Thursday, February 14, 2008

Conversation with Jennifer Rupp

I recently let Jennifer Rupp read the working draft of Paint the Town, my new play which we'll be taking on tour out East this summer. Her reaction spurred a long email exchange that helped me articulate my ideas better. I've cleaned this conversation up a bit and present it here now.

JENNIFER RUPP: I think you will do very well with this piece. It will appeal to your audience because of the danger it suggests, the railing against everything, the frustration of wanting change but not knowing why or how or what for, the notion of tearing it all down and starting from nothing.
And some day, I do think you will use your super powers to make a positive change - perhaps to heal racism, end war, feed children - something real and achievable. But in the meantime, this stuff will sell tickets.

REX WINSOME: I'm glad you think it's good, that it'll be successful. I can see where you're coming from with your critique. I like to think that using my "super powers" to advance a radical position (something that isn't just tearing everything down, but that's still radical, the thing that is only suggested in this play, but will be overtly stated in literature distributed along with it) is the most realistic way to truly achieve any of the solutions you mention. But, that's a matter of political differences.

JR: If you can send me any of the other literature that might help me understand what it is you are trying to do, I'd really appreciate it. I had thought your radical stance was one that had to do with changing the face of theater, increasing it's vocabulary, revolutionizing what we accept as entertainment. I hadn't really thought that you were more political and were using conventional theater to communicate radical ideas. Or at least that's what it seems like.

RW: I've got weird ideas about the relationship between art and politics. It's largely informed by Marxist economic theory. I'm working on a thorough and concise statement, which I hope to distribute on the tour. The initial summary of that is here. (

To me, the process of creating art in this alternative way is a political action because it challenges the dominant economic system, the content of the plays is secondary. I write about what I find interesting because I think it's more entertaining. I'm pre-occupied with political action, so that ends up being in all my plays. My experiences have proven to me that conventional politics are useless and that non-violent demonstrations are just self-absorbed back-patting more than actual attempts to change things. This leaves violent action- but it seems (I can't REALLY say, having no actual experience with it) that violent action falls for many of the same problems as pacifism. That's what Bring the War Home was about. It's critical of all forms of political action, but it doesn't state any alternative other than the implied alternative of theatre, implied only by the fact that what we are doing is theatre.

Ulysses' Crewmen is a big two act play I've been writing for years (before forming the theatre company even) and hope to produce by summer of '09, does the same thing as BTWH only more thoroughly, and touching on a variety of other issues.

Paint the Town is the first time I'm trying to talk about the alternative. The characters are fully immersed in violent political action, in tearing everything down, but at the end Nadia discovers and embraces art as a positive constructive alternative. That's what it's supposed to say, anyhow.

JR: Rex, I can't remember if I sent you the link to Charlie Rose's interview with Tom Stoppard, but the gist of one comment Stoppard made that affected me so deeply what that, in societies where freedom of speech is non-existent and where people are constantly in jeopardy if they speak against the system, poets and artists are valued. They are a precious commodity because, embedded in their work is the voice of freedom and change. They are precious because they are heroic. They risk their lives every day. Unfortunately, in societies where everyone is free to say whatever they like, whenever they like and can rail against the system as much as they like, artists and poets are devalued. They are a dime a dozen, so to speak. No one listens to them. They no longer seem heroic.
This comment really bothered me and maybe because I fear it's probably true.
At any rate, addressing political action on stage is good and I think the theater is a powerful medium for it. Your abstract is great. I have a little trouble following it only because I'm not familiar with all the references you make. Right now, it sounds more like you are preparing this for your masters or doctoral degree. Students have a need for prefacing an argument with, "This is all the stuff I've read, so I am very smart, so you should believe whatever I say." However, if you are preparing this to give to your audience, they don't give a rats ass about all the stuff you've read. What they want to know is, what are you selling. I can't tell yet what it is you are selling. You talk a whole lot about what doesn't work. You talk a whole lot about revolution and radicalism. But you never talk about the thing, the end result. To what end is all this revolution? What is the utopia? And who will drive the buses?

RW: The abstract, to some degree, is overly-academic. I want to bounce it off some academic types to make sure it holds water before writing it in more plain-speak. But, at the same time, the end product won't just be a description of what I'm selling, because Utopianism is part of what I'm trying to get people to think outside of. Selling dreams of Utopia is a flawed approach. Marx went to great lengths to refute Utopians, to advance a scientific socialism, and as a result had a HUGE impact on economics, philosophy, and (with Max Weber) the invention of sociology.

