Quoting Arthur Penn or Did This All Start With T-Ball…?

I’ve been out of communication for a bit; buried in a project, information on which was embargoed until after the Show…which was last night.

I’ve been in Dubai for the past two months, participating in the mounting of this Emirate’s Show and Celebration for National Day. This experience has offered me enlightenment as well as reassurance and confirmation, across the board. I have had the opportunity to test my methodologies against a significantly alien culture and found that, fundamentally, all our brains are wired similarly and – while culture and experience may result in divisive or disparate perspectives – emotions can be evoked and connections made in any language, especially nonverbally.

I have had the opportunity to Guest Lecture for two successive nights at EMDI UAE – The Institute of Media & Communication in Dubai; sharing my experience and interacting with a group of students, many of whom are brilliant, motivated and preparing to test themselves in this business.  (I tried, but failed, to dissuade them!) Many of these fine young men and women ended up participating in producing the Show we just mounted.

Among the talent and tech support for the production, I came to know – albeit briefly – some wonderful men and women and was granted opportunity to be touched and moved through our interaction.

Unique individuals from across the globe gathered to work on this project; to many of whom I’ll be reaching out to join future teams with me, should that opportunity arise. Most significant among all these, though, were the gracious people of the Arabian Deserts…Oman, Lebanon, Dubai, Abu Dhabi… Through just a few, I experienced such moments of grace and was so gently and deeply touched that I doubt I shall forget.

These are experiences that will become embraced and protected memories.

Don’t get me wrong; it wasn’t all Pretty, not by a longshot! But, that’s for later; when the dust has settled and I’ve assessed the experiences with some bit of objectivity.

Meanwhile, and what prompted me to get moving on revivifying this site, I share with you this recent missive from Arthur Penn. In this, he nails the elastic, modern definition of what is deemed approbation-worthy and which, in actuality, dilutes the quality of theatre, certainly, and the creation of Experience, globally.

Read on; we’ll talk…

‎”I do not want to know another thing about what a nice guy or gal someone on the stage is: This is entirely irrelevant to me. Some sort of desperation has crept into our theatre–all of our arts, really, but we’re discussing theatre–where we feel a defensive wall is erected around the meretriciousness of our work by highlighting how hard someone has worked; how many hours they’ve put in at the soup kitchen; how many hours they spent researching the aphasic mind in order to replicate the actions of one; how many ribbons sweep across their breast in support of causes; how much they love their lives and how lucky they feel to be on Broadway!

There is very little art, but there is a great deal of boosterism. Fill the seats; buy a T-shirt; post something on the Internet; send out an e-mail blast.

I’m in my eighties, and I think I should have left this earth never knowing what an e-mail blast was.

I saw a play recently that was festooned with understudies: Not the actual understudies, but the hired, primary actors, all of whom performed (if that is the word) precisely like a competent, frightened understudy who got a call at dinner and who raced down to take over a role. No depth; no sense of preparation. These were actors who had learned their lines and who had showed up. And that is all.

I spoke to the director afterwards. By all accounts a nice and talented and smart guy. I asked him why a particular part in this play–a Group Theatre classic–had been given to this certain actor. He’s a great guy, was the response. Prince of a fellow. Well, perhaps, but send him home to be a prince to his wife and children; he is a shattering mediocrity. But nice and easy counts far too much these days. Another director told me–proudly–that he had just completed his third play in which there wasn’t one difficult player; not one distraction; not one argument. Can I add that these were among the most boring plays of our time? They were like finely buffed episodes of Philco Playhouse: tidy, neat, pre-digested, and forgotten almost immediately, save for the rage I felt at another missed opportunity.

All great work comes to us through various forms of friction. I like this friction; I thrive on it. I keep hearing that Kim Stanley was difficult. Yes, she was: in the best sense of the word. She questioned everything; nailed everything down; got answers; motivated everyone to work at her demonically high standard. Everyone improved, as did the project on which she was working, whether it was a scene in class, a TV project, a film, or a play. Is that difficult? Bring more of them on.

Is Dustin Hoffman difficult? You bet. He wants it right; he wants everything right, and that means you and that means me. I find it exhilarating, but in our current culture, they would prefer someone who arrived on time, shared pictures of the family, hugged everyone and reminded them of how blessed he is to be in a play, and who does whatever the director asks of him.

Is Warren Beatty difficult? Only if you’re mediocre or lazy. If you work hard and well, he’s got your back, your front, and your future well in hand. He gets things right–for everybody.

No friction. No interest. No play. No film. It’s very depressing.

I don’t want to know about your process. I want to see the results of it. I’ll gladly help an actor replicate and preserve and share whatever results from all the work that has been done on a part, but I don’t want to hear about it. I’ve worked with actors who read a play a couple of times and fully understood their characters and gave hundreds of brilliant performances. I don’t know how they reached that high level of acting, and I don’t care. My job is to provide a safe environment, to hold you to the high standards that have been set by the playwright, the other actors, and by me. I hold it all together, but I don’t need to know that your second-act scene is so true because you drew upon the death of your beloved aunt or the time your father burned your favorite doll.

