Monday, July 21, 2008

The Artistic Home: How Long, Oh How Long?

Last night, I skimmed TCG's 1988 publication The Artistic Home: Discussions with Artistic Directors of America's Institutional Theatres, at the suggestion of Tony Adams who wrote in his recent post "Artists as Administrators" that "Reading it it sounds like a time warp. Little has changed." That's for sure. Particularly disappointing is the chapter entitled "Thinking Beyond Four Walls: The Individual Artist as a National Priority." There's a great title, right?  Here are a few subtitles:

1. Artistic directors are concerned with keeping artists in the theatre; they need to constantly renew their commitment to making their theatres homes for artists.
2. Theatres and artists alike need to find creative ways to address the chronic undercompensation in the field.
3. Theatres need to build better long-term relationships with artists and find ways of integrati9ng them into the ongoign life of institutions.
4. There is a need to invest in the future of the art form and the profession by taking responsibility for the training of and access for future artists and nontraditional artists, including minority and women artists.

Sound familiar? So why, in twenty years, has so little happened in this regard? Here were the assembled leaders of America's regional theatres -- what many would regard as the most powerful people in the non-profit theatre world -- and yet, do we see any progress? It leads me to wonder about leadership in this so-called "industry" -- should TCG have taken this report as its priorities following this gathering? Is publishing a book enough? Is there another group who should be taking leadership roles? Because we all know what happened after this assembly, right? The same thing that happens after most conferences: we all return to our normal context, and we might be a little inspired for a while, but very quickly we are sucked back into the day-to-day struggles of life and we lose sight of what was inspiring and we just keep keeping on. So how do we stay focused? How do we enact change?

As I dipped in here and there in the book, and also looked at the appendix where there were "highlights" from the various topics, it occurred to me that the book is almost totally concerned with problems. The group will acknowledge that doing X is something that would benefit the theatre, then what follows are the reasons that get in the way of X, and few but the most minor suggestions are offered. Here's one designed to address #1 above: "Providing convenient and attractive housing for guest artists, equipped with fu8rniture, telephones, television, even fresh flowers." And another: "Actively welcoming artists into the theatre community by greeting them at train stations or airports, organizing group parties, hiring company managers sympathetic to the needs of artists, and encouraging volunteer groups to create their own methods for making guest artists feel at home." These represent 2/3 of the "highlights" for that particular problem!

The highlights of #2 read like the table of contents for recent blog discussions: "Artists express deep frustration at not being able to make a living or maintain a life while doing the work they love in the theatre;" "Artists increasingly view theatre as a young person's profession; for people under 40 whose financial responsibilities are modest;" "theatres are troubled by thge difficulty of getting and keeping commitments from actors;" "geography and distance work against theatres located away from the commercial production centers where actors feel they need to be based to have access to other work;" "the disintegration of the resident acting ensemble of the '60s and '70s may have reinforced a feeling of insecurity on the part of actors entering the profession;" "while a growing number of artistic directors are attracted to the goal of creating resident companies, most agree that the current economics of theatre conspire against permanent ensembles of sufficient size."

Some of the solutions they propose: "employing more artists...on a year-round basis..." "setting the goal of raising fees for guest artists..." "exploring new incentives for artists to choose work in theatre over higher paying work in film and television, such as establishing and maintaining exciting collaborations among artists;" "taking collective action whereby a group of theatres pool resources to support a writer, director, or designer on a year-round salaried basis" (notice the absence of actors in that list); "creating new structures for larger, looser networks of artists than are currently identified as 'ensembles'..." "reevaluating compensating arrangements for playwrights..." "encouraging larger institutions with more resources to increase salaries as much as possible in order to allow artists to also accept work at smaller theatres with fewer financial resources" (this one made me laugh); "seeking outside paid employment for actors -- commercial work, voice-overs, teaching, docent tours, advertising connections -- to supplement their salaries and connect them with the community..."

 Some of these ideas are more interesting than others, and most shift the responsibility to others. Which seems to be the major problem with this book. Instead of talking about what they could do as artistic directors, and accepting accountability for taking those actions, these artistic directors laid out the to-do list for everybody else in the organization -- primarily the trustees, because if there was only more money... (When I read discussions such as these, I am constantly reminded of D. H. Lawrence's short story "The Rocking-Horse Winner": "There must be more money. There MUST be more money."

