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June 11, 2004

How To Refer to "It"?

Dear Vanessa --

How often are you and the Hubster getting to the theater these days? The Wife and I recently treated ourselves to a little theatergoing for the first time in a while. Back in my unsuccessful-pro-who-nonetheless-kept-up-with-the-arts days, I was able -- thanks to a generous artsgoing expense account -- to see a lot of plays. Boy, did we sit through a lot of bad theater. But we sat through some awfully good theater too. So it was nostalgic fun to indulge that groove again. It was even more fun when I reminded myself that for me these days, "keeping up" is an option. All of which may mean nothing more than that, even as an arts-goer, I'm a born amateur.

To run through the plays we saw:

  • The limited-run Broadway production of Tom Stoppard's Jumpers. Are you a Stoppard fan? I'm split, myself. I've seen a handful of the plays, none of which I've been crazy about, yet I often love his screenplays. My suspicion: he's at his best (and he's best able to set aside his own ego) when adapting other people's material. But I'd never before seen one of his pinwheeling-extravaganza-type plays given a full-dress, big-budget workout, and I was curious to see what such an event would be like.

    Not great, is my answer. Stoppard's certainly a funny guy, and he's got to be one of the world's cleverest-ever playwrights. And there's something endearingly puppyish about his eagerness to entertain. But his plays can also get to feeling antic, hectic, and wearying; his determination to dazzle loses its charm and starts feeling compulsive and competitive. A pet theory of mine: nearly all in-linear-time art-things that last longer than a half-hour need some sense of the human, the narrative, and the relaxed to carry an audience's goodwill along with them. But you may be a bigger fan of nonlinear theater than I am.

    It seems to me that the challenge for a director and actors would be to figure out how to supply the energy while at the same time drawing the audience into the drama. David Leveaux's production was super-professional -- he produced a very well-done evening. But it didn't lick the central problem. The production, by the way, seems to exist in large part to show off Simon Russell Beale, the lead actor, who's evidently a legend in England for his self-amused verbal prowess; he's a Charles-Laughton-on-speed type. At first I was suitably amazed by Beale, but as the evening went by I lost interest in his performance.

    But the real problem of the evening, it seemed to me, was the fact that the play was being presented on Broadway. A huge house ... A clueless, bussed-in audience ... Up on that immense stage, the play seemed tiny and elitist; the audience behaved restlessly and unappreciatively, and left me with the impression that it'd have been happier watching the tube. I came away thinking that Stoppard's plays are perhaps best thought of as good material for undergrad cut-ups. In a small off-off-Broadway house, the play might have come across as likable cabaret hijinks. The night we saw it, the production and the audience failed totally to find the same wavelength.

  • For our next Adventure in Theater, we headed to Washington Square Park on a Sunday afternoon. Some young performer friends and acquaintances had asked us to stop by and watch a free show they'd be putting on. Oh dear, I thought. How do you and The Hubster respond to clowning and commedia dell'arte? My own response was, Why not just shoot me now?

    In fact, the show turned out to be an informal, sweet-natured delight. It wasn't the Tim Robbins-esque Bush-bashing rant I expected; instead, it was an equal-opportunity satire. The story the trouple had worked out over numerous previous performances --- hey, narrative as evolved form! -- was full of surprises and wit. And the performers themselves all had a ton of talent and charm; they inhabited their commedia roles and masks with lots of personality of their own. In a crowded, sunny park -- and despite people meandering by, dogs yapping, and the occasional child strolling delightedly into the middle of the action -- our young chums kept an audience of about 100 people happy and focused for a good hour.

    A few days later, talking to another young actor friend, I hesitatingly admitted that I usually dread clowning and commedia. Would she take offence? I shouldn't have worried. "Yeah, that's exactly how it is, even as a performer!" she enthused. "You do it, but you hate it. But it's fun and it's a good workout. So you love it. But you hate yourself for doing it! And that's exactly what's so great about it!" All of which is no doubt true, and some of which may even make some kind of actor-sense.

