A rant was making the rounds on Facebook a while back: director Arthur Penn was telling us that the problem with theatre today is that everyone is just too nice to each other. A lot of my friends shared it. A lot liked it. I had to read it twice. Well, 1.5 times. The first time I tried, I got about half-way through before it pissed me off and I thought “Do I really want to sit through more of this bullshit?” and found something else to do. But what I read stuck with me. It rattled around my head and I couldn’t just dismiss it as the vented spleen of a man for whom the living art form cannot live up to his memories of it. There was something to what he had to say. Something that made me angry, but also made me nod in agreement. So I went back and read the whole thing.
In a nutshell, Mr. Penn was decrying the niceness of today’s theatre community – that instead of striving for brilliance people settle for mediocrity because we’re just too polite to risk pushing each other. He cites famous examples of great artists who were described as “difficult” and claims that it was the friction these personalities generated with everyone they worked with that led to great art. Which isn’t entirely right. But nor is it entirely wrong.
I think there’s a difference between difficult and exacting. An exacting artist is someone who holds everyone – themselves included – to the highest standard. A difficult artist is just a diva or an asshole. It’s the difference between stopping a run to perfect a moment and refusing to wear pants just because you don’t want to. But somewhere along the line those lines have become blurred and when artists attempt to emulate their heroes they too often end up mimicking the outward behaviors without the support of the inner motivations. So ‘argumentative’ becomes belligerence and ‘high standards’ becomes an excuse to abuse colleagues.
However, the opposite is also true – artists refusing to call out bad work for fear of being disrespectful. Or companies that stagnate because no one challenges each other any more. Mediocrity is allowed on stage because who wants to tell their friend that what they’re doing sucks. Everyone feels very comfortable and cozy and nice and why upset that? Besides – they still get critical acclaim, so obviously there’s nothing wrong with the work. Or maybe everyone is so agreeable because they’re desperately clinging to that slim margin of employment an actor calls his or her career and you don’t want to rock the boat because you never know who might hold a grudge and be in a position to exact professional revenge?
The crux of the problem is our collective inability to communicate effectively. Isn’t it always? Most of us just aren’t good at either giving or taking criticism. We use ‘politeness’ as an excuse to not call bullshit when we see it and we use ‘honesty’ as an excuse for being an asshole.
I believe strongly in a rehearsal process in which everyone is respectful of each other, during which no one gets hurt personally and where everyone feels safe enough to risk failure. And I don’t believe this happens when people are being assholes. But we can’t get caught in the trap of comfort – for artists to grow and improve we must constantly put ourselves in challenging situations. That could mean working with someone new, trying a style you’ve never attempted before, or simply pushing yourself to not let anything slide.
Politeness is not the death of art – complacency is.