Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Discussion at Bedlam

Last Saturday i gave a presentation at Bedlam Theatre in Minneapolis about my thoughts on art-as-revolution and theatre's role in that. Preparation for this presentation invovled first writing it out in long form, (cuz i'm a playwright, starting with writing a long monologue, somehow makes sense) then I condensing it to an outline and talked from that (so i wouldn't just be reading at people). At anyrate, this means i've got a rough essay-like document of what i said, which i will now post here for the reading pleasure of probably nobody but my own future self.

Bedlam Discussion

Our intention as a theatre company, or at least my intention as a theatre artist is to participate in and advance a revolutionary change of the global political economy, a change I've already observed in progress. Today I'm going to do four things.

1. Outline the change
2. Discuss theatre's role in that change
3. Explore how this intention impact the work we do.
4. Take questions. I plan on keeping the part where I'm talking at you relatively brief and general, then go more in depth about things based on what you seem interested in.

Objective 1: outlining the revolutionary change in the global political economy.

I need to start with Marx, since that's who I'm lifting most of my terminology from. Marx has been read many many many different ways, and I don't want to get bogged down in Marxist polemics, so I'm going to keep this as simple and concise as possible. There are two things about Marx, one is what he did right, and the other is what he got wrong.

First, Marx created a radically different and in many ways superior description of capitalism. He starts with the most basic abstract description of the relationship at the core of the capitalist system. From there he describes what happens in the aggregate, when that core relationship comes to dominate and define an entire economic system. This is where all kinds of wonderful concepts come from: exploitation, labor theory of value, commodity fetishism, worker alienation, the inevitable collapse of capitalism. Really beautiful stuff. Some of these concepts have proven more accurate or useful than others. I'd like to get into them all more thoroughly later.

The important thing is that Marx's predictions that in capitalism, the rich will grow richer and the poor more numerous, that these classes will be in conflict, and that this conflict can be seen at the root of all political conflict has been validated by history. His prediction that these trends will cause the entire system to collapse might be coming true now, with amendments to account for the unexpected craftiness of corporations, the power of advertising, and the alchemy of monetary and economic policy-making.

His prediction that this conflict and immanent collapse will result in the spontaneous mobilization of a class-conscious proletariat is where I think Marx went wrong. Some Marxists will defend his position on this. They'll say that historical examples like the USSR are a terrible misapplication of his theory, and they're right, but still, I think any approach that uses the dictatorship of the proletariat, or this kind of top-down-government-first revolution is doomed to follow a similar path.

The revolution has to start on an economic level. We need to develop a new more efficient mode of production, based on a different core economic relationship. Once we've done that, then we can let new classes, new political institutions and revolutionary actions grow naturally out of the conflict between this system and the dominant capitalist mode.

Marx considered this approach, but rejected it because he believed the ruling class wouldn't allow such a system to develop. He was unable to imagine a historical situation where something radically different can co-exist in competition with capitalism. There is a historical precedent for this though: the capitalist revolution.

Class antagonism in feudalism was between serfs and lords. The capitalist mode of production was developed by the merchant class, the bourgeoisie, who had a better way of doing things. They competed economically with and eventually politically defeated the lords, ushering in a new system. If we graph Marx's approach onto this historical situation, it the equivalent of serfs spontaneously rising up, taking the crown off the king and then designing a new society from that position. It's absurd. The proletariat can no more replace the bourgeoisie today than serfs could replace lords then, the revolution needs to come from a third class.

So, then the question is, how do we do it? How do we repeat the method of the capitalist revolution in order to replace capitalism itself? The answer is: we already are. If we look at art as a mode of production, a new "core economic relationship" then we can look at the "rise of the creative class" as the beginnings of a revolution. Punk Rockers, D I Y crafters, and independent musicians and filmmakers are building networks and institutions that function under a radically different sort of economy. As artists develop and improve these alternative approaches, we become a more powerful challenge to the capitalist world.

Capitalism responds, as Marx predicted, with all kinds of laws, barriers to entry, power grabs, bribes and attempts to co-opt the revolution even as it occurs. The creative class lives up to it's name, over the years we've worked our way around them all. Modern business practices, flex-time, profit sharing, informal work environments, and fake "independent" subsidiaries are all examples of businesses benefiting by adapting to and trying to imitate this radically different economy. Early capitalists were imitated, bribed and co-opted by the monarchy as well.