  • A few days later, it was on to the new production of Tracy Lett's Bug. I'd loved Lett's previous play, "Killer Joe," which had all the rambunctious, dirty-minded fun of an early Sam Shepard play minus the mythological crapola. So I wasn't about to let "Bug" go by.

    Letts is well-known in Chicago as a Steppenwolf actor -- have you seen him in action on the stage? A pause for those who don't know: Steppenwolf is a Chicago theater troupe that has been around for a couple of decades, and is best-known for encouraging a hyper-physical kind of lowdown acting. Bad-boy, far-out stuff: John Malkovich is probably Steppenwolf's best-known alumnus. I haven't seen much Chicago theater at all, aside from a few Steppenwolf productions. So I'm looking forward to hearing VdelBlowhard's reflections about Chicago's theater scene. But Windy City theater has a reputation for being unpretentious, physical, "realistic" and tough. Chicago is the anti-glitz, anti-intellectual, roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-into-it theater town. Vanessa: any truth to this image?

    Thrilled to report that "Bug" was ripsnorting fun -- rockin'-out stuff. Though you'll never catch me arguing that Letts' plays have any actual content. (I think "lack of content" is fair criticism of Shepard and Pinter too.) This is theater-game theater, something you either have a taste for or you don't. I generally tend to be more intrigued by theater that tries to be about something other than simply "making theater." But what's the harm, eh? And these abstract works do often have some flavor. Pinter, for instance, delivers something contained and sinister, while Shepard is all denim, sibiling rivalries, distant guitars, and Springsteen-ish bombast.

    The flavor of Letts' plays is stripped-down, wild-ass, white-trash punk rock. His plays are also fantastic display-cases for performers, who are given chance after chance to cut loose and make outrageously big and daring choices. (Do you use the trick that I do when attending actor parties? I use the word "choice" a lot. Actors love it when you talk to them about "choices.") "Bug," like "Killer Joe," is all Extreme Acting Opportunities: swift mood changes, long silences that are twice as galvanizing as the dialog exchanges (whew!), out-of-nowhere shifts of direction and attack ... And, everywhere you look, subtext up the wazoo. A major turn-on, at least for those of us who find acting per se a turn-on.

    The play's narrative, such as it is, concerns a lonely, hard-bitten woman hiding from her violent ex-boyfriend, and a possibly-crazy military guy who invades her life and her brain. It's part hipster paranoia, part "Twilight Zone," and part "The Blob." But there's no need to take any of this, ahem, content seriously, because the evening's really just a trashy pretext for a lot of grittily unpretentious but virtuosic carrying-on.

    And what a brilliant production! Smokin' performances (the ultrafab leads are Shannon Cochran and Michael Shannon, but the whole cast rocks), lean and mean direction by Dexter Bullard ... Stuart Gordon, the writer-director of the B-movie classic "Re-Animator" -- and someone who ran a small Chicago theater troupe himself -- once described the kind of theater that he loved and encouraged as "rip-off-your-clothes-and-bleed theater." That's the kind of evening "Bug" delivers, in spades. Hey, does anyone in Chicago still talk about Stuart Gordon?

Happy to report as well that our bout of theatergoing left me chewing over a genuine Larger Question. Which takes a little setting up.

OK: the Stoppard production was super-professional, but it lacked a little something. What? The in-the-park commedia thing and "Bug" both had it. Had what? What is this "it"? What name can we give it? And how can we talk about it?

I don't think this is a minor topic. This "it" thing is a key part of the art experience. It's invisible; It's almost impossible to put your finger on. Yet you kind of know when It's present and you're pretty sure when It isn't. If you've got some experience, you might even be capable of knowing when It's present but It isn't doin' anything for you specifically.

We speak about It all the time, but we usually do so indirectly, almost as though we're embarrassed. We beat around the bush, but we can't stay away from the bush. (So to speak.) We might say that the commedia troupe had sweetness, charm, and inventiveness, while the "Bug" team had daring and energy. We watch the Stoppard production knowing that the "Jumpers" team did their damnedest to find It, and came up short.

