Thursday, January 24, 2008
Until then, for all of you who are finding yourselves thinking about theatre from a new perspective. remember that there will be people who will seek to prevent you from taking your journey. They will say what you are thinking about is foolish, or that things can never change, or that things have been the same since the beginning, or that what you desire is not worth having. In the typical hero's journey, these are called Threshold Guardians, and they exist to make sure that you want to take your journey badly enough to overcome them. Keep thinking, and keep dreaming.
See you Monday.
Chart 13 graphically depicts the growth in earnings over the past ten years. As you can see, there was an obvious lull in earnings growth between 1999 and 2002, brought about in part by both industry events and the economic impact of the 9-11 attack, but save for those three years, there has been steady and sometimes considerable growth from year to year, and over these ten years, earnings have increased by an impressive 34.5%.
The figures for the 1997-98 season were about $236,300,ooo; the figures for 2007 were $317, 824,000. Increase the first number by 34.5% and you get the second number. And everybody feels good, right? Of course, if you plug the numbers into the Inflation Calculator, a little bit different story emerges. That $236M figure from 1997 represents $294M in today's economy. Suddenly, the "impressive" 34.5% increase is a wee bit less impressive: 8.25%.
We all know a lot of organizations spin numbers to make its members feel good, but this sort of thing borders on insult. I mean, come on.
That said, it just is more expensive to survive in some cities over others. Nothing earth-shaking about that idea, I'll admit. Except when you start thinking in terms not of survival, but artistic options. For instance, if you live in Los Angeles, where 64% of the average net salary goes for housing, even if you split the rent with someone else you are still paying 32% of your take-home pay each month for housing -- and that's if you make the average salary. If the comments on my "Personal Income" post reflect reality at all (and there are only four replies, so who knows), many of you are are making less than the average salary.
But if you decide to live in Atlanta, which actually has more TCG theatres (9) than DC, LA, and SF (8 each), and actually has a higher average gross salary than LA (that surprised me), and like your LA friend you split the rent with someone else, your housing bill is now $456 a month, or 16% of the average net salary, way below the 30% recommendation. Consequently, you have about $15,000 extra in your pocket each year that isn't going for rent. Now, what could you do with that? You might decide to use it to pay for an independent theatre project, which could be good for your career. Or you might see that you could considerably reduce the amount of money you need to make to survive: instead of needing a job that pays you $45,000 a year gross, you could comfortably survive on $24,000. This might allow you to work fewer hours in a less demanding field and devote more time to auditioning, or it might allow you to take time off when you are doing a show and concentrate on what you are doing.
If you think of money as representing time or independence, these housing numbers start to look a little different.
But my examples above are not entirely forthcoming. Let's be up front about this, just in case this hasn't become clear over the past three weeks I've been writing: I think the freelance system of doing theatre, where an artistic team is put together piecemeal for each project through auditions and interviews, is artistically and economically bankrupt. It turns the creation of art into a crap shoot, and denies the experience of every other group art form in existence which shows that artists who work together over time create better work. Look at the example of rock bands: the musicians need to play together for a while before they can create much worth listening to, and for many bands the longer they are together the more interesting they become. Same for symphonies and dance troupes. But for some reason, theatre thinks this isn't necessary, despite the fact that theatre is far more complex than music or dance because it involves the coordination of more elements.
And so young theatre people go "where the work is" in the hope that someone in authority will, as the song says, "Give me a chance to come through." (If you are looking for a dramatization of the neuroses that the freelance system breeds, just flip to the Chorus Line soundtrack on your iPod and listen for a while. The whole show is about what desperate theatre neurotics will "do for love." They'll put up with abusive acting teachers ["Nothing"], get plastic surgery ["Dance Ten, Looks Three"], grovel ["The Music and the Mirror"], and generally work themselves into a lather about whether they will be allowed to work ["I Hope I Get It"]. And theatre people saw this show as a Valentine to the theatre, not a disturbing cautionary tale! Sheesh!)
I say to hell with that sick system.
