Friday, March 07, 2008

Mac Rogers

Ian at "Theatre Is Terrotory" does a great job interviewing Mac Rogers, who refers to me, Don Hall, Leonard Jacobs, and Nick Fracaro as "the roaches who will survive the nuclear war – tough." I am still trying to figure out how to use that as a quote on my sidebar....

The Young and the Restless

Thanks to all those who explained their viewpoints concerning art as a job -- I think I understand better now. The more I read, the more a pattern started to emerge -- one with which I totally identify.

RZ/GreyZelda wrote: "I know that Don, Tony and myself feel like we do have lives that accompany all of these things. We're living in it, I guess ... my friends, husband, etc are all a part of my theatrical circle and I've met most of them through theatre. The only difference from the utopia you describe is that we're creating art (all with our own theatre companies that we all helped found, mind you) and making money during the day through an alternative source, aka "the day job". Maybe that'll change someday, but it's what's working for a lot of us right now. We're thankful for the jobs we have because it helps fund our work a lot of the time."

devilvet wrote: "The fact that I have a day job that provides me a salary in the high forties empowers me more to make theatre than quiting that job and selling t-shirts with my brand on it. Or trying to find a way to construct and market a class or workshop to sell to corporate America."

And Don is in a similar situation -- he's forty with his own company, a spouse who works with him on shows, and a good job that pays him well. All three of them are established, and have lives they enjoy.

On the other hand, many of those who seem most enthusiastic about the model I'm working on are just out of undergraduate or graduate school, and are often working day jobs that are not challenging or using their abilities. They don't have much stuff yet, and they're trying to figure out how to get a chance to do their work.

All of which is to say, the theatre tribe model may be a model for young people! Full disclosure: like RZ, devilvet, and Don, I have my life well established: I have a job that I love, and a life that I love as well. For those of you who have asked me whether I consider myself an artist -- no, I don't; I am a teacher who does theatre as an extension of teaching. For those of you who have asked why I haven't gone out and created a theatre on this model myself, the reason is that I am a teacher who has worked really hard to get my life exactly how I want it. I'm not an artist wannabe. I'm Obi Wan, not Luke Skywalker. In archetype-speak, I am the Mentor, not the Hero.

But even if I were an artist wannabe, at this stage of my life, if I had a job I liked reasonably well and a lifestyle that suited me, I probably wouldn't start all over. But when I think back to my 20s when I was struggling as a freelance director in Minneapolis while working a miserable job in a restaurant supply company and renting an apartment with crumbling plaster, when I had few major expenses and not a lot of debt -- well, the possibility of a theatre tribe might have been pretty attractive.

I don't think theatre tribes are a universal solution to what ails theatre. I'm not proposing that everybody chuck what they're doing and do this instead. If you are happy where you are and doing what you're doing, then for God's sake don't abandon it all to follow this circus. This bus ain't for you.

Back on February 27th, Joe at "Butts in Seats" posted about a listening tour that Building Movement did in 2004 that looked at young people in the non-profit sector. One thing they noticed, he wrote, is that "the younger generation is interested in balancing their lives rather than devoting so much of themselves to the job as their predecessors have done. Both also discuss the eagerness of the younger generation to participate in substantive decision making and responsibilities." I have noticed this as well. For the past couple years, I have noticed a trend in students on this campus -- not just in my department, but across the university. They are much more focused on the local, on their communities; they are much more interested in achieving a balanced life that includes a variety of people and experiences; and they want to contribute to what they are doing in substantive ways. For this generation, the generation that turned Ishmael into a cult classic (it was only a few years ago that I was seeing stenciled images of gorillas scattered around Asheville on the sides of buildings), an occupational tribe might be a better model than the one that those of us who are older are used to.

Remember, as a college professor my main concern every day is with young people. When I think about the health of the American theatre, I don't think in terms of the all-star cast of Long Day's Journey Into Night on Broadway, or even Mike Daisey's 41-year-old Seattle actress; I think about young people in their 20s who make the trek to NY, LA, or Chicago not because they want to, but because that's where they think they have to go. Every May, when I sit in my regalia and applaud another half dozen of my students who are going out into the world, I worry about how their talents are going to fit into the current system. I know that my colleagues and I tried to educate artists, and I worry that what the system wants are trained entertainers.

