Friday, March 05, 2010

An Open Letter about Seattle Theater [2005]

Dear KB:
Below you will find a letter I addressed to Misha Berson of the Seattle Times. Ms. Berson replied that if they were to publish it, I would have to reduce it to 500 words, but suggested I try one of the weeklies, which is what I am doing now.
I then suggested that the letter might serve as the opening salvo for a forum, which is probably even less likely to be vented in The Times, but which I am suggesting here, too. The piece may, of course, no I am sure it is, too long as well for your available real estate, I have already pushed some parts into footnotes, and so it is like so many of the local trolls, sprightly on top but bottom-heavy. I keep some nicely inflammatory ammo in reserve in the event of .... I don't know... say, a New York Review of Books type ongoing ex-change.
However, I expect that even if the idea of a forum proves uninteresting to you but that you want to publish a less condensed version than would the Seattle Times, you would afford Ms. Berson room. Ms. Berson bit at my attempt to get her goat when I called her a "mere notifier," and I replied that she ought to use the power [of her position], since sports writers - who also have a lot more fun [than do arts reviewers hereabouts], can write "throw the bum out."
A forum of course might involve rejoinders from the artistic directors of what I call "the big three", but perhaps also from some those of the smaller venues, who have half a mind left. Other contributors I would suggest, aside the two theater folk on your staff, might be Steve Pearson of the U.W. Drama School; Herbert Blau, of the Department of English, who has had much to do with theater; Shierry Weber Nicholson, [Exact Imagination: Late Writings, On Adorno's Aesthetics, as fine a book on how two great minds -Adorno & Benjamin's -interacted , in the event this sort of thing interests you; my fellow visiting scholar in Germanics, and a better aesthetician than I; and my purely name-cousin Lee Roloff, who is in charge of the Jungian troupe here, and used to teach aesthetics and theater at Northwestern;] which would lend a few added and different colors to the spectrum.
Blind copies, of this communication, went to all those mentioned in the letter, and are available on request in the event.
I am also posting the letter in its near essay ramble at the Seattle page of my developing home site:
Sincerely yours,
Something that, Misha Berson, in the Seattle Times, quoted Sharon Ott as saying in her piece on Ott's officially unexpected, sudden, leave-taking as artistic head of the Seattle Repertory Theater -- that "It's part of the Scandinavian make-up or something that it's easier to go out on a boat [1] than to see something that might make you think or challenge you. ... We, of all the arts, should be doing the new and controversial and sparking criticism, and it's hard to do in this town, because the audience isn't necessarily there"[2] -- caught my eye and dropped into this mosquito's mind-puddle, where it has been festering, germinating for some time, now to sting. -- The Seattle Audience indeed is a subject that might make for an extended exchange in one of the indigenous papers, so as to confound the audience to which Ms. Ott refers [Gordon Edelstein made similar comments at his leaving] into some awareness, and I will share observations & suggestions; rather than simply blow the usual Orca of an expletive.
When I started to see theater in Seattle ten years ago, parched of theater for three years though of little else, in Baja Sur, I did not think that I had ever, or would ever, see anything as consistently awful, rarely exceptional. And that includes the audience as much as many of the plays or the way they were performed. It was an awfulness of a unique kind: the audience went ooh ah at each Restoration Hardware set. It applauded uncritically... And I recall Roger Downey complimenting this audience for being so civilized as not to be grossed out by the puerility of a Wendy Wasserstein play at the Rep, an ill-deserved compliment I'm afraid it was. So it is not that unexpected that only in the rarest of instances does one of these shows, mounted at what should be regarded as something like a five-stage, subsidized, non-musical theater, become a voyager on the national circuit, or be consigned to anything but the theater hell that it so richly deserves. [3] No out of town thea ter critic comes to note what is done here, as compared to visits being paid to Louisville, New Haven, Boston, St. Paul-Minneapolis, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, San Diego... some of whose theaters mount plays that interest or are sufficiently noteworthy. Seattle Opera and North West Ballet, hackneyed, too, as are many of their chestnuts, do draw out of town reviewers, and for reason, whereas Seattle, especially once the Aha Theater & Arne Zaselove's Bathhouse gasped their last "Aha"and took its final dip [4], seems innocent of the outside world except insofar as the Asian connection is alive in the International District. The occasional Marivaux adaptation, the rare Ibsen do not really count.