I think that the only way live theatre is viable, both economically and artistically, is in the form of semi-permanent companies or "tribes." I wrote about the "New Tribalism and Theatre" back in July, and a vibrant discussion ensued, and my hit count soared, which had only happened before when I was involved in some ugly dustup. To me, this was an indication of interest in the idea -- suddenly, my posts were getting forwarded to people outside of my usual readership. What I noticed as the number of comments increased is that for theatre people the idea of the tribe (see definition below) represented both a dream and a fear: they deeply wanted something like it to work, but they feared that it couldn't in today's American economy based on individualism and the American Dream. They wanted to collaborate, but they felt they had to compete. I explored the ramifications of this in "Locating the Tribe":
Which leads me to wonder whether this model would operate better in a place where the likelihood of fame is less in the forefront of artists' imaginations. Perhaps NYC and Chicago, where there is a hierarchy of theatres and where a strong personal review can lead to the possibility of individual fame, holds too many temptations. In fact, perhaps these environmental facts actually attract the type of people who would fit into such a system, and thus NOT fit into a tribe. I'm not saying that NYC and Chicago theatre people are more "selfish and self-involved" than others, but rather that the unspoken hope that, like Cinderella, you might be plucked from obscurity and courted by the Prince would be less prevalent in a city a bit further from the spotlight where fairy godmothers rarely go. Perhaps the every-man-for-himself, dog-eat-dog mentality is encouraged in big cities that receive mass media attention, and the values of cooperation and ensemble would best be developed in a different atmosphere.So now this data starts to have a context, right? If you stop seeing your only option as fitting into the freelance model, suddenly you are released from "going where the work is" and instead can consider "where you want the work to be." When you are deciding where you want to spend your life, you think not in terms of going in search of work, you rather in terms of creating it. So you are able to consider the options afforded all over this country, instead of being fixated on the expensive NY/LA/Chicago troika. You can consider climate, you can consider cost of living, you can consider factors much different from the number of theatres that are in a city. And then if you decide that NY, LA, or Chicago is where you want to be, you are making that choice of your own free will and in an educated way, and not because you are compelled to make that choice because A Chorus Line has a grip on your psyche.
And if the thought of doing theatre outside of the megalopolis makes you queasy, makes you think it is a symbol of "giving up" or not being "good enough," then you are probably not a good candidate for a tribe. Tribes are about the work, not about the individual. It's about being happy having an opportunity to do work that is fulfilling, and regarding that fulfillment as an end in itself. It isn't about money (although tribes should provide enough to get by), and it isn't about fame. It is about theatre, and contribution to the life of a community.
Buckminster Fuller said, "You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete." My biggest challenge on this blog is to make this point clear: the life of a theatre artist will not be made significantly better by tinkering with the current way of doing things; only by building a new model will theatre attain health and vibrancy.
Part of that new model involves spreading theatre more fully across this country. It is my hope that, by examining data such as what I have presented over the past few weeks, we will start to see that there is nothing carved in stone about the NY/LA/Chicago compulsion, and that if our desire is to create work that matters to us, and to create that work with the kind of regularity that leads to excellence, then we need to think about the theatre in a different way. I'll admit, that's scary. We may agree that the current system is sick, but be afraid that anything different won't work. We may think that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. But the fact is that most people in theatre don't have a bird in the hand, they have the dream of a bird in the hand that they hope they'll get if they just wander through the forest long enough. But the fact is that there are too many hunters and not enough birds in that forest, and there are forests elsewhere where there are fewer hunters and an unknown supply of birds.
Note: I forgot to include the promised definition of a tribe, adapted from Daniel Quinn's Beyond Civilization: "a tribe is nothing more than a coalition of people working together as equals to make a living." [ital mine] It is a self-sustaining, ongoing group of people who, "among them, have all the competencies needed to start and run a given business," who are "content with a modest standard of living," and who are "willing to think 'tribally -- that is, to take away what they need out of the business rather than to expect set wages." A self-sustaining tribe "needs to perform all the functions that will make it successful." While each person may have something they are especially good at, they nevertheless share responsibility for all aspects of the tribal business. So, in the case of a theatre, a person may be an actor, but if program ads need to be sold or lights hung, you willingly pitch in.
Wednesday, January 23, 2008
It's generally accepted that 30 to 35% is about right for housing expenses. That would include rent, plus utilities, any maintenance and decorating.
Some would argue that Michael could spend up to 40% for housing. The trouble with that is Michael has a limited amount of money. His paycheck needs to cover housing, automobile (or transportation), food, insurance, entertainment, clothing, medical/dental, miscellaneous and debt repayment. So an increase in housing expense means a decrease somewhere else.
Michael didn't share what his income is. So we'll have to keep this somewhat general. But, we'll still be able to illustrate the point.
The three biggest expenses he'll face are housing, transportation and food. Along with 30% for housing, he'll probably need another 15% each for transportation and food. So he's already spent 60% of his money leaving just 40% for everything else.
The quickest way for a budget to fail is to overspend these 'big three' categories. If Michael spends 65 or 70% it becomes almost impossible to make up the difference in the smaller categories. Even if he cuts back drastically in areas like entertainment and clothing, he just won't find enough savings to offset the additional expense.