And so I decided to try to create an alternative, a way for intelligent, committed young people to band together and create art while maintaining control, as much as possible, over as many aspects of their lives as possible; that would allow them to achieve balance, and contribute to their communities. It's a New World Order much different than what George H. W. Bush imagined, and much different than those of us in our 30s and 40s comprehend. I think when you are in your 20s is when you should be practicing your art as much as possible, trying things out and learning how the magic of theatre works. Being in front of an audience, hearing your words spoken by actors, figuring out new ways to design, direct, act, and write. It is my hope that the theatre tribe model might be a way for young people to acquire this valuable experience, and live a life they find satisfying.

But it may not be a good model for people like me, Don, RZ, or devilvet. Moses never actuallt set foot in the Promised Land, but he pointed the way with a vision. I'm no Moses, but in some ways I'm doing something similar.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Open Thread: Art as a Job

Dear Readers: I haven't done this before, but I'd like to create an open thread for discussion of the following posts, which have arisen following Don Hall's "Art is NOT a Job."

Don Hall: Art is NOT a Job
devilvet: Art is not a job, but Lord it sure is work...
Me: Leading a Rich Life
Slay: Art as a Job

I have a sense -- and correct me if I have it totally wrong -- that my attempts to create a new business model based on Daniel Quinn's ideas concerning "occupational tribes" are being interpreted as focused wholly on making money, making it totally from theatre ticket sales and wholly without concern for artistic values. An example of this would be the last paragraph of Slay's post: "I bet I could build a model that pays well, makes art that doesn't cost very much, has low production values, and packs the house. But, I think I'd have to sacrifice my artistic standards to do it."

In addition, there is a theme that has arisen that I find very odd: art as a vice or addiction. devilvet writes that "For most of us this Art thing is an addiction and a hobby," and John, writing in Don's comments, says: "Seems to me that Theater is not a job, not a business and not a Holy Fucking Communion, it's a Vice. I wrote about this awhile back on my blog, and it's not a smart funny thing, I think its a useful way of looking at it. A vice, like gambling or prostitution or drug running." I am flashing back to Sigmund Freud's idea that art is just sexual sublimation, and a byproduct of neurosis.

My attempts to imagine a different approach -- to pull together ideas that have been discussed within other contexts (local economies, viral marketing, sustainability, occupational tribes, barter systems, social entrepreneurship, and so on) and apply them to the theatre -- are all rooted in a single value: empowerment. I want artists to able to take charge and be in control of as many aspects of their lives as possible, and that includes taking charge of artistic choices and decisions about what projects are worth their time, but it also includes taking charge of their financial life, their personal life, their community life. It means finding a way to allow your art to express your values, and also finding a way to create that art while living a life that is full and rich. As RVCBard says in my comments: "I'm not sure about the rest of you, but as much as I love playwriting, there are other things I want to do and other people I want to spend my time with that are not related to theater in any way. And that's good. It seems like the theater community mandates its artists to be monks without benefits like respect, community support, or basic necessities."

So why the open thread? Because I am baffled by the direction this conversation seems to be going, and what seems to me an odd misunderstanding of the purpose of the theatre tribe model.Rather than simply engaging in argument, I am hoping that somebody can help me understand, because only by understanding can I express my ideas clearly. What is making people so nervous?

Leading a Rich Life

First of all, I would like to acknowledge Don Hall's passion for life. Have any of you noticed the times on his posts? Here are the last five: 6:32 AM, 5:51 AM, 5:05 AM, 5:39 AM, 7:35 AM (that was a Saturday, so he slept in). This truly is a man of steel and commitment. That he cares enough to get up and write something substantive, day after day, before heading off to a demanding job at NPR, and then comes home afterwards and commits his evenings to creating theatre -- well, it is truly super-human. Me? Couldn't do it. No way. After about a month, I'd be going postal all over my blog, after which I'd lapse into total silence. To hell with it, you could all figure it out without me!

In his most recent post, "Art is NOT a Job," Hall comes down squarely on the side of the theatre artist with a day job: "I've lived the life of the artist who holds a decent full-time job during the weekdays and spending my time away from my job working in the theater. For me, I like [this option]. And the conclusion that I've reached is that Art is Not a Way to Make a Living. Art is a Way of Life."

Oddly enough, I think Don thinks I am proposing something different than this with the theatre tribe idea, but I'm not, really. I'm proposing a variation. Here's where we differ: instead of having a day job working for somebody else, I think the day job ought to be run by the theatre ensemble itself (this is my idea of "And Then"). And depending on how you read this idea, it is either straight out of "Free Agent Nation" or "Das Capital" -- you choose! Economically, when you work for someone else, the reason they hire you is that they believe that your work will generate more income than it costs to pay you -- Marx would say that you create surplus labor. My goal is for the tribe to claim that surplus labor instead of someone else doing so.