It is a disappointing book for just that reason. There seems to be little acceptance of responsibility, little recognition of one's personal power, few examples of specific commitments. It was like a 17-day pity party: "Gee whiz, it sure would be better if we did a few of these things, but how can we do that and keep doing things exactly the way we've always done them?"

Mike Daisey has revived this conversation amongst the TCG artistic directors, who apparently circulated his Seattle essay amongst themselves and huffed and griped about it for quite some time. "Naive," they said; "just let him try to run a theatre sometime, then he'll see" they said. With absolutely not recognition that what he was saying is simply an echo of what they had said twenty years ago. In effect, he was asking them, "So, did you ever DO anything about these issues?" The answer, obviously, is mostly no. Rather, over the twenty years since The Artistic Home was published, what has happened, apparently, is that the AD's have decided these problems are intractable, and the best thing they can do is put a few fresh flowers in the guest artist's apartments and make sure they have cable TV.

It leads me to contemplate the Buckminster Fuller quotation that is written to the right of this post, and recognize why my efforts have been more focused on creating a new system instead of reforming the old. There just doesn't seem to be the will to change anywhere.
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pmull said...

You are so right. I'm afraid a new platform is needed. From technology to the labor force everything is shifting right now. Obviously, it has been for a while.

A traditional worker, from assembly line to accounting office, can't even depend on the old system. Why does the theatre keep trying to?

My dad worked for 30 years and retired. That's the old system. It would be foolish for me to rely on a pension or even social security as a safety net for my future.

Why should the theatre expect someone else to build its support web? It is something we, the leadership, must do ourselves. We must provide fiscal and social value to the community instead in a tangible way instead of just expecting the community to foot our bill.

I'm headed to a conference in a few weeks where I'm sure some of this will be addressed.

Or not, I guess we'll see...

Scott Walters said...

That looks like an interesting conference. Would you be willing to do a summary for this blog? I would post it as a guest post.

silent nic@knight said...

Mike Daisey has revived this conversation amongst the TCG artistic directors, who apparently circulated his Seattle essay amongst themselves and huffed and griped about it for quite some time. "Naive," they said; "just let him try to run a theatre sometime, then he'll see" they said.

Scott, from what source did you quote that absurd piece of apocrypha? Or did you invent it yourself? The suggestion is that artistic directors are functioning as some species of evil cabal, conspiring against dissenters to system.

Your crude need to find a scapegoat for the failure of these non-profit corporations is unhelpful. Artistic directors of these regional theatres serve the whim of the board of directors that hires them. Any serious search for the “axis of evil” to scapegoat in the system would first examine this board and its relationship to donors and sponsors. Money comes with strings attached. And theatre as a business is not some graced enterprise exempt from such trappings. Big buildings are built because big money prefers that instead of artistic content. And actors “with a name” are hired over local actors because we live in a celebrity culture that values such star power.

In Mike’s monologue he refers to his relationship with the cynical artistic director who hired him not for his artistic value, but for how he served the bottom line of his theatre’s budget and its subscription audience. As Mike explains, he is a friend with this AD, not his enemy. The best either can do within the failed system is to be honest and upfront with one another.

So you are right when you say, “there just doesn't seem to be the will to change anywhere.” Mike Daisey and many other artists beyond just artistic directors are directing their work and careers to accommodate this system.

Scott Walters said...

nic -- I got that "absurd piece of apocrypha" from speaking to several Artistic Directors who are on that listserv, as well as a TCG rep.

And my experience of serving on a board is that, far from being the dominators you describe, board members are perfectly content to trust the artistic director's ideas for the most part. Yes, they will ask how much something costs, which is part of their function, and that may affect their willingness to go along. However, the issues are presented by the ADs.

The point of this post, Nic, is that we all -- AD's included -- need to become accountable for the effects of our actions. The AD's have power, but like you their tendency is to want to blame other people or "the system" for choices they are making. This book has a lot of "other-blame" in it -- excuses as to why something "can't" be done.

And I don't accept your pessimistic assessment about our options.

silent nic@knight said...

