As far as local nouveau-Puritanism entertainment goes, it’s hard to beat Jim Walsh’s songwriter showcase, The Hootenanny. A bunch of singer-songwriters line up on a coffeehouse stage (this season, The Beat Coffeehouse in Uptown), each seated with an acoustic guitar slung around their necks, the shiny blond instruments resting on their laps. In between songs, the musicians banter about the three Rs: reality, relationships, and writing. The hoots start at 6:30, and the wholesome environment encourages people to bring along their kids—the little people sit and color in their coloring books while the adults pay attention to what’s going on onstage. It’s like church.
So I say nouveau-Puritanism because this is entertainment filled with content that most people would consider to be good for you . A stage full of smart singer-songwriters singing sensitive, somewhat-literary songs, wherein they consider, either directly or obliquely, their own existence, in turn provoking the audience to (hopefully) consider their own. Plus, there’s not a lot of swearing. And last night, Jim was trying something new—he’d invited a couple local poets to read, alternating performances with the musicians.
Jim knew I was holding a poetry reading myself this weekend, so he dropped me a line yesterday afternoon inviting me up to read a John Berryman poem and talk about the little reading we were holding Friday night. Onstage, Dan Wilson was sitting right next to me, and I remembered that Dan’s older brother Matt, who was an English major at Harvard, had written a song about Berryman’s suicide for Trip Shakespeare, “Washington Bridge.” Dan (who was an art major at Harvard himself), remembered it, and he played a snippet:
Red metal archway, the Washington Bridge,
Made rings in the water.
Rings in the water underneath a white sky
Made a cuckold a widow
He stopped. “Dark,” Dan said, as if it was just occurring to him.
I had to split the hoot early to get to the Walker event I’m about to review (any minute now) and, luckily for me, an old friend was leaving at the same time—her friend's ten-year-old daughter was getting a little squirrelly with all the breaks for poetry.
On the car ride down the hill to the Walker, she complained about the hoot’s tone. “There just wasn’t that much HOOTENANNY to tonight’s hoot, with everybody up there talking about all that intellectual stuff.” She turned left on Vineland Place. “Especially if people are bringing their kids.”
She dropped me off at the door, and I ran up the stairs to the McGuire Theater, where a bunch of New York theater types calling themselves The National Theater of the United States of America had come to town to throw their own nouveau-Puritan program of entertainment, except instead of a Hootenanny, they were calling theirs a Chautauqua (!).
At the beginning of the performance, walking out to a fanfare played by a brass band, a tall, slender dude in a white suit (think Mark Twain) was led to a podium decorated with cornstalks and threshed wheat. Summertime sound effects were pumped in—crickets and the low hum of flying insects, etc. Through thin, nearly pursed lips, Mr. Richard “Dick” Pricey, introduced himself in language befitting his period suit.
He went on to explain that this Chautauqua was inspired by a late nineteenth -century lecture series that began on the shores of Lake Chautauqua in New York. By including artists, scientists, local historians, and other sober-ish thinkers on the bill, a Chautauqua tried to distinguish itself from the more popular big-tent Evangelical revivals of the same era. A projection screen was lowered, and Pricey flipped through some slides, outlining the program that us yokels would be exposed to—some local history, some singing, lectures on cartography and high vs. low culture, a selection of folk, modern, and po-mo dance, and a finale cryptically referred to as “Bright Lights.”
Now seems like the time to introduce a slide of my own. Actually, I'm borrowing it from a friend, local brain Dessa Darling. Dessa has devised a Venn diagram wherein she considers the potential points where art, entertainment and interesting subject matter intersect in order to engage an audience:
A = Interesting
B = Entertaining
C = Artful
A U B (all of A and all of B) = Engaging
Well, last night’s Chautauqua! was all over Dessa’s map.
Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
From Aristotle to Ms. Darling, writers, philosophers and artists have theorized about whether to be, or not to be, entertaining, interesting, or artistic regarding the end goal of moving an audience. (Although where you should move them—to contemplation, action, tears, or just through the ticket line—has been just as heavily discussed.) Last night, this all-over-the-mapness was exactly the point. To their credit, the NTUSA—true avant garde New Yorkers—were intent on seeing how far they could take it in every direction.
Early on, Pricey brought Walker archivist Jill Vuchevich to the podium to talk about T.B. Walker, the 1920s lumber baron who founded the art center in which the Chautauqua was taking place. She droned through a seven-minute lecture as if she was reading it right off Wikipedia—so not really entertaining, but definitely interesting.
Later, when a pastiche of a modern ballet recital culminated in a pas de deux between a local roller derby
team and a local women’s hockey team, all set to “Crazy on You” by Heart—definitely entertaining, and definitely interesting, but maybe not artful (their number was set to Heart).
As the ringmaster of the show, the actor portraying Dick Pricey covered the most ground. When he was explaining the evolution of art from the Enlightenment through the Industrial Revolution to the Hyper-Consumerist era of today, he was interesting. When he was singing funny little country duets with another character, or running back to the podium sucking wind after leading a masked faux-Cossak dance, he was entertaining. But when he closed his prim mouth and stammered, or in the finale, when he anxiously stripped his clothes off and braved the-road-to-Wellville full-frontally, his uptight, intellectually haughty character seemed to be getting close to conveying the deep reservoir of intense embarrassment that comes along with entertaining a mob. This is the territory I wish he, and the entire troupe really, would’ve explored more deeply. That intersection of real human emotion through experience, together with the overarching theory of the show—that’s closest to where art's amorphous form resides. As it was, most of the time Pricey was just a goofy dude in a Mark Twain suit running through some critical artistic theory like a frosh who had just gotten a hold of Adorno’s Culture Industry for the first time. I mean, sure, you have to love the fact that he was asking, that he was pushing it—the fact that he wasn't at home playing Xbox 360 in the middle of a cloud of meth. But if you were a paying customer last night, you most likely went away thinking: entertaining, yes, and interesting, at times, but maybe not quite artful.
Now, in his new book of essays, Michael Chabon says, “I’d like to believe thatI write to entertain, period.” He says that the human brain is an “organ of entertainment, sensitive at any depth, and over a wide spectrum.” But after years of having video games, and movies based on video games, and reality TV, and game shows and if-it-bleeds-it-leads news programs, and parodies of said programs, all foisted on us under the broad label of “entertainment,” well, no doubt "entertainment" has become something of a dirty word, or at least something of a vacuous word.
Last night, both Jim Walsh with his Hootenanny and the NTUSA with their Chautauqua demonstrated that they are trying to change the game—that entertainment can be good for you (we can save the question of whether that’s as noble of a goal as it sounds for another review). As Chabon writes, “We have learned to mistrust and despise our human aptitude for being entertained, and in that sense we get the entertainment we deserve.”
Chautauqua continues at the Walker Art Center through Jan. 10, walkerartcenter.org