So if you work as a temp, your employer (Manpower or whoever) is charging the company you work for much more than your hourly wage -- why not have the theatre run their own temp agency? Theatre people are often much smarter than the average temp, personable, and articulate -- it wouldn't take very long for a theatre temp agency to develop a base of devoted customers. You wouldn't need very many customers, because you wouldn't have hundreds of temps available at any one time.

Temping is sort of an unexciting example, but I provided an example of The Circle Project and Arlene Goldbard, where theatre people do consulting for organizations and businesses. I just received an email from a former student of mine, Paul Kalina of 500 Clowns, whose company takes another approach: "We are now moving into our fourth production which is Brecht's Man est Man. We are building it so that we can perform it with us or we can take it to a University and add 5 students to it and perform it with them as well. This way we can do an artist in residency, teach classes and some of the students would get to work with us in the form.
We have received a commission from the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center to do just that with students from the University of Maryland College Park....It turns out that our classes we offer in Chicago have become quite popular, so we are trying to expand that as well."

To put it all under one umbrella-word, I think a theatre tribe could survive better by thinking entrepreneurially. So no, art is not a job -- jobs are what other people hire you to do. Art is part of an entrepreneurial organization operated by artists.

Don quotes parts of my rant about Jonathan West, including "Theatre is not better if it is made by poor, tired, insecure artists." Don writes, "The Prof [I love it when Don calls me the Prof] is dead on with his railing against the current model that essentially supports the idea that it is cool or noble for the artist to accept this third-class citizen status. Where he gets it wrong is his belief that theater can be made better by the well-fed and well paid than by the starving, broke nomad." While that sort of looks like an accurate rephrasing of what I wrote, and a logical implication, it actually isn't. To say that theatre IS NOT BETTER if it is made by poverty-stricken artists does not mean that theatre IS BETTER if it is made by well-fed and well-paid ones. The point is that the quality of the art has little to do with how much the artist gets paid. However, it does have something to do with the quality and quantity of the energy than an artist has to give. It is harder to concentrate on your art when you are living out of your car and trying to keep ahead of the bill collectors, I don't care what Don says!

Interestingly, Don seems to be proposing theatre as part of a gift economy (see Lewis Hyde's The Gift): "If God charged me five bucks to create a tree, the tree is no longer merely that living, breathing part of the world - it becomes my possession and is subject to my value judgments in the same way that my shoes or desk are.The quality and value of a work of art has absolutely nothing to do with the economic status of the artist and everything to do with the honest endeavor to create something new and personal to share with the world." [bold by Don] In the past, I have promoted a similar idea, and so has the RAT Conference (Nick: "We had proposed the radical notion of No More Box Office as a way of de-commodifying our work and our theatre lead in the practice of the “potlatch model” of hosting conferences and producing theatre collectively."), and so has Zachary Mannheimer's Subjective Theatre. The fact is that ticket sales account for a small percentage of most theatre's income. But if the theatre tribe model also wants to disconnect from a reliance on governmental largesse and foundation grants, then where is the money to come from? We're back to ancillary income and entrepreneurial activity.

And also, we're back to forming a bond with our audience -- with the 1000 true fans, for instance. Howso? I have been reading the story of the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, VA -- a theatre begun during the Great Depression that allowed people to trade meat and vegetables for tickets. And I've been pondering the applicability of that model to the theatre tribe. What if one way for people to contribute to the theatre was to "adopt" a couple artists and provide dinner for them once a month -- invite the artists to their home for a home-cooked meal, take them to a restaurant and pick up the tab, bring a potluck to the theatre, whatever. People might make an event of it, inviting their friends or family to have dinner with the actors. Each time this happens, the bonds between artist and patron becomes stronger, because they are getting to know each other, instead of someone just making an on-line financial transaction. A patron might not be able or willing to make a $100 cash contribution, but he or she might be able to provide a chicken breast, mashed potatoes, and sweet corn as part of the family supper. And isn't that money that the artist doesn't have to spend themselves? Isn't that as good as income?

The object of all this, from my perspective, is for artists to lead a rich life, which is not defined by money. It is a life with health insurance and financial stability, yes, but also a life that allows for control over creative activity, time for rest and contemplation, time to spend with family and friends who are not involved in theatre (Don's wife is a theatre artist herself, so their work together is quality time in the relationship -- my wife is not a theatre person [been there, done that, didn't work for me], and so evenings spent in rehearsal after a full day at work is time we are NOT together, which is an emotional hardship.), time to participate in the life of the community, in charities or tutoring or worship, in short in living a well-rounded and rich existence. In order for an artist to become part of the community, they must have time to do so.

