On the Fringe with George
To his friend Brian Aherne, the depressive cad actor George Sanders wrote:
December 31st, 1937
I was very happy to receive your angry letter, and I am glad I shook you up a bit. Ask yourself this question: If money (greed); loyalty to theatrical tradition (pernicious exhibitionism); rigid conformity to social convention (masochism), are incompatible with personal happiness—which should be sacrificed?
You talk about the theatre as if it had some cosmic significance. As a matter of fact it is pathetically sublunary; a drab and dusty monument to man’s inability to find within himself the resources of his own entertainment. It is usually rather fittingly housed in a dirty old building, whose crumbling walls occasionally resound with perfunctory applause, invariably interpreted by the actor as praise. A sad place, draughty and smelly when empty, hot and sick when full.
I wonder which is the sickest, the audience which seeks to escape its miseries by being transported into a land of make-believe, or the actor who is nurtured in his struggle for personal aggrandisement by the sickness of the audience.
I think perhaps it is the actor, strutting and orating away his youth and his health, alienated from reality, disingenuous in his relationships, a muddle-headed peacock forever chasing after the rainbow of his pathetic narcissism.
My love and best wishes for a happy New Year.
And yet Sanders didn’t bother to kill himself for another thirty years. Hope springs, if not eternal, at least until 1972.
I am a depressive cad theater critic. That’s my brand; it owes much to Sanders’ Addison DeWitt, but allowances may be made for mental cases. Like other victims of circumstance, we who are clinically depressed deserve a voice.
My viewing schedule, July 1-4, 2016: ten movies, streamed onto a large television screen.
My girlfriend and I get to see plays and musicals for free in any city in the country, but we stay home for the same reasons you do. It’s easier to curate from Netflix and iTunes than to vet one issue play at a time. That, and most theater sucks.
I spent a decade and a half in the theater and then the last five years writing up an analysis of every show I see. I’ve tried to pay attention. I’m among the top 5% of theater attendees in the nation; I’m a good deal better educated now than when I graduated art school. And I’m pretty sure that most theater is badly executed art, reinforcing the biases of a narrow-minded audience.
Go out for that? I’ve already got a TV.
I will go far for a sure thing. This summer I drove 230 miles to see a Matt Morgan cabaret and drove 230 miles home that night, and very happily so. I recently saw a middle-school talent show that had me on tenterhooks from the first missed lighting cue to the last 8th grader’s solo interpretive dance; it was glorious, edge-of-your-seat theater.
But most live entertainment makes me wish I’d stayed home and watched Dreamcatcher, a screamingly inept thirteen-year-old Lawrence Kasdan science fiction movie. I’m glad that this Friday I watched that for the third time instead of seeing another new play like last month’s District Merchants, a highly-praised half-baked mess by a huge talent named Aaron Posner.
I have to care about Posner because he is relevant, partly due to his broad popularity in a narrow field, partly due to his excellence. He has done great work. But Kasdan? If I “cared” about Kasdan-written J.J. Abrams versions of Star Wars movies, my taste would disqualify my judgment. Kasdan has value only in that perfectly awful art is tangentially instructive.
The success of shows like District Merchants is discouraging to me. Maybe I am too sensitive. Seeing the embrace of unworthy elements kills my faith in a tolerable future. And so say all old men, worrying what will happen behind our buried backs. It’s one reason I pushed for Bitter Lemons to stop focusing solely on theater, and open up to writing on other arts.
Like any citizen, I still curate the culture – a vote for Dreamcatcher is a vote against everything else, but it’s not a manifesto. I keep going to live theater. I applaud or throw fruit and I write it up it as if it matters. I just don’t try anymore to see five or ten shows a month.
It’s too goddamn sad.
But why? Is it just because I’m crazy?
For about fifty years, most American theater has been produced on a nonprofit basis. Most of the good stuff is in this category. But a corollary decline in quality control, coincident with an admirable rise in inclusivity, has had an intended consequence of narrowing the discourse. Those called Oppressor have less of a voice now. And more theater sucks than ever, in a very particular way.
I think George Sanders would have sniffed a dichotomy in that apotheosis of inclusivity, the popular trend of uncurated theater festivals. First they democratize art, letting the weak jostle under one banner with the strong. Then they close ranks in a euphoric insularity. An arts festival can be much like a political rally, only with a lot more politics. The politics are painstakingly liberal and therefore very narrow, since within a single-minded environment it is easy to call out the infidel. Every voice is celebrated but those that would deny anyone’s voice – by, say, writing a negative review.
In 2015 I was paid to investigate the Hollywood Fringe Festival for both Bitter Lemons and American Theatre magazine. I interviewed dozens of participants and reviewed dozens of plays. The HFF had for years used Bitter Lemons as a media partner: Its participants paid us to advertise their shows at the Fringe. Not only did the HFF sell Bitter Lemons this unwieldy blog template (a beta of their old one), in 2015 they helped us market our new and controversial theater reviews to Fringe producers. Thus, our partner’s clients paid us to review them, and therefore our partner, to everyone’s public relations benefit. All we had to do was stay honest.
Interestingly, Fringe didn’t seem to incur the backlash we did. They played host to art while we preyed on artists, was the thread of one argument. But that is by the way.
Bitter Lemons’ largely negative reviews of shows at the 2015 Fringe (and the 2016) are public record, except inasmuch as this old HFF template dumps archives into an unnavigable dungeon. Simply put, we saw a number of little shows we wouldn’t otherwise have seen, most of which received no other press coverage, and we wrote them up. Mostly we panned them.
