Saturday, July 18, 2009

Theater à la Als

On Thursday night, I attended a discussion between Hilton Als, theater critic at The New Yorker, and Michael Paller, dramaturg at ACT. The topic was "Outsider Artists Inside the Theater" – a subject that could seemingly be interpreted in several different ways, but which the two men mainly used to talk about diversity (race, gender, sexuality) and the American theater. These are complicated issues, and the discussion tended to leave me of two minds, rather than making my thoughts clearer. Maybe it was supposed to. That's why it was a conversation instead of a lecture, right? That's why the basis of theater is dialogue and not monologue, yes? So here are some of the questions I'm asking myself, and the things I'm conflicted about.

One subject that got mentioned was the necessity of producing plays written by "outsiders" (that is, members of historically disenfranchised groups). Paller pointed to ACT's production of a play that dealt with Japanese-Americans returning to San Francisco after having been in the internment camps – he said that it got a great response from the Asian community and brought many people to ACT who had never been there before. And that's all well and good, but wouldn't the real measure of success be how many of these new audience members came back to see another play at ACT the next year – a play that did not have a specifically Asian theme? If the effect of producing plays by gays/minorities/women is an increasing polarization of the audience (blacks go to see black plays, women go to see stories about women), is that really progress? Maybe it's naive of me, but I still dare to believe that good art is universal, and that nothing is gained from going to see plays or movies only about people who are "like you."

(Hilton Als saw this from a different perspective. Speaking of plays like The Color Purple and the all-black Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, he said, "I'm happy that they're bringing in new audiences, but do they have to be such crap?" He wants to see more plays like for colored girls... that speak genuinely to the black experience, and fewer crassly commercial appeals for black people's money.)

In talking about the difficulties faced by minority actors, Als brought up the story of a talented black actress, Susan Batson. (Als claims that black women and Asian men are the two groups most often misrepresented or underrepresented in the American theater.) Batson grew so dissatisfied with the typecasting and racism that were pervasive in the New York theater of the '60s and '70s that she stopped performing and became a highly regarded acting coach. Her clients now include such movie stars as Nicole Kidman and Brad Pitt. "It's wonderful that she found something that she's really talented at, and can be happy doing," said Als. And part of me wants to agree with this. But another part of me wonders, "Isn't this just another example of a black woman disappearing behind the scenes, devoting her life to helping porcelain-skinned Kidman and blue-eyed Pitt – white people who grab the fame and the glory? Is this progress? Is this the best we can hope for?"

One final thing that has me conflicted is Hilton Als' attitude toward theater and theater criticism. Als says that in his reviews, he tries to treat theater like literature; when he sees a new play, he tries to fit it into the context of the writing that has come before it. Paller read aloud from Als' recent review of the David Adjmi play Stunning, and asked Als to discuss it. Stunning is about some Syrian-American Jews and their black housekeeper, and Als' review compared it to the works of other authors, such as Bernard Malamud, who have written about the relationship between blacks and Jews. On the one hand, Als' approach argues for the inherent dignity of theater and of the playwright – treating theater as an important component in the narrative of American culture. Too often, Als said, we think of the playwright as someone who merely creates a blueprint for the actors and director to fill in, rather than as the instigator and the driving creative force. And he says that anyone who is serious about culture must try to read or see the important plays of the year, the way that they would go see the award-winning movies.

But then, Als followed that up with a comment along the lines of "So playwrights should try to get people to read their work, that's the important thing, and they shouldn't care if it doesn't get produced." Which, excuse me, sounds like a very strange thing for a theater critic to say. It singlehandedly discounts the contributions of the actors, director, and designers in creating the theatrical experience. It insults the playwright by suggesting that she should limit her aspirations and be content to write "closet dramas," rather than works that will be brought to life on the stage. And also, it's counterintuitive: I think that in this country, even fewer people read plays as literature than attend the theater, so if Als got his way, theater would be even further marginalized. Trying to get people to see live theater is hard, but there are ways to promote it and make it sound fun: it's a night out on the town, you might get to see great acting or singing or dancing, it's amazing to laugh or cry along with your fellow audience members. Whereas trying to convince people to read plays because it's the "important" thing to do makes play-reading sound like a boring old slog.

Furthermore, sometimes Als' insistence on treating theater as literature makes it seem like he's just using the play he's reviewing as an excuse to talk about something else that he thinks is more important. That's kind of how I felt about the Bernard Malamud references in the Stunning review (which I also think have the effect of making the reader feel stupid for not having read, or even really heard much about, Malamud). It also seems that Als is somewhat notorious for writing irrelevant intro paragraphs, which further reinforce the impression that he'd rather be discussing something other than the play he's ostensibly reviewing. I don't always love the theater criticism of Als' colleague John Lahr either, but I much prefer his idea of the theatrical experience. "The John Lahr recipe for telling whether a play is good or bad is if you can shut your eyes when you're in the theater and get all the meaning – it's a bad play. You didn't have to be there," he has said. As opposed to suggesting that the best way to experience a play is to read it.

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