In a blog post nearly entitled "My Disillusionment," Mick Montgomery of Art of Function writes about the "Post Show Roundtable" that followed a performance of How Theatre Failed America in Los Angeles. Montgomery writes:
I listened to someone from the Odyssey say the words that spell the down fall of all theaters in this country... "I don't want to do Children's Theater, I want to do the Art I want to do."
My message to those folks running theater in this town is... "Guess what? That's not your job." The job of the theater is to support it's audience and community, not exist soley for the purpose of indulging the creative proclivities of the artists entrusted with running the stage. Artistcally, I may want to do a season filled with "True West" and "End Game" and the like, where I could star in or direct them all, but that's not my job as the steward of the theater. My job is to embrace my community for who they are, and then go from there. I'm not saying this is soley doing Children's Theater, but it's about engaging your audience where they are at, not asking the audience to engage you where you are at. Theater is about people, audiences and artists sharing things together. Theater is not about a building or a 'great space' or subscriptions. The theater is the product of the people coming to it, not the other way around. We don't understand that here in Los Angeles.
I found it ironic that Mike Daisey railed against theaters trying to 'get more money' to solve all their problems with paying artists in his piece, and then comedically, 10 minutes after the show when he asked his panel, what would you need to make big changes to the theater culture in L.A. the first answer out of someone's mouth was... "We need more money."
I sat in my chair and hung my head. Did they not listen to the show?
It's not the money that is the issue. It's our model. Maybe theater needs to be less capitalized and more socialized. Maybe the City should figure out how to support the Theater Arts in L.A. like they support the visual arts. Maybe we do need $5 dollar theater Wednesdays. Maybe we need A Theater Alliance that truly correlates resources and marketing stragies. We have a city with a School District crying out for subsidized arts education, yet no one is there to help that process along. And here I sit asking myself, "What the Fuck is everyone doing? Why doesn't anyone understand how to make this work?" How come people in Portland or San Diego get it, but the place I live, where some of the most talented people in the world are living, can't figure it out?
Los Angeles Theater is the great disconnect. The Theater Community fails to understand the audience, and thus it fails to understand itself. Everyone is just scrambling for crumbs, no one is building relationships with each other through the art. The solutions are so simple. That's probably why I'm so frustrated. [ital mine]
As has been the case for the past two years, Mike Daisey continues to provoke long-overdue reflection and questioning on the part of artists. Theatre artists have a single kneejerk response to every problem: give us more money. Or, in lieu of that, the other knee jerks "we need better marketing." When i reality, we need to do a Cartesian rethinking of the whole thing from the ground up. Peter Brook gave us a good starting point with the first lines of The Empty Space: "I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged." Three elements: a place, an actor, and an audience. What Brook fails to mention is the relationship between the three, which is what we need to be doing right now.
I would argue that the connection needs to be ongoing, committed, and interactive. As Wendell Berry says in an interview in Conversations with Wendell Berry, ""I think art comes about in answer to a need. At least, mine does. The community needs to talk about itself, needs to remember itself. It needs to recall significant things that have happened, and to mull them over and figure out what the significance is." In this case, "itself" embraces the three points of Brook's triangle: place, artist, audience. It is a three-way conversation that takes place over time. Berry sees the artist not as "an isolated, preeminent genius who materializes ideas from thin air, but as a person who has been in a community a long time, has been attentive to its voices...and who is prepared to pass on what has been heard. There are two things the artist must do: pass on all this is involved -- the art, the memory, the knowledge. And take responsibility for his or her own work -- that is the reason the work is signed, and that should be the only reason." Responsibility, not credit; humility, not self-aggrandizement.
Mick Montgomery made this realization, and it made him hang his head. That is the first step. The next step is to raise your head, look around, and start listening to the people around you.