This post is a little different than what you usually see up here but I hope you find it thought provoking enough to become a part of the conversation. Today I started re-reading Chris Hedges book "Empire of Illusion" which examines the American culture in terms of illusion. He addresses illusion in a number of areas of the wider culture and the first chapter focuses on the "illusion of literacy." The chapter doesn't deal directly with literacy but with the idea that illusion (not magician illusion but a more diabolical shade of illusion) has become the currency of entertainment and religion. I'm not going to talk about religion here, but entertainment seems to fall directly into the purview of this blog. Hedges goes through Professional Wrestling, Reality Television with the goal of pointing out the purpose behind these types of entertainment: to give the powerless the illusion that they too may become rich and famous by simply being themselves. He uses a particularly grotesque image of The Jerry Springer Show to illustrate this lowest common denominator:
“I have a sex fantasy,” the man tells his wife solemnly. His voice is quiet and nasal. She recoils with raised eyebrows. “Do you remember that bachelor party I went to three weeks ago? There was a stripper there. She was dressed up as a cheerleader, and she just turned me on. I mean, I got – I have this thing – I don’t know if it’s her or the outfit, I think it’s the outfit. But, I’d really love for you to dress up as a cheerleader. For me. And do a cheer that’s especially for me, and. … You could be my cheerleader … of my heart.”
The woman, still sitting in her chair, has her hands on her hips and looks affronted. There are close-ups of the Springer audience bursting into raucous laughter, hoots, and applause.
“I brought her here to show you—” continues the man. He is cut off by the whoops of the audience.
“Let’s bring her out!” says Jerry. The audience cheers.
Shaking yellow pom-poms, a skinny blond girl in a purple and yellow cheerleader outfit runs out onstage. Her body is like a stick. She turns a cartwheel and moons the audience, smacking her own bottom several times. Behind her, the obese man is shown grinning. The obese woman is waving in disgust at the cheerleader.
“Is everybody ready to do a cheer just for Jerry?!” squeaks the cheerleader.
“YEAAAHHH!!!” hollers the audience.
“I can’t hear yoooouuuuuu…” pipes the cheerleader, lifting her skirt up to her waist.
The audience goes crazy. She leads a cheer, spelling out Jerry’s name.
“Now that you’ve seen these pom-poms, how’d you like to see these pom-poms?” she squeaks, shaking her flat chest. A rapid electronic beat fills the studio, and the lights dim. She takes off her top, her bra, and, gyrating her hips, slides off her skirt and underwear. Her bottom is about three feet from the whooping men in the front row. The obese man’s arms and legs are waving around in excitement, as his grimacing wife shakes her head repeatedly. The naked cheerleader leans back on the floor and does the splits in the air. She then jumps into the fat man’s lap and smothers his face in her tiny chest. She runs into the audience and does the same to another man and a gray-haired woman in a cardigan who looks like a grandmother. The cameramen follow the cheerleader closely, zooming in on her breasts and ass.
While the naked, ponytailed girl runs around leaping into the laps of members of the audience, the crowd begins chanting, under the deafening electronic music, “JER- RY! JER-RY! JER-RY! JER-RY!”
The girl finally runs back onstage. The music stops. She collects her pom-poms and sits down naked, dressed only in a pair of white tennis shoes and bobby socks.
“JER-RY! JER-RY! JER-RY!” chants the crowd.
In a later portion of the episode, Jerry says to the man, “So this is really what you want your wife to be doing?” The naked cheerleader is seated beside him, and his wife is no longer onstage.
“Oh, yes!” he exclaims. The audience laughs at his fervor. “It really excites me, Jerry. It really does.”
“All right,” says Jerry. “Well, are we ready to bring her out?”
“YEESSSSS!!!” bellows the audience.
“Here she is!” announces Jerry. “Cheerleading Kristen!”
The wife runs out onto the stage. She is in an identical purple and yellow cheerleading outfit, with yellow pom-poms. Her fluffy brown hair is tied into two bunches on the sides of her head. She resembles a poodle. Her exposed midriff is a thick, white roll of fat that hangs over her short purple skirt and shakes with every step.
She turns a clumsy somersault. She prances heavily back and forth on the stage. She does cancan kicks. She yells “WHOOOOOO!!!” Her husband is seen behind her, yelling with the rest of the audience. She leads a cheer of Jerry’s name, but forgets the Y. The audience laughs. She finishes the cheer. There is a shot of Jerry watching quietly at the back of the studio, leaning against the soundman’s booth, his hand covering his mouth.
