Thursday, August 02, 2007

Action Plan: A Modest Proposal

A while back in this discussion, Matt Freeman asked for an action plan as it applies to the issue of regional representation in the arts. And of course, this topic also connects to my opinions concerning the value of decentralizing the theatre. So I allowed myself the luxury to imagine that I was suddenly named the head of the NEA -- what one thing would I do to enact change?

I decided that I would make the following rule in regards to funding:

If you are a regional theatre, you will receive NEA funding only if you meet the following criteria:

1. 75% of the talent involved with your theatre (actors, directors, designers, artistic director) is drawn from artists who have lived in your state for at least a year.

2. At least one mainstage production each year must be written by a playwright who is a resident of your state, and be set in your state.

The effect of these two little rules would be dramatic.

Suddenly, the necessity of moving to New York in order to be considered for regional theatre roles would be eliminated. Theatre artists, like almost all other workers in our national economy, could choose where they would like to spend their lives, rather than being compelled by conditions to make a choice between their lifestyle and their art.

Playwrights would suddenly spring forth from all kinds of unexpected places. As Robert Gard found when, in the 1920s, he put out a call for plays about Wisconsin, there are many, many artists whose love of theatre is powerful, but who have no outlet for their work. They write plays that they put into their desk drawer never to be seen except by their descendents when they are cleaning out the desk after the playwright's death.

But but sputter. Wouldn't quality suffer? Maybe at first, while the theatre scene was rearranged, but I suspect that soon we would see a rise in quality, diversity, and energy in the theatre scene. I also suspect that nationwide support for the arts, and for the funding of the NEA, would become stronger as a larger portion of the nation felt more closely connected to its theatres.

In addition, the issue of the perpetuation of stereotypes would be weakened, as people who were from an area created art that was about that area, and began to tell stories of all the wonderful characters from its past, from its myths. There might be an increase in the gathering of oral histories, which could be used as the basis for productions, and also as a means of preserving the daily life of everyday folks who make up the bedrock of a state's population.

But it sure would look different.

Think I'll drop Dana Gioia a note...


Gary Kline said...

Hmm. Interesting idea, but why do we need the NEA to implement it? If theaters want to hire only local actors, and produce local playwrights, that's a very noble undertaking, and one that I'm sure the NEA would reward with funding if a theater made it part of their mission. But what if theaters DON'T want to do that? Or they can't find a local play they feel passionately about, should they be punished by having their funding withheld?

Wouldn't your proposal result in a stricter form of socialized theater? Do we really want the government dictating what theaters can and can't do in order to get funding? I guess they do to some extent already, but you're proposing some pretty strict guidelines that may result in some interesting work, but will probably also result in tokenism, and really bad plays being produced. Also, I imagine lots of not-so-good actors will get hired, because the theater is forced to hire locals. I'm sorry, but the best person for the part MIGHT be on the other side of that state border. So, yes, quality WILL go down. And, as a result, fragile theaters could lose their audiences (because that's what happens when they don't the plays or the actors in the plays.) And if they lose their audiences, then they go out of business. One bad season is all it takes. So really, your proposal could backfire, and instead of MORE local theater product, we'll end up with a whole lot less.


ps: You never did give me an example of a contemporary play that best exemplifies that New York aesthetic that disdains non-New Yorkers. I'll assume you couldn't come up with one?

David M said...

Instead of making all NEA funding follow those cnditions, make 1/2 or 2/3 of it follow those conditions. This would then have the following effect:

Theaters that wanted to hire non-local talent could still do so and hope to receive funding. But there would be less funding to go around, so competition would be stiffer. This would provide incentive for theaters willing to take a risk on local talent to do so, as (initially at first) the competition for that money would be less, until more theaters decided to give it a try.

It would take a certain amount of time to sort itself out, since the accumulation of theater talent in New York wouldn't all be able (or willing) to up and move elsewhere immediately. This would, actually, provide a nice edge to younger talent around the country, say finishing up grad school, who might be able to continue living in whatever city they are in and actually get work.

I went to grad school in Seattle, and we were always told that the way to get a job at Seattle Rep or the Intiman or ACT was to move to New York (or, for actors, LA was also an option.) A year or two after I graduated September 11 happened, and the arts economy across the country took a downturn. A friend of mine from grad school who was a few years behind me chose to stay in Seattle after graduating, and suddenly he was getting gigs at the Rep, Intiman -- basically every theater in town. Why? Those theaters, due to the tightening of the funding climate, had to turn to local talent. Once they were forced to use local talent, even after the fujnding returned, the continued to hire him (and, I think, were a little more receptive to using local talent in general.) They knew they could still get high-quality product without the added expense of flying someone out and providing housing, per diems, etc.

I think it would be important that there still be some way for theaters to get funding without using local talent, for those theaters who simply do not initially have the local talent pool from which to draw. Or maybe the definition of "local" just needs to be expanded initially -- combine several states into regions from which talent could be drawn, especially for lower population states, or smaller states (for example, theaters in Providence, RI should be allowed to draw from Massachusetts and Connecticut, since many people who are arguably a regular part of the Providence theaterical community, live across the state line, RI being so small.)

Over time the theater population would distribute itself more evenly and this could perhaps be phased out.

