Monday, October 10, 2005

Continuing the Conversation with alwaysa bridesmaid

alwaysabridesmaid has contributed a comment to my "Evidence of Confusion" post below. I am not going to paste it all here, but I recommend that you read it in its entirety. Instead, I will respond to particular parts of her ideas.

She begins "I am so enjoying/learning from this conversation!," a feeling that I share. One of the reason I have created this blog is to begin conversations. In addition, it allows me to put my ideas into concrete form and find out what is leading to misinterpretation, and what is being found arguable. So comments are doubly helpful for me.

The spirit of this blog can be most fully expressed by quoting from Athol Fugard's wonderful play, MASTER HAROLD...and the boys. After a wonderful speech in which Sam talks about the ballroom dance contest as a metaphor for a "dream about a world in which accidents don't happen," Hally, who is enthralled with Sam's "vision," asks: "But is that the best we can do, Sam...watch six finalists dreaming about the way it should be?" To which Sam replies, "I don't know. But it starts with that. Without the dream we won't know what we are going for."

I know about "the way things are." I lived in NYC, not just once, but twice. I was a freelance director, and continue to occasionally direct professionally (most recently, an Equity production of The Tempest in Minneapolis). I have many friends who are professional actors, directors, and stage managers in NYC and elsewhere. My ideas do not come out of ignorance of "the way things are." Rather, they come from its opposite: being alarmed about the status quo, and its deleterious effects on the future of the theatre. I cannot read something like what alwaysabridesmaid writes -- that "Hardly anyone can [pay a living wage for anything but small cast shows]. Write for 4 people and one set, or you're out of the game these days" -- without feeling that the theatre is shrinking away (the number of one-person shows in regional theatres and even on Broadway is increasing alarmingly) and that it will soon, with a small pop, disappear completely as some "theatre" figures out a way to do plays without even a single actor. The miniaturization of the American theatre is quite alarming.

As I mention elsewhere, I teach, and it is impossible to look young people in the eyes and encourage them to make their lives in the theatre unless you believe that such a path is possible and worthwhile.

But I also know that it is very difficult to think "outside the box" when you are simply struggling to survive. It is hard to think about the form of your swimming strokes when you are in danger of drowning in the ocean. If you want to make a living as an actor or a designer or a director, it is probably best to adjust yourself to the status quo and figure out how to make it work for you. Which leaves it to people like me -- people who know the theatre, have worked in the theatre, but are not reliant on the theatre to put food in their mouths -- to spend some time looking at the larger picture and propose alternatives -- to dream, as Fugard puts it.

And thus this blog.

alwaysabridesmaid writes: "I think there are still a lot of communities where people expect theatre to be about that experience you wax rhapsodic about of seeing someone they know up there -- because a bulk of their theatrical experience is made up of piling into school auditoriums to see productions of The Music Man. They are supporting the "good for them for getting up there" mentality, rather than going to see how theatre will affect them. Therefore, they won't see anything they don't know anyone in, and they certainly don't want to pay a lot of money to do it. (It's their dentist up there playing Stanley Kowalski! They know he makes good money; they give it to him.)This perception leads to the neglect of theatre artists as paid workers." A bit later, she continues: I'm not saying it's the only place in the country where that's true, but I know where I grew up, in an Asheville-sized city in Central PA, my family only went when I was playing Daisy Mae at the high school or a Hot Box Girl in Guys and Dolls at the Dinner Theatre.Now, the main theatre in town recently switched to an Equity theatre and my stepmother finally, after 50 years of living in that town, signed them up for a season subscription. Did she know that they had switched to a LORT-D contract and were now casting professionals (yes, mostly from NY)? No. But she did know that all of a sudden the plays they saw there got a lot better, now that our pharmacist/mayor wasn't up there trying to play Marc Antony.

Let's be very clear: I am not saying that the theatre would be better off if dentists played Stanley or the mayor played Marc Antony (although I see nothing wrong with that, it is just a different animal entirely). Training is important. What I am saying is that professional actors should become a part of the community in which they live. That people outside the artistic enclave should get to know them as human beings, not simply as artists. People are committed to other people, not institutions. With more and more entertainment options available, many of which do not require that you even leave the house, a little human touch might rouse people off of the couch. Without it, theatre is just another entertainment option -- and an expensive one at that. But if a regional theatre was more like a local bar where, ala Cheers, everybody knows your name -- and also, you know everybody's name -- there might be more loyalty, more commitment to attending. It is impossible to establish such relationships with people who are here for 6 weeks and then head for the next gig.

