First, I'd like to thank London, Pesner, and Voss not only for their work on this book, but for their willingness to resist sugar-coating the material. In the introduction, TDF Executive Director Victoria Bailey notes that "much in this report may be painful to read," and she is right. London et al show us the current situation warts and all, which I believe is a service to the art form. Artists need to read that others are as frustrated as they are -- that they are not simply whiners and losers who need to suck it up and keep at it, but rather trying to do quality work within a dysfunctional system. The larger picture -- this study uses 250 surveys received from "working professional playwrights at all stages of their careers, including Albee, Congdon, Dietz, Letts and many others whose names you would recognize (including my blogging friend Laura Axelrod), as well as surveys of almost a hundred theatres across the country -- reveals an entire system in disarray, not simply individuals in dismay. Chris Jones may characterize this as whining, but that is a term that is always used as a weapon to shut up anyone who questions the status quo. The consistency of the complaints is indicative of a real problem.
Also, I should note that this study combines quantitative and qualitative research, and it is the qualitative that dominates the book. While I suspect that Ian David Moss at Creatiquity may wish there was more pure data to crunch, in my opinion the voices that are heard is what puts meat on the bones. There are occasional data points included, which throw into relief the images that the dialogue describes. I also applaud London for not attributing comments to particular playwrights, which would likely allow people like Jones to dismiss remarks by attacking the individual who said it. Like the use of the term "whining,' this is a common ploy to shut up voices of legitimate dissent. Jones complains about the use of qualitiative research, point to an "outrageous passage" that characterizes the Goodman audience as all over sixty. Jones whines that "Nothing is served by presenting such patently inaccurate and reductive anecdotes as fact (as distinct, say, from accurately surveying the Goodman's audience demographics)." But London does not present it as fact, but simply as a generalization that reflects a particular viewpoint. Analyzing the Goodman's demographics misses the point, which is to qualitatively present the view from the inside of the process. I'm sure the Goodman can provide Jones with its demographic data, and Jones can print it.
There are enough issues raised in the first chapter alone to provide fodder for a month of blog posts. I could write for a week ot two about the playwrights' and artistic directors' oft-repeated complaint that audiences aren't open to new narrative forms. And maybe I will.
But right now, I am going to focus on a section of Chapter One called "Bridging the Divide: Relationship, Continuity, Home" that appears at the end of the chapter. Harkening back to "Chekhov, Moliere, Shakespeare, O'Neill," London notes that "history suggests that the success of playwrights and plays, more often than not, is fed by the continuity of artistic relationships." He notes that "numerous" playwrights see continuity as an ideal, and the name they give to that ideal is "home" -- "artistic home, creative home, producing home."
Of course, this connects to the discussion often raised on theatre blogs, and then brought to the national scene by Mike Daisey's How Theatre Failed America -- the tendency of many larger regional theatres to job in artistic personnel for individual shows, rather than form an ensemble of artists who work together over a longer period. As London notes, it isn't just actors, directors, and designers who are experiencing this displacement, but playwrights who also feel the loss. Like most theatre artists, the "search for home in the theatre now has a nostalgic quality, since hardly any hold out hope of finding one within the current climate." That's a kind way of saying that artists are in despair, they've given up -- the cynical ones with a shrug ("That's just the way it is," they intone knowingly, "no point crying over spilt milk"), the idealistic ones with a frustrated sigh ("Doesn't anybody see that it doesn't have to be this way? We're making choices"). They are almost embarrassed to express a desire for a "sense of home," because such a desire is "really radical." In order to put distance between the longing and reality, one playwright essentially puts scare quotes around the concept, saying "The hokey notion of the family is so important."