Theater has to make its way, within a legion of diversions, in the culture; at present is scarcely central to whatever moral and aesthetic or heartfelt center one might find if one looked long and hard enough; and I don't think that very much has changed in the "big three" - The Rep, The Intiman & ACT - during the ten years I have been here, or most of the smaller venues, no matter the change in interchangeable artistic directors [Dan Sullivan has done better work on better plays, in New York, since leaving the dank North West]. The combination menu that each of these theater offers do not really differ. For it seems that the directors of the three main venues each prepares, has little choice but to, prepare the annual menu of four to eight shows, so as to try to create the right kind of mix, so that if you ate this mix at each of them you would pretty much get the same kind of mixed fare; which means that you could get three somewhat venturesome shows altogether, Alki at ACT this year, the Cruz at the Rep & Singing Forest at the Intiman, a play designed to spend its life in American theater development hell. Each season also brings its share of the tried and true; which constitutes the majority of shows put on at each of the big three this year, and next year too. Then each of them must put on something to demonstrate their social consciousness, as ACT this year did with Good Boys Bad Boys. There is that one SERIOUS show, red meat for the hungry dog, then concessions, as in ACT's case to those who keep the faith of thee-ate-her with plays like Agatha. The bad fence-straddling faith of putting on Agatha is demonstrated by it being "out of season" - the dear souls who eat this kind of bric-a-brac are given their due, but nonetheless are exiled; basically these dogs are served the dog food that they want, while the theater itself pretends that Agatha is not really where it's hear t is at; nor do you want to offend these mongrels of the theater because you hope and pray that they will consume your more serious fare, possibly even subscribe. "Whodunits" do well also among amateur groups, as does the forever Music Man, point to the fact that the local intelligence might be diverted to the puzzling out of matters other than the murder that resides in their hearts. And then you put on One or Two Character show, because otherwise you go broke. Their whore-masters, the artistic directors, serve a certain caste what it wants. The relationship is symbiotic. It is the symbiosis of forever mutually reinforcing mediocrity. I read where Kurt Beattie, the current artistic director of A Contemporary Theater [where the word contemporary represents a falsehood in advertising], thinks of or wishes for theater as a temple - a temple to mediocrity it is I am afraid, and that is not, at least in Mr. Beattie's case, because he is unaware or was not once aware of more substantial fare [6], no matter that he is responsible for commissioning Fiction. - Ah, the accumulating millions that have been spent putting on the forever forgotten mediocrities with which sums something splendid might have been done! And all the necessary effort that goes into selling, having to sell the mediocrities! I don't think there's been a hot cake in town since Tony Kushner's operatic pathos-drenched Angels in America. -
The "artistic censors" as the artistic directors thus might be more accurately called, quite consciously - the censor, as in a dream, and in old Russia or the Soviet Union, always knows more than anyone else, and knows how to rip and tear out what is unpleasing - keep from doing what might upset the prevailing wishful state of delusion into which a particular caste in "the city" prefers to put itself. The big three could vanish with little detriment to the intellectual culture of the town, though not to the eateries on Queen Anne. [5] - The problem is not just dumbing down the repertory to the twenty-five top stage hits, then done over and all over the U.S. of A.; [6] . But that's the culture, you say, it's always been like that, that's how we like it - no: that's how we are made to like it, something that ultimately produces the same great fatigue as does wearing a false self among the directors; so that, then, it is no wonder that many of those so engaged in cens oring out what they themselves would really much rather do, are so frequently weary as a salmon at the end run. Moreover, a further tiresome aspect of that job: you need to appeal to benighted donors who have a tax deductions and good will to spare, etc. "I'm not interested," after all, is the most-heard sentence in Seattle [including its School of Drama I would say]. - Anything really of our time is as unwanted as 20th century music is in this land of the Swan of Tunella, of no end of Tchaikovsky, Karl Orff . The classical radio station KING-FM is squarely settled in 19th century miasma, the Glinka part, you get more challenging classics 24/7 at University Village to keep the cats pleased as they shop; the main Jazz station is stuck squarely in the 60s [the least of my troubles, this]. KCTS, the local public television station, is chock-a-block with Brit shtick, furniture auctions on Friday nite, cooking shows, wood working shows, nature logs, train travel shows to places to which its audience would like to be the packaged to than they are here, when KCTS wants to raise money from the faintly hip it will, at least four times a year, put on its one great Roy Orbison concert tape; or more recently what was described as "light musical fare".
And I think I quite understand the "realism" that ensures such compromises and why the menus do not really differ that much from theater to theater or from year to year... which constitutes the fatality of American culture, not just of its philistine Seattle version, and the fatality of the mediocrity of the regional theater circuit. In that respect, regional theater is part of what is called The Culture Industry.... which, too, wants and needs to be "sold." Kurt Beattie alerted his audience to the potentially offensive nature of Edward Albee's Sylvie, and it turned out that, actually, the possibly offended consumers' - of so much pornography of each and every kind - interest was piqued: what if one tried to pique their interest by learning to sell them, say Handke's Ride Across Lake Constance as an experiential process at the end of which participation in its verbal schemes and a truly roller-coaster ride on the thin ice of identity the world would be as playful and light as it had been when they were happy children and first started to play with words? The ultimate boulevard play as anti-boulevard, Noel Coward but not fey. That is something very real that theater can still do in the age of the other predominating media: create calm, refresh your senses, disabuse you of the accumulating junk in your mind, against which there is no real defense unless... and in Handke's case, the true successor to Brecht, and with a far lighter touch, in an even less Aristotelean cathartic manner. But the artistic directors who work in the regional theater I expect are so hidebound after decades of realistic survival they have lost touch with what drew them to the theater in the first place, and the requisite imagination to educate their potential audience, which is not stupid in any respect except when it comes to matters theatrical, but ignorant of what theater can do in the age of film and television and the internet. Central to what? Y et once it was: Theater was news. Theater has not ever really happened in Seattle, so far. And I don't think entirely because Seattle, as Dan Savage once put it so nicely, is really a town of "breeders." I am puzzled why the fine Seattle Children's Theater fails to produce a large enough audience for deeper hungers than those never quite satisfied by what is put on at the main stages, until the audience is off to the far more adventurous eateries; dinner dress theater yet far less challenging compared to the restaurant circuit: the biggest hit in years were the clowns and food of circus-tent Teatro Zin Zanni, which proves my point far too weightily [7].