Which, of course, brings us to the idea of the resident company. alwaysabridesmaid writes: "There is only one non-musical based theatre in Asheville that pays a living wage (NC Stage Co.) They would have to base their entire season around the idea of casting me in order for me to make a living acting in Asheville..." Yes, this is true. They would have to commit to you as an artist, and a member of the artistic community. Would that be hard? Sure. But there are a lot of hard things that are worthwhile. It is hard maintaining a marriage, raising a baby, having a democracy instead of an oligarchy -- but all of these have been judged by many as being worth it for other reasons that are held to be important. Would a living wage and constant work benefit you as an actor? I suspect so, but you'd have to answer that yourself. Would having you as part of the Asheville community, participating in the life of the community, forming bonds with the people -- would that be beneficial to NCStage? I suspect so. Would it require thinking differently about terms of employment and the way of doing beusiness? Definitely. Is ti impossible? No.

I teach theatre history, and there are a lot of models for doing theatre that might be adapted. For instance, Shakespeare's theatre. There was a three-tier structure of shareholders, hirelings, and apprentices. Shareholder bought into the theatre and were part owners. They were paid a percentage of the box office according to their percentage of ownership. Hirelings were paid a specific wage to do a specific job. Apprentices were given room and board, and they could move up the ladder as they became more fully trained. There was a fourth position: householder, which meant you were part owner of the theatre real estate itself. Right now, most people in the theatre are hirelings, but what would happen if you were a shareholder in NCStage? How would this change your relationship to its operation? How would it change the way that productions were chosen? How would it change the finances of the theatre?

I'm not saying that Shakespeare's model is the Right One. What I am saying is that, until we start thinking more creatively about every aspect of the way we do theatre, the theatre will continue to shrink and sputter.

We create "the way things are" every day by the way we think and behave. What if we thought differently? What if we dreamed?

5 comments:

George Hunka said...

I appreciate the reference to Renaissance theater practice as a business model, but doubt whether it's viable any more, especially with so many other seemingly less expensive calls our leisure time. Most audiences see theater today as only one alternative in an entertainment universe, and a costly one at that.

Among the things theater practitioners must concede is that large-cast spectacles, as vehicles for illusion, may be better served by film and television: even in Shakespeare's time, an anti-spectacular movement in the theater, led particularly by Ben Jonson, urged playwrights and audiences to experience theater more as an intimate, lyrical, poetic event, not a bust-the-budget flashing-light spectacular (in the nature of the masques of the time).

That said: This may be why these one-set, four-character plays (and those stripped-down dramatic events of Beckett, Eric Ehn, and other playwrights) may be exactly what theater today is best at presenting, and why we should explore that mode of embodied presentation. Though film may be best at giving us close-ups, it's no experience for having the bodied performer no more than fifteen feet away from you.

Maybe the way to go, eschewing the 500-seat or 1000-seat theater, is the gallery route: small, 50- to 100-seat theaters, with excellent but stripped-down technical resources. A community may more easily support five or ten of these than one large institutional theater; this would also provide more creative outlets for producers, directors, performers and playwrights.

Maybe moving ourselves outside of conceptual boxes means moving ourselves into (small, fifty-seat, black-walled) boxes, and exploring that more intimately. Enoch Brater's book about the late Beckett plays, Beyond Minimalism, has been of enormous inspiration to me there.

Ty Unglebower said...

I just recently discovered this blog, so I am not aware of every single post just yet. I did have to mention, however, that rarely have I encountered a conversation wherein so many seperate totally valid points were being made; points which I can share agreement with.

I agree that theatre itself, on all levels tends to be withering a bit, and that this is a sad truth.

As to solutions or ways to fix this, I can see the logic behind having more professional actors intermixed with the local theatre community, in order to bring about a communal familiarity with them, and the theatre to which they are loyal. I do fear, however, that is that were the case, there would be fewer and fewer chances for local amateur actors to appeal in local productions, as the constant presence of professionals would squeeze out everyday people.

I am intrigued by George Hunka's notion of recalibrating the theater presence on the local level so as to embrace and support several, or perhaps many smaller theatres to bring about the intimate experience. (This opposed to one or maybe two larger houses which often seem to struggle with attendance issues.) My only concern there, (and it may not be important to some people), is that the overall numbers that people would reach with their plays and performances would be lower. I admit I like the big audience when I am up there. At least for certain shows.

Yet I must concede that perhaps having smaller theatres at which plays were more often sold out for longer periods of time may spark greater interest overall from the community.

As for Bridesmaids comments earlier in this thread, my agreement/disgreement ration is almost exactly 50/50. On the one hand, it is hard to argue against the notion that people these days stay away from live theatre because of other options so readily available.