So ultimately, the theatre tribe idea is less about money than about time. Someone once said that wealth was not defined by money, but by time and space. I agree with that, and am putting all my mental energy into trying to conceive of a way to make artists truly and deeply wealthy.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Imagine the Possibilities

First, look at the last map on this post. Now look at this website. Now consider the possibilities for a theatre tribe. (h/t Andrew Taylor)

Movie Quotes Meme

Joshua James tagged Isaac, and Isaac tagged me. So here goes!

Here's the deal:
Look up 15 of your favorite films on IMDb and take a quote from each. List them below. When someone guesses the quote correctly, I cross it off the list.
NO CHEATING.

1. "Fuck you."
"You're the shepherd." -- (Good Will Hunting) -- Ethan

2. "Wise leader, forgive me. I am only a fledgling new to flight."

3. "What kind of place is this? It's beautiful: Pigeons fly, women fall from the sky! I'm moving here!"

4. "Do you think God'll forgive us for what we've done?"
"No." (Man on Fire) -- Mac

5. "What do you think I'm gonna do? I'm gonna save the fuckin' day!" -- (Con Air) Paul

6. "The time to make up your mind about people is never."

7. "Tell me about my dear, dear Daddy! Is it true that he's dead?
"We hope so, they buried him."

8. "You're 40 years-old and you're in love with this little girl that's 10 years-old. You're four times as old as that girl and you couldn't marry her, could you?"
"Not unless I come from the mountains. "
"All right- you're 40 years-old, you're four times as old as this girl, and you can't marry her, so you wait five years. By that time the little girl's 15 and you're 45. You're only three times as old as that little girl. So you wait 15 years and when the girl is 30, you're at 60. You're only twice as old as that little girl. "
"She's catching up."

9. "You said you'd be right back."
"I'm so sorry. "
"Me too." (Cast Away -- Congrats, Anonymous)

10. "Don't cry at the beginning of a date. Cry at the end, like I do." (Jerry McGuire -- Anonymous again)

11. "How can you be so obtuse?" -- (Shawshank Redemption) Art

12. "I think I'm scared, Dad."
"That's okay, son. We're all scared.
"Well... if I don't like it, can I still come back?"
"Are you kidding? We've let out your room."

13. "You gotta learn to laugh, it's the way to true love."

14. "Why do ya have to tear him down? What are ya so afraid of? What have you got to lose? He wasn't selling anything! He didn't want anything from anybody! He wanted nothing from nobody! Nothing! And you people have to tear him down so you can sleep better tonight! So ya can prove that the world is flat and ya can sleep better tonite! Am I right? Am I right?... I'm right... The Hell with all of ya. The Hell with everyone of ya." (Phenomenon) -- Good work, RZ

15. "Yes continue, great niggerologist." Good work, Thaddeus!

I tag Laura, devilvet, Travis, Nick, and Mike.

Fundable

Douglas Coler, commenting on my post below concerning "1000 True Fans," writes:

Scott, you beat me to it! I also read the 1000 True Fans post and immediately thought of Theatre Tribe. 1000 true fans (+ exponential growth)=subscription base, or nearly so.

I'm also intrigued by the concept of Fundable, which is almost a Kiva type organization in that projects are put forward and funds requested but not distributed until the total requested amount has been pledged. It's not a perfect solution, but one that seems a relatively painless way to raise money. Certainly worth exploring.
Brilliant! And if such an approach could be promoted both locally and nationally (internationally?), a theatre with an innovative approach might really get rolling. What would be interesting, in addition, is to figure out a way your theatre could provide your Fundable fans with evidence of the results of their contributions and interest. For instance, could you produce videos of your productions that would only be distributed to fans? Lots of food for thought... What are YOUR ideas?

1000 True Fans

Kevin Kelly writes about the power of "1000 True Fans." While he isn't discussing a theatre tribe specifically, the idea dovetails nicely with the idea of theatre tribes creating an on-going relationship with the audience instead of simply selling to the large unknown mass. His mathematics are interesting...

Dennis Baker

Thanks to Dennis Baker for his interest in the theatre tribe idea. He is responsible for setting up the Facebook group (an idea that, oddly, never occurred to me despite the fact that I have been a reasonably active Facebook participant for about a year), and he offers a poignant post about his interest in the theatre tribe exploration. Check him out!

