Friday, January 18, 2008

On Proust, Dopamine, and New Plays

I've been listening (in audiobook format) with great fascination to Jonah Lehrer's Proust Was a Neuroscientist. In chapters that look at Walt Whitman, George Eliot, cook Auguste Escoffier, Marcel Proust, Paul Cezanne, Igor Stravinksy, Gertrude Stein, and Virginia Woolf, Lehrer, who "used to work in a neuroscience lab" before deciding that he wasn't cut out for it, reveals how artistic experiments anticipated many of the discoveries of science in the succeeding decades. Each chapter of this book is a gem; I wish that I could create lectures as surprising and erudite as this book. I recommend it wholeheartedly.

The chapter on Stravinksy, and specifically his Rite of Spring that caused a riot at its first performance, got me thinking about our recent discussion of new plays, and of the recent WolfBrown report Assessing the Intrinsic Impacts of a Live Performance (h/t Andrew Taylor, The Artful Manager). You may remember that in a post I called "Trust," I put forward the idea that lacking an ongoing relationship of trust with the artists at a particular theatre (the actors or director, for instance), audiences will fall back to trust the known quantity of a classic playwright -- Shakespeare, for instance. And so there is a perception that audiences aren't interested in new plays, when in reality they just don't trust the artists enough to step out completely into the unknown. People will take a chance on a new Kevin Spacey film that might look a little "different," for instance, because they trust Spacey from past experience. But when you rotate actors and directors through a regional theatre at a dizzying clip, that sort of trust is missing. So: trust Shakespeare.

In the WolfBrown study, this ongoing relationship was called the "Context Index" -- "the amount of information and personal experience with the art and artist" that an audience member has. The Context Index was a "significant predictor for Captivation ["the degree to which an individual was engrossed and absorbed in the performance"], Intellectual Stimulation ["mental engagement, including both personal and social dimensions"], Emotional Resonance ["intensity of emotional response and degree of empathy with the performers"] and Spiritual Value ["transcendent, inspiring, or empowering experience"]. The level of satisfaction with a performance was correlated, among other things, to the level of Captivation.

So we are more likely to be satisfied by a performance, captivated by a performance, if we have prior information or personal experience with an art or artist. But here's the weird thing: The Acting Company's touring production of Macbeth was an outlier -- it didn't fit any of the categories to the extent that the WolfBrown folks had to drop it from the final results because it had so little impact on the audience. Here are some samples of how bad it got: the production "reported the lowest Captivation level (3% were 'completely absorbed')" whereas, by comparison, the Alvin Ailey Dance Troup scored 59% on "completely absorbed;" on Emotional Resonance the production of Macbeth scored the lowest rating of all: 6% experienced a "strong" emotional response; and it rated lowest of all on Spiritual Value as well.

Now, it is possible to just write this off to this production of Macbeth just being sort of crummy (although it got some good reviews). But as I listened to Proust Was a Neuroscientist, I got to thinking. Bear with me, because I am going to do some extensive quotations from the book having to do with neuroscience.

One of the central functions of the corticofugal network is what neuroscience calls egocentric selection. When a pattern of noises is heard repeatedly, the brain memorizes that pattern. Feedback from higher-up brain regions reorganizes the auditory cortex, which makes it easier to hear the pattern in the future. This learning is largely the handiwork of dopamine...But what orders the corticofugal feedback? Who is in charge of our sensations? The answer is experience. While human nature largely determines how we hear the notes, it is nurture that lets us hear the music. From the three-minute pop song to the five-hour Wagner opera, the creations of our culture teach us to expect certain musical patterns, which over time are wired into our brain."

So we hear something new, our brain organize it, and our brain releases dopamine, which "is the chemical source of our most intense emotions." In other words, to use WolfBrown language, something new leads to a high level of Captivation and Emotional Resonance, i.e., pleasure and satisfaction. So, Context gets us into the theatre and gives us a headstart on the patterns we might encounter, and then when we are surprised we get great pleasure from the dopamine release that occurs when we identify the new pattern.


So far, so good. This might help us understand the pleasure we get from seeing a new movie or listening to a new album by our favorite band. As long as the new patterns aren't too extreme and we can fit them into our existing patterns, the result is pleasure.

But there is a catch: it wears off. Lehrer writes: "With time, the musicians [who laughed at Stravinsky] came to understand Stravisnky's method. His creativity was seared into their brains as their dopamine neurons adjusted... What once seemed a void of noise became an expression of difficult magnificence. This is the corticofugal system at work. It takes a dissonant sound, a pattern we can't comprehend, and makes it comprehensible...And then it becomes beautiful." However, this system "can also limit our experiences," because it is a "positive-feedback loop". He goes on: "Over time...we become better able to hear those sounds we have heard before. This only encourages us to listen to the golden oldies we already know (since they sound better), and to ignore the difficult sounds that we don't know (since they sound harsh and noisy, and release unpleasant amounts of dopamine). We are built to abhor the uncertainty of newness."[Ital mine.]

