Here's a bad idea: Art should be useful.
Here's a bad decision: Acting on the bad idea, the city handed $13,000 to a theater company it knew virtually nothing about.
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In early 2005, the City of Seattle, through the Department of Neighborhoods, gave a really, really bad theater company $13,000 to produce a really, really bad play in January of 2006.
To give you some context, these were a few grants awarded in 2004 by the city's Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs: Seattle Shakespeare Company, $2,900; Book-It Repertory Theatre, $4,500; Theatre Puget Sound, $2,500; Northwest Asian American Theatre, $3,200; Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center, $5,000. For a single production, the really bad company was awarded more than double what Langston Hughes, a far more deserving institution, got for their whole outfit.
There are oodles of bad plays out there, and I can think of worse ways to blow $13,000 than on art. Maybe the Department of Neighborhoods had a windfall they had to get rid of. Maybe the theater company threatened to perform their entire oeuvre, nonstop, in the department's offices. Maybe the whole thing is a front for producing penis-enlargement pills from chinchilla dandruff. But I suspect the truth is much more troubling—that the story of the Conciliation Project is an object lesson in a very popular, very bad idea: that art's primary job is pedagogic rather than aesthetic—that art doesn't have to be good, it has to do good.
MY DAD HAS A BARN—LET'S CHANGE THE WORLD!
I was drinking a beer with a friend in the bar at Consolidated Works. It was ConWorks' gala opening, and the building was aflutter with well-dressed art patrons. A mostly empty, oil-stained pizza box sat on our table, attracting the curious, the gregarious, and the drunk, who wanted to know if it was ours (no) and could they have a piece (sure, but it looks pretty old). Corey Pearlstein, the new artistic director of ConWorks, was weaving slowly through the crowd, chatting people up, shaking hands. Eventually he made it to our table.
"Hey—pizza," he observed.
"It's not ours," I said. "Plus, it looks old."
I introduced my friend, who runs a small theater company, and Pearlstein asked what kind of work they do.
"We seek," she said, quoting from her mission statement, "to produce theater that sparks political, social, and individual change."
"Ah," Pearlstein said, nodding. "We have a simpatico." Then, a few sentences later: "People say theater should only speak to the ages. But theater should speak to what's happening right now—there's too much going on not to."
My friend nodded earnestly. The idea that art should be socially useful—that it should spark social and political change—is not controversial. It's very common, and its results are everywhere, from didactic theater companies to agit-docs à la Michael Moore to literary projects like Poets Against the War.
Politically minded people can do good work, but this assumption, that art should—not can, but should—spark social change is a suffocating, anti-art idea. It insists that art should answer questions instead of posing them, that it should give us manifestoes instead of muddy contradictions or haunting puzzles—that it should tell us what to do and relieve us of the burden of thought. Henry Louis Gates Jr. once described what happens when theater abandons artistry for good intentions: "Elegy devolves into ideology, the way furniture might be kilned into charcoal."
This bad idea—that art should make us better people—is what prompted the City of Seattle to give $13,000 to one of the worst pieces of theater I've seen in my life. It's difficult to describe how mind-numbingly awful this play was. Whoever you are, you would've hated it. I bet you $13,000.
Before we get to the critical excoriation, let's get four things straight.
First: Artists have a right, no a duty, to make bad art. You have to fall a few times before you can ride a bike, and putting execrable nonsense onstage (and being shamed by an audience's indifference or hostility) is good artistic training. I do not begrudge anyone an ambitious failure.
Second: I usually agree with the politics of the Theater of Good Intentions. The world is a mess. I'm not satisfied with the status quo. But, to quote local playwright Tim Sanders, "It's not impossible to change the world through theater. It's just incredibly unlikely."
