Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Model (Draft) Part 3, Where We Hear from Isaac

My apologies for the rather lengthy silence on my part.

In response to my Model (Draft) series, Isaac emailed me the following (which mysteriously disappeared from my comments box):

You are right. It is in the long-term interest of organizations to invest as much as possible in local talent. This has to be done both by building that talent (ie. offering acting classes in smaller markets) and supporting/hiring that talent.

There are some problems both short- and long- term that come out of this, and we have to reckon with them as we move forward: (1) Building up local actors and then, when they've finally come in to their own, watching them move to New York and probably never work steadily in theater again. But they'll make a good living doing various small parts in commercials and Law and Order.

(2) It's not that having a 100 #ered zip code gives you acting talent, it's that there are so many talented people here hungry for a break etc. that's it's a lot easier to cast a fairly wide net and
get (on average) better people. This is why regional theaters that can afford it cast out of New York. It's not *just* regional
snobbishness and inferiority (although it's that too). It's that there's a huge pool here, and a lot of available talented people who are so used to doing showcases they'll gladly move out of town for 10 weeks for decent pay and lodging.

(3) Provincialism and complacency. These are NYC problems too (believe me they are BIG TIME). In the regional system, it looks like going to see a play and seeing a reasonably talented actor give the same goddamn performance they give in every goddamn play while, simultaneously, the organization that employs her doesn't really grow or change because they like the way they're doing things and there isn't enough new blood to stir it up (this has happened in quite a few regional theaters I know, including one i've worked with fairly extensively).

So this is my recommendation... or this is where I see taking your idea... working exclusively with actors who live in the area can prove problematic (perhaps) but we certainly need to shift more of the burden to raising the next generation of theater professionals through audience outreach and classes! Lots of classes! use the talented, well trained people to create more talented well trained people. It'll also help generate more income. Finally, fill various production roles with people from out of your area from time to time to create change and variety as well as opportunities to grow and learn. And (as well) to create the opportunity to bring people from the outside
in who might want to move to your area.

That's my idea, in a nutshell. I think only going local has (at this point, with the system as pernitious and well developed as it is) only long term benefits, while mixing it up a bit might (MIGHT) produce both short and long term gains.

Some thoughts for you. What do you think?

First of all, I think Isaac makes some very, very good points. I like his idea of providing classes -- not just as talent development, but as a way of improving the connection between the theatre and the community.

I also agree that there are a lot of talented people in NYC, and you may want some of them involved in your theatre. The idea of occasionally bringing people in from the outside to shake things up is excellent. The extension of this would be for the regional theatre to actively seek out small theatres anywhere in the country who are doing something well that is different from what the regional theatre is doing, and then, in essence, "merge" with this theatre -- sort of like when Google acquires a small start-up.

But let me be more explicit about what I mean by "local actor" (or director or designer or playwright). It doesn't necessarily mean people who already live in your particular town, although this is certainly a great place to start. But more importantly, no matter where the person comes from, it is important that they become a local actor/director/designer/playwright. In others words, it is important that they hang around for a while.

Which brings me to an important subject: money. In my opinion, theatre artists should be paid well. Duh, but how often are they, really? They might make an OK salary for the couple months they are under contract, but then they're cut loose. As a result, they spend the last month of their contract looking around for the next gig. This affects focus.

In my opinion, theatre artists should be on a 9-month or a 12-month contract that makes them instantly middle class. They should have the employment stability and the total income to buy a house if they want, take out an auto loan, have kids and send them to private school or summer camp, or whatever other things that middle class people do. This should be the starting point when creating the budget. All too often, the starting budgets are built on the backs of the artists themselves, while everybody else gets paid the going rate. This works against creativity, because artists cannot focus on their work when they are working a "day job" or worrying about paying their bills each month. I also think that decent pay might undercut the tendency for actors to head off to NYC once they've developed their talent -- why give up a good thing? How this might be funded is the subject of a future post.

I think the structure of the theatre should reflect these goals. I'm particularly interested in the Elizabethan company model, which had 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 your theatre? 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?

Hirelings could be brought in to provide diversity of viewpoints, and the logical extension of the training Isaac mentions would be to have apprentices. Shareholders could buy into the theatre's real estate and become householders, thus providing another source of income.

Money leads to stability, stability leads to community, community leads to more money. It is a circle.

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