How to Discuss Excellence?

06.10.11 | Comment?

CATEGORIES collaboration, conferences, devised work, festivals, ideas, livestreams, rabble rousing, technical work, the process, theatre festivals, theatrical ecosystem, video

This Saturday, we’re hosting a convening on artistic excellence at FoolsFURY.

This convening arises from a belief that, as a field, we have serious difficulty having useful (and sometimes hard) conversations about the quality/excellence of each other’s work. We do this fine, at the bar, without the artists present. But how can we have more useful and constructive conversations?

We need to improve the quality of our work. We make constant demands of audiences, of funders, and more. To have strong arguments for the worthiness of the time and money of these various constituencies, we need to raise the bar. And to do so, we need as a first step to be able to talk about quality: What is excellence? And how can we strive for it? How can we have better conversations to encourage and inspire one another to aim higher?

You can join this conversation by watching the convening live, embedded here or directly at the New Play TV page at Livestream, and by following the hashtag #furyfest and our Twitter account, @FoolsFURY.

Watch live streaming video from newplay at livestream.com

We’ll be taking questions from Twitter and asking the conference participants to address them. If you’re in the Bay Area, buy a ticket and join us in person! Expected speakers include:

Teresa Eyring, executive director, Theatre Communications Group
Morgan Jenness, agent/dramaturg, Abrams Artists Agency
Diane Rodriguez, dir. new play development, Center Theater Group
Lisa Steindler, artistic director, Z Space
Paul Walsh, professor of dramaturgy, Yale University
Kim Whitener, producing director, HERE

The conference will have three sessions for discussion and exploration:

1. Why do we have trouble with discussing quality? And what is the value of talking about it?

There are certainly many reasons as to why we have trouble. Some of those that have come up repeatedly are:

-Lack of consensus on criteria by which to evaluate or assess the quality.
-Question as to whether the artists actually want honest critical feedback.
-Funding and psychological realities – not wanting to cut off relationships with potential collaborators or funders. (Not wanting to get a reputation as a nay-sayer)

Some (possible) historical perspective about criteria: since the advent of Modernism, there has been a lack of criteria or standards with which to judge quality. What are, or might be those standards? To be groundbreaking – to test the boundaries of art, became a criterion in the 60s and 70s. Every thing is subjective now, permeated back from the edges back into the mainstream.

We want to be judged by the criterion we’ve set up within the work. But if the work isn’t very good, often those criterion are not clearly defined.

Are pre-existing criteria necessary? Are they possible? Maybe the call for excellence is the call for a new toolkit of criteria.

If something is truly groundbreaking, (Godot) is it because it allows us to reformulate our criteria? And/or, in the world of contemporary theater, is the fact that it reframes or reshapes our understanding of the theater one of the criteria of excellence?

If work outside that mainstream is going to be judged on its own terms, then we have to get better at articulating the terms. (For example, how do we take in the Growtoski work– which falls short in many ways if we applying “mainstream” expectations to it – and apply a different definition of excellence to it, that accords with what, in fact, they are trying to do?)

2. How to do Better – or What might a better conversation look like?

Perhaps much of the problem lies in the structures we use to discuss and critique – both among artists, and with audiences and works in development.

Let’s not ask the critics to be the sole voices of criticism. Not that they do a good or bad job – but in order to look at a different perspective, let’s ask the practitioners to take on the responsibility of offering criticism. What happens when the responsibility is shifted to the practitioners?

A thought: One of the most common modes of getting feedback is the post-show discussion. But this is not always helpful. All one receives are first perceptions, and this is not always what is useful. The analysis has
not yet taken place. This is often more valuable for the audience – as it gives them a feeling of engagement in the process.

3. The Tension Between Process and Product in Ensemble Theater

What is the experience we are providing for the audience – vs. what is the experience we create for ourselves? Where is there the combination between excellent process and excellent product. There are many angles:– excellence from audience pov – societal pov – makers pov – excellence in terms of the art form (pushing against the boundaries).

What are the criteria here? What are we offering the audience? What are we engaging in ourselves? What are the goals of production here?

Difference between therapy and theater is the outward looking project.

What does that collaborative mode of company-created work add? How is company- created work different from playwright-then-director dominated work (the more traditional/mainstream mode)? How is it differently excellent? How can the conversation around them improve? To some extent this is a question of the value of theorizing a practice. Or least increasing communication and thought around these issues.

More often that not, good theater verifies something it’s audience already knows, rather than bringing out new ideas. Is this preaching to the choir a problem? Or does it have value in creating community, and validating
people’s beliefs.

A performance can be the performance of a process – which could provide audience with the value of a process – interwoven with the aesthetic value of the play.

Finally, these are all just thoughts. Please feel free to disagree, and bring other perspectives to what, I’m sure, will be a series of compelling and fruitful conversations.

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Ben Yalom

Ben Yalom is a founder and Artistic Director of foolsFURY, a physically oriented theater ensemble based in San Francisco. Under his leadership, foolsFURY has recently been hailed as San Francisco’s “Best Theater Company (2008)” by the San Francisco Weekly, “one of the brightest stars of the San Francisco experimental theater scene” (SF Arts Monthly), and awarded the GOLDIE award by the San Francisco Bay Guardian. Ben has directed many foolsFURY productions including the world premiere of Monster in the Dark, the US premiere of Fabrice Melquiot’s The Devil on All Sides (which he also translated), Don DeLillo's Valparaiso, the West Coast premiere of Martin Crimp's seminal avant-garde work Attempts on Her Life, and others. In 2005 he directed the controversial musical Bangers’ Flopera with Inverse Theater in the New York Fringe Festival and the New York Musicals Festival (“One of the top three musical of the NY Fringe” American Theater Web; “Outstanding New Musical” Talkin Broadway, Summer 2005 citations). With San Francisco's Traveling Jewish Theatre he directed Naomi Newman's award-winning one-woman show Fall Down Get Up. Ben has also worked with A.C.T., the Bay Area Playwrights Festival, the Magic Theatre, Playground, the Aurora Theatre, and Encore Theatre (San Francisco), and ThÈ‚tre Ange MagnÈtique (Paris).
Ben teaches playwriting and physical performance at California College of the Arts. He has also taught at the Lee Strasberg Institute (NYU/Tisch) in 2009, the La Mama Umbria Director’s Symposium, Stanford University, the National Theater Institute, Vassar College, and the Berkeley Rep School of Theater.
Ben holds an MFA from the renowned Iowa Writers' Workshop, and his fiction, essays and translations of plays have appeared in magazines nationwide. His play The Strange Case of the Jensen Files was produced as part of the 2005 FURY Factory festival of ensemble theater. www.foolsfury.org

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