And then of course, that TV ate what possibility of mind existed in the audience, especially of the newest generations in this generationally forgetful America, ["Never has a country lost its innocence as often as has the United States," is one of my favorite - it is Christopher Hitchens' - quote, which fails to acknowledge that it never was anything of the kind to begin with.] which responds most positively to what is most like what it sees on Television, so much of which is far superior, especially "all those "comedies," so that even the directors of barely existent little troupes think they should put on... comedies. - Fringe venues such as The Annex and Theater Schmeater subsidize themselves with skits from once popular television series - nothing against camping it up, but how much can such a defense bear? I myself am thoroughly surfeited on hee-haw; on Brit-Twit-Wit. -- Not to speak of comparing theater with what films are shown here.
It is said that Seattle was post-modern before its time. I don't think anything truly modern ever registered, and the pre-modern is fossilized. Mother Courage, of which Kurt Beattie, in the full flush of the survival of ACT a few years back, suggested I do a new American translation, before quickly reverting into safe mode [and I had a few discussable ideas how to turn this great war horse into something really American], was finished around 1940, a play that even writers such as Ionesco, who hated Brecht, acknowledged for the one time a playwright had put his thumb on the diminishing substance of the human; it has never been done at one of the main stages, and at this rate Seattle will disappear in aboriginal moraine before Kurasch, and so many other great plays, are done here. Ah, people dream of them, but the dreams never happen. Seattle actually lacks as much of a sense of past as most of the rest of the country, except the South, no matter that i t keeps re-inventing a false Restoration Hardware past, and so is unable to reflect. It votes democratic, but if it were honest would vote moderate Republican.
Yet you keep getting these platitudes, all these Ottish, typical, pro forma assertions, to the effect of "We, of all the arts, should be doing the new and controversial..." which are just a bunch of hoey, sottish verbiage that spills at the drop of the pin, and is never really acted upon because behind it lies a failure to have analyzed or understood the nature of theater and what can be done in it at this historical stage of multiple media, among many other matters. [3] See anon, On Theory.
The three philistine theaters compete for the same constraining funding, and also for the same middle-brow fare as it so frequently comes in pre-tested and preapproved and wanted-to-be reassuringly approved by Good Housekeeping from NY, that's the easy part of the job, it's like going to 7th Avenue for the seasonals, or in the instance of Ms. Ott's predecessor, also in the instance of Gordon Edelstein, Kurt Beattie's predecessor, is put into shape here before it ends up at its grubby N.Y. predestination.
Kevin Lynch, whose Lynch Enterprises, here come the famous "buts and nolts", does a lot of the calling for subscriptions and selling of tickets to these theaters, explained to me recently that during the past decade there had been a decrease of approximately 10,000 subscribers from what at the most was thirty thousand for the big three, perhaps it was even forty once upon a time. The Fifth Avenue, a local operation meanwhile, itself has nearly thirty thousand subscribers, which Mr. Lynch, correctly I would say, accounts for by pointing to the musicalization, or one could say, Broadwayization of theater in Seattle; and why not, since the really serious theater of the world is not done here; and since most folks, in dire or even half way dire times [not that Seattle, at least the theater going part of it, is much affected by all that direness], prefer to be amused, to be diverted; all the young warrior's eyes are looking, at least sideways, at the football screen, of the one same forever game.
Benoroya Hall has 275 performances and is doing well. - 30,000 serious theater subscribers from a population of a couple of million to draw on... is not overly impressive. The possibility of having a Globe Theater in Seattle... for that Seattle would have to become a lot less stratified and segmented on class and income lines, though there is more than that to its multiple segmentations and fault lines than that, the pricey admissions being the most obvious; having money and a curious mind do not necessarily go foot in mouth disease [wake up!]. "Our Town" is really lots of intersecting segments, some quite seedy, some so deeply touched by the Lunar north that I occasionally feel transposed to some Skandi 19th century novel, what with old women of all kinds peaking out behind curtains; much of it - including members of the theater world itself - petty as only small towns can be. - Would the North-Westerners go to truly serious theater if you paid them as the Greeks apparently had to be to attend those shows, though perhaps not the ones that featured Satyrs? The contemporary equivalents of Sophocles, Euripides, Calderon, Shakespeare, Chekhov might appear on the scene here, and they would not be performed, not even if they were acclaimed elsewhere - the other-directness of a fearful audience is married to the "realistic" fearfulness of its managers. An old hand at Samuel French some month ago told me that he thought that one chief reason that the U.S. had become so uninviting to foreign plays was because the NEA, founded under Kennedy, had funded such a plethora of American works.