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Theatre Tribe is on Facebook

Go Join!

Too Close for Comfort

This is funny, but it gives me the creaps!



Diebold Accidentally Leaks Results Of 2008 Election Early

EcoTheater Blog

I LOVE the blog world! Please check out this blog: EcoTheater, written by Mike Lawler! If you'd like to learn ways for your theatre to be more ecologically friendly, this is a must read!

Model: Make It Sustainable (Scenery)

[devilvet bullet point: Create a visual aesthetic for your company that involves a flexible permanent setting.]

So you have created a decentralized permanent ensemble theatre in a smaller city following a tribal model that includes ancillary activities as part of the theatre's income. (For more resources, go here.) On the Tribal Theatre website, there is a link called "sustainability" -- what is that about in this model? Barbara Carlisle and Randy Ward, two professors at Virginia Tech, have discussed this in an article entitled "Writing for Ralph: An Exploration in the Dramaturgy of a Sustainable Theatre," which was published in Theatre Topics in 1999. They began their article as follows:
Since at least 1990, the authors of this article--director and playwright Barbara Carlisle, with scenographer and lighting designer Randy Ward--have been participating in a common theatre problem at Virginia Tech. As a department we pride ourselves in maintaining high standards of execution to provide valid design and technical learning for our students. At the same time we confront increasing materials costs with fixed budgets, intense pressure to meet overlapping production deadlines, and perhaps more importantly, deep discomfort with the unrecycled waste that has gone out the door after each production. In every respect we have balked at the model we were perpetuating for our students--debilitating burnout, financial anxiety, and production panic. In writing the book Hi Concept - Lo Tech*, Barbara and her co-author Don Drapeau (also of Virginia Tech) coined the expression "sustainable theatre" to refer to the need for a mode of theatre making that does not deplete the resources of the theatre makers (174). Yet our theatre at Virginia Tech was not sustainable. We were working off the backs of exhausted students and staff, caught up in a theatre mythology that presumes "if you're not willing to kill yourself for the art, you better get out."
In a letter to the faculty, scenographer Randy Ward wrote:

In an era of constantly accelerating decline of natural resources, are we justified in the consumption of material and the landfill impact of very short-term construction applications? I am disturbed by the cavalier way we utilize wood and wood pulp products. We should find a more ecologically sound approach to theatre production. A university theatre--perhaps any artistic enterprise--should challenge the old modes and set new models, not just propagate past traditions. Try as we might, there is still an unspoken value system that equates tonnage of built scenery with the value or importance of a production.
His proposal was to create RALPH -- a name originally chosen as a joke because they couldn't figure out what to call it, and eventually acronymized to mean "
Radically Alternate Limited Production Habitat." It was a permanent set, sort of -- but not in the Jacques Copeau sense, but in a very flexible, creative sense. Carlisle and Ward write:
A flexible set of elements, such as those we routinely use in the workshops, would not be sufficient; RALPH must have its own character, its own voice....Our idea was that RALPH would be designed in advance of the season selection, and would, in some respects, inform the choice of season. It would provide a theatrically challenging environment with the possibility of some tailoring to a specific production via lighting, props, and detail elements, or, in some cases, projections. We imagined that every two or three years a new structure would be designed with an altered theatrical emphasis--ladders and doorways, trampolines and jungle gyms, sails and fabric. A new set of tools and a different aesthetic would drive each RALPH.... RALPH was never intended to be neutral, nor a clever framework that would be disguised. Its form would remain a constant from production to production. The individuality of each production would be realized in the way the workbench is spatially used by the actors. RALPH might change over time, and new RALPHs might be built; but most, if not all, RALPHs would involve objects to be arranged by the actors and director into a specific configuration during the rehearsal process. RALPH would offer a physical aesthetic giving tangible life to the performance.

Randy's first designs contained a basic square platform, twelve feet by twelve feet, a three-sided gallery projecting from the back walls of the Studio Theatre at twelve feet above the stage floor, a long set of stairs to the gallery with a landing at midpoint, and Piranesi/Escher-like painted doorways and architectural frames on the full back and side walls.

So the faculty at Virginia Tech moved toward a sustainable scenography through the creation of a flexible set that was used and adapted for several seasons. In many respects, this has echoes of theatre history, when Restoration theatres, for instance, unveiled new settings at the beginning of a season and used the same sets for multiple plays.

