Scott Klavan: We Need Art


We Need Art
An essay on censorship
By Scott Klavan

In 2015-16, as a Lifetime Member of the venerable Actors Studio in New York City, I rehearsed and performed scenes from Israel Horovitz’s play My Old Lady—first produced in 2002 and revised in 2015—portraying an aging American misfit who inherits an apartment in Paris from his late father and has to deal with the elderly French woman and her lonely middle-aged daughter living in the space for years. (My Old Lady was made into a 2014 film, directed by Horovitz, featuring Kevin Kline and Maggie Smith.) The play was smart and human, incisive and emotional, and, in rehearsal with a talented veteran group of Studio actors, provided fodder for creative discussion, dramatic confrontation, empathy, tears, anger, and expressions of lust and love. We presented the scenes several times over a period of months in “Session,” the Studio’s twice-weekly workshop for acting, at its locale on the west side of Manhattan, for fellow members and moderators including then Studio Artistic Director Estelle Parsons. The Studio, notoriously rigorous and demanding, at first received the scenes and my performance with disappointment and negativity, but, gradually, the work improved, and we got encouragement, support; ultimately, praise and figurative and literal pats on the back. Overcoming those obstacles, the final moments of success at the Studio with My Old Lady, was one of the best experiences of my creative and professional career; never mind that: of My Life.

I mention this because in 2017, as noted in the New York Times, Israel Horovitz has become one of the increasing number of powerful men in the arts accused of sexual harassment; several women who viewed Horovitz as a mentor in their work at his home-base Gloucester Theater in Massachusetts and other venues have said he forced them into unwanted sexual relations. (In early December, in a “Town Hall” meeting about harassment hosted by The Public Theatre, Horovitz was mentioned by one of the women who made the complaints to the Times, and the issue was addressed by the Studio’s current Artistic Director Beau Gravitte.)

As an actor and director, I now ask myself: should I stop working on Horovitz’s plays? As an audience member and reviewer, I wonder: will his plays now be blacklisted and boycotted by theaters and audiences around the country? And, if it comes: is banishment and censorship, by an individual or theatrical organization, right, good, deserved? Are the destructive personal actions of a playwright, or actor, or any other kind of artist enough to merit the shunning of his works as pieces to act in, direct, watch, review? These questions are swirling around other tainted artists and media figures, including Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., and Charlie Rose, and the whole creative community, as sexual harassment scandals grow.

In this space, it seems appropriate to reflect on these questions primarily from an individual, artistic/creative perspective, rather than a collective political one. Art and politics run, or should run, on parallel tracks, despite the attempt by many today to force them to intersect. In any case, the subject’s not easy, or pretty, it’s pretty ugly, and that’s my jumping-off point. Throughout history, artists of all kinds have been surreptitiously or openly misfits, outsiders, various forms of rebels and iconoclasts, and worse: deviants, criminals, and yes, sexual abusers and rapists. But when I work on a play, I almost never think about whether the artist behind it was or is a “nice guy.” If I consider it at all, I mostly assume that to get to the point of success in the hyper-competitive and ruthless world of show biz and the arts that makes his/her work widely available, he/she was/is a tyrant and jerk. In the work that I watch, read, or listen to as an audience member, the same attitude holds: I accept the artist as a-hole.

I grew up around show business and since the age of, like, eight, have never asked a celebrity for an autograph or requested to have a picture taken with them. I have worked with a few admired, gifted, and very famous people, and for the most part, even though they treated me decently, I purposely shied away from them outside the job, even turned down social invitations when they were offered, or, if I attended, did not cozy up to the star or assume I was in any way their friend. Frankly, I didn’t want to be. I just assumed the relationship would be one-sided, unequal, artificial, unreal. And I didn’t want to look like I was trying to use them in some way. It was nothing personal. I didn’t blame the performer/star for that unpleasant discrepancy; it was just the nature of their identity and status in the world, and mine.

To me, the work is wholly separate from the artist. It is the biggest, best part of that person, the special part given by luck and birth, the part he/she is not totally in control of, where the personal ego recedes and the Universal Soul takes over. The need for great artists to be good citizens, solid dependable parents, respectful to others, is unrealistic, naive, and self-defeating. When today, actors or performers proclaim in magazines or TV interviews that they devotedly dote on their wives and children, are responsible members of their communities, I mostly scoff, assuming they’re exaggerating or lying to enhance their public profile and career. When they give political opinions, I ignore them, figuring they don’t know or care any more about the topic than I do, probably less, and are only using the platform because of their ambition, drive, and thirst for fame. The work is the best part of the artist, and it is likely the thing that the artist cares about most, more than friendship, community, country, family. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be so good at it. A human being has only so much attention, energy, commitment, and love, to give. This doesn’t excuse bad behavior, but it gives it a context; it makes it make sense.