"How do we escape this neurological trap?," Lehrer asks. Art. "The artist is engaged in a perpetual struggle against the positive-feedback loop of the brain, desperate to create an experience that no one has ever had before. And while the poet must struggle to invent a new metaphor and the novelist a new story, the composer must discover the undiscovered pattern, for the originality is the source of the emotion. If the art feels difficult, it is only because our neurons are stretching to understand it. The pain flows from the growth." [Ital mine]

Lehrer concludes -- and this is where my ears perked up and I connected to the audience reaction to Macbeth -- "This newness, however tortuous, is necessary. Positive-feedback loops...always devour themselves. Without artists like Stravinsky who compulsively make everything new, our sense of sound would become increasingly narrow. Music would lose its essential uncertainty. Dopamine would cease to flow. As a result, the feeling would be slowly drained out of the notes, and all we would be left with would be a shell of easy consonance, the polite drivel of perfectly predictable music." [Ital mine]

Or perfectly predictable plays. OUr regional theatre audiences, starved for the context that comes from an ongoing relationship with specific artists, are drawn to see Macbethor The Sound of Music because they trust them enough to bet their money. Once in the theatre, however, what they often find is so predictable that it isn't engaging, doesn't promote the release of the dopamine that leads to emotional resonance much less spiritual transcendence. The result: dissatisfaction. The surveys reflect a shrug. There was no excitement generated because no patterns were broken -- everything lived down to expectations.

When asked, the WolfBrown audience members said that, despite their tepid response, the experience was worthwhile. And while the researchers suggest further research into this, we recognize the spectators' response as one similar to someone who has just swallowed a big spoonful of nasty medicine: it didn't taste good, but I'm sure it was good for me. We taught them that one -- check out Danny Newman.

My point is that the only way, in my opinion, the theatre will revive in popularity is if we create greater captivity, emotional resonance, spiritual value. In short, we need more dopamine, and that means more NEW things, not more CLASSICS. Because let's face it, the buzz we get from seeing a "new interpretation" of a classic is pretty weak compared to discovering something new. But if we need Context to get us into the theatre in the first place, and we can't rely on an Old Name playwright, then we need to have an ongoing relationship with the artists to get them in the door. Once they're there, let the dopamine begin!

Love It!

Don Hall get's the celebrity treatment at Theatre is Territory, and he gives us a great example of why he is one of the most interesting theatre bloggers in the 'spere today. Not to be missed. A sample:

Broadway is a bloated, celebrity-driven whore overtaken by Disney and Sony. Somewhere along the line, the money-lenders realized that if you dressed up a high-concept turd with enough flash and dazzle, enough stage gimmickry and had a Hollywood star perform in it, they could make the fast turnaround buck. NYC has given birth to so many good things for American Theater but the good things are now being over-shadowed by the money-grubbing greed factories looking to shill the tourists. When the accountants become the producers and the artists, in a drive to create “mass art,” write plays that are increasingly less complex but highly entertaining, the art as a whole suffers.

The truly unfortunate thing is that it works and everybody wants to get some of that golden pie. So you get Cirque du Soliel in Vegas and Broadway in Chicago and the Guthrie “Megaplex.” The big glitzy horseshit that passes as theater in these monstrously large organizations obliterates the new and the original. When originality is stomped on and buried, the outlook gets pretty grim for all but the hacks responsible for “destination shows.”

You go, Don!

Thursday, January 17, 2008

You Want Some SLAW with That?

One of my more passionate and engaged commenters, ilannoyed (love the moniker, by the way -- do you know Don Hall?), wrote this in my comments box for my last post:

i don't think scott's idea is ridiculous - it's a really interesting idea. but HOW do you do it? let's talk about doing. has anyone heard or had ANY ideas on how we get to the DOING! also scott, you said if you don't ask the question who will and that those in the trenches have no time? believe me, they have the time, EVERY DAY before they leave for their waiter job or temp job or whatever soul sucking thing they have to do so they can do no pay shows for free to "pay their dues", they ask themselves these questions. and after the shows they do for little or no money they go to bars or coffee shops and discuss these things for hours. and alone at home they think, what should i do? go to grad school? move to LA and try to break into "show biz" and try to get paid? take another class? we all ask the question all the time - but we are searching for something we can actually DO.

This sentiment was seconded by several others: we all agree the system sucks -- now what? Can we do something more than bitch about it?

Yes, we can.

But let's make sure we keep in back of our minds that, while we may think the system sucks, there are still many who feel like Isaac's friend: "A friend of mine and I got coffee. She makes her living directing regionally, and a few years ago directed several shows in DC (which has a vibrant local theatre and acting scene). She said she really loved the city and the working environment down there and felt no attachment to New York. I asked her why she didn't move there. She said "the actors just aren't that good, I had to pull teeth to get theaters to agree to use New York actors because I didn't like most of the people I saw." For many theatre people, this sort of thinking makes sense. These are the people whose minds must be changed.

Since this is a Big Problem, obviously it can't all be addressed at once. But I will make an effort to focus on suggestions for action. Let's start with the issue that is described by Isaac's friend: out-of-town theatre artists being imported to a city that has a rich pool of local actors. Places like Chicago, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Seattle, Philadelphia, and DC. These are places that might have several large regional theatres in them who don't seem to have consistently committed to using local artists. What can be done?

