Farewell to Theater

Traditional big-box theater in America is at an extreme disadvantage when it comes to reforming its structure. Even though the relevant numbers have been crunched as tweaks, gimmicks, and roll backs have been accepted, there still is the implicit resolve among the old school that “Beyond this point we can go no farther.”  This barrier to change affects how the content of plays speaks to the non well-off (which is increasing) and under 60 theater goers.

After 50 or so issues of American Theater Magazine it is clear that your group has highlighted all attempts at tech, finance, and education innovations without changing theater itself. Your roots go to the past and significant change is in constant negotiations with several generations of what has worked in the past. When writing about how theater is done in other countries, I have nothing but good things to say. But other countries do not share our past. In any event, Americans may not be able to duplicate their success.

Since it all comes down to money, I would like to offer my two cents about why reform is limited when working from the top down. An approach of creating from the bottom up would look very different than trying to pinch pennies out of multi million dollar budgets. I include the 99 seat theater class that appears to be bargain versions of that same form and substance.

Don’t get me wrong. I saved several valuable articles that the magazine has printed that would also be valuable to those thinking (and working) outside the three-walled box. More of those type of articles have not appeared for some time. Maybe you’ve said all you have to say on what we both have in common.

But serious core reform seems to be hampered by what remaining traditional sponsors and aging subscribers expect, even as building and operation costs escalate and attention spans plummet. Because this is not where I’m going, maybe theater isn’t my end all be all. Maybe I should be traveling the multimedia road. Of course, TCG incorporates multimedia while refusing to yield the center. But a true multimedia approach has no structural bias. It is a true bottom up, continually changing experience.

I’ve been part of other genres that refused to yield the center when their time had passed. Cable public access TV refused to make a full transition to internet multimedia platforms so is withering away without a replacement. Public poetry readings rarely have more people in the audience than readers waiting their turn to bore, I mean read. Meanwhile the slam poets on Button Poetry are getting between a hundred thousand and a million views. These changes are not a passing fad.

It would not surprise me to see several structures and genres working in an ever changing flux together. Those who have been big fish in the traditional theater pond and ignore this change are going to find that their pond will be getting smaller and smaller until it is just a mud hole.

This head in the sand attitude about structure spills over into content offerings as well. For content cannot be isolated from current events and the broader experiences of the public. Likewise, current events cannot be separated from the real people that make up the public. The public is not always well informed and often overstocked on fear, anger, and class bias. But they are the public. Who is your audience?

I couldn’t help notice that several of your magazine issues have been obsessed with thinly disguised shock and disbelief about Trump being President. Since the Orange One never attempted to fool anyone about who or what he was during his campaign, I can only conclude that the motivations of a large segment of the voters are irrelevant to the official theater establishment. I know many people personally who voted for him and why. No, I wasn’t one of them. But I am not out of touch either.

In an effort to seem more broad minded, the rather forced ‘Enter Stage Right” article was printed. What was called “conservative theater” was mostly a reaction against things in the status quo that weren’t working. Bernie Sanders offered an equal popular solution against things in the status quo that weren’t working but he was shut down by the DNC, not the forces of Trump. The non ideologues who were so done with the status quo saw themselves stuck with Trump. I see the same fallacy of false alternatives in American Theater.

The irony is the “99 seat theater” class has aped the big theater gang instead of breaking away on a separate course. My recent experience was last years “Nittany Theater” contest which bent and twisted the terms of a small grant to do pretty much whatever the Hell they felt like doing. The writers who were sucked in by the advertised noble theme of the contest were just nobodies in some insipid Summer Stock’s ruse to get some free publicity. The message is, small is sometimes even smaller.

The bottom line is I will not be renewing American Theater since I would be reading more obituaries of people I never heard of than inspiring innovations in the performance arts. I’ll be finding my way to the future in other places.

Slam Poetry 2.0

The reason for judging slam poetry is to add drama to poetry events. Impromptu audience judges have done this job so far. But this poetry form was introduced 30 years ago. That’s before the internet. It is time to kick up the drama several notches and focus on the next level. The explosion of visual, on demand media requires a more compelling spectacle to keep interest from sagging in old venues and to jump start future venues.

The judging aspect of slam poetry has not developed over time. If judging is primarily for drama building then there should be no objection to more and better dramatic devices. I’ve been annoyed for years by meaningless one to a hundred scores (1 to 10 by tenths of a point) based on spot impressions in a context free setting.

Fake judging does not substitute for real drama for long. Real drama is found in the real world where there is a clear distinction between winners, losers, and big losers. The existing “sacrificial poet” concept for attempted calibrating purposes admits to the problems of point creep and fake precision. It is clear from watching slams that the patch isn’t holding.

I am offering an alternative that is more than a patch or a gimmick. I call it “racehorse slam” because it is based on 3 and only 3 judgements: “win, place, or show” in heats (races) of 5 or 6 poets in each heat. Rather than baseless “points”, poets are judged by their relative “place” within a small group. It is not necessary to have an overall winner between the heat winners in the same night. That can be a separate event.

How do we make this process visual? I believe multi track marble runs, one track for each poet, is the way to go. These runs can be simple structures or elaborate kinetic sculptures. I recommend that the runs have lights and sound effects. I’m experimenting with several designs.

You can’t talk about judging without talking about judges. Currently, the audience judges are not clearly seen by the rest of the audience. They are not part of the visuals. Being selected on the spot out of the audience is real randomness but fake democracy. Everyone has biases and the elimination of the top and bottom scores is another failed patch to moderate that bias.

Why not celebrate that bias in the service of drama? Select 3, not 5, judges in advance. Because we’re not doing the patch thing we don’t need 2 superfluous scores to eliminate. Judges should be costumed in plain view. For example: Riot gear, clown face, and reaper outfits. So people will be judged by “the Man”, “some joker”, and “Death” – just like in real life. How much more dramatic can you get?

Here is how it all works. After each poet has taken their best shot, each judge will drop either a blue (3 points), red (2 points), white (1 point), or green (0 points) marble into each poet’s track. All marbles will be released at once to much fanfare. They drop out of the run into clear bottles with the poets’ names on them. The results are immediately obvious. Ties are possible.

A separate, straight track is used to enforce the 3 minute rule. At 3 minutes into a poet’s slam a judge releases an old bowling ball down the track. The poet’s grace time is the amount of time it takes the ball to run down the track and into a garbage can which triggers an annoying alarm. This is another added source of drama.

Obviously Slam Poetry 2.0 has a lot of changes to get used to. That is why I’m waiting to see if these catch on before implementing some others. At some point a venue will be ready to move to Slam Poetry 3.0. This will move the poetry spectacle into audience participatory theater. It will involve the marble runs but also add a dramatic opportunity to over ride the judges’ verdicts. It is time that slam audiences get a chance to do something creative about the judging other than heckle.