September 16, 2009
Every few months, myself, another Bay Area theatre critic, two directors, an actor and a producer get together to host what we call a "theatre salon" -- an evening involving anything between 12 and 50 people, food, wine and conversation about a specific topic to do with the performing arts. Past themes have included the San Francisco Fringe Festival, theatre-makers' relationship with audiences and theatre and the (ailing) economy.
This time around we decided to spend an evening with a smallish group of colleagues (some new to the salon concept and some old hands) to talk about theme of elitism. Our original intention was to discuss whether a fear of seeming too elitist and not being "accessible" and "inclusive" enough makes artists fearful of actually discussing their work and their aesthetics.
But we never really ended up talking about that topic. Instead, we got mired in a semantic discussion about the definition of elitism and other related words such as "artist" versus "craftsman".
I usually have no trouble contributing to our salon discussions. But for some reason I found myself completely tongue-tied on Monday night. I kept thinking I had something important or at least valid to say, but then the moment would pass and I'd find myself looking in on myself wondering why I ever thought that my thought would be worth articulating.
The topic of elitism completely confounded me. I walked into the room thinking that I had a clear stand on the subject at least from a personal perspective as a critic: Namely, I try to approach every production I see in a similarly open and hopefully intelligent way. I'm not afraid to bring Heidegger to bear in an essay about Point Break Live or Dangerous Housewives into a discussion about Miss Julie if doing so makes sense. I imagine my readers to be interested in theatre and reasonably well-informed. At the same time, I don't engage in dry academic discourse.
But as the evening progressed I got quite confused and knotted up in the discussion. Pretty soon, I couldn't get much of a footing at all. I think I uttered about two sentences the entire evening.
That being said, I relished the discussion going on around me as frustrating as it was at times. My colleague Mark put the feeling very eloquently in an email he sent out to our small group last night: "It seems that ultimately we must be comfortable with a certain amount of unruliness to the Salon discussions, and accept that the most interesting stuff, if it gets said at all, will more often then not get said in wee groups at the end of the night, or the next day, or a week later. In other words, the Salons are an unwieldily leaping off point, a party-ish beginning, to a longer, ongoing discussion of the theater." Here, here.