Saturday, April 26, 2008

Hick on Rethinking Values

Great post by S. P. Miskowski entitled "American Theatre and the Hick." A taste, but read the whole thing:

The Hick View: It's about time for artists to take a hard look at their values, their options, and their lives and start thinking of ways to create and present live performance without depending on regional theaters. The regional theater model has been a complete disaster because no one has stuck to its principles, so maybe we ought to accept what theater is, what it isn't, and what we can make it. One way to do more than just survive is to recommit ourselves to a model much older than the regional theater (which came into being in this country only about forty years ago).

The old way? DO IT YOURSELF.

[snip]

Plenty of people in theater will tell you the DIY approach is silly and won't make you rich. Ask them if they are rich. Ask them if their house or car is paid off. Ask them if they have health insurance. Ask them if they're offering you a job when they mock your plan to bypass their theater....This is what I have come to realize after twenty years in theater: You won't get anything from regional theaters, other than a come-on and (at best) a staged reading. So while you have the joy and enthusiasm for this art form, just go for it.
Couldn't have said it better myself!

Lot Full

I did my undergraduate work at the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, a huge campus of over 50,000 students. Of course, with that many students, not to mention the faculty and staff of the university, the major problem was predictable: parking. If you got to campus after a certain time, you usually found "Lot Full" signs standing in the entrances to most of the parking lots on campus, and often there were a dozen or so cars sitting in line waiting for somebody to finish class and vacate a spot. Sometimes you'd sit there an hour before there was a space for you.

The point I have been trying to make about Nylachi, and most recently about DC, is that these lots are full. When a lot on the U of MN campus is full, nobody went from building to building trying to get people who had a spot in that lot to move their cars. That would be a waste of time. But if there were other lots on campus that had plenty of parking spaces available, one might go up to the drivers of the cars in line and tell them, "Hey, maybe you oughta check out that lot about two blocks away -- they have lots of open spaces." And then it's up to the line-sitter to decide.

The same is true of the theatre. Don Hall has a spot in the Chicago lot, and for some reason he thinks I'm trying to persuade him to move to another lot, so he feels the need to defend his reason for parking there. I hope that Don and all my Nylachi friends will not take it personally when I say I'm not all that concerned with why you chose Nylachi, why you love it, why you stay. I am not trying to get you to pack up and head for some non-Nylachi place. I am thrilled for you that your Nylachi life is splendid. But to all those young people who are sitting in line waiting for a chance to park, I say, "Hey, there's another lot a few blocks away with a lot of space, you might want to try it out." I'm not telling them they have to go to another lot -- they can stay in line if they want. But they should know that they don't have to.

Don's reasons are perfectly valid. Some of them are about being a consumer -- lots of things to do in Chicago, lots of people to hang out with. My assumption, which for some people may be incorrect, is that doing work yourself is more satisfying than seeing the work of others. My assumption is that having the opportunity to do more work is an important motivator. And if what really revs your engine is competition -- playing in front of an audience in Nylachi is somehow beating the odds, and so more satisfying -- then more power to you. I have the belief, again perhaps not shared by everybody but perhaps shared by some, that an audience is an audience, people are not more important because of where they live, and that there might even be more satisfaction bringing the arts to a community that wouldn't have an opportunity to partake otherwise.

But let me reiterate: if you live in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington DC, or any other large city with a vigorous theatre scene and you are happy there, you have my applause and my blessing to just stay right where you are. And if you are someone who dreams of living in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington DC or any other large city with a vigorous theatre scene and you're willing to wait in line for the opportunity to try your hand, again you have my applause and my blessing to do exactly that. As if you all need my applause and blessing.

But if you are a theatre artist who doesn't want the big city life, who wants a family and a house, who thinks that 99 people in Vermillion IN are as important as 99 people in Greenwich Village, who wants the best chance to work frequently to develop your craft, then I invite you to consider the ideas I am developing.

It's as simple as that. It's another option. It's a choice.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Link to Blog: "Regional Communities"

There is a link to one of my posts at the "Regional Communities -- Think Local Planet, Act Regionally Website," which does a weekly list of links to blogs and articles about regional thinking. Tom Christoffel, the blogmeister, describes the purpose of this blog: ""Think local planet, act regionally" is a paradigm that balances "Think globally, act locally." More and more, it takes a region, a "community of communities" to solve problems. This is an exploration of emerging regional communities. "Community precedes cooperation." This is my thesis. It comes from over 30 years of working for regional cooperation. Community teams and teaming are collaborative methods for facilitating cooperation without attempting to eliminate competition." If you are looking to expand your conception of the theatre tribe beyond simply an artistic concern, I recommend checking in with Tom!

