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Making Theatre As Vital To The Body As Food

May 1, 2007

The title for this blog entry isn't a joke.

A group of six theatre people in San Francisco -- Rob Avila (theatre critic for the San Francisco Bay Guardian,) Mark Jackson (director and co-founder of Art Street Theatre,) Beth Wilmurt (actor, singer and co-founder of Art Street Theatre,) John Wilkins (co-founder of Last Planet Theatre,) Kimball Wilkins (ditto) and myself -- had been mulling over how to get people within the community to talk to one another more. We wanted to inject a bit of fun and much-needed glamor into the local arts scene and make people reconnect with the reasons behind why they do their work and what it means in terms of the world at large.

So we decided to hold a Theatre Salon. We invited around 40 performing arts people including directors, actors, producers, critics etc to a gathering at Last Planet Theatre. John and Kimball spearheaded an amazing feast. Somehow we managed to cook a five course, sit-down meal for everyone as well as coordinate entertainment. Local actor/magician Christian Cagigal performed some tricks and Beth sang the Josh White song One Meatball accompanied by the rest of us on guitar (Rob) as well as various pots and scrapers and shakers purloined from the kitchen.

The evening was a lot of fun, but best of all, it made for a sublime way to kick off a conversation about theatre. Each dinner course was served with a new question, which we asked our guests to discuss. The questions ranged from the one at the top of this blog entry, to considering how we might encourage audiences to talk about theatre more and what elements have to be in place to create a great theatrical experience.

Some people I talked to at the soiree were intrigued as to how two people like Mark Jackson and myself would wind up hosting a party together given our recent confrontation over my review of his last production, American $uicide, for SF Weekly. In fact, the entire Theatre Salon came about as a result of an initially acrimonious email conversation. Mark and I wound up going out for a beer to hash out some stuff and we ended up thinking it might be good to get people from all parts of the theatre community talking to each other more regularly. The topic came up at brunch with Rob Avila the next day. Turns out he'd had practically the same conversation with John Wilkins. So we set the ball in motion for some kind of theatre salon.

It'll be interesting to see how these developing relationships with the people I write about as a critic affect my writing. I think that it can only nourish it for I always get a better understanding of the culture from talking to people about their work. I do not subscribe to the New York Times philosophy of criticism that says critics need to keep their distance from artists in order to remain objective. There is no such thing as objectivity. I have always been able to write honestly about artists I know. The reason this is possible is because I wouldn't be interested in hanging out with and getting to know anyone whose work was mediocre or who didn't have the intelligence to understand that my words as a critic -- both positive and negative -- essentially come from a place of love and respect. I believe this state of affairs makes it possible for me to both write honestly and engagingly about theatre.

Steve Haskell, a writer/director who just moved to the Bay Area from Los Angeles whom I met for the first time at our party, sent me a couple of paragraphs from an essay by Cynthia Ozick from a recent issue of Harper's Magazine. The piece refers to the role of criticism in literature, but as Steve says (and I agree), Ozick's comments apply just as well to theatre:

"What is needed is a broad infrastructure, through a critical mass of critics, of the kind of criticism that can define, or prompt, or inspire, or at least intuit, what is happening in a culture in a given time frame. What is needed is critics who can tease out hidden imperatives, and assumptions held in common, and who will create the contentious conditions that underlie and stimulate a living literary consciousness. In this there is something almost ceremoniously slow; unhurried thinking, the ripened long (or sideways) view, the gradualism of nuance.

...something instinctually different might begin to hover: a hint of innate kinship, a backdrop, the white noise of the era that claims us all. In times that are mad conscious of themselves-a consciousness that only a critical infrastructure can supply-the varieties of literary experience become less antagonistic than inquisitively receptive. [We can create] a certain virtuoso interplay: we know this because criticism has taught us how to see it."

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6 Comments:

  • Bravo to you for agreeing to host and for taking the time to engage in a discussion with an artist, like Mark, over the nature of your review. The state of Criticism in this country is woefully inadequate, and this kind of interaction gives me hope.

    Now that Cassie Beck and I have taken over Crowded Fire, we are hoping that it can serve as a jumping off point for these kinds of community conversations. (In fact I am reading your blog now so we can link it to ours...). We feel that there is not nearly enough engagement happening. I hope you'll join us in the conversation.

    Kudos!
    Kent Nicholson
    Co-Artistic Director
    Crowded Fire

    By Blogger Kent, At May 1, 2007 at 12:03 PM  

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