Thursday, July 29, 2004

Tribal Roots

“[M]any of the shows being marketed as theatre nowadays are a hybrid of business-venture and public masturbation. Theatre as fleeting and momentary tribal experience, where reality is heightened or suspended, doesn't happen nearly as often as it should.”

Yeah, I know, I know. I’ve cited Nietzsche, David Foster Wallace and Alan Moore, and now I’m quoting my drinking buddies. What can I say? I’m a well-rounded little bitch.

I really like that description of theatre; calling it a tribal experience. Because it really is, and for some reason we often try to deny it. It reminded me why I chose playwriting (as opposed to the more lucrative career of CEO of Girls Gone Wild, Inc.). People often compare theatre to film and television, but it’s at a much wider remove than I suspect people think. Theatre, at its best, more resembles a late night commune with the local tribe’s shaman than it does with “Chinatown” or “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

Hell, theatre more resembles a live football game or church than it does with film or television.

I imagine that, on some level, there are people who are going to theatre to seek that stripped down, no-frills and purely communal experience that cannot be derived from the flashiness and glowiness of film and television. It’s hard to describe what I’m looking for with a play because what I’m looking for is literally indescribable (I’m not looking for a genre, tone or style when I go see a play the way I look for those things when I’m channel surfing).

What’s happening primarily with Broadway theatre (and, by association, Off- and Off-off Broadway theatre, since many theatre-makers—consciously or not—try to emulate the trends of the professionals) is that the mentality of film and television is being adopted with productions, therefore augmenting film & television’s attempt at hegemony over our imaginations. The problem with this mentality is that it helps film & television, but hurts theatre.

In other words, with a Broadway play, you’re getting a TV show without all the fun. It’s like taking heroin but without the high. In my view, theatre as an EVENT (in the same way that a TV miniseries is an EVENT) or as a live film leeches out the intrinsic value of the medium: it’s the worst of both worlds because you’re not able to enjoy the fleeting, temporal and personal experience that theatre can provide, and you’re not able to enjoy the glowing, larger-than-life spectacular experience that a film can provide.

Huge crowds at Broadway shows do not create a communal experience. Those huge arena spaces rarely lend to that symbiotic sharing of energy between the audience and the actors (yes, there are exceptions).

Theatre has an uncanny ability to both take you out of your own head and force you to burrow deeper into your own head. There is magic, true, honest-to-gorsh magic going on with theatre; I never believe for a split second (in real time) that I’m watching a married couple in their living room fret over their son’s drinking problem, but at the same time, I absolutely believe it. It is one of the best mediums that can both get you “in the moment” and detach yourself from the outside world.

You don’t need elaborate sets, lights and costumes to take audiences with you, to get under people’s skin, to enlighten, chasten or elate them. I watch a play with only two actors (one of whom I know personally), sitting on two wooden blocks, in a theatre I’ve been to many times, and their fictitious conversation can make me break out in a sweat because I know who these people are (me and my ex-girlfriend), where they are (in my shitty apartment) and what they’re looking for (me: for her to stay, her: the door). It’s hypnotic and trance-like, and if done properly can take you to an altered-state that film and television cannot.

I don’t mean to sound all mystical and new-agey. I’m really talking about those theatrical experiences that can’t be described in a blurb or sound-byte (and fortunately, there are still some theatre-makers out there who realize that theatre can survive without a mass-market catch-phrase) that both eliminate your profound sense of isolation (i.e., “Wow, someone has that anxiety, too? I thought it was just me.”) and force you to look at the world through a different point of view. I’m talking about those plays that change your worldview (if only for a day) that are completely indescribable to a person who hasn’t seen it.

I’d imagine having peyote around the campfire with the chief would be a similar experience.

I love seeing (at our shows) different audience members reacting differently to scenes (both over the course of the run and during each night). Sure, I like the instant gratification of everyone laughing heartily at a joke, or gasping in unison at something horrifying, but I LOVE hearing scattered laughter from a line not intended as a joke, or seeing the fluctuation of unanimous response night-after-night, or seeing scenes garner laughter on Thursday but gasps on Friday. It is a tribal experience, of us all coming together to try out this new thing, and we don’t really know where we’re going (but we know we’re getting there together).

