Tag Archives: Harold Clurman

All for One and One for All

?????????????????by Todd London

I take my title from that great triumvirate of American philosophers: Moe, Larry, and Curly, known in poststructuralist circles as Les Trois Stooges. With unerring precision they captured the complicated essence of American life—and by extension American theatrical life—in their expert revision of the motto of Alexandre Dumas’ three Musketeers: “One for all and all for one.” To which the incisive Curly added, “And every man for himself.” Yes that’s my subject, the one and the all, for each other and for themselves.

I’m not sure how to talk about my subject, in part because I don’t know what language to use. I’ve lost track of the language of our art. After seventeen years of running a nonprofit, it’s been replaced by the lingo of strategic planning and program assessment. It’s been trumped by meaning-deplete, market-aping clichés of our professional shoptalk—branding, innovation, entrepreneurial—and by the hollow repetitions of grant-speak that have sucked the specificity out of such essentials as, “community,” “vision,” “values.”

Somewhere, maybe, lives a root language of theater for us to speak with one another. Somewhere, maybe, is a tongue with words for what we do, how it lands on the human spirit, how we share space and time, story, myth, intention, and feeling. Somewhere there’s an idiom of our being together—a dialect of presence. I wish we could pledge allegiance to an ever-new coinage: the shaky, groping, overheated, imprecise, exuberant, vulnerable, earnest diction of mid-discovery.

Living theatre

The Living Theatre, NYC.

One phrase kept surfacing, as I prepared to write this. It’s from Julian Beck, who, as you may know, back in 1947, founded, with his wife Judith Malina, the still-living Living Theatre. Beck’s meditations read like rabbinical fire: fervent, philosophical, ecstatic. They burn for a truer theater and, more importantly, a better world. Amidst the flames, there’s an almost throwaway statement; its simplicity has haunted me. 1962. New York City. Beck writes to himself: “I do not like the Broadway theater, because it does not know how to say hello.”

Fifty years have passed since he wrote those words, sixty-six since the Becks started their theater. The American theater has in that time exploded—Off Broadway, Off-Off, regional theater, alternative regional theater, community-based theater. The Living Theater’s experiments in poetry, politics, company, global activism have, likewise, exploded, and even those whose sole image of the Becks has them naked and chanting in the streets or against a massive, backlit scaffold demanding “Paradise Now” are, in some way, heirs to their experiments and ameliorative ambitions. We are all, I wish to believe, enemies of the kind of falseness Beck finds on Broadway, where, he claims,

The tone of voice is false, the mannerisms are false, the sex is false, ideal, the Hollywood world of perfection, the clean image, the well pressed clothes; the well scrubbed anus, odorless, inhuman, of the Hollywood actor, the Broadway star. And the terrible false dirt of Broadway, the lower depths in which the dirt is imitated, inaccurate.

I want to know how to say hello. I want our artists to know. Maybe that’s why I can’t get the phrase out of my head, why I repeat it to you today. I want to greet you from the deepest part of me and hear from the deepest in you. I want nothing less from our theater. I want theaters to feel like rooms. I want what passes in them to engender intimacy, even if the performances are wild, flamboyant, artificial things. I want to speak in your ear and have you speak in mine. I want performance that feels like revelation. I want to be in it—whatever it may be—together. I want to know how to say hello.

Specifically, I long for a language of individual distinction. Somewhere in the decline of critical attention, the rise of celebrity, and the homogenization of production, we’ve lost the knack for celebrating the specificities of talent. What makes one artist distinct from another? What are the unique gifts of this writer, that director, each actor? How can we point the way to those singularities in words—the way one writes or plays or moves from what one is, from the fullness of the available self? What is the “I” from whence the individual speaks to us, the something that novelist Marilynne Robinson calls “incandescence,” “that presence, shaped around ‘I’ like a flame on a wick, emanating itself….” How does what we receive from the world get translated through the artist’s unique perspective and imagination and, once translated, how does it, to use her great phrase, emanate itself? If art is, as a painter once said, “nature as seen through a temperament,” how can we, as collaborators, teachers, co-citizens, nourish artistic temperament and celebrate it?

Harold Clurman

Harold Clurman

According to the voluble Harold Clurman, who talked into being the seminal Group Theatre of the 1930s, it’s only in the company of others that the individual can reach full flower. Clurman writes of the Group: “We believe that the individual can achieve his fullest stature only through the identification of his own good with the good of his group, a group which he must help to create.” Is this true: the individual reaches fullest stature only by tying his own good to that of the group? Doesn’t the individual gain stature from the spotlight, from having us stare at him until, in our eyes, he grows huge, even mythic?

This is really what I want to address here: the individual and the group, the “I” and the “we” of the theater. How we fulfill ourselves. How we greet one another, treat one another. How hard it is to reconcile one and all. My themes are lifted from Clurman: The individual. Fullest stature. Identification of personal good with group good. The group each must help create.