Third: The incredibly unlikely happens. Art sometimes changes the world. Behind the Iron Curtain, jazz, hedonistic rock groups like the Plastic People of the Universe, and the underground literary scene helped erode totalitarianism. Consider the samizdat ("self-publisher") literature produced in the Soviet Union: a bunch of people secretly writing, hand-copying (because the KGB guarded the copy machines), distributing, and reading some political criticism and censored news, but mostly short stories and avant-garde poems about sex, dreams, and other prohibited "bourgeois" modes. The best and the most dangerous of the samizdat were comedies. That's another thing: Truly subversive art is usually very, very funny—activists change laws but jokes change minds.
Fourth: We should sing and dance with joy that city funders, or any funders, give money to small arts groups instead of the safe bets (ballet, symphony, opera, big theater). I'm not chastising the city for taking a risk on a small arts group, I'm chastising it for being lazy enough with taxpayer money—your money—to throw it at a company that simply promised to "[promote] dialogue about racism." Yes, racism is a serious problem. If I promise to "dialogue" about racism during my lunch break, can I have $13,000?
THE TERRIBLE, HORRIBLE, NO GOOD, VERY BAD PLAY
I saw the terrible play—Global SeXXX-ism: un-wrapped, by the Conciliation Project—in January [see Brendan Kiley's review in "On Stage," Jan 12]. The Conciliation Project is under the creative direction of Dr. Tawnya Pettiford-Wates—known to her students as "Dr. T"—who taught at Seattle Central Community College for 16 years and now teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University, leading summer trips to Ghana and South Africa to study performing arts.
The Conciliation Project's process is "ensemble-based," but Dr. T, according to Project member Amelia Wood, is the "artistic conceptual artist." (Dr. T could not be reached for comment.) Wood said that SeXXX-ism was in the minstrel show tradition, a "good way to... break down stereotypes. It's really effective in triggering people's emotions and memories."
Sadly, the only emotion SeXXX-ism triggered for me was a kind of meta-pathos—less sad about the racist, misogynist world than about the misguided souls who were trying to change it by boring their audience with a lecture thinly veiled as theater. The play was composed of short vignettes on race/gender themes, and, apart from a mildly humorous musical number about the "White Women's Brigade" (a lampoon of condescending white liberals who swoop into foreign countries and cluck at backward locals), the evening was devoted to insulting its audience's intelligence. Actors placed signs around their necks that read "codependency," "addiction," or "abuse" and stumbled around the stage, embodying addiction or codependency. In a strip-club tableau, three men attached long, inflatable phalli to their pants and hooted at a couple of automaton-woman pole dancers, who chanted about their inner numbness and "calloused" vaginas. In its rush to spoon-feed us ideas that hadn't been radical in 50 years—misogyny is bad; racism is destructive—the play didn't bother with little details like characters or plot.
According to an interview with Dr. T in ColorsNW, those things aren't so important. "It doesn't matter where you start," she is quoted as saying, "as long as you come away with a revelation of some kind." More mainstream theater shoulders the burden of entertaining the audience and feels bad when it fails. Dr. T's method, "ritual poetic drama within the African continuum," aspires to the level of spiritual experience, a theater of personal transformation—like Baptist tent revivals. This turns responsibility for the play on the audience: If you don't "come away with a revelation," that's your problem. The spirit was with the performers. Why wasn't it with you?
Does it bear mentioning that I'm a straight white man panning a play about racism by a black woman director and featuring a cast of black men and white women? If so, then it also bears mentioning that I agree with the show's politics: Racism is bad, slavery fucked us up (and is still fucking us up), and sexual violence is a social disease—a disease I would wave away with a magic wand if I could. And an artless piece of theater about racism is about as effective as a magic wand, only less entertaining. That's what makes SeXXX-ism a good case study: It was "political art" stripped of the art, naked ideology standing onstage. And it failed. It cared less about being good than doing good—the Theater of Good Intentions strikes again.
THIRTEEN THOUSAND DOLLARS? SURE!
The Department of Neighborhoods agreed to hand over its file on the Conciliation Project. Most of it is receipts, the group's application (which, oddly, does not include a description of their proposed performance), pages of bureaucratic verbiage, and an undeserved paean to the group in ColorsNW magazine (in which Dr. T talks about a "cloak of political correctness" that strangles honest discussion about race. "We correct ourselves into silence." I keep wishing Dr. T were an essayist instead of a director).