Surprisingly enough, although I’m a playwright and co-artistic director of a theatre company, I’m often trying to find ways to bring budgets down (I guess, after talking to many managing directors of Off-off theatre companies and hearing their frustration towards having to always rope in the creative people and explain to them real-world financial limitations, this is rare). Perhaps this is both naïve and arrogant (but, let’s face it, both words could be used to describe me), but I’ve always believed that, if the script works, the actors “get it” and Pete shapes it correctly, we don’t need too much money for sets, costumes and props. I’m always curious to see if we can get enough audiences to get in that weird Apollonian and Dionysian place based solely on the fictitious conversation I’ve written, the actors and the direction.

Pete then snaps me out of that altered-state and tells me things like, “Dude, we have to PAY for the space!”

Then I’m back in the real world.

Worshipping snakes,

James “Chief Badonka-Donk” Comtois

July 29, 2004

Sunday, July 25, 2004

Odds & Ends

Pete has a program which follows the traffic to this site. Well, he recently showed the gang that last month, 99 percent of our traffic was from the United States, and 1 percent (i.e., some guy) was from the Islamic Republic of Iran. At first when Pete showed me the table I thought it was a joke, but no. Someone from Iran checked our Web site out.

Nosedive Productions: Big in Iran!


Well, Nosedive was going to hold its semi-annual fundraising sketch/variety show benefit in early August, but the theatre space we were using was taken from us…by none other than my SISTER’S theatre company. I mean, of all the luck.

I’m going to have to kill her, of course. After I see her show, of course. Support first, then murder.

So, our upcoming fundraiser, “Nosedive’s Pottymouth Social,” will be going up in September. We’ll keep you posted.


Apparently Pete took some issue with my last Jamespeak, “Hacks,” and he’s posted his rebuttal on his ‘blog (and Philucifer has posted his). Sure, I guess I’m being a little too James-centric here on the subject, but then again, this is my page. I don’t mean to give the impression that an actor shouldn’t have boundaries and stick with them (yes, I’ll admit, there is something admirable about that—in an industry where people are constantly getting exploited and fucked over, actors need to set limits for themselves), but I do find it fundamentally alien that an actor absolutely refuses to say naughty words if they’re in a script. It STILL eludes me (I’ve never had a problem with “blue” language, either using or hearing it). And to never even attempt to stretch beyond your boundaries? I mean, there are boundaries and there are BOUNDARIES, people. This is, after all, just a big game of make-believe and pretend. I just don’t understand that type of timidity.

Another tangent: I also find it weird when professional film actresses who absolutely refuse to do nudity (for ANY reason) in film will pose nearly nude and…let’s call a spade a spade here…ultra-slutty on the covers of Maxim or FHM, the ultimate goal being to arouse the prurient interests of men (or “making dudes want to jack off,” to the layman). Yeah, I sometimes just don’t get people.

I guess I’m just saying that these types of actors don’t particularly interest me.



Although “The Dying Goldfish,” our next big show, had been tentatively scheduled for October, it looks as though it will most likely happen in March/April. This is basically due to money (or lack thereof). But fear naught, my little lambs! We’ll most likely be staging my adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” (no, I’m not joking; I was commissioned to write it for a theatre company that shit the bed, so now it’s ours) sometime in December.

At first, Pete & I were a little bummed about this. But then we realized, you know what? This is good. Because, 2005 will mark the five-year anniversary of Nosedive Productions (“Monkeys,” our debut production, being staged in February 2000). So we think it would be kind of kick-ass to do our two big shows (“The Dying Goldfish” in the spring and “McTeague” in the fall) on our fifth birthday as a company (and that’s, like, our 21st birthday in human years).

Let this be a lesson to me for writing plays that require elaborate sets.

Next time I’ll write a play that takes place on a bare stage I swear.