The wife continues to high-step back and forth. The clapping and cheers subside. The audience has fallen silent. “WHOOO!!” she yells again. She does, in complete silence, a few more lumbering kicks. A few individuals snicker in the crowd. Jerry is shown at the soundman’s booth, doubled over in soundless laughter. The woman is confused. She looks to the side of the stage, as though she is being prompted. “Oh – OK,” she says.
She takes center stage again. “All right,” she says. “You’ve seen these pom-poms.” Individual giggles are heard from the audience. “Now what about THESE?” Her husband watches eagerly. The naked stripper, sitting behind her, laughs.
The stripping music comes on. The lights dim. The wife does more cancan kicks. She trots back and forth. She takes off all her clothes except her underpants. The audience is clapping to the beat, whooping, and laughing. Some of them are covering their eyes. Others are covering their mouths. She continues prancing onstage, doing the occasional kick, until the music stops.
“JER-RY!! JER-RY!! JER-RY!!” chants the crowd. Her husband wraps his arms around her naked torso and kisses her.
“You made my wildest dreams come true,” he tells her.
Individuals laugh in the audience.
“Aww,” says Jerry, shaking his head. “That is true love.” The woman collects her scattered clothes. “That is—that is—that is—true love.”
I think that there is a difference between what we, as theatre practitioners, do on a daily basis and this example of entertainment is certainly not what we try to portray on stage. This vapid and, to me, offensive kind of entertainment is played out in other shows as well; Man v. Food is my most recent "this is awful" show and I'm sure there are many of you who have that type of reaction to other forms of entertainment. However, my question is more about what exactly we as theatre practitioners seek to do with our work. There is little argument that what happens on stage in a live theatre environment has a powerful impact on the audience members (some more than others), and Hedges talks about Plato's "Cave" as being an example of the power of entertainment. Plato believed that the arts had a terrible power to remove the illusion of life from the eyes of the people, to bring to them the light of the outside and try to bring them out of their illusion. The reaction of the people in the "Cave" is not what we would hope. They pull the enlightened (ha ha) back into the cave with them and break him down; like crabs in a basket, when one of them climbs higher the others pull him down. The crabs would rather watch the stripper crab. I haven't been involved in a production for a while, life has intervened in my work and I am aching to get back into a production capacity. However, before I run with my jazz hands flying into a production, I have to think about what I want my work to say, my intention. As I read this chapter, I was taken back to a class that I just took in the Fall where the discussion of Foucault's economies of power were an integral part of the discourse. One concept that drew me up short was that dissent, in Foucault's idea of society, is a part of the ruling system. We are given the right to dissent because once we have expressed our displeasure with a certain thing, we feel that we have done our job. What is the next step? How do we perpetrate dissent without coming across as didactic or patronizing?
Not all theatre/entertainment is or should be an act of dissent. There is a need for all types of theatre to keep our art alive. For me, the power of live theatre is it's ability to speak directly to a moment in time with speed and pinpoint accuracy to the community in which the art takes place. This ability, something that film and other mediums can't do, this nimbleness allows us to respond to events in our community. Imagine a group reading the Constitution, as the Republican leaders in the House did yesterday, but reading the document itself rather than an amended and a la carte as the leadership did. This is something that could be accomplished with rapid ease and in a community that arguably agrees with the decision of the leadership to read the document as they chose. Another example, with all of the news recently about the Belarus Free Theatre and the suppression of dissent in that country have taken me back to the Studio 360 piece on the company that started me thinking about dissent as a powerful tool of expression and also of art, back in 2008. More recently, there has been a call for theatres around the country to present public readings of the script of the show that BFT is doing at the Under the Radar festival in NY this month and it is something that I am in the process of making a reality in the DFW area. Why would I do this? The answer is simple, it is an opportunity for theatre practitioners to take a concrete stand on something that directly threatens the ideals that under gird our right to free expression. The goal of the reading is to encourage dialog about the issue of free speech and also to encourage people to sign an online petition through change.org asking our government (President Obama) to take a stand on the broader human rights violations taking place in Belarus and Hungary. Keep checking back here for more information about this. Moving on.
In a number of interviews, specifically with Nouveau 47 before they opened for business, the idea of the needs of the community came up. What do you think the needs of our community are? As producers, what is your community? We live in a diverse place and so the needs of the community in Denton or Plano are different than the needs of the community in Oak Cliff or South Dallas. This is an important question because once we take a step back and seriously consider the needs of our community, this could shape the kind of work that we do.
My baby is waking up so I have to leave it here for now. If something in this made you think or made you angry, let me know!