I disagree slightly...Indeed, let's! While I have read only Daisey's essay and heard a little of the recording of his performance, my impression is not that he is demonizing the people who work in the regional theatres, who as LB notes are working very hard for little money, but is rather pointing out that the way we are currently doing things is killing the goose that laid the golden egg of creativity. Those in the regional theatres aren't Snidely Whiplashes twisting their mustaches as they figure out a new way to screw artists, they are doing the best they can within a set of preconceptions that don't work. They are Big Box Theatres working within a Big Box mindset. The system is not going to be changed through tinkering around the edges. And as much as we would like it, LB's call for "society" to "commit to the arts" is a pipe dream that shifts the solution to someone else's shoulders than our own. I think LB is on a much better road when (s)he asks that we spend our energies trying to "come up with a system that we believe will work better." But then (s)he demands to know, if there is such a system, "what is it?," as if there is an Answer Out There that somebody is withholding. If only they would tell us what it is, then we'd be saved. "Throw me a rope to grab onto, help me to prove that I'm strong." There is no solution Out There -- we have to make it up together.
I have worked at the Seattle Rep (and some other theaters in Seattle and now in NYC) and while I agree that the model might be broken or at least maimed - I disagree with the fact that theaters are these huge monolithic institutions who have a consistently bloated staff. When I worked there, I often felt like I was doing the work of 2 people. I was trying my hardest, working VERY long days and I was doing it out of a labor of love - because I sure wasn't getting paid enough to live in an apartment without a roommate.
I feel that lately, there have been some real potshots taken at Seattle Rep and regional theaters in the blogger world. The idea that because they only get 40% or so of their income from ticket sales means that they would be just fine if they only got 15% of their money from tickets if they would just fire a few people on staff is laughable to me at a time that their grant funding is also being slashed.
I believe that ticket prices should be affordable (and I currently work for an organization that does that now - but it is because we have government mandated private funding to subzidize those ticket prices...we are LUCKY) but telling organizations that are already subsidizing your ticket by 60% that you don't understand why they cannot subsidize it by 85% indicates a lack of understanding about how many staff people it takes to obtain that subsidized income.
I believe we as a society have to commit to the arts. For the actors, for the institutions who commision and support the arts, and for the audiences. I agree with so many points of Mike Daisey's article, but I also think that we are blaming the soldier for the culture of war, or something like that.
I believe that to blame the current arts 'crisis' and the fact that actors are poor on the regional theaters that employ them is false blame. I do not think that regional theaters are against having actors eat and be employed. Daisey's direct quote is "The biggest reason the artists were removed was because it was best for the institution."
This statement is not 'untrue' - it was 'best' for the organization because they couldn't stay in business under the traditional repertory model. To put up plays and pay actors, they couldn't pay actors all the time. I bet they think that sucks too. A real 'devil's deal' as Daisey writes when mentioning Artistic Directors in his article.
Perhaps our energies would be well spent trying to come up with a system that we believe would work better instead of demonizing the regional theaters who are struggling to survive and continue to be able to hire actors and designers and playwrights. If we believe there is a better alternative for arts communities outside of New York City - what is it!?
Let's get people paid!
So I think it is time for theatre people, both those who work in the profession and those who work in academia, to join forces, stand on our own two feet, and figure this out for ourselves. Let's just assume that current government funding is all there will be -- there will be no sudden commitment from the nation to massive arts funding no matter who is in the White House or Congress. Let's just give up that pipe dream and deal with it. As much as we'd like to point to how much is spent by European nations on the arts, whining about it doesn't get anything done, and it makes us look like Junior begging for an increase in allowance because Skipper down the street gets more. So let's forget it. And let's assume that private foundations will indefinitely continue to reduce their commitment to the arts. Let's try to come up with an approach that can work within those realities, rather than staking our hopes on a dreamworld.
It seems to me that this requires us to rethink from the ground up. Peter Brook did this with the first two sentences of The Empty Space: "I can take any empty space and call it a stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged." Don't jump to conclusions -- I'm not suggesting this image as the end point, but the beginning. I am suggesting that Brook's ability to think back to the primal starting point for theatre is the way to jettison all the baggage of fifty years of the regional theatre movement, and all the TCG- and Ford Foundation-generated preconceptions about how a regional theatre "ought" to look and be operated, and to think afresh.
Let's say you are part of a group of people who want to do plays -- you don't have a space, you don't have any money, no costumes in storage, no shop to build in, nothing. Just a willingness to think afresh. Let's say you decide to accept the fact of your lack of resources rather than pretend it is otherwise, and further decide not to go into debt to produce the play. Now what? At this point, about 80% of theatre people will say, "Well, you get a second job and save up enough money to pay for that stuff." Which means that you probably will never do the show at all. But if you are committed to thinking about a New Way, this lack of money and space doesn't stop you. You're going to do a play anyway. So you decide to follow Nick's company's (New Leaf) example and create a play from the ground up so there aren't any royalties necessary. Since you don't have a space, and don't want to take the chance of going into debt to rent one, you decide to create your piece to be performed for a small audience gathered in the one space you have that is already paid for: your living room. Contemporary subject matter means you can all just wear your normal clothes, so no costume budget necessary. The play is site specific, so no set costs, but the designer in your tribe spends her time figuring out the best way to arrange what already exists in the apartment. You're able to set up twenty chairs in the living room, and because your apartment has an open floorplan and the kitchen can be seen from the living room, you set the play in the kitchen. Now you all go out and invite people to see the play, and you charge $2.50 a ticket, and you use half of that money to buy snacks to put out in the living room for your audience to nosh on. They can BYOB. You sell out for three performances, and thus net $75.00. Congratulations! You just cleared more profit than 70% of the straight plays on Broadway, and probably 100% of the plays in the regional theatres (when all the theatre's costs are taken into consideration).
But but but! That ain't theatre, you protest. Really? It's an empty space with somebody walking across it and somebody else watching. That's theatre, right? But it requires that we think like Brook from the ground up and let go of preconceptions. Now your group has $75 to seed the next show, and you can start right away if you want -- no need to wait to build up your cash reserves again. Since your $75 represents half of the income you made last time by selling out, you can do a really risky show, sell only ten tickets a night, provide snacks for the audience, and still break even. Or maybe the people who saw your show the first time enjoyed themselves, and so they are going to bring a friend to the next one. Cool! Now you can add another performance -- more snacks, more income.
Is this the model I'm proposing? Hell no! This still isn't paying anyone involved with the production, so they are subsidizing the show completely with their time -- not good. But this model does increase one thing that I think is critical: empowerment. The company members are in total control. No need to seek subsidy, no need to write grants, no need to pay exorbitant advertising costs and rental costs and royalties to Samuel French. Just pure creativity, and a very strong connection to the audience.
In some ways, this idea is a palate cleanser, like having a little sherbet between courses so that you can taste each part of the meal more fully. We need to clean our palate of all the preconceptions involving what theatre is and start from the empty space. Question every expenditure, every artistic "choice." Clean out the attic that holds all our old ideas and start with a clean slate. It is difficult -- it really, really is. But I am convinced that it is the only way to create a New Way. Buckminster Fuller is right (see sidebar).