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Breaking News

Wow! Ian's the next Mike Lawler! Big Artist Undies news!

Theatre Ideas Jumps the Pond

I am astonished to find Chris Wilkinson of the Guardian blog weighing in on the anonymous blogging controversy in Asheville and the theatrosphere in a post entitled "Noises Off: Unnamed and Unashamed." Of all the things I thought might attract attention from Europe on this blog, this was low on my list! But thanks, Chris!

Marketing guru Seth Godin, author of The Dip, Purple Cow, and Meatball Sundae among other things, has oft written about how the anonymity of the web supports all kinds of nefarious activity from incivility to viruses to participation in adult chat rooms (how many people, he asks, would be found in adult chat rooms if they had to log in with their actual name...).

Anyway, I tend to agree with Godin -- I'd never log in to a sex chat room if I... no, wait a minute, that's not what I meant to say. What I meant to say is that without the benefit of so many aspects of real life conversation (facial expression, body language, vocal inflection), online communication already suffers from enough drawbacks without adding the lack of personal context that anonymity provides.

To be honest, I think that one of the things that prevents real growth and innovation in all areas of human endeavor, and especially in collaborative art forms, is fear of honesty. And I mean that both in terms of the expression of honest ideas, and the hearing of honest ideas. The willingness of artists to discount and reject any criticism they receive, rather than carefully considering any ideas about their work they are lucky enough to receive, is a sign of weakness and narcissism, in my opinion. The fact is that if all the artists in the world would just put on their Big Artist Undies and learn how to welcome criticism as valuable feedback, then all those people who are right now too cowardly to state an opinion without benefit of a curtain of anonymity might follow suit and put on their Big Person Undies and learn to speak their mind in a thoughtful and civil way.

Expressing ideas takes practice. One of the reason that most criticism you receive from theatre people in conversation is so unhelpful is that we don't have enough practice to make it worthwhile. We just blabber on about things as they enter our head without real reflection or self-examination. We didn't like the show, and so we'll come up off the top of our head with some reason: slow line pickup, didn't "believe" the performance, it was "boring." None of these are particularly helpful. You have to go to the next level -- what specifically made the performance unbelievable, the play boring, the lines too slow? And how much of this is about you, not about the performance? Were you bored because you don't have much interest in discussions of abstract concepts, or movement oriented work, or plays in verse? That's about you, not about the production or performance. Did you not believe the performance because you would have played the role differently? That's about you, too.

I occasionally serve as a respondent for college productions that have been entered in the American College Theatre Festival. This requires me to see a show, and then provide comments to the assembled cast, director, and design team within ten minutes of the performance being finished. It is a hard, hard thing to do, made even harder if the show I see is early in the run. One of the things I have learned I have to do is separate out, as much as possible, all of the opinions that are based on how I would have done the show. Instead, I have to look at moments that were particularly good or particularly bad and ask myself why did I respond that way? How specific can I be about that? Was the problem physical, vocal, facial, movement-oriented? I have found that the more specific I can be, the more open people are to hearing what I have to say. As importantly, I have found that people are much more willing to be open if I make sure to look them in the eye when I make the comment, and try to radiate through my face and voice the goodwill that underlies my comments. If artists sense that your feedback comes from a respect for their efforts, they seem to relax and listen.

If you have read my blog over time, you know my voice, you know my predilections, you know the context from which I write. By knowing I am in North Carolina and not New York City, for instance, you know something that may be useful in understanding what I write. By knowing that I am a middle-aged, white college professor, you know something else. By knowing that I come from a working-class family and that I am the only one to have received a higher education, you know something else. And knowing those things helps my words ring more true, I believe.

If you need a shot of anonymity in order to speak your truths, I think you just need more practice, because if you offer your ideas thoughtfully and after due consideration, people will respect you more than abhor you.

