An Audience Manifesto
By Steven Dietz
There is absolutely nothing to support the notion that contemporary plays should reflect the prevailing attitudes of the community. Prevailing attitudes (social, sexual, religious, political) do not need the support of artists, they have the weight of governments, corporations, advertisers and the media behind them. When we, as audiences, demand this from our artists, we are selling ourselves short. And we are asking the theatre, this marvelous, grand accident of an art form, to perform pedestrian tasks. Demand more.
The highest challenge you, as an audience, can issue to your theatre artists is to demand that they run through the minefields before you do. To demand that they make the mistakes, confront the idiocy and revel in the excesses (social, sexual, religious, political) of the culture in the metaphorical safety of the theatre (where you can watch and judge), before it hits you in the bloody maelstrom of the world. Push your artists ahead of you through the dark room. If they fall, you'll know to watch your step. If they bloody their heads, you'll know to duck. If they look foolish, perhaps you'll linger longer at your mirror. And if they race forward, smiling and unscathed, you'll know you can toss yourself forward with abandon.
This is a daunting challenge for those of us who are theatre artists, one we seldom live up to. But don't let us lower our standards. Don't let our questions get safer, smaller. We should encourage our theatre artists to go where we dare not. We should thank them (grudgingly, at times) for revealing to each of us, individually, what our boundaries are, social, sexual, religious, political. We should applaud them when they help us either draw the line or, willingly, step over it. Ask that your theatre artists talk about what you talk about at the dinner table, but also demand that they talk about and show you, the things you're afraid to bring up at the dinner table, at work, with friends.
Art is often made in a fury. And we can learn more, in one instant on stage, from someone's fury, how it engages, divides or offends us than we can from years of sanitized, community-approved work. Believe me if writers thought that taking 'f***' and 's***' out of their plays would stop civil rights abuses, end sexism, feed children or clothe the homeless they would. If writers thought they were harming the moral fabric of tolerance and respect by suggesting that maybe AIDS exists, or maybe kids should be told that sex (and its inherent dangers) exists, or suggesting that maybe lust and lying and corruption exist and flourish, they would do otherwise. But the fact is that sex and beauty, hatred and disease, truth and manipulation, hunger and faith exist concurrently in the culture. And to ask artists to address only "pleasant" or "nice" or "approved" aspects of the culture is not only small-minded, it is patently impossible. It is contradiction and complexity that make up the body politic, and to demand simplification is to accept a lie.
There are two things you should know about censorship. First: if someone is denied the chance to present their work, no matter how controversial (socially, sexually, religiously, politically) that is censorship. Period.
Second: Censorship has nothing whatsoever to do with ridding something from the culture. It has everything to do with instilling something in the culture. The person or organization that claims to be protecting you and yours from evil is attempting to blanket you and yours with a belief system. Censorship is the advocacy by one group of a specific set of ideas at the exclusion of all others. The world is messy, art is messy, but censorship is easy. It is the demand that we hold the mirror up to a nature that does not exist.
So what can you do as an audience?
Demand not to be sheltered from ideas, language or images. Demand the right to make up your own mind about your interests, pleasures and boundaries. Demand not only the right to escape, but the right to be engaged.
Demand newness. The theatre is not about nostalgia. The theatre is not a museum. Plays don't hang on walls oblivious to time. The theatre is a rehearsal of the concerns of the present moment. Whether the given text is old or new, demand that it move you forward.
Demand to laugh. Not just at others, but at yourself.
Demand more from your critics than did he/she like it or not? Demand to know the context of a given play in the author's body of work as well as in the theatre's body of work.
Demand that theatres stop using critics' quotes to sell their plays. Until they do, all their carping about the unfair power of critics is absolutely hypocritical.
Demand leadership. Encourage your theatre artists and administrators to follow their mission statement, not their exit policies. Any theatre must, like all of us, grow, change and evolve. It can't be asked to provide its audience with what they've grown accustomed to. A theatre that tries to be all things to all people inevitably fails everyone.
