Owa on the State of Black Theatre (Part 2: A Solution) — Owa , Owafest — AAPEX

Friday, August 16, 2013

Owa on the State of Black Theatre (Part 2: A Solution)

"If for instance, New York black theater is the hub; than each city, in each state, should be a connective spoke in the wheel that drives our ambitions. Where projects can be tried out of town and then brought back to NYC for extended runs. This vital step can only be achieved through a nationwide coalition." 

Part II 
(A New Paradigm for American Black Theater Movement) 
A Call for an Action Plan for the 21st century 

Despite the rise of China, terrorism, the end of the world prophesies and doomsayers, America nonetheless has an amazing future in the coming century; it is the center of the universe. Folks are coming to America from all four corners of the planet. This wave-front of immigration will change demographics as well as culture. Two major groups of immigrants already impacting American culture are Latin and African. Both groups come from an experience of destitution, and both mean and brutal circumstances. Given a generation or two, their narratives of the trial, error and assimilation will trump African American tales of horror and racism under the pall of slavery. In other words, if we haven’t gotten over slavery and our disabuse by whites, emigrant populations will care even less about our angst than our tolerating white folk. We will be confronted by groups who have supplanted other racial influences— both political and economic in our communities-- and turn a deaf ear to our pitiful pleas for redress. Black Arts and especially black theater arts will suffer accordingly. So the task is clearly evident; not only must “our” theater arts be preserved, the method of creating theater and the systems that support it must be re-created. Theater literature must be refined and modernized. In the words of Jay Z: “do it for the babies.” 

Necessity of Organization on a National Level 
Before any action can be taken to ameliorate a consistently terrible situation is the acknowledgement that black theater has no sustainable institutions. Each generation starts out as if they have to re-invent the wheel all over again. We learn nothing practical from our history, making it neigh impossible to control our present circumstances and thus, we gain little for our future. Any attempt to self-actualize 21st century black theater must of its own necessity, firmly laying a foundation for sustainable activities. There must be ethnically controlled institutions for our music, dance and theater projects. Having created sustainable institutions lays the groundwork for another important phase of the work, as it were: the necessity for networking on a national level. If for instance, New York black theater is the hub; than each city, in each state, should be a connective spoke in the wheel that drives our ambitions. Where projects can be tried out of town and then brought back to NYC for extended runs. This vital step can only be achieved through a nationwide coalition. 

Permutations as the Mother of Inventions 
It is a dynamic feature of the current theatrical milieu, that the cultural imperative is that community theater must adjust if not entirely leave its brick and mortar environ behind, changing the manner in which audiences experience theater; understanding that conventional staging projects is a divisive programming strategy, resulting in a debilitating population and economic deficit. That audience will stay the same, and consequently, the work those audiences demand will stay the same. There are entire market segments of the black community lying uncultivated, not yet realizing its fuller potential. These would include youth and others without the experience of the middle-class perception of theater. The style in which plays are conceived and written as well as their public presentation must change to seduce an audience that is yet to realize its importance to the entire concept of Black Community Theater, its theory as well as its practice. Theater arts must demonstrate its universal dynamism, its commonality with the experience of its audiences, providing not only entertainment of the finest quality, but raising the level of individual and therefore, community awareness of how the emotional underpinnings of life works, motivated by human drives through the active examination of the human condition. Theater arts are the advance guard of a new and insightful revolutionary force, instigating revelations of informed awareness. These changes can only occur if the dynamics of theater itself changes. The aim here would be to transform empirically, both renovated content and refurbished performance values and techniques. Audiences must be regarded as a significant active resource, and not a fixed, faceless group of strangers, sitting in a darkened room, minding other people’s business. 

