In Defense of

― By Allen Barton

(Ruminations from early 2021…)

As we enter 2021, the social media age has entered a hostile, odious and destructive adolescence. A spasm of vitriolic hatred has overcome online discourse. Where there used to be spirited (if yes, sometimes tedious) debate about all issues artistic, social and political, there is now endless bile and an astonishing level of rage and resentment. That this resentment makes a poor foundation for the supposed moral enlightenment, tolerance and progressive advocacy that some think they are putting forth? Well, this is just an ironic harmony trampled by poor musicianship. Those who may want to offer a more reasoned approach to debate on complicated issues (or complicated people) shrink back from fear of this incredibly mean-spirited and vicious assault on basic decency. Others cave in entirely, they bury their own individuality, hide their formerly irreverent sense of humor, and put forth an entirely new persona: Woke as shit, blindly (over)sensitive to everything and everyone, and for goodness’ sake incapable of offending a single soul! 

An outgrowth of this ornery social media adolescence is the abbreviated roman a clef, the blog-level memoir/takedown of this person, that person, this teacher, that school. These takedowns are sometimes aided and abetted by full-on media treatment, a supposed journalistic sheen applied, well… like the proverbial lipstick to a snarling, rabid pig. During Milton’s era at the school, before cheap online commentary found its footing, I would read versions of this phenomenon via journalistic profiles of Milton in the occasional magazine or newspaper profile. In these write-ups, I saw recognizable aspects of the man I knew, a paragraph of familiarity followed, irritatingly, by a paragraph of totally inaccurate bullshit. But at least with the supposed journalistic treatment, there was an attempt at this advocate says X, but then there is a detractor who says Y…. The reader had options. A fuller picture was presented.

The new breed of online takedown artists have no interest in a fuller picture. Their interest is in the takedown. Journalism has followed social media down the sewer on standards, and social media forges ever new ground on outrage while imitating what journalism used to be! “Cancel Culture” has taken a putrid, hysterical, McCarthyist hold, and individuals who couldn’t get a job writing the day and date at any journalistic enterprise — they wake up, sit at their kitchen table, and pontificate on Facebook or write abbreviated romans a clef about… acting schools. Acting teachers. Former students at former acting schools. They presume to lecture the world on who’s in, who’s out, who’s enlightened, who’s a tyrant — and yet they’re mostly invisible to the world themselves. They barely exist, yet somehow look in the mirror and see staring back at them a glorious trio of Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, and Joan Didion.

I’ve now been in LA three full decades, and been part of the BHP the entire time — the last 12 years as its owner and principal teacher. Recently, social media’s angry adolescence and Cancel Culture’s vile moment in the sun have converged and targeted me. (I laugh to myself how glad Milton must be that he is dead for all this shit. Because with his personality and mischievous tastes, he would have been annihilated by the last four years.) So be it. In my book The Oasis of Insanity, there’s a chapter called “Be Sure to Talk About Me Around Town,” wherein I describe the astonishment I had at how Milton could behave so unapologetically unreasonable, so utterly like himself, no matter what negative gossip he knew would ensue from his actions. When I watched him all those years ago, it was with a safely distanced admiration, but now that I’m being given the treatment, his example seems like a particularly bitter Chinese medicinal herb I have to take every day. Be sure to talk about me around town. Yeah.

Every so often I read these boring little novels, the righteous Facebook / Instagram / Twitter entries and comments, the sincere-yet-covertly-hostile “Advice Column” essays, and Orwell’s famous quotation — that those who control the present, control the past —  comes to mind. The anger of the present, its insipid righteousness and retroactive moral enlightenment… It reeks. It also does its work to control the past. I’ve seen former students write the most amazing things about their time at the BHP — you read and can only conclude that it was nothing more than a prison camp, both physical and mental. The abuse! The yelling! The gaslighting! All written as if not one good moment was had by the now retroactively victimized actors who in fact studied here for years, who often did fifty or even a hundred scenes during their time. But trust them, dear reader: There were no laughs. There was no learning, no improvement, no positivity whatsoever. There was only just a ceaselessly dark journey through squalid tunnels of egotism, abuse and oppression!

