Into the Woods

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(Note from the Editor-in-Chief: I’m pleased to announce the debut of this new monthly column by one of LA’s most respected theater critics and scholars, Steven Leigh Morris.  We had talked in the past about providing a place for him to pen the type of long-form, thought-provoking essays he’s known for, and given the upcoming 2014 changes at LA Weekly, now seemed to be the perfect time to begin. I welcome our esteemed colleague to the LA STAGE Times family of contributors and look forward to the conversations stirred up by Steven’s observations of the current theatrical and arts landscape.)

As Don Shirley reported in an earlier LA STAGE Watch column, while the LA Weekly is mercifully keeping its annual theater awards, that newspaper is nonetheless reducing its theater coverage by about 70 percent after January 1.

To be fair, other sections of the paper were gouged over the past three years while theater coverage remained untouched. Under those circumstances, as that paper’s columnist for theater, I’m grateful I wasn’t thrown overboard like so many arts critics more distinguished than I am, in print media across the nation. (My weekly theater feature will now run bi-weekly, making room for the neglected disciplines of dance, opera and comedy.)

LA Weekly March 2012 Issue
LA Weekly March 2012 Issue

I’m also grateful to LA STAGE Alliance for providing this monthly column, which I hope to dedicate to a range of ambitions, from essays to silly, interactive quizzes on topics of interest to anybody engaged with live performance. I invite you along to play in the coming months.

As a side note, there’s a move afoot to fund an independent website dedicated to an expanded version of the professional, shorter theater reviews cast asunder by the LA Weekly, and some longer pieces as well. I really hope it will fly, if only to demonstrate that perhaps there is now, as rumored, some backlash against the foolish Yelp-era “wisdom” that critics are irrelevant to the art because everybody has an opinion that can now be expressed in public, and furthermore that professional arts critics are elitist and therefore useless for the purposes of drawing audiences to performances.

These arguments are as recklessly divisive as they are ignorant, as though a critic is an employee of a theater’s marketing department, as though there’s no distinction between what’s popular and what’s valuable. To quote playwright Murray Mednick: “There are many successful plays that aren’t very good. And there are many good plays that aren’t very successful. Those are the ones we have to stand up for.”

Arguments belittling professional arts critics as irrelevant are a 21st century manifestation of what French philosopher Alexis DeTocqueville, back in 1835, dubbed “the tyranny of the majority,” in warning about the dangers of populism in American democracy.

The 21st century populist arguments stem from the fallacy that the value of any product or service is determined exclusively by how many people buy it, or buy into it: The larger the market it reaches, the greater its worth.

Struggling with one consequence of modern populism over at the Pasadena Playhouse, artistic director Sheldon Epps bemoans the pressure on his theater to be a hit-making machine while his theater’s larger purpose to its community, of what is supposed to be a non-profit enterprise, hangs in the balance.

Pasadena Playhouse
Pasadena Playhouse

“We [in American’s non-profit regional theaters] have all become so dependent on hit making, on ticket sales, earned revenue, as opposed to donated revenue, that our ability to take greater chances in our programming has certainly been diminished. It imperils our creativity, somehow.”

Says Epps, when he started in the 1980s, it was not unusual for theaters such as Pasadena Playhouse to have 50% earned income (from box office sales) and 50% contributed. Today, he says, that ratio is 70% earned income, 30% donated.

“That is a challenge to creativity,” he reiterates.

If you happen to find risk-taking at our institutional theaters to be generally circumscribed, if you’re struck by their paucity of alternative views and interpretations, you need look no further than that.

The problem for people in the arts using populism as a reason to diminish the value of arts criticism is that their own arguments can just as easily be used against themselves. Because in the larger scheme of our culture’s values, everybody in the arts lives in Shakespeare’s Forest of Arden, an alternate universe, waging a battle for relevance against a system perpetually crowing that our value is determined by the “envious court,” by our box office returns, by the price our paintings can fetch, by the number of web hits and “likes” on Facebook our writings can inspire. Because, with the possible exception of musical theater spectacles, the arts, historically, have rarely even paid for themselves, let alone turned profits. Their survival has almost always been ensured by patrons, by grants, and now to a larger degree by the TV industry and by universities which employ so many of our artists, allowing them to sustain their money-losing creative ambitions.

If populism had been the judge, jury and executioner in 1953, we would never have Samuel Beckett or his Waiting for Godot, which appealed at that time to a decidedly minority taste.

A scene from "As You Like It" portrayed in "In the Forest of Arden" by Hon John Collier, 1892.
A scene from “As You Like It” portrayed in “In the Forest of Arden” by Hon John Collier, 1892.

