Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Charles Isherwood on Collectives

The Playgoer quotes Christpher Isherwood, and I find myself on Isherwood's side!:

"True theatrical collectives - companies of actors and artists who repeatedly work together to hone their craft, establishing a cohesive aesthetic - remain a vital part of the European theatrical landscape. By contrast, the phenomenon is virtually nonexistent in the upper realms of New York theater, where the demands of the marketplace reign supreme and even the finest casts are assembled for a single production.

What we lose out on is what I found so transfixing in the productions mentioned: the singular ability of a unified company of actors to conjure a world that compels us with its truth, whatever the style or tone of the material. This is something different in kind from assembling an array of terrific performers for just one occasion."

What we also lose out on is the kind of on-going relationship between artists and audience that leads to a much richer, more knowledgeable interaction on both sides. Playgoer also applauds Isherwood, but goes on: "But does he breathe word anywhere of funding? Dream on..." Funding is certainly an issue, but what is interesting is how theatres regularly find the money to pay administrators, but not artists. Your values show up in where you put your money. That said, part of the problem may be in how we conceive of the job of the artists. The Actor's Equity contract is very specific about what actors can and can't do without additional remuneration. The model is that of the industrial worker whose union determines what the conditions of employment are. But art is not industry. If, instead of being regarded as employees hired to do a job, actors (and directors and designers) were made artistic partners with a stake in the success of the institution (not unlike the shareholders in the Globe, for instance), then a perhaps more creative approach to the work might lead to the ability to pay a decent salary to the artists. Wouldn't you agree that artists would welcome a steady, liveable salary and might be willing to undertake additional work to create the conditions needed to provide that salary?

Let me give a concrete example or two. I have begun working with a consulting group that provides leadership and team-building events for businesses. What sets this company apart is that they use the arts as a central part of these events. Plays, dance, music, visual art -- all are used as a catalyst to conversation. For instance, a performance of the play "Art" was used as a starting point for discussion of communication and conflict. Such events could provide considerable outside income for artists connected to an institution. Actors not appearing in the current mainstage offering could develop offerings for such leadership events, and also participate in them. Right now, actors could be hired by the consulting group independently, without violating Equity rules, and that's fine, but the money is in providing the entire leadership event, which an institution could do. Obviously, this ain't pure art, but it is income that might provide the wherewithal for an institution to pay a liveable salary to a company.

This idea could be expanded to include community building activities which could be supported by grants. Using short plays as the starting point for discussions that might address local problems. Again, it ain't pure art, but it is income. And surely it must be better than working as a waiter.

The point is that, if we really value the idea of an ensemble, and we also value the security of a liveable and consistent salary, then perhaps we need to break away from the industrial approach to the creation of theatre as a product and become more creative about how we generate income. Yes, Playgoer is right if we think about it in the usual way -- in order to support an ensemble, we would need more grant money. But I wonder if we might become a bit more self-sufficient if we thought outside the box.


MattJ said...

"if we really value the idea of an ensemble, and we also value the security of a liveable and consistent salary, then perhaps we need to break away from the industrial approach to the creation of theatre as a product and become more creative about how we generate income."

Definitely. How can we do that without compromising our art form or assimilating with the capitalist consumerism we are rebelling against?

I'm also interested in the idea of the ensemble artistically. Yes, it would be great to have more rehearsal time, the creation process really does need to get more emphasis. One way to combat it is the ensemble idea. Back in the day Commedia Troupes could whip out plays at will in a combination if improv and acquired skill. But they had also trained with each other and knew how to work together. Anne Bogart does this stuff with the SITI company and Viewpoints, and I'm sure there's others as well. But I think it's an area of theatre that needs some more emphasis.

The Playgoer said...

I'm very glad you picked up my Isherwood post, Scott, and that's the whole issue has sparked some conversation.... I just feel like clarifying what I meant by "funding," though. You seem to have taken this as a cue to talk about direct renumeration of artists. Worthy topic. But I was simply referring to the funding that makes such a dream rep company Isherwood waxes about possible. (Virtually all of the European companies he discusses, for instance, must be state funded.) Of course I don't think throwing a lot of government money at a theatre building will make a great rep company. But I just found it odd (and typical of a willful NYT blindness) that an essaying crying "Oh why don't we have a Druid Theatre or a Mnouchkine ensemble here?" doesn't even *mention* the fact that someone has to pay for it!