Sunday, March 1, 2009

A bad time for arts...

...a good time for entertainment.

This morning's New York Times carried a story about a resurgence in moviegoing. With the economy so lackluster, people apparently are looking for the cheapest route to forget their problems for awhile, and a couple hours in a moviehouse eases the mind without inflicting extensive financial pain. (It didn't break it down to this level, but my guess is there's also an increase in matinee/discount hour attendance.)

So that's good for folks who work in the movies (if their production companies can actually get financing with credit in the dumper), nor is it surprising: people have long turned to the movies when the world goes to hell. The Great Depression may not have been the best time for the arts, but it did give us screwball comedies, some of which are now classics. Nor is it surprising that attendance is up for lighter fare and down for serious films (or at least films tackling serious subjects). When everything seems to megasuck, it's hard to crank yourself up for a couple hours of war, famine, plague, and over varieties of suffering. People don't want to be reminded that they are mortal in a world rife with injustice; they want to fall in love, laugh, and, if they're Americans, see things blow up.

But it's further grim news for those of us who can't forget war, famine, etc., and hence reflect it in our art. As the author of two very tough-minded plays about war (and another two in progress), it's sobering to see them bounced on nearly a weekly basis, despite good reviews and strong production histories (re: "Waiting on Sean Flynn" and "Liberation"; "Next of Kin" is still in the rewrite stage and not yet on the market, and "Depth of Field" is mired down in a structural writer's block, though I trust George Montgomery, my war photographer protagonist and a character I'm intensely fond of, will one day prowl the stage).

Even I'm feeling it. Though I don't imagine I'll ever be accused of writing fluff--it's just not in my nature nor, honestly, my range of talents...it's dark (but busy) in here, folks--I feel the fabulist side of my work calling. I've kind of bounced back and forth between gritty stuff about war and politics, and more surreal, dreamlike work, and of late, the dreamlike stuff has been drawing me. It still tends to be kind of heavy, but there's usually a good deal of humor (attempted at least), and the goal is less about exploring the depths of human cruelty and more about playing with the underpinnings of psychology, the relationship between perception and the doings of the unconscious psyche, and the strangeness that grows from their intersection. As Hunter S. Thompson famously wrote: "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro." I've also been playing with taking "genres"--such as the noir detective world--and twisting it around with magical realism. Less Michael Herr, more Phillip K. Dick.

It's not going to make a difference for awhile, I suspect. When your subscriber base is shrinking, grants are evaporating, arts budgets are being cut, ticket sales are down, and corporate and private donations are shrinking, theatres tend toward the familiar over the new, relying on plays with established track records or, if they're doing new plays, choosing playwrights with established names. (I guess I'm an established name at this point, but I have a very short reach.) It's not just Portland; I'm hearing this everywhere. Right now it's more important to keep the patient breathing than happy.

But, as recessions don't last forever, neither do periods of contraction in the arts. Inevitably, people tire of hap-hap-happy formulas or variations on favorite themes and want something that'll challenge them. And, as we enter--for good or ill--a time of dynamic change, I think audiences will eventually need work that helps them understand a chaotic world rather than merely assures them that the world will continue for another day. For me personally, that probably means a fallow period for productions (or productions on smaller scales), but the relationship between writing and production is cyclical as well. When you're not getting produced, you write to make up for the bum news; so I'm actually experiencing a creative upsurge, where I have so much stuff written in notebooks that I haven't even had time to type it up, much less revise, workshop, and submit it. Those kinds of periods don't last forever, either: you have ride them while you can. In short, I'm doing a lot of writing. And having fun with it because I'm relatively free to write whatever the hell I want. Freedom sometimes really is a word for nothing left to lose.

To my artist friends, especially those who don't live or die by performance, I say: work, damn it. Survive, have fun, and lose yourself in the creative process; so that when things turn up, you'll have fresh new plays and photographs and paintings and poems and songs to introduce to a world starved for the new. And for my performer friends, I guess this is a time to work on your chops, cherish and reconnect with your friends, and find solace in small projects. It's not fun. It's scary. And it's going to be hard to keep the faith. But like the good times, the bad ones don't last forever.

They just feel like they do.

4 comments:

MattyZ said...

Nice post, Steve. And I think artists must stay true to their voices - whether its in vogue or not. It is the honest voice - the one that rings true - the one that fits the skin of its owner - it is that voice that eventualy rises and reveals itself as great art. But that voice may indeed be poor for a good time to come... :)

Harold Phillips said...

Very well thought post, Steve... a good assessment of the current market.

I do have to wonder, though, at the inherent dichotomy in your post between "entertainment" and "art." Leaving aside the fact that people are headed to the multiplex instead of the playhouse (which, to me, indicates a desire on the public's part that the Playhouse should work to tap), look at what the top movies of last weekend were:

1 - Tyler Perry's Madea Goes to Jail (yes, a man in drag and broad humor - but is there art in the themes expressed to the audience?)

2 - Jonas Brothers: The 3D Concert Experience (Well... we won't go into that)

3 - Slumdog Millionaire (A love-story told through non-traditional, non-linear narrative, with Indian influence. Not art?)

4 - Taken (An action movie, to be sure... but Liam Neeson said something very interesting about how well the movie's doing: http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/2188813/posts

(And yes, numbers 5-10 are pretty much light entertainment, with the exception of Corraline which is, at least, a visual artistic feast).

I don't reject what you say about holding fast, doing the work, and waiting for the next pendulum swing. I think that's the right way to play this down period we're in. I would say, though, that an uptic in movie ticket sales doesn't necessarily mean that the public's appetite for "art" has gone away. We may just need to be more creative in the way we use art to tell stories to them, and how we market that art to fit in with their current mood. In that way, this period isn't like any other.

splattworks said...

Two words: "Mall Cop."

Harold Phillips said...

Hey, I haven't seen it... the film makers and Kevin James could be suckering the audience into a deep, Neitsche-infused examination of a man caught in the jaws of loneliness and dispair.

Probably not... but it COULD happen... really!