Thursday, January 17, 2008

You Want Some SLAW with That?

One of my more passionate and engaged commenters, ilannoyed (love the moniker, by the way -- do you know Don Hall?), wrote this in my comments box for my last post:

i don't think scott's idea is ridiculous - it's a really interesting idea. but HOW do you do it? let's talk about doing. has anyone heard or had ANY ideas on how we get to the DOING! also scott, you said if you don't ask the question who will and that those in the trenches have no time? believe me, they have the time, EVERY DAY before they leave for their waiter job or temp job or whatever soul sucking thing they have to do so they can do no pay shows for free to "pay their dues", they ask themselves these questions. and after the shows they do for little or no money they go to bars or coffee shops and discuss these things for hours. and alone at home they think, what should i do? go to grad school? move to LA and try to break into "show biz" and try to get paid? take another class? we all ask the question all the time - but we are searching for something we can actually DO.

This sentiment was seconded by several others: we all agree the system sucks -- now what? Can we do something more than bitch about it?

Yes, we can.

But let's make sure we keep in back of our minds that, while we may think the system sucks, there are still many who feel like Isaac's friend: "A friend of mine and I got coffee. She makes her living directing regionally, and a few years ago directed several shows in DC (which has a vibrant local theatre and acting scene). She said she really loved the city and the working environment down there and felt no attachment to New York. I asked her why she didn't move there. She said "the actors just aren't that good, I had to pull teeth to get theaters to agree to use New York actors because I didn't like most of the people I saw." For many theatre people, this sort of thinking makes sense. These are the people whose minds must be changed.

Since this is a Big Problem, obviously it can't all be addressed at once. But I will make an effort to focus on suggestions for action. Let's start with the issue that is described by Isaac's friend: out-of-town theatre artists being imported to a city that has a rich pool of local actors. Places like Chicago, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Seattle, Philadelphia, and DC. These are places that might have several large regional theatres in them who don't seem to have consistently committed to using local artists. What can be done?

First, I don't think we want to get shrill and aggressive -- we don't need to be perceived as another group of artists getting red in the face about funding. We get enough of that every time the NEA is up for refunding. No, let's use our sense of humor and irony, which is one of the strengths of theatre artists, and our ability to think symbolically, which is also a strength. I'm going to float one idea -- low cost, symbolic -- that might get the ball rolling on this issue. I welcome any suggestions for fine tuning, or additional actions. I want this to be a group process, because this is going to have to actually be done by someone other than me -- Asheville has problems different than this one.

  • The Goal: to increase the hiring of local talent by major regional theatres.
  • The Pay-Off: Increased employment for local artists, increased ticket sales for the major regional theatres.
  • The Justification: Audiences like to follow the development of local artists.

I am announcing the creation of a national organization devoted to this issue: Support Local Artists Working (yes, SLAW). I have built a basic website for this organization where supporters will (eventually) be able to find information about techniques for raising awareness about this issue, evidence that can be used in campaigns, and stories from places who have engaged this issue. Click on "Evidence" to read the story of Rob Kozlowski's wife, Jen!

Now, let's say you are an artist in, say, Minneapolis and the Guthrie Theatre seems oblivious to the fact that there are hundreds of great actors in the Twin Cities and has just recently brought in a 24-year-old NY actress to play Juliet. What can you do? Well, you could organize a boycott, where none of the Twin City theatre community attended the show, but that would be invisible, and not particularly effective. Plus, who wants to miss a good show?

What we want is a way not only for local artists but community members to express their interest in seeing local actors on the stage of the Guthrie. And we don't want to make this too much work for anyone. We don't want to ask people to write letters to the theatre or to the editor of their local paper. Only a few will, and it will be too easy to write those off as cranks. At the same time, we aren't looking to embarrass the Guthrie staff or force them into a corner. If something would be good for business, I suspect they will be happy to use it.

First, I think we should put together a flyer with basic information about the issue (we can use the website to develop this as a group). You then hand them out to audience members entering the theatre -- people like having something to read before the play starts, so make it brief, catchy, and friendly -- this isn't the time to go all Chicken Little on them. You could call the flyer "Wanna Little SLAW with That?" or something. Whatever. You're all funnier than I am, you think something up.

But here's where the easy symbolic act happens. You ask the audience members -- and you also spread the word to the rest of the local artists community, so that they have a way of supporting the cause while attending the show -- you ask the audience members to express their support for local artists by simply tearing one of the bio pages from the program and leave it on the floor of the aisle when they leave the show. Simple, easy to do, nobody has to make a spectacle of themselves or Take A Stand. Just tear out a page and leave it on the ground.

