Monday, March 31, 2008

Goal of Theatre Tribe: More Work!

From one of my new favorite books, Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland:
"The function of the overwhelming majority of your artwork is simply to teach you how to make the small fraction of your artwork that soars. One of the basic and difficult lessons every artist must learn is that even the failed pieces are essential. X-rays of famous painting reveal that even master artists sometimes made basic mid-course corrections (or deleted really dumb mistakes) by overpainting the still-wet canvas. The point is that you learn how to make your work by making your work, and a great many of the pieces you make along the way will never stand out as finished art. The best you can do is make art you care about – and lots of it!”
In many ways, this stands at the center of what I am trying to accomplish through the theatre tribe concept. When I read many of my fellow bloggers, I get a deep sense of how difficult it is to keep making work. Playwrights have the best deal, because at least they can keep writing plays even if they can't get them regularly produced. (That's cold comfort.) But actors, directors, designers are stuck.

The ultimate goal of the theatre tribe is to create a business model that allows theatre artists to create lot of work, so that the likelihood of the creation of "artwork that soars" increases.

Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain

Every once in a while, an issue arises on my blog that leads to discussion about my personal blogging "style," and words like "abrasive" and "combative" inevitably are trotted out. People tell me that I would be more "effective" if I were "nicer," if I didn't "lecture," even if I used fewer declarative sentences! Sometimes I get irritated with these discussions - in fact, I'm afraid I got a little testy with Freeman and Isaac late last week in a series if IM's and emails that were sent out of friendship, and I apologize to them publicly (end of a busy week).

Anyway, I was talking about this with my wife this weekend, and in the course of the discussion I was struck by a realization due to an observation she made: when I blog, I play a role. I'm not really like the guy who writes this blog. I'm not like this in classroom, or home with my wife, or out with friends. Like the Wizard of Oz, I have constructed a fiery, scary persona to mask my own more human side. While I have never quite understood why the Wizard benefited from this persona (doesn't it seem like the Munchkins would have worshipped him regardless?), I know why I play that role: because most of you can't.

Let me explain.

Most of you who participate in the theatre blogging community, either as bloggers or readers, are artists. In a highly competitive field in which everybody knows everybody else, your livelihood depends on people seeing you as someone they want to work with, and it might be dangerous for you to risk offending people through too-pointed criticism. It isn't that you don't address controversial issues (or else nobody would have talked about Rachel Corrie, for instance), but just that your comments, your blogging persona, operate within that context.

But as many of my readers regularly point out to me, I am not an artist but an academic -- and a tenured academic to boot, and with that comes certain freedoms. I have the passion for the art, and the commitment to its health and well-being, and a belief in its power and value, but I don't rely on it for sustenance. And that allows me to say things that others can't as easily.

And so I can serve a particular function in the theatrosphere. I can serve as the gadfly and the curmudgeon. I can email the editor of American Theatre or a representative of the NEA and take them to task over certain issues because I don't need anything from them. I can be blunt, and bring the issues to the fore without worrying whether I am ever going to be needing their support.

But the help I do need comes from the rest of you. After I stir the waters, you can follow behind and make suggestions for improvements that will calm them, and so the situation may be resolved. I can't do this easily myself -- when you're a disembodied head with fire that shoots up with every word, it is hard to be anything except scary and speak in declarative sentences! Once I raise an issue -- say, the increasingly more centralized coverage of theatre in American Theatre -- you can all talk about how the staff of American Theatre's heart is in the right place (true), they have a challenging job (very true), etc and make a few friendly, practical suggestions that might improve the situation -- for instance, make some suggestions for article topics or writers, or suggest a monthly feature by the Flyover people, or whatever. That way, you look like nice people, and things change for the better. Everybody wins.

The fact is -- and I suspect my students would concur, and I know my wife would, and maybe my colleagues would (at least most of the time) -- I am much closer in real life to the man behind the curtain than the fiery green head. Pointed, sure, a little ironical, of course, but kindly at heart. Is there a part of me that is like the fiery head -- absolutely, or I wouldn't be able to so easily assume that persona. But it is a partial self. And while a blog other than Theatre Ideas might allow that real person to come out, Theatre Ideas is about trying to create change, and right now I think change needs to be provoked rather than coaxed, and sometimes that means some fire and declarative sentences more than kindly one-liners. But we need to work together.

Keep Toto away from the control booth for a little while longer.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Very Cool

Thanks to Mike Lawler [note: I put Lawton at first, who is the university lawyer here at UNCA! Sorry Mike!] for pointing us to this conference on theatre and ecology: 2009 Earth Matters on Stage.

And an Interview by Somebody Else

Ever wonder what I was doing in 1968? Well, maybe you didn't, but Laura Axelrod did. She interviewed me for her great 1968 project. Check it out here, and be sure to look at the 1968 project!

Oh, and thanks to Travis Bedard for going to bat with "Riddle Me This." (Unfortunately, I think the result will be more comments on my personality, and not many on the issues.)

Another Interview with Myself

What, you again?
Yeah. Can we do another interview? A couple of my readers say I come across as more human in dialog.

Sheesh. When you have to talk to yourself to be human, I think I'd throw in the towel.

OK. What do you want to talk about?
American Theatre Magazine.

Yeah, what's up with that? I haven't read it for a while -- is it really such a bad magazine?
No, it is a great magazine! It is certainly the best magazine about theatre in the US, in my opinion. In fact, I've considered assigning it as a textbook for my classes, but I haven't figured out how best to do that yet.

Then why are you trashing it?
I'm not trashing it! I just want it to spread all that excellence around. With all the intelligence that comes through every month, it has such potential to really make a huge difference in our view of theatre in this country. They could really make us realize that it is valuable to make a career committed to working in the regional theatre, and that such a career is satisfying in itself and doesn't require building national fame.

Why is that so darned important to you?
Because I have strong objections to globalism.

Ahem. Maybe you oughta explain that non sequitur for all your readers who don't live in your particular twisty mind like I have to on a daily basis...
Globalism substitutes the global for the local. Things are shipped in from all over the world and are sold in place of local goods. You get the same thing no matter where you are in the country, which is comforting but boring and unhealthy. And I think that is as damaging to the theatre as it is to agriculture. We lose what is unique and particular in favor of a homogeneous "product" that has been wiped clean of all connection to a place, a relationship. The regional theatre was supposed to be the opposite of globalism.

So? You eat at McDonalds -- I've seen you.
Yes, I do. But only when I'm too busy to actually eat real food. And if the price was really high -- like the price of theatre is compared to, say, a movie from Netflix, which is the entertainment version of McDonalds -- I wouldn't eat at McDonalds. I'd look for a local place like 12 Bones Smokehouse or 28806 deli -- yum!

OK, but what does this have to do with American Theatre?
I think there ought to be a stronger focus on home-cooked meals, slow food. In other words, people who aren't migrants, but who actually commit to a place.

A couple people are criticizing your methodology for separating Nylachi articles from non-Nylachi articles. They're right, aren't they? Didn't you kind of cook the books?
I think the biggest objection is to classifying articles about regional topics as a Nylachi article if they are written by a Nylachi author.

Well, that is kind of stupid, isn't it?
I don't think so, but there is one part of it that has me on the fence. American Theatre has a staff, so is it fair to include articles written by staff members in the Nylachi count? Wouldn't that automatically make it mostly a Nylachi-written magazine? And maybe that is true, and not fair. But other magazines have bureaus in other areas -- why is the staff for American Theatre so centralized in New York? Wouldn't it make more sense, if your topic was "The American Theatre" to have some staff actually in other parts of America? Or at least, if all of your staff is going to be in New York, wouldn't you make an effort to balance that by publishing articles by really seeking out non-New York writers to write articles about regional theatres?

Didn't you just get the April edition of American Theatre in the mail yesterday.
Yes, but I haven't had a chance to look at it yet.

OK, well, let's do it now. How does all this shake out this month?
Let's start with the features.
  • Front & Center: "In Vino Veritas" -- dateline: New York City
Check. Labeled by the magazine itself.
  • "Writing About Sex" by Wallace Shawn. I don't think it would be too outrageous to say that Shawn is a New York writer, is it?
Sarah Hart seems to think this is about regional theatre because Shawn says one of his favorite productions of his plays was in Austin, TX.
Well, he's still a NY writer who is known because of his NY productions. I'm not buying that one
  • "The Playwright Nobody (and Everybody) Knows" about Wallace Shawn, written by Don Shewey who lives in New York City
  • "The Monte Spin," which has the subtitle "A Stone's Throw from NYC, Audiences Line Up to See Her Irreverent Staging of the Classics" -- isn't that interesting?
It is about Bonnie J. Monte, who heads up Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. This could actually be seen as an article about a regional theatre artist who has committed to the regional theatre -- she's been the head of STNJ since 1990, and has done a lot of innovative things. So what's with the subtitle?

