Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Wal-Marting of the American Theatre

[Note: Welcome to those of you referred here by ArtsJournal.com and Leonard Jacobs' "The Clyde Fitch Report." I hope that you will explore the archives, where you will find many other posts conerning the need to decentralize the American theatre. In response of Leonard Jacobs' post, I have elaborated on the ideas contained in this one in "The Wal-Marting of American Theatre (Part 2)" above. Again, welcome.]

In Chapter 2 of The World Is Flat, Thomas L. Friedman's celebration of the global economy, he lists as "Flattener #7" what he calls "supply-chaining." He writes:
"I had never seen what a supply chain looked like in action until I visited Wal-Mart headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas. My Wal-Mart hosts took me over to the 1.2-million-square-foot distribution center, where we climbed up to a viewing perch and watched the show. On one side of the building, scores of white Wal-Mart trailer trucks were dropping off boxes of merchandise from thousands of different suppliers. Boxes large and small were fed up a conveyor belt at each loading dock. These little conveyor belts fed into a bigger conveyor belt, like streams feeding into a powerful river. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, the suppliers trucks feed the twelve miles of conveyor streams, and the conveyor streams feed into a huge Wal-Mart river of boxed products. But that is just half the show. As the Wal-Mart river flows along, an electric eye reads the bar codes on each box on its way to the other side of the building. There, the river parts again into a hundred streams. Electric arms from each stream reach out and guide the boxes -- ordered by particular Wal-Mart stores -- off the main river and down its stream, where another conveyor belt sweeps them into a waiting Wal-Mart truck, which will rush these particular products onto the shelves of a particular Wal-Mart store somewhere in the country. There, a consumer will lift one of these products off the shelf, and the cashier will scan it in, and the moment that happens, a signal will be generated. That signal will go out across the Wal-Mart network to the supplier of that product -- whether that supplier's factory is in coastal China or coastal Maine. That signal will pop up on the supplier's computer screen and prompt him to make another of that item and ship it via the Wal-Mart supply chain, and the whole cycle will start anew." (151)

I was reminded of Friedman's chillingly gee-whiz paragraph when I was listening to Beth Leavel's keynote speech (or, as Tom Loughlin calls it, "performance") at the Southeastern Theatre Conference (SETC) last Friday, specifically when she responded to a question about Chicago with the following corrective: "All I know is that if I want to work in Chicago, I have to be in New York; if I want to work in Seattle, which is a great theatre town, I have to be in New York; if I want to work in my home town of Raleigh, I have to be in New York."

It occurred to me, as I watched a sea of youthful heads register her implicit advice about what their career destination should be, that New York City is the Bentonville of the theatre world. As in Friedman's description above, theatre educators across America, from high school teachers to undergraduate departments to grad schools, represent the "thousands of different suppliers" who ship their "products" (i.e., their students) from all parts of the nation to New York where they feed the theatrical conveyor belt "like streams into a powerful river." The business of theatre educators is to export a "quality product" that will be accepted by New York headquarters. Once there, if the product is "lucky," it is plucked from the big conveyor belt and shipped to the specific theatre that needs that particular product, wherever those theatres are. Once that product is plucked and successfully consumed at its final destination, the call is communicated back to the student's originating theatre department to create another one like him or her, and as Friedman says "the whole cycle will start anew." Advertisements will appear in American Theatre Magazine crowing "our graduates work," with a picture of the successful product prominently displayed as proof. If we did it once, the ad implies, we can do it again.

The effect of the Wal-Mart supply chain on commerce is well-documented: local businesses are destroyed, money is taken out of the local economy to flow back to headquarters, wages are depressed, and unique cultural products are replaced by homogeneous national brands. Go to any Wal-Mart in America and you will find basically the same products displayed in the same way and at the same low price. The Wal-Marted theatre scene is no different.

Instead of local arts organizations run by and staffed by artists whose lives are made within a specific community and whose artistic vision is informed by that community, Wal-Mart Regional Theatre and Touring House imports generic artists from NYC to do generic plays for a short run after which they depart never to be seen again, taking the community's money with them. This is the system being celebrated by Beth Leavel and every theatre instructor who dazzles their young charges with visions of Tony(tm) Awards.