Why don't we talk about It more directly? Any thoughts here? I wonder if there might be some shame involved. It's a gooey and slippery concept, after all, and we empirical, no-nonsense -- yet religious -- Americans might feel nervous trying to talk about something so indefinite.

The peril of avoiding the topic of It is that the point of the art experience starts to get lost. People start talking instead about brilliance, or impressiveness, or quality in some abstract sense, as though any of it matters in the absence of It. Part of what makes Christopher Alexander such an important figure is his determination never to lose sight of It. When he discusses buildings, rooms and neighborhoods, he's discussing whether or not they have "It," something he refers to simply as "life" or as "the quality without a name."

Maybe It would flourish a little better if some p-r magic were performed. And maybe we'd be less hesitant to discuss It if we invented a better name for It. The Chinese speak of chi, the Indians of prana; the French often speak of essences or juices. Feng Shui, assuming it isn't in fact some recent New Age invention, is meant to help you maximize the quality of the chi in your living and working spaces. The Indian practice of Vaastu is similar, and is meant to improve the prana in your spaces.

One of the reasons I found the couple of years of acting classes I took so helpful was that actors treat this "It" thing as very real. You've either found a connection with It or you haven't; and the presence or absence of "It" is always what's explicitly at issue. It's always the final goal, no matter how consumed you may get by the physical challenge of hitting a mark or delivering a line. It may be invisible in a dumb and literal sense, but to actors It couldn't be more real.

There's nothing quite like sitting in an acting class when It makes an appearance. The atmosphere starts to crackle, and everyone can feel It. For all the airheadedness of actors, they're onto something; they live with It and for It, and they don't pretend otherwise. Part of the fun of spending time with actors is that, when you're among them, you lose your own shyness about being interested in It. And a parallel thought here: perhaps the openness of their involvement with It has something to do with why we tend to find actors so sexy.

But It certainly needs better p-r. And why not start with a better name? I know that you and the Hubster are no strangers to gabbing about the arts. How do you guys discuss "It"? What do you think of Alexander's "the quality without a name" as a better way of naming It?

Here's a page that discusses Alexander's "quality without a name." Here's a passage from Alexander's "The Nature of Order." Here's Amazon's page on Alexander's mind-blowing "The Timeless Way of Building." A few lovely words from that great book:

The quality without a name cannot be made, but only generated by a process ... It can flow from your actions; it can flow with the greatest ease; but it cannot be made. It cannot be contrived, thought out, designed. It happens when it flows out from the process of creation of its own accord.



posted by Michael at June 11, 2004


Before going to see any Stoppard play, I always buy the paperback version and read it. You'd have to be a lot smarter than I am to grasp enough of a Stoppard play to like it just by watching it.

One note about Stoppard: by my count, he was the only major English-language literary figure to create multiple anti-Communist works during the last two decades of the Cold War: Travesties, Every Good Boy Deserves Favor, Professional Foul, Squaring the Circle, and Cahoot's Macbeth. We hear lots of bilge today about how we used to be all united during the Cold War, but the truth is that the elite didn't give a damn about the sufferings of Eastern Europeans.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on June 11, 2004 6:49 PM

My wife Jane used to follow gymnastics, and as a result I've watched a fair amount of it. And just like actors and artists, some gymnasts have "It" and some don't. And some gymnasts have it some of the time and not always. It's about how they move, and especially how they land. It's about whether they look they are having fun, and whether they are making it look effortless and easy. In short, it's not a single quality; it's a collection of qualities, some of them nearly subliminal, and some we don't have names for, that add up to "It".

This nebulous "it", it seems to me, can be found in any kind of endeavour. When we've had those endless discussions about what makes a book great literature, isn't that what we're talking about?

It seems to me that "it" has a perfectly good name, even if we can't quite put our finger on it. Why not call it "excellence", and
be done with it?

Posted by: Will Duquette on June 11, 2004 7:45 PM

Steve -- That's a great point, tks. Stoppard deserves a lot of credit for his gutsy politics.

