a word of warning: contemporary theatre, “interactivity,” and the problem of (neo)fascist thought

“It is the lack of the experience of the imagery of real art, partly substituted and parodied by the ready-made stereotypes of the amusement industry, which is at least one of the formative elements of the cynicism that has finally transformed the Germans, Beethoven’s own people, into Hitler’s own people.”

– Theodor W. Adorno (see here)

I’ve come across a couple of issues, literally overnight, that I find quite disconcerting. As you might have read here, I’ve been pondering the difference between art and entertainment. Or, more specifically, I’ve been thinking about the increasing commodification and entertainmentization of theatre, which has resulted in the loss of theatre’s essence: liveness—the mutual exchange between artist and spectator, which allows for a politically potent, democratic, collective experience. Disconcertingly, theatre has transformed into a presentational medium that tells (and sells) stories.

Perhaps as a result of this trend (?), the folks at Playwrights Theatre Centre in Vancouver have been thinking lots about audience interactivity lately. They’re organizing a panel discussion about it, inviting experts from the video gaming industry to get their take on “interactivity.” In light of these activities, they posted a BBC podcast to their Facebook page, which examines the UK’s interactive theatre scene. You might have heard of Punchdrunk, YouMeBumBumTrain, Artichoke, and other companies who stage interactive shows in non-traditional, site-specific venues.

The thing about this BBC podcast is that it features one theatre critic who criticizes these “shows ,” or at least aspects of them, as “low-level fascism.” And for that he is more or less subtly ridiculed by the speaker, made to look throughout the report like a kind of “party pooper.” I felt that his impression of these events should be taken seriously, even if (or maybe precisely because) it seemed like a gut-type reaction. A bit of research into these types of shows reveals that their success is based on a) giving orders to, and commanding spectators, b) swearing spectators into secrecy, c) causing a profound sense of disorientation by ambushing spectators in the dark, and d) extreme exposure to violence and sex. All of these factors evidently combine to produce a kind of emotional catharsis and false sense of community among the audience. So. Suddenly “low-level fascism” doesn’t seem so crass a choice of words anymore. And the names “punch-drunk,” and “art-i-choke” are beginning to take on a different, suspect sound. Shame on the BBC for such one-sided, uncritical journalism, and for mockingly marginalizing that lone dissenting critic. What a travesty of theatre criticism. Yikes. So here’s what I said to PTC on Facebook:

“From what I can tell, the paternalism and transgression he’s experienced as part of these events could indeed qualify as a type of ‘low-level fascist’ herding—especially in connection with the type of emotional purging and exposure to violence that seems to be at play [in these events]. In my opinion, our craving for this type of visceral, immersive experience (which some call ‘theatre’) is in part caused by our desensitization towards violence through mass media. These types of performances could just be another outlet for our insatiable desire for suspense and sensationalism, thus acting as a kind of extension of the media and its agenda. I don’t see any room for, or goal of, societal critique or transformation here. It’s rather the opposite, I’d say. It seems to me that this type of performance is capitalizing on, and pandering to, our desensitization and desires, not problematizing them. So yes, this type of site-specific theatre does then indeed qualify as a kind of neo-fascistic amusement park pornography that’s somehow appropriated the term ‘theatre’ for its purposes.”

This morning I had received a response from PTC’s Community Engagement Coordinator, Alice Honiqin. She first makes a few remarks about fascism, but what really matters is what she says about theatre and entertainment (in bold):

“(…) I think you made a distinction in your comment between what seems to me as entertainment versus theatre. Theatre may be entertaining but it should have room for societal critique and potential transformation. In that case, I think the answer to the question of It’s Fun but Is it Theatre? is probably no it’s not. Still, I’m not sure that audiences know explicitly that theatre is not simply another form of entertainment. Interactivity in theatre may be a tool to increase audience engagement from those who are looking for a different type of entertainment experience as participants rather than viewing audience members (although their reactions as viewers already influence actors’ performances) (…).”

