Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Appalshop as a Model of Community Partnership

Don Hall continues to ridicule the idea of respect and dialogue between a community and its artists, representing it "the blissful world in which the audience informs the artist what is relevant to them." Apparently, the idea that the audience might be seen as a partner rather than a customer is hard for him to swallow. Along with Nicholas Hytner, Don takes a courageous stand in defense of Shakespeare and Mozart against the onslaught of the masses, not unlike Ortega Y Gasset did in The Revolt of the Masses. He quotes Hytner: "Are we going to make over Mozart by making it sound as if it has a dance beat? No we are not! Are we going to translate Shakespeare more than we do already. No we are not!...We have to insist that for the arts to be as revelatory and transformative as they can be, they often have to be quite demanding." Ahem. Why not go the whole hog: "Are we gonna let them rape our women and steal our cattle?"

A commenter, Brian the Director, weary of the ongoing battle, asks "
can we talk a little less in abstract terms and a little more in concrete scenarios?" I offer up for your consideration the example of Appalshop, a "non-profit multi-disciplinary arts and education center in the heart of Appalachia producing original films, video, theater, music and spoken-word recordings, radio, photography, multimedia, and books. Appalshop's education and training programs support communities' efforts to solve their own problems in a just and equitable way. Each year, Appalshop productions and services reach several million people nationally and internationally." Visit their website at http://appalshop.org.

There you will find an organization that has committed to the community of Whitesburg KY and the surrounding environs. Whitesburg, a coal mining community that has fallen on hard times, has a population of about 1200 people. Over the years, through the combination of a commitment to a community and a strong mission, Appalshop has grown a substantial endowment that provides considerable income for the organization. It has committed not only to the developing the vision of the individual artists, but to contributing to the community by providing substantive resources and opportunities for high school students to make radio and film documentaries and other projects. Some of those young people go on to join Appalshop as contributing artists, and most of the people involved are drawn from the communities they serve. They build bridges between Appalachian culture and urban culture, especially after several super-max prisons were built outside of town and they realized that the largely black, urban population imported from places like Connecticut were able to receive the signal from their radio station. They responded by creating radio broadcasts just for that population, one that at first caused anger among the Whiteburg population, and soon led to greater understanding and sympathy for the inmates. You can read about this at http://thousandkites.org.

This is a very specific example of how there might be circulation between town and artist. Appalshop is not always looked at kindly by some of the town's citizens -- sometimes they don't like what they say or do -- but they support them nonetheless, and the artists value their interaction. The artists sometimes provoke them, and sometimes they tell their stories, and sometimes they celebrate with them (for instance, the Cumberland Festival).

You can read more about Appalshop here and here.

28 comments:

Sarah McL said...

Hytner may have missed the mark with his comments about Mozart and Shakespeare, but don't forget he's the guy who pioneered the 10-pound ticket. He's kind of my hero. Loud, brash, kind of incendiary, a little crazy, sometimes dead-wrong, totally visionary... um, are you listening, Dr. Professor?

Don Hall said...

Scott -

Doesn't this example contradict much of your model given that most of it's dough comes from the NEA? Serious question.

The Director said...

Scott- Neato. Thanks :)

Don-
I don't really think there's anything inherently wrong with receiving money from the NEA. After all, that's one of the major reasons NEA exists in the first place. I do think it is wise to avoid becoming dependent on the NEA for survival though. I don't trust the government with my money, much less my livelihood.

-brian

nick@ said...

Any ensemble doing any kind of work, that had an $1.5 million yearly budget from an endowment (or other variations of rich parents with deep pockets) funding their work, could also do theatre in the hills of Kentucky.

Finding willing contributers to bring ministry to "those in need" is the same model that many churches use. Appalshop does good work, so do many churches, but the real need or want in the actual"community" here is not for Jesus or theatre.

Scott Walters said...

Don asked: "Doesn't this example contradict much of your model given that most of it's dough comes from the NEA? Serious question."

Yes, it does for the most part. I used Appalshop primarily as an example of an artist in the community. If I could just point at an existing theatre that had everything in my model, I wouldn't need to make it up! All I can do is say "here's part of it over here, and here's part of it over there -- and if you bring it all together, it will work really good." So this is the dialogue part.

