Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Buckminster Fuller is Right

Matt Freeman at On Theatre and Politics asks whether anyone disagrees with Mike Daisey. The comments seem to indicate that, while there are a few well-taken quibbles, most acknowledge the truth of Daisey's analysis. I'd like to rob Matt just a bit and copy below a long comment by LB, because placing it within the context of this blog might lead us to look at it from a different perspective. And I'd like to highlight in bold a few statements. LB writes:

I disagree slightly...

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!
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.

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).


Freeman said...


Scott Walters said...

Caught redhanded...

Nick Keenan said...

I'd also add, Scott, that there's a more leverage-able approach to the no space problem, which New Leaf is capitalizing on: Use local public spaces. Small ones, that people have forgotten and don't need a lot of rent. Our home is a Chicago Park District building, and while the look of the space leaves much to be desired (and we've documented the woes of contracting through the Park District on our blog) the dirt cheap rent allows us some amazing flexibility, and ability to grow the company. We have one of the highest production values in storefront theater (though we primarily do that with lights and sound rather than more expensive sets and props) with one of the smallest budgets in Chicago (this year, most of our shows didn't crack $4000, as opposed to About Face which is publicly losing $100,000 on Little Dog Laughed, which is by all accounts a hit.) The public space tradeoff has allowed us to get really really close to paying a competitive wage to our artists - plus we've purchased all our production equipment so it's no longer a rental expense and a financial burden. The designers in the company are pretty busy, and when we're dark seven months out of the year we farm out our light board and dimmers and amps for cheap to other theaters - $50 for 4 weeks in some cases for a moving light console or an 8-channel sound playback computer - because it's more income for us and it's an unbelievable bargain for the other company. That financial diligence and "we're in this together" mentality looks like it will enable us to implement artist fees FOR EVERYONE next year - we already pay outside crew like the Stage Manager and guest designers, and we're going to add performers and hopefully even company members next year. As always, we pay ourselves last. But that's all on a budget that's stayed put between $2000 - $4000 a show for seven years, and is largely powered by modest ticket sales.

By starting with the public space, and reducing our overhead, we can still have a non-living room theater experience for 50 or so people a show with production value that rivals the big boys. The tribe mentality is key to this - Jared (lighting) and I (sound) have stuck with the company despite the frustrations of the space because the place is home to us. We could both run off and do the regional theater circuit if we wanted to, but the tribe pulls us back, and rewards us creatively when we bring our work back to the company. I think that's the beauty of the tribe - if you create a group of people who develop their skills together, who are interdependant, they'll continue to generate increasingly excellent local work and will have less desire to become free agents.

The public space is also already used by the community in most cases, so it's very conducive to this kind of community-building model / atmosphere. It's not necessarily a place to do your wrist-slitting nihilistic performance art, but you might be surprised. It's kind of like turning the community theater model on its ear and being committed to higher quality work in the community theater context. So it's not exactly reinventing the wheel, it's repurposing it.

Also, just in case someone gets the wrong idea - we love playwrights at New Leaf (and have paid commissions for world premieres and love doin' it), and I hope folks don't get the wrong idea from our new play development approach that Scott is describing here. We hope to have a playwright company member join us someday and join in this process, because without them we're certainly going to be missing a piece of the puzzle. It's more about the idea that we can generate better work collaboratively than we can by reacting to each other in sequence: Playwright, then director, then performer, then designer, then audience. I think the idea is to just mix them all together a bit.

Anyway. Thanks for the shout out, and I think this idea is sparking. I think the success of the model definitely has a lot to do with financial creativity, so I thought I'd add my $0.02.

99 said...

Crap! I left a long comment here and I think it got lost in the internet. The gist: awesome ideas! Right now, theatres are so dependent on foundation support and big-money donors and corporate money that it's led to wholesale stagnation. I intend to post longer on this over at my own place, but we as theatre artists need to explore alternative funding models and ways to generate income with our own arts and talents. I was in Chicago a few months back and met the folks at a company called Redmoon that has an interesting for-profit wing doing events. That's one way to bring in money that can be used to further art.