That may sound like cynicism but cynical doesn’t mean dishonest, or unhelpful.  

I like to think I’ve earned some cynicism. I’ve seen and experienced a fair amount of abuse and poor behavior in over thirty years in theater and the arts. Way back, as a young actor, I was auditioning for a prominent female TV casting director who regularly called me in to read for high-level jobs. She propositioned me, and when I refused her, never gave me another appointment. A similar thing happened with a well-known female talent agent. A female theater artistic director grabbed my butt in front of the entire company during a party, so obnoxiously that my fellow actors encouraged me to file a harassment claim against her, a concept just taking root at that time. In several different acting classes years ago, taught by both men and women, I and other actors were regularly ridiculed, excoriated, and slapped hard in the face to illicit emotion. I saw numerous actors, male and female, routinely coerced into taking off their clothes into nakedness; we were all asked to simulate sex and bathroom acts. Around that time, during a rehearsal for a play, a director, exasperated with me for asking so many questions about the staging, grabbed me and threw me explosively against the wall. Later that night, he called me at home, crying. Through all these occurrences, I never complained; at the time, I thought it weak. In fact, I returned to the classes, seeing it as a rite of passage, a way of “opening up” that would improve my work. I may have been right, or not, I don’t know. I was young, ambitious, and scared. And I’m a straight man; obviously, as has been widely publicized, things were and are much worse for women and gay men. (I remember a long-ago talk I had with an actor-friend who, agonized, told me he was quitting the business because of near-constant approaches by predatory males.)

But: in another acting class, I participated in a poorly conceived and planned exercise wherein we ran around the floor in our socks. This resulted in my slipping and falling, dislocating my shoulder so badly that it fell out of joint countless times excruciatingly for years afterwards, and ended in my getting surgery for a torn labrum, a procedure that took over a year to fully recover from. When an up-and-coming actor in my early 20s, I was cast in my first speaking role in a major film. It was a fight scene and on set, we were quickly, lazily, and shoddily coached in stage combat, something in which I had no experience. Filming the scene, I was mistakenly, forcefully hit in the face by my fellow actor, one of the film’s leads. I lay on the ground half-conscious in a pool of my own blood, my nose broken so badly that I later had to have plastic surgery, altering my looks forever. My face grotesquely swollen, I was sent home on a subway alone. My scene was cut, and neither the director nor anyone from the film company ever contacted me to apologize or inquire about my well-being. My signed agent never expressed concern for me and soon dropped me, permanently curtailing any meaningful forward motion in my career. In these last two instances, I contacted lawyers about a possible lawsuit and was told I might have a case. But worried that years of my life would be tied up with expensive legal action, and that I would never work as an actor again, I didn’t pursue it. I decided: keep pushing, trying, soldier on. Shit happens.

And shit does happen, because people are imperfect, weak, aggressive—we’re animals, after all, apes—and prone to immoral and hurtful acts. If given power, people will abuse it, to gain dominance. Not everyone always, of course, but enough to sometimes make life frustrating, sad, and arduous. Nobody is exempt from some kind of egoistic corruption; no-body. No angels walk the earth. The heads of the media corporations that fired the artists and news/broadcast hosts in the harassment scandals—whether it’s Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, or whomever—are doing it not because of a sudden case of guilt and goodness. They were all too happy to take profits from the work of these men—and surely, in most cases, knew for years about their recklessness—in the swell times. They did the firing, or cancelled the offenders’ projects, because public outrage has grown so much, along with women’s economic and political influence, that it threatened to cut into their bottom line. The protection and expulsion of these men are two sides of the same coin of avarice. This is also true of the talent agencies and public relations firms who were happy to suck the blood of actors like Kevin Spacey, using the cash, it is assumed, to do things like put their kids through school and build a swimming pool in the backyard, but immediately kicked them out when scandal dried up the flow of dough.

Doctrinaire feminist lawyers, politicians, and activists, hiding behind a veneer of righteousness, are greedily using sex harassment as a power-grab, a way of forcing men from positions of control and authority, replacing them with women, something they have been trying unsuccessfully to do for decades. Filled with rage and a need for revenge, they demand apologies from the guilty men, then getting it, reject the words used and, KGB-style, require an impossibly exact abject verbiage, and then reject that as well. (Many of these groups and individuals are demanding that the works of certain offending artists be essentially “disappeared.”) The sex acts described may be vile and real, and the resentment and bitterness of the victims justifiable; if crimes have been committed, justice needs to be done. But a stench of insatiable over-punishment and McCarthyistic hysteria hangs over the proceedings. 