First, I don't think we want to get shrill and aggressive -- we don't need to be perceived as another group of artists getting red in the face about funding. We get enough of that every time the NEA is up for refunding. No, let's use our sense of humor and irony, which is one of the strengths of theatre artists, and our ability to think symbolically, which is also a strength. I'm going to float one idea -- low cost, symbolic -- that might get the ball rolling on this issue. I welcome any suggestions for fine tuning, or additional actions. I want this to be a group process, because this is going to have to actually be done by someone other than me -- Asheville has problems different than this one.

  • The Goal: to increase the hiring of local talent by major regional theatres.
  • The Pay-Off: Increased employment for local artists, increased ticket sales for the major regional theatres.
  • The Justification: Audiences like to follow the development of local artists.

I am announcing the creation of a national organization devoted to this issue: Support Local Artists Working (yes, SLAW). I have built a basic website for this organization where supporters will (eventually) be able to find information about techniques for raising awareness about this issue, evidence that can be used in campaigns, and stories from places who have engaged this issue. Click on "Evidence" to read the story of Rob Kozlowski's wife, Jen!

Now, let's say you are an artist in, say, Minneapolis and the Guthrie Theatre seems oblivious to the fact that there are hundreds of great actors in the Twin Cities and has just recently brought in a 24-year-old NY actress to play Juliet. What can you do? Well, you could organize a boycott, where none of the Twin City theatre community attended the show, but that would be invisible, and not particularly effective. Plus, who wants to miss a good show?

What we want is a way not only for local artists but community members to express their interest in seeing local actors on the stage of the Guthrie. And we don't want to make this too much work for anyone. We don't want to ask people to write letters to the theatre or to the editor of their local paper. Only a few will, and it will be too easy to write those off as cranks. At the same time, we aren't looking to embarrass the Guthrie staff or force them into a corner. If something would be good for business, I suspect they will be happy to use it.

First, I think we should put together a flyer with basic information about the issue (we can use the website to develop this as a group). You then hand them out to audience members entering the theatre -- people like having something to read before the play starts, so make it brief, catchy, and friendly -- this isn't the time to go all Chicken Little on them. You could call the flyer "Wanna Little SLAW with That?" or something. Whatever. You're all funnier than I am, you think something up.

But here's where the easy symbolic act happens. You ask the audience members -- and you also spread the word to the rest of the local artists community, so that they have a way of supporting the cause while attending the show -- you ask the audience members to express their support for local artists by simply tearing one of the bio pages from the program and leave it on the floor of the aisle when they leave the show. Simple, easy to do, nobody has to make a spectacle of themselves or Take A Stand. Just tear out a page and leave it on the ground.

Call or write the theatre staff to let them know what this means, and also notify the press. All it will take is one article and awareness of the RIP movement will skyrocket, leading to more people tearing out a page from their programs. Then make yourself available to the regional theatre staff to discuss possibilities.

Will this work? Who knows. But it is a fast, cheap way to bring the issue out of the bars and coffee shops where theatre people hang out and into a venue where it might get some attention from people who can actually do something about it.

The website is there for brainstorming. If you have other ideas for addressing issues, add them to the "Techniques" page. Got some evidence? Click on "Evidence" and add it. Click "Edit" to make changes, and don't worry about screwing up: every previous page is saved automatically, so if we want we can revert to a previous version. The password is: local.

This is a babystep, but an attempt to go beyond simply pointing out the problems. Next week, I will be traveling to Los Angeles to attend a meeting of a group of theatres who are attempting to put into action some of the ideas that have been discussed on this blog. I'll report on their plans, too.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Population Density and the Theatre

Tony, over at Jay Raskolnikov -- Half Hillbilly, Demi-Culture, commented on my Google Map work showing the placement of regional theatres in the US: "Food for thought. Have you compared these maps to the general population density of the US? If memory serves me it looks pretty similar to the maps you've shown. So there may be more to it than it seems." He then provided a link to this map, which does bear a resemblance to the final map with all the theatres on it. I also went to Wikipedia to see what they had on population density in the US and they provided me with the following map, which also seemed to reinforce what I had found. There was California and Illinois and a bunch of the Northeast and Florida...

But then I started looking at the state-by-state breakdown and comparing states with lots to those with little. And sure enough: the bottom of the list looked like this:

42: Nebraska
43: Nevada
44: Idaho
45: New Mexico
46: South Dakota
47: North Dakota
48: Montana
49: Wyoming
50: Alaska

But then I looked a bit more. For instance, Oregon was #39, and they had quite a few theatres, and so did #38 Maine. But right above them were Colorado (37), Oklahoma (35), Arkansas (34), who were pretty theatre sparse... And then there was Minnesota, who wracked up a bunch of TCG theatres, at #31, and Missouri, who had one or two, at #27. And we won't even talk about North Carolina, which is #10 as far as population and #17 in population density, and Michigan (#8 in population and #15 in density), who had only a few theatres between them and both of whom got skunked in the NEA distribution. No, it made sense for a while, and then it started to dissolve once you got beyond the extremes.

