Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Monday, August 02, 2004


Last night I said that a director is almost always worse than no director. So negative! I’m not into negative. (I’m way into negative; I just find it distasteful when I see it lodged unnecessarily in my soul’s mirror.)

To make the case positively: theater is much more like chamber music than like orchestral. Chamber music doesn’t need a conductor, because the musical instruments are few enough that everybody can hear what’s going on. (And the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra has been making symphony orchestra music without a conductor for more than 30 years.) Almost all theater is made with a small number of actors on the stage. People who know the theater don’t need a weatherman to tell them where to put the fan for the storm scene.

That wasn’t the positive case, that was the analogical case.

Here’s the positive case. Most actors know what they’re doing. When they have control over and complete responsibility for their interpretations, they are sure to be committed. Any actor worth her salt is going to be committed to her interpretation anyway, in any but the most dire of directorial circumstances. When there is no director, though, the actor can invest herself in the entirety of the production, giving notes to other actors, contributing to the set and costume and sound design, anything and everything. From my limited experience (half dozen shows acting with a director in college; about a dozen shows acting and/or playing music with the director-less Theater Oobleck), having no director led to more exciting, more committed productions. After I stopped working with Oobleck, their productions, when I saw them, still stand among the best-directed shows I’ve seen.

Oobleck members take turns serving as the “outside eye,” watching rehearsals and commenting, and friends not in the shows would serve as well. Similarly, Orpheus members take turns serving as “outside ear” (not their term for it), “taking turns listening from the auditorium for balance, blend, articulation, dynamic range and clarity of expression.” Working with Oobleck was much more like being in a band than singing in a choir.

The negative case still stands: It’s hard for me to see the benefit that most directors bring to a production.


My friend the filmmaker Ross Lipman, who wrote two plays that I acted in way back when, and for one of whose experimental films I made a collage soundtrack, slightly less long ago, wrote to disagree with my assessment last night that the Free Shakespeare Company’s years-ago directorless rehearsal-less production of “The Taming of the Shrew” benefitted from not having been burdened by a director’s “concept”:

“hey yo !  telling the actors to do their own thing w/ no rehearsal or costume coordination or meetings etc. & just show up is a concept!  they just used a producer/actor's concept & not a director's in that case.  glad it worked!  i love the ensemble-creation of jazz et al & although the works emerging from director-based creative modes may have different characteristics than ensemble-based as a result of that methodology, they're no worse inherently..  it all depends on the creators, the project, & the wind that day..

my two cents.”

JOHN REPLIES: Yes, telling people just to show up without rehearsal is a concept -- it imposes a loose, multi-stylistic interpretation on the text. I happen to like that, maybe especially with Shakespeare, for whom just putting the words and the story across is accomplishment and engrossing enough. (One of my favorite things about one of my favorite movies, “Gold Diggers of 1933,” is the clash of acting styles between exaggerated vaudevillians and gum-cracking wise gals.) I also agree on the question of directors. The question is, to paraphrase Glennda the Good Witch of the North, “Are you a good director, or a bad director?” Now, I’m no Dorothy Gale, and I’m not going to reply, “Good director! I didn’t know there was such a thing as a good director!” Though part of me, obviously, really really wants to. But only for rhetorical purposes. Thanks for writing!


Last Friday I listed experiences which I feel have made me a better human being. Thinking more about that, I realize I have no way of knowing. Every experience goes into who I am. I am inclined to agree with Nietzche that even disastrous experiences have probably made positive contributions to my current humanity. I lack his strength of character to actually treasure those disasters, so I listed some experiences I treasure. I realized after posting that I forgot my friends, except that most of my closest friends are either current bandmates, former bandmates, or former theatermates. I also forgot to mention dancing and jokes. And a bunch of other things -- the list goes on. Emily Dickinson’s poems, Rilke’s, Robert Duncan’s, Gertrude Stein’s, Alice Notley’s, David Antin’s; love poetry of Sappho, ancient India, Robert Herrick, Tin Pan Alley; . . .


