In the last issue, I questioned the ability of American theatre-makers to make a significant impact on their culture. The US operates on such a large scale that amplification has become the most basic ingredient for creating a national conversation, and theatre has always struggled to broadcast beyond a few dozen rows at a time.
I footnoted my way out of tarring kiwi theatre with the same brush, and here’s why. In our environment, the national conversation is more easily had face-to-face, and that makes theatre the ideal medium for us to talk to and about ourselves.
Screen is expensive and competitive. When we make shows and movies, we have to place them shoulder to shoulder with the latest and greatest from around the world, and it’s priced exactly the same. This makes things tough for everyone. It’s difficult enough for makers to get their ideas onscreen in the first place, and that’s before you try to leap the biggest hurdle of all: encouraging audiences to choose the local option. A story told to an empty cinema begs the same question as the unheard tree keeling over in the forest.
Our geographical isolation makes us about as appealing to foreign theatre companies as we are to foreign boat people. This makes theatre a monopoly industry. What other product can enjoy such luck? The audience gets a choice of company and venue, but whichever way the cookie crumbles they are most likely to see local content or local assembly of foreign material. Every couple of years two of our major cities host international arts festivals, and a few overseas acts are included in regional festivals, but imported content is still the exception rather than the rule. This means that theatre has a much wider scope to talk to New Zealand audiences in general, and in particular audiences that are a bit more specific than the broad stroke 18-49 demographic necessary to get advertisers and producers excited.
This all works out even better if you, like me, believe that wider broadcast of our in-house conversations ain't such a great idea.
Most of the things we want and need to talk about as a nation aren’t appropriate for overseas ears. Few begrudge an opportunity ‘to put New Zealand on the map,’ but only in a nice way. We want people to think we’re clean, and green and a lovely place to raise cows. In fact, everything we want the world to know or think about New Zealand can and does fit on an advertising billboard. The last thing we want to start talking about with overseas people is our growing inequality, rocky race relations, the disproportionate rates of the violent and unmentionable, or even the things we like to do for fun. But we kind of do need to talk about it. Like the cow runoff that plagues our water table, it may be best to keep this shit on the down low till we’ve come up with an answer that's compatible with the national PR. The best place to get that shit together may be the theatre.
 As it is anywhere.
 They just don’t get the fun stuff either. c.f bullrush.
"This play/ is the image of a murder done in Vienna: Gonzago is
the duke's name; his wife, Baptista: you shall see
anon; 'tis a knavish piece of work: but what o'
that? Your majesty and we that have free souls, it
touches us not.”
Hamlet Act III Scene 2.
It does wonders for the soul to believe that you contribute in a positive way to society. No matter how confident you are in this belief, however, it is inadvisable to invite a Nobel Prize-winning economist to quantify your contribution to your face. I’m still in recovery mode from the Public Theatre’s ill-considered decision to ask Joseph Stiglitz to lead a discussion about income inequality and what the artistic community, and in particular theatre makers, can do about it.
Stigliz is more conciliatory in person than in print. He gently um-ed and ah-ed his way through a précis of his work and achievements, salting the discussion with the titles and plots of some theatre he’d liked, but his efforts to be nice were undercut by the awful truth: theatre’s recent contribution to changing or advancing the perception of anything on a macro scale in America appears to be limited, to say the most.
The one example Stiglitz had come across that could correlate the arts with positive social change was heartening. The slow and relatively recent rollout of electricity to certain villages in India has allowed economists, or scientists or advertisers or whoever it is that actually tracks this kind of thing to find a measurable and positive change in gender relations brought about by the introduction of… television. Yes it turns out that the oft-scoffed idiot-box, in association with the perennially poo-pooed style of soap opera, have presented the country ladies with a glimpse of how their big city sisters are treated by their menfolk. This encourages them to demand, and get, a better deal. If religion is the opiate of the masses, then maybe TV is the meth - modern, just as addictive and more stimulating.
