Poetics (or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Downtown Theatre Scene)


The very first show I did here in New York was one I auditioned for within my first two weeks of moving here. I wasn't even going to audition. I felt like it was a bit quick for me, and I barely had a day job yet. But, considering it was why I moved there in the first place and that my then-girlfriend was auditioning as well, I screwed my courage to the sticking place and auditioned and got a part (girlfriend, not so much). The show was called 13th Avenue (this would be the 2000 production, not the 2003 I just found out about), and it was an experience. I learned a lot about doing theatre in New York (especially original scripts) in a very short amount of time. I won't go into details about the show (you can thank me later), but I will say that it was an interesting experience in meta-theatre, being a show entirely about "below 14th Street" characters and performing it at the Gene Frankel Theatre, just south of Astor Place.

Not too long after (say, two or three shows later) I wrote a play (no, you can't read it [looking back, it's pretty terribly done]) called Tangled Up in You that addressed two subjects I had trouble getting my head around: the nature of love/obsession, and the downtown New York theatre scene. I was very much influenced by every experience I had had thus far in terms of the shows I had been involved with in the city, and my perspective hasn't changed that much in the years (SO MANY YEARS) since. In spite of it being the only sort of theatre I've done in the city thus far, I'm not a big fan. I wonder at a lot of aspects of it. Who are these people who choose to experience this extremely varied, often distressing genre of theatre? What do they want, or expect from it? Why does the more-adamant downtown theatre scene so often seem driven to avoid entertaining or providing catharsis? What drives so many of my fellow "creactors" and sundry to invest so much in shows I find so often incomprehensible, or unnecessary?

Get not me wrong. I'm a part of this movement. I have worn the Bauhaus costume. I have pretended my hair was on fire. It's just that, at heart, I'm a really basic guy . . . at least in terms of my appreciation of theatre. Just look at my sense of humor, and the work I've done the most of: Zuppa del Giorno. I like the classics; I like fart jokes; I like stories that surprise us, but accomplish a sense of ending. Call me simple. It's how I roll. I'm a fan of the unities. For those of you who managed to avoid Theatre History class (and this would include a great many theatre majors I know personally), "the unities" is a colloquialism used to refer to a parameter for tragedy described by Aristotle in his treatise on the subject: Poetics. Namely, a set of conditions that helps define, or rather contour, the shape of a tragedy. For instance, a play having a beginning, middle and end, and themes and actions complimenting each other. Aristotle mentions the word "unity" a lot in this document. Twelve times, actually. Eleven, if you're not including headings.

Last night my plan for the evening was very basic. I figured I needed rest, given my travels behind and ahead, and I knew I needed to do laundry and pack before a brief visit to my hometown this weekend. So the plan was only complicated slightly by needing to see my sister later that night, but it was a singular, welcome complication. Enter the complication master, stage left . . .

Todd d'Amour, ladies and gentlemen! Let's give him a big hand!

Actually: do. At about 2:00 yesterday Mr. d'Amour calls me at my office, completely freaking me out by leaving this voicemail, "Non esisto. Forse." ("I don't exist. Perhaps.") It doesn't take me too much longer to figure out who it is, and soon after I'm hearing the master plan. It seems Todd is inviting me and fellow Zuppianna Heather out to see a show with him at The Kitchen, one which features a favorite (downtown) "creactor" of his, David Greenspan. Oh, man. Now I have to change my sedate plans. Have to, you see, because when Todd calls it's always a good time. When Todd calls in relation to theatre, it's a good time with the potential to be life-changing, with reduced risk of hangover. So I anted up, and was in and rolling.

But I had my doubts. The show(s) was(were) The Argument & Dinner Party, based respectively upon Aristotle's Poetics and Plato's Symposium. The theatre was at Nineteenth Street, but way over between Ninth and Tenth Avenues, which somehow makes it in every respect way more downtown. And the guy taking me to this extravaganza is part of the team responsible for Stanley [2006], which, though I loved it entirely, is exactly the kind of "downtown theatre" that perplexes me under different circumstances. We were only on the wait list for the show, this decision to attend being rather last-minute, and as we sat in Trailer Park awaiting the time of reckoning on that point I found myself perhaps not minding so much if we didn't make it in.

Of course we did. Only six folks did, but we four were first on the list, thanks to Todd's enthusiasm to get our names there early. The space was cavernous, and immediately made me wish we were seeing some kind of circus show. Sadly, I knew the first act was simply a man talking. I sat and waited for the entrance I had read about in reviews all day--said man simply walking on and beginning to talk, sans cell-phone warnings or lights dimming. And then it happened. He came in, and started talking, and the first thing I noticed was that he had a slight sibilant lisp. "Oh man," I thought. "How rough is this going to be?"

That's the trouble with expectation. It's the dumbest human capacity ever.

The Argument was the best thing I've seen on a New York stage in years. I'm still mulling over what exactly it was about it that made it so engaging for me. It's possible that it was owing largely to the performer's charisma. Mr. Greenspan has a remarkable talent (skill?) for making himself inviting on stage, not just taking it by force, but literally giving you the option and making you feel as though it is continually your choice to pay attention to him. It's also possible that my interest in the subject matter--that is, the construction and mechanics of an effective living story--dominated my insecurities vis-a-vis the downtown scene. My fellow gaming geeks will no doubt agree that the construction of a good story is a topic of conversation that can inspire endless debate. Finally, there's the possibility that it was sheer empathy on my part. I've had to create my own work and hold a stage alone before (though rarely have the two conditions coincided [thus far]) and I am impressed on quite a personal level when I have the opportunity to witness someone achieving both.

But I hesitantly contend that there was a fourth factor to my renewed opinion of the scene. When I was doing 13th Avenue, the writer/director said something about going to school for years to learn all the rules and, with that production, intentionally breaking every one. I have since heard this sentiment expressed variously and in various contexts, and it invariably makes me hitch my shoulders in an effort not to throw a piece of furniture into something(-one) breakable. As I've said, I'm something of a classicist, but I feel I have good reason. Like an actor who (to pick a personal foible) makes a choice that gratifies his performance more than the story, people today are eager for an excuse to "break the rules." So eager, in fact, that this act is more often excused than it is actually motivated. I don't trust most people to understand the rule they're breaking well enough to understand what they stand to achieve by breaking it.

Watching Greenspan willfully but sensitively break some of "the rules" in his performance and creation of The Argument and, better yet, making it work in light of those rules was thrilling. I believed he understood each choice, and trusted the reasons behind them even when the literal purpose eluded me. Best of all, he was quoting these thousands-years-old "rules" to us as part of the performance. I can't even say for sure if it was theatre in the technical sense (Friend Geoff and I have a running discussion over the merits [or lack thereof] of the dreaded monodrama), but then again I suspect that's how the Greeks felt when Thespis (so it's rumored) stepped out of the chorus and began orating all by his lonesome. I can understand why the appeal of being such an originator might draw some artists to some unfortunate conclusions. Just remember, you lot: Picasso could really draw.


Sadly, Dinner Party did not thrill as The Argument did, and didn't even really entertain me until Mr. Greenspan actually entered the stage at the last. It debated the nature of love, and so should have held me pretty good (love being the only subject more likely to inspire discussion in me than "poetics"), but alas it succumbed--in my humble opinion--to my fears for the evening. Some people really loved it, methinks.


That may be the real lesson in all this: Downtown theatre is a gamble, and some of us are addicts.
 
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