Nick: Roadside and Appalshop began with nothing, and performed in tents. I don't know where the endowment came from, especially given the economic level of the community, but they were extremely intelligent -- the bought their own building and renovated it, which helps a great deal, and they invested the money. If you look at the 990, most of the endowment is restricted, meaning that the person who contributed did so while limiting what the money can be used for. And for the record -- that isn't government money, which is a separate line item. So, Nick, you can diminish the accomplishment in an attempt to prove that such theatres are impossible, but Appalshop stands as a monument as far as I'm concerned.

Scott Walters said...

Oh, Don -- most of the money doesn't come from the NEA -- government funding is a relatively small part of their budget.

nick@ said...

Scott,

I never diminished Roadside's accomplishment (or grace) at finding an angel to endow them. I merely was pointing out that only a minuscule amount of their income comes from the audience or community they serve. This is more the soup kitchen model for bringing theatre to a community than the Independence, MO model you proposed. Your model is an abstraction, realistically impossible. Broadway is financially possible. Vegas is financially possible. Disneyland is financially possible. Dollywood, NASCAR, and Toad Suck Daze are financially possible.

http://www.toadsuck.org/

Independent Theatre in Independence, MO is financially possible only with an endowment from angels. My experience with rat theatres is that most often the primary angels of this endowment are the artists and their day jobs. And this rat theatre model, not the regional theatre model, is producing most of the quality and seminal theatre in this country.

Scott Walters said...

Flying is impossible; electricity is impossible; heart transplants are impossible... I don't want to be too flip, Nick, but everything is impossible until somebody figures out how to make it work. Right now, I am not willing to throw in the towel.

I also have nothing against angels, but I believe angels have a tendency to materialize around strong purposes that reach beyond the individual, not self-serving ones.

NGale said...

Nick, I agree, "My experience with rat theatres is that most often the primary angels of this endowment are the artists and their day jobs." However, I have to side with Scott on impossible possibly being too strong of a word.

Scott, don't throw in the towel, but do give us a bone. This is a lot of discussion, akin to "wouldn't it be cool if..." stargazing. Where's the practical, down-to-earth, this is how the dream will work stuff? Or is that still in the development phase?

Scott Walters said...

Ngale -- It is in the development stage, although you may find some bones by going to the Tribe Resource site and reading the New Business Model posts.

I am also in the midst of writing a book developing the model, and exploring a couple pretty exciting partnerships that I can't really discuss at this point.

Are there any existing models? I suspect the closest are members of the Network of Theatre Ensembles. I am still investigating. That said, most NET theatres are in metropolitan areas. Whether or not NET theatres provide practices that can be adopted or adapted is part of the ongoing research.

My feeling is that there are a lot more examples of these sorts of theatres "out there," and that they suffer from what most small theatres suffer from no matter where they are: lack of documentation. The media doesn't cover them, the artists themselves are over-committed to just getting the shows up and running, and so successes and nest practices never make it out into the broader field. To me, that is what I and other academics can do. We can document and synthesize best practices, and disseminate them to the field and to the educational realm. In my opinion, the most effective way to create a change in the national theatre scene may be by focusing on the undergraduate (and maybe graduate) education scene, so that young artists become less fixated on the current model and see that they have many options.

Anonymous said...

So, question... if Applashop was able to do what it does without major funding infusion from NEA or an "angel" ...and financially support the artistic participants without the philantrophy of an angel, govt, etc.

Then it would fit the model, you are aiming at?

An company that expresses itself in the way Applashop does is a wonderful entity, it sounds like it does a great job of fusing civic activism with artistic expression...non the sum total of artistic aspiration, but always inspiring and welcome.

But, I'm alittle confused about differentiating the follow elements and how they meld with what we are discussing

1) Artistic Intent
2) Financial Accountability
3) Location

If there were an org that accomplished similar sorts of creative activism like Teatro Luna in CHI any less noble or relevent to the question of how well a wonderful org like Applashop interfaces with our discussions?

I need some clarity

-dv

Tony Adams said...

Wow late to the party, stupid tech . . . :)

Scott, here's something I'm not getting. On one had you're saying artists should not have to move to the big city. You're also fighting for artists being a part of their community. How does that jive with the non-artists who flock to the major cities?

How much of the nylachidicsealanta is any different than any other field? Are artists driven to major cities, or are they following the natural (under our current societal tendencies) gravitation towards urban areas, especially for young people?

I'd also ask dv's question about Luna or The Albany Park Theatre Project that do much of what you're proposing, only in a different locale than you'd prefer, but he already did.