Since shit happens, we need Art. To comfort, illuminate, edify, entertain, and move us; to explore the maddeningly unanswerable questions about our own characters, and life itself, here and gone in the blink of an eye. Sometimes, ironically, we need art from the people who are the perpetrators of bad acts themselves. The determined narcissism that produces the crimes or indiscretions is the same narcissism that gives us glimpses of Beauty. If we require creators and performers to be conventionally affable soccer dads and moms, we’ll end up with mediocre vanilla culture; we’ll learn and feel little or nothing, and our lives will be the poorer for it.

An excellent recent two-volume biography of Frank Sinatra by James Kaplan, documented in detail how the singer often treated women—and men—like garbage. But also, that his interpretations of love songs were among the most poignantly yearning and emotionally resonant ever recorded. I grew up loving Sinatra’s work and can quote the lyrics and badly imitate his style in many of his songs. Despite his shallow and insensitive private personality, I still enjoy them without a qualm. In 2007 magazine and newspaper articles, it was revealed that playwright Arthur Miller had a son, Daniel, with Down Syndrome; he put the boy in an institution, rejecting him, keeping him secret, never visiting or mentioning him publicly. Miller’s strong, fiercely moral plays stand in contrast to his apparent private moral cowardice. I am a huge fan of Miller’s work, attend it whenever I can, and have been proud to have performed in several of his pieces. You see, in this way, I’m selfish. I’m happy to accept the creativity of others, anyone, really, and use it to enhance my own work and brief time on earth. While I find it impossible to watch that film in which I was punched and hurt, I don’t wish that it, or other work by its director, would be somehow suppressed. Other people—you—might enjoy them.  

I have never met or spoken to Israel Horovitz. I don’t have any kind of personal relationship with the playwright and am not seeking one. I don’t know if the allegations of sleazy and unsavory conduct against him are true, although his accusers seem credible and Horovitz has apologized for some of it. I do know my work on My Old Lady at The Actors Studio was gratifying and instructive. I am a better actor because of my connection with the text; I will continue to work on his pieces if the opportunity presents itself. I absolutely expect that theaters around the country will, at least for the near future, refuse to produce his plays. But I would direct one if given the chance. If called on to review it, I would do it fairly and objectively. Women, workers, all people in positions of risk and defenselessness, need protection. But so does Art; it too, is vulnerable, and vital.   

Sources: New York Times, Vanity Fair, Wikipedia, The Daily Beast, Amazon.com. Books: The Voice & The Chairman.

 

Scott Klavan, theatre writer at Escape Into Life, is an actor, director, and playwright in New York. Scott performed on Broadway in Irena’s Vow, with Tovah Feldshuh, in regional theater, and in numerous shows Off Broadway, including two productions of The Joy Luck Club for Pan Asian Rep. His stage adaption of Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral” was produced off-Broadway by Theater Breaking Through Barriers (TBTB), and his play Double Murder was published in Best American Short Plays of 2006-2007. For twenty years, Scott was Script and Story Analyst for the legendary actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward and for companies including HBO, Warner Bros. and Viacom. In 2015, he was featured in A Soldier’s Notes, an episode of the Web Series Small Miracles, alongside Judd Hirsch, and earned a nomination for Outstanding Actor in the LA Web Series Festival.  He directed the one-woman show My Stubborn Tongue, written and performed by Anna Fishbeyn, off-Broadway at The New Ohio Theater and at the United Solo Festival. Scott directed and appeared in the solo play Canada Geese, by George Klas, in the 2016 New York International Fringe Festival. He is currently directing and developing the play One Moment, by Broadway producer James Fuld, Jr. Earlier in 2017, he directed and co-wrote with Del Fidanque Off-Line and directed Night Shadows  by Lynda Crawford, in Emerging Artists Theatre’s (EAT) New Work Series. He is a Lifetime Member of The Actors Studio and a member of the Studio’s Playwright/Directors Workshop. He currently teaches at the 92nd St. Y and other arts organizations. 

Definition of “Cynical” 

McCarthyism

My Old Lady at IMDB 

James Kaplan Website, author of 2-volume biography of Frank Sinatra

“‘Me too’ is Harder to Say Than You Think” from The Daily Texan (with “Me, Too” illustration credit)

Scott Klavan’s Review of The Home Place at EIL 

Scott Klavan on Political Theater at EIL 

Bitter Gertrude on How Theatre, Film, and TV Can End Sexual Harrassment