Thursday, January 14, 2010

Solace from Foote and Sondheim

I wrote last week that all this theater-blogosphere activity was making me feel panicky and impotent, but I'm getting over that. Indeed, would I prefer that everyone kept silent? I'm grateful that such impassioned conversations are taking place... even if these conversations move so quickly that it's hard to keep up at times!

And a few quotes from grand old men of the American theater have recently come to my attention and given me a measure of solace. They prove that it has never been easy to be an artist--now, you might say that that is even more reason to despair, but it comforts me to know that people in other eras have gone through the same things that I'm going through now.

First, from Horton Foote's autobiography (excerpted in The Play That Changed My Life), describing how he came to New York in the '30s after studying acting in Pasadena:
I began to learn lessons about a part of theater the Pasadena Playhouse had not prepared me for: how to survive in an economically depressed city where the phenomenon of talking pictures, having decimated both vaudeville and winter stock companies, was now beginning to make inroads on Broadway itself. There were losses, losses everywhere.

The first thing I did when I got to New York was to make a pilgrimage to [Eva] Le Gallienne's Civic Repertory Theatre in 14th Street. When I got there, I found it occupied by a left-wing theater group called "Theater Union." The Theater Union, I was to soon learn, claimed to be part of "the new theater movement." How often have I heard through the years, "This is the new theater?" This also is a truism about theater; suddenly there appears from nowhere a new concept, a new approach to acting, to directing, to producing.

It all meant little to me at the time. I wanted to be a part of the "old theater," the theater of Belasco, Frohman, Sam Harris, Winthrop Ames, and Arthur Hopkins. I wanted to be an acclaimed actor-manager, have a New York season, and then tour the country; or I wanted to be idealistic like Miss Le Gallienne and be part of a repertory company. It seemed to my young mind that the "old theater" was invincible.
Swap out these 1930s names for their contemporary equivalents, and doesn't this sound like it could have been written yesterday? After all, Foote is talking about how to make one's way in the theater when it is under assault from the threat of "new media" and the country is economically depressed. Also, I relate to what Foote says about having wanted to be part of the "old theater" (which for me I guess is the LORT system), attracted to the romance and the history of it... then gradually realizing that the "old theater" is much more diseased than the general public is aware of, and that one is going to have to make some compromises, get involved with little "new theaters" with shoestring budgets, because that is the only place where renewal ever happens.

Then, a few days ago while I listened to my iPod on Shuffle, "Putting It Together" from Sunday in the Park with George came on. I must've listened to this song dozens of times, but it's so dense and wordy that I always seem to hear it afresh. I wish I could link to it, but there's no good video of it on YouTube. Anyway, it's sung by George, a young artist in the 1980s (he builds things with sound, light and lasers) as he rushes around a museum cocktail party, trying to schmooze with patrons, vaguely hating himself for needing institutional approval, but realizing that the only way to get ahead is to play the game and chase the money:
Link by link
Making the connections
Drink by drink
Fixing and perfecting the design
Adding just a dab of politician
Always knowing where to draw the line
Lining up the funds but in addition
Lining up a prominent commission,
Otherwise your perfect composition
Isn't going to get much exhibition.
The song gets very busy at the end, as the other people at the cocktail party join in with their own chatter--so much so that, until this week, I'm not sure I ever heard George's line toward the end of the song:
Everything depends on preparation
Even if you do have the suspicion
That it's taking all your concentration
In other words, George has gotten so caught up in the game, schmoozing and laying the groundwork for his career, that he worries that he's no longer able to just make art anymore. And sometimes I worry that that's happening to me, that my head is spinning with so many people's opinions about what's wrong with theater in this country that I no longer know what I should do next, with my own art, in order to try to fix these multifarious problems.

In which case I should struggle to follow that advice from Anne Bogart that Megan posted recently: "Do Not wait for maturity or insight or wisdom. Do Not wait until you have enough technique. What you do now, what you make of your present circumstances, will determine the quality and scope of your future endeavors. And at the same time, be patient."

No comments: