Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Action Versus Image: Theater artist Daniel Talbott talks about just doing it

"You can either live your life bitching about being unhappy about not getting what you want, or you can try. You can make an attempt, and the attempt is the most important thing."

In part two of my conversation with Daniel Talbott, we segued from porn into discussing the idea of action versus image which is included below.

I think we’re learning images, instead of actions. I feel like if you do theater, if you create theater, then you’re a theater artist, and you can look like anything, but I think because of marketing, because of capitalism, because of whatever, we’re like, “ Oh, actors dress a certain way, or act a certain way”. It’s like we’re sucked into kind of imitating action. I think we have problems with action in our culture, and work in our culture - like a work ethic. There’s this thing that’s shifted, where it used to be that you worked really hard, and you became successful, and now it’s almost embarrassing that you have to work really hard - like you’re supposed to get as much as you can for as little as you can. I know that’s a really general statement, but I feel like it’s so different when you watch someone onstage act, and truly go after it with another human being, in a very universal, honest and active way, rather than imitate that they’re going after it.

I think that can be the most dangerous type of theater because it looks like maybe the action is happening, and it looks solid, and it’s pretty, and it’s well put together, and its kind of like a classy production, but nothing is actually happening. So it’s dangerous because it looks like theater, but you don’t leave feeling anything, and nothing’s been engaged, and I think maybe, as a culture, we’re more about the image, instead of shutting the fuck up and doing it, and I think that theater is throwing that back in our face right now. It’s like if you’re bored with theater, you’re bored with yourself, in a way, because we’re the ones creating theater.

You find that people are bored with theater?

I think a lot of people are bored with theater.

Do you mean other theater artists or the general theater-going public?


I constantly hear theater people bitch about everyone else’s theater. I hear it all the time. I hear more people say bad shit about people than good shit; do you know what I mean?

I think that’s one of the reasons why I started this blog because I found myself going to the theater and somehow had turned into this consumeristic-type person, who was sitting there going two thumbs up or two thumbs down all the time. I was watching something, and I was sitting there critiquing it, and I thought, you know, I’m not really getting anything out of that, so why don’t I try to find what I like about the piece? And I mean, what is that all about anyway?

It’s our culture, so we can shake our heads, and we can feel more powerful, and we can feel smarter and it has nothing – in fact, I think it’s the opposite of making good theater. Trying to understand something, especially trying to understand something that is far away from yourself, so you can become larger and more in the world in some way. I think we’re way too judgmental as theater artists. Making a fucking play nowadays, with how much it costs, and how hard it is to live, is so difficult, and yet we are so nasty to each other.

Again, I think it’s about action. You are a theater artist if you do theater. You are a theater artist if you are working in the theater. We need to get back to action, and action on a very universal level, on a societal level, on an emotional level, on a self level, a self-in-relation-to-other level. It’s like shut the fuck up, and stop trying to look like something and do it. Playing an action is jumping off a cliff every time.

Because you cannot control the results of an action.


And you can’t manipulate it. If you jump off a cliff, that’s an action. Jumping is an action. And when you do that, then something might happen, or might not happen. Then you put it out there to experience something. But if you imitate an action, so that it looks like it’s active, and you worry about pacing – which is an important element of theater, but if you’re really playing the actions of the play, it honestly takes care of itself, for the most part - then something happens. And I feel like we are able to sit back and judge because a lot of theater isn’t active, because when it’s really active you stop judging. You sit forward. You become part of the action. And believe me, I’m not saying I’m some Buddha. I catch myself saying I fucking hated that all the time. We all do it, and more and more, I’m telling myself to shut the fuck up and say, first of all, this is not about that. It’s not constructive. It doesn’t do anything. You can have an opinion, or taste, but I think it needs to affect your work. It should be a comment about the work, and how you work, not whether they were good or bad because who’s to say that my work is better or not better than somebody else’s?

Back to talking about action, I had seen Rome Torre’s review of Sam Shepard’s “Ages of the Moon” and she had said that the action took a back seat to the talking—

--talking is action. It’s what’s behind the talking.

But sometimes it feels like action, and other times it just feels like talking.

Because if they’re not really talking, and they’re not really listening, it’s not active. It’s just imitating. If you’re really talking, and really listening, something has to alter, and that’s action. That to me is the difference. The image of talking, and listening, versus truly talking and listening on stage - not to say that that’s the only action you play, to talk and listen, but I think the difference is to embody it. You can pretend that you’re listening, and pretend that you’re talking, and some people do it brilliantly, but it’s not really happening so you’re just watching someone pretend. You’re basically watching someone lie to you. Someone’s playing an image. They’re cleaning up the edges. There are not a lot of colors there. If they play an action, you can sit back, and have a response to it because an action is a universal thing. It starts with simply listening and responding.

There is this amazing thing I heard, and it’s so simple, and you say it, and you feel so dumb saying it – and again that’s another thing. Why do simple things have to be stupid? Why do things have to be so cool and fucking complex all of the time? It’s just bullshit. Someone said that you’re only as good on stage as you are off stage, meaning if you’re an engaged, active human being in the world, you’ll bring that to your work on the stage, and if you’re not, then it’s not like you can flip the light switch all of a sudden and suddenly bring an active artist on stage. Even if the character is a spoon and a dildo, it’s still an exploration of life in some way, or an understanding of the size of life, in some way, and if you’re active in the world, you’ll be active on stage. I think not only do we have a lack of action in our culture, we have a lack of selfless action in our culture. Many of our actions are so we can buy a big house, or we can look cool to our friends. I mean, that is an action, but it’s a small part of it. So, more and more, I try not to think good or bad.

The muscle is so strong. It’s been worked for such a long time. I mean, in school, that’s what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to critique things with long arguments on why your reasons are valid but I think - going back to what we were talking about, in terms of having to be mean to be taken seriously - it’s the same with criticizing someone’s play using all the correct language, it’s like oh, then you must be intelligent.

Isn’t it weird that we’re only intelligent if we can criticize people? That is such a strange thing to me. You’re only smart if you can make someone else look like a fucking idiot! (laughing) It doesn’t make any sense to me. It’s not my thing. You see weird power games, like when the Tony winner walks into the room. I mean, how many people have won a Tony because of politics and how many have won because of the quality of their work? It’s so much more complicated than that. How many people have never won a Tony who are fucking genius? Elizabeth Marvel has never won a Tony and I think she’s brilliant. Didi O’Connell has never won a Tony and I think they’re just as good as any of the actors in the last ten years who have won Tony awards. I think the actors who have won Tony awards are fucking genius, but we all need to feel powerful, in a way, and it’s dangerous in the theater. It’s dangerous anywhere, but exceptionally so, in the theater.

How many actors walk into an audition and there’s a guy sitting behind the table eating his fucking sandwich? How are you going to learn anything about that actor by sitting there stuffing your face and talking on the phone, and not even getting up, and shaking their hand, and treating them like a human being? How do you expect them to act like a human being if you don’t treat them like one? It just happens too much.

I think a lot of theater is being run like a corporation, and it’s not a corporation. I don’t blame the producers, or the artistic directors. I think we’re all culpable, and we should all take responsibility for it. At the same time, everyone wants to feed their family, so I think it needs to be attacked on both sides. I’m not one of those people who sit there and say, “Oh, the fucking artistic director ought to be doing more new plays”. I think every artistic director should have to try to be a playwright for a year, and a playwright should be an artistic director for a year because it’s so hard. It’s so insanely difficult on both ends. We all have to work together more to change the problem.

Didn’t Paula Vogel teach a class where she invited theater critics to come and try to write a play?

All critics should have to try to write a fucking play. Not to say their job is easy, either. We’re all in this together, but theater is going to out survive all of us. Theater is kind of like, “Ok bitches, come on, do your job”. (laughing) Theater is going to survive. It’s not like we’re going to help the theater survive. The theater’s been around a lot longer than any of us, but if we’re all going to do our jobs better, if we’re all going to make it a healthier community, then we’re all going to have to understand each other better, and work together more, and eliminate the negativity, and the power struggles, and the games, and that includes critics. That includes everybody. Sometimes, theater artists are the nastiest critics out there. They just do it insidiously over drinks at Joe Allen’s afterward. We all bitch about critics, but too many people constantly talk shit about each other. Sometimes, there’s also a lot of positive stuff. There seems to be a lot of extremity right now. There’s a lot of support. There’s a lot of negativity. We live in extreme times, and I think that lends itself to good theater, and we need to put it into theater and action.

I read somewhere that you said that when you go see a play, it usually makes you think about play-making or your work. It propels you to action, as opposed to just criticism.

You can either live your life bitching about being unhappy about not getting what you want, or you can try. You can make an attempt, and the attempt is the most important thing to me. And that doesn’t mean in the way that I envision it, but that we’re all an active part of society - especially as theater artists - and we’re not just worried about our careers, but we’re attempting to do something, and trying to always make it go back to the work. There’s only one King Lear, only one Long Day’s Journey Into Night, one Streetcar, and one Top Girls. There’s a small amount of ingenious plays out there, but everybody’s struggling to be the best they can be, and to me, it’s about the struggle being more important than whether we all get to write Angels In America. That’s a whole different story. But theater is about attempt. Attempt at action and trying to do something, and not about trying to knock everybody down.

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