Demand no dress codes, spoken or unspoken.
Demand an end to the farcical belief that theatres need to educate their audiences before they can affect, provoke or entertain them. Tell your theatre that you're ready for anything, and that you plan to let them know exactly what you think of it, good or bad.
Demand fun. Demand fury. Getting your money's worth is not good enough. Get your heart and mind's worth.
As artists and audiences, together we share the theatre. Together we share this grand, eloquent, messy, unpredictable experiment. Let's revel in that.
© Steven Dietz, American Theatre, January 1993.
I can't quite put my finger on it, but something has changed (at least in my theatre classes). And, since I can't exactly state what it is, let me comment on what I've noticed:
(and, yes ... this is the shortest blog post of all time.)
Our core values embrace collaboration, feedback, and originality. I guess the opposite would be isolated thinking, hollow praise, and plagiarism. Funny, when I think about it, I actually see a lot of those values poisoning the well of creativity in a lot of institutions. I'm fortunate to work in an environment that celebrates originality and is never satisfied, but keeps pushing the envelope.
This year, we've done so much that not only reflects our values but is truly worthy of celebration:
Utah Shakespeare Festival/Southern Utah University Shakespeare Competition
Where do I begin?!
First of all, it was a great week for my son ... if you know me, you probably know the details of which I can't publish (at this time), so I'll move on. Just know, I couldn't be more proud to be his father. He's my favorite private acting student.
Working! What an incredible success! Probably the best show we've produced in the outdoor space in all of the years I've been involved. Which goes to show what happens when you have the right team: Ryan Tilby, Emilee France, Averill Corkin, Sierra May, and an incredible cast and crew vs. well I won't name names, let's just say ... the past.
Some would say, "Wait! You're best ticket sales were Footloose and High School Musical!" which would be correct. But if I'm really acknowledging great work then we need to remove ticket sales from the equation. Let me help you understand why:
I don't judge a production by ticket sales because they don't really mean anything. If I say I'm doing a Disney production, that name alone will sell out a house before the play has even opened. That's not quality, that's name recognition. High School Musical was one of our best selling productions, yes, but I would say it was far from our best work (which doesn't mean there weren't talented people involved ... there were just a lot of problems involved with that production that were beyond our control).
Big name shows are actually more advantageous to a company's success than you can imagine. In the professional world the joke is, if your theatre company is losing money produce Les Miserables or Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. People will show up for those regardless of quality and then leap to their feet at the end ... ugh.
We knew when we went into this production that people didn't know the name. It's tossed aside as a black box show and rarely given the attention it deserves. However, placed in the Tuacahn Outdoor Amphitheatre, the audience response was overwhelming. Yes, we were low in ticket sales, but word of mouth and return audience members showed that should we be able to run this one more weekend we'd be seeing numbers equaling or even surmounting our big sellers of the past.
And the talent! Jose Briseno, Marlie Root, Skylar Lees, Ashley Hansen, Lainee McDonald, Mandy Jaeger, Colton LeFevre, Brookelyne Peterson, and that's just some of the seniors. All of them framed by a simple set with simple costumes. I've seen so many productions masked with big sets and costumes that it's refreshing to see real actors on display without the distractions, and the audiences saw that as well.
When our students are being accepted into the best theatre program in the state (Marley Root, Skylar Lees, and numerous others from years past), and our students are being accepted into the best theatre program in the United States, some would say the world (Isabella Arras, Jose Briseno, and numerous others from years past), and our students are receiving top honors at the Utah Shakespeare Festival/Southern Utah University Shakespeare Competition, it would take complete blindness to facts to say that we're not doing something right.
This has been an incredible week for me as I have been blessed to develop and work with such incredibly giving and talented students. Thank you to everyone involved, especially the hard working parents who don't get nearly enough credit. We have the best parents on the planet helping us succeed.
