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Eat, Drink, and Talk Seriously about the Theater

Back in 2007, Chloe Veltman, then theater critic for SF Weekly, wrote what I felt to be an inappropriately cynical review of a play of mine, which concluded with her daring me to crucify myself. I sent her a rather pointed email letting her know what I thought about that. To my surprise, she responded by inviting me out for a drink.

We met and got along well, talking mostly about how critics and artists don’t talk to one another nearly enough. Neither of us shared the famous New York Times belief that critics should not fraternize with artists. We preferred the opposite, which seemed to us could only benefit both groups and, more importantly, the art itself. How can two people really understand one another to any significant degree without the pressure of a direct, face-to-face exchange? Even the digital realm, despite its immediacy, is too safely distanced. We make theater. We know the value of doing things live.

The next day Chloe ran into Rob Avila, critic for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, who said he’d just had the same conversation with director John Wilkins. Chloe got us all together, along with actor Beth Wilmurt and John’s wife, producer Kimball Wilkins. We ate, drank, and talked seriously about the theater. Mostly we talked about how talking about the theater is as vital to the theater as food is to the body, and that the various strands and strata of the local theater community could benefit from intersecting more often and directly. John said the six of us weren’t nearly enough, that there should be forty people at the table. So a few weeks later we threw a “Theater Salon” for forty invited guests on the stage of Last Planet Theater in San Francisco’s dicey Tenderloin district. To our delight, it went over very well.

Since then we have continued to throw salons roughly every four months, each a bit different. We’ve held them in the lobbies, bars, and stages of theaters, as well as artists’ homes. The number of guests has ranged from ten to sixty. We’ve seated people formally, with place cards and a five-course meal on white linen table cloths, and informally, with too many people crowded around too small a table reaching over one another for pizza and wine. Among others, our salon topics have included Violence, the question “What is Fringe?” and a controversial trend in which theaters were suddenly asking their publics for massive financial bailouts needed within weeks or even days.

What is consistent from salon to salon is (1) we pick a specific topic or question for discussion, (2) ask our guests to arrive on time and bring a bottle of their favorite beverage, and (3) that it is a non-networking event where everyone is invited to (4) eat, drink, and talk seriously about the theater. We make a point of inviting a mix of past attendees and newbies, gathering at the table people from all corners of the community. People like California Shakespeare Theater’s artistic director Jon Moscone have sat between the likes of San Francisco State University acting student Allison Combs and director/actor/video designer Erin Gilley; San Francisco Fringe Festival managing director Richard Livingston has sat across the table from Oakland-based Italian set designer Giulio Perrone, himself seated next to A.C.T. movement teacher Stephen Buescher. It isn’t just the critics and artists who should talk to one another more, but everyone. What does the stage manager think? Or the actor’s novelist husband who sees a lot of theater without the burden of behind-the-scenes experience? What is the artistic director’s perspective, without the editing to impress a board of trustees? What is the fight choreographer’s take on aesthetic elitism?
 

a man looking at the camera
Mark Jackson. Photo by Pak Han Foto.

Who cares what people like or don’t like? What do they understand and feel? That’s the question worth grappling with

Another consistent attribute of the salons is that, once we declare the evening “over,” it inevitably continues for another few hours during which the most interesting things are said. I don’t know that any salon conversation ever finishes, much less conclusively. But a good many conversations begin. And this is the point, to spur a rolling exchange of ideas and opinions that is serious, enjoyable, and not at all about getting the next gig.

Those of us involved in organizing the salons have debated endlessly their format, tweaking it in various ways. Our struggles to identify a topic that we can all agree on are epic. And though we’ve often questioned the precise effectiveness of the salons, we’ve never doubted their ultimate value. No matter how we organize or disorganize them, they always seem to turn out pretty well in the end, serving as a rare gathering of people with differing points of view and a shared interest in theater as something worth arguing about.

I've personally taken many things from these events. For one, Chloe Veltman and I are now good friends. Also, at some point in a given evening my assumptions are inevitably turned upside down—like the time scenic designer Jamie Mulligan stood up and asked the group gathered for the salon on Fringe theater how many of them had actually seen anything in the recent San Francisco Fringe Festival. A wave of shame and embarrassment swept across the room as only a few hands went up. Mine was not among them, despite the fact that my own Fringe company, Art Street Theatre, had made its 1995 debut in the Festival and continued to make the Festival’s producer, EXIT Theatre, its home for the next ten years. Was I now already among the hypocrites who mindlessly champion the Fringe over the mainstream without bothering to attend Fringe productions, much less my community’s annual celebration of the Fringe? Yup! After that, I made a point of getting my butt back into Fringe venues like Noh Space and The Garage to keep in touch with what local Fringe artists are doing. I also began to more consciously question the trajectory and aesthetic of my own work within the context of that salon’s über question, “What is Fringe?”