Said Peter Bull, who played Pozzo in the play’s 1955 London premiere, “Waves of hostility came whirling over the footlights, and the mass exodus, which was to form such a feature of the run of the piece, started quite soon after the curtain had risen. The audible groans were also fairly disconcerting . . . The curtain fell to mild applause, we took a scant three calls and a depression and a sense of anti-climax descended on us all.” (This quote was taken from James Knowlson’s Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett)

Yet Beckett and that play have in tandem become the most influential force upon the direction of world theater in the past half-century. How did that come to be?

Critics.

Though the play was slammed in its early reviews, in early August of 1955, two newspaper reviews appeared that ensured Godot’s survival and its legacy: Kenneth Tynan’s love-letter in The Observer, and Harold Hobson’s similarly euphoric assessment in The Sunday Times. Out of sheer curiosity over what was now a “controversial” play, audiences started attending in ever-increasing waves.

All of us in the arts now need each other more than ever: scribes and dancers, actors, designers, musicians, composers and critics. We all now live together in the Forest of Arden, removed and yet watching, from a distance, the machinations of the court.   The Forest is a beautiful and majestic place, once you learn to appreciate its wonders and enchantment.

On Highway 243 in Riverside County, 15 miles south of Banning, bucolic Lake Fulmor sits nestled almost a mile high amidst looming cedars and ponderosa pines. As part of the San Bernardino National Forest, it has safe parking and benches where you can sit and feel the frenzy of urban life recede, as you find yourself embraced by the woods and the water. The forest around Lake Fulmor is like few places in Southern California — something, I imagine, akin to the Forest of Arden.

During the government shutdown earlier this year, the lake was barricaded, because somebody in Washington determined that the park’s gatekeepers were “non-essential.”

Welcome, also, to the world of the arts, where during budget crises in schools, the first programs to be cut are “non-essential” music and theater and art, despite all the empirical evidence that these disciplines actually improve reading skills, cognitive development and even intelligence.

Lake Fulmor. Photo by Lee Chon.
Lake Fulmor. Photo by Lee Chon.

I can’t think of a place more essential than lonely Lake Fulmor, where you leave behind the popular strip malls and chic shopping galleries of the desert cities below. You see the world transformed by nature’s splendor, and from that transformation, you might even come to a clearer understanding of where you’ve just been, where you’re going, and who you are. This is, essentially, among the more enduring purposes of art. And if that purpose isn’t essential to the occupation of being human, I don’t know what is.

Teddy Roosevelt enshrined our national forest system in order to preserve what he regarded as a priceless treasure. The beauty of the national forests and parks is that they’re accessible to everybody. A kid from Beaumont, working for $10 an hour at the local Taco Bell, can spend a Saturday by Lake Fulmor for $5 (for a day pass), if he or she wants. Good luck if that same kid wants to get into The Lion King tour at the Pantages, on his or her own paycheck. Access to our forests may seem like a rarefied opportunity, but it’s actually less elitist than our most popular commercial theater.

When more and more people come to the forest, its transcendental and even its physical values become diminished. As one local arborist told me, when greater numbers of cars travel these roads, the more the forest becomes stressed. Its value lies in the opposite of its popularity, in its tranquility.

I do believe that the critic’s loftiest purpose is to distinguish between what’s popular and what’s valuable. Sometimes they’re the same, sometimes not. I also believe that the critic’s loftiest fantasy is to transform what’s valuable into something that’s popular. That can only be accomplished by the power of persuasion.

I’d like to close with Duke Senior’s speech which opens Act II of As You Like It. He’s talking about the Forest of Arden, where he now lives with some satisfaction.

“Now, my co-mates and brothers in exile, hath not old custom made this life more sweet than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods more free from peril than the envious court?

“Here feel we but the penalty of Adam, the seasons’ difference, as the icy fang and churlish chiding of the winter’s wind, which, when it bites and blows upon my body, even till I shrink with cold, I smile and say ‘This is no flattery: these are counselors that feelingly persuade me what I am.’

“Sweet are the uses of adversity, which, like the toad, ugly and venomous, wears yet a precious jewel in his head; And this our life exempt from public haunt finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones and good in every thing.

“I would not change it.”

 

 

Steven Leigh Morris

Steven Leigh Morris

Steven is the Executive Director of LA STAGE Alliance, and is the founding editor of the community-funded digital arts venture Stage Raw (www.stageraw.com). Morris chaired the Jury for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2012, and served on that Jury in 2011. He received the Critic of the Year prize for his print reviews by the National Entertainment Journalism Awards in 2011.