Part II
Since theater is chiefly museal - it has a great past, a mediocre present, and an uncertain future - let us yet entertain the vaunted positive spin on this state of affairs, and why not: the roots for something better to graft on exist: there exists, I suspect, a core audience of 5,000 who have once snatched a taste of that bit of heaven that is real theater and thus becomes red meat for the forever hungry wolf, that could support one first rate theater [8], whereas the efforts, presently, are dissipated across the various boards, making for a single questionable smorgasbord, yes and what about all those boards of directors, who are they? how much theater sense or what other interests resides there? Therefore, what if one regarded the three duplicating theaters, the three big ugly ducklings, as a single theater with several vectors? Then one of these five stages would be devoted entirely to the classics; one year, five great plays of the Greek repertoire; another year, Elizabethan theater; next Spanish, German. French, Chinese, Japanese... Another of these five stages, the smallest, would be devoted to the truly contemporary, and it wouldn't take twenty five years for, say, a Sam Shepard, and the lightest, to migrate from the Aha to the Rep. Has David Mamet ever been done at one of the big three - scarcely, because his work is even more cutting than what did not fare well at Sharon Ott's place. Not even to mention the internationally important playwrights whose work is not done in Seattle. Too upsetting, not Mrs. Dowdy's taste, too garish, leave it to the Fringe, whose festival, too, has bitten a fairly justified dust in the mean of these ten years, yet thwarting the grass even further.
Not that the mere fact of contemporaneity or the fetishization of "the new" guarantees anything [or the various kinds of tokenism, pressure release valves being all they are, my favorites, the crows, can vent and perform day in day out]. - The too few, the true surrogates, who take the deep pulse of their time of course do exist, not that Seattle knows, since the news is quite consciously withheld from it. The same one or two cutting edge plays - And of course no end of "adapting" of novels! - keep showing up at the second tier theaters, too, the off or off-off-Broadway houses as one might call them. Comparatively little innovation there, either. The same Wallie Shawn play keeps popping up over and over. Sort of like trotting out one of the two big Beckett plays when we want to prove that we can be gravitational. Not the faintest notion exists of how reactionary Beckett is in the meanwhile. - If there is one important metaphysical play since the Becketts it is Hand ke's The Art of Asking: Or the Journey to the Sonorous Land.
Yet a third stage would devote itself to the kind of thing that you now find at all three: the forever middle brow, well mounted, but scarcely challenging . And I scarcely think that Joe Orton or the once again appearance here of Jumpers is challenging, or that it is amazing, as it appears to Joe Adcock, that Orton "only" started to learn English at age two, or the poor man's Orton, which results in Fiction. How many current warblers recall the boborygima while sequestered in the mother's womb? No matter that what warbles from them sounds just like it. - A fourth might devote itself to the serious musical theater, with ventures into its origins in European Operetta - Jacque Offenbach, Straus, the Yiddishe, and the minstrel shows.... A fifth ..... plays by frogs and goats... plays for and by the animals... the squirrels, geese, my favorite friends, the so nimble and skittish crows, and grackles... All of which requires a Paul Allen to be splendiferous...Theater from the top down, a different trickle down effect, since the grass roots isn't doing it either...
At any event, the venture so roughly outlined here, would bring critics to Seattle, the great innovative directors would have to be imported [8], or might really develop here. In this eventuality, the Greater Seattle audience might come to consume more serious fare if outside attention and accolades were paid it. For Seattle-lites [or heavies as so many more of them have become during the past decade, as I was glad to have a front page story confirm the sight collector's impression] are far more venturesome when it comes to food; and if one were to open a theater with prospects of commercial success, a dinner theater it would be. Such a variegated serious theater as I propose would also necessitate an entirely different set of local reviewers - Roger Downey might have to come out from retirement in the vineyards of gourmandaism, which, so I gathered, and finally it all clicked, had been his chief ambition, anyhow... not that theater ought to be treated as though it were food, no matter that, as Adorno so rightly observed, "degustibus disputandum est." Seattle would have to have at least one real critic, not just its one or two barely adequate reviewers, and its share of mere notifiers, such as Misha Bernson and Adcock strike me as being, who see their job also as one of protecting a somewhat fragile if drab flower that is on continuous life support. The sportswriters, who have so much more fun, can always write: "Sell the bum;" though not many of those employed in the various aspects of the theater scene, here, would be bought. And so they stay.
What I described & tried to explain in the first two parts requires a bill of particulars as back-up.
For one further important reasons for the state of affairs: THEORY; or rather the absence of any approximation thereof, but animadversion to theory, anti-intellectualism, on the part of some theater acquaintances of mine that accounts for the hotch-potch of what is put on, but for the audience's lack of education in matters of theater, which in this fashion will never become even halfway central to their lives.