I predict that eventually, the growth of radical alternatives and the slow mutations of the establishment will result in an undeniably altered political economy. This is starting in the arts and entertainment sector, but it has the potential to transfer to other economic sectors.

Poll the audience: move on, or discuss?

Objective 2: Theatre's role in this

That last part, about innovations in the arts and entertainment sector transferring to other sectors of the economy is key. There is historical precedent for that as well. Capitalism beat feudalism because it was better at making wealth through the production and distribution of durable goods. Feudalism was all about agriculture. Capitalism rode the rise of commodities to the top, and then took over agriculture with great success and in the long term, disgusting catastrophic results like factory farms.

Revolutionary artists can do the same thing. The arts and entertainment sector of the economy has been growing faster than any other sector except for the military since the war started. Artists are better at making art than corporations, we can dominate this sector, ride it to the top, and then transfer our efficiencies to other sectors. This transfer has already started. Craft fairs are multiplying like little crocheted rabbits. Organic and community farming is growing rapidly, with results that are quite the opposite of disgustingly catastrophic.

So, lets look closer at the arts and entertainment sector of the economy, this thing we're gonna ride to the top. Different economic systems create different environments in which arts and culture themselves are manifested. Different mediums function differently under these changed circumstances. Painting and sculpture did well in the feudalism because the art economy there is based on patronage, art products are symbols of status. It's essential that they be one-of-a-kind, owned by some powerful figure and on public display, preferably larger than life. This kind of patronage continues to exist today, and it continues to fund visual arts. Under the patronage system performing arts were reshaped to fit the funding model. Theatre developed the proscenium stage, musicians assembled into symphonies. Everything was based on showing how big and glorious the art that the patron financed was.

Capitalism changed that. It created the age of mechanical reproduction, which as discussed by Walter Benjamin, greatly altered the way art is created and distributed. Within the capitalist world the art forms that best fit mass production do best. Photography, film, recorded music burst unto the scene and largely replaced everything that came before. They were easily commodified and mass produced. The biggest profits came from moving many small cheap identical replications, rather than a few unique expensive objects. This created a desert for theatre and live music, who hobbled along on the crutches of merch sales or the holdovers of patronage.

We're now entering a new system of reproduction. The age of virtual or digital reproduction is going to change the landscape just as drastically as the age of mechanical reproduction did. Now mass identical units can be created and distributed by anyone at almost no cost. This has three effects: 1. the evaporation of profit from mechanical reproduction, the RIAA will inevitably lose their war against piracy. 2. the democratization of these art forms, anyone can make the stuff, you don't need a record contract anymore. 3. a sea of mediocrity. If you've spent anytime on YouTube or myspace, you know what I'm talking about. A few diamonds in the rough, but also lots and lots of unremarkable shit.

If the profits of mechanical reproduction evaporate, then we're going to see far fewer successful big budget movies, or high profile bands. This is already happening, the logical conclusion is replacement of movies and TV with YouTube and myspace. Which means these mediums are going to drown in the sea of mediocrity, just like they starved theatre and live music during the age of mechanical reproduction.

So, if reproducible mediums become awash of mediocrity, what'll happen next? Consumer demands shift. People want something valuable, something remarkable. They can't find that in film or recorded music anymore. If they do, they don't have to pay for it, which means they can spend their money elsewhere. They'll want to spend it on an experience. And, that's what theatre can provide.

But, not theatre as it exists today. Theatre as it exists today is defined by the system of patronage that helped it hobble along for the last 100 years. It's mostly still stuck on proscenium stages, and full of snobbery, polish, and ornamental status symbols. It's a weak form, a dying art. Which means it's vulnerable. Which means the revolutionary core of the artist class can gain control of it. If theatre is now near the bottom of the ladder of art mediums, but has an opportunity to rise to the top of that ladder, and is vulnerable to an insurgency, then that insurgency can ride the rise of theatre to the top of the arts and entertainment sector of the economy, and then ride the arts and entertainment sector to the top of the economy in general. From there, we can take the efficiencies we've found and apply them to other forms of production.

