For a while, at least, I intend to focus much (but not all) of my posting on books and on-line reports that I think will be of value to the theatre world. These books and studies will mostly be drawn from the areas of management, artist-audience relationship, marketing, and development, or books outside the theatre subject area that nonetheless have something relevant to say. I'll try to give a flavor of the work's content, so you can make a decision as to whether you should read it yourself. That said, my summary will not be thorough enough to serve as a substitute for reading the book yourself. There are a lot of people out there who are doing real research into matters that might help theatre artists live more productive and secure lives, and we need to get beyond the urban myths that pass for conventional wisdom in the independent theatre world.
If you are interested in contributing to this effort, I will willingly accept guest posts as part of the series.
Last Sunday, I attended Mike Daisey's How Theatre Failed America, which was extremely good. Daisey is a great storyteller with an outrageous sense of humor and comic timing, and the performance just flew by. I know that people continue to compare him to Spalding Gray, and this is high praise indeed, but the comparison seems a bit odd given Gray's cool, ironic, unemotional style versus Daisey's white-hot outrage and deep emotion. There is no way that Gray could have told a story like the one Daisey tells about a high school "loser" who appeared in a play Daisey directed, which Daisey imbues with an aching sense of empathy and understanding. Even more than his description of his depression, which was darkly beautiful, this story resonated in me as a teacher and, perhaps even moreso, as a teacher in various prisons. I could sense the helplessness.
There was one thing that puzzled me about the performance. Daisey is a storyteller, and in posts I have noted that he talks about talking directly to the audience and engaging them in dialogue. Nevertheless, he uses the traditional theatrical approach of having the stage brightly lit and the audience in total darkness, so that it is pretty much impossible for him to actually see anyone in the theatre or talk directly to them. I know that this is the case because I couldn't see the audience hardly at all during the discussion, at least without shading my eyes. So I ask Mike: why not raise those house lights at least a little, and lower those stage lights a little, and try to actually look your listeners in the eyes? I suspect your words would be even more powerful. Just a thought.
It was a good discussion, if probably a bit long. Mike's show started at 7:00, and we didn't end the discussion until 11:00! The initial focus of the discussion was on ensembles, and I guess I was there because the theatre tribe idea is basically an ensemble. It was a lively discussion, and I suspect I talked too much. John Collins and I found ourselves in disagreement rather frequently, and I can't really remember why any more -- [perhaps his decidedly NY-centric attitude. To be honest, the discussion passed in a blur. I found myself sympatico with Elizabeth Dowd, who has been with Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble for 29 of its 30 years, and who seems to be living a life that is both artistically satisfying and fulfilling as a lifestyle. She was proof that it was possible to have a life in the theatre outside of a major metropolitan area, her theatre being in Bloomsburg PA. (And while you may be tempted, please don't click through to the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble and feel compelled to weigh in on the season choices of her theatre -- while I'm sure it is important to you, it isn't really relevant to the discussion, nor am I particularly interested.)
Once the floor was open to comments and questions, things got more interesting. I particularly remember a few young people demanding that artists be more active in working with high school students as a way of growing the audience for theatre. "What are youdoing about this?," one demanded to know. And the response was, mostly, not much -- "We're too busy trying to make ends meet -- we don't have time." This was greeted with a certain skepticism, as if a drowning man said he didn't have time to swim because he was too busy trying to stay afloat.
The discussion was a personal test for me, because I was accompanied by two people I hold in high regard, Cal Pritner and Evamarii Johnson, who I was pretty certain wouldn't agree with some of what I had to say. It is one thing to have an opinion alone in my study, but to stay true to that opinion in the presence of people you admire more than most is a challenge, at least for me. I managed to do so, I think, and it may have helped that the stage lights kept me from seeing their reactions. The next morning, we had a good conversation about a couple of points, but the most important one is something I want to reiterate: while I am trying to decentralize thw American theatre and find a model that will allow live theatre to spread across America, I am not trying to eliminate the New York theatre. This is not an either or, but a both and. I would like to undermine the hegemony of the New York theatre, yes, but not get rid of it. The fact is that prior to Daisey's performance, I had the privilege to attend August: Osage County, which had the best acting and directing I have ever seen in my career. To me, it isn't an accident that it is the product of an ensemble theatre, and I suspect that the specialness will be greatly lessened by the departure of several of the actors -- I was fortunate to see the last performance with the original cast.
