consensus Dance Jazzercise
8:00 AM OWS Puppet Guild
8:30AM reed mcgowan puppets
9:00 AM Open mic/ peoples staged
9:30 AM General Assembly
10:00 AM Aaron Landsman from Elevator Repair Service
10:30 AM Project Girl performance
10:30 AM Antigone
11:00 AM Tony Torn Family Show!
11:30 AM Radical Faeries and Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence morning ritual
12:00 PM Music Working Group
1:00 PM Kathleen Chalfant and Elliot Crown
1:10 PM Marina Tsaplina solo
1:20 PM Elliot Crown – Occupy Clown show (w/Marina, Mike deSeve, Elliot)
1:30 PM Marionette -Cosmic Bicycle Theater
1:30 PM Lopi LeRoe’s student Debt performance piece
2:00 PM The Yes Men
2:20 PM THE TEAM
2:30 PM Iron Falcon
3:00 PM The Big Bank – A Musical
3:20 PM Adam Rapp one act and 10 min plays
4:00 PM Heelz on wheelz
4:15 PM April Yvette Thompson, Jessica Blank
4:30 PM Carlo Alban/Spanish songs-juggling
5:00 PM Judith Sloan, Yo Miss!
5:20 PM Yolanda Kay, Neo-Futurists
5:40 PM grand finale!Rocha dance/ Church of Stop Shopping sing the First Amendment
6:00PM END!


#ows

There are facts we cannot avoid.

If you are in the Theatre, so to speak, whatever that means to you, you must believe in one simple principle, whether you’re a Beatles’ fan or not:  I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.

For whatever reason, you may not care to hear that.  It’s a fact, though.  Without that simple axiom, theatre makes no sense.  No matter how much, or little, one clings to Aristotle’s aesthetic principles, it is impossible to justify or examine the incredible expenditure of labor and talent that theatre requires without acknowledging the obvious fact that I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.

We have more in common than we don’t.

We live in a body politic, and every decision I make affects him and whatever you do affects her and whoever you are informs who I am and we all live in a a vibrant biosphere.

This is the moment in human history for which the theatre was born.  We can deal with this.  We were built for this.  We have several millennia of cultural history to inform us, and we have been the laboratory for the social contract for as long as we collectively remember.

We are the original People’s Mic.

We have a responsibility to our neighbors, our fellows, our cousins.   If we are telling any other story at this moment, we are lax in our responsibilities to our neighbors, our fellows, our cousins.  The future of our art is (justifiably) dim if we do not embrace this moment as our own.

Theatre is a movement.  It exists only in the present.

There are facts we cannot avoid.


tear down the (fourth) wall

True story.

I go to see a play. House opens. I walk in. I’m essentially onstage. But there’s no one there. There are chairs off to my right. So I and everyone else entering the theater go to those chairs, pick the one that’s right for each of us. I sit down, open my program, glance at the stage, wait for the show to begin. It begins. There’s a play happening in front of me. And I’m bored out of my skull. This is in part because I think it’s a bad play. It’s well-acted, badly directed, and the design is entirely forgettable. But this is not why I’m bored, not really. I’m bored because all I can really focus on is one of the most basic theater-going principals, something we’ve all lived with our entire theater going and making lives: that gaping divide between the stage and the audience.

Why is it there?

"Get me outta here! Ican'tstaaandit!"

And no, I’m not being flippant. Really think about it. Why is there still a divide between the stage and the audience? I guess the simple answer is, “Because there was always a divide. From the time of the Greeks to the contemporary world, it allows the audience to understand that this is a heightened world, a simulacrum–”

<shut it, scholar. step aside.>

That’s all well and fine, and I love tradition too. (Seriously. Ask my mom how I feel about Christmas traditions.) But I can’t for the life of me understand why we’re still keeping the audience separate from the play. Not that that’s what we’re trying to do, but that’s what it feels like. We live in an age where I can carry whole universes of entertainment around with me. At any time I can turn on my computer and have access to pretty much any song that’s ever been recorded. I can watch TV shows old and new, stream favorite movies at the drop of a hat and all while chatting with friends who are watching the choose your own adventure variety show that is YouTube.

