Monday, March 10, 2008

An Interview...with Myself

You've been writing about theatre tribes for almost two months now. How far do you think you've gotten?
I can't say for sure, since I am feeling my way through -- I am using the blog as a way of developing and testing ideas, which I am then polishing off-line into a more formal style. But I'd say I'm about 1/3 of the way through.

One third? Are you kidding??!!! How much more can be said about this?
Well, at this point I've really only laid out the foundational values of tribal theatre and the overall structure. But there really hasn't been much about how to achieve these values.

You academics are SO long-winded. I wish you'd take dv's advice and be more succinct.
Well, I'll admit that cutting to the chase is not one of my strong suits. If you look at most of the posts I've written over the past couple years, most of them are long, too. But in this case, I've felt the long-windedness is necessary, because some of these ideas are counter-intuitive. But also, I think people need to have a grip on why a theatre tribe should have certain values, and not just what those value are. That said, every once in a while I think it helps to summarize to as close as an elevator speech as possible. I'll try to do that.

*sigh* OK, Mr Hypothesis Theorist Professor (tm), what's left? Aren't people clamoring for action? Nick is suggesting that people head for the midwest!
I think that would be a mistake at this point, but maybe I'm overly cautious.

Why is it premature?
Because right now there is only a basic outline! Sure, you could decide to step away from Nylachi, find a group of people you'd like to work with, create a non-hierarchical company that divides ticket income and ancillary income according to need, and design your sets in a sustainable way, but how is it going to be financed at first? Where is it going to be performed? How are you going to attract an audience? What kind of plays are you going to do? How are you going to survive until the tribe is self-sustaining? Are there any alternatives to a complete reliance on box office? It is critical that you answer all these questions in ways that supports the basic values of the tribe. There needs to be a deep commitment to creating a sustainable theatre, which requires a new way of doing business.

Couldn't you figure all that out along the way?
You could, but it would be difficult. I've been reading a really good book called The Path of Least Resistance: Learning to Become the Creative Force in Your Own Life by Robert Fritz. Fritz is from Boston, and on the very first page of Chapter 1 he talks about the seemingly chaotic layout of the roads in Boston. Let me read this to you.

Oh, jeez. Is it a long section?
No, it's pretty short, but I think Fritz does a good job with this analogy, and it might make it possible for me to talk less myself.

Go for it.
"The Boston roads," he explains, "were actually formed by utilizing existing cow paths. But how did these cow paths come to be? The cow moving through the topography tended to move where it was immediately easiest to move. When a cow saw a hill ahead, she did not say to herself, 'Aha! A hill! I must navigate around it!' Rather she put one foot in front of another, taking whichever step was easiest at that moment, perhaps avoiding a rock or taking the smallest incline. In other words, what determined her behavior was the structure of the land. Each time cows passed through the same area, it became easier for them to take the same path they had taken the last time, because the path became more and more easily defined....Once a structure exists, energy moves through that structure by the path of least resistance. In other words, energy moves where it is easiest for it to go."

OK, so now we understand the connection between cowpaths and Boston traffic -- how does this apply to theatre tribes?
Well, over the decades, the American regional theatre has followed the structure of the theatre scene and created a well-worn path that is corporate and NY-centric. Theatre artists have been trained to follow that path in order to succeed. So unless there is a fully developed structure that creates a new path of least resistance, when faced with a new situation -- when putting one foot in front of the other in an attempt to move forward -- they will automatically follow the path of least resistance and do what has usually been done in that situation. That's why Don's statement that most theatres that start out like tribes end up going corporate is often correct. Don would say that that is just human nature, but I would contend that it is simply following the path of least resistance because a new structure hasn't been fully developed, or has been forgotten. I'm trying to develop a new cow path, not just repave the old one to remove the potholes. That's also why I have been saying that this model isn't for Nylachi -- the gravitational pull of the old way (to change the metaphor) is much stronger there, and it will require a much stronger commitment to the theatre tribe values.

You make this sound like a religion.
No, but it is a different ethic, a different value system, a different way of life. For instance, the corporate way of thinking is revolves around getting bigger. Get a bigger audience, a bigger theatre, a bigger staff, a bigger production budget, a bigger endowment, a bigger share of NEA money. The theatre tribe follows E. F. Schumacher's belief that "small is beautiful," and bigger is not necessarily better. Sustainable is better, appropriate size is better. Having time is better. Time to develop art that is beautiful, powerful, and profound. But also personal time -- time to spend with family, time to devote to community, time to reflect and grow. The subtitle of Schumacher's book was A Study of Economics as if People Mattered. Substitute "theatre" for "economics" and you have what I am working on.

Isn't that pie-in-the-sky? I mean, come on!
Maybe so. I hope not, but there is a definite possibility that such an approach can't survive within global capitalism. I certainly am making no promises, and I'm not promoting this as a "magic bean." Right now, it is a thought experiment -- anybody who tries to put it into action at this point is on their own, and when they fail -- and they probably will -- there will be some who point at them as proof that theatre tribes won't work. But the Wright Brothers didn't try to fly until they had thought through every detail of their prototype. Two months of planning is a drop in the bucket. I think there is a lot more thinking left before this idea is ready to be test driven.