The interesting theater movements and artists for the past several centuries have all been spawned by or have created theory. In theater, I am most familiar with the theoretical writings of Bertold Brecht, without which translation into action, its constant dialectic, there would have been no Berliner Ensemble, [ which fossilized too, once the dialectic froze] dozens of interesting directors, a slew of great trained actors, and an influence into film [Godard] and foreign playwrights, no Peter Hacks, Heiner Mueller, no Tankred Dorst, Bond, Sarah Churchill... however these later artists absorbed and overcame, opposed everything that derived from Brecht... And there is as much popular junk in European culture, and has been there for a longer time than the United States existed, and Brecht took no end of it, going back to the Thirties Years War [now that is a capitalizable war if ever there was one!] and used it. Just look at the best sellers during Goethe's tim e, Werther was his only one. So Brecht, whom I am using only as an example, or any other important theoretician, in this context merely means to think matters through. For example, it does not mean that you have ratiocinated if you want to get off your anti-Bush jollies by putting on Arturo Ui, which Brecht intentionally set in the far away [from his audience's experience], nearly entirely mythic world of the crime-ridden Chicago 30s, and to jam in some Shakespeare. Perhaps Haiti would have been a different mythic setting, with its permanent third world aspect, but that would have meant a re-examination, as Brecht the constant re-examiner did, to test the play, not its obvious political purposes. A fine, austere, theory-oriented, critical workshop theater might be in order, perhaps something akin to Uta Hagen and Herbert Berghof's HB Studio in New York, without technological folderol. The Drama School, another pell mell, does not provide it; and, as a matte r of fact, has lost its directing program in the meanwhile, and so has Seattle a terrific director in Burke Walker.
Now a bit about the Sophocles and Shakespeares whose work might have been done in Seattle, under the aegis of yet another faithless once Handke enthusiast, say at Cornish. That is the play that addresses the problem of theater in the age of film: Handke's PLAY ABOUT THE FILM ABOUT THE WAR. For its utterly simple premise it has a read-through of a proposed screenplay for the umpteenth film about "the war": that way you get the film, and its efficiencies, and gaps for the imagination to live in, without need for deconstruction since the entire matter is already parceled out and regarded from a dozen different perspectives. Not a problem-free piece, chiefly because Handke, for reason of realistic pessimism, now writes mytho-poeic plays that are meant to be read as much as performed, and so the speeches become tryingly long even for those who suffer from the opposite of attention span deficiency. I shall stop, here, but have many rounds in reserve.
1] Having spent a fair time by the [Ship] Canal, vicinity Portage Bay, particularly the summer past, I had little choice but to observe the weekend parade of the great variety of local Argonauts - everything from motorized bathtubs, invariably loaded with loaded youngsters, African Queen types, the only ones I envied, slews of elegant motorized more modern yachts, and sailing craft that, no matter a fine breeze, scarcely used it to propel themselves about; there were times when the fumes, from the combustion of diesel reinforced gasoline, was more malodorous than what irritates your nasal passages adjacent the over-crowded arterials. After a month or so of weekends, the vessels themselves became familiar: there were the to-and-fro constants, recognizable also by the live galleon figures, a wench or a dog at the bow, a fair amount of drinking and eating among the frequently obese could be observed as well. All very friendly, waving. Also of course, the not-that-infr equent hot-rod, making the usual hotrod noises from its not too distantly displaced anal machismo.
2] Yes, writing about theater in Seattle you have to be mindful that Lewis and Clark, who "discovered" the United States Northwest, and that the "settlers" who started coming in their wake a hundred fifty odd years ago, were not Thespians. Unlike Coca Cola, which no longer even uses the bitters of the Kola Nut, they were for real, and wrought "real" change: but their motley progeny, so far, have originated nothing to compare to the tribal arts that they displaced. Regarded from that perspective, just think of what theater here will be like in another 100 years unless all our offspring are Tele-Tubbies by then. - I gather that for the longest time there wasn't a bookshop in Ballard, and that the Skandis there had their Bible, and that was that. I am glad that pockets of that Balticum are still preserved, if not quite in amber, more in rust. Perhaps one might even put on a dramatization of one of Ingmar Bergman's grim medieval sagas for these descendants of the murde rous converter St. Olaf, to bring them into the age of theater, which is really pre-Ibsen and pre-Strindberg here. - Seattle is of course more complexly layered meanwhile, somewhat, than an emigre hamlet of robber-founders that becomes haven for incest and its progeny. Still, as a friend said not so long ago: "Too few Jews" & I replied: "Too few French, and too few of a lot of other spices, too." And having a bit of the Thor in my background I am by no means unappreciative.... of the general North European make-up of its basic stock; it came, at first, as a serious relief from the superfices of Los Angeles or New York's own provincialities; although my three year hiatus in a small town in Baja Sur, where even the so well air-conditioned palmetto palapers have T.V. glinting through their many chinks, contains the novel experience of a tiny circus first coming to town: the first live performance of anything but electronically amplified music dances on the local basketball court during the forever summer there and church services and festive processions... something akin to Peter Brook's Empty Space reaction, but not born of the dearth of news and free expression in poverty-stricken circumstances: the wonderful childlike quality of genuine wonder. And so .