Marx wrote three huge volumes (thousand pages each) describing direct observations of the tendencies of capitalism and how it's inevitably flawed. Modern economists have been able to disprove many of his claims, and have forestalled capitalism's collapse, but no one has solidly refuted the essence of the argument, that the two central tendencies of capitalism are self-destructive. The tendency toward the accumulation of wealth in an ever smaller number of hands and the immiseration of an ever greater number of people is unsustainable. This claim is also supported by observed evidence. I'm sure you've heard the stats, the top 10% controlling 90% of the wealth (and that's conservative, cuz I don't know the numbers off hand, and don't want to overstate myself).

So, the gist of what Marx spoke of when he was observing and talking scientifically holds true today. He resisted talking about the revolution and the future society because he couldn't speak scientifically about it. Eventually, he submitted to calls similar to yours, and did talk about it, one chapter in Capital I, a section of the manifesto, and a few other documents. These are some of the most flawed parts of his work. This is the part where he says the proletariat will rise up, appropriate the means of production from their capitalist oppressors, form a dictatorship of the proletariat, and then end all class conflict for all time, causing the state to wither away. These claims are mostly illogical and without merit. He falls into the kind of Utopianism he railed against. These are also the passages that Lenin and Stalin ran with to justify the creation of the USSR, and Mao for the cultural revolution, and Pol Pot for Kmer Rouge.

The purpose of my whole project (the theory, the application of the theory, the play, indeed the whole company) is to say: Marx shouldn't have given in to utopianism, the results aren't pretty. But, it doesn't have to end with "capitalism is doomed" we've reached a point where we can start to observe, describe and participate in the revolution, and the revolution I'm observing is completely different from the revolution Marx described, or that Stalin applied. It's a lot more like the capitalist revolution, which is nice, cuz the capitalist revolution 1. succeeded, and 2. brought democracy, scientific advancements, and "freedom" with it.

My goal is for people to understand this process, that the process is happening, and that we can participate in it. As far as what exactly it will result in, I can't really say without making the same utopian mistake that Marx made.

I can say it looks like there's a growth in the value of non-material goods, ie experiences (which should make for more environmental sustainability, especially if those experiences aren't, y'know, pro-sports, or offroading in your SUV). I can say that the results don't seem to be as much hard-wired for the accumulation of wealth in an increasingly small section of the population (which should make for less poverty, racism, etc). I can say that my process is based on greater interaction between consumers and producers, that it reduces the role of owners, who are basically middle men who mediate consumer's wants and exploit producer's labor. This should tend toward more freedom, and a more decentralized social organization.

As far as audiences not giving a shit about what I've read and how smart I am, I think that's first, a false conceptualization of what's going on when someone references something and second, it's half of what I seek to change.

Your comment "This is all the stuff I've read, so I am very smart, so you should believe whatever I say." is, I think, an anti-intellectual bias on your part. It's a somewhat offensive stereotype not only of myself as an academic, but also of audiences. Academics (the good ones) aren't seeking to show how smart they are, they are trying to put what they're saying into a historical and cultural framework. Many of today's audiences might not "get" it because they lack that framework, but that does not have to always be true. If you look at the effort some audiences are willing to do to understand Shakespeare, or even more to the point, the pouring over statistics, rules, and methodology involved in being a sports fan, it's clear that people are capable of engaging with sophisticated entertainment, including these kind of ideas, and some audiences, myself for example, already do.

This is where the part about "revolutionizing what people accept as entertainment" comes in. If we can get audiences to engage with the questions about who is controlling their lives and how they interact with the world with as much rigor as they engage with Monday-morning quarter-backing, then we're well on our way to some kind of social change that I think it's safe to assume with be an improvement. If instead, we spoon-feed them utopian visions the best we can hope for is useless dreaming, because the historical result of people acting decisively on impractical hopes for a new society is worse than nothing.