Peter Hall, perhaps more influenced by the Elizabethan theatre, created a similar aesthetic when he led the Old Vic
John Gunter developed a simple design where the actor and his text was clearly presented on a well-planked stage. The actor, his passion, a few visual elements and some bare boards: this was all we had or needed. The audience's imagination was encouraged -- we had no technology or complication.... By having a strong design discipline at the Old Vic -- in effect a permanent stage -- we spent little of our money on building and rebuilding sets. Our changeovers from one play to another took one hour -- no more than is customary to set back to the beginning of a single play. We were able to play real repertory -- which meant a change of play after every performance.... Did the permanent stage at the Old Vic result in monotony? I don't think so. There were no complaints from the critics or from the public, and several other designers enjoyed using John Gunter's stage as an environment in which they could place the essential images for their own play. Everything on the stage was strictly demanded by the action, and at all times we tried to avoid decoration. [italics mine] We never needed to go 'dark' in order to dress rehearse a new play, because the ready avilability of the stage allowed us to dress-rehearse during the day. We then maintained our repertory each evening. The maximum use of the stage was therefore enjoyed both for rehearsals and for performances. And for seven days a week, theatre was alive.

You might not have the audience (yet) to justify having a show running seven days a week, but if you could run in rep you could keep plays around long enough for word of mouth to take hold, which would cut down on the need to sell out from performance one (because, of course, you can't sell the unbought tickets after the performance is over, right?). And the flexibility allows other things equally valuable to the tribal theatre. If you make your space available for rental to other groups for meetings, for instance, you don't have to worry about your set being damaged or otherwise in the way. You could open your space to other theatre groups in your community, again without worrying about your scenery getting damaged, and thus create goodwill in your theatre community. Do you offer after-school classes? Use the stage.

But most importantly, the amount of materials --
expensive materials -- that you don't have to buy, and don't have to dispose of when a show closes, is environmentally and economically friendly to your theatre's budget and ethics. It also helps with workload by making sure that your ensemble members don't have to spend hours and hours building scenery in addition to all the other aspects involved with putting up a season of plays. Thus, this approach is also physically and personally sustainable as well. Everybody wins!


*I highly recommend Hi Concept, Lo Tech as a must-read book for anyone thinking about creating a small theatre, tribal or not. It is unfortunate that it has gone out of print, mainly because it dared to question the standard way we create theatre in the modern world. Note: After reviewing this book again, I should say that it is comprised mostly of exercises for use in creating theatre. There is very little theory or how-to (although there are plans at the end for creating reusable furniture that folds up for storage). It is filled with exercises that help you explore the hi concept - lo tech aesthetic.

Do I Contradict Myself? Then I Contradict Myself!

Actually, I don't think this contradicts what I just posted below, but simply acknowledges the complexity of the theatre audience. In an article on the Guardian blgo entitled "Theatres Should Be Proud to be Bourgeois," Lyn Gardner writes:

Just before Christmas in an interview in the Times, Chichester's Church questioned "the amount of money that's been spent pursuing audiences who don't want to come in cities that don't really want theatre". He added: "Too much time has been spent creating work to find new audiences without supporting the audiences who came in the first place."

Church contrasted his experience at Birmingham Rep, a city of two million where he said he had to fight to get 15,000 people to come to a play, with Chichester, a city of 25,000 where 25,000 people will come. "Yes the audience here is older than average. But they're theatre literate. They're passionate. They built and supported the theatre and they're thirsty for new work. This is the only regional city I've worked in where 'new play' isn't two swearwords. So I think this audience is brilliant."

So where does that leave us? Clearly audience development that tries to broaden theatre's appeal and reach wider, younger and more culturally diverse audiences is important. After all you don't know if you're going to like something until you've tried it. But when leading theatre practitioners suggest that we shouldn't throw the baby out with the bath water, maybe it's worth reminding ourselves that an audience is an audience, and all audiences are of equal value.

If theatres enter into contracts with audiences that really put the audience at the centre of their work, perhaps they will discover that the much derided traditional middle-class, middle-aged audience isn't as adverse to risk and innovation as they imagine.


The sentence that is bold is bold at my behest. Let me print it again: If theatres enter into contracts with audiences that really put the audience at the centre of their work... That seems to me to be key. It pertains not only to a tribal theatre discussion, but also the discussion of new plays as well: the Chichester audience, according to Church, is older but is committed to new plays. It also pertains to the discussion of seeking out smaller cities: Chichester is a city of 25,000 and it more enthusiastically supports a professional theatre than Birmingham, a city that is eight times larger.

Put the audience at the center of your work.