How do we reconcile these separate excitements, these seemingly distinct realms: the independent, maybe even solitary creator—or actor, director, designer—and the genius of the group? It’s a tough one. I spend my days advocating and making space for independent artists, even as I long for company. Artistic freedom and individual voice on one side, inspiring collaboration and common good on the other. The struggle to reconcile the ambitions of “I” and “we” has plagued the American theater for a hundred years. This tension between individual and group is, I believe, a defining challenge of our theater, probably our culture. All for one and one for all or every man for himself? The Three Stooges agree.

The fusion of individual talent and collective energy fuels great theater. It has always been so. The history of dramatic literature is inseparable from the history of the acting company: Shakespeare and the King’s Men, the Troupe de Molière, Sheridan’s Drury Lane, Chekhov and the Moscow Art Theatre, Brecht, Churchill, Walcott, Fugard—and on and on—fresh theatrical language forged where playwrights and players adventure together.

group grid

There are two ways, history also tells us, to sustain a theater in the United States: the first way is to institutionalize, to establish an organization that is viewed as essential to the community or place in which it grows, and to maintain that entity, even beyond the career-span of the people who initially give it life. The second way to sustain a theater here, the harder way, is to balance the evolving needs of the individual artist—voice and ambition—with the evolving group genius, to balance the needs of self-determination and those of the common good. This is the harder way.

In institutional life, human beings are for the most part replaceable; they serve, necessarily and rightly, institutional identity. In company or group culture, each member must be reckoned with, must be given their lead. Care and feeding, of individual and company, goes both ways. If this second approach—that which holds the individual and the group in equitable esteem—were easy, the history of our theater wouldn’t be strewn with the corpses of ensembles and company-founded theaters.

“A group which he must help to create”—that was Clurman’s dictum. And that should be the test. Not whether someone—actor, playwright, business manager—was present at the founding, but is that someone, in a daily way, in a true way helping to create the group. Does she have a voice? Is he present in his fullest stature?

I love Mark Valdez’s formulation: “The process yields the aesthetics.” The way we make work is not merely as important as what we make. It is what we make. You can see it—with individual artists, as in the work of the vital companies populating our current seen/unseen landscape. Process reveals itself through result. Improvised art feels improvised, shared creation feels cooperative, the monastic project emanates its own fanatical purity, aristocratic creation feels refined, and democratic art feels welcoming. The way we say hello carries who we are.

Todd-London_magnumTodd London is the author of The Artistic Home (Theatre Communications Group), Outrageous Fortune: The Life & Times of the New American Play, (with Ben Pesner, Theatre Development Fund), and a novel The World’s Room (Steerforth Press), among others. In 2009 he became the first recipient of TCG’s Visionary Leadership Award for an individual who has gone above and beyond the call of duty to advance the theater field as a whole. He has been the artistic director of New Dramatists since 1996 and, in 2001, he accepted a special Tony Honor on behalf of that long-lived, groundbreaking laboratory for playwrights. Todd also received the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism for his essays in American Theatre magazine.

Theatre: The Gift of Transcendance, Not Transactions

Polly Carl

by Polly Carl

We come to painting, to poetry, to the stage, hoping to revive the soul. And any artist whose work touches us earns our gratitude.  – Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World.

For months my life has been overwhelmed by a series of mundane transactions of various complexity usually costing me buckets of money. If we let it, life will drown us in transactions. The life of transactions is not a satisfying way to live. I prefer transcendence over transaction. Which is why I have chosen to work in the theater—for those moments in the rehearsal room that lead to something revelatory, something glorious or more than anything I could accomplish on my own. No money is exchanged, and in the very best moments transcendence feels within reach.

Money Trumps Love

During my fifteen years of making new plays, I’ve watched our field become more obsessed with the transactional and less obsessed with making good art. If I’m here for no other reason today, it’s to push you as artists and people who love the theater to rethink this momentum.

From the transcendent to the ugly. I was working on a play I was wildly passionate about, one that I wanted to see produced—a play that I believed to be sublime, transcendent, my reason for getting up in the morning these last fifteen years. There were a million issues surrounding this play, as there always are about every play. Multiple producers were interested in producing it, multiple agents were involved in figuring the rights and the royalties and the production path. This is typical. The further the play developed, the more clear the possibility that we had a “hit” on our hands. Because I work in the not-for-profit theater, always in a role that is advocating for the artists and the work, I didn’t have any financial stake in the play. I just loved it. I loved the characters, the language, the story—it was the best of what is possible in the theater, the best of what is possible in my work. I sat in rehearsals and listened and gave hardly any notes and got a little weepy from time to time and talked to the playwright and the director and colleagues. I was so in love with this process. But as the stakes were raised—the money, the players—I could see things beginning to unravel. I became privy to lies and deceit and I became obsessed with saving the integrity of the process that I had been charged to help oversee. We all say we are in it for higher purposes, but even in the theater, money trumps soul, and destroys love. I called one of the agents who was spreading particularly heinous lies (and let me clarify he wasn’t the only one lying, the lies were abundant from all camps). I was calm, trying to clarify the truth, intent on protecting what I thought were the interests of the writers. He actually said to me, “Who do you think you are calling me? I don’t give a rat’s ass about you and your version of the truth. For all I care you could die and it wouldn’t matter to me or this play.”