I'll bet people in NJ get tired of being seen as the bedroom state for NYC. Doesn't help that both of NY's football teams play in NJ, but still call themselves New York teams... Who wrote the article?
Charles Ney who teaches at Texas State University! Yay! Sounds like he's writing an interesting book, too, where he's interviewed directors across the US about directing Shakespeare.
  • Production Notebook: "The Bluest Eye" -- Hartford Stage / Long Wharf Theatre.
Those are regional theatres, right?
Indeed they are. Two regional theatres at once in this article. Not exactly ranging far from NYC and the northeast (so far, we have New Jersey and Connecticut), but OK. I love Morrison's book, and would love to see this production.
  • "Julie Marie Myatt: An American Longing."
This looks pretty cool. Is she a New York playwright?
No, she lives in LA. So I suppose officially she should be classified as a Nylachi playwright. But her plays are being done mostly by regional theatres scattered all over the place. So is she a regional theatre playwright? Is there such a thing? I don't know how to classify this one, but I'm inclined to put her in the non-Nylachi category. The article was written by Sarah Hart, American Theatre Managing Editor. So a New York writer.
  • "Craig Wright: Irons in the Fire."
This is an odd article. Take a look at some of the cut lines: "The playwright-screenwriter is thriving with one foot in Hollywood and the other on stage" and "Even with constant tension between artistic and commercial imperatives in Hollywood, Wright insists, it's possible for him to write satisfying scripts for TV." Wright is a playwright who left Minneapolis to write for TV six years ago, and the article seems to focus on whether it is possible to keep a foot in both art forms.

I don't know. What's it doing in a theatre magazine?

But doesn't it reflect the reality of the American theatre?
So I'm told. The message concerns me, though. Anyway, he's a LA guy. Article written by Kevin Nance of Chicago. Lots of Nylachi here.
  • "Mainstream Remix: Frank talk about casting, training, and presenting actors and works of color" -- this is a panel discussion.
Who's on the panel.
Zakiyyah Alexander, a playwright and actor who lives and works in New York City.

Check. Who else?
Daniel Banks -- New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.

Uh-oh. Who else?
Debra Cardona, dramaturg for Classical Theatre of Harlem.

I can see what you're thinking.
Stephanie Gilman -- director and teach in Brooklyn.
Antonio Ocampo-Guzman -- based in Boston!

Eduardo Placer resides in New York City.
Tlaloc Rivas serves as an associate for a number of New York-based companies.
Elsie Stark, agent and casting director for Stark Naked Productions -- New York City.

OK, so that was pretty New York-centric, wasn't it. But it was a panel discussion, so it is cheaper to have everybody in one place.
True. Although in the day of Skype and teleconferencing, having a broader representation is pretty easy.

Then there's an "Antecedents" article about Dorothy Parker.

Dorothy Parker? Was she a playwright?
Well, she collaborated on a few plays; I wouldn't say she's a playwright. But whatever she is, she's definitely New York. Marion Meade, who wrote the article, lives in New York City.
  • Strategies: "Friends with Money."
This is a monthly feature about finance written by Editorial Assistant Eliza Bent. This month, it is about Victory Gardens in Chicago. So Nylachi, but it's nice to see Chicago in the mix.

And then a play by David Henry Hwang. Photos from the Public Theatre producti9on.Play opened in LA, then came to NY. Nylachi.

So what's the count?
Articles about New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago: 8
Articles about somewhere else: 3
The three non-Nylachi articles are about New Jersey, Connecticut, and I counted Jule Marie Myatt as a non-Nylachi even though she lives in LA.

What about the authors?
Articles written by authors in New York, Chicago, or LA: 9, 3 of which were American Theatre staffers
Writers from somewhere else: 1

Are there any articles that are about a non-Nylachi subject and written by a non-Nylachi writer?
Yes, one. The one about the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey.

OK, so what? I mean, that's the way it is, right? I mean, Isaac said it: Edward Albee in Houston was critical exile. "I might not like it, you might not like it, but there are no critics important to the national theatre culture at large in Houston, TX."
The argument there is that the media doesn't create reality, it just reflects it. Right?

Let me ask something. How is the "national theatre culture at large" defined?

What do you mean?
I mean who defines what is important in the so-called "national theatre culture"? Who decides what gets to be in it and what is excluded?

I don't know. It just sort of...gets defined.
Come on. Use your intellect. I know you have one -- it's the same one I have!

Sometimes you're a dick.
I know. And it gets in the way of my being taken seriously. I suspect it has something to do with my having tenure and health insurance -- makes me arrogant. But answer the question: who defines the "national theatre culture"?

I suppose...people who write about it.
But aren't there people who write about theatre in Houston?

I suppose so. They have newspapers there.
So why aren't they included in "national theatre culture"?

I know what you're trying to get me to say.
Then say it -- there's no way around it. They aren't included because they aren't in New York. New York writers define the "national theatre culture." When we use the phrase "national theatre culture" what we really mean is the New York Times, the Village Voice, and other NYC newspapers.

But what about magazines?
Exactly. That's my point. So: American Theatre, Theater, Performing Arts Journal. They could balance the New York media, broaden it a bit. Instead, they are focused as relentless on Nylachi as everyone else. American Theatre has the greatest potential to diversify the discussion, broaden it beyond the Hudson. That's why I care so much. They have a responsibility, according to their charter, to make that dialog open up to all 50 states. And every time they reinforce the centralized status quo by referring to Houston as exile, for instance, they marginalize all the important, creative regional theatres that are struggling to create outstanding work in the face of massive media neglect. They could do so much better.

But they're trying!
I know. It's not purposeful! I don't think Sarah Hart is twirling her mustache and trying to figure out a way to turn American Theatre into Variety. The focus on Nylachi just happens, slowly, inch by inch, until somebody actually looks at where we've come.

But what about what Freeman said: "So your goals are being met. So they're respecting you and responding. Not all discussions are about who wins. Sometimes, knowing that your concerns are even a factor in the decision making of the decision makers is a big step in the right direction."
I was very flattered that Sarah Hart responded at all, and appreciate her willingness to do so. But the response indicated to me that she still didn't see the issue clearly. To argue that Wallace Shawn is not a New York story because he says that his favorite production was in Austin TX and there are two pictures from that production -- well, to me, that says she doesn't quite get it yet, and I'd better be clearer. And if that seems impolite, then I guess it is impolite. If my concerns are going to be heard, I want to make sure that they speak in a clear manner. It's not enough to just be at the table, the issue have to be taken seriously. The numbers speak for themselves:
  • Articles about New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago: 8
  • Articles about somewhere else: 3
  • Articles written by authors in New York, Chicago, or LA: 9, 3 of which were American Theatre staffers
  • Writers from somewhere else: 1
  • Total number of articles about a non-Nylachi subject written by a non-Nylachi writer: 1
To me, that's pretty clear.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Can't Resist

My wife sent this to me:

Reply to Sarah Hart

I have been thinking how best to reply to the welcome response from Sarah Hart, the Managing Editor of American Theatre to my post "The Nylachification of American Theatre Magazine," as well as to a comment left by Isaac concerning my methodology in writing that post. It is certainly not my intention to demonize the American Theatre staff -- publishing a monthly magazine about a topic as large as the American theatre is a very difficult job, and involves making many difficult choices, as Ms. Hart points out in her letter, and I respect that. My purpose is to tease out of the data an orientation that I feel works against the original noble goals of the regional theatre movement.

In his 1972 book Regional Theatre: The Revolutionary Stage, Joseph Wesley Zeigler, who from 1966 to 1969 himself led the TCG, decided to use the word "regional" to describe the theatre about which he was writing "mostly because it reflects the anti-capital philosophy which is the core of the story." In his first chapter, "Defining a Revolution," Zeigler elaborated about this commitment to decentralization. "The regional theatre phenomenon has been a major and determined attempt to spread American culture throughout the country and even more to create a new basis of theatre not dependent on Broadway. The purpose of decentralization has been less to spread the wealth than to triumph in an ideological war between the institutional theatre and the commercial theatre. Those in the forefront of the regional theatre movement see it as a way to strip Broadway of its power. The primary force of their crusade has been centrifugal." Unfortunately, in the years since 1972 entropy has robbed this centrifugal force of most of its energy, and the gravitational pull of Broadway (and its once rebellious but now equally tamed sibling, Off-Broadway) has reasserted itself. Charles McNulty, in an article about San Diego's Old Globe entitled "Theaters Playing to Bottom Line," does a nice job illustrating how the increasing focus on New York transfers is undermining regional theatres like the Old Globe, who "have come to mark their success by the number of Tonys their splashiest shows go on to win."

