Essay by

Beauty and the Decline of the Theater Professional

Essay by

It is surprising how dramatic the fight for your measly soul turns out to be.

I ended the very first essay I wrote for HowlRound with this quotation from Zadie Smith’s On Beauty. If we think the fight for our individual souls is dramatic, then we must acknowledge that the drama playing out in this presidential election over the soul of our country is of the very highest order. Never in my lifetime has the contrast between two candidates been starker. This is a fight not just for our political soul but for our aesthetic soul. In our choices this election, we will make a decision about how we define beauty in our country and how we create the conditions from which beauty can emerge.

A Parable

Steven Millhauser’s short story “In the Reign of Harad IV” published in the New Yorker back in 2006 is a lesson for all artists who attempt to define beauty and shape an aesthetic for an audience. Millhauser tells the tale of a Master miniaturist who works for the King and is responsible for replacing all of the furnishings in the King’s toy palace. He is revered for his skill, given an apartment in the King’s palace and an ermine robe to participate in all official ceremonies. But after he completes “a basket of brilliantly lifelike red-and-green apples, each no larger than the pit of a cherry, and as a finishing touch he had placed on the stem of one apple a perfectly reproduced copper fly,” he feels inside himself a “stirring restlessness.” He becomes obsessed with perfecting his craft, making his items so small that they are barely perceptible to the human eye. But this isn’t enough to satisfy the Master. “And he proposed to himself a plunge beneath the surface of the visible, the creation of a detailed world wholly inaccessible to the naked eye.”

In the Master’s vigorous pursuit of perfection of his craft, he forgets about his audience. He is no longer concerned about other’s perceptions of beauty, but only his own. At the King’s final visit to the Master’s work room:

At last the King permitted himself to wonder whether his maker of miniatures might not soon return to the visible miracle of his exquisite palace furniture. In the King’s voice the Master heard a tone of unmistakable reproach. As he explained the apparatus and adjusted the lens, it seemed to him that by venturing beyond the visible world he had embarked on a voyage more perilous than he had known.

an old book
Libro d’Oro, or Book of Gold used
in Venice during the fourteenth century
as the offical registry of the nobility.
Photo by Wikipedia.

 

Has our narcissistic sense of what constitutes a good play created a personalized sense of beauty no longer visible or comprehensible to the eye of our audiences?

 

And the result of the journey, as we can all imagine, is the Master’s irrelevance. His apprentices replace him. He is lonely. He is alone. And yet he is undeterred and continues his pursuit in the recognition that it will be “difficult and without forgiveness.”

Has our narcissistic sense of what constitutes a good play created a personalized sense of beauty no longer visible or comprehensible to the eye of our audiences? Have we come to believe that our obsessions with our individual theatres and our individual productions just naturally connect with the needs of our community, our nation, our world?

The 47 Percent and the Book of Gold

I’ve heard the 47 percent in our field referred to in various ways over the years.

Hobbyists

Amateurs

Wannabes

The Delusional

The Uniformed Audience

In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, Chrystia Freeland reminds us of the Venetian period of La Serrata—the closure.

In 1315, when the Venetian city-state was at the height of its economic powers, the upper class acted to lock in its privileges, putting a formal stop to social mobility with the publication of the Libro d’Oro, or Book of Gold, an official register of the nobility. If you weren’t on it, you couldn’t join the ruling oligarchy.

As Freeland looks at the gap between the 1 percent in our country and everyone else—in the moments before we choose between two presidential candidates, one of whom firmly believes in rights and privileges of the 1 percent—she worries that the very rich will “confuse their own self-interest with the common good.”

The Theatre Professional

I started HowlRound because I was planning to write a book about beauty. I had come to believe that the most pressing issue facing the American theatre concerned the question of aesthetics and who got to define the beautiful. I felt we had created some reified notion of the theatre professional and our own 1 percent was deciding the few and the privileged who would be written into the Book of Gold.

More upsetting to me, though, was the idea that this same privileged coterie holding the purse strings would be defining an aesthetic for our audiences for years to come. I’m sure I’ve written this before, but I was struck by the hubris of our artistic leadership that was able to comfortably define the aesthetics of their audience in meeting after meeting with me. I would be talking about scripts I had read and playwrights we were working with at the Playwrights’ Center and would hear consistently, “My audience wouldn’t go for that,” or some version of why a new play or a new playwright to the scene couldn’t make their way into the Book of Gold.