As to the history, the origins of the Seattle audience -- in as much as I have been able to make it out - the first of several digressions: The odd thing about emigres, once in a new venue, is that they, as time passes and as they stand still in their memory and habit, tend to become more conservative whence they departed, which locus abscondi keeps changing, as they the comers to a new world have nothing to differentiate themselves from, in this instance the local, emblematic slugs. The theaters in Helsinki especially, Stockholm, Oslo, especially of course in London and in many German cities, [etc etc] tend to be more interesting than what one can find in Seattle & St. Paul-Minneapolis; are frequently of World Theater, whereas here, there also seem to be a goodly share of descendants of those who trekked and trickled in from the Badland [s] that Jonathan Raban described so well, aside whatever memories of many other poverties. And puritanicalitie s... Women judges enforce skirt codes on women lawyers. Noise codes. Repression of the senses is pervasive. [Never mind the zoo on Capitol Hill!] and I have come under the deeply etched impression that cheap runs deep in Seattle. Certain years and dates have registered in a mind that perhaps unduly latches onto particulars, during the decade that I have been here, and juxtapose in a somewhat different from the normal iconographic fashion: the elimination of the after-hours clubs in the late 40s, thus the surcease of interesting jazz musicians stepping out onto the national stage; that Washington State had its own first MacCarthyite, in 1047, who helped shut down a theater... The condemnation for rape of Marie Anne LeTourneau, for a relationship with a South Sea Islander, where you are sexually mature at age 12... an international comedy if ever there was one with Seattle as its butt! The "Witches of Wenatchee" as I think of them... another national drama that made the region look ridiculous. The fuss over a strip club getting an allowance for a few extra parking spaces... Rick Anderson's inveighing, in the Seattle Weekly, at an affair that the previous owner of the Seahawks was having as the newspapers were running him out of town... I recall once making such a time travel, to turn of the 19th century Hamburg, to Swakopsmund and Walvis Bay, in the early 70s, an Easter Weekend among the murderers of the Herero, and kept looking around for my father's mother to appear as a handsomely attired young woman of that time. However, rather than national origins and the sensibilities that come with them, the general niceness, the way Seattle processes processes processes processes conflict, its basic puritanical heritage go further to explain its benighted audiences, I think; to which needs to be added the lack of light during half the year, so that the dear slugs don't really wake up until late summer - again, Jonathan Raban, his description of the inf inite dankness in his Passage to Juneau, points to the forever dank nasal inland passage in the local mind... and the clattering of their chatter of just about any group of them, the Northwest Twang. "The melodiousness of their voices," does no apply hereabouts except to the increasing number of Hispanics. Ah, for the ears to come on the lilt and consonance of an African language on the short wave radio! The imminent, complete desertification of the lower two thirds of California, for it to become like its pendulous Baja, may of course prove, briefly, advantageous to the dank Northwest, before it, too, falls prey to the wages of an economy based on the waste of fossil fuels. The time, in other words, might come when Seattle may be hospitable to the performance of tragedies of all kinds and not go goo-ga at whatever splendid Retro set they are presented with, fall prey to the shallowest lyricalness, pretty picture postcards, retreads, chestnuts, chestnuts in the makings, and perhaps boo instead of applauding any old idiocy that they subject themselves to.
At the more popular end, you have summer pell-mells like the Seafair and its Pirates and Flying Angels [F-16s!]; the hordes of naked white mole rats that materialize at Seattle Center on the 4th of July; plus the Seattle Center Bumbershoot free-for-all - that nice Skandi term meaning protection against rain bombs, and a folk fest. - Fringe venues such as The Annex and Theater Schmeater subsidize themselves with skits from once popular television series - nothing against camping it up, but how much can such a defense bear? I myself am thoroughly surfeited on hee-haw.
3] Critical theater.... the tradition in which I have worked. Brecht, Peter Weiss, Heinar Kipphardt, Rolf Hochhuth... its last example being Handke's The Play About the Film about the War... might have a great subject in the politically mediated current state of affairs....
4] Nothing essentially wrong with any of the tried and true, they were all cutting edge once, when they were NEWS, a fresh breath, that has become blunt and stale, and that the banner of culture employs to waft stale air into an already blunted brain; and especially when done make-believe museum style; every tooth has been pulled from those plays; simultaneously iconicized and neutered into brand names; a production of Pygmalion done 1900 style, frozen in time: in 1900 GBS didn't do Pygmalion 1800 style.
5] - You could also say that it is dress rehearsal theater and that the artistic directors might as well be buyers for Bon Marche; and royally they spend to find their grey mice in the haystacks; that is, they are buyers for Mr. and Mrs. Dowdy or Ms. &Jr. Dowdy who occasionally fancy themselves as being Dowdy Lite, there's the whilish headline that bright colors are back!: the geese and ducks and slugs remain wrapped in pastel versions of mallard green grey and brown, but they appreciate stylish confections, and receive it on a consistent basis, slightly differently wrapped year in year out.