What I was asserting in my post on American Theatre is that this primarily New York (but also, to a lesser extent, Los Angeles and Chicago) orientation has come to inform this fine magazine both through its choice of articles and through its choice of writers. Are the articles written by these writers informative and inspirational? Absolutely, I would certainly never argue with that -- I read my American Theatre almost the moment it arrives. But I believe a magazine published by a regional theatre service organization ought to promote the values described by Zeigler that gave the movement its power and distinctiveness, and also resist the pull of the celebrity culture in which we live.

Isaac asks "why does something about a production in Kentucky written by someone who lives in NYC considered a NYLACHI article?" The answer, and I suspect it is one that will lead Isaac and other NY bloggers to throw up their hands, is that a New York author will write about a subject through a lens that is shaped by the New York context in which they live. It isn't intentional; it is a natural adjustment that occurs when one lives in a place and regularly encounters the values embedded in that place. Richard Florida's book Are You Living Where You Should Be?, which Joe Patti describes at "Butts in the Seats," says essentially the same thing. Joe writes about Florida's ideas, "communities have a certain character on a macro-level. There is always an artistic/bohemian, etc. area in any city of size. However, this area in Oklahoma City, OK is not equal to the same area in Philadelphia, PA but rather reflects what each city will tolerate of their artists. As I understand Florida, he is saying the artists of Oklahoma City will have absorbed the more conservative vibe of their city." [ital mine] I agree, and I New York is exempt from this effect. So when New York critic David Cote visits Reykjavik, Iceland, for instance, his reactions are filtered through his New York sensibilities. Can you imagine an Icelander writing this way about Reykjavik? I can't:
"It was interesting. Farty-smelling water from sulphur. Wickedly expensive. Insular. Nordic. Beautiful people - if you like the translucent-skinned elvish type. Scary, depressing hard drinking on weekends. Local theater is both slick-Euro and about 15 years behind the avant-curve. Reykjavik is a small Scandy town with one main street full of overpriced boutique stores. Men who look like rugged, homicidal Vikings but turn out to be exceedingly polite. Four-dollar hot dogs with crumbled onion rings and three types of sauce…very popular. And delicious. Dank, cold, dark....Iceland has not produced its Robert Wilson, its Wooster Group, its equivalent of Off-Off Broadway, or even its own exportable mainstream playwrights. Its productions hardly ever make it to the Brooklyn Academy of Music or Le Festival d’Avignon.
How in the world can we take it seriously if it hasn't even made it to BAM? I mean, whatEVer.

In American Theatre, this surfaces in articles like the cover story about Edward Albee written by Carol Rocamora, a New York University professor, who refers to Albee's "distinguished 15-year teaching career at the University of Houston, where that city's Alley Theatre also gave him a home" as -- get this -- "critical exile." The Alley Theatre, founded by regional theatre pioneer and visionary Nina Vance, is one of the original flagship theatres of the regional movement. It should not be dismissed as a place of exile, least of all in American Theatre. Grinding salt into the wound, Rocamora lionizes the New York-based Off-Broadway Signature Theatre for doing the same thing the Alley Theatre did -- "giving the playwright a new home," and then she concludes the sentence by repeating the same insult: "after a decade of critical exile from New York." While Houston may seem like exile to a New York University professor, for those of us who believe in the value of the regional theatre movement, and who hold to the "anti-capital philosophy" of decentralization described by Zeigler, such throwaway insults are a slap in the face to everything regional theatre stands for.

Perhaps a more subtle example can be found in the December 2007 cover story Ms. Hart refers to about the Arkansas Repertory Theatre's production of It Happened in Little Rock, which portrays the 1957 events surrounding the integration of Central High School. That was a powerful article, there is no doubt about it, and it was inspiring to read about the production, and I applaud American Theatre for writing about it. But I'll also point out that it was written by Nicole Estvanik, American Theatre's Associate Editor (New York), about a play that was written by New York playwright Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj (who Estvanik points out has a father from India, a mother from the Caribbean, and who grew up on Long Island and did not come to America until he was school-aged), and was directed by Robert Hupp, who before taking over the Arkansas Rep spent nine seasons as the Artistic Director of the Jean Cocteau Rep in New York. So what? Am I suggesting that only people from Arkansas can write about Arkansas? Hardly. But I am suggesting that the lens of an outsider does have an effect on what is perceived, and that that is important.

Jill Dolan, in her brilliant book Utopia in Performance, writes about this very topic in her chapter on The Laramie Project, which raised similar question about the us/them, there/here binary. "The project," Dolan writes, "proceeds from the perspective of outsiders for outsiders, with the danger of condescension to the local using such techniques involve." The use of the word "exile" to describe fifteen years in Houston is an example of such condescension, which assumes a non-Houston audience that would share such an attitude. Poor Edward Albee, stuck in the fourth-largest city in the United States having all his plays performed at a nationally-recognized regional theatre with a 75,000 square foot state-of-the-art facility when he could be being performed in a 160-seat theatre on 42nd Street in New York City. Why, it's just tragic.

As far as the articles themselves, Hart asks: "In our April issue is an essay by Wallace Shawn on his writing process; he’s obviously a New York writer, but he reports that his favorite production of his work was done by Rubber Rep in Austin, Tex., whose productions are prominently featured in the issue. Is that a New York story?" I haven't received my April issue yet, but I would venture to say of course it is a New York story. Wallace Shawn is a New York writer, as Hart says, and that is why his article is being published. If he were an Austin, TX playwright, is it likely that American Theatre would be at all interested in his writing process? Not very. He is being published because he is the author of a number of plays that have been produced to some acclaim and notoriety in NYC, and because he achieved national recognition as a result of his film work. Is it nice that his favorite production was in Austin? Sure. Will the article be a good one? No doubt. But that's not the point. The point is, to use a phrase that continues to resonate in academia, the Problem of The Canon.

When people in literature departments argue about the canon, the argument often focuses on what underrepresented voices are going unheard because of a tight focus on canonical dead white males. In theatre, NYC has come to define, even for the regional theatre movement, the nature of the canon, by which I not only mean plays, but also actors, directors, designers, critics, and playwrights. When American Theatre interviews "8 Tall Actors on How to Play Albee" as part of the Albee cover story, they talk to Myra Carter, Rosemary Harris, Bill Irwin, Brian Murray, Bill Pullman, Mercedes Ruhl, Marian Seldes, and Kathleen Turner. I could be mistaken, but those all look like actors who have appeared in New York productions of Albee's plays, and yet for 15 years his plays were being done in Houston at the Alley Theatre. Why aren't those actors interviewed? Because they lack New York cache, they stand outside the NY canon of actors. They are the underrepresented voices that are going unheard.

Yes, In the Red and Brown Water received its premiere at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, and that is truly wonderful. But playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney is a New York playwright, a Yale Drama School graduate of the MFA program in playwriting, and his previous play opened in 2007 simultaneously at the New York Public Theatre and London's Young Vic (which also plans to produce In the Red and Brown Water). The play is being directed by Steppenwolf member and Anne Bogart collaborator Tina Landau, designed by NY designers Mimi Lien, Jessica Jahn, and Scott Zielinski. These are all NY-canonical names and credits. This is not a regional playwright, nor a product of a regional theatre. This is an import.

My intention is not to dismiss the value, quality, or importance of these people or plays or productions; my intention is to show that a New York pedigree seems to be critical to being included in the pages of American Theatre. And to say that I don't think that is truly supporting what the regional theatre was meant to be, or those who have devoted their lives to working in it.