On Sunday, July 11, I wrote about “Modernism, Originality, Distinctiveness.” My friend the writer and actor Mickle Maher (in one of whose plays I acted in, way back when, and who acted in one of mine) wrote in with these quotes:

“Hey John, while reading your posts on modernism and innovation, by chance I came across this thing from T.S. Eliot (in an essay about Tennyson):

“’...innovation in metric is not to be measured solely by the width of the deviation from accepted practice. It is a matter of the historical situation: at some moments a more violent change may be necessary than at others. The problem differs at every period. At some times, a violent revolution may be neither possible nor desirable; at such times, a change which may appear very slight, is the change which the important poet will make. The innovation of Pope, after Dryden, may not seem very great; but it is the mark of the master to be able to make small changes which will be highly significant, as at another time to make radical changes, through which poetry will curve back again to its norm.’

“Not sure what he thinks poetry's ‘norm’ is, and I wish he'd elaborate on what was significant about Pope's small changes to Dryden's form, but it's an interesting take: the fever for innovation rises and falls. I guess that I've always thought (without really thinking much) of it as kind of steadily increasing, like populations and industry.

“Also reminded of something Robert Lowell said (in his introduction to Ariel): ‘Oh for that heaven of the humble copyist, those millennia of Egyptian artists repeating their lofty set patterns!’”

JOHN REPLIES: Thanks for the interesting quotes! Though I suspect Robert Lowell of bad faith -- it seems he could have found equivalent work to that of the Egyptian artists had he really wanted. Like maybe a colorist for comic books or animated films. Or a symphony violinist.


On Wednesday, July 14, I posted twice about a discussion among classical music and theater bloggers about elitism and transcendence in the arts. I see now that I wasn’t completely fair to one of the bloggers I criticized. A. C. Douglas, the unabashed elitist, wasn’t, in his posts, necessarily saying that old popular arts aren’t classical. What he did say was that classical music has the possibility of subsuming all other musical experiences, which is absurd, and that what distinguishes classical music from other music is its inherent aspiration to transcendence, which is a matter of faith. My own view -- or faith -- is that an aspiration to transcendence inheres in almost all artworks, even a sitcom episode, even a Celine Dion song, even a Thomas Kinkade painting.

GEORGE HUNKA, whom I also rather snarkily criticized, and who has a very different understanding of transcendence than mine, wrote me a nice e-mail in response to a note I sent him:

“Dear John,

“I can't speak for ACD, but you're right in concluding that my own attitude towards artistic experience is that aesthetic transcendence is achieved via the act of contemplating the will through the artistic object. ‘Mr. Hunkas Schopenhaurean will-lessness might be readily found at a rave’? I can't go there, sorry. There's a difference between the willful urge to oblivion via physical activity and the willful denial of physical experience, the attempt to renounce the phenomental world. Feeding our appetites and desires for physical sensation to satiety and beyond is no Stairway to Heaven, regardless of what Led Zep says. One seeks to deny desire and appetite, not to appease it, in the artistic experience as defined by Schopenhauer.

“This isn't to say that art is the only way to this experience either. Schopenhauer also saw transcendence as possible through the religious avenue and (that dirty-minded 19th century German) through sex. Mind you, there's a difference between sex and mere physiobiological rutting. It's always good to bear that in mind.”

JOHN REPLIES: I don’t know whether I’ll have to read a lot more Schopenhauer, dance a lot more, or have a lot more sex before I’ll understand why he distinguishes between physical satiety through dancing and physical satiety through sex, but I’ll consider all three alternatives. I’ve never read much Schopenhauer, though I think of one of his lines whenever I come across the crypto-creationists who call their version of anti-evolutionism “Intelligent Design.” I don’t remember the exact words, but it’s something to the effect that, “If God made the world with human happiness in mind, He sure made a horrible botch of it.”

As for transcendence, my understanding is Homeric polytheism, not Schopenhauerean will-lessness. Art aspires to making the god(s) appear. Often the gods appear in human beings, temporarily. In the Iliad, the god “stands with” whom he or she favors, and that person is inspired, often unknowingly, by the god’s presence. That’s what I’m looking for, that’s what I crave.

In any case, thank you, George, for your thoughtful response and blog.

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