Nevertheless, the question Slay raises is one that demands examination: why do we think that theatre is a high-density art form? Why have we conceived of it as existing primarily in urban areas? Before we reach mentally for the obvious -- the more people, the more likely an audience can be found -- let's think this through a bit. There are colleges scattered all over this country, and most are not in urban areas, and most of them have theatre departments who do plays, and my impression is that they seem to sell tickets. In fact, my impression is that they benefit from being in places that offer little competition as far as live theatre is concerned. Furthermore, just how many people need to live in a place in order to fill a small or medium sized theatre consistently? I believe North Carolina Stage Company here in Asheville, which is a TCG theatre in the lowest budget category, has a house that seats 99 people -- does that require a thriving metropolis to fill? Even if your theatre was bigger -- say, 499 -- how large does the town need to be?

I think the issue is that we conceive of theatre as appealing to only a small percentage of a population -- say, 1% or less. And so that requires big numbers to keep it going. But is that number carved in stone? Might a theatre raise those odds by locating themselves in a less populated town where the opportunities to see live theatre might be fewer? Might it raise those odds by maintaining a company and a resident playwright and spend time establishing a strong connection to its community? Might it be easier to establish those community connections if it were a smaller community where half the population didn't flee for the suburbs after 5:00?

I think one of the challenges we face as theatre people is to question conventional wisdom, to release ourselves from thinking in grooves that have been deeply ingrained by the past. And we need to broaden our view of the past. For instance, the Little Theatre Movement that was so important in the early part of the 20th century was scattered across this nation, and there were other approaches to theatre (e.g., Robert Gard's Wisconsin Idea Theatre and A. M. Drummond's program at Cornell) that took other forms than the Broadway version. We might look to these for inspiration, for another model that we might adapt for our own circumstances.

But it does require thinking of yourself not as an independent contractor but as an entrepreneur. An anonymous commenter, commenting on the curriculum in most MFA programs, wrote "starting and running a theater is a very different skill set than say - acting or writing or directing even." To which BC-NYC responded: "I don't think you get what this data means. THERE'S NO MORE difference in 'skillsets.' In this day and coming age...you can no longer JUST BE an actor or writer of whatever. THAT'S ONE OF THE CURRENT PROBLEMS OF THINKING....Time to wake up and take responsibility."

I think BC-NYC is right -- it is a new era, and it will require new thinking, and new skill sets, and new approaches. And just possibly, that might also mean new places as well.

Miscellany

Following the example of one of my favorite bloggers, Don Hall at Angry White Guy in Chicago, I am going to combine several shorter posts into one. After the length of the last one, this might be a relief...

Don't Know Much About Creative Writing MFA's
Reviewing the discussion of MFA's, it occurred to me that a large portion of my commenters were talking about something entirely different from what I was talking about. There seemed to be quite a few playwrights who were discussing MFA programs in creative writing. I know virtually nothing about such programs. My comments were confined solely to acting/directing/design MFA programs in theatre.

Anonymous Commenters
I am toying with the idea of changing my settings so as not to allow anonymous posters. While the MFA discussion didn't get that out of hand compared to some of the other shit storms this blog has seen, I was discomfited by anonymous commenters bashing people. I think if you want to participate in a conversation, you should at least identify yourself. For now, I am not changing my settings, but I would encourage those of you who usually post anonymously to consider signing some sort of name, so that we an keep the different commenters separate. If for some reason you really need anonymity, then make up a phony name.

Where Are the Actors?
Perhaps I'm not reading, or read by, the right group of people, but where are the actors in the theatrosphere? I see a lot of writers and directors, and even one or two designers, but actors seem notable by their absence. And I hardly ever get comments from actors. If you are a blogger who is an actor, please put your URL in the comments so I can add you to my reading list. If the actors aren't participating in these discussions, what are we to make of it?

TCG Database Weirdness
Thanks to Matt Slayburgh at Theatreforte for bringing this to my attention. He found it odd that, in my post on the lack of world premieres being done in LORT theatres, the TCG database listed Actor's Theatre of Louisville as having an annual budget under $500,000. "I followed your tracks," Slayburgh emailed me, "and TCG also told me that ATL is in their bottom budget range. So, I checked on Guidestar, which has actual copies of 990s submitted by non-profits. On their own 990, ATL reported an $11 million budget for 2006." Hmmmm. At the time, I remember finding other theatres that seemed odd in that category: Lincoln Center Theatre, Long Wharf, the Public Theatre, Steppenwolf, and the Yale Rep jumped out at me. I will try to track down information about this. This has little effect on my latest post on the distribution of theatres in the US beyond changing the color of the flags on those who are misreported. However, it does affect the data about new play productions. It may be that a larger percentage of big-budget theatres will be responsible for premieres. While my confidence in the TCG database has been shaken as far as financial information is concerned, so far it seems that the other info is accurate. At the very least, the addresses must be right!

Theatre = Film = TV = Commercials as Far as Acting is Concerned
In my last post on MFA programs, one of my anonymous posters wrote the following:
"it seems many people here think that actors or writers or artist should only be trained FOR THE THEATER - but that is a bit naive and willfully ignorant and also elitist. from Wikipedia - Actor: "An actor, actress , player or rarely thespian (see terminology) is a person who acts in a dramatic production and who works in film, television, theatre, or radio in that capacity. The ancient Greek word for an actor, hypokrites, when rendered as a verb means "to interpret";[1] in this sense, an actor is one who interprets a dramatic character.[2] from the Greek - TO INTERPRET." - but, in your incredibly narrow definition, actors should ONLY interpret theater? or MFA programs should only train for that very narrow specialty? That is a bit ridiculous and again smacks of elitism. Doctors train for everything, THEN chose a specialty. Why should acting training be different?