Scott Walters said...

dv and Tony -- I would have nothing against something like Teatro Luna in Chicago, just like I have nothing against, say, Cornerstone in LA, for instance. The more theatres trying out an alternate structure and approach the better. That said, decentralization and geographic diversity is very important to me, so it wouldn't be enough. If Teatro Luna were part of a larger network of theatre scattered across the US and serving a variety of underserved populations, then I am tickled pink; if it is a part of a larger network of theatres scattered throughout Nylachi...not so much. It is very important to me that theatre be more widely distributed.

Tony -- Yes, what is called the "rural brain drain" is very real. The question I ask is whether it is a "good thing." See, I have a very normative mind -- just because something exists doesn't necessarily mean it ought to be supported or even accepted. We need our small towns and communities to have a variety of people in them, and that means providing a reason for them to stay. Unlike in the past, many of the benefits of mass communication distributes entertainment evenly across the country. If I live in Whitesburg KY, I can get Netflix delivered to my door as quickly as if I were in New York. And cable, and high speed internet, and books from Amazon, and music from iTunes. So a vibrant local arts scene might be attractive -- you could live in a place with natural beauty and good schools AND have the benefits of some professional artists. The opposite trend of the brain drain is also happening: older people, from family age to retirement age, are coming back to the smaller towns to raise families or retire. Again, what differentiates one community from another might be an arts scene.

Anonymous said...

So aside from all the trees and green grass what differences are their between KY and NY?

Is it merely a matter of misrepresentation and/or under representation among all cable and T1 lines?

It is interesting to me, if I were say a alt-country/americana enuthsist I would not feel out of touch at all in many small southern midwestern towns (ignoring any genre stereotpyes involved)...so why do I as a theatre folk still feel that...

Is it a difference between one medium and another merely?

Maybe lovers of No Depression Genre wouldnt agree with me about feeling no lack of resource and connection to the music scene...

Is it a red/blue state thing as many of us fear?

What is the determining factor to generalized brain drain as opposed to or to total conjunction to dreamfilled thespian/dramatist brain drain?

Do we get more options and possiblities if we look at this not as a theatre problem but as a regional cultural multidisciplinary and economic issue issue?

i.e. is it any easier to keep non theater folk from draining then theater folk and is that a useful question?

-dv

Anonymous said...

i.e. do we tell Hilary...I dont care if you carry 11 big states...the other 39err37? are just as relevant...especially when they aggregate?

Scott Walters said...

dv -- Let me ask you a question: where was the biggest crowd that Garth Brooks, surely the king of alt/country americana music, played for? Oh, yeah! New York City in Central Park! While it may be that your friends don't particularly appreciate that music, don't be so ready to generalize about aesthetic preferences.

And I'm not certain why, as a theatre person, you don't feel comfortable in many small midwestern towns, but I wouldn't necessarily lay it at the doorstep of the locals. You may feel uncomfortable because you are dressed differently or talk differently than they do. Well, welcome to the real world. When I, as a 19-year-old Wisconsin boy arrived in New York City to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, I felt uncomfortable because I wasn't wearing black and I had a "Wisconsin accent." Yes, there are differences in behavior and styles of social interaction in different parts of the country, but so often big city people think that their way of doing it is right and everybody else is wrong and "backward." Tolerance, which is supposed to be a high value for big city people, somehow doesn't extend to geographical differences.

As far as the brain drain question, I don't see that turning it into a macro question is particularly helpful. We all need to dig in our little patch of earth, and mine is the theatre. I'll leave the larger issue to Alvin Toffler.

And yes, we do tell Hilary that we don;t care about her fucking 11 big states, as if big states are somehow more important than little states. Those issues were hashed out by the Founding Fathers many years ago, which is why we have the electoral college, and two legislative branches. So she needs to get over it.

Anonymous said...

OMG Scott!!!!

"dv -- Let me ask you a question: where was the biggest crowd that Garth Brooks, surely the king of alt/country americana music, played for? Oh, yeah! New York City in Central Park! While it may be that your friends don't particularly appreciate that music, don't be so ready to generalize about aesthetic preferences.