I walked back to the apartment where I was staying. I got a haircut along the way. I took a shower. I threw away the clothes I was wearing. I bought a new traveling hat. I thought about getting a new tattoo. I moved my flight to leave a day early, and went home. I walked away from that project for good and I walked away from making theater under those conditions.

I didn’t say I wasn’t dramatic.

Gathering Inspiration

In exploring the roots of the righteousness that informs my sense of theater making, I think it’s important for me to share some of the values that have shaped my thinking—to make sense of why an agent wishing my death doesn’t align with what I seek in my career. It’s important to note here, that it’s easier to walk away from something when you know what that something is. I’ve been very lucky, and yes, I mean lucky to have worked at the top of this field, with some of the best companies and best theater makers in the country. I’ve also spent significant time working with small companies, young artists, the uncertain, and the unknown. And I’ve learned, and perhaps it’s my failing, that I’m unwilling to make theater at all costs, and at the expense of basic human kindness and courtesy.

My instincts about where the arts live in relationship to culture come from my childhood. Art saved me. It gave me hope and purpose. I grew up in a family of very little financial and consequently cultural means in Elkhart, Indiana. These are the specific things that saved me; the handful of books my parents had on hand in the house that included a very old edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and the full collection of the Hardy Boys series and the Little House on the Prairie boxed set, plus National Geographics that my grandparents gave us when they finished reading them. The Public Library saved me. By the time I entered high school I had read every novel Charles Dickens had written, all of the Lord of the Rings, Anna Karenina, The Grapes of Wrath—well you get the gist. My public library card was my ticket from there to here. I did not attend theater in high school except for our high school productions. We not only couldn’t afford to attend theater, but cultural engagement wasn’t something of value in my family, economic survival was always front and center.

Zelda Fichandler

When I came to the theater, and I should specify, to the not-for-profit theater, I was instantly moved by what I began to read of its history. The vision of our founders expressed perfectly why theater and the arts in general mattered to me. Listen to these words from a recent address given by Zelda Fichandler, the founding artistic director of Arena Stage in DC:

What drew us to the way we went? What was the vision, the inciting incident? Actually, there was no incident, no high drama, there was simply a change of thought, a new way of looking at things, a tilt of the head, a revolution in our perception. We looked at what we had – the hit-or-miss; put-it-up, tear-it-down; make-a-buck, lose-a-buck; discontinuous; artist-indifferent; New York-centered ways of Broadway, and they weren’t tolerable anymore, and it made us angry. We thought there had to be a better way, and we made that up out of what was lying around ungathered and, standing on the shoulders of earlier efforts in America and examples common in other countries, we went forward, some of us starting small, some like the Guthrie, big.

The fabric of the thought that propelled us was that theatre should stop serving the function of making money, for which it has never been and never will be suited, and start serving the revelation and shaping of the process of living, for which it is uniquely suited, for which it, indeed, exists. The new thought was that theatre should be restored to itself as a form of art.

Yes! The idea that theater should “start serving the revelation and shaping the process of living”—I say again yes! The idea that artists wanted to build a life, not a hit-or-miss, from this moment to that moment, career in theater. These are the ideas and values I can commit to. The not-for-profit theater was about merging art and life. The ideas of our founders were so bold, so aspirational. And the dream was not a dream of selling tickets and making money. Nobody left New York to get rich. They left New York to seek meaning and build a life around what they loved most.

Zelda again:

Once we made the choice to produce our plays, not recoup an investment but to recoup some corner of the universe for our understanding and enlargement, we entered the same world as the university, the museum, the church and became like them, an instrument of civilization.

Going to Church

In restoring theater to itself, as Zelda implores, we must find ways to distinguish the parts of it that live in the market and the parts that belong to all of us.

Lewis Hyde

Lewis Hyde, again from his book, The Gift, differentiates the church, or the university, or the museum, from the market:

It is the cardinal difference between gift and commodity exchange that a gift establishes a feeling-bond between two people, while the sale of the commodity leaves no necessary connection.

Harold Clurman in his book, The Fervent Years, about the formation of the Group Theatre puts it in terms of our relationship with our audience:

When the audience feels it is really at one with the theatre, when audience and theatre-people can feel they are both the answer to one another, and that both may act as leaders to one another, there we have the Theatre in the truest form. To create such a theatre is our real purpose. (p.72)

Fichandler, Hyde, and Clurman give me clarity. They help me understand why the transactions that got us here today: filling up the tank, buying a cup of coffee, paying our bills, may have proved satisfying but they weren’t our reason for getting up this morning. We got up this morning because we believe in the bond of community, the bond that we form with our collaborators and the bond that is our communion with each other and with the audience. Continue reading