Overspending in these big areas is also a problem because we often make commitments for months or even years in advance. It's not like your electric bill. If it was too high last month, you can start turning down the AC today. But, if you agreed to make forty eight auto payments, there's not much you can do about it for awhile. Or, if you do make a change, it will significantly disrupt your lifestyle.
Let's suppose that Michael's take home pay was $2,000 per month. He really wanted an apartment that cost $800 (40% of his income). Add his car payment ($225), gasoline ($75), groceries ($150) and restaurant meals ($150). That totals $1,400 and only leaves him $600 to cover debt repayment, clothing, entertainment, medical, miscellaneous, savings and any unexpected bills. Chances are that he'll quickly be putting some of those expenses on his credit card and adding to the unpaid balance. At some future point that will come back to haunt him.
If Michael were making a lot more he'd have more flexibility. If his monthly income were $10,000, it wouldn't make as much difference if he spent 35 or even 40% of his income on housing. He'd have more in other categories to make up the difference.
Most of us live with limited income. It's important for us to get our housing, auto and food expenses under 60% of our take home pay if we're going to keep from getting into financial trouble.
I think it is important to note that the average percentage of 30% is more important to those with less money than those with more money. This is particularly important when considering young people who are not as likely to get jobs that pay as much as those who have more experience.
I went to bankrate.com, where I found a calculator that allowed you to compare various costs in certain cities, including average rent and utilities. I added these figures and multiplied by 12 to get the yearly expenditures on housing. Then I multiplied to get the net salary that would be necessary to maintain the recommended 30% of net salary for housing.
I then went to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, where I found a list of Average Wage per Job for many cities. I used the most recent data: 2006. Since these figures were gross wages, I went to a paycheck calculator at paycheckcity.com to figure out what the average take-home pay would be in each of these cities. (This calculator was great because it took into consideration what state the money was being made in and also could calculate according to 2006 tax rates.)
Finally, I did two calculations:
1. The difference between the average net salary for a city and the net salary needed to maintain the 30% ratio. A negative number meant that you were spending that many dollars more than the 30% recommended amount.
2. The percentage of the average net salary that the average rent actually represented.
Be aware that if you live in a city where a car is unnecessary, you will have more income available to cover housing costs. That was something I couldn't factor in, but you can in your own situation.
Rather than try to figure out how to format all those results on this blog, I have published this data to Google docs. While I will discuss my own take on the ramifications of this data in the coming days, I'd be very interested to hear initial reactions from my readers. If there is a city that isn't in the current table that you'd like included, let me know -- the major one that is missing is Minneapolis, which is due to the fact that the cost of living comparison calculator for some reason didn't include Minneapolis. But I'll give a look for others, if you're curious.
1. What city you are in.
2. Whether you are making: Way Less, Somewhat Less, About That Much, a Little More, or a Lot More.
Again, I'm trying to crunch some numbers, so I appreciate your assistance.
Albee earned his second Pulitzer for Seascape in 1975, but after the critical failure of The Lady from Dubuque in 1980, he descended into what [Mel] Gussow called (with considerable understatement) a "down period" that would last a decade. Despite numerous setbacks, both professional and personal, in the early '80s he launched what would become a distinguished 15-year teaching career at the University of Houston, where that city's Alley Theatre also gave him a home.Now get this: "His years of 'critical exile' (as Albee's friend, director Michael Wilson, refers to those years) ended in a triumphant comeback with Three Tall Women in 1994, which earned him a third Pulitzer..." In case we hadn't quite picked up the phrase, Rocamora repeats it again: "Under James Houghton's artistic direction, Signature hosted an Albee season in 1993-4 (Marriage Plays, Counting the Ways, Listening, The Sandbox, Finding the Sun), giving the playwright a new home after a decade of critical exile from New York." [italics mine, except play titles, obvi0ously.]
I turned the magazine over to make sure I was still reading American Theatre. Yup, and it still said Theatre Communications Group underneath the title. So let me get this straight: according to American Theatre, which presumably is still editing its writers' work and giving editorial approval for production, having a 15-year home with the Alley Theatre, one of the oldest (60 years!) and most storied regional theatres in the nation, is critical exile? And having another TCG member who just happens to be in NY do a season devoted to Albee is coming back from critical exile?