I must however disagree with the notion she seems to subscribe to that a community production of anything must be poor in quality by default simply because your local pharmacist is up there on stage. I have been in many such shows, and by and large, the quality does not suffer from local citizens making up the cast.

This is not to say that community theatre is never poor, but I do not think the only people that come are those who know someone in the cast. At least not to the extent that was alluded to here. I really have found good theatre, (if advertised and known about) brings the people in. Professionals are capable or apalling theatre, and amateurs are capable of brilliant theatre. I think it all depends on the show, the company, and the direction.

Nonetheless, I admit this whole series of posts provoked thought in me. Thank you.

Ron Bashford said...

Last summer I chatted with Gregory Mosher, formerly of Lincoln Center and now director of the Columbia University Arts Initiative, at a seminar related to a visit to Columbia by Peter Brook.

Mosher, too, noted the shrinking quality of American theatre and the lack of new or exciting or vital work in New York. Oddly though, he did not seem concerned. He said that he felt that the current future of theatre in America might be in small theatres dotting the landscape all over the country, and that what is unique about theatre, it's live exchange between performers and audience members, might be best served in smaller venues locally.

I thought he was an interesting source for this comment since he had a successful career as a Broadway director and is now devoting his time to the place of the arts in the neighborhood and community above 96th street around Columbia (i.e. something local). When he hosted Peter Brook and Tierno Bokar, it was purposely NOT widely publicized until the more local university and african-american community had a chance to buy tickets. Most of my theatre friends in New York did not even hear about it.

As for the new play/old play debate, clearly narrative writers who want to make important observations about contemporary life are into making movies rather than plays, by-and-large. I think it's not Hollywood, but the independent film movement, that has diverted what once would have been potential playwrights into screenwriters. And I think they are beating the old Hollywood system, too. It's the economics, i.e., the size of the audience, more than anything else. And that means writing skills that are unique to the stage are not being practised. But that doesn't mean seeing good productions of old plays is bad, does it? Why pit new work against old, when the question is really who is motivated to write new plays, where are they, what are they writing, and is it any good? There will always be more good old plays than new ones, by definition. And film didn't exist 100 years ago. I haven't seen a good new play with a large cast since Angels in America. I think that is sad, but at the same time there is more theatre, OVERALL, than at any time in our history. There are new plays being done, as well as old, but it is relatively local, isn't it? It does not get national attention, except rarely, by way of New York, most often, but is that bad? Or just an inevitable cultural trend? I don't really know, but I do know that there's not much that can be done about it in a trend-setting sort of way, short of writing a new play one's self, or raising the money and producing one. Alot of people are trying to do just that all the time--but frankly it is a safer bet for theatres without large endowments to invest in plays they know will draw audiences, a combination of name recognition and unique live qualities that can't be found in contemporary film, which is perhaps unavoidably the most effective venue for contemporary narrative, and audiences have thereby become more interested in individual experience through individual protagonists, than in collective rhetoric and reflection. This is another reason I think why one-person shows are on the ascendant, not just because they are cheaper, but because they are unique. This is a question of prevailing cultural interests. I think perhaps also, that theatre, as a form, has moved in directions beyond playwrighting in its older conventional sense... more pre-occupied with production concepts than scripts, with directors rather than writers...this is also a reflection of an evolving cultural identity, increasingly visual, increasing personal, and increasingly re-contextualizing itself... thanks for the venue for exchange, but won't we all end up blogging more than we will making plays?? ;-)

Anonymous said...

i find this idea of a retreat towards small-scale theatre (in terms of house size, not cast size) depressing. theatre is not only a poetic medium - it's also a form of public speaking. and the need to animate a room with 500 or 1000 seats forces us, as writers, to communicate with urgency and concision. one of the problems with new plays right now is that many writers can't afford to practice their craft - they learn to write plays that work well in a small room, and then move on to television, where they can earn a living. new plays that will work in big theatres rarely get written -

Anonymous said...

this is a reply to george (who sadly doesn't allow comments on his blog...)

the point you're answering isn't quite the one i made. i agree, it's often much easier to enjoy theatre in more intimate spaces. but if, as a writer, you're attempting to write something that's going to make the audience member sixty feet away in the back row sit up, you need to be urgent, you need to be concise, you need to create situations that are sufficiently concentrated and intense. and the play you write that will work in the larger space may well play even better in an intimate setting.

i think that sometimes a predominantly public conversation can be more interesting than a predominantly private conversation (my problem with smaller theatres is more that the audience tends (not always) to be more socially restricted. but this is a matter of personal taste. what is certainly true is that with four actors and a hundred seats, no-one (and certainly not the writer) can make a living. with five hundred seats, maybe there's a chance..