I guess this retrenching and regrouping is fine. Hell, it’s better than fine. Although I do want Nosedive to be this unstoppable and constantly moving thing (I was going to say “force,” but let’s not kid ourselves here), especially since I would like to try for us to ride on the crest of our success with “Mayonnaise Sandwiches” (“success,” in the world of self-produced Off-off Broadway theatre, being a very relative word here), I don’t want us to be like a shark (constantly having to move forward and constantly having to feed). That sort of non-stop momentum could (would) turn us into…well, a company. As in, an entity that puts the cart before the horse.

Plus, I have seen some companies that were too stubborn or proud to retrench, pull back or regroup, and prefer to soldier on—despite lacking the finances or manpower to legitimately do so—completely falling apart as a result.

I’ve always been very happy that the plays have come first and the company (that is, the entity known as Nosedive Productions) second. I think that if we spend more time worrying about seasons, mission statements and publicity than about the plays themselves (i.e., if the form takes precedence over the content), we’re screwed. As most theatre-makers know (that is, the ones that aren’t completely entrenched in the institutionalized theatre world), making theatre is about assessing, reassessing and re-reassessing your direction, goals and motives. Fortunately, we have three plays in the queue that we’re all pretty happy with and eager to work on (the one big perk of being an unemployed bum is that I have more time to write plays), so now we just have to figure out which order we’ll be presenting them in.

Right now I’m pretty pumped to try our hand at a “crowd pleasing” (again, a very relative phrase here) holiday show. Pete and Patrick have been trying to tell me that my adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” is good (since I’m needy and insecure, I need them to constantly tell me how wonderful I am), so I decided to read it again for the first time in about a year. You know what? They weren’t kidding.

I’m terrific.


This five-year anniversary also has me excited. This could be a super-cool thing, not just doing two full-length ambitious projects back-to-back, but also to see/show that we have lasted as a company for a half decade.

If you had told me and Pete five years ago that we would have produced eight original pays in under five years and still be alive & kicking, we’d wonder if you did in fact see bugs on your skin.

I’m really amazed that we’ve lasted even this long, considering what lazy fuckups Pete and I are. It’s also amazing to see that a company established by a couple of lazy alcoholic fuckwits (who honestly try to spend more time getting drunk and tormenting Pete’s housecat than coming up with a respectable business plan) has outlasted and outlived other companies formed by more organized and driven people. Hell, we still have yet to make business cards for ourselves!

Maybe that’ll be our big surprise for the five-year anniversary: we all finally get business cards.

Nah, too ambitious.

Not having much of a point this Jamespeak,

James “Whadda You Bitches Want From Me?” Comtois

July 25, 2004

Tuesday, July 20, 2004


Well, although publicly bad-mouthing another theatre company is considered to be bad juju, I think this merits it. A friend of mine sent this to me after having a pretty shitty experience at the Winnipeg Fringe Festival (fortunately, she had enough $$$ to return home). I keep forgetting that there are just some genuinely scummy people working in this field.

We Don't Strand People in Canada: THAT'S the Nosedive Promise!



“I write you from a house in Winnipeg, Manitoba. I came here for the Fringe Festival, on a show I auditioned for a week and a half prior. I was too trusting. I left my new job, subletted my Brooklyn apartment for the summer, to begin a fringe theater festival tour, which promised bookings in Winnipeg, Minneapolis and Dublin.


“Yesterday we had our 4th show, which had an audience of 5 in a 286 seat house. The problem? When we arrived here, we realized that the ‘artistic director’ had not brought a single poster, flyer, postcard, press kit or program. When we said we wanted flyers, he and his partner acted like it had never occurred to them. We were encouraged to focus on "the art", while we practically waded through thousands of flyers for other shows that virtually filled the streets of Winnipeg! (And for those of you that know me, you know that I don't get speeches about focusing on the art, I give them.) The festival was pissed,
because the company had falsified information about specs, in order to get a great venue in the festival, but then didn't care about filling it.

“The long and the short of it, the Fringe suggested Jaime (the ‘co-artistic director’ and ‘lead actor’) pull the plug on the show, but rather than discussing it with the actors, he booked an airline ticket, cancelled the show, and skipped town, discussing nothing with any of us, and leaving all of us to figure out how we're getting back. It's pretty clear that there will be no stipend either.