I have no pessimism. I have been active in attempting to both promote and expand regional alternative theatre my whole career. And I never said artistic directors are not responsible. I just do not see them personally more culpable than the many other artists who attempt to build their careers partially or wholly within that system. That group includes Mike Daisey and most other playwrights, directors, and actors working in this country, including many of my collaborating peers. And unlike his essay, I think Mike was saying exactly the same thing in his monologue. Explain to me otherwise why that cynical AD in his piece is his friend, not his enemy.

As far as your quote, what listserv of TCG artistic directors are you talking about? This functions as pure gossip unless the TCG rep or one of the listserv members publicly announces it. That's why I asked you for the source.

Scott Walters said...

nic -- "gossip" -- perhaps, or people speaking privately that I will not divulge. I believe Mike knows about this as well -- in fact, I suspect that is why he was asked by TCG to do his monologue at NPAC. Also, I believe you can find references to it in the newspaper articles about Daisey's show -- I believe, for instance, that Nicholas Martin specifically responds to the essay. Unless you think that the leader of the Huntington makes sure to read a Seattle weekly each week, he would have had his attention drawn to it from somewhere.

I don't believe anyone said AD's were "more culpable" than anyone else, except to say that those who have power are responsible for the way it is utilized. And if that's unfair, then I don't know if we can go any further.

silent nic@knight said...

Again, Scott, where exactly is this private listserv on which TCG artistic directors "huffed and griped" about the essay? Does TCG host such a listserv of AD's?

I have debated extensively on the dramaturg listserv about regional theatre referencing the Daisey essay. The dramaturg of the Huntington was an active member of that list then. So perhaps Nicholas Martin heard about the debate and essay through her. Whatever. Mike's essay was a big talking point all over the theatrosphere. Not necessary to have a subscription to the Seattle weekly, or be a member of a cabal of artistic directors, to have heard about it.

Scott Walters said...

See Jason Zinoman's NY Times article, which I wrote about. The comments I offered were made here by Nicholas Martin:

Relevant paragraphs:

"THE show inspired a fevered debate online as well as angry e-mail and conversations across the country among the major players of the American regional theater. And that was before most people had seen it."

"Mr. Martin said that he had not seen Mr. Daisey’s show, but that his agent had sent him an article written by Mr. Daisey that addressed some of its themes and he circulated it to other artistic directors. The response, he said, was mixed.

“I found some of his points very bracing, but the solutions were facile and often na├»ve,” Mr. Martin said. “My advice to Mike Daisey is, ‘Go run a theater and get back to me.’ ”

silent nic@knight said...

Yes, your theory of conspiring cabal makes more sense with evidence presented in the article. There is no private listserv where artistic directors huffed and griped amongst themselves but there is that shadowy character called the “agent” who first informed Nicholas Martin of the existence of the essay.

I remember reading this article at time and marveling at its willful disregard of the nature of Daisey’s performance, instead centering again on the controversy instigated by the essay. The show had opened at Joe’s Pub in New York by then and was already being reviewed. This excerpt from Variety accurately reflects the consensus among most reviews about the character of rhe performance.

“Daisey insists nonprofit theaters are not just faceless institutions but collections of human beings with universal problems….. he's not a fire-and-brimstone preacher, and he's not out to shame some hazy group of donors and artistic staffers. Daisey's piece is effective because it acknowledges that most theater professionals are trying to do what's right.”

Of course this is a characterization, which would be the polar opposite to one about the essay How Theater Saved America. This statement in the article is deceiving in the same way that Mike’s deliberate conflation of his essay and performance was deceiving.

"THE show inspired a fevered debate online as well as angry e-mail and conversations across the country among the major players of the American regional theater. And that was before most people had seen it."

It was the essay that inspired the debate, not the show. More importantly for Daisey, the essay served as element of his PR, as fodder, as "the hook," for feature articles such as this one in The Times.

Scott Walters said...

I'm not going to argue with you about whether Mike's article was self-serving and a PR device. He raised the issues in a way that prompted discussion, which is better than most can say. Yes, the show and the essay are different -- they are different genres, and thus have different emphases. They also come at different points in his development process. So? The point is that the AD's DID circulate the article, and several were quoted huffing and puffing in exactly the way I summarized -- in fact, I used almost direct quotations. Nobody said anything about a "cabal," and I resent you twisting my words to imply I am suggesting a conspiracy.

silent nic@knight said...