6] The importation of Peter Brook, by the joint theater force, was of someone who was probably a goner by the time he went to perform for the Shah. Brook hasn't done his contemporaries for generations. Starting out in a cellar in Hamburg, he now has a splendid bombed-out looking, former operetta building, the Buffe-du-Nord, perhaps the most mesmerizing actors this side of heaven, but is basically no more than sacred cow. If you wanted to give Seattle a taste of what great directing is like in Europe, that is not where you would turn: it was another typical instance of the ignorant inferiority complex's veneration of an icon.
7] Once upon a time there existed the possibility of a Handke festival here in Seattle, and Roger Downey was planning to take the foursome that it takes to perform Handke's Offending the Audience to the main theaters, a text that confront the audience into becoming somewhat uncomfortably self-aware of what it means to be that second nature, an audience, to be on the world stage: the famous insults at the end are an Austrian's come-on joke; and perhaps if I'd been better informed of the lay of the land the fest might have transpired as the Sarah Nash Gates Handke festival. And perhaps Mr. Downey would have trooped around if it had not proved so agenbitey a task as to bring on an attack of diabetes.
8] The most nauseating show, however, that I have seen in Seattle, was Reza's Art , and not just because I had seen its lead actor go through the same limited routines several times before, or the other actors gave me nothing, from an ungiving text, purely mechanical blocking, or because, at best, its treatment of art as yet another consumer article, like different toothpaste where there is no difference, might serve for an episode in Frazier, but because there really is a deeply meaty play in the subject of the sacred transferring from a religious past to the confines of the use of now? perhaps forever? sacred colors [say a play about Malevitch].
9] No wonder, then, that real sports are so much livelier, real play, that the best magician is the Gary Payton of the day or Rashard Lewis, and with royal permission to talk "trash," that the popular music scene is far more au courant - and that though the people are fooled every four years, and a hundred billion times inbetween, you can't really fault the level of native intelligence. Bert Brecht, back in the 20s, already asked for theater to be as tempting as the seven day bicyle races, Nascar he might have said now. No, the people are always all right, and so are the actors, who deserve applause no matter the chestnut.
10] In the mean of these ten years, four of the smaller theaters, that did far more interesting fare than the "big three", have disappeared: The Aha , where my adaptation of Tankred Dorst's splendid Fernando Krapp Wrote Me This Letter proved the final nail; Arne Zaselove's Bathhouse through some mismanagement and grandiosity and the bad luck of being at the mercy of the green-possessed; the Pioneer Square Theater. The Empty Space, from whose original version in the 70s emanated most of the few halfway interesting theater people I have met here, has much improved over what it had turned into under the management of a pleasant circus clown, I think from Kentucky, during its second incarnation, but seems to be bankrupt for the second time, during its third act. The "Group Theater," which specialized in ethnically oriented work, went down, too; I haven't the faintest whether for any but the stated reason lack of funding; perhaps the a ttempt to do "ethnic" theater in the world where the dinosaurs are grinding and homogenizing them down, is passe? Or has been co-opted as p.c. by the "state theater"?
10] On Heiner Mueller's death I had the idea for a commemoration of a playwright whose work had not been done here except in Roger Downey's [exclusive] Quartett translation, and after a bit of travail [Mr. Downey wanted to resuscitate his actors] the service was transposed from John Kazanijian's then New City Theater venue at what is now The Hugo House to the U.W. drama school, and the wonderful director Steve Pearson [who to my knowledge is not asked to direct at "the big three"] did a wonderful job preparing a fair sampling of scenes from Mueller's work. Pearson, too, did a first rate production, at the U.W. of Handke's The Hour We Did Not Know Each Other, which Roger Downey, who prepared the great text of the stage directions of this play without spoken words, then covered in a piece in The Weekly. The reason for the world wide success for this summa of Handke's early musically composed conceptual texts, however, probably deriv es from the world's surfeit if not nausea at the falsehoods that start to inundate their ears, perhaps as of their fourth month in utero, at which point the fetus' hearing exists, and not because the infinite play of images forces the eye [this is entirely an eye piece] to regard everything it sees as somewhat strange and different, so that it comes out seeing the world fresh. Hour is the play that derives from the line "all our stories" in Handke's Walk About the Villages [a play far too rich for the thin gruel to which the culture is accustomed] and "all our stories" in this instance do go back to the Gilgamesh, and do so concretely, not by way of the maelstrom of political rhetoric that pervades public discourse. Moreover, such sheer and pure poetry is so healthily cleansing that you could probably attach the the brains of the audience to MIR's to see its working, and perhaps those who believe in genes, which is what people seem to do if not in God, will be convince d of the authentic need for a constant re-poeticization of the world. [Pace, Possum!] Mr. Downey, whom I will always cut a bit of slack, because he is one of the few who has some understanding of all this, nonetheless can be quite bone-headed with the phrase "to help us escape words" in the it's opening paragraph of his piece on the play:
"All humans have feelings. Most learn to talk-about what they feel. Some learn to turn the talk into writing. A few can write and make others feel. Peter Handke has spent a quarter century creating verbal artifacts-novels, plays, reportage, film scripts, memoirs, literary sketchbooks, and indescribable hybrids between-to help us escape words [my itals] , let us forget them, experience the texture of the passing moment without giving that texture a name." Such an intention is most unlikely in the instance of an autistic savant who came through consciousness through words and can use them, at times, as a Mozart, also to make us aware of the misuse of words, and syntax, and how deeply, subliminally we are at the mercy of that. -I recall asking Kurt Beattie whether he couldn't call his then artistic director superior's attention to the piece: but that person was too importantly busy, and it is these kinds of deferences that then becom e as telling as they have.