And I'm not certain why, as a theatre person, you don't feel comfortable in many small midwestern towns, but I wouldn't necessarily lay it at the doorstep of the locals. You may feel uncomfortable because you are dressed differently or talk differently than they do. Well, welcome to the real world. When I, as a 19-year-old Wisconsin boy arrived in New York City to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, I felt uncomfortable because I wasn't wearing black and I had a "Wisconsin accent." Yes, there are differences in behavior and styles of social interaction in different parts of the country, but so often big city people think that their way of doing it is right and everybody else is wrong and "backward." Tolerance, which is supposed to be a high value for big city people, somehow doesn't extend to geographical differences.
"

First, I am not attempting to category midwesterns as the alt-country type...I agree that alt-country is embraced everywhere...that is my point...my point is that if you go to blogs like 9bullets and southern shether and captain's dead (like I do) you'll find ahost of mp3 and articles showing that I dont have to live in Chicago or NYC or LA to see and hear artists like the Drive By Truckers, Neko Case, and Jon Langford (Garth Brooks? Garth Brooks? Pleazzzze.

My drive was to say that their seems to be a network that gets these musicians to ever big and little town there is. Almost like the vaudeville of yestercentury...

And so please remembering that I spent more years living off dirt roads then paved ones, dont tell me how I get nervous around non-city folk...Scott it is beneath you...really...I do get to scold you on that one bub.

What I get nervous around is the notion that I cant see and participate in the kinds of artistic experiences I value because of the brain drain of which you speak...that if I'm into say Elizabeth Lecompte, or Richard schnecher, that I have to either get to the college town or the NYLACHI that for lack of a better term all ships sink in a receding tide...that tide being the brain drain.

When it comes to the quality of people and social interaction I actually feel as comfort talking to a gentleman from Mississippi as I do a gentleman from NYC. I remember my first visit to NYC too after having spent the first 25 years of my life in Florida and Georgia...(I thought everybody was trying to either steal my wallet or my testicles...about a week later I got over it.)

-dv

NGale said...

"What I get nervous around is the notion that I cant see and participate in the kinds of artistic experiences I value because of the brain drain of which you speak..."

I sorta agree, DV, but I think it's more of the fact that if you want it, you'll need to create it yourself. I'm not sure if this is due to brain-drain or just symptomatic of small-town America... Regardless, the infrastructure for this type of expression seems to be generally lacking. Even if theatre artists were able to tag along on the musicians' vaudevillian network, there wouldn't necessarily be any welcoming committee for them.

The idea of decentralization may create the missing welcome wagon, but it's going to have to be constructed from the ground-up, beginning with perception and attitudes of both small town America and NYLACHI. Something that troubles me with the proposal is that I think the mental attitudes need to shift prior to the practical setup...

Scott Walters said...

dv --

OMG!!!!

"What I get nervous around is the notion that I cant see and participate in the kinds of artistic experiences I value because of the brain drain of which you speak...that if I'm into say Elizabeth Lecompte, or Richard schnecher, that I have to either get to the college town or the NYLACHI that for lack of a better term all ships sink in a receding tide...that tide being the brain drain."

You don't "get to"??? You "have to"??? There are no jack-booted theatre tribe thugs forcing anyone to do anything. As I have said over and over: you can live anywhere you want and do whatever kind of theatre you want -- that's between you and your audience. The important thing is that you have an option. Now, you could protest, we always have that option, and that's true. But what is also needed is a role model, an inspiration, that can counter the Nylachi story and give validity to the non-Nylachi choice.

Anonymous said...

no jackbooted thugs...no

What kinda boots do you wear?

Aren't you parsing my words here a bit too much...get to... have to...the same in which as a Floridian...I can got anywhere to study architecture...UF has a more renown respected program...FSU was the arty school (party school too by the way)...

I agree an option in either arena would be great but the option wasnt there even at FSU the college town. If the option had been there yes...I might have stayed...

I'm still waiting for my apology about you telling me a fear "country folk" ;)

..
..
..
crickets?

seriously though...you dont have to defend midwestern musical tastes but maybe the attitudes and networks of enabling for many musicians might be a possible key to altering attitudes about the possiblities and options available to potential non NYLACHI dramatists in these locals.

-dv

Anonymous said...

"telling me a fear "country folk" ;)
"

I fear...

what is weird is the key for I is no where near the key for A...maybe I do have a (gulp) condition

nick@ said...

Scott said:
“I believe angels have a tendency to materialize around strong purposes that reach beyond the individual, not self-serving ones.”

Do you also believe that Santa Claus knows whether you’ve been naughty or nice?

The Roundabout Theatre produces mostly Broadway fare. Artistic Director Tom Hames' salary is $672,000. Gifts, grants, and contributions received by this non-profit theatre are on average about $13 million a year. That’s a lot of angels materializing. Is that what you consider selfless theatre with a strong purpose?