Interesting idea, Scott. Here' a question for you: I think it is not uncommon (and actually quite healthy) for artists to be drawn to cities. Not New York or Chicago or LA specifically (although they provide best of class examples of the benefits cities provide to artists, as well as best of class examples of the hardships artists face in cities) but just cities in general. One finds a concentration of artists, an artistic community with whom you can exchange ideas, get feedback, spark new ideas, hone talent. The community can be in a constant state of flux (old members leaving, new blood arriving) without disrupting the workings of that community. ("Oh my God, Al moved to Peoria! That 10% of our acting pool, gone!)

Does your suggested solution privilege states/regions that are more urbanized, because an artist, who may not want to live in New York any more, is still more likely to stay on the eastern seaboard, or move to one of the 2nd tier cities, rather than, say, moving to Wyoming or the Dakotas? Is this an acceptable solution anyway, as it at least starts the process of decentralizing the theater community?

David M

Scott Walters said...

David -- I'm not sure I agree about the city thing. I think that once was true, but as real estate prices have risen in the city, artists have been forced to disperse, and have done so more widely. This seems to be true, for instance, in NY. Whereas in the 1920s the artists could gather together in Greenwich Village, now they are scattered all over the metro area. I think this is becoming more and more true in many cities. Here in Asheville, even, the price of real estate has become so high that artists are being priced out of town, not unlike Taos, NM. Once they leave the city, they scatter to many of the surrounding towns and commute. In many ways, it would be easier to have an artists community in a small town where a group of artists could own property, and also could influence the local economy more. I'm reading a book right now by Tom Borrup that is about many different models of this in action that is quite interesting. His focus is on all the arts, but nevertheless is relevant.

Gary -- As you note, NEA funding already dictates the work, so this wouldn't be a change. But I would be willing to adopt David's suggestion of a percentage of funding left available for theatres that don't wish to follow such rules. The fear about lack of quality has always baffled me. Is there something about a 100- zip code that increases one's talent? As David notes, I think there are many actors, playwrights, directors, and designers who would like to live somewhere other than NYC, but feel compelled to move their for financial reasons. But yes, the "best" person may be across the border, and we'd have to get over that idea. We'd actually have to commit to individual artists, and as a result the ideal of the company might gain traction again.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure I'm clear on this, Scott -- would artists from the region be beholden to writing only ABOUT that region? Wouldn't that replicate the problem David M. was talking about in a comment elsewhere -- about an Asian-American writer/performer who felt undue pressure to produce work based on her ethnicity, and not on what she actually was interested in writing about?

I think that encouraging more local writers is a great idea -- my fear is that telling writers they will only get produced if they write "local content" will lead to the theatrical equivalent of "The Great White North" on SCTV or "Red White and Blaine" in "Waiting for Guffman." Again, there may be a ton of interesting stories set in each region -- but I'm not so sure that one gets the best writing from a playwright by using this particular regional carrot/stick approach.

Also: why do we assume regional audiences would be happier with stories from their own region? They might well be, but I would hate to assume that they are parochial in that way. I like a good Chicago story as much as the next person who lives here, but I don't feel it's necessary to see "my experience" (which isn't really a "Chicago experience" anyway, if such a thing could really exist, which I doubt) onstage in order to feel validated.

Gary Kline said...

So no then? On that contemporary play that best exemplifies the New York aesthetic that is so anti-non-New Yorker?

A simple, "No, I can't think of a single one, Gary," will do.

Just looking for some kind of acknowledgment of what I think is a valid question.

Thank you again.


Scott Walters said...

Gary -- I will write a separate post answering your question, rather than allowing that topic to bleed into this new one.

Kerry -- No, no artists would be beholden to write about only their region, since only one play of the season would be required to be about local subjects. But this would guarantee several things. First, that regional theatres actually gave mainstage productions to new plays, rather than consigning them to a development series or second stage, so contemporary playwrights would be encouraged. Second, it would encourage playwrights and other theatre artists to see the richness of their own state's history or conditions. I mean really, isn't the whole of human experience as evident in Wyoming as in New York? And again I remind you that this is only a fraction of a full season -- it is not like a non-stop diet of Chicago plays. But I do think that people like to see their own stories onstage, and that is especially true of areas that tend to be ignored by the arts in general. When there was a push for more female playwrights, or more African-American playwrights, or more Asian-American playwrights, the argument was that the experiences of those groups were unique enough to deserve representation, and that it wasn't right to expect those groups to always have to map their own experiences onto the dominant group. The same holds true here. Does that make sense, Kerry?

Anonymous said...

What if somebody wrote about their region in a way that contains what you deem are harmful stereotypes (i.e., violence, incest, etc.) In other words, suppose a playwright as great as Fornes should pop up, but the story she's telling isn't exactly flattering. (James Joyce on Dublin, for another example.) My concern is that giving people stories they want to hear could lead to a lot of "up with people" pabulum.


Scott Walters said...

Kerry -- That would be fine. People who are from a region have a better foundation for commenting on it. Joyce might have gotten a little cranky if some Brit wrote disparagingly about Dublin. It's the "you can't say that about my mother" thing. But I also don't think there is anything particularly objectionable to telling stories that are inspirational or heroic. I don't think carping is the only valid artistic orientation.