“I'm staying with a lovely Canadian woman named Ruth, and given that I have no job, and no place to live in New York, I am returning home for a couple of weeks, then heading to Cali for a vaca. The festival is only half-way over, I'm going to volunteer (this is a great festival, if you ever have the opportunity to come up here do it, but not without a contract!)

“Please take this moment to visit the Firebrand Theory Theater Company's website:

“It's so important that we stick together, in this business especially when we're taken advantage of. Right now, I feel pretty powerless, but I do have the power of word of mouth.

“Please visit the site, make note of the names (they're out of the Gene Frankel theater), and watch out for it on backstage.

“Warn your friends, and beware: they are not legit.”


This will be a vague and tangential response (as most of my responses to other ‘blogs being vague and tangential) to Patrick’s Philucifer ‘blog (I know these things are all about anonymity, but let’s get real here. If you’re reading this, you know who Philucifer is).

There really are a number of people in this film and theatre world who doesn’t take their craft seriously, yet insist on being taken seriously by others.

This actress from Utah wanted to be taken seriously. I’m a bit amazed that she thought she would.

I agree with Philucifer (obviously); if you have a very timid and close-minded ideology, you shouldn’t act. Or write. Or direct. In my view, an actor who says that they refuse to say certain words or play certain roles is kind of like a dentist who says that he’s not going to deal with people with gum disease.

I also find it fraudulent and cowardly to refuse to do certain things as an actor* because “it may damage their career.” Well, isn’t that really the point? I mean, how can you consider yourself a good ANYTHING unless you dare to take more than just calculated risks, but risks that could ruin you? If you’re not afraid of completely destroying your reputation, you’re a hack.

I remember seeing Tarantino being interviewed by Charlie Rose, and they were talking about a filmmaker Tarantino admired (I’ll omit his name because, personally, I find said filmmaker to be a hack, and I don’t want to undermine the point, so let’s call the filmmaker “Ricky”). Rose had asked Tarantino if a critical and commercial disaster Ricky made proved that Ricky was a hack. Tarantino’s reply was: “Hacks don’t go that far. Hacks don’t fail that spectacularly.” That always stuck with me.

In a lot of ways, you see the greatness of Shakespeare by seeing or reading some of his horrifically awful plays (“Titus Andronicus,” anyone? I defy any playwright to write something that awful; I wish I could). I often admire very ambitious failures.

Many actors reading this may be saying, “But, James, that’s not fair. You’re a writer. You get to control and create your projects. We, as actors, are stuck with OTHER people’s projects, and at the mercy of others.” For those of you out there who are thinking that, I do have to say: grow up, get over it. Or stop acting. Seriously; it’s not like there’s a shortage of actors. That attitude, to me, is completely invalid and I’m totally unsympathetic to it. You chose the craft, deal with the pros and the cons. If you take your craft seriously, then, go whole-hog with each project you accept. If the director and/or writer are/is incompetent, still do everything to make it what they want. That way, even if you’re in an embarrassing show, you can feel good about yourself and your craft.

And know you’re not a hack.

(Tangent: I’m amazed that the actors who always have this complaint are often reticent to accept a role in an experimental work but consider it winning the jackpot if they land a role as Neighbor #6 in some shitty Julia Roberts “meet cute” romantic comedy.)

Being a TV repairman is not a profession that allows for bravery or experimentation. Being an actor, playwright, director or designer is. If you want a profession that requires steadiness, stability and livable and consistent income, go into TV repair. You’re never going to be required to do something that may conflict with your (close-minded) ideology.

Ruining his own life,

James “Walking Career-Killer” Comtois

July 20, 2004

*And by “certain things,” I don’t mean upstaging Divine in “Pink Flamingos,” people. But then again, I don’t think anyone would describe Divine as a hack.

Saturday, July 17, 2004

Trends, Industry and Despair

This will be a kinda/sorta response to both Mac’s recent blog post and George Hunka’s blog posts (here and here).