Wal-Mart isn't good for America, nor is Wal-Mart Theatre. And like the business leaders and legislators who promote Wal-Mart as an economic engine bringing jobs to depressed areas despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, theatre artists and educators who continue to promote this system are promoting a lie.

Seth Godin, in his latest book Tribes: We Need You To Lead Us, draws a distinction between faith and religion. Faith is an inner quality, a belief in certain values that is held in the heart and "leads to hope" and "overcomes fear." "Faith is critical to all innovation," Godin writes, because it is only through faith that one has the courage to step into the unknown.

Religion, on the other hand, "represents a strict set of rules that our fellow humans have overlaid on top of our faith. Religion supports the status quo and encourages us to fit in, not to stand out." Godin goes on to point out that there are "countless religions in our lives" beyond those normally considered when that word is used. "There's the IBM religion of the 1960s, for example, which included workplace protocols, dress codes, and even a precise method for presenting ideas (on an overhead projector). There's the religion of Broadway, which determines what a musical is supposed to look and feel like. There's the religion of the MBA, right down to the standard curriculum and perceptions of what is successful (a job at Bain & Company) and what's sort of flaky (going to work for a brewery)." While religion at its best "is a sort of mantra, a subtle but consistent reminder that belief is okay, and that faith is the way to get where you're going," religion at its worst "reinforces the status quo, often at the expense of our faith." It isn't insignificant that the metaphor Tom Loughlin used to describe what we had both seen at SETC was "drinking the theatrical KoolAid," a reference, of course, to a horrible example of religion at its worst.

Godin promotes the heretic, the individual who opposes a specific religion without losing his basic faith. Martin Luther, for instance, is an example of a heretic who opposed the religious system of the Catholic Church without losing his faith in Biblical Christian ideals. But as Godin notes in the title of one section of the book, "Challenge Religion and People Wonder If You're Challenging Their Faith." This was certainly the case for Luther, and it is also the case for those who would challenge the religion of Wal-Mart Theatre.

Theatre people have a lot of faith. You can see it powerfully whenever someone writes on their blog about the power of theatre to imagine a different future, to express a deeper truth, to tap a deeper joy, to release a flight of fancy. Such faith is the cornerstone of our actions in the face of the barriers to creativity and imagination that our society erects.

But it is the religion of theatre that must be challenged, the rituals and irrationalities that support a destructive system that ultimately robs people of their faith. Theatre-religion schools and organizations, such as most theatre departments and organizations such as SETC, serve the same function as fundamentalist "Jesus Camps" documented in the film by the same name. They are places where the young are brainwashed and indoctrinated with the New York Myth. Like the young people in that film, the young people at SETC seemed happy and content -- they have a clear and simple-minded worldview to which they whole-heartedly subscribe and which provides a "heaven" to aspire to (Broadway) and a mantra that they are encouraged to cling to that all it takes to "make it" is "passion" and "commitment," and that the talented will inevitably rise to "the top." Theatre done in areas other than New York will be described instrumentally (Leavel referred to a year spent doing dinner theatre in Pennsylvania as "paying dues"), and those who fall by the wayside are characterized as "not wanting it enough." It is a horrifying fundamentalism.

"When you fall in love with a system," Godin writes, "you lose the ability to grow." That has certainly been the case in the theatre, which has lapsed into a state of repetitive motion that leads to creative carpal tunnel syndrome. We are in desperate need of a theatrical Reformation that will shatter the indoctrination of the young and awaken a creative Renaissance by returning artists to their foundational faith and the arts to their roots in community. The theatre, like Friedman's world, has become flat -- lacking in effervescence. There is no future for the American arts in Wal-Mart.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Thoughts on SETC and Birmingham

I arrived home from SETC in Birmingham Saturday night at 11:30, then promptly lost another hour in the time change, so it is not until today that I've had an opportunity to write about Tom Loughlin's and my big adventure in Birmingham. While I was there, the laptop I had borrowed from the library crashed due to what Tom called some "damaged sectors," leaving me unable to blog my thoughts when they were fresh. In the meantime, Tom has provided some excellent posts entitled "Drinking the Theatrical KoolAid" and "Conference Workshops? Not!"