Alice makes a crucial point: our audiences do not know the difference between theatre and entertainment. As Adorno suggests above, that alone is deeply disconcerting. Our audiences can’t tell the difference between art, which interrogates and problematizes the system, and entertainment, which panders to it. Admittedly (and paradoxically), this line has become almost indiscernibly fine and blurry. After all, politics have turned into a movie, featuring Rob Ford as crack-smoking protagonist, and theatre has turned into a wishy-washy story machine.

How have we as artists, the interrogators and imaginers of society, let it get this far? Do we ourselves still know the difference of art versus entertainment? Do we understand that we’ve been coopted by the same forces who run the media? Do we realize that we’re being used for their purposes, acting as an extension of their agenda? Do we understand that these types of events contain neo-fascistic attributes and capitalize on our carnal desires without problematizing them? Do we understand that people are partaking in this, potentially thinking they’re enjoying theatre, an event that’s supposed to have cultural and societal value?

Ironically, some pop artists today have more in common with Shakespeare than we do. They comprehend the system in which they’re operating and they’re using it to their advantage. They’ve found ways of using their highly commodified form to put forth their own artistic agenda. There is more interesting, important, and valuable art happening in pop music right now than there is in theatre, because we’re too slow in realizing and practicing our position and mandate. What an embarrassment.

But it gets worse. This morning, I also awoke (literally and metaphorically) to a new comment on my first article. In an attempt to “save” the theatre, the commenter is suggesting—or rather resorting to—a number of measures, which qualify as deeply disconcerting. You can find the whole comment at the bottom of this, but for the purposes of this discussion, I’m only posting a few parts here:

“[…] 3. Produce dirty, fast, and often. […] 5. Sunday school is the most successful guerrilla education program in American history. Steal it. People with young children should be able to show up and drop their kids off with some young actors in a rehearsal room for two hours of theater games. The benefits: First, it will be easier to convince the nouveau riche (many of whom have young children) to commit to season tickets. Second, it will satisfy your education mission (and will be more fun, and therefore more effective, for the kids). Third, it will teach children to go to the theater regularly. And they’ll look forward to the day they graduate to sitting with the grown-ups. Getting dragged to the theater will shift from punishment to reward. […] 7. Build bars. Alcohol is the only liquid on earth that functions as both lubricant and bonding agent. Exploit it. Treat your plays like parties and your audience like guests. Encourage them to come early, drink lots, and stay late. Even the meanest fringe company can afford a tub full of ice and beer, and the state of regional- theater bars is deplorable: long lines, overpriced drinks, and a famine of comfortable chairs. Theaters try to “build community” with postplay talkbacks and lectures and other versions of you’ve spent two hours watching my play, now look at me some more! You want community? Give people a place to sit, something to talk about (the play they just saw), and a bottle. As a gesture of hospitality, offer people who want to quit at intermission a free drink, so they can wait for their companions who are watching act two. Just take care of people. They get drinks, you get money, everybody wins. Tax, zoning, and liquor laws in your way? Change them or ignore them. Do what it takes. 8. Boors’ night out. You know what else builds community? Audience participation, on the audience’s terms. For one performance of each show, invite the crowd to behave like an Elizabethan or vaudeville audience: Sell cheap tickets, serve popcorn, encourage people to boo, heckle, and shout out their favorite lines. (“Stella!”) The sucky, facile Rocky Horror Picture Show only survives because it’s the only play people are encouraged to mess with. Steal the gimmick. […] 9. Expect poverty. Theater is a drowning man, and its unions—in their current state—are anvils disguised as life preservers. Theater might drown without its unions, but it will certainly drown with them. And actors have to jettison the living-wage argument. Nobody deserves a living wage for having talent and a mountain of grad-school debt. Sorry. 10. Drop out of graduate school. Most of you students in MFA programs don’t belong there—your two or three years would be more profitable, financially and artistically, out in the world, making theater. Drama departments are staffed by has-beens and never-weres, artists who might be able to tell you something worthwhile about the past, but not about the present, and certainly not about the future. Historians excepted—art historians are great. If things don’t turn around, they may be the only ones left.”