Organizational Methodology 
I will strongly declare there is a critical call today in Black American Theater for producers and artistic directors, proficient in dramaturgy to cultivate and expand new works projects, to encourage emerging and established playwrights, to develop innovative and original work in order, to expand the scope of not just Black, but the global American theater as well. This would be a good thing. The most fertile ground for developing such a broad and inclusive program would be the established, resource rich and powerful intellectual plants of academia. Our future in theater will be secure in the output of colleges and universities. Their positive and corrective intersection with the theater industry could produce an unparalleled upsurge in a successful creative worldview, relevant to the twenty-first century American Theater. There is however a caveat here. New ideas demand new attitudes. To paraphrase Albert Einstein; problems cannot be solved by the same mentality that produced those problems. A good case in point: The reaction to Hip-Hop music and Ebonics. This art form (they are art forms) has its basis in ethnic vernacular, proto-Islamic (Black Muslim Scientology, viz. Five-per-Center dogma) and current social issues of the times. There existed a huge intellectual reaction from the middle classed values of both the Black Church and the Black Intelligentsia. Regrettably, lacking participation by our most astute and conscious minds, hip-Hop morphed into “Gangsta Rap” over the decades with very problematic and dubious results. In the early twentieth century, the same middle class reaction to early Jazz music (which brought us rhythm and blues as well as rock and roll) left these media bereft of academic input and support (until of course, white institutions recognized its values). Both art forms have blanketed the planet earth in an unprecedented and immersive mode with rare exceptions, sans black artistic management and controls. In order to avoid making this continued and fatal error; Black Academia will have to drastically change its attitude about black theaters’ art and culture matrices. A primary awareness of theater culture is the need for new works. Great theatres have always had their playwrights. We must have our new playwrights, and we will not have them unless we give them many outlets to see their plays produced. This is the best way in which they can learn to write better plays. 

Our theatre can never be stronger than the quality of its plays. The production of classics is healthy, but, we need progress, and the seed of progress lies in the new plays being written. The case for creative institutions as an underpinning of black theater is based upon my assertion that theatre, in and of itself, is an artwork, a collaborative artwork whose principal artist is the artistic director. The artwork is not truly alive until it meets its audience, so that we absolutely want and must have the audience with us, responding with their imagination and belief. But it is we who choose and create the work. Ed Bullins, Susan Lori Parks or August Wilson never asked anyone what they wanted to see or hear. Their art comes from deep within each individual artist and his/her confrontation and contemplation of contemporary times. The artist may be lonely or feel unsure of, or inadequate to, what she/he is making, but they must cling to their integrity. Add the proper institutional framework and there is created, a theatrical wholeness of an important and longitudinal sort. 

Dramaturgical Methodology 
Readings of the playwright’s script several times begins the process, taking notes of those valuable first impressions, and then discussing the play with other people. The ensuing dialogue reviews this information with the playwright and others, revealing important clues about the writer’s-- and the play's characters'-- intentions and process by posing questions like: Why was the play written and when was it started? How many drafts are there and would it be a good idea to read earlier versions? Have there been readings or workshops, and what was learned from those? Whom should I talk with to understand more about the world of the play? In speaking with the playwright, should there be any questions about their own work, or if it needs any assistance in preparation for rehearsals. Writers usually need help with something, and this then opens up room for discussion. Here are Six Dramaturgical Tenets as guidelines of new play dramaturgy: 

 Tenet #1: Take your cue from the playwright; the practice of new play dramaturgy involves not only experience and analysis, but diplomacy as well. 

 Tenet #2: Avoid irrevocable mistakes. Dramaturgical collaboration requires trust; when that trust is compromised, it’s not easy to recover. Generally, it’s wise to consider the playwright as the indisputable authority on the text. Your questions and their answers begin the dialectic that is the dramaturgical dialogue. 

 Tenet #3: Praise is always welcome, but critical inquiries should be specific and posed as questions. 

 Tenet #4: Discussing process relieves anxiety. Playwrights need to know what’s going on at each stage of production, and knowing the director’s rehearsal schedule allows important textual questions to be addressed beforehand. 

 Tenet #5: Ask the playwrights to articulate what they want to achieve, and also what they may want to avoid in production. 

 Tenet #6: Analyze the text. Ask the playwright questions like: 
 How does the structure facilitate the progression of action? 
 Is the structure efficient? 
 Is the sequencing effective? 
 Are point of view, stimulus, disclosure, similes, and turning points clear? Or, if desired,  are they clearly indefinite rather than blurred? 

These questions can ignite exchange about the play’s unifying metaphors, themes, and ideas, and may evolve into discussions about examination of character journeys, maturity of style, event, or structure. As the directors and designers are brought into the conversation, the dramaturgical dialogue expands to become more production centered or orientated. When rehearsals begin, the dramaturgy then centers around what remains unclear, what’s irrelevant, what’s missing, and focuses on arrangement and understanding.