I think it’s basically mandatory that every playwright goes through a recurring phase where they think, “Why the FUCK are we doing this?” Mac calls it “gazing into the abyss.” I know it well.

I don’t have anything specific to say in response to these postings, any more than I have much to say about Larry Kramer lamenting that theatre is dead, simply because I am very detached from the theatre industry. Personally, I think Mr. Kramer’s anger at the industry and medium of theatre (because his play closed damn near overnight) treads a little too close to the “Whiny Little Bitch” persuasion, but I understand his frustration.

The truth is that the reasons why some plays become successful and why some plays fail are completely unknown. One year, plays with small casts are in, the next, huge ensembles are what are sought. Sometimes audiences (and I mean in large quantities) want musicals, sometimes straight dramas. We never know what it’s going to be and we never will.

Obviously, institutional theatres have to second-guess and follow these trends, simply because their motives aren’t creating art, but making money (I’m not saying this is bad, this is just the driving force of companies and corporations). Since producers and businessmen can’t create, they can only follow trends and join the bandwagon (hence the onslaught of ironic and “edgy” musicals: “Urinetown:” “Menopause: The Musical;” “Musical: The Musical;” “Jonestown: The Musical”). A few years ago staged adaptations of films were the trend on Broadway (“The Full Monty,” “The Producers,” “The Graduate”). In a year or two, something else will take that place (and we won’t know what that something is ‘til we get there).

Basically, if I think too much on this and believe that this is what the medium is capable of I’d be in that nihilistic despair.

My only advice to all of us is: “Chill, baby. Just go with the flow.” ‘Cause really, if we don’t, we’ll get aneurisms.

When Nosedive produces one of my plays, I’m always praying that it won’t coincide with an up-and-coming trend and therefore bury us within the flotsam-and-jetsam (which would have happened if “Never Stop Rocking,” our aborted rock opera with puppets, got made, since it would have theoretically been scheduled to open just months before the premiere of the show “Crank Yankers” and the musical “Avenue Q”). But then again, I just can’t worry about that shit (one of the shows mentioned above, “Jonestown,” was actually written by a friend & colleague of mine YEARS before “Urinetown” opened—I absolutely wish the play the best but I do fear it’s shown up on the scene just in time to catch the death-rattle of this ironic musical trend).

People are interested in going to the theatre, just maybe not in mass droves. So what? Mr. Kramer’s play did not succeed this time around because there isn’t enough large-volume interest right now in tragic AIDS plays. Again: so what? Why do we have to adopt Hollywood’s blockbuster mentality to a much smaller, more intimate and (frankly) weirder medium?

If I sound like I’m harping on Larry Kramer, I don’t mean to be. What bothers me (and I mean it both pisses me off and breaks my heart) is reading him say that he never wants to write another play again. I feel bad that a seasoned and talented playwright, in the twilight of his career, is going to be wrapping things up on such a sour note, but I also think, “Well, boo-hoo, bitch. This shit happens. You of all people should know this by now.”

The nice thing about theatre is that it is relatively cheap to make. Sure, we always lament about budgets and not getting enough money for our productions, but when you compare the cost of making the lowest budget of low-budget plays versus the cost of making the lowest budget of low-budget films, you see the huge chasm in between the two (even the lowest budgeted indie films I’ve seen cost twice as much as our most expensive play). Retrenching, regrouping and reassessing is not the worst thing in the world if you stage a play and it fails.

Another nice thing about theatre is that you can stage plays relatively fast. A play can be written, rehearsed and staged in well under a year.

(Also another nice thing is that, if that play sucks or bombs, it can be quickly and easily forgotten.)

Mac wrote in his SlowLearner blog: “Somehow we're not saying things that make people want to stick around and listen.” That’s really the problem, isn’t it? And, this may sound harsh, but if we continue to write/produce plays that aren’t speaking to people, we deserve to have dwindling audiences. Despair never solves anything. Blaming audiences isn’t going to help, either.

And I believe an almost unforgivable sin for playwrights is to try to follow the bandwagon of whatever trend is happening. It makes sense for businessmen to do that (they can’t write, so all they can do is see what worked last month and replicate it). It makes no sense for actual creators to do that (and if they do and the play fails, well, no sympathy for self-inflicted injuries).

