Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Point of Intersection: Time, Energy, and R & D

I see an important point of intersection between Isaac's post "Let's Talk Technology," in which he writes that "from an aesthetic perspective, I think that in theater we have not figured out how to respond to the invention of television and film. Not really"; Matthew Freeman's "Work / Life /Art Balance," which starts out "Work and Life Balance is a constant struggle for most working adults. Add a desire for a life in the arts, and many of us are in the midst of a constant battle of attention, exhaustion and dedication"; and my post "Before I Begin," in which I complain "Things are changing at the speed of light, and we are dawdling, tinkering at the edges of how and what we create" and I urge that we need to "leap-frog" into the future.

The point of intersection: it takes a great deal leisure and energy to think up new ideas, and most working theatre artists are exhausted from trying to make ends meet while simultaneously creating theatre. If the theatre hasn't come to terms with film and television, it might be because during that time we've spent all our energy trying to put food in our mouths.

All of which is to say: where is theatre's Research and Development? Most innovative industries put a percentage of their income into the development of new ideas and products. They do so, because not to do so would lead inevitably to a decline in market share and eventually bankruptcy. But theatre doesn't have R & D -- or rather, we do our R & D on the factory floor.

Sure, we have "experimental theatre," but such theatre isn't about research, really. For all practical purposes, "experimental" really means either "really weird" or "extremely difficult." There is no commitment from experimental artists to actually "test out" new ideas in any intentional fashion, and there is little interest from non-experimental artists to attend such performances looking for new ideas. Both aspects are equally tragic: the mainstream theatre desperately needs an influx of weirdness, of innovation, of new ideas; and the experimental theatre really needs more focus and, in addition, more money.

If mainstream theatre was really doing its job, it would view the fringe as the place where its next Big Thing was going to come from, and it would reward those things when they arose. In the software industry, companies like Google are on the lookout for new, innovative companies with new, innovative ideas and they reward those companies by buying them and making them rich. Not so theatre, where only occasionally does the mainstream "reach down" and reward the fringe (Julie Taymor springs to mind), and usually only individual artists, not entire companies. Why aren't scouts from the regional theatres out looking for innovative companies to "merge" with like, say, the RSC and the Royal Court have done in England; instead of creating haphazard and unfocused "second stages," why not import entire companies and allow them to continue to create their usual work under more economically viable conditions, and allow the parent company to cross-polinate and benefit from the influx of ideas? If this were the model, instead of the "free agent" model of every man for himself, then there would be greater motivation for groups of artists to form stable companies in order to develop a distinctive and unique approach to theatre.

That would be one way to create Theatre R & D.

The other way (and there are probably more) centers on the universities. Right now, theatre departments across the country are focused on the creation of ever more young theatre artists who are trained to do the same damn thing we've been doing since Thespis stepped from the dithyramb and shouted "hey, look at me." Faculty members whose focus is production, which means most of them, simply crank out a season of traditional plays done traditionally in order to train traditional actors and traditional designers to do more traditional productions in the future. Faculty members with a more research orientation tend to crank out investigations of ever more obscure plays analyzed with ever more obscure theoretical techniques that have nothing so say to the mass of theatre practitioners.

What a waste.

Why aren't universities undertaking experiments with the goal of helping the profession to prosper and grow? Why aren't regional theatres teaming with university faculty to do low-cost experiments, instead of teaming with them to provide internships or a theatre space?

The answer is probably because we don't think about theatre like this. We think advances in theatre come as a result of lone geniuses who, in a flash of insight, change the face of theatre forever. Well, things have gotten too desperate for that model to function efficiently anymore. We need more intentional weirdness.


Alison Croggon said...

Hi Scott - take a look at the Malthouse Theatre, which is doing exactly that - picking up the interesting independent companies and artists around Melbourne and both remounting successful productions with resources and commissioning new ones. While continuing its own work. It's being very successful and having a knock on effect on theatre culture in Melbourne.

Scott Walters said...

Interesting, Alison. Is it taking companies under its wing, or single productions?

Alison Croggon said...

It picks up independent productions which have caused a buzz and programs them in its main seasons - there have been maybe half a dozen of these, and more on the way. It commissions collaborative teams (like Stuck Pigs Squealing, who are on their way to Ontological-Hysteric Theatre this very month) to make new works. And it also employs theatre artists from independent theatre in its own in-house productions. Just smart, I think: it's plugging into a younger audience as well as building up a bigger audience for this theatre. And doing some great work on the way. It's an obvious thing to do - Playbox, its predecessor, did the same thing, but not to the same extent.

Joshua James said...

Scott, it may amaze you to hear this, but I agree one hundred percent with this post.

Scott Walters said...

Knock me over with a feather! ;-)