Paradoxically, the commenter is applying an American-Dream-type business rationale to his strategy for saving the theatre. But isn’t that the kind of logic that’s driven theatre to where it is now? Regardless—what’s most troubling about this account is that, at their core, some of these ideas could potentially be useful to consider, but a kind of economic, spiritual, and artistic desperation has driven them to such extremes that they can’t be trusted as democratically safe. These thoughts suggest that in order to save the theatre, we need to employ a latent coercion and manipulation of the masses, reminiscent of those at play in the interactive theatre events in the UK, described by that one critic as “low-level fascist.” Not in any way do the thoughts by this commenter aspire to democratic ideals; instead, they’re guided by the deeply cynical assumption that the people are will-less, stupid, and need to be tickled—not that they need to be respected as independent individuals. And this commenter is talking about the theatre, the artistic home of the collective experience—of democracy! These are dangerous sentiments. Our job is not to capitalize on, and exploit people’s passivity by providing transgressive violence and pornography or parties and booze; it’s the opposite—it’s to awaken them, to confront them with their position and agency in, and as part of, a collective. What on earth is the point of theatre if it doesn’t interrogate and critique the way we’ve become, here, now and as part of a system? Any type of theatre, and especially anyone who’s thinking about “interactivity” in the theatre, needs to keep that in mind! Ask yourselves: WHY do we feel the need for more interactivity and community in the theatre? Is there a lack of it? If yes, where does that lack come from? What is our mandate as theatre artists and how does it relate to strategies of interactivity? What does interactivity mean in the theatre? We must remember that the theatre has been coopted for malicious political purposes before. This is not to be taken lightly.

Back to Adorno and his warning. What is the relationship between our experience of art and entertainment, cynicism, and the rise of (neo-)fascism? How cynical have we become, and in what type of political danger does that put us? In what relationship do art and entertainment stand today? What is happening to us artistically and politically? Perhaps an analysis of our theatre could serve as an indicator for the state of our democracy?

Holocaust-Mahnmal_in_Berlin

Holocaust Memorial in Berlin

I so hope that you are not yet too cynical to consider the seriousness of this situation. We have to wake ourselves up. The images in this post are of the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, which is a symbolization—a kind of architectural re-enactment—of the dangers inherent in losing perspective of where one stands, personally and politically. It also symbolizes how easy it is to get dragged into, and lost in a system.

This morning on the tram, an elderly man sat across from me and got up suddenly when it pulled into a stop:

“When I don’t think I forget,”

he mumbled as he shuffled towards the door, shaking his head in self-dismay. “That’s wise,” I thought. We have to keep thinking.

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5 comments

  1. calla

    Nice piece. Great quote at the end. It reminds of me of another phrase that I saw on a pin once: “Think–it’s not illegal Yet.”

    I’ve also never heard of or seen the holocaust memorial in Berlin. Even just the photo is kind of haunting…

    Now, who the heck wrote that post that you have an excerpt of in your article? I’d kind of like to know what they do everyday, how old they are, what they are trying to say, what their interests are, and if they are actually serious… If they are trying to be funny, I don’t get it. If they are serious about their recommendations… er… I still don’t get it.

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  2. Rachel

    I’m still digesting this (and the whole conversation thus far) but it seems like (and an answer to your Q, Calla) your commenter Eli reposted a piece (without context or credit – lame!) that I believe originated in The Stranger and made the rounds some years ago.

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  3. Michael Puttonen

    VIEW FROM THE FAR WEST: A COMMENT IN SIX SCENES

    1. THE CULTURAL INDUSTRIES TODAY

    Just today in Vancouver’s Georgia Straight I was reading a solid article by David Green on Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) program.

    He says, “The important point from a policy perspective is that the TFW policy lets low wage firms have their cake and eat it too. The higher wage and benefits approach can’t compete with the low wage/low benefits approach when the latter doesn’t include the offsetting cost of higher turnover. Thus, the policy provides a clear incentive for more firms to adopt a bad jobs model.”

