Through Lines: the Celebrity in All of Us

Mar 7

In his seminal work, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, sociologist Erving Goffman uses theatre and performance as analogies to describe all our social interactions.  He argues, in essence, that we are actors, consciously or unconsciously performing our identities for and to others.  For different audiences, we no doubt assume different roles, responding like actors to environment, stimuli, and relationship, as we seek our broader super objectives.  Like actors, we appreciate the applause, even if our performance is less than stellar.  Many of us can also acknowledge that those identities we perform for the people around us are as much a fiction as the characters the theatrical actor assumes over a lifetime: so much smoke and mirrors—and  a lot of make-up—even if built on the actor’s psyche and physique.

Harry Carry, Jr., John Frid, and Celeste Holms. Photos by the AP, ABC, and Murray Garrett

In this sense, it is not surprising that the celebrity performer has assumed such a high degree of acclaim in our society.  If we are all performing the fiction of our identity, then why not tip our collective hat to those actors, athletes, musicians, newscasters, politicians, who have risen to the top through their ability to perform their identities to the public.

Just how far the celebrity performer has risen really came home to me this New Year while watching an ABC evening newscast “In Memoriam: People We Lost in 2012.”  Of the 86 people whose deaths were notable, 45 of them were performers—actors, singers, musicians.  Eleven more of them were writers or speakers of some kind—journalists, authors, newscasters, and a motivational speaker.  The next closest categories were those serving in the government, non-performing artists, and athletes.  There was one inventor, N. Joseph Woodland, who co-invented the barcode; one soldier—Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, who famously co-designed the blitzkrieg used in Iraq I, 1991; and one regular person—Rodney King, who, of course, performed unwittingly on video along with the gaggle of LA cops who were kicking and tasering him.

Micahel Clarke Duncan. Photo by JB Lacroix.

Now, I’m not disputing anyone’s right to be listed in ABC’s “In Memoriam” dedication.  A notable death is a notable death, but can we seriously accept the fact that in 2012 there wasn’t at least one notable educator who died, or one police officer, or pastor, or architect, or engineer?  Clearly, there must have been a notable scientist or two who died, but not according to ABC.  One can only assume that the criteria used to determine which 86 people would be highlighted must have defined “notable” in such a way as to favor the celebrity, or those whose performed identities played out on the electronic media.

I make note of this phenomena not simply because it is but one more piece of evidence suggesting the circular logic of the electronic media, i.e., they decide what is important based on what is important for them.  For me, the danger of this trend is twofold.  On the one hand, by socially elevating the celebrity performer we acknowledge that we appreciate the act of performing more than the content of the performance itself.  Perhaps, this happens because the content of any performance is temporal, as temporal as last night’s rendition of Shear Madness.  Thus, why not celebrate the performance as an end in-and-of-itself?  This kind of thinking might explain our political actors’ determination to perform the same fiscal cliff / sequester cliff drama over and over again until we are numb with exhaustion.

Phyllis Diller. Photo by Dan Callister.

On the other hand, even more disturbing is what our obsession with celebrity reveals about our values.  It seems as if we value the celebrity performer and his or her fiction more than the people who really do the day-to-day work of improving our society.  In other words, the actor who mimics the lawyer, the cop, the doctor, the teacher, the scientist is more notable than the people he or she mimics, the people who perform those professions in life, making an actual difference in our lives. And I say this, even though I love actors and the work they do, albeit on the stage more than in film where the camera is the real star.

So, as each of us prepares for our roles today as father or mother, clerk or caring friend, let us acknowledge and salute the performer in all of us, and let the celebrity take a step or two—or three—toward the back of the line.  For it is the authentic flesh and blood doer of deeds who actually makes a difference in our lives.  Let us make notable the EMT who examines the gunshot victim and stops the bleeding: not the actress on TV who imitates her between make-up touch-ups, lighting adjustments, and a shout of “Action!”

Theatre News: The Aesthetics of a Theatrical Dollar (or $100+ dollars)

Nov 28

Theatre critics never mention the cost of a ticket when we write our reviews, almost as if price doesn’t matter and the aesthetics of theatre operate independent of budget and cost. Maybe that’s because we critics don’t pay for tickets, so we never leave a show saying: “I just paid $102 for that! I’d have enjoyed myself more at my child’s Nutcracker or my Great Aunt Nelly’s piano recital!”

The reality is, of course, buying the opportunity to experience a theatrical production is no different than buying a bottle of wine. If I were to shell out $232,692 for a bottle Chateau Lafite (1869) or even $80,000 for a Screaming Eagle Cab (1994) – yes, those really are the latest prices for those wines – it had better have a darn good bouquet and a taste that lasts forever. Whereas, if I go to my local Safeway and buy a Clos Du Bois Chardonnay for $10.99 or a bottle of Three Wishes Chardonnay for $2.99 at Whole Foods, I only expect to relax and enjoy myself a little without a bitter aftertaste. In my youth, a bottle of Boones Farm served one purpose and one purpose only, and it did not have a thing to do with aesthetics.