JR: Rex, this is awesome. I am missing much of what you reference from my reading list and so it's difficult for me to make the leaps. My comment, (which I realize now sounded insulting and I'm sorry) was made more to remind you that many people haven't spent the same amount of time studying the same material you have and need be filled in (not just sited). Plus, many of us have spent a lifetime being taught to mistrust any form or Marxism or Communism and have seen first hand their sad demise. It's so hard to get through those barriers. It's like telling a Christian there is no God. It's embedded at such an early age. Younger people don't have that incredible bias - the learned fear. They will be easier to reach. They will be more open to consider alternatives. But it does need to start now. The seeds of social change are almost always planted in our art. You will do this. You can start a political theater movement and I think it will be wonderful.

Why do you suppose it's so hard or dangerous to talk about the end result? It kind of reminds me of how politicians running for office tell everyone that they have a plan for changing something and when people ask them to explain the plan they tell them that it's all up here (gesturing to their small brains) and that they will reveal the master plan once they are elected. But, of course, there never is a master plan and nothing changes when they get into office. Do you have an understanding of the mechanics of changing from a Capitalist to a Socialist government? Is it gradual? Do we start with socialized medicine and move on to other projects from there? Do we insist on breaking up monopolies and tax the hell out of the wealthy? I'm so resistant to more government in my life that it's really hard for me to visualize a new way of life without fearing that I would give up some of my freedom to some governing monster.

France is Socialist, right? How's that working out?

RW: I don't like utopias for two reasons. First, Utopians embrace the future perfection as an ephemeral hoped-for object. This kind of hope (impractical, ungrounded) doesn't direct real action and becomes a paralyzing force. Second, Utopians seem to hate the existing society and embrace some nostalgia for the past, and when the past is shown to be messy they move further to the past, and pretty soon people are advocating a return to primordial divine savage pre-agriculture society, because we can't prove that wasn't perfect and flawless. These people (I've known many of them, used to be one myself) get caught in very negative guilt traps, where the things they want (and maybe even need) on a day to day basis go against the utopian ideal, they're constantly compromising their principles, hating themselves for it, then acting in a symbolic way (anti-war protests for example) to reassure themselves that they are good people, but these actions are only symbolic, whereas their actual actions are ones that perpetuate the system they hate, which feed back into their self-hatred. It's a cycle, which can easily tapped by opportunistic politicians who can advance an agenda of radical destruction to break the cycle, which is actually just a cover for a corrupt and oppressive regime. This is the thing that Red [in the Paint the Town] would do, and that Mensche is struggling with, and I hope to make it a bit more clear in the new draft.

I prefer steady progress toward the future, embracing that which works well in capitalism (which I think is the best economic system to date) and building on that to improvements (which requires a radical rejection of the inefficiencies or excesses of capitalism, but only in favor of something more efficient). If we focus on the process economically and let the future society form organically out of that, we can have specific impetus and direction. If we look at how artists are challenging the basic labor and property relations going on in our society (which they are, some of them) and participate in those challenges, help win them, then an improved world (which we can't know the exact shape of) can come out of that.

It doesn't involve government and I wouldn't call it socialism. Government is a mechanism that perpetuates capitalism by reducing it's worst excesses. If capitalism is not sustainable, government intervention serves capitalism by slowing down it's self-destruction. Socialism (in France and elsewhere) just redistributes the wealth that capitalism creates. The basic economic relationships (exploitation, private property, market exchange) are unaltered.

The basic economic nuts and bolts of this are: 1. Capitalism is based on commodities, but today many people prefer to act on the basis of art experiences. 2. Capitalism's property relation is private ownership, in the realm of art this property relation is enforced through intellectual property laws. These laws are being challenged or ignored by many people who prefer to share with indirect compensation. 3. Capitalism's labor relation is based on wage-slavery, exploitation. I'm using these terms scientifically, not judgmentally. Exploitation is "the appropriation of surplus value" and I consider it a good thing. It's what makes capitalism better than the outright slavery that came before it. But the creative class is doing something better still: free-agency and cooperative collaboration. 4. Capitalist exchange value is based on supply and demand, the "free" market. I have to admit I haven't really got an answer to that one yet, but three out of four ain't bad.

It seems to me the people who employ these alternatives to the capitalist way are creating greater value with less tendency for negative side effects (environmental destruction, social inequality and instability), this makes me confident that these people are doing something that is better than capitalism, and will make for a better world than the capitalist world. Thus, I choose to participate in the alternatives, and promote them.

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