At the same time, trying to guess what will speak to audiences won’t work either, since (as I wrote before) it is a complete and utter mystery as to what shows will speak to people and what shows won’t.

If this sounds like the most frustrating thing in the world…well, it is. That’s why most of us playwrights dip into despair more than just a few times.

Right now I do have hope for the medium of theatre, just not necessarily the industry. When I see shows like “True West” (Broadway), “Bug” (Off-Broadway) or anything by Tom X. Chao (Off-off Broadway), I have to admit: theatre’s got some game.

But then again, you’re talking to a guy who has never made money from his playwriting, never had a play of his staged at the Public and never had an attractive middle-aged British Lady of Affluence want to act as his patroness. And I’m super-broke.

Shit. Now I’m back in despair.

Fuck this theatre shit,

James “I’m Happy” Comtois

July 17, 2004

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Wednesday, July 14, 2004


Sorry about the delay. I’ve been…busy.

A few shout-outs before we start:

I just saw the Blunt Theatre Company’s outdoor production of “Measure For Measure,” directed by Jamie Taylor. It had always been my favorite comedies by Shakespeare to read, and my least favorite to watch. ‘Til this production. I gotta admit, that Taylor girl’s got some game.

Also, these weird human emoticon photos that Pete’s put up on this page were taken by Damian Wampler on closing night of “Mayonnaise Sandwiches.” Check out his Web site at

Now, on with the show…


Although I always have issues with film critic Charles Taylor, there was one article he wrote recently, “Let's Save Literature From The Literati,” that I actually liked and agree with, although he does give television too much credit (I think that the ability for us to follow labyrinthine plots in television series is more due to the part of our brains that can retain gossip rather than the part of our brains that can follow complex, abstract thought). It’s a challenge to…well, let’s call a spade a spade…the literary snobs who bemoan that our culture reads less and less (you know, that “Poor Us” attitude that permeates all forms of the self-proclaimed intelligencia) and therefore believe that our culture has become more stupid and lazy.

Taylor writes:

“[Andrew] Solomon, the author of a much-praised study of depression, ‘The Noonday Demon,’ is writing in response to a recent poll that showed reading for pleasure is down among Americans of every race, age, gender and economic class. He's concerned and depressed about that, and he should be. It is depressing, as Solomon notes, that we have one of the most literate societies in history but a decreasing number of readers.

What's wrong with his piece, and with almost every other literary attack on visual culture, is the inability to understand that there is such a thing as visual literacy, and the assumption that reading is a mentally active experience and looking a passive one.”

To put it another way, does reading “Harry Potter” mean you’re an active intellect and watching “Safe” mean you’re a passive boob?

The extrapolation from this literati attitude is that people are becoming more intellectually lazy and willfully ignorant. I don’t think that’s necessarily true. Honest.

(Pete, having just read that I admitted to liking something Charles Taylor wrote AND not believing we’re drowning in a cesspool of imbeciles, is probably looking out the window to see if it’s raining frogs.)

Every medium has its share of junk (television, of course, more than others, although I still can’t get enough of “Six Feet Under” and “elimiDATE”) and its share of pretense. But to consider one medium more “highbrow” than another is really…well…dumb (this is also because I am an ardent champion of comic books, an unfortunately ridiculed medium. This stance, obviously, very rarely gets me chicks). I mean, if all us theatre-makers were judged by the same aesthetic criteria as “Seussical,” many of us would flee screaming.

We all lament about our degrading culture and how we’re all becoming more and more stupid. Maybe it’s true, I don’t know (all of you who know me well have heard me give that rant ad nauseum). But there’s no real hierarchy of media. A “reader” isn’t more or less of an intellect than a film-watcher. A novel isn’t intrinsically any better or worse than a play, and a play isn’t any better or worse than a comic book.

(Many of you reading the above may be thinking, “Well, duh, James. Really profound.” I know, I know, it sounds pretty obvious, but with all this lamentation and elitism tied to certain creative media, I think it bears repeating.)