This commenter, whoever he or she is, has perceptively identified something very important to understanding almost everything I write on this blog: all I care about is live theatre. So call me naive and elitist, not to mention willfully ignorant -- you won't be the first or last. If you define acting as "pretending that you are the guy" (my favorite definition of acting, by the way, brought to you by master acting teacher Cal Pritner), then maybe you can feel sanguine about this crossover from medium to medium. I happen to think that the skill set needed to be an effective stage actor is very, very different from that needed to be a good film actor or TV actor. And I think that it requires devoted and single-minded attention to develop those skills. I hate seeing a film actor failing to be able to fill a theatre space. I witnessed it firsthand when I acted in a production of Love Letters opposite a fairly well-known film actress. Sitting across the table from her, she was doing an excellent job, but the audience in this theatre of 500 thought otherwise. It was me who got all the laughs, and who afterwards spectator after spectator told I was by far superior to my film-star co-actor. Plus, she couldn't hold for a laugh or do a basic take in support of a laugh line to save her soul. These things aren't necessary for film -- the film editor creates your takes and holds for your laughs, and you don't have to project your personality more than a few inches beyond your face. In other words, it is a different world. As far as doctors are concerned, I don't know how they are trained -- it seems to me that they choose a specialty pretty quickly. Regardless, when my appendix burst I was really glad they called in a gastroenterologist and not a podiatrist, even though they both might have had similar basic medical training in their early years. Same with the theatre: when I sit down in my seat, I want to know that the actor, director, and designer are specialists in what they're doing. The MFA is a specialist degree, not gen ed. I think we would do well to focus on that very difficult art form and forget about the others. This applies to writers, too. When I was in grad school, the school I was had a new play contest every other year, and I volunteered to read scripts and provide evaluations. It was amazingly interesting to see how so many young playwrights didn't understand the difference between theatre, film, and television. I read so many scripts that did one of two things: either the play was told by cutting between dozens of short scenes, some as few as a line or two, as in film, or it was told in a series of 13-minute scenes with a break for commercials. I suspect that the writers in the theatrosphere will confirm that writing for the 3-dimensional stage is an entirely different animal from TV and film, and the demands of the theatre could take a lifetime to grasp. I know: elitist, naive, and willfully ignorant.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

TCG and NEA, Google Map and Spreadsheet

Lately, I have been using the Theatre Communications Group's Theatre Profiles database in an attempt to uncover some data that might inform what up to now has been largely intuitive feelings on my part. Inductive reasoning -- analyze the data.

At the moment, my focus has been on my first principle (see sidebox): decentralization. Just how centralized is the regional theatre, actually? Where are the TCG theatres located?

As you know from the previous Theatre Profiles work I did into new play productions, TCG separates theatres into categories according to the size of their annual budget. Instead of focusing solely on LORT theatres, as I did in the previous analysis, I included all 384 members of the TCG database for the 2006-2007 database. I then used Google Maps to place markers where each theatre is located. (In the case of theatres that listed only a PO Box, I just used the city and zip, so the location may not be exact.) What I wanted was a visual representation of how theatres were distributed across the United States. After that, I went to the National Endowment for the Arts annual report to look at the fiscal year 2006 grants for theatre -- how were those grants distributed across the country. The results follow:

I began with the richest theatres on the TCG database - those with a $10M+ annual budget. There were eleven such theatres that were distributed like this (to view the map in Google Map, go here):

(While it looks like only nine flags are in the map, that is because there are multiple flags in Chicago and Minneapolis, and you can't see them unless you are closer in.) So note this pattern: several on the West Coast, several in the Midwest (specifically, Minnesota and Chicago), and several in the Northeast.

Now let's add in the next group of theatres -- those with annual budgets between $5M and $10M. These will show up as yellow flags -- we'll keep the pink ones there for reference as well (Google Map version of just the yellow theatres):
This was a larger group: 26 theatres. While the pattern still remains, there are a few more theatres scattered in the south, the midwest and the southwest. Interestingly, so far in these two categories there is only one theatre in NYC: Roundabout, with its $10M+ annual budget.

Continuing on to the next category, theatres with annual budgets between $3M and $5M. Again, we will leave the previous theatres in place and add in the 18 additional theatres using green flags (Google map of just these theatres here):

The pattern continues: lots of theatres in the Northeast, the West Coast, and the Chicago/Minneapolis corridor, but still pretty sparse in the south, Midwest, and southwest, and non-coastal West.

The next map adds in theatres with annual budgets between $1M and $3M dollars -- a larger cohort of 75 theatres indicated by red flags. (Google Map of just these theatres here.)


I hate to be redundant, but the pattern becomes stronger and stronger, with huge numbers of theatres huddled in the Washington to New York to Boston corridor, and on the California coast. The huge mid- and southern section of the nation is getting very little attention at all from the theatre community.

