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 After seventeen years of running a nonprofit, it’s been replaced by the lingo of strategic planning and program assessment.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.
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?
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.
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 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.