(Top to Bottom) The Arena Stage, The Studio Theatre, The Keegan Theatre.

So let us be honest: when it comes to theatre, price matters. If we pay more for a theatre ticket, we expect more from the show. Top prices at Arena Stage and Shakespeare Theatre are now over one hundred dollars a ticket, whereas at the National Theatre a single ticket approaches $200. Studio Theatre and Woolly Mammoth, on the other hand, charge a mere $60 to $75, whereas a company like Avant Bard (WSC) or a Fall Fringe production charge $30ish and $20ish respectively. Now, we can all admit that when we walk through the doors at Arena or Studio, our expectations are different (and higher) than when we slide into a cheap seat at the Fringe.

The question remains, however, what exactly are theatre-goers expecting for that higher price? I guess the simple answer is: the best that money can buy. I do not know what the exact relationship is between a theatre’s budget and its ticket prices; but generally it seems that the more money a theatre has, through charitable donations, grants, and box office, the more money it has to spend on its productions and the more it charges for its tickets.

So the essential question is: when it comes to theatre, what does all that money buy?

A hot script to be sure. Whereas theatres with fewer resources must rely on tried and true scripts, or obscure risky scripts, or newly invented original scripts, the wealthier theatres can afford to get the rights to that latest gem or enduring blockbuster.

The bigger the budget, the more famous an actor the theatre can hire. How many theatres in Washington could afford the likes of a Stacy Keach or a Cate Blanchett or a Laurence Fishburne or a—you get the picture. A big name doesn’t guarantee expectations being met, but it frequently covers the bet.

If not the big name actor, then a bigger budget ensures a higher quality ensemble—or both. Yes, money definitely opens the door to a plethora of quality actors with more training and experience.

More extraordinary sets and beautiful costumes also cost more. If you are going to witness a helicopter flying around on stage, or a large set piece descending from the sky, or an even larger set piece emerging from the floor, ticket prices have to be higher than a dinner at Applebees.

(Top to Bottom) The lobbies at The Capital Fringe Festival, The Woolly Mammoth Theatre, and The Shakespeare Theatre.

The richer the theatre, the more luxurious the theatre experience. Now, this expectation might be more true of Washington than any other city in America because Washingtonians, who have grown used to the comforts of government largess, expect no less from their entertainments. Thus, theatre lobbies need to be large and well equipped, guaranteeing that a production’s half time show is not a cigarette in a dark alley.

The costlier the ticket, the richer the audience. As prices escalate, the professional theatrical experience becomes increasingly limited to a wealthier and wealthier clientele. Of course, theatre managers understand this fact; hence, theatres offer a host of reduced-priced ticket opportunities, from Ticketplace to Living Social to Goldstar to discounts for theatre-goers 35 and under to Pay-What-You-Can nights.

Ultimately, however, more theatrical money produces a more monied aesthetic. For, to be sure, money brings with it its own idea of beauty. If we set aside the creative factor—which I never like to do by the way, but let’s set it aside this once—money in theatre, like money in politics, can make a dull idea look interesting and bright and thought provoking and thus a joy to behold. In other words, that expensive look, supported in part by those high-ticket prices, can gloss over an Everest of “been theres, done thats, so who cares?”

I don’t know if we critics ought to start mentioning the price of admission when reviewing a show. Saying, “For $25, it ain’t a bad show!” doesn’t really sound like an endorsement; but a ticket’s price should at least filter into the equation, as it already does for many theatre-goers or would-be-theatre-goers who then decide to save that $100 bucks for their kid’s college fund. And I say that even though I know that money cannot make a show worth seeing or memorable. Creativity and empathy do that!  It’s the story that does that!  So remember, while some of the most creative and most empathetic people don’t make squat for their artistic labor, they can be found at theatres anywhere and at any time.

In this season of spending and economic uncertainty, as you wrestle with which holiday show you want the family to see, I’m sure you’ll consider the price tag of that Nutcracker or Christmas Carol. Rest assured, that if you go for the lower priced Tiny Tim, no one will consider you a Scrooge for doing so.

Beware Americans: We’re Entering the Twilight Zone

Apr 13

The Trayvon Martin case has made me aware of one simple fact.  America has entered the twilight zone. Why do I say this?  Because despite all the media coverage of this case, the most important issues that the case demonstrates have been swamped by the hype.  Instead of focusing our attention on the failure of our criminal justice system (or in this case Sanford Florida’s criminal justice system) and the law that allowed a killer to temporarily go free, the media has focused totally on George Zimmerman and the cases racial component.