    However, he adds, “There is likely a case for bringing in specialized higher-paid workers who are needed only for a short time.”

    The t.v. version of “Fargo” came to shoot in Alberta. North Dakota, where Fargo actually is, offers no film subsidies. Alberta’s are generous. “Fargo” has a big, big ensemble cast. All American. Many of them known from other work. All of them are TFW’s. Billy Bob Thornton is a TFW.

    With the exception of a single Can-Content “2nd highest paid performer” (loosely defined), Canadians compete for a few bit parts. Besides the Canadian day-players, the ‘town regulars’ we’ll see are likely “special business extras”, not even paid as actors on the days when they don’t have a line to speak.

    Around 50% of the financing for this US production “Fargo” (and other such productions) is being supplied by the Alberta and Canadian governments. In exchange, a local film crew is getting steady work and local suppliers have repeat orders for goods and services.

    The Canadian 50% subsidy is not considered large enough by either the American producers or Canadian federal or provincial governments to leverage the engagement of Canadian actors for significant roles. “Fargo” is fascist to the core.

    2. FASCISM TODAY

    “Fargo” – fascist? Well, yes, it you take fascism as I do, to be the integration of state and corporate agendas into a (finally) totalitarian system for command and control of the populace. I’d there is ‘hard’ fascism, and ‘soft’ fascism. ‘Hard’ fascism requires bloodshed, say, the use of paramilitary or military suppression of the populace so the Harper regime can push through the tar sands pipelines. Putin would be a ‘hard’ fascist. Harper, well, we’ll see.
    ‘Soft’ fascism on the other hand buys people with money, brain-washes them with education, and manipulates them with propaganda. When that fails, soft fascism resorts to coercion & intimidation, where lives may be blighted and careers may be destroyed, but bloodshed is very rare. To my mind, ‘soft’ fascism is what we have at work in Canada under Harper and his sponsors. Of course we’ve had tastes of it before, but not like this. It has taken us 30 years to get here, mind you. We’ve had a soft fascism growing in Canada since the FTA.
    Canada Council funding was designed to be nationalist, and a hierophany. Regional and hierarchical, though, have been our fed./prov. Cultural Industries policies of the last quarter century and our new Cultural Tourism policies as well. They are fascist, in fact, using Ministerial spending on the arts to co-ordinate the needs of government and corporate interests, in a world where culture is always an adjective.

    Sixty years ago the ‘Arts and Letters’ approach to cultural development, the Massey vision if I may, was that we must 1. de-commoditize art production (with aid to artist grants) and 2. offer market support to art consumption (with aid to organizations & infrastructure funding).

    De-commoditization was behind Vincent Massey’s vision was to fund creative work based on excellence determined by peer-review. Practically speaking, now playwrights could start their work at 10 AM, instead of 10 PM; now actors could rehearse full-time instead of having to hold day jobs, as the actors had at Crest, Jupiter, Canadian Rep., etc.. CC aid-to-artist grants removed artists from the pressure of the marketplace.

    Market support on the other hand, provided that marketplace for the finished work. Theatre buildings were built and theatre companies were supported. The marketplace for Canadian theatre was created, it was built with market support from government. Audiences have decided the market ‘value’ of the work – but not its aesthetic value.

    As we began public funding of the arts in 1957, we very quickly forgot that de-commoditization and market support are profoundly different beasts. The funding for them may come from the same source, but their purposes and cultures could not be more un-alike. The Canada Council has done best with this, but then I’m comparing the CC to federal Heritage and provincial funding bodies.

    Again and again in the grant jury rooms, everywhere, really, in our vast arts bureaucracy), we confuse success with excellence. Certainly the last five years in BC (particularly the Cultural Olympics and the arts cuts) have put the lie to peer-review as an independent process. Peer review, strictly controlled (i.e. sovietized) for a specific political purpose, is of no particular worry to a soft fascist state.

    The governing principles have been slowly reversed with the explosion of “gaming grants” provincially and the rise federally of the Communications, now Heritage, Ministry. We now offer market support to artwork based on its (perceived) popularity with “the base”. That is to say, we fund theatres that produce artistic crap, but sell a lot of tickets. So, by now, the most, ahem, “powerful” people in our theatre are those who run companies that produce crap to amuse and sell a lot of tickets. These theatres survive on guile, and the talent of the performers who deign to uplift them and connect them with an audience. They operate in the grand tradition of “show business”, there’s no Theatre Libre about them.

    Meanwhile on new gambling grant regime will further de-commoditize art consumption and erode the value of the work in the marketplace. De-commoditization of art consumption is felt with the redirection of gaming grants to community festivals. These may (or may not) have arts components. Grants to these community festivals have replaced scores of direct grants to arts groups. The art at these festivals (which celebrate salmon, fruit, trapping, etc…) is thus merely an “input” toward the product, which is the community festival. In a situation like that, art as challenge to the established order – that people will also pay to see – becomes less likely. There are few places less reflective than a small town tourist event.

    One striking example of soft fascism was the BC Premier’s recent personal intervention to award of $500k to tour a yet-to-be premiered opera about bullying (her signature issue). She gave a press conference on “pink shirt day” and said ‘I’m giving this opera I’ve heard VOA is going to do…half a million bucks.’ This government market support for this un-produced opera, delivered through the personal intervention of the leader of government, reminded me that’s also how “Triumph of the Will.” got funded. This is the new normal, though. Arts funding is now increasingly tied to the political goals of the party in power as it pursues corporate relationships.

    3. THE ROT STARTS AT THE TOP

    2009 finds BC’s own James Moore a rookie cabinet minister (Heritage), with special responsibility for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, fighting for re-election (he out-spends his combined opposition 3 to 1). Nonetheless…Conservative Superman that he is…he still finds time to enroll in and complete an MA at USask. In 2011, receives his USask MA.

    How does the Minister of Heritage do it, and still oversee the Olympics and the 36 other major accomplishments and initiatives listed in his ministerial bio? The USask graduate handbook estimates a minimum commitment of 40 hrs per week in classes, study & writing over 3 semesters for their truncated degrees! How does The Minister make his 40 hrs. while running for re-election and overseeing the Olympics? Well…fact is…USask just gives him credits.

    The other grad students actually have to show up and take the classes. The Minister is handed credits. He takes an extra semester to deliver his 75-page thesis, based on an event in his own life. We need not assume he researched and wrote it all by himself, though he may have. I don’t think I trust him, though, I think he’s got the whole package alright…except character.

    4. TIMELINE SKETCH

    Actors in BC seem to have no power…because they actually have no power. They had the power to shut down Hollywood North to stop Temporary Foreign Workers, but they gave that up. They had the power to save the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Co., but they wouldn’t use it. Again and again, I’ve seen actors in BC give up their power, usually without a fight from all but a very few of them. Actors lost power…

    In 1980, when the Canada Council stop funding Co-op companies (though Artist-run galleries continued) and imposed a hierarchical management model.

    In 1985, when a centre for “business & the arts” took the Howe St. space that was supposed to be a new home for City Stage.

    In 1990, when actors were de-professionalized and unionized under the Glenville/Audley/Kellaher model. That took away their power (a power they alone possessed) to shut down Hollywood North.

    In 1995, when actors (and video game programmers) were included in the Employment Standards act, which re-defined their contract with the engagers as a “master-servant” relationship under the law. …Leaving actors excluded from the last two rounds of copyright changes.

    In 1998, when provincial labour tax credits residency requirements took away actors’ province-to-province mobility.

    In 2004, when the Temporary Foreign Workers regime was extended to U.S. actors.

    In 2009, when large arts companies (cut 30%) stood by and watched without protest as small companies devastated and wiped out by arts cuts that averaged 85%.