Mark Ravenhill on Rich People

Mark Ravenhill, posting on why "Rich Donors and Diversity Don't Mix" on the Guardian blog, reinforces for me why this quixotic quest for a new theatre model free, as much as possible, from government and corporate grants is desirable. He writes about being interviewed for a position as artistic director for a prominent London theatre:

One question came as a total surprise, given that we were talking about the future of an organisation that has always prided itself on its radical past. "How well," I was asked, "do you get on with very rich people? Getting on with rich individuals will be an important part of the job." Up until then, I had answered every question, however lamely. But now I was speechless. My interviewer pressed me: "I ask because we're reliant on donations from wealthy individuals to continue our work." More silence from me until I finally cracked a lame joke. "I always enjoy a flirtation with a rich old widow," I said and mumbled a paraphrase of John Lennon's "and you in the posh seats rattle your jewellery" line. My inability to successfully field this one felt like the killer blow to my application, and I staggered from the room, utterly defeated.

Looking back, I realise how naive I was not to prepare some thoughts. After all, this organisation, like every other arts organisation today, has an office dedicated to raising money from charitable trusts, large businesses and wealthy individuals. Why appoint someone who isn't keen to meet the rich and solicit money from them?

In today's climate, if you're looking to appoint someone to lead an arts organisation, you will be looking for a candidate who could get you a big tick in the all-important "diversity" box; everyone is agreed that we mustn't keep drawing on the same circle of Oxbridge-educated white men. But it would also have to be someone whose address book was stuffed with friends and contacts who have inherited large fortunes or made a killing in the City, and are now ready to show some largesse towards the arts. It's a circle that is pretty near impossible to square.

I wish we in the arts didn't have to take a penny from wealthy individuals. Having to dance around the small group of wealthy people - individually good, kind people - who donate their money to the arts gradually erodes the energy and focus of cultural organisations. As fundraising dinners and gala evenings increasingly fill the calendars of theatres, opera houses and galleries, they have less time for the very activity for which they exist: making and delivering art to people of all social backgrounds. Of course, I'd be surprised if there is an artistic director in Britain who consciously weighs up decisions in the light of the opinions of a circle of wealthy donors. But constantly spending time with them, and not with a more representative sample of your audience, is bound to skew your judgment eventually.

Dudley Cocke, in "Arts in a Democracy," said something similar about American theatre: "With most (80 percent) of its audience drawn from the top 15 percent of the income scale, the assembled spectators for the typical not-for-profit professional theater production don’t look like any community in the U.S., except, perhaps, a gated one. From such a narrow social base, great democratic art will never rise."

Mike Daisey says something similar in "How the Arts Failed America," in the section of his performance that discusses whether the wealthy wouldn't be turned off by sharing "their" theatre with poor people, or people of different colors. Again it was Dudley Cocke who provided the concrete example, which I quoted here.

I think the theatre audience should reflect our country, and not be solely a playground for the educated rich. But when they're the ones who pay the fiddler, it is hard not to create tunes they'd like on their iPod. It's not that it is impossible to maintain one's independence -- I'd just like to try to imagine a theatre model that doesn't rely to such a large extent on the wealthy, who, as Ravenhill notes, are nice people. I'm not one of those who thinks that money equals evil. As Shaw once said, I have no problem with money -- I think everybody ought to have some...

Even if we could cut down by 10% our reliance on the government and the wealthy, we'd be better off.

Impeach Bush Now

Presidents have made mistakes before -- he shouldn't be impeached for those errors in judgment, no matter how disastrous (and they have been disastrous). But his open flouting of the Constitution through signing statements, pardons, and refusing to respond to subpoenas all represents a fascist view of leadership that is beyond reprehensible -- it is undemocratic. Impeach Bush now!

Monday, March 03, 2008

Ripples

For Isaac, who is talking about "Kinds of Change":

"I don't indulge in these speculations in order to lay claim to powers of prophecy. I toss them into the water to show you what part of the pond I'm aiming at...and to let you follow the ripples back to the shore of the present."

"A tribe is a group of people making a living together, and there's no one right way for this to be done. Be inventive."

--Daniel Quinn, Beyond Civilization
All of this is new to me, too, and like you I'm not certain how or if I fit into it. Anyone seeking certainty on this blog is not likely to find it. But I will try to keep putting one step in front of the other to explore where this vision leads. Don't follow me, but fan out to explore alternate roots.

Karl Miller's Ruminations of Zack Mannheimer

The sporadically-posting Karl Miller offers these and other comments on Zachary Mannheimer's project in Des Moines. If this is how Miller writes, I wish he'd write more!