It’s just as good to be theatre- or film-literate as booksmart.

Alas, my reading has slowed since I was younger. I’m not sure if this means I’ve become more lazy, or stupid (I haven’t ruled it out). But I really don’t think that’s the case. I do enjoy experiencing works from other media. In other words, although my annual reading output has dropped, I still like highbrow shit. But I don’t feel inferior or illiterate because I’ve been watching films, plays and dance more often than I’ve been reading books. And this elitism and demand for constant highbrow appeal (exemplified by pundits like Andrew Solomon and Ann Douglas) provides circular logic. Why would we want to read if all the authors wrote with the idea that we’re too stupid for their work? Why would we go to plays if playwrights and directors inherently believed that we, as audiences, are lazy idiots?

As a writer/producer of plays, I rarely see passive zombies at Nosedive’s shows. It’s extremely rare that people come out of our plays and not “get” them. Neither Pete nor I have been able to outsmart our audiences, no matter how complex we try to make the play (either visually or aurally). There are many smart people out there who are eager to try new experiences with different media, whether or not they’re constantly reading for pleasure.

Although we may all wanna try to curb our “elimiDATE” watching at least a little bit.

Intellectually slothful,

James “Lowbrow” Comtois

July 14, 2004

Thursday, July 01, 2004

Fascism & Anarchy

First off, I would like to make a few cyberspace shout-outs before I get into this. If anyone hasn’t read Mac Rogers’s Slow Learner blog, you need to do so. He’s got some wonderful thoughts on theatre, and his candor and honesty is great. His thoughts on the writer versus the director are very much worth checking out. Plus, he’s much more eloquent and polite than I am.

And seriously, check out the Philucifer blog as well.

Also, thanks to the Off-Off-Broadway Review for giving an award to a bunch of scummy ruffians such as ourselves. It’s times like this I feel like Steve Martin in “The Jerk” when he finds his name in the phone book and erupts, “I’m SOMEbody!”

Now on with the show.


“To me, the two poles of politics are fascism, which...from the original Roman concept, the symbol for it was a bundle of bound twigs. The idea being, ‘In unity there is strength.’ … The roots of the word anarchy are an archos, no leaders, which is not really about the kind of chaos that most people imagine when the word anarchy is mentioned. I think that anarchy is, to the contrary, about taking personal responsibility for yourself. I believe that fascism is about abandoning your personal responsibility to the group or to society. You say, ‘In unity there is strength,’ which inevitably will become, ‘In uniformity there is strength.’ It's better if all those sticks are the same size and length, because then they'll make a tidier bundle.”

—Alan Moore

This little (essay? Blog? Rant?) ties in, I hope, with my previous “Pigs & Pussies” and “Feedback,” not to mention my “Never Stop Rocking” dealies. You may be noticing a certain motif in these Jamespeaks. With luck, I should be able to get most of this shit out of my system soon.

Regardless of what form of organizational control you choose to impose you’re your theatre company, democracy is not the answer. Democracy does not work with art.

My thoughts on fascism on a purely political (not ethical) level are that it is a misguided attempt at efficiency. Fascist organizations’ problem with democracy is that nothing ever gets done in a democratic society; you have too many people voting on too many things and committees and sub-committees and sub-sub-committees and nothing ever gets done. Fascism, on the other hand, has just one person (or small group of people) making all the decisions and executing them. No waiting. No debating. No debating on the debates. It’s efficient.

The problem with fascism on a State level, however, is that it’s very inefficient. You ultimately end up with the same person—usually a military expert—making decisions on the military as well as agriculture and housing development. Things actually don’t end up getting done because uninformed and overwhelmed parties are making decisions.

When it comes to governing a nation, fascism doesn’t work. Neither does anarchy. When it comes to governing a theatre company, fascism does work. So does anarchy.

Fascism and anarchy can work with art because the group is so small (and should always be, if true creativity can exist) and the number of hats that need to be worn is relatively low.