The case involves Trayvon Martin, an unarmed seventeen year old, killed by a neighborhood watchman, George Zimmerman, while walking back from a convenience store.  Mr. Zimmerman confesses to killing Trayvon, but claims that it was self-defense, under Florida’s so called Stand-Your-Ground law.  Apparently, the law allows people not to back down from a fight.  In this case, it also seems to have allowed him to claim self-defense even when he was the aggressor.  In any event the police believe Mr. Zimmerman’s version of the event (Trayvon could not tell his version, of course, because he was dead) and within hours the police release him, even giving him back his gun.

George Zimmerman

After Trayvon’s parents are informed of the circumstances, including one assumes that Mr. Zimmerman confessed to the killing, they begin to protest that the killer should at least be charged with some kind of crime.  After all, they must have asserted: “our son has been killed by a stranger; he was unarmed at the time, and only carrying skittles and a soda pop.”  After the Sanford police ignored the parents’ protests, the parents sought a larger audience and, eventually, the story went national and international.

Then the Governor of Florida appoints a special prosecutor and eventually Mr. Zimmerman is charged with 2nd degree murder.

I assert that those are the essential facts thus far.  If you know something about the case, you’ll notice that I left out facts about race and ethnicity, and I did so, because at an essential level they are unimportant.  An unarmed person was killed by an armed person and the killer was not charged with a crime, even a misdemeanor.  Something is clearly wrong with this picture.

Being a parent myself I can understand the Martins’ grief and dismay.  When your child is killed, you most assuredly want justice.  What I don’t understand ,and what made me finally realize that America has entered the Twilight Zone, is why other people don’t understand this most basic of human needs: justice.  Why are some many people in America making excuses–not for George Zimmerman (he did what he did, what ever it was)–but why are so many people making excuses for the Sanford criminal justice system?  Or if the good people in the Sanford police department were only following Florida’s Stand-Your-Ground law, why are so many people making excuses for the insane politicians who pass a law that legalizes murder?

Now one could simply say that a lot of people are racist, and thus made a lot of excuses for why Zimmerman would kill Trayvon.  Because he had a hoodie, which is apparently a sign of thuggery (despite the fact that a lot of non-thugs wear hoodies), or because he was a teenager and today teenagers don’t have morals (as opposed to earlier eras), or because black young men don’t respect the law and thus Trayvon didn’t respect the law, or because blacks are killing blacks and not complaining — the list goes on and on as to why, according to certain people, George Zimmerman was justified in killing Trayvon Martin.

For me, however, racism does not explain why we’ve entered the Twilight Zone.  Oh, no, to enter the Twilight Zone requires a meeting of many vectors, a convergence if you will of a worm hole, an 11th plague, and a Reality Show with real people.

But seriously.  Although racism–both its long history and its current manifestations–is a factor driving the media insanity, several other factors are equally important.  An important factor is America’s other long history–gun ownership and violence.

John Wayne

The Stand your Ground laws that are sweeping the country right now are returning Americans to their Wild West roots.  We don’t need law enforcement any more.  We can just enforce the laws ourselves, or–if the job is too big for one man–we can hire a posse.  A product of the National Rifle Association and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the stand your ground laws have given many gun-owners the legal confidence to shoot first and ask questions later–or not at all.  Americans of all races and ethnicities have been killed by other well intentioned Americans with a hair trigger and perhaps more than a little paranoia.  If you add up all the things that make Americans scared these days–from drugs, disease, old age, teenagers, debt, mental illness, African-Americans (not to mention violent crime)–the stand your ground laws with their liberal interpretation of one’s perception of fear make them a disaster waiting to happen.

The Trayvon Martin case plays right into the vortex of American psychoses.  It has the gun element, the race element, the crime element, the hoodie element; plus, there is also a black president running for reelection, who a good number of people still think is a secret Muslim, socialist Kenyan.  If you add all those factors together, you enter the Twilight Zone, where everything you say or think comes out ass-backward, looking more like an episode of Amazing Videos than anything resembling serious thought.

The Time is Now: Hold Our Leaders Accountable

Jun 24

As the nation continues to wrestle with one of the largest financial crises in her history, we the people seem unable to cope with the dilemma.  We seem to spend most of our time squabbling over which political party is most responsible for the mess and which will best serve our interests or the interest of America herself as we move forward.  With trillions in deficits, record bankruptcies and home foreclosures, a stagnant economy, and political paralysis, the time is now for the American people to stop the squabbling.  The time is now to throw down the gauntlet.

