A rant about American Theater magazine

There is a hidden wholeness. There is a binding one-ness.

It’s too bad I don’t feel it when I read American Theatre magazine. God how that magazine irritates me. I can’t quite put my finger on it. Part of me thinks it’s my diseased grandiosity again. I am irritated because they’re not writing articles about me. But I actually think it’s the title. It’s not a magazine about American Theatre! At least any American Theatre I recognize. It should be called American Smarty-Pants Theatre. It seems to care a great deal about “new” artists making “good” theatre. The latest issue contained a screed by a new and notable Flemish artist (now that’s American!) railing on about the danger of the populism of the insipid masses, and about how artists must not confuse art with entertainment, and how we must devote ourselves to a life of aesthetic masochism, constantly throwing away and disparaging the things we make, because they don’t measure up to some ill-defined standard of worthiness. American Theatre seems pre-occupied with exploring the outer regions of esoteria in an effort to find the really great theatre, theatre so cutting-edge no one will have a clue what it’s about. It reminds of something Peter Sellars said when he came to address my class at the Yale School of Drama. He was describing the last scene of a production of King Lear he directed in which he slowed down the dialogue to a snail’s pace, scraped great pieces of sheet metal across themselves backstage and shone bright lights in the audience’s eyes – all to make sure they felt the pain of the play. “There was hardly anyone left at the curtain call” he cackled, so pleased was he at his own “boldness”. I was dumb-founded.

American Theatre is also filled with ads by these schools using the most appalling smugness to advertise their programs. “Without us, the actors would be naked and the theatres would be dark” proclaims the North Carolina School of the Arts, or rather, the North Carolina School of Hubristic Conceit. Each ad seems to want to top the next with hollow promises of stardom and success, based upon the extraordinary faculty working there (who?), the awards won by recent grads (Grand Rapids entertainer of the year!) and the seriousness of their curriculum. It all feels phony and inflated to me, and I so pity the starry-eyed teenager who stumbles upon one of these issues, and is infected by the narcotic dreams being peddled there.

Lying in bed grumbling as I flipped through these pages, Sooz passed me an article clipped from The Cape Cod Chronicle, a periodical about as far removed from American Theatre as one can get. It is the folksy newspaper of the part of Massachusetts where Susan grew up, and where her father and brother still live. This article described the career of John Williams, an actor in the community theatres of the Cape, and a hospice care nurse. Susan clipped it out because her Dad is in hospice care right now. But I was drawn to the life of this man who cares for the dying by day, then goes to rehearsal for no pay, and delights audiences at night through the sheer joy of the art he loves. Williams recently played the Stage Manager in Our Town (cue the eye rolling academics, noses in the air), and is now preparing an evening of Chekhov one-acts which will be performed as a benefit for local fisherman, devastated by a recent red tide, and living as they do without health insurance. He also recently performed the long monologue Underneath the Lintel. Clearly, he’s an actor with some chops.

This man does “good” theatre. Good not because Williams’ acting meets someone’s else’s standard (who cares?), but good because he is serving the community he lives in and rejoicing in the art. And clearly the community is supporting him back – he is good enough for the people buying the tickets. This is good theatre because the focus is not on the value of the play being performed, but that a play is being performed. It is good because Williams’ acting acknowledges that people need theatre, and even after a long day cleaning the soiled sheets of the terminally ill, he is going to give it to them. The ads in American Theatre are from schools that promise you will never have to work in community theatre again, it being such a disgrace. But if I had to choose between some weirdness with the Flemish dude and Thornton Wilder with Mr. Williams, I think you know my choice.

Don’t tell me about the danger of populism. Populism is all there is and all there ever will be. The people need their theatre as a comfort and a joy at least as much as they need an innovative stick in their sides. The cutting edge is a wounding image, slicing open our insecurities and dividing us into those in the know, and everyone else. I stand with everyone else. I am an actor to serve the people, the common populace, not to impress others in my art that I do not know, nor to measure up to standards I do not understand or support. I am actor to share the joy and revelation of the art-making I so love with people of all ages, and to witness the peace and healing that comes from working together in the service of creativity, in the service of community, in the service of divine leading, riding the cresting wave of revelation from one play to the next, one day at a time.