Against the binary

I am tired of binary arguments on the web. This blog is dedicated to something else. Otherwise you're just wrong and I'm just right. More to follow.


Getting CATT-y Again

The debate in the comments below let me to revisit the work we did at the Collective Arts Think Tank a couple years ago.

It's largely centered on the dread cultural hub of New York, but it's relevant, I think, beyond our borders. And I think Scott Walters and I have lots of crossover - we just approach the situation differently. 


Chasing Our Tails

In reading this article, and the responses in the comments section, and on other sites, most of which seem to engage in the, “Jane you ignorant slut” style of debate, I started to feel a little crazy.

One of the things I want most for people in the arts to do is stop complaining about what their colleagues have, that they don’t. As if there is a direct correlation between the grant I got and the one you didn’t, the gig you got and then one I was rejected from. If they hadn’t picked you or your kind, they’d have picked me or mine. I don't think that kind of hating helps. We all work hard. We all deserve it.

I think it’s important to recognize systemic problems (whether related to the arts or not) that need improving, and to call out specific examples of where those problems manifest. But I think, ultimately, to blame each other is not helpful, and in fact becomes its own kind of opportunism.

It would be great if rural art was more robustly supported. But then, it would also be great if artists in urban cultural centers were more robustly supported, too. (Very often "support" in an urban center means "an opportunity to work for free" - the euphemism is often something like 'increased visibility' - in the service of a venue whose staff is working for almost-free. If we expect that it has to be kind of work or one locale over the other, I don’t think we’re going to get anywhere.

In so many online conversations, it quickly becomes a version of one side saying “just do it (like I did)!” or “in my day/neighborhood/city (circle one) we just made it happen,” or “be the change you want to see in the world, douchebag!” Meanwhile the other side says, “you have no idea what it’s like today/where I live/in my brain (circle one),” or “you didn’t even hear what I was saying!,” or “punk is/is not (circle one) dead.”

Here are some questions. I hope people will respond in the comments.

1. Whether you’re in the position of maker, interpreter, scholar, producer or critic, what are you and your peers telling each other about the state of the field that might actually not be true, but that by saying it over and over you're reinforcing?

2. Why does theater seem so irrelevant to so many? Would we be better off if it mattered to more people?  

3. What would happen if the NEA’s annual budget was $1,000,000,000 (a little less than 10 times what it is now, but still only about $3 per American man, woman and child per year). How do we get there?

4. What are the best kinds of exchanges among artists in urban, rural, and suburban environments, and how could those happen more readily? 


Laura Poitras

Beautiful interview between Creative Time's Nato Thompson and filmmaker (and target of harassment and surveillance by US intelligence agencies) Laura Poitras:


What is amazing here is how deeply and fluently the conversation moves among history, craft, aesthetic, politics and meaning.


Color Me Obsessed (a fan letter to a fan letter)

I rented this documentary last night. It's about The Replacements. I was lucky enough to grow up in Minneapolis in the 80's, while they were at their best/worst, and I am easy prey for nostalgia trips about that time. For the first five minutes my resistance was up - the film is full of terrible documentary filmmaking cliches, including massive Ken Burns' Effect, talking head after talking head and middle-aged men feeling profound about what they are saying.

And then I was sunk. Color Me Obsessed is free of concert footage of, or interviews with, the band members. Instead it's a fanumentary. It's just people who followed, knew, roadied for, engineered, managed or were married to the band. It actually becomes, implicitly about the way we make certain people iconic, the way we cling to our better memories of our worst times. It becomes about what we put on our heroes. The film sticks you with yourself. Your overweight, overeager, nostalgic, longing self of now, as you remember how great you didn't think you thought you were back when.

By unvarnishing the truth about the band, via an embarrassing honesty about they way they affected those of us within or near their orbit, the movie does a remarkable doubling: it shows us the band through the lens of its listeners; and it shows us ourselves through the lens of the band. In their absence, we only have ourselves to look at.