Without a doubt, the most important thing I personally have gained from the salons is that in my daily artistic life I now feel both freer and better able to ask people who do not like a given work of mine why that is, and to have a productive, critical, enjoyable conversation about it. For example, when a longstanding colleague and friend, A.C.T. conservatory director Melissa Smith, said to me with some fervor, “Not my favorite work of yours, Mark,” about The Companion Piece, a devised show I’d directed at Z Space, I smiled and let it go.

But immediately after we parted I regretted that. The very next time we met, I asked Melissa what about the piece she’d responded to so strongly. She talked about sequences that left her confused about what exactly she was being asked to take in. She also noted strong images and moments that had stayed with her, though she didn’t feel she could stitch them together into a cohesive whole and found this ultimately frustrating. The Companion Piece juxtaposed the long-since perfected act of an aging vaudeville headliner with a younger duo struggling and failing to create their own act. I talked a bit about the fragmentary structure of the piece, which juxtaposed discreet, contrasting episodes of failed and successful attempts to create or communicate that are typical of longstanding collaborative relationships. I noted how we’d intentionally put the actors in a position to fail—actually fail—at certain things in front of the audience. This led Melissa and I into a discussion of acting and the variable nature of truth in performance within different aesthetic contexts. In the end, we enjoyed a fruitful conversation in which I came to understand her experience, she likewise better understood my intentions with the work, and we connected the subject to other aspects of the theater.

The most important thing I personally have gained from the salons is that in my daily artistic life I now feel both freer and better able to ask people who do not like a given work of mine why that is, and to have a productive, critical, enjoyable conversation about it.

As colleagues we tend not to say much, if anything, when we don’t care for one another’s work. It’s not only a matter of egos, but economics. Too much honesty could conceivably cost you a job down the line. Yet the ability to talk productively, not preciously or guardedly, about even strong differences in values, aesthetics, and experiences would seem vital to a forward-moving artistic community.

The Theater Salons have helped me care less about swaying people toward my point of view, or even whether they accept it, and care more about understanding theirs and making mine understood in return. I’ve seen in the salons how the process of asking specific, honest questions can draw out more detailed, honest responses from people. This process of understanding has gradually taken ever-greater precedence for me over the question of whether I or anyone likes or does not like something, which one must admit is never really that interesting a question anyway. Who cares what people like or don’t like? What do they understand and feel? That’s the question worth grappling with.

Considering the sheer effort it takes to make theater, we lose something vital when we separate ourselves from one another or the audience through a lack of direct, face-to-face, truly critical dialogue about the work. By neglecting this dialogue, we neglect a key benefit offered to us by the theater, the chance for a community to be inclusive, collaborative and curious across footlights, proscenium arches, aisles, and other borders. In their small way, the Theater Salons attempt to eat away at these borders with a live virus grown from various strains of enthusiastic, engaged conversation about the theater’s pressing, annoying, persistent, mysterious, troubling, critical questions. Is talking about the theater as vital to theater as food is to the body? Is the American theater experiencing a prolonged failure of nerve? What role does the audience play, in both theory and practice? What, really, constitutes “political theater,” and is it possible, viable, even desired? Is elitism really such a bad thing? What roles do and should violence play in what we do? These and many other questions need constant debate, free of concern for ego or career, if both the art and substance of what we do is to be of any importance to the communities we aim to serve.

The topic of our next salon is criticism—by which we mean not just what the people titled “critic” write, but also the quality of critical discussion between artistic colleagues. It is a topic we debated hotly before finally selecting it. That alone tells me it’s worth discussing. It is also a topic that beats at the very heart of the Theater Salons. We’ll see how it goes. At the salon on Violence, someone almost got hit by an orange for saying that a bad review is a violent act!

I have conducted no scientific study on the local impact of these salons. I know how they have impacted me, in the ways I’ve described and otherwise. John Wilkins said early on that we would know the Theater Salons are working when a guest throws a salon and we’re not invited. This has already happened once that I am aware of. I hope it will continue. The next Theater Salon is scheduled for November 13. If on that night everyone who reads this throws a salon, large or even small, maybe these grains of sand might begin to nudge a landslide. If we who make and attend theater don’t talk seriously and with pleasure about what we do, who will?