Stiglitz then entered into a conversation with Public Theater Artistic Director Oskar Eustis, Public Works Director Lear deBessonet and, awesomely, Darryl McDaniels of Run-DMC. The first two did their best to rise to the challenges imposed by the subject, but talk of theatre being a democratic medium is rendered absurd the moment you try to imagine a democracy that makes voting as difficult and expensive as seeing or participating in theatre.
deBessonet has helmed some positive and large-scale community theatre projects, and if the premise of the discussion was not so lofty everyone might have been happy to accept that theatre can be sweet and harmless and entertaining and thought-provoking and memorable.
McDaniels was by far the most engaged of the speakers, and made a strong argument that the power of Run-DMC’s music stemmed from its ability to literally describe how people were living in his community and what their hopes and hinderances were. Viewed in this context, the Public’s penchant for re-staging Shakespeare and Brecht seems to have less in common with DMC's mode of influence than it does with fiddling and burning.
My opinion is that to make any headway in this kind of discussion, theatre needs to stop shouldering the burden of what it can’t do - which is offer access to absolutely everyone, or broadcast as far and wide as most other art forms, and get clever about recognising the nature of its actual strengths. Then it can begin to fuck with people. What theatre in America can and does do is speak directly to a concentrated, powerful and captive audience. These people may not currently visit the theatre for the purpose of changing their lives or the lives of others, but nor do many people nip down dark allies for the purpose of getting mugged; doesn't mean it can't happen. Instead of jumping these vulnerable spheres of hemmed-in influence, theatre wastes much of its time ruing its demographic, and trying to change its nature by constantly striving to make work to appeal to people who aren’t there, and don't want to come, rather than trying to influence those that are, and do.
Bruce Norris of Clybourne Park and Domesticated is the only playwright I’ve heard acknowledge and appreciate the nature of the people he’s talking to: wealthy, white and on the other side of middle-age. In an environment that relies utterly on patronage, it requires a bold mouth to direct the hand that feeds it, but if the motivation and skill is ever there, so is the audience. Not that any of this is news. It was Hamlet that first popularised the notion that a play could be the thing to catch the conscience of them on high.
 Short answer: Get a proper job.
 Urinetown made the cut, cos it lampoons privatisation of services. And so did Mike Daisey’s The Agony & Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, which JS liked cos it ‘humanised’ Chinese manufacturing practices to American audiences… albeit by lying about them so they better resembled American audience’s preconceived notions about those practices. I could go on about this and I have (see truth and lies, right).
 Only ever fobbed off by the great washed, of course. Not by the enormous numbers of people who tune in every night... which is of course, what gives it its ability to affect change on a grand scale.
 This is a qualifier that I’ve added to leave the door open for me to discuss some potentially interesting differences apropos theatre in NZ.
“One voice can change a room, and if one voice can change a room, then it can change a city, and if it can change a city, it can change a state, and if it change a state, it can change a nation, and if it can change a nation, it can change the world. Your voice can change the world.”
I’m a reader. I read for pleasure, for money and sometimes out of pure nosiness. It’s the snooping instinct that’s got me involved with a company with a reputation for finding and developing some of the more interesting and acclaimed new plays in America.
The programme I’m engaged with is responsible for reading hundreds of play submissions and whittling them down to a small handful that are then read aloud for the consideration of an interested public.
To make the process is as fair as possible, the readers consider the plays in light of specific and well-defined criteria. The criterion that interests me the most is that the play expresses a new, vital or unheard ‘voice’.
What ‘voice’ means is a bit like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s “I know it when I see it” threshold for obscenity, but one of the obfuscating factors may be the word itself. Voice suggests a sound that emanates from an individual, but the plays that get me and my fellow readers most excited do so not because they tell a story that is unique and interior but because they seem to perfectly capture the sound, feeling and concerns of a specific community. Often what we describe as a ‘new voice’ will actually be a writer who has managed to galvanise into a community groups or people we have either not heard about, or not recognised as a coherent or interesting bunch of people before.
