Not long ago, having read the inaugural poem penned by Richard Bianco, I tweeted the following:
Poetry is dead. What pretends to be poetry now is either New Age blather or vague nonsense or gibberish. It’s zombie poetry.
Yes, this was a foolish, insensitive, off-hand response, and I regret it.* In retrospect, what I might have said (if I’d given it a few seconds more thought) is that while poetry might not be dead, it’s at least been abducted and locked up in some basement somewhere, an impostor sent out into the world to take its place. That’s a statement I’d stand by; unfortunately, because of the speed of 21st-century communication, I can’t quite get completely out from under the first statement, because it got picked up by the Washington Post. (And then, shortly thereafter, parodied as well.) So I’ve been sitting with both sentiments for a while, just to let them marinate a bit.
I found myself thinking in the last few weeks about whether there are any art forms that are unarguably dead. For some reason, my mind kept turning to cave painting; I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that somebody somewhere was scrawling on cavern walls, of course, but it must have once been the defining art form of an entire subculture… and now, for all intents and purposes, it’s gone. And yet… it’s not as if painting is dead. Even more generally, people still make two-dimensional images. That much doesn’t seem to have changed.
In bandying back-and-forth with a few pissed-off poets on Twitter after my hasty assessment went viral, several smugly suggested that perhaps I’d better consider my own art form. Theater, they suggested, was way closer to death’s door than poetry. To be honest, though I know those wags were wrong, there are days in which I have asked myself whether we aren’t on the way out the door. Audiences forever get older and older, the economics of the business get shakier and shakier, and our institutions become less and less relevant to most of the country. Yes: there’s no avoiding the simple fact that if the entire American theater died tomorrow, most people wouldn’t even notice till the corpse started to stink.
(If the sun went supernova — which it’s not slated to do, incidentally — it would still take 8.3 minutes for the lights to go out on our planet. If the American theater exploded, nobody would notice until some random patron showed up at will call to pick up tickets for a show she bought tickets to months in advance.)
Anyone who thinks circumstances are any different than this, I believe, is mistaken. Our peculiar little art form — in which (in the most common American version) real-live human beings get together in the same space at the same time, agree to be relatively quiet and focused, and exchange lots of money for the right to watch other live human beings act out a story in front of them — is of relatively minor importance to most people. You know what they care about more than theater? Here’s a partial list: eating out, going to parties, watching all four major sports and a few minor ones, going to their houses of worship, doing their jobs, playing video games, exercising, having sex, taking vacations, talking on the phone with their friends, texting their friends, cooking, listening to music, and (here are the big two) going to the movies and watching television.
I’m tired of this. No, that’s not strong enough: I’m fed up with it, with the status quo, with accepting the idea that we’re only ever going to be of modest importance to a few people, that we ought to be happy we’ve found a safe little ecological niche in which to survive the culture wars. That’s not good enough for me.
I can’t stand to look at another safe season full of tidy little plays that all “make sense.” I can’t stand to keep thinking about what’s going to sell or not, or how we’re going to protect the bottom line of a non-profit theater. I don’t want to see my city’s theaters full to bursting with plays by the same white men for yet another year. I’m tired of having my relationship with audience members brokered by an institution. I want direct contact. I want engagement. I want us to mean something to people. I want them to invest in us. I want us to deserve that investment. I want us to deserve our tax deductions. I don’t think we do.
It’s time to go big or go home. It’s time to create a new theatrical ecosystem for the United States. It needs to be decentralized: no more reliance on New York and the great urban centers. It needs to be rooted in specific communities — urban, suburban, ex-urban, and rural — so that the stories we tell are targeting specific audience segments. We need to make theater more like the grocery store — a place you go for regular nourishment — and less like fine dining. It needs to be networked, so that each local community can learn from the others and share resources with the others, but it needs to be open, so that each community can use it to find and share its own voice.
We need to stop funding big theatrical institutions so mindlessly and unconditionally. We need to transfer more of our available resources (most of them?) to grass roots cultural development; let the big institutions survive with less and make do for a change. We need to favor individual artists over institutions anyway. We need to to favor plays more than grant proposals. We need to favor audience engagement over ticket prices. We need to favor flexible development paths over fixed seasons. We need to favor experimentation with technology over defending our precious little version of our art form against change. In short, we need to re-do everything.
Or die. That’s the other alternative. And of course I don’t mean “die,” exactly, but wither away slowly until we reach relative obscurity and marginalization, which I believe is where we’re headed. Oh, people will always go on telling stories for other people, just as they still go on making two-dimensional images… but it won’t look anything like the “theater” we’re familiar with right now. No more so than telling stories around a campfire resembles listening to radio dramas; no more so than radio dramas will resemble immersive 3D virtual reality stories. We can either take charge of our own evolution or sequester our genes in a safe little tide pool and hope we don’t get smashed when the asteroid hits. I choose the former. Who’s with me?
* In my defense, I do actually sort of have the credentials to make a declaration like that. As I mentioned in a recent blog post, I studied poetry at both Northwestern and at Johns Hopkins, where I got my M.A. from the Writing Seminars. I taught poetry while I was at Hopkins, and I later joined the faculty of the Maryland Institute, College of Art. My poems have appeared in journals, and I even served as the poetry editor of the increasingly successful Barrelhouse literary magazine until just a few years ago. Then again, I haven’t written a new poem or read more than a handful of newly-minted poems since I gave up that editorship, so who the hell am I?