Will -- "Excellence" -- I like it. Hey, I've got another idea too. How about we change the name for "It" every few years? Maybe that way we could keep the pedantic and dogmatic types from tying it down too specifically. Because isn't one of the characteristics of "It" that it's so damn flukey? So maybe we start with "Excellence" this year and move on to another word in 18 months or so. Gotta keep the profs off-balance, after all.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 11, 2004 7:51 PM

Toward the end of Waiting For Godot, Vladimir says this:

Was I sleeping while the others suffered? Am I sleeping now? Tomorrow, when I wake, or think I do, what shall I say of today? That with Estragon my friend, at this place, until the fall of night, I waited for Godot? That Pozzo passed, with his carrier, and that he spoke to us? Probably. But in all that what truth will there be? (Looking at the sleeping Estragon.) He'll know nothing. He'll tell me about the blows he received and I'll give him a carrot. (Pause.) Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave-digger puts on the forceps. We have time to grow old. The air is full of our cries. (He listens.) But habit is a great deadener. (He looks again at Estragon.) At me too someone is looking, of me too someone is saying, He is sleeping, he knows nothing, let him sleep on. (Pause.) I can't go on! (Pause.) What have I said?

"It," in the theatre, is always the moment of pity; an overwhelming moment of immense pity and helpless baffled love for the whole human condition.

Posted by: ricpic on June 11, 2004 11:38 PM

I think "it" is some kind of cross---the child of---"fun" and "grace." And I don't mean purely "fun" in terms of yahoo and party hats, because sometimes the purging you feel after a good cry is fun---it is. But I think many good things in life come from fun and grace, and many bad things arise from their absence. Someone other than me described it as the difference between being "in life" and being "in survival." Fun or grace cannot be contrived, and yet, when they arrive, there they are, complete in themselves. I heard Bobby Darren's "Mack the Knife" on the radio today. What is it about that recording? It's just like, a world that produced that record just can't be all bad.

Posted by: annette on June 12, 2004 6:25 PM

Annette, you're right about Bobby Darin's "Mack the Knife"--it's one of what I call the "perfect songs", though "perfect recordings" would be more accurate--it's the definitive recording of a great song, one that's so perfectly itself that it stands alone.

I'm not much of a Motown fan, but Marvin Gaye's "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" is another one of them. The music complements the vocal to a tee.

Posted by: Will Duquette on June 12, 2004 7:09 PM

Regarding Stoppard--actually, even without a prior reading Stoppard's "The Real Inspector Hound" was quite a lot fun--especially if you've seen Agatha Christie's play "The Mousetrap".

Posted by: Will Duquette on June 12, 2004 7:11 PM

I fear I can't quite concur with "excellence" as the "be done with it" name for "It." Plenty of competent non-transcendent stuff out there, that I would be fine with rating "excellent" but not quite possessing It.

(Could be my definition of "excellence" is lacking, though. Could be also terminal crankiness from feeling like I'm always the grouch in the audience not standing up for the ovation, even though there's plenty on the airwaves and in my books that makes me catch my breath --

There you go. That's my word for "It": breathtaking

I'm reminded of a phrase from one of my favorite children's books, E.L. Konigsburg's The View from Saturday: "Chops. . .is to magic what doing scales is to a chanteuse. Without it you cannot be a magician, with it alone you cannot be an artist."

Posted by: Peg Duthie on June 13, 2004 12:42 AM

I believe the best one word explication of "it" is transparency. Actors (and gymnasts, I imagine) often talk of connecting with an audience. Of course actors kid themselves about their work probably more than pipe fitters, but there are nights when the connection is so palpable and the intimacy is so beguiling that no one can deny "it" is in the house. I can only tell you what "it" "feels" like. The performer, through art, training or just finding a groove, disappears. The ego is gone. The space between the audience and the character's life is reduced to nothing. The audience enters a story in a way that most of them have never done before. This dynamic operates between the performer and each individual in the audience and also among the audience members in sharing what amounts to an alternate reality. Drama is inherent in many enterprises aside from theatre and the pommel horse. Anytime you can see directly into a person, it's captivating. I think charisma is usually the ability to convincingly simulate this quality.

Posted by: Mike Hill on June 14, 2004 3:37 PM

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