Live and Let Live
Too Much Bitching Can Be Hazardous to Theatre's Health
It's eye-rolling season again. The nominations for the B. Iden Payne theatre awards are out, and once the local stage set gets a gander at the list of nominees, you can be sure that eyeballs all over town will be pivoting skyward in their sockets, accompanied by exasperated cries of "Oh, please!" and "You mean that got nominated?" and "Don't tell me they overlooked so-and-so ... They did!" and the ever-damning "What a joke!" It never fails. No matter how much effort and care the Austin Circle of Theatres (ACoT), the arts umbrella which sponsors the awards, puts into winnowing the year's 200-plus theatrical productions and thousands of individual creative contributions to a select handful of "outstanding" names, the Payne nominations get greeted with eye-spinning disbelief and disdain. Now, these local theatre honors are far from the only awards to send folks' ocular organs into orbit. The Academy Awards, the Golden Globes, the Emmys, the Grammys, the Austin Music Awards, the MTV Awards, the People's Choice Awards, the Soap Opera Digest Awards, certainly the Austin Theatre Critics Table Awards, and just about every other industry prize out there inspire similar reactions. All someone has to do is put out a short list of exceptional work in a given field, and eyeballs start whirling.
Still, the Paynes must hold a special place in the pantheon of awards folks love to rag on. I mean, rarely has an organization devoted so much time and energy to formulating a comprehensive and fair awards-nominations process and still found itself routinely vilified by the very people it seeks to glorify. The reason may stem from the Paynes' earliest years, when the awards were more often referred to as the Bippies -- does anyone still remember that term from Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In? -- and were actually voted on by the attendees at the ceremony. Seems it was not uncommon for casts from nominated shows to show up en masse and have a hefty enough voting bloc to swing the awards in their favor, which they did. Naturally, this sparked a bit of resentment in some corners of the theatre scene and not a few charges that the awards were fixed, bogus, meaningless. This awkward state of affairs lasted only a few years, but it was long enough for the Paynes to be discredited in the theatre community, and despite almost 20 years of constant reforms aimed at redeeming the awards' reputation and making them seem more inclusive, equitable, and upright, people still carp about them.
Having seen firsthand how diligent and conscientious the members of the Payne Awards Nominating Committee are, I can't help but think this is a shame. This year, for instance, Committee Chair Larry McGonigal -- talk about your unsung heroes! -- supervised a crew of 15 committed followers of local theatre, all of whom agreed to see at least four productions every month and meet every couple of months throughout the season to discuss the work when it was still fresh in their minds. At their final meeting last month, McGonigal and company spent six hours deliberating over the list of nominees for this year's ballot. (See page 48 for the full list of this year's nominees. I was not part of the recent deliberations; though I've served on the committee with pride in the past, other obligations made it impossible for me to participate.) Any way you cut it, these volunteers -- and it's worth remembering that they are volunteers -- give a lot of time, a lot of thought, and a lot of themselves to this nominations process.
That's not to say that there isn't room to disagree with the committee's decisions. I won't pretend that I haven't rolled my eyes over its list of nominees from time to time -- there's something therapeutic there, I can't deny it. You get this jolt of disappointment over someone or something being overlooked that you feel strongly should not have been, so you kvetch a little, let off a little steam. While not always attractive, it serves a purpose: It helps you get it out of your system. Unfortunately, too often, folks don't let it go at that. They feel compelled to complain at length, to squawk long past the point of reason, to rail about the process, even to attack the integrity of the committee members and the quality of the nominees.
This hardly needs saying, but to get that worked up over this stuff is to miss the point. Nobody's running time trials here. These performances aren't the kind that can be measured with a stopwatch and ranked according to time. This is art. It may be produced on a shoestring, it may be rough, it may be sloppy, but it's still art and as such, isn't subject to a quantifiable standard. Differences in taste, even in a nominations process as carefully modulated as the Payne Awards', must be allowed for.
