Bad Manners and Bullets

A debate, not entirely civil, has erupted on my Facebook page over a heart-wrenching incident in Florida. If you’re a regular reader of CNN online you already know about an argument in a movie theatre that left one man dead, his wife wounded, and a retired police officer in jail without bond for pulling the trigger on a man who had refused to stop texting during a movie.

 

According to published reports, Chad Oulson, 43, met up with his wife for a Monday lunch date and a matinee in Wesley Chapel, Fla. Previews were rolling when he began to send a text—to his three-year-old daughter’s babysitter.  Behind him was Curtis Reeves, 71, and his wife. Reeves apparently asked Oulson to stop—how he asked is not clear, but the encounter escalated into an argument and Reeves left to find a manager. When he returned, CNN reports:

 

The man who had been texting, Chad Oulson, got up and turned to Reeves to ask him if he had gone to tell on him for his texting. Oulson reportedly said, in effect: I was just sending a message to my young daughter. Voices were raised. Popcorn was thrown. And then came something unimaginable — except maybe in a movie. A gun shot.

 

Oulson died at the scene. The following day, Reeves was arraigned and denied bail. According to the Tampa Tribune, Judge Lynn Tepper found no basis to believe his claim that he was in fear of attack when he shot Oulson—a potential “stand-your-ground” defense under Florida law:

 

The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office reported, though, that while Reeves claimed Oulson struck him with an “unknown object,” no such object was found and witnesses did not observe any punches being thrown. Oulson did throw a bag of popcorn at Reeves, the sheriff’s office reported.

 

The central question this tragedy has raised among my circle is the degree to which the victim contributed to the altercation—and to his own demise—by texting in the theatre and getting into an argument when asked to stop. To me, the bigger question is what this horrible incident says about the lies being peddled by the gun lobby, which pushes all guns, all the time—that an armed society is a polite society, that more guns means we are all safer, that the best defense against a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.  This kind of escalation is not rare, but it seldom involves a respected former member of law enforcement.

 

I’ll address the etiquette question first, however, because among some theatre people I know, the use of cellphones during performances inspires an almost atomic level of rage—to the point that it almost becomes  a public safety issue in itself. This incident has inflamed some of those passions. Online I’ve seen cruel jokes about Chad Oulson’s death, and in recent discussions, I’ve been startled to discover how much anger has been reserved for the victim.

 

The argument I’ve heard goes like this: Both men were wrong. And even if Reeves’ reaction was over-the-top, that doesn’t make Oulson’s behavior right. My initial response to that statement was astonishment. And it was hard to offer reasoned reaction. But having thought about it, I have this to say:  “Wrong” is not a uniform concept when it comes to degree or gravity.  Yes, we can agree that texting during a show is wrong. We can agree that shooting a guy in the chest is wrong. Both of these things are wrong, but they are wrong in utterly different ways and in different spheres. One is a breach of etiquette; the other is a criminal act. So they aren’t even in the same universe of wrong, and to demand that we recognize Oulson’s wrong behavior and consider it a provocation for Reeves’ wrong behavior reveals a strangely twisted sense of proportion and causality. Even if you argue that Oulson’s share of the blame is relatively small, it still ignores the fact that etiquette and public safety are two completely different arenas of life, governed by completely different considerations.  They intersect only at the point where bad manners become so extreme that they cross over into criminal behavior. Which is pretty much what happened here—except that it was Reeves, not Oulson, who crossed that line.

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The Other 9 Percent

Locally Grown Festival Image (2)Theatre J hosted a town hall meeting for playwrights on Tuesday night (June 25) and the room was bursting with amazing stories of a D.C. theatre scene that is about to break out as a worthy rival to Chicago, Minneapolis and even—yes, they said it—New York.

 

Among the most interesting reports from the field – to borrow a term from Theatre J Artistic Director Ari Roth – was a preview by Gwydion Suilebhan of his annual analysis of the D.C. season, in which he logs the number of new works going up, the percentage of plays by D.C. playwrights, the percentage by women and writers of color and so forth. He’ll have a lot more to say about it when he blogs about it next week—but here are two numbers to chew on until then: 31 and  9.

 

The first is the percentage of productions slotted for the 2013-14  season that can be considered  new plays—that is, experiencing a first, second, or third production.

 

The second is the percentage of plays by local writers, and according to Gwydion, it’s significantly less than the current season – in fact, nearly half. This year the figure was 16 percent. And these numbers, by the way, don’t include that crazy, hazy, mazy zone of self production known as the Capital Fringe.

