Dialing the Suicide Hotline
It is this simple. Resistance will only make matters more difficult. Any resistance will only make matters worse. By law, I will have to restrain you. His tone suggests that you should try to understand the difficulty in which he finds himself. This is further disorienting. I am fine! Can’t you see that! You climb into the ambulance unassisted.
Sometimes when I talk to theater artists seeking their way and place in this field I like to read them this passage from Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. It’s right at the beginning of the book and she’s talking about how one minute we’re thinking about death and then we’re sitting in front of the television and then “call 1-800-SUICIDE” flashes across the screen and suddenly we find ourselves dialing the number. And then the ambulance arrives, and we climb into the ambulance “unassisted.”
I suggest this reflects the same kind of intentionality in becoming an artist. And in fact I argue the sequence of events is almost identical. You’re sitting around thinking about writing about death or directing death or dramaturging death because most stories are about grief and death anyway, and then the next thing you know, you feel like dying and then you think, “I’m fine.” But then you crawl into the ambulance of your own volition and are carted off into this world of theater, where resistance only makes matters worse—as I say repeatedly to my students or my interns or any emerging playwright. Just accept your suicidal impulses and figure out how to live with them and survive despite them.
Survival has been on our minds a lot these days. In fact, since Rocco Landesman gave his talk at the Arena Stage new play convening in January, we’re all asking ourselves whether or not we agree with him. Are there too many theaters for too few audience? Is supply out of whack with demand? This set off a panic across the country—“Does he mean me? My theater? Is he trying to off me?” And in this case what does it mean to get into the ambulance? Should we look inward and admit we’ve become a dinosaur in the field and move out of the way so some other artists can have a crack at it? Or does it mean that we should spend way less time defending our positions, trying to hoard our resources, and just get in the ambulance of art-making and get on with it?
I sent out a tweet saying I was bummed that the outcome of the convening had turned into a supply/demand conversation, as I wanted to talk about aesthetics. But trying to talk about aesthetics in 140 characters proved impossible for me. (I think poetry will return with a vengeance in the age of Twitter as I wished myself a poet in that moment, someone with the ability to convey a lot with a lot fewer words.) So I got depressed as I do when things don’t go my way and then I thought, how can I turn the supply/demand conversation in a direction that serves my selfish desire to talk about beauty and art?
We approach art like we approach a potential lover and in the initial stages that has everything to do with “what’s in it for me.”
I remember reading Walter Pater’s The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry from 1873 in college. I loved Pater at that moment, in my coming of age as a thinker and a lover of art. Art for art’s sake has been a mantra I still like to pull out of my back pocket, a way of separating myself from the masses, my childhood in Elkhart, Indiana, and an encroaching sense that I might be expected to be held ever more accountable for my work in the age of accessibility and transparency.
Pater’s utterly self-reflexive questions: “What is this song or picture, this engaging personality presented in life or in a book, to me? What effect does it really produce on me? Does it give me pleasure? How is my nature modified by its presence, and under its influence?” This is the job of the aesthetic critic—to understand the impact of art in the most personal way. Me, me, me, me, me! In an ego-driven field—“what about my play? My directing? My institution?”—Pater has a lot to tell us about the aesthetic disposition and its incredibly selfish nature. Pater’s words echo some of the ideas conveyed in my earlier piece about the role of love in season planning, that we approach art like we approach a potential lover and in the initial stages that has everything to do with “what’s in it for me.” And if you look at the history of conversations on aesthetics, I’m hardly an expert, but one does see a progression in how we look at art, how we receive it, and how we make it.
The essay I’ve returned to for more than twenty years is Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” In this essay, written in 1936, Benjamin considers both sides of the impact of reproduction (particularly in film, photography, and music) on how we assess the aesthetic impact of art. Benjamin has a great investment in what he terms the “aura” of a piece of art and the ability to reproduce art has a direct impact on our experience of aura—“that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art…by making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence.” Accessing the original work of art becomes less of a priority and authenticity becomes more difficult to determine. Beauty becomes ever more subjective. The object and its author are supplanted by the experience of the audience.
Benjamin’s analysis of the democratizing impact of reproducibility presages our most pressing conversations in considering the future of theater as an art form. “It’s inherent in the technique of the film as well as that of sports that everybody who witnesses its accomplishments is somewhat of an expert. . . Similarly, the newsreel offers everyone the opportunity to rise from passerby to movie extra.” Benjamin predicts the impact of hyper reproduction on the arts, “the distinction between the author and the public is about to lose its basic character . . at any moment the reader is ready to turn to writer.” And isn’t this what we’re struggling with in the theater right now, what to do with this new generation of theater-goers (we call them millennials or the Web 2.0 generation) who want to participate and who want an experience that is in essence about “me, me, me, me, me"? This audience shouldn’t be so unfamiliar to us as they are driven by an impulse we’re very familiar with when we’re honest about it.
Interestingly in 1936, Benjamin references the theater as the art form where aura still prevails. Its “liveness” and lack of reproducibility allow direct access to the authentic qualities of beauty. So it’s no surprise that theater is the last art form to grapple with art in the age of mechanical reproduction—why so many pockets in the field are still holding firm to the idea that there is an infinite interest for any work, that if we make it, they will come. And as some parts of theater hold onto the past, history moves forward and theater morphs—whether it be National Theatre: Live in HD, or site specific work, or NewPlay TV, or multimedia installations and simultaneous Twitter feeds—the theater is undergoing a democratizing moment that we cannot avoid. And our challenge? Whether to embrace things like the pro-am movement, or Meiyin Wang’s call for the plumber/poet in her provocative piece in this journal, or using audience as actors (in an upcoming piece for HowlRound by Aaron Landsman). If we are to survive our own ego-mania, we must embrace it and get into the ambulance unassisted. Resistance will only make matters more difficult.