Let me begin with a personal note: I had a blast hanging out with Tom, and within about 5 minutes it was as if we had known each other all our lives. However, he was not at all what I expected at all. When I looked at the picture he included on his blog, especially the one in the banner where he is in Shakespeare garb, I expected a slow baritone. Instead, what I encountered was a snappy tenor with an easy laugh, incredible energy (we walked all over downtown Birmingham), and a quick wit. Not only was he a pleasure to be around, but he had a GPS which, for someone as geographically-challenged as I am, cemented our friendship instantly.

Tom alludes in "Conference Workshops? Not!" to an improv workshop he attended that went awry. I had gone to another session about writing for "Southern Theatre" magazine, and afterwards when I arrived at our designated meeting place I found Tom with his head sunk in his hands, a picture of despair. That workshop, following the keynote by Beth Leavel ominously entitled "Beth Leavel: From SETC Auditions to a Tony Award," had sent him over the edge, and he had taken up residence in the Pit of Despond. It took some excellent Thai food in the Five Points District to revive him.

Tom has already written about the atmosphere at SETC, which he has called theatrical KoolAid, but which I see as more akin to crack with Beth Leavel as the primary pusher. As Tom noted, she had the assembled college and high school students eating from her hand -- she was quite impressive. The crack she peddled was pontent: she had only had to work two weeks in her entire career at anything outside the theatre. I could see young girls texting their parents with this fact, proof that their choice of a major in theatre wasn't foolhardy in the least.

When during the Q & A session, she was asked a question that had a preamble something like "In college, we're often encouraged to go to Chicago or New York after graduation..." she cut the young man off with "Really? Chicago? I mean, I don't know much about Chicago, except there are some important rep theatres there. I suppose you can make a living there. All I know is that if I want to work in Chicago, I have to be in New York; if I want to work in Seattle, which is a great theatre town, I have to be in New York; if I want to work in my home town of Raleigh, I have to be in New York." I started to think she was working on commission for the NYC Tourist Bureau. It was like a drumbeat. And these kids were eating this up, getting that imaginative high that eventually leads to the kind of addiction characterized by narrowed vision and lowered standards.

Not surprisingly, nobody ever asked, and clearly Beth Leavel never considered, the utter insanity of such an arrangement. Nope, it was all about New York, and Beth had made the leap from SETC to Broadway, and you can too. You just have to want it badly enough. Because we are so lucky to do what we do. Why, she burbled, I've never worked a day in my life, and I mean that. Had Tom and I set up a theatrical cliche drinking game, they would have found us passed out in our seats with barf covering our shoes.

As I walked to another session following the keynote, I heard a group of young girls working themselves into a frenzy about how WONderful Beth Leavel was, how she sang all of "Stumble Along" acapella, and how she was so FUNny and SO nice... I wanted to grab them by the shoulders and shake some sense into them, but my frustration seemed misplaced. I really wanted to have a word with the head of SETC to ask her what the hell she was thinking! It seemed so appallingly irresponsible. To look at all these young, hopeful people with numbers pinned to their chests, I kept thinking of Biff Loman's pathetic plea at the end of Death of a Salesman: "Will you let me go, for Christ's sake? Will you take that phony dream and burn it before something happens?" I knew that many, many of these kids were very talented, and that for most of them those talents will go unused and unappreciated in the theatrical Oz to which Ms Leavel had pointed them. And they will limp home thereafter and, like Mr Tanner in Harry Chapin's heart-breaking ballad of the same name, they'll never sing again, or dance again, or act again.

It isn't that no young artists should think about NYC (as if that were possible), but rather the fact that Ms. Leavel and the SETC organizers are so fixated on that place as the one and only worthy destination that all other alternatives are ignored entirely. From an early age, young theatre geeks are fed a steady diet of Broadway musicals, Tony(tm) Award broadcasts, and musical cast albums so that they emerge with brains addled and critical thinking abilities impaired to such an extent that 4-1/2 years in 42nd Street sounds like heaven rather than the hellish nightmare it truly is. To understand how creatively numbing such a thing is, imagine Picasso painting Guernica for that amount of time -- you can't; it is unimaginable in any other art form, doing the same thing over and over again eight times a week. I shudder just thinking about it.