Running interference with this hunger for insights into groups of people is a prevailing wisdom that each of us is best placed to ‘speak for ourselves’ and that it’s incautious and inappropriate to speak on behalf of others. The classic example of this is the ongoing argument about whether male writers have a right to depict female characters or authors from one race to describe characters from another. The discussion is academic, and because of this most aspiring writers are exposed to it at length within the college and post-graduate institutions that have become a right of passage. The breezily touted antidote is the invocation for aspiring artists to seek refuge in themselves; to find out who they are, and speak to that, and pretty soon the word ‘voice’ gets brought up, usually preceded by ‘your’. I’d be telling people to examine what communities they are a part of, and encouraging them to try to understand and express those.
So to quibble with Barak, one voice can’t change a room, so much as galvanise it to a shared cause. Martin Luther King Jr epitomises this in his “I have a dream” motif. I had a dream last night in which I got upset about spilling melted ice-cream on a hamburger that I didn’t even want. MLK’s dream will live longer in the popular consciousness not because it was idiosyncratic, but because the voice he was speaking in, like the dream he described, was a collective one.
“Song-weaving Goddess, speak the memory
Of that man: the waymaker of words and deeds,
The wanderer, harrowed through the world and the years,
After sacking the sacred stronghold of Troy.”
Homer. The Odyssey. Translation by A Z Foreman.
It’s hard not to think fondly of an age that believed creativity emanated from nine beautiful women, all of whom could be charmed into putting out for a few kind words and libations of milk, honey and water. Given that projects completed under their guidance stand tall among the most influential and admired artworks of any place or time, we may describe these ladies as good bang for the oblation.
In the successive deicides of latter days, it became customary for the victor to shoulder the burden of office surrendered by the vanquished, on the understanding that policy can change. Meteorology declared the cause of thunderbolts to be atmospheric pressures, rather than human sin, and suspended the necessity for all weather-appeasing sacrifices until the emergence of climate change. Most godly portfolios were picked up by the human manifestations of medicine, economics and politics, but creativity remains mysteriously administered from behind a closed door, left to its own devices on account of its extraordinary output and the inability of pretenders to the task.
Of course, there are all sorts of people and disciplines devoted to identifying and systemising creativity, but I can assure you that for all the diverting books and theories, the only thing anyone has managed to come up with is a subtle variation of ‘it sometimes emerges from long hours spent trying hard.’ This conclusion is at once accurate, incomplete and extraordinarily silly; analogous to stating that you can harness fire by rushing to the termination of a flash of lightning, or by rubbing two sticks.
The ‘hard work’ motto cunningly manages to both answer and avoid the questions ‘what is creativity’ and ‘where does it come from?’ The word ‘inspiration’ suggests the ingestion of something external, while ‘expression’ hints at something coughed up from within. Just like breathing, or our personalities, I assume creativity is a combination of both, and so do many people, but that doesn’t leave us any closer to launching the equivalent of a Zippo.
So those of us seeking to manifest creativity on this earthly plane are left with exhortations to work harder and longer. Personally I enjoy feeling the crack of the whip, be it from an expectant client or employer or a contracted deadline. I have in my voluntary servitude been known to easily mow through fourteen hour days denying myself the pleasures of lunch and the necessities of bathroom breaks. This however, is the systemisation of productivity, and productivity is is a party to which creativity, when invited, may or may not decide to attend.
After more serious deliberation than you might imagine, I have settled on a version of Pascal’s wager. I figure it can’t hurt, and may prove quite enjoyable, to wander down to Central Park and find a pleasant spot on which to make a puddle of milk, honey and water while invoking the names Calliope, Clio, Erato, Euterpe, Melpomene, Polyhymnia, Terpsichore, Thalia, and Urania, and, just to be sure, to offer my respects to the three original muses Aoide, Melete and Mneme: song, practice and memory.
“What is wise to know/ is the gods by their names…
It pays to let ‘em know you know who they are.”
 Due to the sex and number of gods I’m talking about I’ve had to really butcher and amputate the last part of this quote from the beautiful poem/song Cape Turnagain feat. Sam Hunt by The Warratahs. If you’d like to make me feel better you could listen to it properly by yourself.
PROFIT & DELIGHT
What I'm thinking about what I'm doing. This blog aspires to a more profound definition of 'profit' and the bog-standard sense of 'delight'.