I would expect such NY-philia from the NY Times, the Village Voice, Variety, or Show Business. But American Theatre ought to know better. And that Michael Wilson should coin that insulting phrase -- Michael Wilson who was the Associate Artistic Director at the Alley Theatre from 1990-1998, and who is the artistic director of the Hartford Stage, which I assume is also critical exile (but getting warmer, since Hartford is closer to NYC than Houston) , and who has made his career in the regional theatres of this nation -- well, it is breathtakingly insulting. It doesn't surprise me that Rocamora's expertise is translating Chekhov, because the portrayal of anyplace west of the Hudson as exile is a remnant of the 19th century.
As long as theatre people allow this nonsense to continue, we will never have a regional theatre of any substance. The regional theatre will continue to play the role Triple-A baseball teams play to the major leagues: low cost development sites. And that is NOT what the regional theatre set out to become when Nina Vance at the Alley Theatre, Margo Jones at Theatre 47 in Dallas, and Zelda Fichlander at the Arena Theatre brought it into being. And it is NOT what American theatre needs. And it should NOT go unnoticed when the TCG dishonors its members by printing such drivel.
Tuesday, January 22, 2008
The authors proposed the minimizing of million-dollar web sites in favor of blogs in which the employee, the manager, the owner, the consumer, and anyone else who wanted to talk about the product could do so without intermediaries. Stop the monologue, start the dialogue. Nine years later, the ideas of The ClueTrain Manifesto have gone mainstream, and corporate blogs are ubiquitous. That's how fast things move in the business world.
It is interesting to read the ClueTrain Manifesto now, and transfer some of the ideas to the regional theatre scene. Here are seven of the 95 theses -- read them substituting "theatres" everywhere it says "companies."
34. To speak with a human voice, companies must share the concerns of their communities.A year earlier, arts marketer and designer Edwin Schloassberg wrote Interactive Excellence: Defining and Developing New Standards for the Twenty-First Century, in which he addressed similar issues to the authors of ClueTrain Manifesto, except with a focus on the experience of the arts and museums. In it, he writes about a shadow puppet performance he attended in Indonesia, where he was "overwhelmed by an entirely new audience/theater/artist paradigm." He goes on:
35. But first, they must belong to a community.
36. Companies must ask themselves where their corporate cultures end.
37. If their cultures end before the community begins, they will have no market.
38. Human communities are based on discourse -- on human speech about human concerns.
39. The community of discourse is the market.
40. Companies that do not belong to a community of discourse will die.
The story told in the wayang kulit performances is always based on one of the Hindu classcs, such as the Ramyana or the Mahabhrata, with which the audience is familiar. Because the audience knows the story before going in, it is primarily interested in comparing this performance to previous ones. The performance, which lasts eight hours, begins around midnight on the night of the full moon. Throughout the entire performance and then afterward, the audience quietly chats about the show--how it is going and how it went. The whole experience is a way for the community to get together and have a shared experience.
Before the show I sat down in the front of the krato, the king's palace, and saw a large white curtain, like a makeshift movie screen, strung across the middle of a platform. A strong lamp hung in what I thought was the backstage area. The gamelan musicians sat in what perceived to be the front, with the shadow from the puppets projected on the white cloth. As the performance started, some of the audience sat in front and watched the shadows dance. But others got up and moved behind the stage to watch the puppeteer and the puppets. One part of the audience chose to step into illusion, listening and watching from the front, while the other part chose to be with the performer, to explore the art of his presentation. This practice, so alien to Western tradition, allows the audience to learn how something is made and how well it can be done. Their understanding, discussion, and appreciation of all facets of the play are part of the presentation. The culture values the audience's active role in the process as equal in importance to that ofthe puppeteer or the musician. A performance is considered from all these points of view, not simply on the basis of the performance alone.
I'm certain that most of my readers are reacting with horror right now. Talking during the show? Unbelievable! Going backstage while the show is going on??? Absurd! Why, English actors complain bitterly about spectators crinkling candy wrappers while they're acting. Everyone knows that audiences are supposed to be seen and not heard. They should buy their over-priced ticket, sit quietly in the dark in their uncomfortable seats and not be heard from again until the show is over, when they should stand up and applaud enthusiastically, and then go home as quickly as possible while the actors scurry back to their dressing rooms, get out of costume and makeup, and slink into the night to their favorite artist hangout where they speak only to each other.
How long will it take until the leaders of American regional theatres realize that they must be part of their communities? That the only way to belong to a community of discourse is to have continuity in your artistic staff (actors, directors, designers, playwrights), not just your management staff? That theatres do not sell a commodity, they sell an experience, and part of that experience involves discourse, conversation, exchange? We can't continue to hide ourselves away before, during, and after a show. We must learn to engage our audience.