And this problem of who gets to define a theatrical aesthetic has become enormously complicated in a digital age. Beauty was more clearly defined on our stages when we had a reliable group of paid critics to tell us what shows to go see. Much has been written about the demise of the professional arts critic. But what follows that demise is inevitably the demise of the power of the theatre professional in defining, or somehow knowing in advance, what will be judged as good art. The Book of Gold’s binding is coming apart at the seams. As Howard Gardner says in his book Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed: Educating for the Virtues in the Age of Truthiness and Twitter:

What will be judged as beautiful cannot be predicted in advance; historical, cultural, and accidental factors overwhelm any brain-based or economic considerations.

Gardner recognizes that outlining parameters for beauty at a time in history when anyone can create her own aesthetic reality means understanding that definitions are becoming ever more individualized. We can easily create the world in our desired image using the means of production at our fingertips. Gardner believes one result will be a change in our expectations as audience for the kinds of performances we want to see. Live performance will need to be “memorable in their mode of presentation and inviting further exploration.”

This idea that change is upon us, that our status as theatre professional is being threatened from all sides—because who are we if we aren’t arbiters of taste?—has many artistic leaders in all art forms turning inward and feverishly, like the Master in the parable, making art according to their singular vision. We have defined ourselves as people who can distinguish and make art that is good, and even great. This idea that we will have to see the world differently moving forward is understandably threatening. I hear the fear every time I read blogs decrying the new reality, “Everyone is a critic.” Anyone can learn WordPress and start posting reviews.

Awhile back Michael Kaiser, President of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts wrote a blog about what he calls this “scary trend,” ending with the warning: But great art must not be measured by a popularity contest. Otherwise the art that appeals to the lowest common denominator will always be deemed the best.

Clearly Kaiser has very little faith in the 47 percent, those audience members and theatre practitioners who dare to enter the world of theatre criticism and help shape an aesthetic viewpoint.

Clay Shirkey, in a recent post on the online news source Poynter, makes it clear that there’s no going back to the old days, and from his vantage point, this isn’t the worst thing. His frame is journalism and the battle over truth:

We are indeed less willing to agree on what constitutes truth, but not because we have recently become pigheaded, naysaying zealots. We were always like that. It’s just that we didn’t know how many other people were like that as well. . . .The current loss of consensus is a better reflection of the real beliefs of the American polity than the older centrism.

If we swap out “truth” and replace it with “beauty” in that quote we have a good idea of what’s happening in the theatre in the battle to define what constitutes good art. As Shirkey says, there are no more Walter Cronkite’s out there who can assure us of what to believe because “there’s no way to get someone like Cronkite in a world with an Internet. . . .To assume that this situation can be reversed, and everyone else will voluntarily sign on to the beliefs of some culturally dominant group, is a fantasy.”

And I admit, this cultural sea change and confusion around whose view of the world will prevail is perplexing. As anyone who sits around a room and makes artistic decisions knows, you have to balance so many things when you put together a season. And the very thought that all this effort might just fail to impress your audience, might just prove that what you think is good isn’t what everyone else wants to see, well, that idea of our decline in importance in shaping beauty can feel pretty overwhelming. And contrary to how Kaiser frames it, I think those pandering to the lowest common notion of entertainment are often those who feel most acutely the decline of the theatre professional as an arbiter of beauty on stage.

 

And we can embrace this new reality and perhaps discover some modicum of relevance at a moment when our field is running around frantically trying to convince a new generation why we matter. 

 

Creating an Ethics of the Theatre and Reinvigorating the Theatre Professional

We have more than once choice in this critical moment where beauty is up for grabs and our relevance as artists and arbiters of taste is threatened. We can go the way of the Master and continue to pursue our greatness as individual artists and singular organizations. We can fight and vote to perpetuate the disparities in our field, the sense that only the few and the deserving can be written into our professional Book of Gold. And we can look to identify a twenty-first century Walter Cronkite of the theatre to make the chaotic more coherent.

Or we can use our professionalism and our experience and our expertise to reinvigorate our field. We can open our institutions to a new and productive dialogue with our audiences, armchair critics, and local artists. And we can embrace this new reality and perhaps discover some modicum of relevance at a moment when our field is running around frantically trying to convince a new generation why we matter.