Call or write the theatre staff to let them know what this means, and also notify the press. All it will take is one article and awareness of the RIP movement will skyrocket, leading to more people tearing out a page from their programs. Then make yourself available to the regional theatre staff to discuss possibilities.

Will this work? Who knows. But it is a fast, cheap way to bring the issue out of the bars and coffee shops where theatre people hang out and into a venue where it might get some attention from people who can actually do something about it.

The website is there for brainstorming. If you have other ideas for addressing issues, add them to the "Techniques" page. Got some evidence? Click on "Evidence" and add it. Click "Edit" to make changes, and don't worry about screwing up: every previous page is saved automatically, so if we want we can revert to a previous version. The password is: local.

This is a babystep, but an attempt to go beyond simply pointing out the problems. Next week, I will be traveling to Los Angeles to attend a meeting of a group of theatres who are attempting to put into action some of the ideas that have been discussed on this blog. I'll report on their plans, too.


ilannoyed said...

YOU ARE MY NEW HERO!!! love love love this idea!!!! silent protest - make a statement, but no one gets hurt

i will say, I hate it when theaters bring in NY actors (not big NAMES, that's different, that actually gets butts in seats and it can be a neccesary evil) in Markets where there are plenty well trained actors in their own market (chicago, minn, etc) - but i also know that the caliber of NY actors IS a bit higher - BECAUSE all the good local actors leave for NY since they can't get hired in their own towns. and the competition in NY is fierce.

maybe this SLAW kind of thing could help reverse the trend, and maybe a few of the bigger budget theaters might consider hiring 5 or so people a year full time as a core "rep company" and maybe try to even build a season with these peole- it pretty much happens in Chicago anyway. the same handful of decent actors who have stuck around seem to do all the shows so....
lets give people a reason to stay

and, although i know this is a "theatre" blog - lets get some MORE decent production facilities and more tax breaks or WHATEVER it takes to get another (or a couple) of tv shows here and even MORE film. the money made on those gigs REALLY helps theater actors keep doing theater. i know maybe ya don't like it, but it is a reality.

OH, glad you like the "nom de blog" just came up with that off the top of my head. and yes, i have been reading don hall as well

on a side note - i know that "tone" can be very difficult to judge in comment sometimes. and i hope you know that i just enjoy a good debate/discussion and hope that nothing i have posted was taken personally. I really enjoy your blog and think you make lots of valid points

OH - and you are my new hero!

The Director said...

I love this idea as well. I'm leaving this area shortly, but I've been facing the problem in the past few years of having the administration and faculty of the school ignore my pleas for certain things. Other students have expressed interest in those things, but nobody wants to take a stand. As the Vice President of our dramatic fraternity thing, I made a proposal that stalled because nobody was willing to walk the walk when it came time to talk to the faculty.

With something similar to this, it would be a lot easier to make the audiences and other students aware of our concerns, while still allowing relative anonymity and less risk for each person.

I'll have to ponder this idea and see if I can't make a new proposal for my friends to think on before I leave.

Scott Walters said...

Phew! I'm glad. When I was writing it, I thought: this could really sound stupid. OK, so now we need to find someone willing to spearhead this in a town. Let's see if anyone surfaces.

Nick Keenan said...

Action is always awesome, Scott. It does feel silly sometimes, but keep plugging away and refining this idea. It may take some more shaping to get it to resonate with the industry and the press, but that is incredibly worthwhile work.

And a wiki is a great format for shaping ideas that stick - it becomes pretty clear as people start to use it where the energy is and where folks hit the brick wall, and that's the kind of exploration that will lead to a solution.

I feel that this issue really needs to also be investigated by folks inside LORT theaters, and a conglomerated website like this that states and explores a single thesis as complex as this could be a big help to working out the problem. Changing one factor like local casting could have both positive and short-term negative consequences for a LORT theater, so by discussing it together in a public setting you can more accurately see the hurdles that exist and explore creative ways of getting over them.

I think there's also a huge potential benefit to hearing from the insiders of LORT theaters about what they're up against. Just as actors are more versatile when they understand the design process and designers are more versatile when they understand the performing process, I think those of us not making these decisions could greatly benefit by understanding what is on the minds of those who are.

This seems like a non-confrontational forum to do just that.