Monday, August 25, 2008

Mike Lawler: On Travel

Mike Lawler over at EcoTheater has an interesting post entitled "Lost Plane: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles" about the ethics of traveling and how it relates to the migrant artistic lifetsyle prominent within the regional theatre scene. He includes an email discuss with sound designer Lindsay Jones, who says that he logs between 150,000 and 200,000 miles a year doing dound gigs around the country. Jones writes: "“I don’t think I’d be able to continue my career as a freelance theatrical designer if I just worked in Los Angeles." Asked by Lawler about "localizing and supporting the theater in L.A. — or wherever theater artists may live," Jones replies, “There are hundreds of theatre companies in Los Angeles, that’s not the problem. It’s that quite a few of them do not pay anything close to a living wage, and have very primitive working conditions from a technical standpoint. To a lot of people in L.A. theatre is just something you do until you get a job in TV.”

There's a piece missing here -- or rather, an underlying assumption that needs to be brought up to the surface for examination, and it is located in Jones' first sentence. Lindsay Jones wants to make his living as a specialist -- a sound designer. So his analysis is probably correct, at least to some extent, given his assumptions. I would assert, however, that such specialization is not desirable for the regional theatre. I don't think that regional theatres can afford to have people around who do only one thing, whether that one thing is act, direct, design, or market. While a specialist is likely to have more skills than a non-specialist by virtue of focusing solely on one thing, such "narrow-casting" simply assures that a migrant life is necessary. If I am operating a regional theatre tribe, I am willing to trade that extra bit virtuosity that a specialist brings for a multi-disciplined artist who will maintain an ongoing relationship with the company and with the audience.

I know that goes against our national values, which puts the specialist ahead of the generalist. I would argue that, given the economics of theatre, the generalist is vastly more valuable than the specialist, and that theatre history bears this out. Moliere was a great playwright AND the leading actor for his company AND the head of the company. Shakespeare was a great playwright AND and actor in his company AND one of the owners of the company. The specialist is a symptom of our industrial approach to the creation of theatre art, a model that is fast becoming economical unworkable.
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3 comments:

ian mackenzie said...

". . . given the economics of theatre, the generalist is vastly more valuable than the specialist . . ."

Hi Scott,

The theatre community I see outside my door is full of generalists – people who are actors and directors and writers and producers and poster designers and and and and and.

You're right: North American economic values privilege the specialist. So why do theatre practitioners consistently think they can build from a business model that ignores this fact?

Any successful new theatre production paradigm is going to have start from a place that recognizes and, to some degree, rewards the theatre specialist. What I'm seeing is an industry (theatre) that consistently ignores the specialist, to its extreme detriment.

Short of a full-scale revolution – which I think is unlikely to happen soon – the system must change from within.

Scott Walters said...

Ian -- I don't think we do ignore the specialist. The generalist you are mentioning tends, in my experience, to exist within the fringe theatres that don't pay a livable wage, but once you "move up," the specialist is the default. The set designer at the Guthrie doesn't also write grants, for instance, you have a staff person who specializes in that. The Broadway actor doesn't get involved in creating ads. In fact, the unions pervent such interdisciplinary excursions -- actors are prohibited from helping move the scenery for a Broadway production, for instance, or even in most Equity productions.

ian mackenzie said...

Point taken. But I don't live in that world. The most accomplished theatre artists that I revere, such as Daniel MacIvor, aren't working full time in theatres. They're freelancing. So you're right – we're talking about two different models. I don't recognize the big houses, such as CanStage (or Stratford, or Shaw), as the penultimate institutions of the theatre industry.

Broadway and Stratford can commercialize and specialize themselves into oblivion for all I care. It would probably be a good thing. But my local theatre lacks specialists. And the only way we're going to start paying each other living wages in by bringing in some specialists to help us build proper businesses.

I guess my bias is that I pretty much hate most theatre I've ever seen in a big house. I think it's an entirely different form than the "fringe" theatre I know and love. I guess the two forms have different problems.