Moreover, nobody's claiming that the nominations for the Payne Awards represent the "best" theatrical work in Austin. Like so many awards, the Paynes have studiously avoided using that term -- or implying in any way that they define the year's superlative achievements in local theatre. All they claim is to recognize artistry that's outstanding. At their essence, the Payne Awards nominations is one group of dedicated theatregoers saying "this work spoke to us." That's all. All it's about is theatre that made a connection with a portion of its audience.
These points are so obvious that they're hardly worth bringing up (or sounding like a finger-wagging nag in the process). And yet, something in the air seems to call for them. Maybe it's this looming sense of Austin as a growing city, where nothing is as modest or low-key as it once was, even the local theatre awards. Maybe it's some of the comments from Ada Calhoun's Chronicle article "Everyone's a Critic" (July 28), in which people talked seriously about the idea of awards as a tool in securing funding and a means of conferring legitimacy on emerging companies. Maybe it's the spate of excessive eye-rolling I've heard tell of and been witness to of late, a disturbing trend of disparaging comments about local productions and dismissive attitudes toward the talents of everyone associated with them, and of lofty and patronizing judgments about the quality of theatre in Austin. Maybe it's all these things. They all suggest a similar shift in the wind, a troubling shift toward a cold time, when folks narrow their vision to their own concerns, what they think is right and what they want and what they can get, and they shut their door to others, to the needs or the work of anyone who isn't them.
Now, I can imagine eyes rolling right now, over what I'm sure many will feel is a batch of melodramatic hooey. "This is just show people bitching in the half-cocked, self-aggrandizing way that show people bitch." Well, you'd think. But the stuff I'm talking about, the stuff I've heard, goes beyond the casual catty harangues of the dressing room or the post-show round of drinks, with which I'm intimately familiar. ("I know regular theatre people bitching. I've worked with regular theatre people bitching. Sir, that was no regular theatre people bitching.") These remarks have a sharper edge to them, a mean streak that shows through, the kind you see in certain drivers on Austin roads today. Sure, ill-tempered roadhogs have been around forever, but there's something different about the ones you see now, a deep-seated hostility that flares up viciously when they're crossed. The local theatre community may not be all the way there yet, but every careless gripe, every self-indulgent jeer, every bitter tirade, whether it's about the Payne Awards or this company or that show, puts us a step closer.
It's disturbing to see this trend arise when so much positive activity is happening in the theatre community: new facilities being built, sustained growth among young companies and their audiences, more national recognition, stronger directorial and design work, an infusion of new talent and new audiences. It's still more disturbing to hear of this trend being fostered by folks who have been around long enough to know better and by newcomers to the city who seem to be awfully quick to judge what theatre in Austin is. But the most disturbing thing about this trend is the way it ignores -- no, make that: shows reckless disregard for -- one of the foundations of the art form. Theatre rises out of community. Every play that's written, every production that's mounted, every performance, every design, springs from the world of a specific place and time. It may be an original script on an issue of the day or one more revival of You Can't Take It With You, but the theatrical work always issues from people who are part of a larger body -- a neighborhood, a city, a society, a culture -- who find some reason in themselves for making that work live onstage for a part of that larger body to which they belong. And those people can only make that happen with other people who are also part of their community, and the work they create is never complete until it's shared with a community.
Harold Clurman, that sage man of the theatre whose name was invoked so recently in these pages, said it this way: "Though the play is indeed the thing, the play in the theatre is not only the text or the actor or the director, but the thing created when the spirit that moves the dramatist is given a concrete body by all the people in the theatre together. The spirit or idea of the play arises from the society of which the theatre people are part -- from the audience which they aim to serve." We're all in this together. And when we deny that, when we deny any part of our community, whether it's the audience or our colleagues on the stage, we take away from the very thing we're trying to do. We fracture the community, which in turn cripples the theatre.
Let's try to remember that in this season of eye-rolling. Turn those orbs upward if you must, but don't wait too long to bring them down and fix them where they belong, on the people around you.
The B. Iden Payne Awards ceremony will be held Monday, Sept. 18, 7pm, at Scottish Rite Theatre. Call 454-9700.