The next map adds in the theatres between $500K and $1M -- about 45 theatres (Google map of these theatres here):


This last map is when things get a little messy, and I can't vouch for the representation. Apparently, Google can only handle 100 flags on a map, and this one -- including theatres with annual budgets of less than $499K -- add 203. It LOOKS like everything is there, but I'm not sure how to check. But I will include it anyway -- these theatre have blue flags (Google Map here):
So there they are -- 384 theatres. Huddled together in a few select parts of the country, with new theatres being added each year and new theatre people crowded in providing the 87% unemployment desired by casting directors, while large swaths of America are virtually theatre free. I suppose one might argue that those states that are...sparse, shall we say?... don't have the population to support a theatre. Well, Omaha has about 500K, Oklahoma City has over 535K, Witchita has over 350K, to name just a few. Meanwhile, Pasadena has 135K, and Blue Lake CA has 1,135, and they have theatres. Nope, something else is happening here.

It's the herd mentality. Instead of asking themselves where in this country might there be a need for theatre artists, where might I actually have an opportunity to create a theatre that would allow me to work regularly and practice my art, theatre people leave school with the advice that they head for New York or Chicago or San Francisco because that's where the work is, by which is meant that's where there are a lot of theatres. Never mind that there is an 87% unemployment rate in NYC and that you will spend most of your time auditioning rather than doing your art, that's the place to go. Why? Because of what the Heath Brothers call, in Made to Stick, the Sinatra Effect: if I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere, combined with the Cinderella Myth that maybe you will be plucked from oblivion and declared royalty. This defines the value of theatre not according to the quality of the exchange between artists and audience, but rather according to where this exchange occurs. Apparently, 99 people in a downtown Manhattan theatre are better than 99 people in Omaha or Wichita.

Meanwhile, the idea that our regional theatre ought to spread the wonder of the theatre throughout this nation is abandoned. The National Endowment for the Arts data makes clear how much it is being abandoned.

Follow the money has always been good advice for evaluating what is truly valued. In fiscal year 2006, the NEA gave theatre grants in the amount of $2,878,000 (this does not include "Access to Artistic Excellent II" grants or Musical Theatre grants, which I might evaluate separately sometime in the future). Not being a statistician, I did my best to figure out a fair and efficient way to examine the distribution of federal grants. First, I created a spreadsheet into which I typed the amount of the grant, and the city where the theatre is headquartered. I then sorted according to state. Knowing that the nation's zip codes were distributed geographically, I decided that I would assign the first digit of the 5-digit zip code to each theatre according to the state it was in.

According to Wikipedia, the first digit of the ZIP code is allocated as follows (I have removed territories and Army post offices):
  • 0 = Connecticut (CT), Massachusetts (MA), Maine (ME), New Hampshire (NH), New Jersey (NJ), Puerto Rico (PR), Rhode Island (RI), Vermont (VT)
  • 1 = Delaware (DE), New York (NY), Pennsylvania (PA)
  • 2 = District of Columbia (DC), Maryland (MD), North Carolina (NC), South Carolina (SC), Virginia (VA), West Virginia (WV)
  • 3 = Alabama (AL), Florida (FL), Georgia (GA), Mississippi (MS), Tennessee (TN),
  • 4 = Indiana (IN), Kentucky (KY), Michigan (MI), Ohio (OH)
  • 5 = Iowa (IA), Minnesota (MN), Montana (MT), North Dakota (ND), South Dakota (SD), Wisconsin (WI)
  • 6 = Illinois (IL), Kansas (KS), Missouri (MO), Nebraska (NE)
  • 7 = Arkansas (AR), Louisiana (LA), Oklahoma (OK), Texas (TX)
  • 8 = Arizona (AZ), Colorado (CO), Idaho (ID), New Mexico (NM), Nevada (NV), Utah (UT), Wyoming (WY)
  • 9 = Alaska (AK), California (CA), , Hawaii (HI), Oregon (OR), Washington (WA)
The distribution of grants were as follows -- Column 1 is the first digit of the zip, column 2 is the total grant amount given to that zip, and column 3 is the percentage of the total amount distributed that this represents:

|ZIP 0| 288000|10.01|

|ZIP 1| 754000 |26.2|

|ZIP 2| 290000 | 10.08|

ZIP 3 |128000 | 4.45|

ZIP 4 |145000 |5.04|

ZIP 5 | 255000 | 8.66|

ZIP 6 |171000 | 5.94|

ZIP 7 |106000 | 3.68|

ZIP 8 | 145000 | 5.04|

ZIP 9 | 596000 | 20.71

Not surprisingly, the zip with New York (1) and California (9) dominated the distributions, receiving roughly 47% of the NEA grant money. But this didn't seem counter-intuitive, after all New York and California have some huge cities in them -- maybe this is equitable. So I added a fourth column: percentage of the US population that each zip code represents. It looked like this:

ZIP 0 | 288000 | 10.01 | 7.14 |

ZIP 1 | 754000 | 26.2 |10.74 |

ZIP 2 | 290000 | 10.08 | 9.5 |

ZIP 3 | 128000 | 4.45 |13.5 |

ZIP 4 | 145000 | 5.04 |10.56 |

ZIP 5 | 255000 | 8.66 | 5.29 |

ZIP 6 |171000 | 5.94 | 7.63 |

ZIP 7 | 106000 | 3.68 | 10.99 |

ZIP 8 | 145000 | 5.04 | 6.54 |

ZIP 9 | 596000 | 20.71 | 13.86|

Hmmm. Zip codes 1 and 9 had a little less than 25% of the US population, but were getting 47% of the grants. And remember that swath of blankness on the TCG map? A lot of that was zip code 7, and 8, which represents 17.5% of the population and received 8.7% of the grant money. But it was when I went in a little closer that things got really interesting.