Each player in the creative process of dramaturgy remains uniquely their own person; however, the above outlined process, effectively serves the production, the play, and the playwright, and is more or less archetypical of production dramaturgy. 

The important thing to recognize about dramaturgy is that dramaturgical skill is demonstrated through process. Fundamental to the dramaturgical work is the confidence that research and intellectual activity inspire the making of theater. Intellectual efforts and creative process are inseparable. Dramaturgical collaboration is built on the belief that consciousness expands an artist’s tools, that understanding history and responding to context can only enrich everyone’s understanding and release surprising, unexpected ideas. 

Such collaboration reiterates as a major tool and goal of the definitions of the production process, extraordinarily consistent with growth of the theater as a current era. Dramaturgy should immerse big ideas and small tasks in a total process, and try to keep the two connected. Dramaturgy itself is about inciting change, and so replicates any creative process, which is about change, the movement from question to discovery can be affirmed in that truth. Collaborative dialogue demands a high tolerance for open spaces, advanced skills in uncertainty, a hunger for the question and a commitment to surpass what is routine

Finally, in choosing a project to produce from a dramaturgical perspective, there are galaxies of elementals that require focus if something stands a good chance of working. Is it a story that delivers to the audience what the audience came to get? Does it interface with the world that we live in a way that people are already talking about or that they want to talk about? Does it have the prospect to be current in that way? Does it have a role in it that will either give a star, or someone who will give a star performance, an opportunity to give a live performance that people will want to see? Finally, is it a manageable financial arrangement that can be made? In other words, it’s very hard to produce a play that has thirty-five people in it, or a play that has extraordinary theatrical demands, unless you can configure these elementals in a reasonable amount of time and for a reasonable amount of money, the chances of mounting a sustainable show withers on the vine. 

What makes a good dramaturgical producer? 
The quick answer is taste, energy, passion, and access to money. The one thing that many, many Black producers lack is any real dramaturgical skills; a skill, happily-- which can be learned. There are structured and emotional ways of telling a story that are not rocket science, the key is to understand when a story is going wrong and how it’s going wrong. The current difficulties and demise of black theater at this juncture is not solely the problem of lack of funding. It is the lack of process. When one individual maintains the sole, god like power, to devalue a playwright, usually, any success of that theater is mainly given to luck. In this kind of crap-shoot luck can and does usually run out. 

I’m not talking about running a theater by committee either. The discussion here is about collaboration—true collaboration—by stake holders in the entire process. This process as it were, provides an opportunity to put to the test, the old historical race consciousness; we cannot agree on a single scheme to save our own skin. To devise a strategy for producing new works that sell tickets and give theater professionals’ income is and should be the goal of the new dramaturgy. A play is a product. An artistic product, but a product nonetheless. The playwright is the designer of this product. However, it takes a whole factory of workers to make this product viable and market ready. The playwright’s script is just the first cause. What I would term a market structure is necessary for the successful promotion of this product in the marketplace which is logically, a theater. However, definitions of theater are changing. This is an important factor for consideration among other things. 

An Organizational Call 
There needs to be a national call for organization on a regional basis from the four corners of the country. Eventually spreading to other areas of the planet. We need to gather under one tent and tease out the methodology of success in this venture of theater as a community effort. Creating compelling theater that all of America wants to see. The NYC based Black Theatre Network (BTN) for example can initiate a national call for a roundtable on the issues outlined here; with theoreticians like the Molettes, Samuel Hay, James Hatch, Dr. Henry Miller and others, chairing working groups, addressing the issues for further dialogue, future planning and actions. What I’ve outline here is not an end all, be all. But rather, a mechanism if you will, to kick start a 21st century Dramaturgical Theater Movement to redress the ills of our failing institutions

Bronx, NY 
August 16, 2013

1 comment:

  1. Too bad conventional theatre is so expensive but actors and directors and playwrights gotta live. No one can work for nothing. It would be great, as you suggest, if academia took the lead in seeking out and staging new works to compliment our canon. It's less risky for them to do so as compared to most theatre companies-- especially black theatres. Maybe, as you again suggested, the fix lies with newer approaches to "staging" plays that don't rely on brick, mortar, and seats. I'd love to see a "21st Century Dramaturgical Theater Movement." Perhaps the BTN will take the initiative as you suggested. If not, for it to succeed, black "influencers" will have to take up the challenge. But where to start? Who to ask? Oprah? Michelle?... Owa?