What I want to see from a magazine purportedly committed to the health of the regional theatre is a focus on people who have committed themselves and their career to the regional theatre movement. Not a complete and total focus -- I like to read about Wallace Shawn and Anne Bogart as much as the rest of you -- but some level of equity. People need to know that it is possible, indeed admirable, to have a rich and satisfying career by committing your life to the regional theatre alone, and even better one regional theatre, rather than bouncing from Broadway to film to regional theatre to TV. Commitment to the vision of the regional theatre should be an important guide for choosing subjects to spotlight in American Theatre. I want an article about James and Rose Pickering, who I saw give brilliant performances at the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre when I was in high school 30+ years ago, and who are still there and part of the resident acting company. I want to read about people like Cliff Fannin Baker, who founded the Arkansas Rep in 1976 and ran it for 23 years. I want the spotlight to fall on people whose names we don't already know, because they have spent their career devoted to a regional theatre movement that was supposed to be decentralized and anti-capital. I want an article about Charlie and Angie Flynn-McIver. the co-founders of North Carolina Stage Company, who have committed themselves to creating a professional regional theatre here in Asheville, NC, and who are not bouncing around the country picking up acting and directing jobs in NYC. It is a crime that incredible acting teachers such as Jean Scharfenberg and Cal Pritner, who taught at Illinois State University through much of the 1990s and who had a hand in teaching many of the founders of Steppenwolf as well as a whole boatload of talented actors like Judith Ivey, Laurie Metcalf, and the founders of Chicago's 500 Clowns and Breadline Theatre , were ignored because they didn't teach in a "name" east coast theatre department but in central Illinois. Instead, we get interviews about teaching acting with Andrei Serban, of all people, who teaches at -- you guessed it -- New York University.

This reply was supposed to be calm and polite, and I know I haven't managed to keep it that way. But it frustrates me to see a movement that I grew up with and that had such promise for creating a true renaissance in the American theatre be co-opted by Broadway aesthetics and succumb to the culture of celebrity. And I want American Theatre and the TCG to be vocal proponents of what the regional theatre was supposed to be.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Response from American Theatre

This was left as a comment on the "Nylachification of American Theatre Magazine" post by Sarah Hart, Managing Editor of American Theatre:

Mr. Walters,

Your concerns about expansive coverage for theatres across the country, regardless of urban proximity, are valid and something we struggle with in every issue. We work to balance a range of diversity over all our issues, including geographic, stylistic, racial, age and size of theatre, while still telling compelling and timely stories. Does it come out evenly in every single issue? Of course not. Does the ongoing reporting in American Theatre show an honest breadth of the work that exists? We hope so.

Still, breaking our national theatre community into reductive statistics is complicated. I doubt an accurate tape measure exists. So many stories reflect national issues and transcend so-called regions. Should we be ghettoizing our writers or training programs because they have a specific address, when their plays or students fan out across America and often internationally? In our April issue is an essay by Wallace Shawn on his writing process; he’s obviously a New York writer, but he reports that his favorite production of his work was done by Rubber Rep in Austin, Tex., whose productions are prominently featured in the issue. Is that a New York story? What about profiles of Julie Marie Myatt and Craig Wright, both playwrights based in Los Angeles, but who have had important productions in Ashland, Ore.; Louisville, Ky.; Houston, Tex.; Washington, D.C.; and Minneapolis, in addition to New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Our March issue features the text of a play by Tarell McCraney, who lives in New York, but whose play premiered at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre and takes Louisiana as its setting. He’s interviewed by a Miami-based journalist. Our December cover features a community-oriented production in Arkansas.

That said, I do wonder which features you were counting and which you weren’t; my tabulations come out differently for the January and February issues.

We are eager to receive pitches and press releases from writers and theatres all over the country--from you or from anyone who might read your blog. The more theatres are in communication with us, the more we can look for the right ways and times to cover them.

Sarah Hart, Managing Editor, American Theatre
with the American Theatre staff
I would like a little time to consider my response to this thoughtful and fair comment. If the signature is any indication, and judging from the fact that I sent my original email to Jim O'Quinn, it seems that the staff of the magazine as a group were involved in addressing this question, which is very flattering and, to my mind, shows great willingness to be open to discussion.

Let me clarify my method for delineating the articles, which I also must admit was done fairly quickly. If an article was written by a NY/LA/Chicago-based writer, it went into the Nylachi pile. This included articles by staff members. If the article was about a Nylachi-based artist, or seemed to be receiving attention because of a Nylachi production (regardless of the location of the premiere), that went in the Nylachi pile. As far as the News-in-Brief numbers, I used the datelines as the arbiter.

While I consider my response, if any of my readers would like to communicate with Ms. Hart, please feel free to use the comments box for this post.

Stage Direction Magazine

I'd like to second Jacob's plug for Stage Directions magazine -- he seems to be doing some good work there. Here is what he said in a recent comment:

I'm going to do a little self-promotion here -- Stage Directions magazine, which I recently became editor of, is committed to promoting/examining/reporting on theatre of all levels, everywhere. In the April 2008 issue we have 15 mentions of theatre companies/schools/organizations
. These aren't just off-handed remarks but either major elements of a story (e.g., talking to three different artistic directors about how they choose a season, none of whom were based in NYC). Of those 15, only 3 were based in NYC. One was from L.A. Every other source was based across the country, including Kansas, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Iowa, etc. As a magazine we focus on the practicalities of creating better theatre, no matter what your skillsets are, and on educating the next generation of theatre artists -- which means letting them know what's going on everywhere. There is an alternative. Check out our March issue online: Alright, I'm done stumping, thanks for your patience.
Go take a look!

Here's What We Need

A few posts ago, we were discussing the need for a more regionally-oriented way to promote the non-Nylachi theatre scene. I just clicked a link on Joe Patti's "Butts in the Seats" blog and up came this: Inside the Arts: A Cultural Blogging Exchange. Nice design. One stop shopping. Sort of like TheatreForte. In fact, hey, Theatreforte is already doing what we're thinking about, except it is focused primarily on blogs. So what we need are more regional theatre bloggers....

Richard Florida, Globalism, and Coals to Newcastle

There was a time when I thought Richard Florida's idea of the Creative Class would be good for all us artists. Suddenly, towns across America would recognize how important the arts are to luring these apparently desirable Creatives to their town, and Creatives equals Prosperity. Over at "Butts in the Seats," Joe details what Florida has been up to of late in a post entitled "Are You Living Where You Should Be?" Florida has ranked various American cities according to the various criteria that he has identified as being desirable for the members of the Creative Class, divided according to what age they are.

What makes me less enthusiastic about Florida's work is that it encourages the same kind of thinking that is the foundation of gated communities: the desire to surround yourself with people who are pretty much just like you. While I have been known to express a personal dislike of Nylachi on this blog every once in a while (ahem), there is at least one thing that I appreciate about those places: diversity. From what little know about biological systems, as I understand it biological diversity is absolutely critical for the health of the ecosphere. I would venture to say that the same is true of the human community in a democracy -- it benefits from diverse viewpoints and life experiences.

When Joe makes the next logical step, I start thinking "coals to Newcastle." This is the kind of thinking -- which is totally logical, indeed extremely smart -- that leads to the increasing centralization of our arts world:
I suspect the place finder might even be help people focus their thinking when they consider founding an arts organization. (Maybe the NEA or Americans for the Arts should adopt a similar tool specifically for the arts.) Even without his book being published, I don't think I would be suggesting anything earth shattering were I to say that founding an arts organization that doesn't resonate with the underlying vibe of a community is a bad idea and probably destined to result in one muttering about philistines. If communities can target the wrong group of creatives, creatives can certainly target the wrong communities.
Now, I would agree that if you go into the "wrong community" with a missionary zeal to teach them natives the Right Way to look at things, then the result might be exactly what Joe describes. But if you arrive with an open mind and the confidence to listen as well as speak, in other words if you arrive with a desire to become part of the community -- well, you might just discover a richness of experience that would far surpass that of living in a Creative Class echo chamber.

I also worry about the effects on the non-urban, non-"cool" parts of the country. When I went to Amazon to take a look at Florida's latest book entitled Who's Your City: How the Creative Economy is Making Where to Live the Most Important Decision of Your Life (as if this was a new discovery), I was told that people who bought Florida's book also bought Richard C. Longworth's Caught in the Middle: America's Heartland in the Age of Globalism, which I was offered as a package with Florida's book.