    In 2010, when they signed their Olympic loyalty oaths.

    In 2012, when Equity (CAEA) refused to act on the VPTC closing, despite documentary proof that the VPTC closing, (which would cost their members $500k per annum in fees), was a corporate takedown, not a theatre failure, and could be reversed.

    Here in Hollywood North, it seems most actors (theatre and film) long ago bought into the industrial paradigm. They see themselves as inputs. They get “booked” now. I hear that around. “Booked” was a model’s term for getting work, in my day, not an actor’s, but all the kids use it.

    A recent theatre review featured this line about a Vancouver show: “None of this—well, very little of it—is the performers’ fault.” Yeah, that about sums it up. The performers here take very bad advice about economics and politics. They have extremely poor leadership. The best teachers work freelance, and the worst have tenure. Yet through it all, politically, economically, they remain supine.

    5. 2010 VANCOUVER OLYMPICS

    The 2010 Vancouver Olympics ‘cultural’ programming required a loyalty oath from every performer. They all signed. Only Vancouver’s poet laureate refused. He ended up reading his work to the “red tent village” of protesters.

    The Opening ceremony had Shane Koyczyn, and his doggerel echoed the “I am Canadian” Molson beer ad campaign of years past, and was in turn echoed for the next two weeks in the Molson campaign that punctuated the televised Olympics. Similarly, Ashley MacIsaac’s fiddling was echoed in the Coke campaign, and the beautiful projections of Canada that danced across the stadium floor were echoed again and again in the Rona campaign as the televised Olympics unfolded.

    The artists’ work was woven into the corporate agenda. An ‘input’. They had no say in the matter.

    6. INPUT OR OUTPUT?

    Thus, we have come to a point in Canadian acting, at least here in BC, where the actor is simply, and happily (when working), an industrial input, like printing costs or lightbulbs. The product is something they call ‘theatre’.

    I say…not so. The ‘product’…the real product, that is…is the acting moment.

    It is within the acting moment – the succession of logical and inevitable acting moments created onstage by the actor, the moments that carry the audience member’s inter-active consciousness – where what we call ‘theatre’ actually resides.

    To my mind the script, direction, design, ticket sales, all are inputs. The output is the acting moment.

    Everything else, every bit of everybody’s work is an ‘input’ to the only ‘output’ the theatre can legitimately claim – the acting moment.
    To produce the acting moment.
    We actors have our ontology
    – the playwright’s text.
    Our epistemology
    – Stanislavski’s system founded in sense memory and emotion recall.
    Our metaphysics
    – The acting moment ‘Awareness–Impulse—Action’ as noted by the Dalai Lama.

    The acting moment. Where art meets audience. That is the output.

    Thinking of actors as inputs, on the other hand, works this way: You cut rehearsals to two weeks, as they did some years ago at Vancouver’s Arts Club. It makes bad theatre. But good business. It happens that way because the acting profession doesn’t stand up to it. How can they? They are hungry. More work trumps better art every time. I’ve been as guilty of that as anyone in my careen (not career).

    The conflict, or if I may, the dialectic, of art and amusement be-devilled Adorno’s generation…Benjamin, all those cats. Theatre Libre, Little Theatre, Regional Theatre, Alternative Theatre, Fringe Theatre, all these movements (every 20 years or so) have been responses to both art vs amusement and art vs commerce…and all of them have been corrupted in their turn. Time for something new.

    Something anti-fascist. That is, something to break the corporatism. At the very least, banish neo-classical economics from the arts. We should be striving for policies that encourage Adam Smith’s pre-corporate model of perfect competition – many small buyers, many small sellers, low capital requirements, easy entry and exit from the market. (Sounds like the Fringe…) The clashing of art and corporate culture should be striking fire. Instead it is their marriage, not contention, that bedevils this generation.

    Alas, poor guy, I can go on and on…. Hey – Thanks for the articles –Michael Puttonen

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  4. Pingback: Quiet Emergencies in Toronto Theatre | Daniel Karasik

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