Somehow Mr. Downey managed to have a diabetes attack at the prospect of the appearance of the chief translator of Mueller's work, Carl Weber, the head of the directing school at Stanford, once of the Berliner Ensemble, where I as a very callow youth had first seen him in the mid-50, knowing full well, prescient as I am, that somewhere down the line we would collaborate on Mueller translations! That fine evening did not lead to anything either here in town, except that a kid who hadn't even attended the drama school, just majored, Joby Emmonds & his Defibrillator Productions [ ]then finally did Muller's famous Hamlet Machine, way out on Sandpoint Way at the old Navy grounds, and received one stupid review, from Mr. Fetzer of The Stranger, who wrote as though he knew Mueller's work, whereas it was evident to anyone [at the very least to Mr. Downey and me, and of a handful of others of those who had att ended the memorial service] that in fact Fetzer neither knew nor understood what Mueller was about but had to pretend that he did: the fact that Seattle is also latte Seattle - the mere increase in metabolic activity in the brain, or wherever, is no guarantee.
11] Still, the best and greatest variety of theater is to be found at the Drama School, frequently in interesting pared-down student productions, by its frequently highly talented directing students, who at least choose with interest and passion, probably most of the time anyhow; who will have a tough time putting on what they do now once they graduate to what's called the "real world" hereabouts. The work there, 90 percent of the time, goes unreviewed because of the peculiar compartmentalization to which the beast is subjected here -e.g.- Yale Drama School productions are reviewed by the New York City Press! And of course the much smaller New Haven. And it's the same at the other top schools. The acting students, as the saying goes, "can't talk their way out of a paper bag," but are nimble afoot; they be pick-pockets and jugglers when the time comes.
12]  The Rep, so I feel, has actually improved somewhat under Sharon Ott's ministrations, so has ACT since Kurt Beattie took over from Edelstein, especially during his first strong season, but I feel optimistic, just a tad, only, somewhat about The Intiman under Bartlet Sher's directorate.
MICHAEL ROLOFF, a playwright and translator, into American, of most of Peter Handke's plays, of the early Kroetz and other plays, from the German, isVisiting Scholar, German U. Washington
Member of the Seattle Pschoanalytic Institute

In publishing in New York for a quarter century in all capacities except copy editor, unfortunately, as a literary agent for a few years in the seventies he represented the Verlag der Autoren, a German theater collective, one of the few good things to have survived their origins in the year of all our demise, 1968.


Franz and I were laughing our heads off about the folks in the theater in the city of chief sealth, the incredibly hypocrites you nasties all are, how you ought to be known as promise breakers, how you  backbite, cut each other out from behind while pretending to be friends, and of course you and kurt beattie came to mind first, but the list is NEAR entirely compleat! and such completeness is rare, the only exception being Hal Ryder, who is merely too fucking busy what with going to Yemen with the Skalsky where i was going to be the first person he was going to see after he got back from columbia ten years ago and still hasnt to read Handke’s great play VOYAGE BY DUGOUT: THE PLAY ABOUT THE FILM ABOUT THE WAR, not as bad as you Arne who hasn’t read WALK AOBUT THE VILLAGES in the ten years since Kurt and I gave it to you, or avoids a promised lunch to receive my adaptation of Le Faiseuer as BALZAC’S WAITING FOR GODOT because Gawd fobid you might have to READ, god forbid when we can’t just bullshit our way through life, 
to be found in the world of the farts! 
All the good people leave! No wonder! 

On Sat, May 14, 2011 at 8:42 AM, Arne Zaslove <> wrote:
Did you actually send these personal comments to Kurt?  If so, I can’t trust you with personal information as you are now out of control.

Sorry.   If Kurt saw these comments he’ll never ever consider giving me a directing assignment while he has the position of power.

Bad move…Michael.
It cannot be repaired unless he considers you  a madman.
Is Franz Angst a pseudonym for you??

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MICHAEL ROLOFF exMember Seattle Psychoanalytic Institute and Society this LYNX will LEAP you to all my HANDKE project sites and BLOGS: "MAY THE FOGGY DEW BEDIAMONDIZE YOUR HOOSPRINGS!" {J. Joyce} "Sryde Lyde Myde Vorworde Vorhorde Vorborde" [von Alvensleben] contact via my website


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