Now the process is public, and actors want acclimation for the work they’ve put into the work that doesn’t work. Is this insane? Read the newspapers, and there is an actor talking about his intentions with a part. I’ve pulled strands of O’Neill into this character, and I’m looking at certain paintings and photographs to gain a certain texture. And then you go to the theatre and see the performance of a frightened understudy. But a great gal or guy. Sweet. Loves the theatre.

Every year or so, I tell myself I’m going to stop going to see plays. It’s just too depressing. But I remember how much I love what theatre can be and what theatre was, and I go back, an old addict, an old whore who wants to get the spark going again.

I don’t think we can get the spark going again because the people working in the theatre today never saw the spark, so they can’t get it going or keep it going if it walked right up to them and asked for a seat.

It’s a job, a career step, a rehabilitation for a failed TV star or aging film star. I got a call from one of these actresses, seeking coaching. I need my cred back, she said.

This is not what the theatre is supposed to be, but it is what the theatre now is.

I don’t want to just shit on the theatre: It’s bad everywhere, because it’s all business, real-estate space with actors. It’s no longer something vital. I used to think that the theatre was like a good newspaper: It provided a service; people wanted and needed it; revenue was provided by advertisers who bought space if the paper delivered, but profit was not the motive–the motive was the dissemination of truth and news and humor. Who goes to the theatre at all now? I think those in the theatre go because it’s an occupational requirement: They want to keep an eye on what the other guys are going, and they want to rubberneck backstage with those who might use them in the future. But who are the audiences? They want relief not enlightenment. They want ease. This is fatal.

I talk to Sidney Lumet. I talk to Mike Nichols. I ask them if I’m the crazy old man who hates everything. You might be, they say, but you’re not wrong. They have the same feelings, but they work them out or work around them in different ways.

The primary challenges of the theatre should not always be getting people to give a shit about it. The primary challenge should be to produce plays that reach out to people and change their lives. Theatre is not an event, like a hayride or a junior prom–it’s an artistic, emotional experience in which people who have privately worked out their stories share them with a group of people who are, without their knowledge, their friends, their peers, their equals, their partners on a remarkable ride.” ~~ director ARTHUR PENN


6 thoughts on “Quoting Arthur Penn or Did This All Start With T-Ball…?

  1. There are many points in this I agree with. Many of us do not know what great script writing, art, literature, performances look like because we are inundated with popular art. The stuff masses enjoy because it is easy to accept and digest. Everybody likes Phantom of the Opera, myself included, but I also like REAL opera, the ones that are not popular. One of my family friends sang the lead in Madame Butterfly at THE Met. So amazing. So much skill involved. Maybe when I was, say 12, I would not have had the appreciation for the Puccini work of art, but, to my folks credit, they exposed me to real art, music and culture, and now as an adult I can fully grasp the intricacies.
    Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy popular song and dance as much as any teenager, but we do them a disservice when we only feed them a diet of what is the latest: Which is why we must keep classical training alive, and not always take the easy way out.
    I recently watched First Position, a documentary about several young dancers attempting to make it in the ballet world. A lifetime to perfect a toe point or turn out. I miss seeing that much perfection. And while I understand Kile’s point that a great artist does not have to be a great humanitarian, it is always refreshing to me, after witnessing this person’s greatness (think RG3 beating the Giants ), to hear an interview where the great artist (yes, RG3 is an artist in my book), is basically a good person ; they don’t have to be Mother T, but just don’t be an ass. I will admit to pushing the limits of being nice at times to create what I had envisioned, but I think people have forgiven me….I still get Christmas cards and hey, got lots of FB friends.
    Storytelling is the most important means of communication we humans have. It can be written, painted, danced, skated, photographed, acted, filmed, contested, portrayed, sung, spoken on soap boxes in parking lots, but it must, MUST have lasting value for the people we share it with, it must make change for a reason, if, for no other reason, to develop and encourage the person telling their story until they get it right and self actualize to become the force of nature they were born to be.
    In First Position, a young girl lives in an orphanage in Sierra Leone, her parents murdered by rebels. She sees a magazine cover of Dance Magazine with a photo of a ballerina performing in full costume, en pointe. That image inspires the shy, scared orphan, who gets adopted and is given an opportunity to pursue her dream of dancing in a tutu en pointe, and she has some personal triumph, wins some prizes, but even greater is her statement that she hopes to return to Sierra Leone and help teach other children how to dance. The story will continue.
    I am not sure what point I am am making, other than that I believe in the transforming power of storytelling in all it’s many forms, and we must tell our own in whatever form we are must comfortable sharing with others.
    That is all.

  2. Thank you isn’t quite enuf of a response to you. Kile, you’ve persisted, endured, suffered, and celebrated. And sharing this critical essay from Arthur Penn during this season of Advent/Adventure is a treasured gift.

    I write this just two days after the 30th Anniversary Gala for the work of the AIDS Emergency Fund. And so I read Penn’s remarks about theatre in the context of having just re-connected with folks in the AIDS community, some of whom behave like the actors Penn describes. And yet, here and there, the faces and histories of a cadre of “activists” who emerged very early in the HIV pandemic and continue to be visionaries.

    Eager to hear more about the big event you just produced.

    Thanks, and many hugz.


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