 

What happened? I imagine Gwydion will have some things to say about that—he described it as a discouraging development, as it would have to be for anyone who has dedicated himself as tirelessly as he has to the cause of promoting local writers to local theatres. It remains to be seen whether that’s a statistical blip or the beginning of a trend—I suspect the former–but that 9 percent is a good number to keep in our heads because it gives us a strong sense of where the landscape is currently. Maybe it’s the dark Irish in my genes,  but sometimes I find a discouraging word weirdly motivating: we have work to do and one single statistic makes the case more clearly than anything else.

 

For any theatre community to make its mark outside its own small circle of  fans and friends requires that it dedicate itself to new plays. Otherwise it has nothing to offer to a new generation of theatergoers—and such theatre ultimately ensures its own demise. If you have nothing new to say, then eventually you have nothing at all to say, and no one has any reason to listen.

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The Troublesome 9.7 Percent and the Break-Through Play

Caridad Svich invited me to participate in the Artistic Innovation blog salon that she is curating for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas). The post below is cross-posted from the salon and can be found at the TCG Circle here.

 

Playwright Caridad Svich asks how a path can be made for innovative theatre artists.

 

That’s a question for the ages—because every age has redefined the form and function of theatre. But in our age and in this culture–so driven by commercial considerations that most playwrights cannot rely on their craft for a living—the question is particularly acute.  We all know that the American theatre faces a crisis of poverty—but it is not just a poverty of resources. It is also a poverty of ideas and confidence. And this poverty forces even the non-profit theatre to obsess with finding the next big hit, the next hot writer, and to find refuge in the next Big Name New Play—that one with all the buzz.

 

 

The reason for this can be summed up in a single statistic: 9.7 percent.

 

 

That is the percentage of the U.S. population that attended a live performance by a not-for-profit professional theatre company in 2010, according to the National Arts Index 2012, a survey of arts attendance in 81 markets. Based on TCG estimates, that figure represents some 31 million Americans who attended professional theatre outside of New York City. That’s down from a peak of 34 million in 2003—and for the record, does not include attendance at Broadway tours. Recent figures from the National Endowment for the Arts tell a similar story—that attendance at live professional theatre has eroded in troubling ways. But of course we do not need a survey to tell us what we have witnessed with our own eyes.

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Now, Who Can’t Relate to This?

Sometimes you just have to open the Jack.

Tamara Federici’s production notes show why some playwrights ought to write fiction and be done with it. I particularly liked this one:

 

Regarding pauses: short pauses are short, three seconds or so, like the time it takes to sneak out a little fart, i.e. Lucia’s line “No, I told you to bring me the head of Cornel, not [little fart] Gary.”

 

Read more http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/shouts/2012/09/a-few-notes-about-my-play.html#ixzz278otRb00

 

The Drama in Drink, or Vice Versa

Barking Up a Wrong Tree is one of my favorite blogs and here is why:

 

Eric Barker routinely compiles fascinating observations about all aspects of human nature and experience, with the stated purpose of learning to live life to its full awesomeness.  But me being me, which means predisposed to moments of dark ruminations, or in more pedestrian terms, a moody crank, I take perverse comfort from posts like these, in which Eric assures us that the crazy times just might be the best, at least when it comes to literary output.

 

Dionysius was the god of theatre for a reason.

Citing the Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall, Eric tells us that:

 

 

In studies of deceased writers— based on their letters, medical records, and published biographies— and in studies of talented living writers, mental illness is prevalent. For example, fiction writers are fully ten times more likely to be bipolar than the general population, and poets are an amazing forty times more likely to struggle with the disorder. Based on statistics like these, psychologist Daniel Nettle writes, “It is hard to avoid the conclusion that most of the canon of Western culture was produced by people with a touch of madness.” Essayist Brooke Allen does Nettle one better: ‘The Western literary tradition, it seems, has been dominated by a sorry collection of alcoholics, compulsive gamblers, manic-depressives, sexual predators, and various unfortunate combinations of two, three, or even all of the above.

 

Well that’s no surprise to readers of literary biographies, but what should we conclude?

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So Produce a Different Play Already!

In the annals of theatrical chutzpah, this latest missive has to rank fairly high.

 

A theatre that shall remain nameless booked several performances of Radium Girls for the coming fall. Okay, cool. I’m excited, because this one looks to be a professional company, even though it’s only a single weekend run. Then comes this request, sent to me via my publisher: Would I approve some cuts to the script? Attached is a file containing a heart-stopping number of red scratch-outs.

 

Now, I’m accustomed to approving cuttings for competition. Radium Girls has been presented in a truncated form multiple times and won awards for the schools involved. I don’t mind; it’s clear in the context that the students are presenting excerpts from a larger work, and that’s fine. In fact, a lot of those competitions have generated subsequent full productions by other schools.

 

In this case, though, the theatre would be presenting a radically pared down version of my play for paying audiences. When I asked for the reasoning behind these cuts, what I got back was a doozy:

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