Aren't there any models they could follow? devilvet has challenged you to point at one.
Well, I don't know. Most theatres of this nature would probably not receive a lot of media coverage outside of their local area, which would not be Nylachi. So for all I know, there may be dozens of theatre tribes already existing under my personal radar. I will say this, though: the current corporate approach has been around for a relatively short time. Once you get back a century or so, the theatre tribe is actually more common. Shakespeare's King's Men were a tribe -- a permanent company that managed many different kinds of activities (e.g., bear-bating). Moliere's troupe was a tribe. Every commedia dell 'arte troupe was a tribe. In fact, when you look back through theatre history you find that there are two production models that are most prevalent: community theatre and tribes. The Greeks, for instance, were community theatre: everyone involved were amateurs and nobody made their living from theatre. They all had day jobs. And they created pretty damn good stuff. The Romans were tribes. Medieval mystery plays were community theatre. And so on. It isn't until the mid-1800s that the industrial model starts to dominate. Some may see that as progress. I don't. I think there would be some value to looking back at theatre history for predecessors, rather than contemporary theatres.

You're an academic. Why not leave this to the artists?
You're right, I am an academic, and happy to be one. I don't happen to see that as a term of opprobrium. But what I am doing is what academics do best, and what artists don't have time to do.

What, numb us with magniloquence?
No, synthesize. I am trying to pull together ideas that have been scattered in a variety of disciplines: anthropology (Beyond Civilization, The Gift), economics (Small Is Beautiful, Deep Economy), marketing (Spreading the Ideavirus, The Tipping Point, Made to Stick), sociology (Bowling Alone, The Great, Good Place, Habits of the Heart), theatre history, and any number of other disciplines. I think we are in the midst of a great turning as a culture, and that theatre must respond to those changes or risk becoming irrelevant and displaced. I'm going to be 50 next month, and believe me it would be easier to simply keep doing things the way they've always been done until I can retire, but to me that seems irresponsible. I want to use my strengths to benefit somebody. Maybe somebody will read these ideas and be inspired -- that's my hope.

Will you ever take action?
Probably a different type than what people expect. I would like to set up some system for helping theatre artists who want to try out these ideas (once they're finished). This might be a foundation, a consulting firm, or something else entirely. I'd like to make it easier for these ideas to be implemented. Right now, I don't know how I'm going to do that -- it is a new way of thinking for me. But that's what I'd like to do eventually.


Sarah McL said...

Hey - I think this is your best post yet! So friendly, so endearing - I finally feel like I'm hearing you clearly. Cows. Of course.

Jess said...

I am absolutely 100% behind you, Scott -- and I'm very willing to wait. I like the ideas part of this process!

You, my friend, are an inspiration.

Scott Walters said...

Thanks for the kind words, Sarah and Jess.

Paul said...

So, a molotov cocktail, yes?

RLewis said...

Scott, if you're looking for models, I wondered if the Bloomsberg Ensemble might be appropriate -
- hope this helps your Tribe-work.

Nick Keenan said...

Love it. For the record, most of my readers are in Chicago, so they're already in the midwest... and the thought was to encourage them to branch out and form stronger ties with different locales within driving distance of their current financial stability. Several of my friends design at a college in Iowa, for instance, and bring the storefront ethos to the students there. I agree that Zack's approach to Des Moines is at best Basejumping into an unknown territory and at worst carpetbagging. It works for Zack, but I think for a more sustainable movement we absolutely need to ease into it.

New York has been doing this a long time with communities like Williamstown and Saratoga Springs... communities that don't really need the artistic support. I wonder if theater artists there could branch out to say, southern Jersey or rural Pennsylvania.

And, on a more broad note: I'm right with you that we're in Phase I, embarking on Phase II. I like that you're long-winded and analytical - I like most bloggers that feed their passions into their voice. It makes for good writing. I think we need to strike a balance between thought / theory, cheerleading, and sustainable action, and I think your cow metaphor is apt on that front. Have you TRIED driving in Boston lately? Damn cows.

We want to move forward and take action intelligently. You're good at generating the theory that informs and inspires the action, and you're using your nature to feed information, data, and analysis. I'm good at converting ideas into projects, and I hope our efforts - and everyone's efforts - can continue to complement each other and provide some mutual reality checks.

Rock on, sir.

RVCBard said...


This post just goes to show that you're a deeply disturbed individual. Keep it up. It's what I like about you.

Director said...

Excellent analogy and post. The Bostonian Cows theory is absolutely correct. It takes a certain kind of person to trailblaze into the unknown, but once that person has blazed the trail, it becomes steadily more and more popular. The Oregon Trail wasn't traveled by everyone at once. A couple guys went together, and then a family or two, and then a couple of families, until you have this mass migration across the West.

The Bostonian Cow Theory also ties into your previous SLAW idea. People want to take the path of least resistance -- whatever costs the least amount of energy and time to them. Someone's gotta be a trailblazer.

Maybe it's not you, maybe it's not Don or RZ or DV, or anyone else who's happy with their current situation. Maybe it's someone like me, who has yet to strike out on his own, who hasn't invested enough in the status quo to lose anything, should things not work out. Who knows?

But someone, somewhere has to go "Hey... it'd be neat if there was a road that went that way. Nobody ever goes there."

Laura Sue said...

Opprobrium? Magniloquence? Are these really words, or are you just making them up?