There's a guy who grew up on a farm, and who had imagined conversations with Tommy Stinson every day after school; there's a woman who cries when she mentions the song "Unsatisfied;" there's the still-bitter fanzine editors, deriding the band for selling out and firing Bob. I am all of them, minus the actual farm.

Color Me Obsessed also nailed, quietly and in an overly sincere way (how else), the climate of desperation that spawned punk. Ronald Reagan, nuclear standoffs, economic crisis, and, in Minneapolis, an emotionally buttoned-up community with a dark alleyway of perversions that lurked unmentioned behind the gas station or SuperAmerica store.

An act of faithlessness

Jim Findlay and I were talking about The Replacements a month ago, doing a little armchair critique of artists in their 40s who self-describe as punk, and I credit him with nailing something true: "Punk was an act of faithlessness. It was nihilistic and selfish." It said 'we don't matter and neither do you.' The part of me that wants something to believe in, conveniently, or that wants to believe what I experienced was necessary for some reason other than my own relief, was shaken, until I realized that what got me through adolescence was not faith, but was actually a kind of energetic, enveloping comfort in the idea that whatever we do, it's probably bullshit.

Punk was by young people for young people. We're not punk now. We're in our 40s and our heroes from that time are at least that. We might have moments of it (like my friend Esther getting arrested at a Pussy Riot protest). We still listen to it, maybe we use it as a benchmark, but we are not it. We don't represent it. We have final reports to do, kids to raise, insurance policies to buy. And the new Cat Power's not that vanilla, is it? Surely it goes great with our microbrew and our dinner party?

Whatever punk was it is not us now, if it ever was. And that's good. Someone else is doing it. Someone else in some terrible town is thinking about killing herself, and instead she picks up something to make sounds on, hopefully loud ones. She finds the other loser at her school and they do something that makes everyone else mad because it's almost impossible to listen to. And that is the point. That is what adolescence sounds like unless you are very lucky, or very privileged.

Acts of faith are acts of theft 

A few years ago, I stopped in for coffee at Porto Rico on Thompson Street in lower Manhattan; it's a little sliver of a place that's been there forever and I was on my way to a meeting. Inside Pleased To Meet Me was playing. Not my favorite of their records, but still pretty awesome. The guy working behind the counter looked like he couldn't have been more than 16. And he had eyeliner on. And a chain on his jeans, which were ripped and saftey pinned. Time warp.

I ordered and he made my coffee without looking at me. When I paid I said, "were you even born when this record came out?"

"When'd it come out?"


"Nope. I wasn't. I stole this from my dad."

The End. 



Jacques Ranciere

Here is a quote from Jacques Ranciere, who has been instrumental in shaping the way we think about City Council Meeting

From Dissensus, page 58 (in my edition)

"In the winter of 1995 in France there was a long public transport workers' strike. An outpouring of...arguments sought to portray these workers as individuals out to protect their own private and immediate interests to the detriment of the political search for the common good and the political ability to act in the interest of future generations. However, in the course of the strike, it became increasingly clear that its main object was to decide whether a specific group of men and institutions had the exclusive privilege of determining the future of the community. The canonical distinction between the political and the social is in fact a distinction between those who are regarded as capable of taking care of common problems and the future, and those who are regarded as being unable to think beyond private and immediate concerns. The whole democratic process is about the displacement of that boundary."

(Italics mine)


Less With More, part 1

When I teach, talk to artists and think about my life as a theater artist, I have been using the phrase “Do less with more,” as a counter to the crisis mode that seems embedded in much of the art production I see around me. I've talked about this in other forums - last year with Collective Arts Think Tank - but I want to start using a few blog posts here as a clearinghouse for more of what I (think I) mean on the subject.

I invite challenges, support, comments, questions and delicious pies.

I’m talking most about live performance, because that’s where I work, but it can often apply to visual art and film as well.

The simplest way to define doing less with more is that it means bringing more resources to fewer projects, rather than trying to get a lot done with a little.