Poll the audience: move on, or discuss?

Objective 3: how these intentions impact our performance technique.

So far I've been working under the assumption that "new" is better. That a post-capitalist mode of production will be an improvement. I don't want to give the impression that this is an unexamined assumption. I think the new mode of production will be like organic farming v factory farming. It will solve many of the problems created by capitalism. Most importantly, the new mode of production seems much less hardwired for gross and arbitrary inequality than the capitalist mode.

I can go more in-depth with this, but first I'd like to get through the part about how we produce and perform theatre. There are three parts of this, the organizational part, the context part, and the technique part.

The organization part is most important to me. It is essential that Insurgent Theatre be run by artists for artists. The large bureaucracies that mediate and dominate the theatre world are counter productive. The "artistic temperament" that says 'I am a creative soul! My genius cannot be encumbered by monetary of business concerns!' is equally counter productive. These set up a division of labor, a conflict of interests because the artist group and the admin group. This conflict naturally exists in any artistic endeavor, but dealing with it by making two groups of people exacerbates the problem, and privileges the admin group- who has the power of the purse, over the artist group. Mike Daisy's monologue "how theatre failed America" explores the negative effects that this division has had on theatre. I instead approach the creation and organization of Insurgent Theatre as an exciting creative challenge on par with any of our productions.

How it's organized: All profits from any production are shared equally by the people involved in the production. These profits are small. The people involved need to be motivated by the work as it's own reward. The shows are mounted with little or no budget. All advertising, design, promotion, and admin work are done either by the artists involved, or by volunteers.

We hold open auditions for most of our productions. Artists involved in one production are encouraged to take part in discussions of future productions. Decisions are made and tasks distributed by consensus and volunteering. In this way we've built a constantly evolving ensemble. People come and go, only 2 of us have been involved in every production.

Many aspects of this organization aren't radical at all. They're typical of many small theatre companies, they are the product of necessity as much as by choice. What I hope to do is to identify the virtues of this organization, the ways in which it is more efficient than other production methods, and focus on developing them in order to successfully compete with the increasingly corporate approach that big theatres take. One exciting aspect is the organization of labor. Our evolving ensemble is based on labor that is at once liquid, and empowered.

On context: this is also very important. Our versatility and low overhead allows us to produce theatre in non-traditional contexts, to connect with non-theatre audiences, often the exact demographic that traditional theatre's talk about needing to get in their seats. We were inspired to get even more ambitious with this and start touring when we met The Missoula Oblongata. Now we've performed Paint the Town in bars, basements, art centers, black boxes, a public park, an alley, and a dining room. We've performed with a wide variety of different musical acts: folk, noise, punk, metal, hiphop, experimental, pop, shoegaze, etc. Often the audiences don't know that they're coming to see a play, especially not a full length, text heavy, esoteric reference ridden one like this, and they are usually pleasantly surprised.

Organization and context are more important to me than content. What we do doesn't matter as much as how we do it. But, the more we develop the organization and push the context, the more the content reflects these processes. At least in the projects I write or spearhead.

What I'm trying to do is continue the experiments that Bertolt Brecht pursued. Creating a critically engaged audience that makes decisions and isn't merely inspired to act, but is forced to take a side in an argument and let that argument shape their life. Many of the techniques we employ come from Brecht, Grotowski, Peter Brook, and others, with our own interpretations, and punk-rock conventions. Most of us are self-taught, researching these things on our own, and those of us who have formal training, it was mostly in a much more traditional direction.

Perform for intimate audiences.
Perform on the same level as the audience seating.
Lights and tech operated by the actors themselves.
Direct address to audience.
Actively involving the audience.
Reciting stage directions while performing them.
Brechtian "distanced" acting methods
Actors prepare in the open, and mingle with the audience before performing.
Setting up the scene on stage after the show has begun
Disregard for dramatic suspense.
Presenting audience with naked exposition
Presenting images as symbolic puzzles for the audience to solve.
Most importantly: stories that serve as little more than a vehicle for an ideological argument which remains unresolved on the stage.

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