The reviewer for Publisher's Weekly had this to say about Longworth's book:
Ex–Chicago Tribune correspondent Longworth (Global Squeeze) paints a bleak, evocative portrait of the Midwest's losing struggle with foreign competition and capitalist gigantism. It's a landscape of shuttered factories, desperate laid-off workers, family farms gobbled up by agribusiness, once great cities like Detroit and Cleveland now in ruins, small towns devolved into depopulated rural slums haunted by pensioners and meth-heads. But the harshest element of the book is Longworth's own pitiless ideology of globalism. In his telling, Midwesterners are sluggish, unskilled, risk-averse mediocrities, clinging to obsolete industrial-age dreams of job security, allergic to change, indifferent to education and totally unfit for the global age. They are doomed because global competition is unstoppable, says Longworth, who dismisses the idea of trade barriers as simplistic nonsense purveyed by conspiracy theorists. The silver linings Longworth floats—biotechnology, proposals for regional cooperation—are meager and iffy. The Midwest's real hope, he insists, lies in a massive influx of mostly low-wage immigrant workers and in enclaves of the rich and brainy, like Chicago and Ann Arbor, where the creative class sells nebulous information solutions to dropouts and Ph.D.s. It's not the Middle West that's under siege in Longworth's telling; it's the now apparently quaint notion of a middle class.
At some point, I think we, as a country, as a society, have to ask ourselves whether the goal is to create a brain drain from the country to the city. Whether the kind of intelligence necessary to grow our food without killing our environment can exist if all the creative thinkers have been lured to Florida's hip urban enclaves. I think eventually we have to ask ourselves whether the constant uprooting and scattering of families all over the country in response to globalism's decimation of local industries is good for our country, and whether our assumption as a society that the best way to confront this decimation is to retrain the workforce into white-collared "knowledge workers" instead of maintaining an economic system in which a person can make a stable, reasonable living by the sweat of his brow is really sustainable or desirable.

And as artists, we need to ask ourselves whether the Shiny, Happy People that we feel most comfortable really need another theatre, and whether those "rust belt" survivors deserve one. I'd answer, respectively, no and yes. We need to go back to the values of the 1930s, when the artists saw themselves as on the side of the workers, instead of seeing ourselves as the lapdogs of the rich.


I just subscribed to Kevin Davenport's blog "Producer's Perspective." Davenport is an Off-Broadway producer. I suppose, given my theatre tribe orientation, that this is an odd choice. But as Richard II says, "And yet, not so." Davenport has an entrepreneurial frame of mind that I find admirable and applicable to the tribe model.

For instance, his most recent post is "Hit the Street to Find Out How to Sell." Kevin tells the story of Duane, a rapper in NYC who is selling his CD's by performing on the streets of Times Square. While Duane is focused on how commercial producers have no choice about who is hired to sell their tickets at the Broadway theatre or at the ticket ordering companies like Telecharge (did you know the Shubert Organization owned Telecharge? What a mess this whole business is!), my focus is on Duane. As Kevin notes, Duane "believes in his product," and "there is nothing more powerful than the live pitch."

I hate to say it, but we're back at community again. But this time, I mean face time. An artist and a someone they don't even know. Showing a little bit of the product, and talking about it from a standpoint of commitment to it. In Mike Daisey's How Theatre Failed America, he talks about coming to a point in his career when he decided that he wouldn't do any more projects that he wasn't 100% committed to -- which meant that he didn't work for a long time. And sadly, this lack of 100% commitment is the situation all too often.

Because many theatre artists have been taught to snap up any job that is offered regardless of what it is, often they end up doing things that they are luke-warm about, or even embarrassed about. And so when they are out an encounter their friends, much less total strangers, they don't have the fervor to really get people excited enough to buy a ticket. This should never be the case with a theatre tribe.

Because of the consensus model that a theatre tribe utilizes, tribe members have no excuse not to believe in their product, since they will have agreed to let it be produced. When using the consensus model of decision making, every member has the right to use a "blocking concern" to say no to anything they feel seriously violates the values of the organization, regardless of how the other members feel. Consequently, members will be very sparing in using what is essentially the "nuclear option" for consensus. However, if they don't use the clocking concern, then they are consenting to support the decision. And so they should, in good conscience, be able to stand face to face with a potential audience member or a friend and really sell the show.

And they need to put themselves in situations where they have an opportunity to do that. But that's another topic.

Book Announcement

For those of you who might be interested (and who probably will not be surprised), I am presently working on a book that will pull together my ideas on theatre tribes. Working title is From Employee to Artist: How to Start a Theatre Tribe (I Think). I will, of course, continue to write about theatre tribes on this blog and float new ideas, but the problem with blogs is also their strength: posts are in chronological order, and they sort of disappear into archive oblivion. Tags help, but still, that's why I created the Theatre Tribe Resource Website for those who wanted to a more organized source of information (I really need to work on adding more resources to that). But I'd also like to have the material in a more portable form for those who are not blog savvy or who don't like reading on-line. The plan is to self-publish the book with a print-on-demand company in order to keep costs low and maintain control over the product. When all this will happen, I don't know, but I hope to have at least a first draft finished by the end of the summer. So this is a request for my readers: it is even more important than usual that you share your feedback about these ideas -- such feedback will help me adjust and fine tune the ideas so they are the most useful they can be when we go to press.

As a sidenote, I have also created a Diigo research group for Theatre Tribes, so that people who are interested can contribute websites and articles that might be relevant to this topic that I can add to the website and to the book.

[P.S. This is my way of making sure I follow through and get this written. If I announce it publicly, and you all know I said it, then I can't chicken out. So it is sort of like announcing you're going to quit smoking -- a plea for supportive knudges...]

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Three Things I Learned the Hard Way...A Meme

Yikes! I've been tagged by Don Hall: detail three things you learned the "hard way" and tag three others.

1. Don't marry someone else in the theatre.
Now, before Don and RZ and others climb all over me, this is a personal one, not a universal ban. I am just too intense and too focused to have somebody else equally intense and focused on the same thing sharing a house with me 24/7. The result is mutual meltdown and way more tension than a relationship can stand. I am now married to a wonderful woman who encourages me to live in the Real World (tm) at least part of every day. And the result is better personal mental health, and a lot more joy.

2. Sometimes Warrior-energy is not so good for leadership.
The task of the Warrior is to kill the dragon. So first the Warrior has to identify people as dragons, and then kill them -- otherwise he doesn't have anything to do. I have a lot of Warrior energy (just in case you didn't notice), and that helps me get a lot done. But it also makes me not so good at collaboration. When I was chair of the Drama Dept, I used a lot of energy turning my colleagues into dragons and then killing them. Very heroic. Not so good for departmental morale or creative collaboration. So when my colleagues asked me to take a seat, I finally had to take a good, long look at my behavior. Part of my current sabbatical has been learning how to avoid bashing. Better, but still needs work. Working on my Magician (see Carol Pearson, The Hero Within).

3. Never Trust Your Pet to the Devilvet

Just kidding.

3. You Don't Have to Make Everyone Else Happy First
This has been a challenge for me, as one who assumed the role of the "family mediator" when I was growing up. I spent a lot of time trying to solve everyone's problems, make sure they were doing what made them happy, made sure I had done whatever needed to be done, and then I could do what I wanted to do. Result: total frustration on my part, total infantilization on the part of others. Gotta let people be grownups and contribute to the well-being of the whole.

I tag Ian, devilvet, and Nick.

Clarifying Community

One of the themes that surfaced during our value discussion was the idea of community. However, there seems to be a misconception about the term -- that is means community activism or involvement with community political and social issues.

When I use the word community, I mean it in a much simpler way: the ties or bonds between people. To create community is to create, and then strengthen, the bonds between people. One way to do that is through community activism, of course -- bonds are often strengthen through a common activity or a common enemy. But community is created simply through talking and listening. The times that I have been in church, there often were parts of the service in which we were asked to turn and greet the people around us. The intention is to create a sense of community, a sense of being part of a group. If that were the only thing, it would be a pretty superficial community, of course. But then there often was coffee and cake in the church basement afterwards, where many people went to talk -- and to strengthen bonds. I take a yoga class once a week, and at the end of the session, we all give each other a blessing, acknowledging each other individually. Why? To create a sense of community in the class.

So when I talk about theatre creating and strengthening community, it doesn't have to go outside the walls of the theatre. It might be creating a point during the theatrical event -- before, during, during intermission, after the show -- in which people are given an opportunity to talk to each other, to get to know each other as more than the head in the row in front of you.

For me, the traditional post-show Q & A session doesn't really promote community. Nobody introduces themselves (except whoever happens to be onstage fielding the questions), and the discussion is anonymous. But imagine a post-show discussion that follows the World Cafe model, in which people are put into groups of four and given a general topic to discuss, and then after a certain amount of time, they rotate and get new members. Each time, they introduce themselves to those who are at their table. In a small group, people are more comfortable talking than in the entire assembly.

So does that inspire community outside the walls of the theatre? Well, if you have talked to someone after a show and then you run into them in line at the grocery or at a meeting for another organization, you will probably talk again. And the bonds are strengthened. And when you are talking, you might introduce the person to another friend of yours, and the circle widens.

These are the bonds that are missing in many of our communities. This is how a theatre might contribute to creating community. Once ties are established, and community has been created, then you can put that energy to work. And that may or may not be something organized by the theatre.

That's what I mean by "community."