Everything I want, whether it’s pure entertainment (yes, I’m looking at you, True Blood), or riveting, thought-provoking drama (RIP The Wire) is accessible via a barely 5 lb. machine that I can carry with my left arm. And if you know my left arm, you know that’s saying something. But I go into the theater and even if I’m sitting in the front row, I feel like the stage is a world away.

Now part of this is definitely connected to the fact that the way we receive stories as a technically-saturated society is changing radically and quickly because we are, in fact, surrounded by so much media wherever we go. And now I’m watching a play and I can’t get the close-up that eliminates the need for the long explanatory monologue, but that’s not what I’m asking for. The thing that keeps theater vibrant and relevant and dangerous is the fact that it’s happening live in front of you. Seems an obvious observation, but from the way plays are too often being produced today, you’d almost think it a revolutionary concept. In a world where you can essentially choose your own content, who wants to go to a play, be forced to sit in one place and feel like you’re being ignored because there’s an invisible fourth wall between you and the shit you’ve come to see?

Our age of instant, on-demand, DIY media has torn down the wall between audience and producer. It’s why even network television–especially network television–has been forced to innovate and take risks. But in the theater keep doing the same things in the same ways. Or we look for ridiculous answers to distract the audience from realizing that they’re bored.

“Let’s design elaborate, moving scenery that appears to move on its own. And throw in some video while we’re at it!”

<n.b. all you automation and video folks out there, I’m not decrying what you do. rather, I’m pointing out how directors seem to love to throw up smoke screens to disguise really long (and usually unnecessary) set changes. guess what. it’s a dodge. we’re still out here, still bored, still feeling left out of the party.>

My idea then: innovate by getting back to basics. The first theater was some Neanderthal creating shadow creatures on the cave wall and doing all the voices. That is the quintessential live, communal, storytelling experience–It’s why ghost stories at sleepovers are still popular. (They are, aren’t they?) And what do these two events have in common? No audience, no stage. It’s all one. Invite them in, make them a part of it. And I’m not talking about crazy experimental plays, nor am I saying that every play should include direct audience participation if only because the experimental, environmental world is already doing that. No, let’s do conventional plays in unconventional ways.

True Stories.

My friends at Chalk Rep in Los Angeles are already doing this (though I would challenge them to go further with it).

For “We declare you a terrorost…” at SPF 2009, we redirected the audience away from the door that clearly led to the theater. Instead they were greeted by dour-looking, severely dressed individuals who communicated only with rudimentary gestures to tell the audience where to go, and before they knew what was going on, they were onstage, surrounded by the characters they were about to follow for the next 75 minutes and being viewed by their fellow audience members who had just gone through a similar experience and were now reverted to role of spectator.* (I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that watching the audience cross that stage wasn’t my favorite part of the night.) Ultimately, the audience ended up where they expected to: with that gaping chasm between them and the stage, but I really feel that they came at the play differently for having had to cross that gap.

So don’t close up the wall with our English dead. Tear it down I say. Hey! Teachers! Leave them kids alone. And you too, Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this (fourth) wall.

*I have to thank Niegel Smith for coming up with the alternate entrance idea. He’d probably try to deflect and say it was the team’s idea, but first and foremost it was his. I didn’t realize at the time just how much of a revolution he was stirring up inside me.


the elephant in the room

“From the viewpoint of analytic psychology, the theatre, aside from any aesthetic value, may be considered as an institution for the treatment of the mass complex.”

-Carl Jung, Psychology of the Unconscious

In all of the bloviating and grandstanding about the country’s very real unemployment crisis and the awkward silence about its constant shadow, hopelessness, the Arts remain unmentioned outside of the usual ever-tightening concentric circles of artists and administrators.  Our crumbling bridges must be repaired so goods may be delivered.  Our children must be educated in clean, modern schools to become engaged, informed, discerning citizens.  The American Theatre, too, is an economic engine and the key to a functioning democracy.  Somehow the President overlooked it in his address to Congress.  It’s hard to blame him.

do you see what she sees?

