Tuesday, May 23, 2006

On Walls and Bunkers

I've been following John Clancy's attempts to create a League of Independent Producers (I love the acronym), because he is dealing with a very, very important issue: the means of production. IMO the way we create theatre in this country is inartistic at best, and bizarre at worst. I sometimes find myself wondering what would happen to the novel if novelists had to work under similar conditions to theatre artists, i.e., with rules concerning how many hours a week they could write, when those hours could be, how many weeks they could work on a novel, when they had to take a break, etc. Or what about painters. Or poets. Our current "system" of production reflects the industrial age in which it came into being: there are "workers" and "bosses" who are creating a "product." It is a wonder that anything worthwhile gets created under those circumstances, and I think theatre artists should take a bow for that. But only a brief bow, because all hell has broken loose.

Things are changing. No, things have changed. They have changed everywhere in our society except in the theatre, which seems to think we can stay in our bunkers (using Clancy's excellent term -- read the whole post here) and hope all this change will go away. As SpearBearer wrote back in December, "I'm sticking with my general philosophy. As long as the actors don't quit, there will be theatre. And if there's one person in the audience, the show will go on." SpearBearer was right about one thing: pretty soon there will be one person in the audience -- probably another theatre person. Back in December, I wrote that theatre is conservative. I still think that is true, but I think that conservatism is a symptom, not the disease.

The disease is desperation.

Clancy writes: "Activism or organizing or agitating or whatever it is I'm doing when I talk out about a new League of Independent Producers, or a new Alternative Touring Circuit, takes time and thought and energy. Most theater artists in New York have a precious small supply of these three things and choose, wisely, to spend them on their work. This is especially true of younger artists still chasing their own voices and visions. So those with the most to gain from a systemic change in the Off-Off or indie world, the younger artists, have the least amount of resources to contribute." Well said, and so true. After reading this, I found myself thinking about Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Because of the desperate financial situation, most artists find themselves scrambling just to realize their physiological needs at the lowest level of the pyramid -- rent, food, clothing, and all the absurdly expensive things it takes to work in the theatre (e.g., headshots, classes, clothing, etc.). There isn't time, thought, and energy available evaluate abstractions like the means of production -- they're running as fast as they can just to stay alive. But the BBW (Big Bad World) is leaving us in the dust. It isn't enough to stay alive -- we need to do something, or we're gonna die.

Clancy's efforts are a crucial first step. What are the next steps?

U.S. Army Chief of Staff (1999-2003) Eric Shinseki once said, "If you don't like change, you're going to like irrelevance even less." Because we have refused to change our means of production, our relation to the customer (get over it -- if you sell a ticket, those who buy are customers), our sense of purpose, theatre has become increasingly irrelevant. It may be almost totally irelevant already. We need to be reading books like The World Is Flat , and The Experience Economy and The Long Tail and Re-Imagine and The Wisdom of Crowds figuring out how the hell they apply to what we do before we get Netflixed out of business. And rightfully so, if we can't come up with a way of creating art that reflects the 21st century. We need to get out of the Theatre section at Barnes and Noble and take a look at the Business section, because business long ago realized that constant and aggressive change is the only way to survive. Not in theatre -- we spend our time asking the world to change its attitude toward us, whining about the lack of public funding and the supposed shallowness of our audience and the crass anti-intellectualism of the American public. Get over it! The problem is the theatre, not the public! The enemy is in the mirror, even if A Chorus Line didn't mention it.

We need to destroy and reinvent ourselves, and now. Incrementalism is the enemy, because the crisis is here. Tom Peters, in Re-Imagine! writes, "I sincerely believe that in turbulent times bosses at all levels and at all ages ultimately earn their keep by Blowing Things Up and Inventing a New Way...not by preserving and (merely) Making Better the Old Way." It's too late to tinker; it's time to destroy and build anew.

What's the New Way? I don't know. I have a few clues, which I'll try to develop through this blog. But we need to channel a little of that vaunted creativity toward something other than the next show. John Clancy has started the ball rolling. Who's next?


Alison Croggon said...

Personally, I think there are better things to read than Thomas Friedman. But, absolutely, changing insitutional structures (this is kind of parallel with a discussion going on at TN here about problems in Australian theatre) is essential if any kind of other change is to happen.

Scott Walters said...

Alison, I haven't read all these either, so I can't argue with you about Friedman. But I would argue that, if it is possible to put aside anti-corporate feelings for a while, books such as those I mention (and dozen of others) might provide us with a more energetic, committed sense of what it takes to innovate than yet another Ben Cameron essay (although I gather he is leaving TCG). I think we need to be jolted out of our thinking ruts a bit. Thanks for pointing me toward the TN discussion -- I'll be following it as it develops.

MattJ said...

I agree with a lot of this, Scott. And much of it harks back to the kinds of things I was soapboxing about a few months ago with a theatre sensitive to the audience of now and a focus on new work; new plays.

I have mixed feelings about some of this I guess. One sentence from Clancy writes that young artists, since they are busy "finding their voice" (an idea I am not trying to dominish), have very little intellectual resources to contribute to a radical reconstruction of the downtown theatre scene. As one such person, who is of course looking for a voice like the rest, I feel as if I have nothing but resources to offer. It's not a lack of desire, will, strength, drive, etc. It's the need to prove to the existing theratre community of my own merits. The marginalization of theatre has led to a faction of sorts that closes in on itself, needing to be "broken into." It is thatvery insularity which shields out the young artist until they get some kind of break, because it's all based on who ya know. A professor of mine recently said to me "Matt, I think you're really talented. I really do. But, unfortunately, you're not going to get jobs based on your talent for a long time." It's a bit discouraging.

Also, I don't know. Is it the content of the work that you want to change? Or just the institutional structure? I'm working on a new play right now downtown which is fantastic, and it occurs to me that the difficulty will be getting the broader audience to come and be excited about it rather than getting caught up in the necessity of more rehearsal time. Of course, it would be wonderful. But we are sort of trained in this field to do the work inside of that amount of time, it part of the craft.

Jamespeak said...

Irrelevancy is the big issue here, isn't it? When I get into my more cynical and depressed moods, I realize that many theatre artists are hell-bent on making theatre absolutely irrelevant. Theatre artists have to compete with Podcasts, DVDs, television, late-night benders, and so on, and so on, in vying for people's attention. What's worse is that many of us refuse to ackowledge this.

(And sulking about the audience bein' stupid and lazy gets us nowhere fast.)

I agree, the problem is that many of us refuse to "create art that reflects the 21st century," as you put it, and we suffer as a result. Not only that, theatre artists do have to start thinking like business people. Now, this isn't a bad thing. Actually, far from it. The faster a theatre artist can think in terms of profit margins, customers, demographics and bottom lines, the sooner he or she can become truly indepent and self-sufficient.

-James Comtois