Perhaps we need our own ClueTrain Manifesto to wake us up to the idea that the miracle of live theatre is the opportunity for exchange, discourse -- something film can't compete with in any way. But the fact is that most of us are shy, don't you think? When we encounter someone in the grocery store who has seen us perform, for instance, we are flattered to be recognized and praised, but we have no real idea how to behave, and I suspect we never ask anything about the other person themself. It's sort of like being visited as we step out of the shower -- we feel naked and awkward, and so we cut the conversation short. Similarly, our natural inclination is to try to make our performances one-way communication where we know all our lines and you just listen to what we have to say.
I'm not suggesting interactive theatre -- even in the example Schlosser describes, the spectators do not interrupt or participate in the performance in any way -- but rather an interactive context that encourages spectators to talk to each other and to the artists in an informal, non-talkback-Q-&-A kind of way. Maybe meet in the bar across the street after the show, or have a place where people can gather inside the theatre where they can talk and where the artists visit afterwards.
And where the same artists visit month after month, year after year. So that John and Laura not only buy a ticket to the show, but they also plan on seeing actor Tony after the show to say hey.
Anyone getting on the cluetrain?
Monday, January 21, 2008
I could really use some explanation about why such a commitment -- a commitment to three plays, mind you, not something like a whole season -- is being portrayed as so financially risky as to be characterized as"knee-wobbling." Yes, knee-wobbling. The article makes it sound like the production of new plays is some heroic undertaking, as if doing new plays wasn't the norm until regional theatres got so wussy about it. The article explains
That risk — both financial and artistic — is the main reason more companies don't, or can't, follow the DCTC's lead. The artistic risk is three-fold: No matter the writer, just paying for a script to be written doesn't mean it will be worthy of being staged one day. So, many get written but are never staged.
It's also always harder to attract audiences to plays they don't know. And Thompson isn't playing it safe when it comes to content.
The financial risk is knee-wobbling. Thompson estimates it's one-third more expensive to produce a new play than an existing one. [my italics] So last year, the Denver Center board expanded Thompson's budget by $1 million, to $11.9 million — and that's when he was staging only one new play, Jason Grote's thrilling "1001." This year, the figure will be $12.6 million.
"When you are working with unknown titles, your risk goes way up," said Denver Center chief financial officer Vicky Miles. "A few years ago, we wouldn't have been in a financial position to take that risk."... The additional expenses only begin with paying writers to write. The playwright also must be present at design meetings, casting, rehearsals and performances. Marketing costs go up.
So let me get this straight. This incredible expense is the result of paying writers for their work, and for including them in the production process? That's the Big Deal? Doesn't that sort of seem like, I don't know, the cost of doing business? God knows what would happen if they had a resident playwright on the payroll, for crying out loud - they'd probably be wearing tights and a cape and be indestructible except for Kryptonite. And those marketing costs: what? Sometimes I think we believe that everybody in the audience has had theatre history. OK, they're doing Merry Wives of Windsor, which I suppose can be marketed as a Shakespearean romp or something, but do we really think that most of the general public has read the damn thing? The fact is that for most of the audience, it, too, is a new play. And while we personally may have seen dozens of scenes from The Seagull in our undergraduate acting classes, the idea that the general public is saying, "Look, honey, they're going to do one of those wonderful Russian plays of the lat 19th century that are so bittersweet and subtle...." I mean, please. Let's talk about the need for marketing.
In fact, this heroic posturing is undercut just a wee bit by this sentence, thrown in a few lines down: "Last year, [Jason] Grote's "1001" sold to a jaw-dropping 85 percent of capacity, while the simultaneous "King Lear" drew 81 percent." Yes, read that again: Jason Grote 85, William Shakespeare 81. Now, tell me again how risky it is to do new work.
But here's the kicker:
"The DCTC has even taken on the extraordinary expense of bringing in (and putting up) two entire casts ("Lydia" and "Our House") that are new to the company."What? They've BROUGHT IN two separate casts and have to PUT THEM UP. Let's compare this expense -- the expense of not having the sack to commit to a resident company and instead jobbing in actors from out of town (dollars to donuts: NYC) -- to the expense of putting up a single playwright for the production process. Remember that playwright who made the whole new play thing so knee-wobblingly risky? Yeah. Do some math and get back to me.
I'm sorry, but I am starting to think that people in the theatre don't know how to use numbers, or think that we the audience don't. Because this just doesn't add up.
So kudos to the Denver Center Theatre for supporting American playwrights. Truly. But can we not do that while reinforcing the myth of the risk of the new? Could we acknowledge that Jason Grote beat William Shakespeare's masterpiece? Can we think about what that might mean?