Back in 2007, Chloe Veltman, then theater critic for SF Weekly, wrote what I felt to be an inappropriately cynical review of a play of mine, which concluded with her daring me to crucify myself. I sent her a rather pointed email letting her know what I thought about that. To my surprise, she responded by inviting me out for a drink.
We met and got along well, talking mostly about how critics and artists don’t talk to one another nearly enough. Neither of us shared the famous New York Times belief that critics should not fraternize with artists. We preferred the opposite, which seemed to us could only benefit both groups and, more importantly, the art itself. How can two people really understand one another to any significant degree without the pressure of a direct, face-to-face exchange? Even the digital realm, despite its immediacy, is too safely distanced. We make theater. We know the value of doing things live.
The next day Chloe ran into Rob Avila, critic for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, who said he’d just had the same conversation with director John Wilkins. Chloe got us all together, along with actor Beth Wilmurt and John’s wife, producer Kimball Wilkins. We ate, drank, and talked seriously about the theater. Mostly we talked about how talking about the theater is as vital to the theater as food is to the body, and that the various strands and strata of the local theater community could benefit from intersecting more often and directly. John said the six of us weren’t nearly enough, that there should be forty people at the table. So a few weeks later we threw a “Theater Salon” for forty invited guests on the stage of Last Planet Theater in San Francisco’s dicey Tenderloin district. To our delight, it went over very well.
Since then we have continued to throw salons roughly every four months, each a bit different. We’ve held them in the lobbies, bars, and stages of theaters, as well as artists’ homes. The number of guests has ranged from ten to sixty. We’ve seated people formally, with place cards and a five-course meal on white linen table cloths, and informally, with too many people crowded around too small a table reaching over one another for pizza and wine. Among others, our salon topics have included Violence, the question “What is Fringe?” and a controversial trend in which theaters were suddenly asking their publics for massive financial bailouts needed within weeks or even days.
What is consistent from salon to salon is (1) we pick a specific topic or question for discussion, (2) ask our guests to arrive on time and bring a bottle of their favorite beverage, and (3) that it is a non-networking event where everyone is invited to (4) eat, drink, and talk seriously about the theater. We make a point of inviting a mix of past attendees and newbies, gathering at the table people from all corners of the community. People like California Shakespeare Theater’s artistic director Jon Moscone have sat between the likes of San Francisco State University acting student Allison Combs and director/actor/video designer Erin Gilley; San Francisco Fringe Festival managing director Richard Livingston has sat across the table from Oakland-based Italian set designer Giulio Perrone, himself seated next to A.C.T. movement teacher Stephen Buescher. It isn’t just the critics and artists who should talk to one another more, but everyone. What does the stage manager think? Or the actor’s novelist husband who sees a lot of theater without the burden of behind-the-scenes experience? What is the artistic director’s perspective, without the editing to impress a board of trustees? What is the fight choreographer’s take on aesthetic elitism?
Another consistent attribute of the salons is that, once we declare the evening “over,” it inevitably continues for another few hours during which the most interesting things are said. I don’t know that any salon conversation ever finishes, much less conclusively. But a good many conversations begin. And this is the point, to spur a rolling exchange of ideas and opinions that is serious, enjoyable, and not at all about getting the next gig.
Those of us involved in organizing the salons have debated endlessly their format, tweaking it in various ways. Our struggles to identify a topic that we can all agree on are epic. And though we’ve often questioned the precise effectiveness of the salons, we’ve never doubted their ultimate value. No matter how we organize or disorganize them, they always seem to turn out pretty well in the end, serving as a rare gathering of people with differing points of view and a shared interest in theater as something worth arguing about.
I've personally taken many things from these events. For one, Chloe Veltman and I are now good friends. Also, at some point in a given evening my assumptions are inevitably turned upside down—like the time scenic designer Jamie Mulligan stood up and asked the group gathered for the salon on Fringe theater how many of them had actually seen anything in the recent San Francisco Fringe Festival. A wave of shame and embarrassment swept across the room as only a few hands went up. Mine was not among them, despite the fact that my own Fringe company, Art Street Theatre, had made its 1995 debut in the Festival and continued to make the Festival’s producer, EXIT Theatre, its home for the next ten years. Was I now already among the hypocrites who mindlessly champion the Fringe over the mainstream without bothering to attend Fringe productions, much less my community’s annual celebration of the Fringe? Yup! After that, I made a point of getting my butt back into Fringe venues like Noh Space and The Garage to keep in touch with what local Fringe artists are doing. I also began to more consciously question the trajectory and aesthetic of my own work within the context of that salon’s über question, “What is Fringe?”