When I ask ed Peter McGraw, the department's public information officer, about how and why the Project got $13,000, he immediately sensed trouble. "What kind of article is this going to be?" he asked. "Who gets to decide what art gets funding?"
"Yes," I said.
"Look, at the end of the day, we're not critics and editors," he said. "It's about what the project will do for the community. This project was making an attempt to bridge the gap between communities; the feeling was that this project had merit. The people here stand by their decisions."
McGraw said that the project was funded under the mayor's race and social-justice initiative. The department received 120 applications and decided to fund 49 of them, the Conciliation Project's included. According to McGraw, a project manager named Garry Owens saw an earlier Conciliation Project production and thought "they'd be a good fit for the community." Not that they did great work—they don't—but that they'd be healthful political/social oatmeal for hapless theatergoers and whatever public schools decided to subject their students to an hour of artless performance.
Yes, students. Part of the reason the Conciliation Project got funding was because it planned to take the show to local schools. You haven't made a socially useful piece of theater until you've tormented some school children with it and proved what they already suspect: Theater, like, totally blows. I couldn't find anyone at the city who admitted to having seen Global SeXXX-ism. If you're going to write a five-figure check to an obscure—and lousy—theater group, the least you could do is follow up, if only to make an informed decision about whether they deserve a five-figure check next year. Right?
FIRST THEATER EXPERIENCE
"I think this group is a positive thing, whether or not they do high art or quality drama," said Marc Ottaviani, a teacher at Cleveland High School, who took his class to see Global SeXXX-ism. "I don't want to see them bashed just because it makes an interesting story." I said I understood, that I didn't want to bash them for a story, but because I thought there was something larger at stake. "It's great that they would come down here and want to work with our students," he said. "Those opportunities are few and far between. For a lot of my students, this was their first theater experience."
I was afraid he'd say that.
Molly Pritchard, a teacher at the Center School who took a class to see Global SeXXX-ism, said that some students "wanted the show to go more deeply instead of [being] a quick tour of sexism around the world. It was a little frustrating for students already aware of the issues. But I'm glad to see feminist issues raised in a public forum. We do feminism in the 11th grade." I asked if she would see a show like SeXXX-ism on a spare Friday night. "No."
I suspect her students came to the same conclusion, which is what should irk other artists: The city, under the doctrine of Good Intentions, not only gave the really bad theater more than it gave you, but that money is inadvertently destroying potential audiences for the theaters that actually do good work.
WHAT THEATER CAN AND SHOULD DO
People are occasionally transformed by art. But great art, transformative art, is not reducible to ideology. If Aristotle was right about man being a political animal, every artful piece of theater about people and their relationships is political. Great stories that embrace the experience of being a person—moral ambiguity punctuated by brief periods of stabbing clarity—cannot help but be more honest, and more fundamentally political, than liberal platitudes tarted up in greasepaint.
David Hare's Via Dolorosa is a powerful play about Israel and Palestine because it is a great portrait of ambivalence and conviction. August Wilson was renowned for his curious ability to declare didactic artistic opinions—like opposing cross-color casting—while writing plays with complex characters who wrestle with all kinds of problems, including, not limited to, racism.* There was Waiting for Lefty at the Capitol Hill Arts Center, the 1935 play by communist Clifford Odets, about a union and its workers' oppressed lives; it was moving because it was a well-told story. Swimming in the Shallows by the Washington Ensemble Theater endorsed gay marriage by featuring an engaged lesbian couple. The play established them as a simple fact, without any justification, then set them quibbling about the details of the wedding like any engaged couple. It never turned to its audience and screamed: "See! Gay marriage is good!"
Purely didactic theater condescends to its audience. It assumes it is wiser and more politically astute than the people sitting in the seats, that it can tell them something they don't already know. At best, it bores and insults them. At worst, it will drive them away from theater forever. n