Random Thoughts on the Value Discussion

As Slay notes at TheatreForte, there were 30 posts and countless comments on this topic around the theatrosphere. Consider the effect if we could marshal that kind of brain power around a practical problem! The effect on devilvet alone would be remarkable! ;-) But seriously: the potential power is palpable (I just wanted to be alliterative). What if, for instance, there was a theatre that had a challenge concerning a production (could be anything -- from marketing to sustainable design to audience building to...), and we focused the minds of the theatrosphere on it for a couple days -- think of all the ideas that might be generated.

On Talk and Action
devilvet points out that talking is only half the process. True. In a 1985 book called Action Science, the authors draw a distinction between espoused theories and theories-in-use. "Espoused theories," they write, "are those that an individual claims to follow. Theories-in-use," they conclude," are those that can be inferred from action." (quoted in The Learning Paradigm College by John Tagg, p 13.) It is important that our espoused theories match up with our theories-in-use.

I'd also like to quote from one of my new favorites book, Getting to Maybe: How the World Is Changed:

We've been taught that thinking is separate from doing. But in this book we offer thinking as a form of doing, and emphasize doing as an opportunity for thinking, reflecting and learning. Complexity science suggests that how we think about thngs matters. A fundamental sociological premise is the Thomas theorem: what is perceived as real is real in its consequences. We would add: how we think about and understand the world frames our actions. Indeed, we can be even more basic: whether we think about things matters. The capacity to think astutely is often undervalued in the world of action.
While thought without action may be stillborn (may be -- I'm not totally certain that is true, if you define action as direct action on the specific topic), but I do believe this: action without thought is the War in Iraq. I can imagine King Georgie bouncing back and forth in his chair and whining, "Stop all this talking about winning the peace -- we'll figure that out when we get there. Let's go kick some butt and take names!"

Yesterday, I posted about the seeming Nylachi (New York/Los Angeles/Chicago for those of you who don't know the source of that neologism) orientation of American Theatre. devilvet suggested the creation of a parallel publication, probably on-line, that covered the rest of the American theatre scene. Great idea. Not one I am willing to devote my focus to at the moment, but one that I wish somebody would do (maybe the "Flyover" folks at ArtsJournal?). However, I will say this: we also need to hold people accountable for what they are supposed to be doing. The fact is that American Theatre is not fulfilling its purpose by failing to provide a picture of the vibrant theatre that is occuring throughout this great country. So I will be emailing Jim O'Quinn, the Editor in Chief of American Theatre with a link to my post, and request a response. If you would like to participate, I suggest you do the same: O'Quinn's email address is

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Nylachification of American Theatre Magazine

For a few months now, I have had a sense that American Theatre Magazine, the flagship magazine of the American regional theatre, seemed to be focusing primarily on Nylachi. But I told myself no, you're probably cherry-picking. But yesterday, I decided to take a look at the February 08 articles and count the articles written by Nylachi authors or written about Nylachi theatres. Here is what I found:

Feature articles:
  • Nylachi:10
  • Non-Nylachi: 1
News in brief
  • Nylachi: 3 (plus probably two more labeled "cyberspace" about Tommy Tune and Willie Nelson / Anthony Herrera, who obviously aren't really regional artists)
  • Non-Nylachi: 4
Well, maybe that's an aberration. So I dug out the Januray 08 edition:

  • Nylachi: 9
  • Non=Nylachi: 2 [although I didn't really know where to put an essay by Naomi Wallace and an articel about Penn (of Penn and Teller) doing Macbeth in NJ -- add them here if you'd like]
News in Brief
  • Nylachi: 9
  • Non-Nylachi: 3
So what gives? Theatre Communications Group was created by the Ford Foundation back in the 1960s to serve as a service organization for regional theatre, and on the masthead for the magazine it says "Theatre Communications Group is the national organization for the American theatre." So have they decided that the American theatre is a Nylachi -- and primarily a New York -- phenomenon? Have they decided it really isn't worth the effort to venture outside of Manhattan? Is it just that money is tight and they can't afford to travel, or does this represent a real blindness?

It's not that the articles aren't interesting -- they are. It's just that nearly everything is being filtered through a particular lens. When articles on "Master Acting Teachers," for instance, include two teachers from Yale, two from NYU, Columbia, and Rutgers -- oh, and then U of Washington and U of South Carolina, one senses a certain geographical bias. How might one create such a list? What sort of research does one do to arrive at that grouping. It wouldn't be by asking your NYC actor friends, would it? Or just assuming that the "name" programs must have the "best" acting teachers? This is a self-perpetuating system, and I find it annoying that it is being aided by a magazine whose reason for being is the advancement of regional theatre.

Perhaps the magazine is just reflecting the current realities of the regional theatre movement, and if that is true, then it is simply more evidence that the regional theatre movement has sold its soul to the NY-centered commercial theatre. If it doesn't reflect the current realities, then what the heck are the editors thinking? Surely there are writers who don't live in Nylachi who might be qualified to write about the theatres in their own region, for crying out loud; surely there are regional theatres west of the Mississippi and south of the Mason-Dixon Line who deserve some attention. I'm not proposing that we ignore Nylachi -- heaven forbid, there is too much good stuff going on -- but an attempt at balance might be nice. American Theatre now includes a section in each issue about theatre around the globe, so maybe they could start looking at the South and the West as foreign countries and put them in this section...

Friday, March 21, 2008

An Approach, Not a Method

From Presentation Zen: Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery by Garr Reynolds.
"Presentation Zen, however, is not a method. Method implies a step-by-step systematic process, something very much planned and linear, with a definite proven procedure that you can pick off a shelf and follow A to Z in a logical orderly fashion. Presentation Zen, then, is more of an approach. An approach implies a road, a direction, a frame of mind, perhaps even a philosophy, but not a formula of proven rules to be followed. Methods are important and necessary. But there are no panaceas, and I offer no prescriptions for success. Success depends on you and your own unique situation. However, I do offer guidelines and some things to think about that may run contrary to conventional wisdom..."
Like Reynolds, the ideas on theatre tribes presented on this blog are more of an approach, not a method. An orientation, a frame of mind, perhaps even a philosophy. But not an instruction manual.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Point Blank

Next month, I will be 50. I don't have time to wait for society and the government to change its priorities so that they fund theatre at the level it deserves. I need to think of something that works now.

What Did We Learn Yesterday?

Over at "Never Trust Your Pet with the Devilvet," Bob has written about yesterday's blogslide about values in a post entitled "Talk Is Only Half the Battle."Most of the post is about encouraging more vigorous debate in the theatrosphere. As everyone knows, I haven't been one to steer clear of debate, although recently I have been trying to debate in a way that is more productive than the sort of slash-and-burn debates that used to happen in the past. I don't have time for pissing matches anymore, and I know for sure that Bob isn't suggesting more of them. So to Bob's request for an "Amen" concerning vigorous debate: Amen, Bob, preach it.

More importantly to me are a piece of the original post, and a comment connected to that post. Bob wrote, "Yesterday, I heard a few interesting things. I also heard an echo and echo and echo of tired things I've heard before." Then he wrote in the comments: "What good was yesterday if all we do is reaffirm and recite? Yes, it might give us (lot of us and them talk yesterday) a momentary thrust of catharsis...I want more!"

He's right -- what good was yesterday if we don't do more than just say our piece? When I read all those who contributed, I started seeing a common thread. While Bob may feel this is something he's heard before, nevertheless there seemed to be common agreement about one thing: one thing that sets theatre apart is presence, a sense of being in it together with the audience, dialog, community, call it what you will but it is all pretty much the same thing.

So what is the next step, the action step? Well, I hate to risk glibness, but walk your talk. All of you who are artists, look at the work you are creating and ask yourself: does this really take full advantage of what I feel is most unique about the theatre? If not, is there a way I could add something to the event itself that would bring it closer to my ideal? It's like a mission statement -- you use it to make decisions about what opportunities to take advantage of and which to let go. I think if we all did that one simple thing it would change the face of the theatre. If we all made sure that what we believe to be theatre's value was at the center of the theatre we actually create, then at least our elevator speech would parallel what was actually happening in our theatres. Without that, yesterday truly was an empty event, wasn't it?

On Salaries

A snapshot of why it might be a good idea for most theatre artists to think about a different business model than the current corporate Big Box theatre.

Here are the salaries of the artistic directors for two of America's major LORT theatres:

AD #1: $325,000
AD #2: $400,00

And Managing Director salaries for the same theatres:

MD #1: $308,000
MD #2: $208,000

AD #1 and MD #1 oversee a LORT B+ contract. Minimum actor salary for this period (these are figures that are two years old): $754 per week -- total if 52 weeks worked: $39,208

AD#2 and MD#2 oversee a LORT A contract. Minimum actor salary: $800. AD #2 is on a 40 week contract -- weekly salary: $10,000.