I was still optimistic, though most of the Fringe shows that paid me to see them were – like those I’d seen at previous Fringes – incompetent. There were extremely good ones, but most were amateur-hour schlock lacking skill, lacking talent, lacking diligence, lacking foresight, lacking self-awareness most of all, all of which is to be expected at an uncurated festival.
An uncurated festival does not tell you whether you’re worthy. That’s the point. It takes your money (not very much of it) and says “Go get ‘em, Tiger.” In this sense an uncurated fringe is somewhat like the 99 seat theater scene in Los Angeles, which at minimal risk puts up the shows it wants to put up. This surely is a good way of making art. I think so, though I was given pause by a product of L.A.’s embattled 99 seat art, loose in the wilds of Maryland. It was hard to look at this small-theater success story, a show that’s gone around the world earning union contracts for dozens of actors, and not feel a little responsible for the escape from containment of a play typifying the worst excesses of an uncurated artscape. (I have made some small cries against a labor union’s efforts to crush this kind of show – but that, too, is by the way.)
As an uncurated festival, the Hollywood Fringe prides itself on that important and popular standard of inclusivity. Nobody is turned away as long as they’ve got the entrance fee, because the HFF is about bringing people together. That’s the Bitter Lemons catch-phrase, too, incidentally. Everyone is welcome. Fringe is one of a growing number of institutions that treat theater as a safe space for people outside social norms, and by extension (one imagines) for their ideas.
That’s the theory. That’s the banner.
-rigid conformity (masochism)-
I was a little surprised when, in the first week of its 7th season this June, the Hollywood Fringe Festival took less than 24 hours to sever ties with Bitter Lemons over an editorial. After years of symbiotic growth and solidarity in making small voices heard, Fringe dumped its longtime friend and business partner, the editor of this website. This site got scared and dumped him as well.
Fifty years ago, Lyndon Johnson illustrated a rubric on how to win an election. The first step is to spread the rumor that your opponent fucks pigs. The second is to hear your opponent say, “I don’t fuck pigs.” The third is to assume office.
The editor of this website declined to delineate whether he fucked pigs; still, I was again a little surprised at the immediacy with which open, inclusive theater people shut down a conversation they wanted to pretend was over before it had begun. For his social criticism, my editor was accused of being a party to crime. He was attacked for his race, for his age, and for his sexual orientation. Some speculated that he might be a child molester. All this, too, is public record.
The Hollywood Fringe Festival’s commitment to an open, inclusive safe space ended abruptly in June of this year for the reason that Bitter Lemons fucked pigs. Forty or fifty angry comments said so, right under our editorial. And Fringe couldn’t align itself with accused pig-fuckers.
Another thing the Hollywood Fringe Festival could not do was to embrace its partner’s voice at an open, inclusive celebration of diversity, like a theater festival. Because Fringe is only open to the voices that help Fringe make art, or money; one. Instead, Fringe announced not only that it wouldn’t stand by Bitter Lemons, but also that it did stand by victims of abuse. Abuse of what kind was, wisely, kept inexplicit.
Of course, Fringe couldn’t wave its banner of inclusivity anymore. That’s not entirely accurate: It waved the banner all June long. It just couldn’t keep its promise. Theater wasn’t a safe enough space to stage certain ideas. Which is a remarkable development only if you haven’t, like George Sanders, had your doubts about the whole medium.
Fringe’s two-faced morality should not have surprised me, given the universal applause for art and ideas I find damaging to the form and to the culture. Theater companies generally, and uncurated festivals in particular, continue to produce and disseminate propaganda as art, unconsidered memoir as art, feel-good pacifier as art. This is partly due to a culture with zero tolerance for curation. To tell an artist he’s a) wrongheaded or b) incapable is now to fuck a pig, unless you can cast him as an oppressor. Which is what I’m doing.
In this environment of fiercely enforced diversity, the color of your skin determines your castability now as much as it ever did. The hottest ticket in the nation makes a virtue of the fact. Hamilton intends well; it is certain that, in only casting people of color, it is on the right side of political history. And so, just like the everyone’s-welcome-but-able-bodied-straight-white-men Jubilee festival, it is almost universally praised for a gesture of exclusivity. To say otherwise might cost your credibility, or your job.
As mentally imbalanced as I am, I’ve managed never to argue for the shutting-down of a play, except when the physical safety of its cast or crew was in question. But a press rep or two has tried to shut me down for intimating that he repped bad work. Never have I asked that a cast or crew member be fired, but many’s the director or actor who has asked my employers to fire me.
Because in our ungentle lurch toward progress, we find ourselves in a backwash of unreason. As Arthur Miller put it, “the little crazy children are jangling the keys of the kingdom, and common vengeance writes the law.” Roxie Hart adds, “That’s show biz, kid.”
Whenever the common good can be swayed by comment-section cranks, I’ll happily fuck a pig like the Hollywood Fringe Festival. For its cowardice in the face of, really, not very much opposition; for its disloyalty, in the ascendant, to the best friend it had as an upstart; for its hypocrisy, wrapping itself in a comforting lie: fuck it.
Where dialogue is guillotined, art dies. Political theater is not art, but if that’s the theater you want, you’ve got plenty. I am glad to have other interests, other dreams. And many other theaters to attend.
my podcast, Jason and Todd Talk through Lousy Films