This truly has been the best week ever.
When I interviewed at Tuacahn I was between jobs. I had finished grad school, I had three university theatre interviews scheduled back east, and I was traveling to a directors lab from Salt Lake City, Utah to Pasadena, California. I had previously sent my resume in an email, to the current principal then, Bill Fowler. While I was in California, I received a phone call asking me to interview and that they could see me as I drove back to Salt Lake. I didn't expect to be hired at Tuacahn. The positive draw for me was the warmth of St. George and being closer to my wife's family. The drawback was that I was very interested in moving on to teaching at the university level.
I remember little about the interview, except that I was completely relaxed and honest, and that the people in the room interviewing me were friendly and supportive. I also remember saying this, "I'm not interested in training puppets. I'm most interested in creating artists," which was true and still is. Elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, universites, community theatres, regional theatres, and more, for the most part consume. They take the art which was originally created by others and place it in their theatres, with their directors, designers, and actors, and they consume the work that someone else previously created and display it for their communities. In ways, it's a form of plagiarism. The play was already written, the set at times is recreated, the costumes are duplicated, the blocking/choreography is copied, and the performance is often just a reproduction of someone else's work. Someone else's art consumed and re-gifted. But that's theatre in a nutshell. It's often how it works and actors audition hoping to be cast ... and if they're not, they wait.
But what about the creators?! Why can't we learn to be one of them?! Are the only great artists in New York, Chicago, Seattle, or Los Angeles?! Yes, it's important to learn the skills necessary to reproduce, it's most of what we do, but while we're not waiting around for that call-back, why can't we be creating something?! In fact, I would argue, we should be creating something all the time. Lin-Manuel Miranda said that he creates because he was given opportunities to create in high school. He has since gone on to change the face of theatre with his creative voice! I believe, and many top tier universities believe, we should train students to create ... because almost anyone can consume.
Oh! I almost forgot ... two days after my interview, they offered me the job.
So ... why this long story about creating?
Ensemble of KPOP photo by Ben Arons from PLAYBILL Online
Two years ago I was at the National Alliance for Musical Theatre Conference in New York, and in the evening one of the musicals I was fortunate to see was KPOP. It was immersive, rough, fresh, and new. It was an investigation and a celebration and it was engaging, to say the least. At the end of the production, there was a half-hour K-pop concert and it stayed with me.
Over the years I've seen students create a lot of amazing work; some that would rival anything I've seen graduate students or even universities produce, including: Solitaire, performed in an Airstream trailer, M is Four, performed in four separate cars as they drove you around the parking lot, and so many others. These students have done work that inspired me just as much as KPOP. I've seen one-man shows that spooked the audience (and me as well); I've seen clown shows, and puppet shows, and stand-up comedy; I've attended dinner theatre, and outdoor site-specific theatre, and movements in time and space, and in each of these I was moved, motivated, and inspired.
All of that written, I briefly mentioned KPOP for a reason. KPOP reminded me that it's my turn. I am currently working on a dance party based on The House of Bernarda Alba by Federico García Lorca, and The Mask of the Red Death by Edgar Allen Poe. It will be performed in the Black Box. Will it make sense? I don't know, I hope so. Will it have an audience? I don't know, I hope so. Will it succeed? I don't know, I sure hope so. But like my students work, I've realized that it doesn't matter right now. What matters is that I create, learn from it, and create again, and I continue to learn and grow as an artist. Otherwise I just consume ... and that eventually leaves us all empty.
Last week I had the privilege of touring the top ranked performing arts high school in the United States, the Kinder High School for Performing and Visual Arts in Houston, Texas. This is the third high school that I have toured (the first two left me underwhelmed, to say the least). PVA (as the students and faculty refer to it) was far from underwhelming, it was alive. Every program or course of study, academic or artistic, was working rigorously with laser focus. They knew where they wanted to go in life and they knew exactly what they needed to do to get there. I was amazed at the quality of work that was being created, especially from their freshman.
Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts
Everything I witnessed at PVA made me reflect and compare; in fact, I was pleased to see that in terms of theatre, we are teaching the same concepts from the same theorists and practitioners. If they're number one, it would seem we're on the right track to join them at some point. Their instructors have degrees and are working or have worked in their fields, no community theatre stars in the mix, they are professionals. But as I continued to reflect and compare I realized that they have an advantage that we do not, and that is auditions. They are a magnet school and they audition and interview thousands of students every year. Through this they avoid many of the problems that we consistently encounter; which is, little to no training, or often bad training that has to be fixed.
Other than COPA, which is new for us this year and an exciting partnership which we will continue to develop, most students have not had structured theatre training, which would include: the formatting of resumes, appropriate audition materials, introductions to the great acting teachers and their methods (Stanislavski, Meisner, Chekhov, Spolin, Shurtleff, to name a few), introductions to Viewpoints or even elements of devising. But with passionate, disciplined, and focused students we can make up that gap in one year, in order for them to excel beyond high school. But that's a small obstacle, so let's shift gears and talk about where we excel. - (Updated for clarity 3/03/2019)
Over the years I've been fortunate to have students go on to perform leading roles on Broadway, in tours, and in regional theatres, I have students in film and television and I'm most fortunate to be the acting coach for my son who has his own Netflix series. I've trained students who have gone on to Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, University of Southern California, Columbia, Northwestern, American Musical and Dramatic Academy, Carnegie Mellon, CalArts, North Carolina School of the Arts, ans Boston University, to name just a few (I've also had so many students go on to New York University that I couldn't count them on my fingers and toes combined.) All this tells me is that I'm doing something right, and it hasn't stopped since I've been at Tuacahn.
We've been able to secure scholarships and acceptance for students at all the best schools both in and out of state, and yes, that includes NYU. We've consistently been honored with awards at the Utah Shakespeare Festival / Southern Utah University Shakespeare Competition. Two years we went up against the biggest schools in the biggest division and came away with a First and Second Place Sweepstakes Trophy. We were the smallest school in the Division with only 400 students compared to schools of 2600+. This last year we scored straight superiors on our Ensemble Scene, and Jose & Ashley won first place in scenes, while Marlie won first place in monologues and all of them received scholarships.
We explore devising and the creation of new work, something that each of our students who auditioned for scholarships discussed in their interviews, which was met with excitement and interest. "A high school is devising?" Why are they so interested? Because it's what they're teaching, as well. Speaking of new work, we've even been fortunate enough to have Disney partner with us and offer opportunities to help them edit and rework plays before anyone else gets to produce them.
We know that Universities are teaching Viewpoints developed by Anne Bogart and Tina Landau. Our students learn Viewpoints here because I worked with Anne Bogart and her company while I was in grad school at Arizona State University. We also know that some Universities are teaching Rasaboxes developed by Richard Schechner. One of his students, Rachel Bowditch, was one of my grad school instructors and is helping Schechner write a book on Rasaboxes. I learned Rasaboxes from her and I'm so glad that I can share what I've learned with students that I work with here.
By the time a student moves on to further training, they should know Stanislavski, Meisner, Strassberg, Chekhov, Spolin, Shurtleff, and more. They should be able to create new work and discuss how it is made. They should know Viewpoints and Rasaboxes and know how to apply them. We are preparing them for the next step.
"What about musical theatre?" Well we teach it. We just don't call the training "MDT" because, according to the top schools sending leads onto the Broadway stage (not just ensemble members), we should really be teaching TMD. That's the order of importance you should focus on when working toward a career in musical theatre performance. And, yes, we teach all three of those things.
Bottom line: We're not PVA yet, but we're preparing students in some ways that even they are not. And though we know that we're not quite where we want to be, we are also proud to say that in Utah ... no one's even coming close.