Compared to CEO salaries in corporate America, having a leader making between 8 and 13 times as much as the lowest paid actor (we won't compare it to the lowest paid employee) is pretty reasonable. But then, those CEO's are also overseeing a revenue stream considerably larger than the $16M - $29M of these theatres.

If we compare these salary to the annual revenues, we see another story: the head of Dell, for instance, received 0.7% of Dell's annual revenue as salary, whereas AD #2 received 1.4% of the theatre's revenue. Combining the AD & MD, Theatre #1 pays salaries of nearly 4% of annual revenues to two people, and Theatre #2 pay 2.1% of annual revenues.

Hey, I'm not griping about people making a decent salary. And in many ways, these people are at the top of their professions. But I agree with George Bernard Shaw, who said he didn't have anything against money, he thought everybody ought to have some. Somehow, something seems out of whack.

Play the Theatre Tribe Game

So yesterday, a bunch of us blogged about the value of theatre. Here was my contribution. Here's the theatre tribe game: read the posts (and any other posts you think would help you) and put together four bloggers that you think would, philosophically, form the basis for the best theatre tribe. Don't worry about skills unless you want to. The book Good to Great talks about "getting the right people on the bus" to make your group take off. Instead of a car, you have a 4-seat sedan -- who oughta be in it?

West End Journal?

Does anybody know anything about the theatre blog "West End Journal"? I can't figure it out. They seem to be reposting just about everything I write, with an occasional Theatre Is Territory post. I don't mind -- I mean, I'm always credited and given a link. But I can't figure it out, can you?

Well Put, Nick!

In a reply to a commenter on another blog who quoted Sherwood Anderson on artists who talk and think art is more important than it is, Nick (Keenan, I believe) responded:
I understand where you're coming from, and I used to be an artist that only talked through my work. I've designed 100 plays in the last 5 years, and worked on 12 since the beginning of the year. But speaking from experience here - for me, that's become like designing without having a production meeting first. Over the long term, it doesn't work. That's why I picked up blogging - to promote ideas that benefit the entire theater industry - because the alternative means reinventing the wheel again and again for the rest of my artistic life. Yes, there are talking artists slip and talk first without adding to a constructive conversation, and there are people who are working things out for themselves for the first time. There are also collaborators and people truly committed to the idea of making our work better through a higher level of cooperation, and online tools like blogs and forums are where it's at to make that kind of stuff happen.

I get mad when the conversation gets shut down because someone calls 'BS' without engaging in the full conversation. There's a lot of talking heads here, and it's difficult to follow - but that doesn't mean that everything being said is BS, or pointless. It has real value, and it's a prerequisite to making a more sustainable theater that is better for everyone. It may make you feel superior to say what you said here, and that's your right, but I then challenge you to engage critically, point by point, and push the conversation forward to something that matters to you. I encourage you both to walk the talk. In that sense, there's nothing necessarily elitist about theater at all, only perhaps the people who have felt empowered to claim it as their own.
Nice. I get so tired of having to defend conversation and the exchange of ideas, as if it were somehow a tertiary activity similar to - I don't know what -- trading baseball cards or something. Without conversation, new ideas don't happen -- read Group Genius or Collaborative Circles if you doubt that. Without new ideas, the status quo stays the status quo. And in our society, if you stay the same you fall behind.

Thanks for standing up, Nick!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Theatre's Value in Three Words

A group of us (see list below) have decided to blog about one topic today in the hopes of creating some synergy. The topic is the value of theatre -- what makes theatre unique and/or valuable in today's world. The experience for the theatre blog reader, I suspect, will be like looking at a cubist painting in which you simultaneously see a single form from a variety of perspectives and times. We might call this "Theatre Descending a Staircase." (Let's hope, following the Duchampian theme, it does not more closely resemble his "Fountain.")

Anyway, Slay, the founder of this particular feast (thanks for the suggestion, my friend) includes in his fascinating post Ben Cameron's idea, common to most for-profit businesses these days, that theatre needs an "elevator speech" or "talking points" -- a few well-chosen words that express what theatre is about, why it is important, why someone should want to attend it. Sort of like the devilvet challenge (say it in 250 words), only even shorter. When I did the devilvet challenge, I used 108 words, which was pretty good for me. But today, I wanted to boil it down even further. I got it down to three words:

Flow + Dialog = Theatre

There you go! Check out everybody else's ideas at -- what? That's not clear? OK, don't blame me if I go on and on. And on and on.

Mihaly Csikszentmihaly (jeez -- where were the Ellis Island officials when this guy was emigrating from Hungary? -- anyway, it is pronounced "chick-SENT-me-high," which actually is sort of fun to say) is the man behind the concept of flow (cf Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience , Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, and Finding Flow: The Pscyhology of Engagement with Everyday Life). Wikipedia summarizes the idea thusly: "Flow is the mental state of operation in which the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing, characterized by a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity." It occurs when there is a confluence of high challenge and high skill. Csikszentmihaly (thank God for cut-and-paste) says "Very rarely do people report flow in passive leisure activities, such as watching television or relaxing."

I think flow is what many of us think theatre ought to be: challenge plus skill; and its absence is what we complain about when we talk about Broadway or Broadway in Chicago smashtaculars. But this isn't geographical or commercial -- you can find flow on Broadway (I think, for instance, that Sondheim creates flow in the musical theatre) and you can find relaxation at a storefront. It is about intention.

One of the keys to flow is that there needs to be a balance between ability level and challenge. If we conceive of ourselves, as artists, as the creators of flow experiences, then it is contingent on us to know and understand our audience so that we can create productions that challenge spectators to dance along the edge of their skills. Smashtaculars underestimate the audience's skill and keeps the challenge level low, which ultimately leads to boredom for the audience. But the opposite is often true as well: artists will pitch the level of challenge too high, reflecting their own skill level rather than the audience's, which ultimately leads to frustration for the audience. Like the three bears, we want the balance between challenge and the skill level to be just right.

This is the promise of presence. Because the artist and the audience during a performance shares the same time and place, dialog is possible. Not true for TV, radio, or film, right? Not true for books or visual art. Only the live performing arts have this possibility.

What is sad is that we have forgotten this in favor of monologue: we talk, you listen, then we run away and you go home. Dialog doesn't have to happen as part of the play (although it certainly could, and can be powerful), but it ought to happen sometime during the experience. People want to talk to each other -- not only the one of two people who accompanied them to the play, but to others as well. And if we could facilitate that talking by giving them a common point of departure (the play) and building the structure for it to take place -- among themselves, with the artists -- then the experience has a chance to expand into interpersonal flow. Conversation is another activity that Csikszentmihaly lists as having great potential for creating flow.

Margaret J. Wheatley writes in Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future: "We humans want to be together. We only isolate ourselves when we're hurt by others, but alone is not our natural state. Today, we live in an unnatural state -- separating ourselves rather than being together. We become hopeful when somebody tells the truth. I don't know why this is, but I experience it often. Truly connecting with another human being gives us joy."

The challenge is for artists to tell the truth, and create a work of art that lets others share their truth. Telling the truth is a high challenge, and it requires high skill to engage it, and the result is joy, flow.


flow + dialog = theatre

Who wouldn't value an opportunity to have a peak experience and then talk about it?

Please also visit Theatreforte, Theater for the Future, Rat Sass, Parabasis, The Next Stage, Steve on Broadway, Theatre is Territory, Freedom Spice in the New Mash-Up World, Mike Daisey, An Angry White Guy in Chicago, Bite & Smile, and That Sounds Cool. And devilet. And Mission Paradox. And Tony at Jay Raskolnikov. Paul Rekk twice!

And be sure to check back here for additions to that list.

And join the dialog!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

From NEA's Bill O'Brien

On a whim, I forwarded a link to my post on Rural Theatre, along with my post "A Vision" and the "NEA Google Map" to Bill O'Brien, the NEA spokesman quoted in the Columbus Dispatch article. I received this very kind email in return, and will likely call him later this week. Here it is (quoted with his permission):

Hi Scott,

Thanks for writing. I enjoyed reading the first blog you linked below a few weeks ago when someone brought it to my attention.

I would love to see your imaginary theatre flourish some day. In a way, it reminds me of the way the Barter Theater was formed, which is one of my favorite stories from the field. It would take someone of considerable passion to steer it along, which I think is true whether you were trying to make vibrant theatre in Asheville, New York or Dubuque.