I've also been kicking around the idea of a "poor" theatre approach, using only practical instruments, simple sets, or no set, but still being as expansive as possible in storytelling. You don't need a revolve, a three-story set and a pool to tell a story. Just ask Shakespeare.

nick@ said...

Scott, you left my comment over at Freeman’s place, so I carried it over here myself and expanded on it some. It’s not meant to pooh-pooh the tribe experiment here that I am supporting, but to challenge somewhat the Puritan exclusiveness you sometimes seem to be demanding. I would need convincing that theatre seeking its place in the “History of Great Ideas” is an unworthy ambition. And although “history and stature” is different, they look very similar to that Nylachi “fame and fortune” in our modern culture.

Scott says:
“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.”

Mike Daisey says:
“Every time a regional theater produces Nickel and Dimed, the play based on Barbara Ehrenreich's book about the working poor in America, I keep hoping the irony will reach up and bitch-slap the staff members as they put actors, the working poor they're directly responsible for creating, in an agitprop shuck-and-jive dance about that very problem.

Mike’s target audience is theatre artists similar to the 40 year old actress friend he refers to in the essay. Similar to how a politician might rally his base support, Mike’s essay is a rant that needs the scapegoat of art bureaucrats and their staff to be effective. So his essay “How Theatre Failed America” is the lie (the PR piece of the production) that his performance of “How Theatre Failed America” is not.

In the performance Mike calls his little production company (he and his director wife) the carrion birds of the regional theatres. They come to perform cheap when the big concept or large cast productions are dropped or fail. So Mike is as much to blame for keeping that 40 year old actress friend out work as any well paid artistic director in the system is. The fact that he doesn’t allow anyone to escape blame in his performance piece, including himself, is what makes it the truth his essay is not. For instance, the cynical artistic director who doesn’t even preview Mike’s work before he books the unknown performer into his theatre season becomes one of Mike’s close friends, not someone to be “bitch-slapped” for his compromised artistic vision.

There is a contradiction in Mike Daisey having his cake and eating it too; making a living off the very Regional theatre system he is criticizing, but this reflects accurately the larger paradox of ambition and practice under which most theatre artists are trying to work. Few can be as pure as Tribe or as corrupt as Nylachi. Mike’s performance tells the story of finding the truth in the struggle between the two where there are no easy Us/Them dichotomies. His essay cajoles the victim (all us unemployed theatre artists) to come see his performance by saying he will be bitch-slapping the perpetrator. He does so such thing. He does something much more difficult. He convicts us all of the crime even as he allows us all the grace with which to survive our flawed ambitions and to continue to produce theatre.

Scott Walters said...

I'm glad you moved this comment, Nick, it is a good one. I actually have been pondering what you indicate is the difference between the essay, which takes a fairly aggressive approach, and the performance, in which Daisey keeps the issues complex. Certainly calling oneself carrion implies a certain self-awareness.

As far as my Puritan exclusiveness, I guess you have me red-handed there. I look at this sort of like I look at people who are trying to get off drugs or alcohol -- if you're addicted, you can't just drink recreationally. The regional theatre movement originally had a sort of purity to it that might be called Puritan -- it defined itself in opposition to Broadway. But soon, at the first FACT meeting, there was the beginning of a rapprochement, and one of the Founding Mothers, Zelda Fichlander, took The Great White Hope to Broadway, Brving Blau picked up and moved to Lincoln Center, and pretty soon, the Big Box theatres ended up being tryout houses for Broadway. That makes me real nervous about being too inclusive about all this. The values that inform tribe theatre are very, very different than those informing the freelance model, and thinking it is possible to move back and forth between them really undermines the tribe.

So I guess right now, I am trying to make the differences very, very clear, and not allow lines to blur too much. If I don't, pretty soon I'll be talking about how all small theatres need is better marketing and then the whole thing is fucked!