I exaggerated your exaggeration on the culpability and power of artistic directors within the system to make my point not to earn your resentment. Too bad you judge me as having the malevolence of a troll instead of someone trying to rescue the debate from simplistic Us/Them characterizations.

As for Mike Daisey and his PR, I am examining and critiquing it as part of a larger phenomenon. I find him a very representative example of an artist working within the new paradigm of FaceBook Nation. Old school, we wore our hype as costume and character in which we performed. New school, the hype is worn more as indelible tattoo. Old school, we never believed our own hype. New school, we can’t jump out of our own skin.

Scott Walters said...

I'm real old school -- you walk your values and there's no such thing as hype -- hype is what other people do with your walk. Perhaps my problem is that I believe everybody does the same thing.

I don't think pointing out an issue creates an Us/Them, it creates a point of discussion. It's possible to talk about one thing without talking about the whole damn thing. AD's are part of the problem, not the whole problem. Anyone who thinks that this is all about AD's has missed the point, but anyone who holds AD's as blameless victims has also missed the point. To my mind, we all should take responsibility for our actions, and be held responsible for them. "The Artistic Home" had an awful lot of buck-passing, and not much accountability. And that's why nothing changed as a result of their meeting.

silent nic@knight said...

I walk my values as well but I don't tend to get all puffy about it because I know that my values are the result of a lifetime of compromise to various systems that accommodate my preferred lifestyle.

All my theatre peers who have found the financial security they needed by teaching in universities have bemoaned the politics of the institution and the compromises it necessitated. They all claim they are working to change the system from the inside. But point of fact, they all are that system with the values that supports their tenured lifestyles. I do not begrudge their choices but they have no right to preach to me about what I need to do to accommodate my lifestyle.

Yeah, I have to continually sell myself, my abilities, and my theatre. I have to continually hype my product to a competitive market, whether that market context is my current day job or seeking funding or audience for my current theatre project.

There is a gulf between "what is" and "what ought to be" in all our lives. Scott, you often come from a holier-than-thou position in your arguments, as you do here scapegoating artistic directors.

There are no real perps or victims in this failed regional system among artists. Mike Daisey and his cynical AD friend can cry in each other's beer about the failed system but it's the system that buys them the beer.

Scott Walters said...

I am so baffled by the need to turn everything into personal choices, as if the system doesn't exist, and the context has no influence. The lack of a commitment to justice for everyone, and not just coming to terms with one's own choices, has value on a personal level but leaves the system in place. If such an orientation makes me holier-than-thou, then I guess I stand convicted. I can't simply confine myself to "I got mine, and I have made things work for me." I need to make a contribution. Nobody is accusing the AD's of being the sole perpetrators of what is wrong with the regional theatres, but I don't think it is right to absolve them, either. We need to identify how we all contribute to a system that is not good for the development of the art or the artists.

silent nic@knight said...

You said: "We need to identify how we all contribute to a system that is not good for the development of the art or the artists."

You are not holier-than-thou when you criticize the failed university training of artists. And you are also not naive about how much one teacher can actually accomplish in changing the system.

Your preaching to AD's is not based in any real knowledge of the regional theatre system. You have read some books and some history, but these AD's have lived the history and its politics. They know what is to be able to make a career there. They all made certain compromises to their "values", the same you did in becoming a tenured professor, the same as all of us have done to live in the world and system "as it is."

I would never think myself qualified to preach to professors or artistic directors on how to fix their failed systems. I would not consider that a valid contribution on my part.

Scott Walters said...

Well, I think you ARE qualified to discuss the educational system -- that is one of the ways things change. Being in a system can blind you to problems that are obvious to those outside the system. In fact, the way drama departments are structured today, with the almost single-minded focus on training over education, is the result of members of the regional theatre community telling the educators what was needed for the new regional theatre era.

The ability to look at history and draw conclusions from it is a basic skill that comes with education. We can look back at other models that worked and wonder why they couldn't work now; we can look back at past models that didn't work and wonder whether the issues could have been avoided, and speculate on what might have been. And you can look at the words of founding pioneers and understand where we were, and how we changed, and discuss whether we feel the change was for the better. Sure, there are pressures and circumstances at the micro-level that we can't understand, but that doesn't negate that fact that we can examine what happened, and more importantly decide whether where we are is where we want to go. To abrogate responsibility to others is to fail to be accountable for our own circle of influence and concern.