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During a recent run of a play of mine I got a cordial email from my colleague Mark Jackson, thanking me for arranging tickets for him. I told him he was welcome and so on--and then, new paragraph, I actually wrote the words: "You hated it, didn't you."

This article of Mark's is flashing me back to that childish eruption in my email to him. I could tell he didn't love the play, and that was okay. What I craved was an honest, thoughtful engagement with one of my favorite theater artists about a new play of mine that I didn't know what to think about, or how to continue working on. How do you ask a respected colleague what he thinks of your play in a way that makes it clear that you really want to know? Most of the time when we ask "What did you think?" the question is heard as a thinly veiled plea for reassurance. And most of the time it is.

Is the hunger for validation more insatiable in my theater community than in others? I've often thought so. We all want to believe that we're doing good work, that we're respected and admired and loved. But hunger for validation can erect walls between us and make substantive engagement damn near impossible. I know playwrights who attend every performance of their own plays--not as a way to continue questioning the work and their choices, but to set upon acquaintances during intermission and post themselves at the exit to look friends in the eyes and demand: "Did you like it?"

Mark followed up my email ambush by inviting me out with the very intelligent actor Beth Wilmurt to talk about, among other things, my play, its intentions, and my timid attack on the characters' stakes. Though the play and my gifts as a playwright weren't being preened and patted, I felt tremendously respected and cared for. I felt eager to get back to work. And I felt part of a rigorous, uncompromising theater community that took both me and my work seriously.

This is a fantastic idea, and I'm so grateful you've shared it.

Would you be willing to share a list of your topics to date? I'd love to try and make something like this happen in Philly, and would apprecite the benefit of your experience.

Robert, I'd say go for the topics that are most pressing and current for your community. But some topics we've done have included:

Elitism - really a bad thing?Violence - how? why? and what?What is Fringe?Where are the big ideas?Theater orgs asking for financial bailouts.Is the American theater experiencing a prolonged failure of nerve?The audience - how do we ACTUALLY relate to them? DO we?Criticism - between colleagues, not just critics and artists

and, THIS:

"The main thing is to eat, drink, talk seriously about the theater, but network for career-sake or lobby for politics elsewhere."

I assume these salons do happen elsewhere, as part of private functions (birthday parties, memorial services). What happens when structured salons are planned? And how are invitees chosen?

Also, what sorts of diversity are encouraged -- political, neuro-, ethnicity? I understand that the kernel events need to be focused with the usual suspects, but when would they be considered established enough to let more in?

cdthomas,

Good questions.

We’ve found that organizing a formal, structured salon gives the green light to people to drop the typical post-show or intermission politics of how work is often discussed (or rather NOT discussed) and to speak a bit more freely and in depth. This isn’t at all to say it’s a serious-browed affair. A salon is a party of sorts, after all, but one geared toward the purpose of critical discussion -- as opposed to a birthday party or memorial at which if a discussion of art were to happen it would likely be secondary to the main event.

As for the guest list, as I noted in the article we always include people who have attended previously as well as first timers. This is standard. We also take into consideration the nature of the topic, and make sure both usual and unusual suspects associated with the topic are invited. The group of us who organize the salons work in different aspects of the field and come from different backgrounds, and between us we either know or know of a wide variety of artists in the local theater, dance, music, visual and literary arts communities. This allows for a diversity of invitees. (Non-artist audience members, incidentally, are the most difficult to get to accept our invites.)

In terms of this word “diversity,” we do not limit that term to ethnic, political, gender, age, or other similar associations, but also include aesthetic and philosophical concerns. When we used to seat people formally, we’d often seat two people next to one another who we knew might either disagree on something or in some other manner differed from one another. Not wanting to micro-manage the event too much, we’ve since developed another means of seating people that is less directed, more organic, yet still guarantees people will end up at the same table with others who contrast them in a variety of respects.

In any case, unlike many mainstream arts institutions or government agencies, we are not beholden to funding organizations or lobbyists and we intentionally maintain no political agenda. It is an artistic agenda. That said, an artistic agenda by nature often takes the salons down political, social, and other roads – as it should. But it begins with the art.

There have been a handful of occasions when someone has come at us with a subtle, or not-so-subtle, accusation of exclusivity. I’ve found this astonishing, since it’s precisely the opposite of our openly expressed intent, itself backed up by our actions even if our guests are not always privy to those actions. For example, an invited guest once asked with some indignation why So-and-So had not also been invited. John Wilkins and I burst out laughing, since So-and-So had been invited to multiple salons and never accepted our invitations.

