Performances in Civility, or How Much Do You Make for That Smile

"Please Close the Door" by Stef Lewandowski

“How much do you make for that smile?” asked the addled man of the eye-dodging woman he had been bothering as he exited the coffee shop. He slammed the door on his way out, as he had done when he’d made his entrance. The rattling panes announced his arrival and celebrated his farewell. The histrionics of his comings and goings are not, however, as notable as is the fact that he shut the door at all. About 30% of the shop’s customers had not, allowing a cold breeze to lick the spines of the quiet clientele. I knew this because I was closest to the door. I knew this because even when the door stayed open but a crack, San Francisco’s February zephyrs danced across my fingers. I became de facto doorkeeper.

I don’t believe that any malevolence was intended by that barrier-breakers. What an odd attack to use to damn society for not paying enough attention to you. Whatever offense was committed registered on the Richter scale of rudeness at the same level as people who make phone calls on public transportation or unwrap candy during a performance. Perhaps even less. Interesting though were the subtle variations: there were those who thought nothing of closing the door, leaving it for someone of a door-closing caste to follow behind; there were others who thought nothing of their surroundings, lost in some dimension of consciousness on top of Cole Valley Cafe, perhaps mentally already working on what they had come in to do; there were others who left with hands full, too hurried to bother with such a mundane detail that would in no way effect their day; and then there were those who made the valiant effort, but either out of weakness or poor spatial skills, failed to close the door completely and, embarrassed by their inability, continued on head bowed.  Finally, some left the door open on purpose, because of civility: the door was open when they arrived (because one of the aforementioned infractors) and so who were they to upset the status quo.

Not afraid of disturbing the status quo is Bob Falls, the Artistic Director of Goodman Theatre, who apparently broke with tradition and called a critic at home to complain about her harsh review of Desire Under the Elms. I wonder if the tradition of professional silence is there because the reviewer will always have the option of the last word. I also wonder if Falls called Ben Brantley at home last year when Brantley opened the review of his revival of American Buffalo with,

Ssssssssst. That whooshing noise coming from the Belasco Theater is the sound of the air being let out of David Mamet’s dialogue. Robert Falls’s deflated revival of Mr. Mamet’s “American Buffalo” . . . evokes the woeful image of a souped-up sports car’s flat tire, built for speed but going nowhere.

As interesting and as startling to me as Falls’s whole breaking of character, the demolition of customary roles and rules, is the severity found in the comments from director Ron Bashford directed towards the whole profession of theater reviewers. He writes,

It is patronizing rather than helpful to audiences, and reinforces the view that theatrical performances are little more than consumer products, rather than instances in a range of cultural experiences a theatre-goer might have, or that artists might engage in. The press should find better ways to cover cultural events than by appointing such narcissists.

The local complaint about theater reviews has been that they are now being written by those who have little knowledge or investment in theater because of budgetary factors, and not that the reviews exist in the first place. I think that Bashford’s attacks are a bit mean-spirited, but his questions are intriguing to me. Should theater reviews appear in the business section of papers rather than the arts section? Do they reinforce the idea that theater is a consumer product, or does it simply admit to this truth? Is this true for all theater, or just theater that costs a lot to see, and if so then why do reviewers bother with shows that only cost $10 a ticket? And, finally, could theater survive without this public recognition from the media–economically oriented or otherwise–or does it depend on it as free advertising?

In a letter written for the International Theatre Institute’s World Theatre Day (March 27), Augusto Boal writes

One of the main functions of our art is to make people sensitive to the “spectacles” of daily life in which the actors are their own spectators, performances in which the stage and the stalls coincide. We are all artists. By doing theatre, we learn to see what is obvious but what we usually can’t see because we are only used to looking at it. What is familiar to us becomes unseen: doing theatre throws light on the stage of daily life.

Last September, we were surprised by a theatrical revelation: we, who thought that we were living in a safe world, despite wars, genocide, slaughter and torture which certainly exist, but far from us in remote and wild places. We, who were living in security with our money invested in some respectable bank or in some honest trader’s hands in the stock exchange were told that this money did not exist, that it was virtual, a fictitious invention by some economists who were not fictitious at all and neither reliable nor respectable. Everything was just bad theatre, a dark plot in which a few people won a lot and many people lost all. Some politicians from rich countries held secret meetings in which they found some magic solutions. And we, the victims of their decisions, have remained spectators in the last row of the balcony.

How does one review a play based on the criterion of whether or not the play sensitizes an audience to the theatricality of daily life? Was Desire Under the Elms a success (even though I didn’t personally care for it either) because a month after I saw it I found myself in a coffee shop analyzing the performances of everyday caffeine drinkers and their door-shutting habits?

I have still not quite wrapped my head around what World Theatre Day is, or how one participates without a theater network like the ones found in Chicago or New York. Or maybe the whole point is to join a larger theater netowrk. Does one create something new for the day, or does one document what one is already doing? Is it a celebration for those who have devoted themselves to the artform, or is it a PR stunt to scream “We’re still here!” to a world that is scared to pay for even the well-reviewed shows. Is it the equivalent of a cybernetic parade? I am thrilled for my friends in Chicago and their newfound friends across the globe, but what should I be doing?! Should I be putting a show together? Should I be trying to schedule an event around an A.C.T. show? Or should I just plan on walking around San Francisco and blogging about all the performances I witness when I return home?

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2 thoughts on “Performances in Civility, or How Much Do You Make for That Smile

  1. Hey. I’m one of the facilitators over at the WTD blog and wanted to share with you the comments of one of the other facilitators.

    He wrote:

    “World Theatre Day isn’t about creating a global theatre experience. It’s about celebrating the local theatre experience globally. World Theatre Day is an acknowledgement that we are all doing this thing that we love.

    And the internet allows us to share those local celebrations and revel in the fact that we’re not alone in our pursuit, and that no matter how many times they try to prove it to us mathematically, theatre is not dead.”

    You can read the rest of his post at http://frawst.blogspot.com/2009/03/is-there-anybody-out-there-or-why-world.html which includes some ideas of ways to celebrate. But if you are interested in organizing or hosting a big event, let me know. We’d love to have someone in San Fran!

  2. I am happy to admit that my name-calling went too far. Thanks for calling me on it! I think what I find most dispiriting about mainstream arts coverage is the lack of contextual writing, both before and after reporters see something. A smart online news organization could create a larger audience with the kind of writing done on the Guardian Theatre blog and with updated links to the blogosphere more generally about particular shows and artists. Ironically, this is how capitalism ought to work at its best: the more information available, the more informed choices consumers can make. Reviews are too often presented as the singular, and authoritative reporting event related to a production.

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