Ms Leavel's presentation was filled with instrumental thinking. She clearly feels a great deal of ambivalence about television (she had just finished shooting a couple segments of ER), and yet she was tempted by the thought of her own sit com, not because she wants to do TV, but because it makes getting roles in Broadwayu musicals so much easier. Doesn't anybody acre about the work itself? These kids were being taught not that theatre is an end in itself, a way of sharing truth and beauty with an an assembled group of people wishing to have an experience together, but rather that each "job" is a rung on the ladder toward "success" as symbolized by a Tony (tm) Award on the mantle. It is a destructive message, a corruption of young talent as heinous as physical abuse.

Tom and my session, "What Are We DOING? Reimagining the Theatre Major" had tried to counter that deceptive and destructive message by facing the brutal facts: 86% Actor's Equity unemployment, a median income in AEA of zero (55% of AEA members didn't work at all in the year being reported, which makes the median income zero), and any number of other facts that paint the ridiculous picture that is the contemporary theatre scene. We urged teachers to " take that phony dream and burn it before something happens" and replace it with something important, something rooted, something that would enrich our towns and cities and states. We urged theatre teachers (and had we not presented before she did, Beth Leavel) to get out of the export business, in which our purpose is to ship off "goods" to New York City.

Ultimately, Tom and I couldn't take it for more than a day. We had to escape to the relative sanity of the Civil Rights Movement's fight against segregation and brutalization, another cause that seemed foolhardy at the time and that decades later sees an African-American president in the White House. Perhaos some day we will come to our senses and recognize how much of theatre's power we are giving away, or worse destroying, in this wrong-headed NYC-centric insanity. Until then, we will continue to send wave after wave of young, talented people, like doughboys going over the top of the trenches to certain death in World War I, to NYC. It is such a wasteful exercise, such a shameful waste of talent. In a world that would benefit from more imaginative empathy, how can we continue to justify this?

Intriguing: Theatre as CSA

Thanks so much to Laura for passing this link to the "Economic Revitalization for Performing Artists" website which "grows from the premise that the traditional non-profit model of fundraising does not support the majority of performing artists in New York City. ERPA aims to thus revitalize performing artists’ and arts organizations’ economic lives for long-term impact." The website doesn't seem to be regularly active, but enough to keep you following along. The post "Stolen Chair Visits the CSA Capitol of the World" is written by John Stancato of the aforementioned Stolen Chair Theatre Company. Superficially, a CSA resembles a traditional subscription series: you pay up front to receive certain produc[tions] throughout the year. However, what makes the CSA an interesting source of inspiration is the interaction between farmer/CSA-operator and his or her customers, which as Stancato implies is a great deal of the draw, and a far cry from the prickly relations that artists tend to have with their audiences...

Wow! Theresa Larkin on the NEA

Tom Loughlin does us all a service by reprinting Theresa Larkin's profound and moving response to the LA Times' "IF You Ran the NEA" article. I suspect that the author is Theresa Larkin of the California State University, Los Angeles Theatre and Dance Department. I urge you with all my heart to read the entire post. When I read something so literate and powerful, I consider shutting down Theatre Ideas as a sorry job. Here is the last couple paragraphs of Larkin's comment:

In the history of the world, the best artist, in every society, emerges as a sage, a truth teller, a heartfelt communicator, and a caring teaching practitioner who lives to give back to the community. Someone seeking a unique way to celebrate and interpret the times he/she/we are living. However, throughout time and to this present moment, too many truly talented people are never able to reach their true creative and artistic potential, are never developed primarily because of the lack of funding and the fierce competitiveness that suppresses more egalitarian noncompetitive artists and practitioners.

Each citizen in our country needs to seriously consider why we are so easily manipulated, so deeply in debt, so alienated from one another, so cynical, so frightened, so addicted, so intolerant, so filled with hate, so unfaithful, so disdainful of the “other”, and so violent. My answer is we do not know one another. We only know the other when we dialogue. We do not dialogue until we share a positive growth experience. But most of the time we do not talk with one another. We do not share. We do not create. And as a result, we do not care about one another or the world.

The arts can create a more purposeful dialogue. Greater caring can result.

[Note: I was right. Soon-to-be-Dr. Larkin is a professor at California State in LA. Another smart, committed, articulate theatre professor like Tom Loughlin. Things are looking up!]