Friday, February 08, 2008

On Cows, Pastures, and Theatres

Over on Don Hall's blog, an exciting exchange has developed over the reasons for creating a company, and the approach to doping so. Adam wrote:
When I left Congo Square my desire was to start a theatre. For many artists, this desire and passion alone would have been enough to call a few friends and get the ball rollin'

But I'm a business guy, so it wasn't.

Instead I had to ask myself some additional questions:

1. Was there really a need for another theatre? Or to put it another way . . . was there a niche in the market that wasn't being adequately served?

2. Did I have any desire to produce art for this underserved niche?

3. Based on my current understanding of the nonprofit market, did I think I would be able to put together the resources (funding, Board, staff, etc.) to pull this off in a reasonable amount of time?

Once I answered those questions probably not, maybe and no respectively I put my theatre idea on hold. The timing wasn't right. That doesn't mean it will never happen though.

To which Paul Rekk responded:

Actually, Adam, if this is question #1, odds are that it does in fact mean it will never happen. At least not in Chicago in any of our lifetimes.

The problem I have with the mission-based/artist-based fork that I'm seeing created is that things ain't nearly that compartmentalized. Theatre isn't like most art forms -- if the work a painter envisions isn't being painted by anyone else, the solution is easy: paint it yourself. The analogy would follow that if the work a theatre artist envisions isn't being put up anywhere else that they should do it themselves. But that process is a little more involved. Classifying a company created for those reasons as created for the artists or (let's just lay these subtexts bare) selfish and ego-driven? I can agree with that. (Not that I'm saying it's necessarily a bad thing.)

But that doesn't mean the artists involved are seeing stars or chasing the buck. They just want to see (and be a part of) great art. Great art that they don't see anyone else doing. And if other people get to see and be a part of it too, well, that's a hundred times better.

To me, that company is touching much closer to the core purpose of theatre than anyone whose first question is which underserved niche they're going to feed. That approach is just as misguided and bloodless as the fame-chasers. On the one side you're providing entertainment, on the other a social service. The magic of theatre is that it can be one, both, or neither of those, but it has to land somewhere in the middle.
Maybe we can back into this through another door. I know I keep referencing Made to Stick on my blog, but there was an interesting section in it that pertains to the artist-driven/mission-driven question, it seems to me. It was about a meeting an organization devoted to the preservation of duo piano music had with a potential funding group. Adam also wrote about this on the Mission Paradox blog back on March 11 2007. I'll borrow his summary:

The head of the Duo Piano Group (a nonprofit arts group) gives this answer:

Duo Piano Group: We exist to protect, perserve and promote the music of duo piano.

The author asks a question

Author: Why is it important to protect the music of duo piano?

Duo Piano Group: Well, not much duo piano is being performed anymore. We want to keep it from dying out.

The people in the room where not impressed by this answer, as this direct quote from the book (page 200) reveals:

"The conversation went around in circles without making much progress in making the people in the room care about the duo piano as an art form. Finally one of the participants chimed in: I don't want to be rude but would the world be a less rich place if duo piano music disappeared entirely?"

Here's how the Duo Piano Group responded to this question:

Duo Piano Group (Clearly taken aback): Wow . . . The piano is this magnificent instrument. It was created to put the entire range and tonal quality of the whole orchestra under the control of one performer. When you put two of these instruments together . . . it's like having the sound of the orchestra but the intimacy of chamber music.

I think if you want to form a theatre company, you have to ask yourself the hard question these people were asked: Would the world be a less rich place if your theatre didn't exist? If you can't say yes to this, if you can't define what you do in a powerful enough and unique enough terms that its non-existence would make the world (or perhaps more to the point, your community) a lesser place, then you shouldn't do it.

But the nature of your answer is greatly influenced by the content. If you are in a city that is not already saturated with dozens or even hundreds of theatres, simply providing a quality theatre experience may be enough (even then, I'm not so sure); but if you are in a place like Chicago or New York or LA or San Francisco or Seattle or Minneapolis that has an established and thriving theatre scene, then it is absolutely crucial that you be clear about what you are adding, because the theatre audience in any place is a finite resource.

I am reminded of Garret Hardin's 1968 essay "Tragedy of the Commons," which is very popular among environmentalists, and which I think has great applicability to this situation. R. De Young describes it:

Hardin's parable involves a pasture "open to all." He asks us to imagine the grazing of animals on a common ground. Individuals are motivated to add to their flocks to increase personal wealth. Yet, every animal added to the total degrades the commons a small amount. Although the degradation for each additional animal is small relative to the gain in wealth for the owner, if all owners follow this pattern the commons will ultimately be destroyed. And, being rational actors, each owner ads to their flock: Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit - in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons.
In many ways, the audience for theatre in any particular city is like Hardin's open pasture. Each new theatre draws on that audience. At first, there are few cows (theatres) and lots of pasture (s[ectators), so the addition of another cow or two is not a problem -- in fact, the grass grows more readily when it is eaten by cows (see The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan -- the fascinating section called "Pastoral: Grass") . But at a certain point, there are enough cows and things reach a tipping point (h/t Malcolm Gladwell). Suddenly there are more cows than grass, and you damned well better have a good reason to add to the herd. Like maybe your cow is purple instead of brown (h/t to Seth Godin).

The point is that in a crowded theatre scene, just wanting to have a cow of your own isn't enough. Your cow needs to be special in some way. Otherwise do one of two things: don't add to the herd, or take your cow to a pasture that has fewer cows!


Paul Rekk said...

Great post, Scott. Although, I do question what exactly makes a cow special, as (almost universally) anyone adding a cow is bound to assume it is more special than all the rest. Is the answer the Duo Piano Group gave satisfactory? It is for me, but there are plenty of people who would react to that passion with a raised eyebrow or passing glance, if even that.

I'm in the process of adding a cow to an oversaturated market as we speak. Why? Because when I look around Chicago, the sort of theatre that I think is important and exciting and fully worth the time and money put into it just doesn't exist. It's not that I want my own cow, it's that I want a specific breed that isn't in the pasture -- if it were, I'd go halfsies on it with the owner.

But is that good enough? Is my cow special just because I believe it is?

Scott Walters said...

Paul -- Absolutely it is! You are adding something new to the herd, which may make it a better herd. Yes, I did find the duo piano reasoning persuasive -- enough that it made me want to go in search of a duo piano CD. If the same type of argument were made about music in general -- not so much. It needs to be specific. So, the answer to the question what would be missing if your theatre disappeared entirely is that something "important and exciting" would be missing. You'll have to be able to describe that more fully -- that's an evaluation, not a description -- but it is a start!

Laura said...

Thanks for this great post, Scott. You very clearly argue a point that I've been having trouble making myself.

I agree with you that you have to wholeheartedly believe that what you are adding adds enough value to someone that it be worth the effort.

Even better if your cow somehow also has the power to make the pasture bigger - but that combination of creativity and power idea can be really hard to come by.