The population of New York City and Chicago equals 4.02% of the U.S. population. Yet the theatres in those two cities received grants totalling $781,000 or 27.14% of the NEA total. Meanwhile, pulling back a few steps, there were 17 states that received absolutely nothing from the NEA -- not a dime. Here is the list of those states the NEA decided were not worthy of recieving a grant:

Arkansas
Colorado
Delaware
Iowa
Michigan
Mississippi
Nevada
Nebraska
New Hampshire
North Carolina
North Dakota
Oklahoma
South Carolina
South Dakota
Tennessee
Vermont
Wyoming

Included in that list were the #10 (North Carolina) and #8 (Michigan) ranked states according to population.


So what? What am I advocating -- that grants be distributed according to geography and population? No, although I do believe that, in a democracy, there should be some equity when it comes to things like this, and when 47% of the federal grants for a year go to two zip codes and 27% goes to two cities -- well, something is wrong.

In addition, when theatre artists get in a lather about the narrow-minded people in those big states in the midwest and the west who don't think the federal government ought to support the arts, they should take a look at these maps and these figures and ask themselves: what's in it for them? For instance, why should Jesse Helms, whose state received no NEA funds despite being the 10th most populace state in the nation, feel committed to funding the NEA? None of those artists do anything down south. When 36% of the NEA funds go to the northeastern-most states in Zip Codes #1 and #2, and another 20%+ goes to the West Coast in Zip Code #9 -- well, what's a good southern politician to think? Might he think that there might be a little elitism going on? A little snobbery?

But, you cry to this provincial hack, the grants are distributed by peer panels of artists who are focused on questions of merit. Right, says the politician, and where are those expert panelists from? Dollars to donuts there is an over-representation of zip codes 1, 2, and 9 -- with maybe a few Chicago and Minneapolis folk thrown in for "balance." Maybe.

No, this whole system is rigged to support the status quo, which is narrowly centralized. It's not regional theatre, that's for sure, if you understand regional to mean the breadth of this nation. It is a theatre focused on the metropolises of old wealth in this country combined with the new media center of California. Just like (ot connect this to our previous discussion) the "name MFA programs," which follow the same pattern and are centered in elitist eastern and Californian private schools designed for the children of rich, old money.

For those of you tempted to write this off to provincial "paranoia," I would point out that I have spent 80% of my life in the zip codes that have received the highest amount of dollars and theatres. This is more than just grumping. This is about a system that is working against the development nd appreciation of the art form that I love. Somebody must speak out against the cultural discrimination that this represents.

My Last Word on MFA Programs...For Now

I probably shouldn't move away from this topic, since it seems to be generating a lot of interest, which is probably an indication that it is a topic that centers on something important for a lot of people. Nevertheless, I need to step away from the topic for a little while and post about some TCG and NEA number crunching I've been doing over the past couple days. While in some ways the data aren't surprising, and I suspect will result in a lot of people scratching their heads about why I would find it even worth commenting on them at all, I'm going to talk about it anyway considering the Mike Daisey performance piece Isaac discussed (to a puzzling hush, it seems) at Parabasis.

But before I do that post (which I fear is going to be a monster as far as space is concerned), I want to comment on some of the MFA discussion. To some extent, I've avoided taking a strong position on MFA programs, preferring to discuss them in terms of making a rational decision concerning what you are looking for, what you can afford, and how that affects your future choices. But many of the commenters' statements about "name programs" and "contacts" has brought something to my mind that I need to get out there before I can move on to other things.

Here's the money quote: MFA programs, and especially "name programs" (i.e., high-priced private elitist programs), are mostly devoted to maintaining the status quo. And for most of the MFA-goers, and it seems most of those who commented on my posts, that is just ducky. They want "a class in how to do voice overs and finished demo ...or maybe a class in commercial technique, or how to audition for telelvision and film." They want to get a foot into the foot into the door, get known by those who are established, start getting those gigs that pay well, with the ultimate goal of being a "working actor/director/designer," which usually means supplementing your theatre work with commercials, industrials, TV, and/or film. And all of that is just fine, normal, rational.

Unless you believe, as I do, that the status quo is about to collapse like a house of wet cards. Seen in this light, to train MFA students to be effective in the status quo is like teaching lemmings to stay aloft a few seconds longer after they jump off the cliff. No matter how good you get at flapping your arms, the inevitable ending is splat.