It’s almost hopeless to attempt a defense, as the past has been rewritten so bizarrely, with such a victimized slant — to get in there and argue certain points of fact becomes an impossible task. I’ve seen loyal allies take a stab at defending the joint on social media, only to be beaten into submission with an immediate game of “grievance whac-a-mole” — each statement in defense met with a new, frantic complaint from years ago.

But I’ll try here. Just a general defense, against any who have rewritten their pasts at the BHP with a jejune victimology. Would you permit me? I thank you. It goes something like this:

“Listen, obviously I disagree with the incredible darkness and victimhood that colors your description of the classes. No one is perfect, and certainly not I. But based on what you describe, it would be a curiosity why anyone would stay five hours, much less the five years or more you actually studied here. I enjoyed your work. I enjoyed teaching you. I remember a lot of laughs between you and I. I remember many riotous occasions of good cheer, buying rounds of drinks at the local bar to celebrate a great night of work. I remember directing you in a play, donating months of my time to championing your talent in that role — and we did great work together, no problems, no blowups, it was a pleasure. I still have the enthusiastic card you wrote me, full of kind words about that experience. I remember fixing a single scene you worked on and it suddenly became funny, and from that you did the entire play with a good director — another teacher here, someone I hired. I remember traveling to San Francisco months later to support that very production when it was performed there. I remember helping rewrite your short film scripts. I remember paying for a production coordinator to spend a weekend with you so that the film shoot went as well as possible. I remember helping you with this family issue, or that career issue. I remember talking you through a breakup. And then another. And another after that. I referred you to a certain doctor when you weren’t well. I paid for doctors appointments when you couldn’t afford them. I got you your financial advisor. I hired you. For a job. You deposited the paychecks from this monstrous oppressor, and you did so for years. I remember buying you a professional violin lesson. I remember donating the theatre for the recital I encouraged you to perform, and bringing my daughter to hear you. I remember taking you to the LA Philharmonic (you showed up late). I had you over to my house for my annual ‘orphan’ Thanksgiving when you had no place else to go. And yeah, I remember your strange, glib, cutesy, comedic take on the last scene from The Seagull — that was off base. I don’t care that you got laughs from your classmates. I burst your bubble on that, and I’m sorry/not-sorry, but look: that scene isn’t a fucking comedy. You are black. You are white. You are gay. You are straight. You are Korean. You are Chinese. You are left-wing. You are centrist. You are — gasp! — a Republican. You are of every ethnicity, race, creed, orientation, religion and politics. I didn’t give shit, I never did give a shit, I don’t give a shit now. I just love to teach. You’re not going to stop me from loving to teach.

So if you’re an actor researching schools, and you’re hit with a Facebook vomit festival, an essay, a photo-collage, an “advice column,” just know that you’re often reading super-saturated, over-emotionalized victim pornography that may seem too strange to believe. If you read something like that about any class, any teacher, where you think to yourself, “Dear god that sounds just horrible! How could anyone stay there!” Well — there’s the rub. How did anyone stay? Answer: Because it wasn’t as it’s being described. The negativity is being amplified beyond belief, the positive aspects throttled out of existence.

So I write this in defense not only of the BHP, myself, and any of the teachers who I’ve known and observed who ever worked here, but on behalf of all acting schools, all acting teachers, all of those who have been accused, particularly in the last few years. You’ve been accused, sometimes years after the fact, of all manner of nefarious activities, of irrational outbursts, of stunningly egotistical statements, of astonishing cruelty, even borderline criminal behavior when in fact, you didn’t commit any crimes, you’re probably, against all odds — a somewhat reasonable human being who falls well within the scale of teaching personalities over the last few hundred years.  I know you have your own side to these events that have been thrown into the public square. You may stay quiet, because to engage with a mob is dangerous. If you engage, the noise just increases, your participation just serves to attract more eyeballs to a lurid, hopeless, angry spectacle.

I understand. I’m with you. I get it. If I get the chance, I’ll defend you. And don’t worry: They won’t keep us from loving to teach.