Sunday, January 24, 2010

Gates of Opportunity

Last night, I finally got the opportunity to read David Dower's Gates of Opportunity report to the Mellon Foundation, which was release in November. For those of you who haven't read Outrageous Fortune, my recommendation is that you read this at the same time. It provides a needed corrective.

Outrageous Fortune,
to me, is sort of like reality TV. Todd London has brought together a group of playwrights and Artistic Directors, locked them in a house together for a month, and we get to watch the sparks fly. Like reality TV, we get a lot of opportunities to hear the different voices of the participants express their opinions, frustrations, and often blame each other, or just a likely, blame the audience. The result is dramatic in a voyeuristic sort of way. All those statements about how the book is "disturbing" is the direct result of this quality -- an unfiltered immediacy. As you can probably tell from my postings on the book, it makes me squeamish and more than a little irritated. Nevertheless, it provides a valuable reading of the level of frustration within the theatre community.

Gates of Opportunity, on the other hand, is the POV documentary that was made from the same material. It incorporates some quotations, yes, but there is a much higher degree of organization and summary. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by the emotional chaos of Outrageous Fortune, Gates of Opportunity left me feeling as if I had a handle on some of the problems, and more importantly, made me feel as if there were next steps that could be taken to better the situation, which to me makes it worth its weight in gold.

Dower, who is the man behind the Arena Stage convenings, clearly values the give-and-take of conversation. He notes that one of the problems obvious in some of the places he met with artists is that the artistic community is unaware of itself -- that there is very little conversation or discussion of how cooperation rather than competition might lead to a healthier artistic climate. He suggests, for instance, that it might be possible for foundations to fund a single individual leader within an arts community to undertake the coordination of such coooperative ventures and bring some order to a chaotic scene, an idea which makes a great deal of sense.

Gates of Opportunity is filled with many very practical suggestions for making the new play development system work more smoothly and productively. In my opinion, Dower does more in a couple dozen pages to advance the situation than Outrageous Fortune accomplishes in many times the length.

My recommendation: by all means, read Outrageous Fortune, but then read Gates of Opportunity as the antidote.


Cal said...

I'm fascinated by the question of whether the foundations could have chosen someone, in any decade since WWII, who could have/would have led us to a better American Theatre than we enjoy today?

Robert Edmond Jones? Strasberg? Clurman? Margo Jones? Molina? Ellen [La Mama] Stewart? An artistic director at a successful regional theatre?

Scott Walters said...

Here is what Dower writes in a section called "Fellowships to Catalytic Leaders": In each community there is at least one individual with a vision and a sense f how to actualize their ideas. Create fellowships for these people. Put resources in their hands, ask them to curate their investment on behalf of strengthening the opportunities for emerging artists and support their efforts through convenings of the fellows, outreach to other philathropic resources within their communities, and publication and dissemination of their efforts. These would likely be multi-year fellowships but would rotate to others. Most of what is working in this sector [of new play development] is the outgrowth of a single vision, whether from an individual or an ensemble. Fostering continued growth and exploration for these individual leaders is perhaps the most effective way to serve the sector."
So my description wasn't very clear. I think he is talking about individual communities outside of NYC, not The American Theatre, and within those communities is very much focused on the development of new plays and emerging artists (playwrights).

Paul Mullin said...

Thanks as always, Scot, for pointing out valuable resources. I look forward to reading this report, and like the fact that I can just print it for free instead of paying $14.95 and waiting, interminably it seems, for my copy of Outrageous Fortune to show up.

The sort of "catalytic art czar" model you mention is one I'll need to noodle on a bit more. Unfortunately, I can see it flopping in a lot of different ways, but right of the bat I would assume it would be used as a sort of sinecure for some figure already ensconced in the existing failed system. (I'm hearing the selection panel discussions now "Of course such a person would need a post-graduate degree of some sort. That's only just a logical prerequisite.")

Scott Walters said...

Maybe. Or maybe it would be you, Paul! We need to keep in mind that the alternative is letting the "invisible hand" of the market take its course. How's that working for you?

Paul Mullin said...

Hey, I'm collecting models at this point, and this one's going in the hopper for sure, my reservations not withstanding.

But so are Adam Smithian models. I am not as fearful of that ghostly hand as many in my profession.

cgeye said...

What about the Devoted and Disgruntled discussions Phelim McDermott has been facilitating? The one in NYC happened the same weekend as the Black Playwrights Conference, so I understand why many of the blogs I read haven't covered it.

Sean Rants did:

It would be a beginning for us to simply talk to each other in a respectful, moderated way, right?

And, as for me and my city, we have the CREATE DENVER conference, which might at least provide a forum for such leaders to emerge:

Scott Walters said...

Well, that's interesting, cgeye. D & D used Open Space technology (the format of the meeting). I think those sorts of things can be very helpful -- yes, it moves the discussion forward. But if Sean's takeaway is any indication, and RLewis' cranky comment as well, the lack of guidance offered by Open Space technology may be a problem. If the solution is "just do the work," well, I mean how is that different than the current orientation? Here is one of the problems I see -- and I wrote about this a couple years ago and requoted from it today -- most theatre artists don't know much beyond their own experience. They haven't read the reports or reflected on the deeply, they haven't examined the annual stats put together by the NEA, Americans for the Arts, RAND, WolfBrown, or anyone else -- they just want to know, as one person in the D & D sessions asked, how to get more people to come to their shows. Until we broaden our horizons and start getting a sense of the field as a whole, and not just our little piece of the world, we won't get very far, in my opinion.