I was asked to play the fly on the wall here, the outsider listening with a different ear. What did I hear?
I heard assertions of a crisis in the field of theatre, but with no comprehensive definition of what that crisis is.
Given the backdrop—the last, divisive meeting of leaders of commercial and not-for-profit theatre took place 26 years ago—I heard enormous commonality, of course; so many of you have commented on it. Whether because of smart collaborations or because of the challenges of adversity, I heard an enormous amount of sheer, shared professionalism. Many conferences divide into tribes of “professionals,” ranged against “wise guys” or dilettantes—none of that here.
I heard about thoughtful lessons, wisely learned; about how to find areas of complementary interest, about how to do business ad hoc and how to generalize from the ad hoc. Lessons like: work across the commercial/not-for-profit divide with “partners you know or who know the process”; “pick partners, not profits”; don’t operate so as to get “pulled out of shape,” so as to lose your identity.
And: come together fast in a crisis over politicization or freedom of expression.
And: given differing missions, understand the relativity of your respective definitions of a production’s “success” or “failure.”
I heard at the same time the persistence of the eternal dilemma: Given the fundamental differences among your respective missions, economics, structures and cultures, there’s a limit to how fully you can integrate beyond ad hoc deals and generalizations from them. That both inhibits and inspires discussion of such crucial topics as the tax code. Here is a situation that calls for rational diplomacy, and you have that in a new dynamic between the League of American Theatres and Producers and Theatre Communications Group, which brought us all here to talk.
Interlude for a brief free consultancy on press and public relations: There were so many references to the life-and-death power, the critical tyranny, of the New York Times, that subsequent references had to take note of the pile-up. But this is not a New York Times issue. It’s a one-newspaper city issue, and that makes it a national issue. I promise you, based on personal experience, it’s the rare arts editor out there who’s given serious thought to the question of job definition for critics, especially theatre critics, in the one-newspaper city setting. Is it consumer tipster; thumbs up, thumbs down? Aspiring George Jean Nathan? Someone engaged in public education, as it were? Someone engaged with the creative arts community in town, among other audiences, or segregated from it? It tends to be enough to say, “Film, music, theatre, books, art exhibits—even architecture and dance—yeah, we’ve got those bases covered.”
For a while the New York Times itself recognized the problem by regularly offering a second voice on Sunday to augment daily reviews. I don’t know what’s happened to that worthy system—why don’t you ask? Coming out of these conferences, given the rich exchanges on space issues, tax issues, audience issues, why don’t you, in your respective cities, ask for a meeting with the publisher, key editors, arts reporters and critics of your newspaper of record? The museums do no less. As part of the discussion, make the case that in a field today as broad and heterogeneous and complex as theatre, the “one voice” system diminisheth us all.
If that doesn’t work, get creative: Several weeks ago, after a rather odd performance by the New York Times Book Review concerning Philip Roth’s new novel, The Human Stain, Roth’s publisher took a sizeable ad on the book page of the daily Times reprinting, in full, a cogent review from the Wall Street Journal. There’s a model. Why not create a war chest to reprint worthy alternative critical voices, like those of Linda Winer at Newsday, or John Lahr and Nancy Franklin at The New Yorker, as display ads in the New York Times, and comparably in other cities, when you feel the occasion warrants it? You’d feel better, and so would readers and consumers, and I rather think it would prompt the Times and lesser papers to think harder about the one-voice issue.
Finally, in the early 1960s Elizabeth Hardwick published a devastating critique of the New York Times Book Review in Harper’s, which helped pave the way for the New York Review of Books, of which Hardwick was a founding editor. (The New York newspaper strike was, of course, the key.) Today the NYRB far out-shadows the NYTBR in intellectual influence. Instead of wasting energy complaining about the critical environment for theatre in New York over drinks and dinner, why doesn’t an eloquent one among you ponder the case deeply, write and publish a landmark critique and spark thinking about a new publication?
In any event, as director of the NAJP at Columbia, I’d be pleased to work with the League and TCG to bring 10 or 20 of you together with 10 or 20 theatre critics and their editors from around the country some time in the months ahead to talk about these issues.
Secondly, concerning your public relations, as an outsider I was astonished to hear reiterations of defensiveness about the status of theatre as a serious art form; of the idea that it bears the taint of vaudeville or something. It may be that to you the commercial vs. not-for-profit structure implies this, but that’s not how the public, or the press, views you.
After all, the consensus that in 1965 decreed for the arts a recognized, supported place in a great society, a consensus that included governmental, corporate and philanthropic elites, has lately told you to go it alone. As in the museum world, that’s not possible without collaborations between the domains of art and commerce. In these circumstances, the form of Aeschylus and Shakespeare and Shaw might swear off defensiveness.
From familiar territory to the more riddlesome: To my ears, there was a loud echo from discussions of other disciplines in what was said on the subject of “art vs. commerce” and “art in trouble.” The themes of “art in trouble,” and of tensions between “art” and “commerce” (or more generically, between the integrity of core values and the commercial imperative), dominate such fields today as visual art and the museum world, the book business, the music business, higher education and the news business, for starters. And yet the only reference to other disciplines was in a side conversation or two about the Brooklyn Museum/”Sensation” cause célèbre. The fact is that the larger, systemic state of affairs defines the difference between the cultural environment of today and that of 26 years ago, when you last met.
Indeed, the field of theatre no less than those of music, visual arts, books and the news business, has been caught in two train wrecks since 1974. Those wrecks are much bigger than all of you or any of them, even put together.