I said quite a few things to the journalist on this subject that did not make it into the article. I think he did a great job with it for the most part, but I personally don't think it left you with a very accurate impression of prejudices that do or do not exist in me or at the NEA, but I think I can understand how you made some of your observations.

I became engaged in and committed to excellent live theatre while growing up in a farm in Iowa. Much of the most excellent theatre that I have had a hand in producing occurred in modest (to put it lightly), sub-99 seat spaces.

I'd be happy to discuss eligibility requirements, review criteria or any other topic that could help familiarize you with how we fund theater and musical theater projects here at the NEA. If you don't catch me at my desk, I'll call you back as soon as I am able.


Bill O'Brien
Director of Theater and Musical Theater
National Endowment for the Arts
202 682 5510


devilvet writes a thoughtful post on "How Best to Use One's Strength." Wisdom.

On William J. Baumol and the "Cost Disease"

I love the theatrosphere. What is best is when a discussion happens elsewhere that leads you to make connections to people and ideas you hadn't considered. This is certainly true of the discussion at 99 Seats on "A Multitude of Casualties" and "Good Point...And Some Follow-Up Thoughts." Both of these are addressing the discussions concerning new business models for nto-for-profit theatres. I was particularly inspired to respond by a section of Chris Casquilho's comment that is quoted in the former post. Chris writes:
One of the glaring oversights in every thread I've read about creating a
new business model is the total lack of math. The general agreement among
audiences and NFP theatre producers is that ticket prices are too high - that
costs are too high to take risks, etc. Due to tricky things like Baumol's Cost
Disease, "affordable" theatre exists in a state of what traditional economists
call "market failure" - meaning the cost of the supply is higher than the
existing demand is willing or able to bear. NFP status provides a vehicle
through which we create subsidy that compensates for the difference.

If we ditch the NFP model, where is the subsidy going to come from?
I'd like to talk about "Baumol's Cost Disease," which had a major impact on the development of the regional theatre movement through William J. Baumol's and William G. Bowen's 1966 book Performing Arts, the Economic Dilemma: A Study of Problems Common to Theater, Opera, Music, and Dance. At the time that Baumol and Bowen were writing, a "cultural explosion" was being declared by writers like Alvin Toffler (The Culture Consumers, 1964) and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund panel report The Performing Arts: Problems and Prospects (1965, headed by Nancy Hanks, who would become the frist NEA Chair), both of which helped lead to the passage of the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act of 1965. Baumol and Bowen, and the Twentieth Century Fund who paid for their report however, deflated that bubble.

As Joseph Wesley Ziegler put it in his 1973 book Regional Theatre: The Revolutionary Stage, "the 'cultural explosion' had already proved to be largely a myth: the natural increase in population and per capita income had given the appearance in the early 1960s of increased interest in the arts, but the percentage nof people interested in the arts had not grown significantly." (63) This inconvenient truth, however, was largely ignored in favor of a truth that was more useful to the growth of the regional arts -- the "cost disease."

What Baumol and Bowen said that had the most traction was that the income gap in the performing arts was inevitable because unlike industry, the performing arts did not benefit from increases in productivity -- it took the same number of actors to perform Hamlet in 1965 as it did in 1601, and it took the same number of musicians to play Beethoven's Fifth Symphony now as it did in the 1800s. So while productivity remained flat, wages continued to rise as did other costs, and the result was that either ticket prices would have to rise beyond levels that patrons would be willing to pay, or there will be an income gap. Based on this "cost disease" concept, Baumol and Bowen made a strong case for foundation and governmental support for the arts by pointing out the "inevitability" of this income gap. The effect of this can be most dramatically illustrated by the case of one of the eraly regional theatres, the Arena Stage in Washington DC as led by Zelda and Thomas Fichlander.

Again Ziegler, who in 1962 went to the Arena Stage as an "administrative intern" on a grant from the Ford Foundation to improve his management skills (and who later served as the head of the Theatre Communications Group), provides the perspective:
By the time I arrived, the Fichlanders [Zelda and Thomas] had mastered running their theatre to the point where they could do the job without a budget. They simply never spent more than the box office and grants brought into their coffers. Each year there was either a breakeven situation or a surplus....Since that time, however, the picture has changed. During recent years, Arena Stage has always incurred an "income gap" -- commitments to creditors over and above funds brought in as earned income. It is characteristic, I think, that after moving into its new building Arena Stage did not have income gaps until they became acceptable. Income gaps in the performing arts became acceptable with the publication of the Twentieth Century Fund's The Perfomring Arts: The Economic Dilemma, which proved their inevitability and opened up the possibility of deficit funding for theatres. The other justification for income gaps came from the establishment, at the same time, of the National Endowment for the Arts, the federal government's first step in accepting support of the arts as a proper function. Arena Stage, with its extraordinary administrative savvy, saw the income gaps could be funded; from then on Zelda instituted additional programs which could be judged suitable for foundation assistance and which assured the Arena Stage would need help. (34-35)
Thus, Baumol's "cost disease" became a self-fulfilling prophecy, and like a crack dealer introducing the drug at the schoolyard, Baumol quickly had the performing arts addicted to a combination of government and foundation subsidy. The other pusher in this scenario was the Ford Foundation, which pumped millions into the regional theatre, pushing small-scale operations like the Mummers Theatre in Oklahoma to build a huge theatre far beyond their needs, and funding young regional theatres to import actors from NYC to fill its stages instead of building ensembles committed to a community.

The fact is that Baumol and Bowen were right on both counts: there WAS no "cultural explosion," it still was and would continue to be a pastime aimed at the economic elites, and they were also right that given a business model that emphasized large theatres, large budgets, and a production aesthetic that mimicked NY, an income gap WAS inevitable. But the conclusion that was drawn from those two truths -- that what was needed was private and public subsidy -- was flawed.

First of all, in the case of theatre there was, in fact, an increase in productivity: it was called film and television. While we choose to see these as different art forms, the amount of crossover that occurs between the artists of all three belies their difference. While it still took the same number of artists to perform Hamlet, film and television multiplied exponentially the size of the audience. In other words, theatre was being mass produced through film and television. What should have happened at that point, and didn't, was a reconsideration of the business model. Instead, Baumol and Bowen recommended that the government and rich people bail us out.

Think of this in terms of, say, furniture. For most of history, furniture was created by local craftsmen who made chairs one at a time and sold them to customers in their town. With the rise of industrialization, chairs could now be mass produced in factories, with the result that prices fell. There still were craftsmen making chairs by hand and selling them to people in their town, but the business model had changed as had the market. Chairmakers did not demand government subsidy, but rather went about changing their way of doing business.

Theatre might have done the same in 1965, but didn't. Instead, we learned to beg. According to the most recent Theatre Facts published by TCG, regional theatres now have a whopping 48% of their budget coming from contributions, and only 52% is earned income. Chris is right to wonder "where the subsidy is going to come from," because we have reached a point, like Blanche Du Bois, where we are completely reliant on the kindness of strangers!

To me, this is unacceptable. The NEA annual budget is an insult, and an intentional one in my opinion. Artists continually point with outrage to the fact that more money is allotted to military bands every year than to the arts in the country. Do we really think that is an accident? The federal government annually reminds us how little our work is valued. Meanwhile, in response to the gutting of social services by the administrations of the last two decades or more, the private foundations have shifted their money elsewhere to address the myriad social problems that have worsened. So the arts experience a double-whammy: both sources of largess suddenly are reduced precipitously.

And what is our response? Like infants who suddenly find their bottle taken away, we wail at the top of our lungs about the injustice of it all, and we point at Europe and complain that they have higher allowances than we have.

It is so undignified, and so disempowering. How in the world can anybody in this country take us seriously?

So we need to go back to Baumol and Bowen, yes, but we need to address the economic issues they raised from a different perspective, one that looks at how our so-called "aesthetic choices" are not only aesthetic but also both economic and ecological -- in fact, essentially economic and ecological . We need to question ourselves about what values are reflected in our way of doing theatre, and whether, in fact, they reflect a typically American reliance of more and bigger "stuff" instead of creativity and hard-headed realism. Take a look at this picture from the recent production of Tamburlaine the Great at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington DC and ask yourself whether it is likely that Marlowe's original production was quite that elaborate. Perhaps it isn't just lower wages that made Hamlet economical in Shakespeare's time, but also a commitment to an aesthetic that relied on language instead of "stuff."

We need to stop crying and figure out a way to stand on our own two feet and reclaim our power and dignity as independent artists rather than pathetic and ungrateful beggars groveling and sneering at the kitchen door of our society. Until we do that, we will always be looked down on by American society.