My name is Scott E. Walters, and I approved this blog post.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Jason Grote on NPAC Presentation

I must admit to being puzzled by Jason Grote's blog post on the "blog of the National Performing Arts Convention" entitled "Watching the Watchers: Gauging Audience Response." Perhaps it is the difficulty of writing something about an event that hasn't happened yet, but the more I read of his post the more I found myself despairing. Why? The first sentence of Jason's post reads, "While I can't speak to the specifics of the study in question, I generally think that surveys measuring audience response are a bad idea." A little later, he writes, "With all due respect to Mr. Yoshitomi and Mr. Brown, with whose methods I am not at all familiar, I feel that "Measuring the Intrinsic Impact" of any work of art is an idea with potentially disastrous results for the creative process generally." Further down, he draws a parallel to film focus groups (because, I guess, the description of the study reminds him of them), saying "While I can't cite any precise data on the failure or success of these methods, and of course can't speak to their similarity to the study in question, I have heard anecdote after anecdote about its failure as both an aesthetic and a profit-making strategy." (italics in above quotations all mine)

First of all, while this presentation hasn't occurred yet, the study is available as a pdf download. There's even a summary, if reading the whole study takes too much time. In addition, Andrew Taylor wrote about the study on the ArtsJournal blog The Artful Manager on January 9th and January 16th, I wrote about the study on January 18th, and Butts in Seats commented on this study on January 24th.

I know that Jason is a busy man and he can't spend time doing tons of research, but at the same time if you are going to dismiss a presentation as "potentially dangerous" without having read more than a conference blurb is a little irresponsible, especially when a quick Google search would have uncovered all these useful connections.

The fact is that the WolfBrown study has nothing to do with the creation of art, so Jason need not worry, but is actually about what factors lead to a higher level of engagement and satisfaction with the art that is being put in front of an audience. For instance, as I wrote in January, the study discussed 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."

In actuality, the WolfBrown study might help theatres figure out how best to market and prepare the potential audience for, say, Jason's next marvelous play by examining what sort of pre-show activities and information for a similar type of arts activity leads to an audience most likely to be engaged by Jason's work. It might help theatres to figure out just why they exist and what experience they offer.

Anyway, the point is that this was a significant study that actually has some interesting things to say about how audiences perceive the arts, so instead of defending the arts on the basis of how much people spend in restaurants when they go to a play, or by saying that kids who participate in the arts do better in their classes, we might talk about the impact the arts have on people. To reject it after consideration is one thing -- Andrew loved it, I loved it, Butts in Seats seemed uncomfortable; to reject it having only read a conference blurb, especially when the report is available on line, is another.

I am considering attending NPAC, and if I do I suspect I will also attend this presentation. I also intend to keep up with the NPAC blog, and I look forward to what will undoubtedly be more well-considered and thoughtful posts.

Maybe It Ought To Be NYLACHIDC

...except I wouldn't know how to pronounce it. Maybe "Ni -LAH-chee-dik." Anyway, from the Washington Post's "More Shows, Fewer Showgoers":
The number of stage performances and theater companies in and around Washington went up last year, while overall attendance dropped 1.9 percent, according to statistics from the Helen Hayes Awards organization. Despite that dip, 2007 was the busiest year since the first tally in 1985, the Hayes group said, with 67 professional companies presenting 8,050 performances of 454 shows. That is an increase from 2006 of three companies, 402 performances and 20 shows.

Metropolitan Washington is a busier theater district than the Chicago area, according to Hayes Executive Director Linda Levy Grossman. Though Chicago has more theater companies, "the D.C. area still does more work," she noted via e-mail.

Even so, derrieres in seats numbered about 36,000 fewer in 2007, the Hayes staff reported, with 1,908,557 people attending shows. The dip in comparison with 2006 adds more weight to the conventional wisdom that the audience isn't quite keeping up with the burgeoning theater community. Attendance also dipped by about 1.2 percent from 2005 to 2006, much less than the 8.5 percent drop the previous year.

Audiences shrinking while performances increase -- not a particularly good formula. So Washington theatre artists, frustrated with the difficulties, will likely make the even less rational decision to pack up and head for NYC. Heck, why be out of work in DC when you can be out of work in NYC?

I continue to be baffled by the stubborn refusal to acknowledge that the law of supply and demand applies to theatre as well as any other product in the world. The Cinderella story is a powerful deterrent to rational thinking, that's for sure. But I'm sure the theatre owners, resume photographers, newspaper ad salesmen, and brochure printers will be happy to have your business. Just keep maxing out those credit crads -- you'll make it any day now.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Nice Graph, Isaac!

Isaac at Parabasis has done a nice job converting NEA budgets over the years to 2008 money. While it is tempting to blame the precipitous drop on the Reagan presidency and the ascendancy of the Republican Congress, we might do well to remember (especially in this primary season) that the arts didn't do very well during the Clinton Administration, either. I never noticed a particularly strong commitment to the arts during those years.