I have spoken with the heads of a number of Off-Off theatre companies who have decided to run their companies in a democratic, egalitarian fashion, and more often than not, they seem to be at a frustrated crossroads and finding that something is very wrong. Everyone has an equal say in everything. More time is spent debating over insignificant bits of minutiae and less on creating the project. Too much emphasis is put on Making Everyone Happy.* Projects become more and more unwieldy. It’s less about the work and more about giving everyone an equal chance, apologizing and refusing to admit that there’s some megalomania involved in doing theatre.

Because there is, let’s face it. You’re creating theatre because you have something to say. Something that no one else is saying. You want to be heard.

Why do we, as theatre companies, spend half our time creating a soapbox and the rest of the time avoiding using that soapbox? If you have that soapbox, why the fuck do you feel the need to share it?

There are very fascist elements in Nosedive Productions. Yeah, let’s face it. In some ways, it’s egalitarian, but in most, it’s not. We’re not a charity group dedicated to fostering and allowing different voices to develop. With some very rare, generally vague and theoretical exceptions,** the shows are written by me and directed by Pete. I do detect a slight twinge of incredulity and contempt when I’m asked by other Theatre People if we plan to bring in new playwrights and directors (i.e., “Isn’t that a little egocentric? Why aren’t you fostering creativity, James?”). The answer, of course, is no. If you’re a young and aspiring young playwright who wants their play read or produced, start your own damn company.

The times Pete & I have felt bad about our fascistic elements and tried to compromise for the sake of some actor/designer/manager, it ends up making things worse for everyone. The oppressed person in question resents us more, ends up getting more frustrated and often leaves.

Creativity gets stunted with democracy, with egalitarianism, with Mass Consensus. Art-by-committee is just a bad idea.

Artists are often fascists. You have some sort of vision, idea, concept, and you’re going to do everything in your power to get it made. You don’t ask for permission. You don’t debate. You don’t have fact-checking sub-committees to research the merits of this vision.

There are very anarchic elements in Nosedive Productions. We don’t breath down the designers’/actors’/managers’ necks. Very rarely does someone involved with Nosedive need permission (Pete’s motto has always been, “If you want to become involved with Nosedive, pick an aspect of the production that no one else wants and start doing it. If you do it well, you’re in.”). As the fascists, Pete & I tell everyone the project and deadline, and expect it to be done by then (the project is never up for debate). But we don’t micromanage. We’re very chaotic, and are very much into the idea that each person takes responsibility for himself or herself in getting this bumblebee to fly. I mean, let’s face it. If the actor doesn’t learn his lines, he will look stupid up on that stage, not I (I will be at a nearby bar getting blitzed). Pete doesn’t nag me each week for the latest script (with the exception of the horrific “Never Stop Rocking,” since he suspected something was up when I refused to hand in a draft). We have our responsibilities and we do them. If we fuck them up, we look stupid.

Artists are often anarchists (especially in the world of self-produced Off-off Broadway theatre). Nobody’s going to be forcing you or guiding you to get your play produced. You’re on your fucking own. To paraphrase Mac, nobody’s going to be losing any sleep if the next play by [pick your own company; Nosedive, Stages 5150, Subjective] doesn’t get made. The ground won’t shake and the city won’t fall apart. So how do you it? How do you write plays or form a theatre company when there’s no obligation or expectation to do so, when there’s virtually no intrinsic award and no inherent punishment? Through anarchy.

Sure, theatre is a joint and communal medium. But if everyone wants to paint their part of the rainbow and add their color, you often end up with brown.

Art is fascism. Art is anarchy. It is not about apologizing or asking for permission or for getting the majority vote.

It is not about accommodating other voices.

Step in line,

James “Der Commandant” Comtois

July 1, 2004

*This always boggles my mind. Since Off-off Broadway is a weird, voluntary non-paying ghetto, who gives a shit if people are happy or unhappy in a theatre company? If they’re unhappy, they can leave at any time. Or start their own company.

**Pete has been mulling over the idea of directing Stoppard’s “The Real Inspector Hound,” I wouldn’t be crippled with grief to direct Shawn’s “A Thought in Three Parts” or “Marie & Bruce” and Patrick’s directed two of the one acts in Evil Hellcat and Other Lurid Tales.

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