Insofar as we are concerned about the health and integrity of "American Theatre," we must explore our own nation. I don't see this as a mere corrective to the self-defeating NY-centric model that currently dominates. And I'm not just gushing because it happens to involve my boyhood home -- Zach chronicles a tour through the country that leaves open the possibility for similar developments in Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Omaha, and Missoula.

I haven't read his entire blog yet (it's as much a drinking tour of the heartland as a cultural survey), but here's what I admire most about the whole enterprise. We compare theatre to religion. We compare it to music. We compare it to a gallery. A gymnasium. A hospital. I believe that the raw ingredients of theatre are time, space, and people. Any project that takes the time to enter new spaces and connect with different people is good for theatre. So while we theatre folk often feel a kindred calling with priests, musicians, painters, athletes and doctors ... it must be said that we are also, at heart, a brotherhood of explorers.

Kudos to Don Hall (and Why I'm Doing Something Else)

I'd like to applaud Don Hall for his planned efforts to create an "Off Loop Freedom Charter" modeled on the South African Freedom Charter, and also his plans to lobby the city of Chicago to use empty city-owned buildings for arts centers, and to give tax breaks to anyone who rents to a small-budget arts organizations. With all my heart, I wish him the best of luck -- anything that makes it easier for artists to create is worth the effort. Don is following a well-worn path, one that Isaac might be able to confirm takes a page out of Saul Alinky's Rules for Radicals -- community organizing, fixing a streetlight (or, in this case, perhaps a water main). I will be watching with great interest to see how Don's effort goes.

But it isn't what I'm doing here.

And that's OK, because we shouldn't all be doing the same thing. We need as many experiments as we can afford in order to find out what works. There are armies of scientists trying to find a cure for cancer, all working on different theories and taking different approaches, and because of that there is a better chance that a cure will be found. There are a lot of people trying to figure out a cure for what ails the American theatre; some are writing blogs, some creating theatre companies, some working within institutions. Who knows who will discover the most effective way?

So why am I not taking Don's approach? Ironically, Don himself answered the question himself on today's blog post, "George Carlin and the Truth." In a 3-minute segment from what I assume is one of Carlin's monologues, Carlin scathingly dismantles any belief in government as self-delusion, portraying politicians as bought and totally controlled by the Rich, and by Big Business, all to the detriment of the working people (a group that I, and I suspect Don as well, would see as including artists -- Carlin explicitly includes himself in the group). Don then follows this with a quotation from Daniel Quinn's Ishmael that says there is nothing intrinsically wrong with people, but that they are following a story that puts them in opposition to the world. "Tell a new story," Don concludes. "And keep telling it."

While I don't quite have the level of despair that Carlin has, I don't have much faith that government or Big Business will help us out. I'd like to try to figure out a way of creating theatre that is independent from government grants, independent from foundation support. Why?

Recently, somebody reminded me that the work of Ariane Mnouchkine's internationally renowned Theatre du Soleil bears a resemblance to the tribe model of creation, so I was reading Collaborative Theatre: The Theatre de Soleil Sourcebook this weekend and came across a quotation that rang true. It was buried in a footnote on p 41: "In May 1973, the Soleil and other groups staged a large demonstration and procession from the Place de la Nation, in response to remarks by the then Minister of Culture, Maurice Druon, to the effect that, 'People who come to the door of the Ministry with a beggar's bowl in one hand and a Molotov cocktail in the other will have to choose...'" And this was in France, which American's often look to as an example of enlightened arts funding! If you want money, drop the Molotov cocktail. I am tired of seeing theatres going everywhere with a beggar's bowl in one hand, because inevitably those who fill it will ask for consideration, and that's only a fair expectation.

If possible -- and it may not be possible, that remains to be seen -- I'd like to explore a model that could do without a beggar's bowl. It's not as practical, and not as immediate, as Don's approach, but it doesn't rely on others to make it happen, and it might have more long-term effects. I don't know, I don't know.

I'll end with my own Daniel Quinn quotation, this (predictably) from Beyond Civilization, a segment called "The incremental revolution": "I say again that, because we don't expect to overthrow the governments, abolish world capitalism, make civilization vanish, turn everyone in the world into walking buddhas, or cure all social and economic ills, we don't have to wait for anything. If ten people walk beyond civilization and build a new sort of life for themselves, then those ten are already living in the next paradigm, from the first day. They don't need the support of an organization. They don't need to belong to a party or a movement. They don't need new laws to be passed. They don't need permits. They don't need a constitution. They don't need tax-exempt status. For those ten, the revolution will already have succeeded."