Maybe it’s because of what we call our work.  “Play” does not bring to mind the enormous amount of expertise and labor leveraged into a single performance.  If only people could feel the buzzing intensity of a technical rehearsal.  If only they could see an actor’s bruises.  If only they could see the designer’s ink-stained hands and clothes.  If only they could watch an intern fall twelve feet from deck to concrete on a way-too-late night, and greet her the next morning as she sorts gels with what is now her good hand.

The growing trend of blogging from backstage and tweeting from the rehearsal rooms is a tear in this veil, but it is tightly packaged and reeks of marketing.  While the conversations we have are rooted in the implicit value of theatre sprung from a total immersion in its very real financial, physical, and psychic costs, the audience (not just the anticipated percentage, but the totality of potential audience, which is to say:  everybody) remains largely unconvinced that there’s anything going on other than the exchange of currency for spectacle and entertainment.

****WARNING!  FIRST PERSON SINGULAR VOICED ANECDOTE!********

Years ago, I was an understudy in a production of Noises Off.  Rather than have the set rotate, the audience was ushered, by yours truly and the rest of the understudy gang, to pine bleachers that had been built “backstage” in what was basically an in-the-round set-up.  One night a woman sat on the bleacher and clutched my sleeve.

-Excuse me, I have a question.

-Yes, ma’am?

-How much did this cost?

-Excuse me?

-Because it seems as though that (pointing to the set) costs as much as this (eyes rolling towards the pine) and my ticket was $XX.

As it happened, I had spent the summer working over-hire for the scene shop.  I’d picked up the wood from the lumber yard.  I had, in fact, personally belt sanded every inch of those hundreds of yards of pine. (Incidentally, this is how I learned that I’m allergic to pine.  Thankfully this is no great loss to carpentry)  I had a pretty good idea of what the backstage cost.

-Eleventy billion.

-Pardon?

-It cost eleventy billion dollars.  Enjoy the second act!

This was maybe ten days after September 11, 2001.

In her defense, she had been told by the president that it was her civic duty to spend.  Value as commodity clearly superseded value as communal joy.

*******TRUE STORY***********

Were the audience invited backstage, or into the rehearsal hall, perhaps they would understand that Theatre is Labor (and art.  yes, art.  but not until the audience arrives), and Labor has intrinsic value.  Backstage is a safety concern, to be sure, but the rehearsal hall is one of the safest places on Earth.  Nothing should happen in there that wouldn’t or couldn’t happen onstage.  If we invited the audience to truly see us fail, pick ourselves up and then fail again, maybe they’d see the value we see.  Maybe they’d always be part of the conversation.  They would probably return the favor.

Is it enough to de-mystify the value of the work?  Of course not, but it is a necessary step if the Theatre is ever to become a part of the national discourse.  For Theatre to become Infrastructure, it must be defined by its engagement with the very real and very immediate concerns of not just the idea of who the audience may be, but who the audience could be, and what they care about.

According to the 2010 census, 15.1% of the country lives in poverty.  That’s 46.2 million individuals with something on their collective minds.  That’s a population that would rank 27th in the world, between the total populations of Myanmar and Spain.

Can the American Theatre at the very least be perpetually discursive about the topic on everyone’s minds?  Can it ignore the elephant in the room?  If our Theatre is not directly addressing the crises in our audience’s lives, what are we talking about?  and for whom?  and how does it relate to that elephant?

Should there suddenly be a slew of Grapes of Wrath productions?  Should the dust be blown off of Odets?  Possibly, but the daily tragedies and absurd farces of contemporary life are fertile theatrical ground in their own right that demand attention from the generation living them.  If the American Theatre is to be a part of the national conversation, it must offer itself as a forum to explore and engage the critical issues of the moment.