Wednesday, February 13, 2008


Nick over at Rat Sass, in a post aptly titled "Nylachi...You're Fired," has designated me the Donald Trump of the alternative theatre world. I love it! I'm going to start combing may hair from way over on the side from now on! I think I can do that pugnaciously pouty mouth thing he does really good, too. I can't wait to have my own reality show, "The Tribe." Here's the show's cut line: "You say you want to be in my tribe? Prove it!"

The issue Nick is discussing is a good one. In a comment on a previous post, he described my fairly stringent rejection of all things fame-and-fortune as Puritanical. In his post, he points to Steppenwolf as an example of a group who might have started out with tribelike intentions, but once they took Balm in Gilead to New York, the actors scattered to film and television. So true. But here is my question: should we see this defection as having benefitted the theatre?

It is one thing to say: yes, I can understand how John, Gary and the gang made a strong personal career move by heading to LA and it sure is nice of them to come back to Chicago every once in a while to act or direct at the home theatre. And clearly they have a commitment to that institution, because they do keep coming back, and that's cool. And clearly Steppenwolf is OK with that.

But still: is the theatre better off because John, Gary and the gang devote most of their time and talent to the mass media? What amazing productions might they have created had they said no and kept working solely in live theatre?

Back in the day, Henry Ford said "what's good for Ford is good for America." Have we gotten to a point where we say, "What's good for film and television is good for the theatre?" or "What's good for the individual is good for the whole?" If you wink at the free agent nation, your tribe is doomed. It relies on an on-going relationship between artists and audience, and artists and each other.

My commitment on this blog is to the theatre, not to any old medium at all that uses people pretending to be other people as its foundation. When my show "The Tribe" begins...oh, show "The Tribe," which will take place in a theatre in Sioux Falls and not be filmed or broadcast... ahem... I will be looking for people whose sole interest is in live theatre.

Theatre is hard to do. It requires a lifetime to master it, to make a consistent superior contribution. It isn't something you just drop in on from time to time. Look at theatre history: Did Shakespeare do film and TV? Moliere? David Garrick? No sir! They were committed to theatre!

As I wrote in my comments: 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, for instance, there was the beginning of a rapprochement with the commercial theatre, and around then one of the Founding Mothers, Zelda Fichlander, took The Great White Hope to Broadway, and Irving Blau abandoned San Francisco 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. Thinking that you can move back and forth between theatre and the mass media is even worse.

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 regional theatres need is better marketing and then the whole thing is lost!


Paul Rekk said...

So what about us kind folk who are more focused on the product than the form it fits into?

There's a reason my recent entry into The Fray Of Theatre Companies (Who Don't Need Any More Recent Entries) is called Per Diem rather than Per Diem Theater. My goal is not the survival of live theatre as a sole entity. (It's a great goal and one that I support, mind you. It's just not mine.) My goal is for myself and my two compatriots to be able to support the creation and realization of the art that I (and they) feel is pertinent and missing from the current system, whatever that happens to be at the time. It happens to be theatre for our first productions, but if it turns to dance, photography, painting, performance art, film, or what have you, that's the direction it will take.

Is that good for the theatre? Not necessarily. Am I the enemy? Or merely an innocent bystander?

Scott Walters said...

*putting on my best Trump demeanor* You're irrelevant! *L*

Seriously, that's great. It's not what I'm doing, and it isn't what this nascent movement is about, but I wish you the best of luck. It could be your approach will be more successful, and then I will bow low and acknowledge you the leader. But I am trying to lay out a clear path, a mission statement. And the thing about mission statements is that it focuses the attention of those involved so that they can make fast decisions because they know what the values of the organization are. What I am writing about is theatre. That's it. And as much as I'd like you along for the ride, Paul, I think our vehicles are taking different roads!

Paul Rekk said...

Well, harumph! Then I'm taking my irrelevance and going home.

Don't worry, Scott, I won't make you bow too low. I kid, of course, and I mostly knew this is the response that was a-brewin' -- it's not really about who's more successful, it's me confirming our differences so I don't waste either of our time trying to fit into a group that's not for me rather than simply standing back and showing support.

But Sioux Falls is my old stomping grounds, so when The Tribe is looking for guest judges, I better be on top of the list!

Anonymous said...

But still: is the theatre better off because John, Gary and the gang devote most of their time and talent to the mass media? What amazing productions might they have created had they said no and kept working solely in live theatre?

I think they unknowingly created a future business model for theatre. I think you need to start thinking in terms of a commercial level of theatre in order to survive economically. Let's face it, if you look at B-Way (I know I hate bringing it into conversation)...but aren't most people buying the tix because they're StarF****s . (Scott I don't mean to be rude.) If you don't have the celebrity, it's a tough sell.
Ofcourse - this is the "media saturated NYC model." However, Steppenwolf keeps its members and I would like to think those paychecks from film and tv and found their way back into the company. After all Christopher Reeves did it with "Circle In The Square" because he remembered his theatre roots.

I guess I'm thinking out loud, but my feeling is the Gary, John Malk., Joan A,John Mah. and even the Schwimmer's at Lookingglass help ease the economic and commercial burdens of creating.

Maybe ? Yes? No?