The Frustrations

I started saying do less with more because I was frustrated by a few trends I was seeing:

The opposite refrain: “Do more with less,” which I hear from artists, administrators, venues, and funders alike, constantly, started to bug me because I don’t see the value in it. Doing more with less has led us to under-resource much of our work. In institutions it often means institutions are preserved at the expense of increasing the number or pay scale of artists in the house. To my eyes, it has led many of us to let down the very fragile and elusive form we work in.

I don't see other disciplines relying so heavily on scrappiness. It's okay to be a filmmaker and do a movie every five or more years. No one says a poet who puts out a collection every 10 years is "not writing enough". (Whether the poet or filmmaker wishes they could produce more is another question, but to me they are addressing the market more honestly.) But in theater there is this pervasive myth that rate of production equals relevancy. Like, by putting up a show or two every year, I'm somehow more legitimate. I'm proving I'm a pro.

I’ve heard “do more with less” in boom and bust times, so it can’t just be about the current economy.

I think doing more with less has become a convenient excuse not to try and make great work. If we are always doing more with less, we can always fall back on the excuse of not having had enough resources.

I don’t think work is made better by doing more with less. Doing more with less is the efficiency model, it’s how capitalism works. You try to cut down the cost of production while increasing the rate. I think art is about partaking in a seemingly inefficient activity to create something amazing for it’s own sake. So we think bigger, so we take in the world with our imaginations. So we confuse ourselves into understanding more. That takes more time than we usually give it.

I think the market is oversaturated. If there are always so many shows going on in a place like New York at any given time, and we’re all desperate to pull in audience, and our houses aren't filling up, maybe we are not meeting demand the way we ought to. Maybe we can build demand through anticipation (“wow remember how great that show was two years ago by those guys? I can’t wait to go to the new one!”, maybe we can collaborate on bringing better resources to each other rather than desperately clinging to our own small slices of a pie (traditional support models) that seem to be shrinking. Even if your houses are full, are you paying people? Are you surviving mostly on everyone’s donated, or partially-donated labor? And is that, as the funders like to say, sustainable?

The current funding model doesn’t really work for most of us. There are too many worthy projects for grantmakers to actually be able to fund all the best ones. I know this is true because funders tell me it is so. All the best projects do not get funded. This means that you may have a great idea, and you may feel you have to get it into the world on a timeframe that is supported by the annual funding cycle, or perceived cycle that is out there now. The fact is it might take more time to get those funds in place, to really get the work done right, than it seems like it ought to.


In my experience, doing less with more leads to stronger work. I look to examples like The Foundry Theatre (where the work is not produced until it’s deemed ready, even if that’s years later than expected), Soho Rep (which cut it’s season to three productions, allowing each to be more realized and recognized) and ERS, which produces a show about every two years, which then continue to tour and bring in income and accolades for as long as five years.

Doing less with more means thinking hard - not about how little you could get a piece done for - but what would you do if you had everything you really needed to make it the best it could be. How long would it take to amass all that? Then set out to do the project on the project’s terms rather than on someone else’s (Equity, LORT, NPN, The Whitney Museum, etc.) idea about what a typical production schedule is. There will always be deadlines, crises, financial constraints and time crunches. That’s a given. But why compound them? I think we should aim higher with our work, and that might take a little longer to accomplish, even a little longer than we might like sometimes.

Next, maybe we'll talk about how to make art in a marketplace, rather than for it? 


What You've Done, 2005

Getting ready to go to Houston again, to work on The Frogs at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center and City Council Meeting, at DiverseWorks, reminded me how much I liked working down there before.

Below is a clip of a dress rehearsal for What You've Done, a DiverseWorks and Project Row House co-production, featuring Eleanor Colvin, Autumn Knight and Troy Shulze. The piece was performed in a row house. These three actors did lovely work and helped keep me honest.

(I don't know why there is a long clip of black screen after the credits. Chalk it up to the early days of youtube?)