In a recent post in The New York Times “Reinventing Ethics,” Howard Gardner gives us a path forward.

I call on members of a professional community to create common spaces in which they can reflect on ethical conundra of our era. For the first time in human history, it is not essential that participants occupy the same physical space. Virtual common spaces can allow all who have interest and knowledge in the area to weigh in—whether the topic is the protection of sources by journalists, the determination of which intellectual property can legitimately be downloaded and which not, whether studies of the creation of a deadly new strain of virus should be published. Indeed, in the last decade, in professions ranging from journalism and law to medicine and science, such spaces have been created and, in some case, have been ably curated.

Gardner suggests that the democratization of our profession doesn’t have to mean its demise. More importantly, he believes, as do, I that those who have held the key to our professional Book of Gold must bring their expertise to the table. They must lead the march to the Commons. They must look up from their miniature making—the next Broadway production to further their own career—and look toward their communities and their audiences and promote a dialogue about our profession that at this point may be more important than another production. In this time of massive change, the only way we can stop making theatre by and for the 1 percent is to swing open the doors of those big glass structures we’ve been building and make those places homes for cultural and creative commons—to redefine our profession—more truthfully, more beautifully, more democratically.

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Your Gardner quotation brings to mind one from another Howard, the playwright Howard Barker, who rails against Theatre's status quo: "I submit all my plays to the National Theatre for rejection. To assure myself I am seeing clearly.
"

This is great piece. I look forward to reading this one a few times. This getting into the textures of taste...your piece brings me back into incessant questions I have continuously struggled to develop around the inextricable connection between taste and ideology. There are many uncovered stones being pointed at in your piece: a power we give up by ignoring these questions, a story of ethics that we have not delved into, a dramaturgy of taste. An unctuous, unconscious cynicism easily grows out of this neglected conversation so I feel yours is a vital provocation.

I love that you're referencing Howard Gardner's new book, a novel by Zadie Smith, and your first post. Maybe part of why I'm slightly out of step is I'm more interested in truth than beauty. When creative people let science own the truth, we make art a place of verisimilitude only, a mere likeness of truth. But the most powerful theatre experiences ARE truth. How I feel, what I see, what I share with everyone from the audience, performers, designers, directors, artistic directors, playwrights, boards of directors, donors, other productions, critics...it's a network of sensible meaning; a shared temporal experience of truth. I think that's what to aim for in the theatre; not “arbitrating taste.” Like others have said, thank you again so much for your honesty and efforts in making this commons possible.

Millhauser's image of the artist making art that's impossible to share (without an incredibly specialized viewing apparatus) is a stunning visual metaphor, but I think your idea about the artistic gatekeepers trying to coalesce around a particular, singular aesthetic that 'their audience' will enjoy (even the terminology around 'my audience' is troubled - you don't own them) is an even sharper critique.

I wonder what would it look like for institutions "to swing open the doors of those big glass structures we’ve been building and make those places homes for cultural and creative commons." I love the images and the heart of the idea, but would you propose 'community programs' to invite the input or dialogue of the audience? I mean, HowlRound seems to be the leading 'virtual common space' among theatre professionals, and it's incredibly vital to the longer term question, but I think, perhaps more so than in other fields, a screen-based communication system seems at odds with what the theatre does best, pulling us into real proximity with each other. What would it look like to "open our institutions . . . embrace this new reality and perhaps discover some modicum of relevance?"

Thank you so much for what you do Polly! As usual I am asking myself "What's to be done?"

Great article Polly. Christine had the same conversation with me lately about the democratization of theater. It is vital. We need to listen to what speaks to others, as well as what truly speaks to us. And we need to be courageous in the dialogue with our entire community. Sometimes the most courageous thing one can do is remain open.

I find myself in the double bind of seeking theatre's democratization within higher education. Institutional change moves at a glacial pace. Collegiality flies out the window when artist/professors feel a threat to their authority. The ossification of aesthetics and academics presents seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Courage to continue seeking change is vital. Thank you all for your wise words.

Beautiful thoughts, Polly. There is a lot of pleasure to be discovered in the ongoing pursuit of balance. Finding a place where my individual commitment to craft serves my family, my company, my students, my colleagues, my community--AND where my service grounds, inspires and guides my commitment to craft.