Without a doubt, the most important thing I personally have gained from the salons is that in my daily artistic life I now feel both freer and better able to ask people who do not like a given work of mine why that is, and to have a productive, critical, enjoyable conversation about it. For example, when a longstanding colleague and friend, A.C.T. conservatory director Melissa Smith, said to me with some fervor, “Not my favorite work of yours, Mark,” about The Companion Piece, a devised show I’d directed at Z Space, I smiled and let it go.
But immediately after we parted I regretted that. The very next time we met, I asked Melissa what about the piece she’d responded to so strongly. She talked about sequences that left her confused about what exactly she was being asked to take in. She also noted strong images and moments that had stayed with her, though she didn’t feel she could stitch them together into a cohesive whole and found this ultimately frustrating. The Companion Piece juxtaposed the long-since perfected act of an aging vaudeville headliner with a younger duo struggling and failing to create their own act. I talked a bit about the fragmentary structure of the piece, which juxtaposed discreet, contrasting episodes of failed and successful attempts to create or communicate that are typical of longstanding collaborative relationships. I noted how we’d intentionally put the actors in a position to fail—actually fail—at certain things in front of the audience. This led Melissa and I into a discussion of acting and the variable nature of truth in performance within different aesthetic contexts. In the end, we enjoyed a fruitful conversation in which I came to understand her experience, she likewise better understood my intentions with the work, and we connected the subject to other aspects of the theater.
As colleagues we tend not to say much, if anything, when we don’t care for one another’s work. It’s not only a matter of egos, but economics. Too much honesty could conceivably cost you a job down the line. Yet the ability to talk productively, not preciously or guardedly, about even strong differences in values, aesthetics, and experiences would seem vital to a forward-moving artistic community.
The Theater Salons have helped me care less about swaying people toward my point of view, or even whether they accept it, and care more about understanding theirs and making mine understood in return. I’ve seen in the salons how the process of asking specific, honest questions can draw out more detailed, honest responses from people. This process of understanding has gradually taken ever-greater precedence for me over the question of whether I or anyone likes or does not like something, which one must admit is never really that interesting a question anyway. Who cares what people like or don’t like? What do they understand and feel? That’s the question worth grappling with.
Considering the sheer effort it takes to make theater, we lose something vital when we separate ourselves from one another or the audience through a lack of direct, face-to-face, truly critical dialogue about the work. By neglecting this dialogue, we neglect a key benefit offered to us by the theater, the chance for a community to be inclusive, collaborative and curious across footlights, proscenium arches, aisles, and other borders. In their small way, the Theater Salons attempt to eat away at these borders with a live virus grown from various strains of enthusiastic, engaged conversation about the theater’s pressing, annoying, persistent, mysterious, troubling, critical questions. Is talking about the theater as vital to theater as food is to the body? Is the American theater experiencing a prolonged failure of nerve? What role does the audience play, in both theory and practice? What, really, constitutes “political theater,” and is it possible, viable, even desired? Is elitism really such a bad thing? What roles do and should violence play in what we do? These and many other questions need constant debate, free of concern for ego or career, if both the art and substance of what we do is to be of any importance to the communities we aim to serve.
The topic of our next salon is criticism—by which we mean not just what the people titled “critic” write, but also the quality of critical discussion between artistic colleagues. It is a topic we debated hotly before finally selecting it. That alone tells me it’s worth discussing. It is also a topic that beats at the very heart of the Theater Salons. We’ll see how it goes. At the salon on Violence, someone almost got hit by an orange for saying that a bad review is a violent act!
I have conducted no scientific study on the local impact of these salons. I know how they have impacted me, in the ways I’ve described and otherwise. John Wilkins said early on that we would know the Theater Salons are working when a guest throws a salon and we’re not invited. This has already happened once that I am aware of. I hope it will continue. The next Theater Salon is scheduled for November 13. If on that night everyone who reads this throws a salon, large or even small, maybe these grains of sand might begin to nudge a landslide. If we who make and attend theater don’t talk seriously and with pleasure about what we do, who will?