Hokey indeed. As a theatre historian, it is baffling to me how willing artists are in this country to dismiss what has been proven effective throughout most of theatre history. Yes, Shakespeare AND the rest of the Elizabethans created work within ongoing ensembles, yes Moliere AND the rest of the theatre artists of the French Neoclassical era, AND the commedia dell 'arte troupes, AND Chekhov and Odets and O'Neill and and and. And lest someone wants to make the case that this is a thing of the past, we might look to the Royal Court as a model, or to Ariane Mnouchkine and Peter Brook and Peter Stein and and and. What is it about the American theatre that is so committed to the idea of a "free agent nation," failing to recognize the artistic value of an ongoing relationship between artists? Michael P. Farrell, in his book Collaborative Circles: Friendship Dynamics and Creative Work, makes the importance of continuity explicit. Frankly, in the current system, it is a miracle that decent work gets done at all.
However, creating an artistic home would by definition mean staying put, committing to a place, sustaining and inspiring creativity on an ongoing basis, and establishing trust and a willingness to risk short-term failure (every play and every performance will not be a masterpiece) in the interest of long-term success. Yes, that is "really radical," at least in our frenetic, uncommitted society.
One artistic director frets that to commit to a playwright might undermine diversity. "The danger can be that then you end up producing the same artist all the time, and nobody else has an opportunity. There's always that balance that needs to be achieved -- How can you both create an ongoing commitment to artists, and leave some avenue open, not just because it's good to support other peoiple, but because we need to continue to have changes in terms of the kinds of voices that we have on the stage?" With this very legitimate question, the central problem of the modern regional theatre suddenly is revealed: the small number of productions done in a season.
Because, again, if you look back at theatre history, you see that this problem has already been solved. The Lord Chamberlain's Men didn't only produce Shakespeare, they had a relationship with many playwrights. Furthermore, Shakespeare wasn't only a playwright, but also an actor and a shareholder in the theatre. Moliere's troupe did Moliere's plays, yes, but also the plays of other playwrights (such as Jean Racine), who they also nurtured. The Moscow Art Theatre didn't only do Chekhov's plays, but many others as well.
But these theatres did a lot of productions, so they needed a lot of plays. As long as regional theatres only do a handful of productions each year, and only a small percentage of those are devoted to new plays, then the worried artistic director quoted above is right to be concerned. The answer, however, is to do more plays.
And why could these historical theatres do more plays? Because they were creating within a sustainable, "light" production framework. The Lord Chamberlain's Men weren't building massive sets and costumes for each individual play, they were done on a blank stage with a minimum of set pieces and the costumes they had in stock. Theatres in the English Restoration and in Moliere's time had three different backdrops that were used for whatever plays were done that season, and the costumes were drawn from stock or owned by the actors. More current, Peter Hall wrote about this in his wonderful book The Necessary Theatre, where he discussed his work at the Young Vic and the value of a "light" production aesthetic. (I wrote about this here.)
We have painted ourselves into a corner by our dogged commitment to a means of production that is time-intensive, resource-heavy, inefficient, and linear. Playwrights long for an artistic home, and so do other theatre artists, but we have created a system that thwarts that desire at every turn. Winston Churchill once said, "First we shape our structures and then our structures shape us." What is true for architecture is true for the structure of theatre productions. Outrageous Fortune shows us that we don't much like the shape our structures are forcing us into. Buckminster Fuller said, "Revolution by design and invention is the only revolution tolerable to all men, all societies, and all political systems anywhere." Perhaps it is time for theatre artists to visit Fuller's "design science" which Fuller described thusly:
"The function of what I call design science is to solve problems by introducing into the environment new artifacts, the availability of which will induce their spontaneous employment by humans and thus, coincidentally, cause humans to abandon their previous problem-producing behaviors and devices. For example, when humans have a vital need to cross the roaring rapids of a river, as a design scientist I would design them a bridge, causing them, I am sure, to abandon spontaneously and forever the risking of their lives by trying to swim to the other shore."Outrageous Fortune suggests implicitly, and I agree explicitly, that it may be time to build a bridge, instead of encouraging our theatre artists to become better swimmers.