The first is the explosion of the “capital-E” Entertainment Industry, with all that means: the triumph of television over print, the convergence of television and Hollywood, the buzz industry, the flood of digitalized special effects and of a computer-driven marketing industry. And this has happened in parallel pace with the erosion of our political culture. In place of a politics of serious public issues, one that engages the public broadly, we have politics defined broadly by entertainment and television values—image, artificial bids for attention span, spin and the rest—and narrowly by what are called “wedge issues,” representations of ideological hysteria. There are not a few jointly occasioned consequences thereby for artistic content.
The second train wreck since 1974 in which theatre and other forms has been caught is “the culture wars”—so rarely defined except in reflexive lines about the preciousness of creativity and free expression, in response to assaults from the Right. You along with everyone else have failed to preach beyond the converted in defense of the arts against know-nothing demagogues, let alone more thoughtful adversaries. We’ve had no magisterial statement of the case for the arts from other disciplines, from the NEA, or from supporters of the arts in politics and in the press.
You can’t prevail in such a fight without a passionate constituency capable of mobilizing a consensus. That constituency was there in an era of common culture and revered canon, when the great idea was to share the artistic and cultural wealth. Lyndon Johnson rarely read a book or went to the theatre, but he was smart enough to understand the arguments that led to the creation of the NEA, the Kennedy Center and more.
The difference between then and now goes by another sound bite term, “postmodernism.” Postmodernism hardly commands a constituency comparable in passion to that for sharing the cultural wealth in 1965. How could it when so much of its core is designed to mock, to alienate, to confuse, and achieve those goals not only with the yahoos and Neanderthals? Art that partakes so exclusively of absurdist irony, stylish cynicism, nihilism, affect and attitude does not engage the public on the order of art dealing with war and peace or social justice. I’m not talking about “message plays.” I’m talking about the cultural environment, the zeitgeist, the question of what of deep meaning on stage today, beyond a rare exception like Copenhagen, art asks, or can get people, to care about.
I heard aspects of this larger cultural environment touched on in historical contexts, but nothing more than touched on. Rocco Landesman asked, “Where is the vision of Tyrone Guthrie or Joe Papp?” Gordon Davidson spoke of the need to conceive of theatre nationally and globally—its evolution from the classical repertoire, outward from that repertoire and from New York in the era of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. Daniel Renner called theatre the essence of community. Other than that I heard practically nothing about the content of theatre today, and of its grand sweep over time.
Put these two train wrecks together: First, the explosion of the Entertainment Industry, defining so much of our culture and our economy, filling so much of the vacuum in our political culture. Second, the “culture wars”: not the set of sound bite spitting barbarians of the Right against the Struggling Arts, but rather as an indicator of postmodern public distance from a shared culture, a culture engaged with a broad-based politics; off instead into escapism, identity politics, consumer gadgetry, cults of markets and money.
Add those all up, and it’s hardly surprising that there is so little today of what theatre is historically about: a theatre of ideas, and of the soul. And add all this up with the obvious aspects of crisis times for theatre that were discussed: a crisis of supply, demand and cost. (As Kathleen Chalfant said here, “Theatre is not an efficient way to make money”). Given the lure of the Entertainment Industry and the lack of a broad-based theatre of ideas, given the daunting financial prospects for young artists, the reasons why so much of your young talent goes to television and Hollywood are compounded.
And more déjà vu. Echoing Kathleen Chalfant’s thought about the inefficiencies of the theatre business, the parallels between your troubles and those of the news business are striking. From a family ownership structure that mixed the values of public trust and business, the news industry has turned increasingly commercial, and its “product” increasingly by-the-numbers. Yet a minority of smart managers understands the meaning of the traditional duality of the field, never in the past: “just a business.” Indeed some of the others, Mark Willes at Times Mirror and the corporate television syndrome that was grist for the film The Insider, take the commercial imperative out the window, and are ultimately the authors of their own failures.
Okay, what to do: Ben Franklin on hanging together lest you hang separately was cited more than once, but I don’t think you can rest on that happy thought. A promotional campaign on the order of “Got milk?” has its appeal, but a mantra like “Theatre is good for you” doesn’t cut it. The issues are larger. In a rather barren, commercialized cultural environment, serious, difficult art won’t be adequately defended without a vast effort transcending promotion. Liz McCann mentioned Michael Frayn’s background essay inserted into the Copenhagen playbill. You’re talking about more arts education in the schools. You need to be talking about adult education by other means, about interpreting difficult and often confrontational postmodernist content as it will not do for itself, and articulating beyond clichés the place of arts in a non-heroic, unengaged time.
There was reference to the way the environmental cause was galvanized, and of the campaigns against smoking and drunk driving, which reshaped social norms. Those were movements. The first fused politics and environmentalism. It surfaced politically in Eugene McCarthy’s pollsters’ surveys of what irked Los Angeles voters in the 1968 Democratic presidential primary in California. Answer: smog. It got into the campaign and two years later came Earth Day. The movement was so forceful that it was in the Nixon Administration that the Environmental Protection Agency was born. The smoking and drunk driving efforts were the work of advocates teaming up with outfits like the Harvard School of Public Health.
In sum: you are all in one way and another professional entrepreneurs now. It’s time for you to become intellectual entrepreneurs. It’s been a pleasure to hear you talk so movingly and insightfully and wittily—and in such good English, a conference rarity—to each other. I suggest it’s time to involve social scientists and political thinkers and, yes, journalists and critics, in a larger discussion about the present and future of American arts and culture, and about one of its great arenas, the theatre.
Michael Janeway is director of the National Arts Journalism Program at Columbia University and a professor at its Graduate School of Journalism. He is a former editor of The Boston Globe; dean of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism; and author of Republic of Denial: Press, Politics, and Public Life (Yale University Press, 1999).