At any rate, thanks to Mike Daisey for asking me to be part of the roundtable -- I felt flattered beyond measure. I had an opportunity to meet Dennis Baker, who was intelligent and articulate, and several other young theatre artists who were interested in finding another path. I wish them the best of luck, and hope to be able to help them in any way I can.
Over at "The Artful Manager," Andrew Taylor (who I regret not tracking down at the conference summarizes his observations. Three of them particularly resonated for me:
We're missing the forest for the trees The daily grind and excessive demands of our professional work lead us to focus on a fairly small circle -- our organization, our community, and sometimes our discipline. This makes a larger conversation about a vast and complex ''performing arts community'' difficult to frame and advance.
We're unaware of the resources around us I heard often during convention conversations that ''there ought to be an organization or resource that...'', describing an entity or resource that had actually been around for decades (arts education on-line repository: ArtsEdge, national advocate for the arts in the public sphere: Americans for the Arts, detailed information on community demographics and trends: American FactFinder from the U.S. Census). It's clear performing arts professionals don't currently have the time or incentive to explore these larger resources, or to understand and inform their value or potential.
Our art forms tell compelling stories, but our industry does not So much of the conversation in Denver was driven by frustration with the lack of perceived resonance, value, and importance of what the performing arts do for society. Government doesn't support us enough. Schools don't work hard enough to sustain and integrate arts education. Audiences don't spend enough on our tickets. We tended to blame the outsiders for this problem -- if they only understood us, they would value us -- but every now and then someone would ask the deeper question: Are we telling our story well? Are we building our story on the values and interests of our community? Are we being as compelling and clear in our organizational narratives as we are on our stages?
Like Andrew, attending the conference was eye-opening, and for me, the most important realization was that artists cannot continue to "focus on a fairly small circle," even if such focus is understandable because of the excessive demands placed on artists by the context of the theatre "industry" (a word I object to using, and one that reflects the wrong turn theatre has taken, in my opinion). Theatre programs across the nation must expand their focus to include more than teaching the skills to create art. Artists must learn to tell the story of the arts in a compelling way, and doing so requires that they understand (and devise themselves) a powerful expression of theatre's purpose and theatre's power, and it requires that they be aware of the resources available to expand their understanding.
When you are struggling for your life, your vision narrows to a pinpoint in order to block out everything except what will save you. In the case of theatre (and of the arts in general), that narrow focus blocks out a great deal that could be used to help you thrive. The tunnel vision appears most dramatically in the pages of Variet, and Show Business, and Backstage, publications that almost obsessively direct focus to the mechanics of the theatre "industry" instead of to the art itself. It isn't that such publications aren't necessary, but when they become an artist's primary source of information you lose a sense of why you decided to do theatre in the first place.
There is another conference in a few days at Americans for the Arts, another organization that can open your mind. But like NPAC last week, the conference at Americans for the Arts will most likely have few artists in attendance. Conferences are expensive, and if you are an artist you may not have the wherewithal to attend one. But I would also venture that, for many artists, there is a lack of interest, a sense that such concerns are "academic" (by which is meant, in our anti-intellectual society, "irrelevant"), and that thinking about the larger issues surrounding the arts is unproductive.
I would argue the opposite. I would argue that action without thought is chaos, and production without purpose is empty. I would argue that the present without a sense of the past is shallow, and intuition without reason is random.
If, as so many people say, theatre has become irrelevant (and I don't think it has; I think it's relevance has gone underground during the tornado of triviality that has swept through the last 25 years) it may be because theatre artists, in the desperate need to simply survive, have lost an awareness of the larger world and their place in it. And what is best about a conference such as NPAC or Americans for the Arts or AlternateROOTs is that you are reminded of your own potential and your own importance.