Almost every other type of advanced degree I know (setting aside, for the moment, the other arts, which are equally retrospective) is devoted to doing original research. The professors and their research assistants are devoted to discovering the new, to solving problems and filling gaps in knowledge. In other words, the focus is on pushing the discipline forward. If you are going to write a dissertation, which means you are at the first stage of your career, your first job is to research all the other books and dissertations that have been written to make sure than nobody else has already written about your topic. In the sciences, there is little value to reproducing somebody else's experiment unless you are going to extend it in some way, or show that its results were not satisfactory. Nobody after Jonas Salk in 1952 and Albert Sabin in 1962 has devoted their research to discovering a cure for polio. That one's done and gets passed to economists and engineers to figure out how to distribute the vaccine throughout the world. But theatre MFA's are devoted to teaching young artists to build a better mousetrap, as if what the world needs are more mousetraps -- or more productions of The Three Sisters and Ghosts. In other words, they are devoted to reproducing the status quo, which is devoted to reproducing the past.

And that ain't gonna make it. The edge of the cliff is in sight.

If I were designing an MFA, I would design one that was completely focused on uncovering new ways of doing things. New ways of connecting to the audience, new ways of writing plays that spoke to the 21st century, new ways of acting and directing and designing that explored different vocabularies, methods, and outcomes, new production models and ways of communicating with a potential audience. My faculty and students would be expected to know what has already been done, think up something new to do, evaluate it objectively and thoroughly, and figure out what it contributes to the field. The productions would be the experiments that were run, and closing wouldn't be the end of the experiment but just the beginning. The goal would be to create a new theatre for the 21st century, not reproduce the theatre of the early 20th. If my program was successful, none of its graduates would have the slightest interest in entering "show biz" or the terminally boring regional theatre movement -- at least they wouldn't be interested unless they were given the wherewithal and permission to redesign the whole thing from the ground up.

We set the bar too low in our MFA programs. All we want are students who are good at doing what has been done before. And we think that professors who just want to do a show are actually contributing to the field. When are we going to fix our eyes on the future, not the past?

Monday, January 14, 2008

Mike Daisey: How Theatre Failed America

Please, please read Isaac's Spark notes version of Mike Daisey's show. I almost cried when I did: this is the conversation I have been trying to have on this blog for over two years, and I am so glad that Daisey has broached the subject as an insider. I hope to God he publishes this script eventually, for those of us who can't see it ourselves.

Tomorrow, I hope to post a longer response, complete with some new numbers pulled from the TCG database and the NEA report. Like Daisey, it shows a view of how theatre failed America, but from a different angle. I hope you'll check back.

In the meantime, Daisey is powerfully addressing the migrant artist issue that is destroying the regional theatre scene. To put it into Bill-Clinton-speak: it's the business model, stupid!

More on MFA's

The discussion of the value of MFA's is getting a bit heated in my comments section, and I guess that isn't surprising given what is at stake. My attitude toward MFA's is very similar to my attitude toward taking acting classes: know exactly what you want to get out of them, don't just do it because it is starting to seem "expected."

I understand the idea that MFA's can be good networking tools -- that prominent people might work with you and then promote you as a result. To some extent, that was my experience in my Master's Program. As a result of my contact at the school, I was hired to write instructor's manuals for McGraw-Hill, and later I was hired back first as an adjunct and a year later as an Assistant to the Dean. This, along with having served as Associate Artistic Director of the Illinois Shakespeare Festival, gave me the experience I needed to be hired as a Chair of Drama at UNC Asheville, where I currently am.

That said, I did not receive that sort of support from City University of New York, where I got my doctorate. After a couple years, I fell afoul of the powers-that-be, and found little assistance from them when it came to...well, pretty much anything.

So it is a mixed bag. But if all you want is to get a foot in the door with somebody important, I'd almost recommend contacting them and offering to work as an intern. Offer to pay them tuition directly, if need be, for the opportunity. But why run up a huge debt when you could just pay your way into employ for much cheaper?

Mac Rogers' advice -- that you only do an MFA for the art, not for any instrumental purpose -- is very good, and I endorse it whole-heartedly.

As far as being able to focus for three years on only your art -- well, yeah, but couldn't you do that without paying tuition? Not and receive valuable feedback, which brings us back to wanting to study with a particular person.

In some ways, what lies at the center of all of this is the student loan and education policies in this country, which only will give loans if you are enrolled in a institution of higher learning. But in an area like theatre, one could argue that more could be learned faster with an apprenticeship system. If a low-residency MFA could be set up that apprenticed young artists to someone willing to take them under their wing, with supplemental on-line courses that encouraged reading, I think that might really be effective, and maybe get around the loan issues. I don;t know whether NAST would accredit such a program, but don't you think that would be worthwhile for many people?

Here at UNC Asheville, we have had the benefit of several visits from Broadway costume designer William Ivey Long, who seems very open to taking on apprentices, and I'll bet would do a great job introducing them to a variety of design opportunities.

That said, I'm not in favor of such a program for undergrads. I think undergrads should avoid all conservatories and even BFA programs like the plague. Artists need to be educated, not trained. Read Anne Bogart's And Then, You Act if you don't believe me. There is a woman whose whole career is based on broad learning. Or Tony Kushner's A Modest Proposal, which also is pretty persuasive.