Inclusiveness is at the heart of our intent. But since we receive no funding for these events and pay for them out of our own pockets, that and the size of a given venue can determine the number of people we’re able to afford to invite. This is why we dearly hope others will also throw such salons. We can’t afford to host everyone we’d like, and in any case if a given event grew too large it would lose its necessary intimacy.

It’s a protean idea, these salons, and not a corporate one, or one that must serve any political faction. It can be taken up by anyone and mutated as desired, and we hope this will happen. The main thing is to eat, drink, talk seriously about the theater, but network for career-sake or lobby for politics elsewhere.

You've answered my main question -- bringing non-artist audience members into the conversation, even if they don't see the point of having a longer version of a "talkback", and perhaps not understanding that yes, really, one can say what one feels about a performance without that serving a focus group.

To bring more NAAMs in, it might be good to emphasize that no one theatre company, funder, or cult of personality will benefit -- that it's not a promotional event, but rather its opposite. There are so few times that a NAAM gets to talk about theatre without someone trying to sell something, be it subscriptions, donations or seasons, that it might take a few times to get that through. Also, the pro-am nature of theatre means that academic critical opinions get privileged, which might make NAAMs reticent to join in.

Incredibly fascinating article. Mark hits on some vital points, among them: where the American Theatre fails to engage an audience, or theatre in general for that matter, the direct connection and dialogue with the audience outside of the performance.

These types of Salons should be actively encouraged more frequently. Perhaps every theatre should begin to consider instating an informal salon outside of their individual institutions; inviting artists and audience alike that share combined interest in this incredibly fascinating thing we do called theatre. Begin Conversations. Raise Questions. Take Action. Strengthen our art. Educate one another.

I think this sounds like a fantastic idea. I'm an emerging critic in Australia in a city about a third the size of SF. I've managed to feel incredibly welcomed into the theatrical community by many artists, I call many friends (particularly young artists who are also emerging in their practice), and I feel like I am quite respected as an honest voice who is open to conversation (of course, not everyone holds these views, I am very aware of several companies who don't like me at all...). BUT I don't feel at all welcomed into the critical community. I wonder if this is because I write almost exclusively digitally, or if because I have no professional/journalistic training, or perhaps I am perceived to have aligned myself on the side of the artists and not the critics? Maybe I'll have to talk to some people here about starting something like this...

I couldn't agree more, the discussion of like / dislike is a conversation stopper as opposed to the inquiry, what did you feel, which is a great question for those of us interested in feelings / catharsis. I think the other piece is along the lines of how does this relate to you and/or what does it reveal about the human condition or in what ways are you changed after seeing this play? The salon creates a venue for fraternizing, it creates community and the space to ask oneself am I creating the work I want to make / see, and take stock of our place in the community--as participants, supporters and leaders. Perhaps this is happening in NYC, and if not, perhaps I'll instigate it.... Thank you for creating a forum for dialogue about theater within the context of a community of artists and viewers.

I've had the joy of attending two of these Salons and can attest to the incredible impact they've had on me as a young artist. I've left the Salons feeling such a strong sense of connection to the theatre community at large. And even though I see many of the same theatermakers at opening night parties, the level of conversation that goes on in these Salons is very different than what is talked about at the parties or in the rehearsal rooms or even at the big conferences. People from all across the community have created this sacred (yet democratic) little space to sit down, break bread together, and ask the big questions in a specific, focused way. And what Mark (like any good director) and Chloe and Rob and John have managed to do is make everyone feel so comfortable and welcome that people can honestly open up and speak candidly without fear of judgement. I came to the first Salon feeling like perhaps I wasn't enough of an intellectual to participate in the conversation. I was terribly curious and very hungry to talk about things I felt I didn't quite know how to talk about yet (and certainly not in front of a group of theatre artists I so admired.) What I realized over the course of the evening was that, no, this was actually exactly where I should be — the Salons are almost a kind of training ground — a place to practice debate, to test new ideas, to discover something with a group of people, to listen, to ramble too long until you stumble upon something miraculous, to collect new perspectives, and to reconnect to the source of why we persist in the madness of theatre. This was a place to learn to lean into the uncertainties and to enjoy the questions themselves. I'm so sad to be missing the next San Francisco Salon — but then perhaps we should do one here in NYC — yes?