I wish the Backstage blogger had this graph before getting all oogly-googly about the NEA budget increase.

I'm all for Isaac's Lifeblood Initiative, and frankly I think there would be interest in it at the NEA as well. There actually are grants for new works at the NEA, although they seem to be tied to the creation individual works and projects rather than providing a salary for individual playwrights.

Meantime, I am trying to develop a business model that treads as lightly as possible in the realm of government and private funding, which might be a nice complement to Isaac's efforts. To simultaneously try to get more money and need it less might be a recipe for real progress...

Monday, April 21, 2008

On Unexamined Assumptions and Mike Daisey

In my post entitled "Ranting on Teaching, Backstage, and the Level of Discourse," I wrote asbout the "the dismal level of theatrical discourse." When "our journalists show such a lack of depth," I wrote, "such a dearth of critical thinking, such a superficial understanding of theatre history -- well, is it any wonder that our art form itself is about as deep as a child's plastic swimming pool." Case in point: "Shaking Things Up, Regionally Speaking," an article in Sunday's New York Times by Jason Zinoman about Mike Daisey's performance, How the Theatre Failed America.

Zinoman, who apparently keeps up with the theatrosphere, begins by noting the "fevered debate online" (fevered, or heated? Fevered implies some level of babbling hallucination, doesn't it?). He then checks in with a few regional theatre representatives, both of whom exhibit the lack of intellectual wherewithal that leads me to despair for the fate of theatre in this country.

First up is Kurt Beattie, the artistic director of A Contemporary Theater in Seattle, who "has been a longtime admirer of Mr. Daisey’s and has even presented his work," but who "was surprised by how shallow [How Theatre Failed America] was and inapplicable to my theater community.” It was inapplicable and shallow, Mr. Beattie said, because "even if he [Beattie] wanted to import actors, he could not afford it." Excuse me, but WTF? My stepson's father once told him, perhaps indelicately, that "the world does not revolve around your asshole," and it is a lesson that so many theatre people, including Kurt Beattie, could stand to learn. Daisey's observations are inapplicable because ACT can't afford to bring in actors from outside Seattle? Does Beattie think that Daisey's play is about his theatre alone? Is the title How A Contemporary Theatre Failed America? Does he have any knowledge at all about what is happening in the rest of the country, or even in the rest of the theatres in his city? Does he really mean to suggest that Mike Daisey is making this up?

Beattie's solipsistic comments are pure genius compared to those of Nicholas Martin, the outgoing artistic director of the Huntington Theatre in Boston, who had not seen Daisey's show but had read his essay in "The Stranger." Martin dismissed Daisey's idea of raising money for "endowed chairs" for actors (instead of raising money for enormous buildings) with an unqualified "it would never work." Why? “The actors you want just aren’t available for that long,” he said. “Second, the guys who have the money aren’t going to give it to a local actor.”

First of all, has nobody noticed that Martin's lines totally contradict Beattie's dismissal of Daisey's complaint about imported actors as inapplicable -- clearly, the Huntington (or the Huntington's money guys) have no interest in supporting local actors.

More importantly, is anybody capable of doing any reflective critical thinking at all? Is anybody capable of examining their own underlying assumptions in light of observations that draw those assumptions into question? Or are we condemned to shallow, bone-headed dismissals by theatre artists who, Candide-like, apparently think that the way things are is the best of all possible worlds?

Let's look at these sentences more closely:

1. “The actors you want just aren’t available for that long." What is the unacknowledged assumption of that statement? It wouldn't be that the actors "you want" are NYC actors who couldn't possibly be kept away from pursuing film and television work for more than a couple months max, could it? It wouldn't be that those are the only actors one could possible want, right? For all my Boston readers, does this statement make your blood boil? Do you see this as the blatant insult that it is? Surely, a mere Boston actor, who would probably be delighted to make himself or herself available for entire seasons at a time , couldn't possibly be an actor that "you want." You only want TV actors. If that insult isn't enough, Martin goes on with the next doosie.

2. “Second, the guys who have the money aren’t going to give it to a local actor.” Now why in the world would this be the case? Are the Boston money men so knowledgeable about the quality of actors that they will only tolerate imported actors? Or would it be because Martin, the man whose opinion would be most influential to the money men, himself doesn't value local actors? I'll tell you what: if I were a Boston actor, I'd be outside the Huntington picketing. But of course they won't, because they are too afraid that they would damage their career by offending a man who doesn't respect them enough to hire them in the first place.