The question should not be which political party is responsible for the mess or which can save the country and us from ruin, because the answer to those two questions if both and then neither.  Both parties are deeply responsible for the financial swamp in which we currently drown.  And because both parties are so deeply aligned to the forces of corruption and greed that drove us into this quagmire, no amount of political pressure will force them to do what is necessary to steer us clear of it in the future.  The truth of the matter is that a lot of people have made a lot of money, not only in spite of the financial crisis, but also because of it, and that money will make it impossible to sway our politicians away from those allegiances.  In other words, that swamp is all around us, and we have to either put up with the stench, or drain it.  Personally, I’m for draining the muck and throwing the vermin in prison, and I think a good number of Americans are with me.

We must demand that our political establishment take on the corruption destroying this country.  If our leaders will not, then we must demand that they, the nation’s entire political regime, resign or to be driven from power—by any means necessary. Many Americans might have taken on bad debt, and most of them are now suffering the consequences.  Bad home mortgages were not, however, the cause of our financial collapse.  The financial collapse was caused by the endless repackaging of those bad loans, of those loans which the bankers knew were bad, into ever more deceptive, and risky, bundles.  Now, many Americans have a clear sense that thousands of people and corporate enterprises reaped huge profits from these economic shenanigans, and they reaped these huge profits knowing that the financial instruments that the Wall Street Bankers were using were fraudulent, scandalous instruments of deception.  They then received bailouts and are now more profitable than ever.

Many American also know that those instruments were constructed for the sole purpose of defrauding the middle class out of years of hard-earned savings. Yet, the American justice system is either unable or unwilling to go after those criminals, some of whom are no doubt history’s greatest cheats and criminals. They are unwilling or unable to freeze their bank accounts and to prosecute them.  Then, to add insult to injury, many of those criminals are still in positions with enormous power and influence.  It is painfully clear that the justice system of this country is aligned with the lawmakers who protect these criminals from prosecution.  In other words, the lawmakers are, and have been for years, in cahoots with these criminals, writing laws that allow immoral and unjust behavior to be unpunishable.

The corporate news agencies and nation’s lawmakers will boast that Bernie Medoff and his ilk have been or are being punished. Financial analysts will also agree that Medoff represents simply the worst of the lot, and that the trading in fraudulent derivatives and credit default swaps was widespread.  Many will say that to punish one Wall Street financial wizard would lead to the punishment of all Wall Street wizards.  I say, the smoking of marijuana is wide-spread, speeding on highways is wide-spread, gang activity in urban centers is wide-spread, and that hasn’t stopped our criminal justice system from cracking down on the violators, arresting hundreds of thousands of teenagers and young adults each year.  Simply because all the demons are playing in the same sandbox does not mean that they are not demons or that they are not destroying the sandbox.  The behavior that led to this crisis was without a doubt wrong.  It was, without a doubt, a violation of more than one commandment, and if it was not a violation of any law, that is only because our lawmakers, who are almost all rich, only want to protect their own.  They have thus assured, through the writing of the law, that criminal, immoral behavior is not illegal.

Alan Greenspan is the perfect example of a rich man protecting his own.  For years he knew that fraudulent devices were being used by his associates, not only to protect their institutions from financial difficulties but also to reap huge financial rewards for themselves and friends.  Nevertheless, he asserted what his ideology told him.  He believed that the rich financial wizards wheeling and dealing in these instruments could and would regulate the market for the better because they would have an interest in protecting their institutional identities.  He believed that, although they would trade in fraudulent financial instruments, they would not do so to the extent that those instruments would endanger their own companies.  In other words, Mr. Greenspan considered these gurus of the economy to exist above the individual greed and selfishness that is so rampant in our financial sector today.  What idiocy!  And yet we still listen to this man as if he were a fount of wisdom.  Or take the example of the entity Moody’s.  Throughout the financial crisis, they gave this fraudulent, criminal behavior a triple A stamp of approval.  One would think that their reputation would have been ruined, either because they were liars and cheats, or because they were just plain stupid.  But no!  They are still quoted by the corporate media as capable of giving sound economic advice to Americans.  Either the media agencies are brain dead or they are in cahoots with the criminals, dedicated to weaving yet another lie to rob us of our life’s savings.

It is clearly time for the hard working American people to stand up and say, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this any more!”  It is time for all of us to go out and march to our state capitals.  Or we should board busses, travel to Washington, DC, camp out on the National Mall, and—like an Egyptian—refuse to leave until our political leaders either arrest the criminals and freeze their bank accounts, or resign from office.  Yes!  For decades we have pleaded with our politicians to clean up the mess, but it is clear that those pleadings have been to the very pigs that have turned our nation into the squalor in which we now sink.  So the time is now—not for another silly rally at the Capital where we chant “Democracy Now!”—but for a full-fledge throwing down of the gauntlet.  We must be willing to facedown the corrupt corporate-political alliance.  To do so means that we become as committed to changing our world as those wizards are at preserving and expanding the corruption.  Our only other option is simply to endure the continued deterioration of the middle class, of its decency and steadfastness.  But if we continue to choose endurance, we are only ensuring an explosion in the future.