Scott, I’m not suggesting that you throw in the towel, just differentiate between abstraction and reality. The NET ensembles’ 990’s are available for scrutiny. Point to the real company with a financial structure resembling your Independence Missouri theatre company, or allow your tribe model to be the abstraction, theory, myth, or utopian projection that it more likely is.

Scott Walters said...

Nick -- You have a very strange theory of creation. Point to something that already exists or admit it an "abstraction, theory, myth, or utopian projection." WTF? It is a "new model" -- does it work? I don't know! It might, but I don't know. So? That requires an admission? I've been saying that for months! What do you want, Nick? I mean, really.

nick@ said...

Scott,

You are supposedly answering Brian the Director's question in this post, not mine.

"can we talk a little less in abstract terms and a little more in concrete scenarios?"

You give Appalshop and Roadside Theatre as the example. Only 4% of its income is from box office. So I don't get what this has to do with your Independence model or anything else you have been proposing.

I'm just trying to keep you honest, trying to keep myself honest in exploring this issue. If this conversation self serving blah blah blah, most will need to move on.

Scott Walters said...

Nick -- I think I've indicated that there is no theatre to my knowledge that combines all the elements I have described. Some, like Appalshop, have pieces. The best I can do is point at the pieces, and then "theorize" that if they were put together X would happen.

Imagine this in the same way as writing a play. It is important that every action have roots in a recognizable reality, but the plot needs to be new. Same here.

nick@ said...

Everyone in the conversation works in alternative independent theatre. All are already working under models that have pieces of what you are proposing. All in the conversation are struggling with competing notions of mission, audience, aesthetics, funding, and community. But you chose Roadside as example and blanket dismiss those in the conversation with you as Nylachi.

Why Roadside then? Spell it out.

Roadside’s mission is wholly altruistic, theatre that has replaced its aesthetic with an ethic. Nylachi’s mission is wholly selfish, theatre that has replaced its ethic with an aesthetic.

Roadside is work; Nylachi is plaything.

Angels financially endow Roadside; evil rich bastards (and the NEA) fund Nylachi.

You mention that there are many Nylachi theatres in the Network of Ensemble Theatres. That’s because there are no sainted models of ensemble. Roadside Theatre, Dell Arte, and Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble are struggling with competing notions of mission, audience, aesthetics, funding, and community just as much as the ensembles in large cities are. All are looking for the answers by looking at one another.

Scott, you need the us/them for the sake of your abstraction and argument. In reality it doesn’t exist.

Scott Walters said...

Nick, you are eliding different issues.

One issue is decentralization: that there are too many theatres and theatre artists in a few places, and not enough elsewhere; that even places that are in other places too often import their artistic staff from NY. That's one issue.

Another issue is the relationship between artist and audience. Does the artist know his or her audience? Does the audience know him or her? Does the art partake of that mutual knowledge? This is the issue I use Roadside to illustrate, because their commitment to the dialogue is explicit, which makes it easier to grasp. But there is nothing Roadside is doing that couldn't or perhaps isn't being done by Nylachi ensembles. The challenge is identifying a community and being a member of it, rather than simply addressing the millions and hoping 50 show up. But no us/them conflict.

Another issue is business model. Again, there are many Nylachi ensembles that have business models that can help inform and define the tribe model. No us/them conflict.

The Nylachi us/them is solely about decentralization. And that is not an abstraction: your theatre is either in Nylachi, or it isn't. And as I have regularly said, if you are ion Nylachi, that's great and you go. But why, given the current situation, would anyone in Nylachi argue against someone like me who might help keep people from joining that particular crush?

___________________ said...

As an artist at Appalshop I just want to be clear that most of our funding does not come from the NEA. There might have been a time when federal sources had that sort of impact, but it has not been true for many, many years.

Appalshop's endowment comes from thousand of small donations from folks across the country, with some anchor support from foundations for various campaigns. The earnings from the endowment equal around six percent of the annual 2.0 mil. operating budget and mostly act as seed money for artistic projects from all divisions (theater, film, radio, and education) to get kick started. Our funding comes from an innovative web of private, government, earned income, contract, donor, and other forms of sales. Many times it comes from developing partnerships with other non-profits or agencies addressing pressing socials issues—who don’t have a mission of supporting arts, but see how our work can be strategic to their social, economic, cultural, or political goals. We also do yard sales!

I would say our best resource is the social capital of the folks who work here and are invested in making art happen here and beyond.

-nick szuberla