But then Martin outdoes himself for arrogance. Having read Daisey's essay, he says,

3. "I found some of his points very bracing, but the solutions were facile and often na├»ve...My advice to Mike Daisey is, ‘Go run a theater and get back to me.’ ” Can't you hear it? Can't you see in your mind's eye the smarmy smile and the dismissive handwave that accompanies this statement? I imagine Marie Antoinette doing the same gesture as she said "Let them eat cake." First of all, Mike Daisey does run a theatre. It isn't a Big Box Behemoth like the Huntington, but rather a two-person tribe that nevertheless creates vibrant performances that deal with contemporary issues. And that's the point, isn't it? If you operate from the unexamined assumptions of Nicholas Martin -- that corporate theatre is the only way to do "real" theatre, and NYC actors are the only "real" actors that "you want" -- then Daisey's suggestions do, indeed, seem naive, because he doesn't accept those preconceptions as inevitable or even valuable. But if you have the intellectual wherewithal to look critically at what is being done, and the honesty to entertain that there might actually be something wrong with the status quo, then Daisey's comments are more than "bracing," they should be an earthquake.

But alas, the level of complacency is so high in the theatre world, and the lack of imagination is so appallingly low, that a real examination of the way we create theatre is virtually impossible. On his blog, Daisey wrote: "I also have a vested interest of lowering the politeness level in theatrical discourse—which, I hasten to add, is not the same as throwing away civility. I've just seen far too many "discussions" that should have been full-voiced arguments, too many passions squelched in the face of institutionalized hopelessness, and just too much damn silence, especially from the artists who live and work within the system." I agree, but I would add that what is missing from this over-polite discussion is not only passion, but also intellect, critical thinking, basic reflective thought.

As long as we as artists allow ideas to be dismissed in such haughty, uninformed, and superficial ways, and as long as we fail to fully voice our criticisms for fear of "risking career opportunities," the theatre will continue its rapid descent into irrelevance and triviality. It is time that we demand better from each other. It is time that we demand some courage, and some thought, and some reflection. The woods are burning, as Willie Loman said. Are we just going to comment on the pretty orange color while we get our hot dogs on our stick?

Short Elaboration on Previous Post

In my previous post, "Want and Need," I asked the question whether any theatre needs 350 - 400 non-profit theatres. There are some who will point at other cities that have a concentration in a certain industry -- say, Silicon Valley -- and discuss the positive creative effects of having the amount of creative interaction such a concentration affords. And there would be great truth to such an argument -- the circulation of talent and ideas ramps up the creative heat, there is no doubt about it.

Here's the difference between the theatre and Silicon Valley: Silicon Valley, despite being concentrated in a small area, is creating products for the world, whereas the theatre creates products for the locality. If the only people who would buy the computer products created in Silicon Valley were people who lived in Silicon Valley, I guarantee that you would soon find the computer business scattered across the globe.

If you cage up 400 dogs and every day feed them only enough food for 40 of them, you will eventually end up with 360 dead dogs and 40 very powerful dogs capable of fighting for their fair share. That is the theory behind the "if I can't make it there, I'll make it anywhere" motto of New York. One might ask whether the strength of the winners is worth the destruction of the losers, or whether the skills developed as a result of the competition are the skills that lead to the best theatre. Cream rises to the top, but so does pond scum. And my bet is that in the bloody remains of the 360 I would likely find quite a few talents that could have added mightily to world's beauty.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Want and Need

At the end of the NY Times article on the Off-Off-Broadway theatre numbers, Paul Bargetto, the artistic director of East River Commedia, boggles his own mind with what he apparently thinks is a rhetorical question:

"“You start to show people the numbers involved here,” he said. “What city wouldn’t want to have 350 to 400 not-for-profit theater companies?”

A better question might be: What city needs 350 to 400 not-for-profit companies? I suggest a quick read of Garret Hardin's "The Tragedy of the Commons", which discusses how finite resources (in this case, the theatregoing crowd) can be depleted through overuse, as an indirect response to Bargetto's question. Or perhaps a basic economics text about overcrowded markets (see "marginal benefit," "excess supply," and "allocative function of price.")

For anyone with tribal theatre leanings, this report should be printed out and taped to the wall next to your bathroom mirror as a daily reminder of the wisdom of decentralization.

Arlene Goldbard on Obama

One of my favorite blogs is written by Arlene Goldbard, long-time community-based artists and thinker. Friday, she posted an insightful, indeed inspiring, analysis of the latest Presidential debate in terms of Passover. Great stuff.