Monday, January 25, 2010

Outrageous Fortune: Commitment-Phobia

Aristotle Said There's Supposed to be a Catharsis
But there isn't. Not in this book.

The first sentence of the last chapter, entitled "Positive Practices and Novel Ideas," tells us ominously that there is "no one solution," and then the first sentence of the second paragraph reminds us, in case we didn't read the first paragraph carefully, that there is no "magic bullet." The last words of the book indicates that this is "the start of a conversation." And in between, we are informed that this is just a "snapshot of the field" and that "our intention is description, not prescription." Like Zola and the Naturalists, London, Pesner, and Voss are giving us a slice of life with no interference from the author. Like a 2nd-grade kid on the playwright squealing with glee, "Wanna see something gross????"

It is unclear who, exactly, is supposed to have this conversation. Artistic Directors? Playwrights? Funders? Bloggers? (Hey, we did our bit!) David Dowers is surely right when he says, in his deservedly-frustrated outburst RTWT, that it is up to us to ask, along with Buckminster Fuller, "What can the Little Man do?"

Answering Fuller
At this point, at least in the blogosphere, the answer to Fuller's question seems to be another Fuller quotation, one that is in the sidebar of this blog: "build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete." Isaac agrees with Mead Hunter, and so does J. Holtham and so have many others: the system is irreparably damaged. Move on.

J Holtham sums up the situation straight-forwardly: "The system we have is not producing great art or happy artists or satisfied audiences." That pretty much runs the table of dissatisfaction. And so, in a statement as courageous as it is logical, Mead says, "the only way to win is not to play. Let the regional system dodder on if it wants to; we don’t have to ape its shopworn antics." This goes Mike Daisey many steps further. After all, Daisey just wanted the regional theatres to reform, whereas Mead suggests everyone move on and leave no forwarding address.

I'm not certain this is precisely the conversation that London had in mind...

Is That Really the Answer?
Over the 4+ years I've been writing Theatre Ideas, I have been saying pretty much the same thing in a rather discordant Halleluja Chorus with Don Hall (who was singing solo before I haltingly joined him), so it is a little disorienting to find our duet suddenly a full-throated choir. Not that we're all singing from the same hymnal, but we at least seem to be in the same choir loft. What interests me most is that the movement seems to be away from the national rep system and toward smaller theatres where artists know each other, and where the quest for traditional success seems less pressing. Matt Freeman, for instance, has expressed his satisfaction with the OOB theatre he works with as such a place.

As the Outrageous Fortune - a-thon got underway, more and more people seemed to find themselves at a tipping point, with OF providing the fatal push. With the arrival of the new year, J. Holtham revealed his identity (gasp) and indicated "I'm going to be looking very seriously at self-producing, about starting a production company, probably under the name of 99 Seats. More about that as it comes. At any rate, it's a new year, a new decade. Time to turn the page." Josh expressed admiration, and then Matt Freeman and Travis Bedard issued a call for a guide to self-producing. James Comtois obliged, creating an ongoing series entitled "Little Jimmy's Guide to Self-Producing," which provides an excellent how-to for playwrights who want to take control of their own productions in NYC. And suddenly everybody was jumping ship and following Don Hall into self-producing.

What role did Outrageous Fortune play in this seemingly sudden conversion? By dragging all the dead mice out into the open and making us look at them in the full light of day, it made continued denial difficult. But had the final chapter provided some glimmer of hope, we might have all been been able to close our eyes and pretend the mice were singing "The Work Song" from Cinderella.

That didn't happen.

What Did
The first thing London did that made my heart sink was start singing the most boring song in the hymnal, one once made popular by Spinal Tap: "Gimme Some Money." Calling for "more extensive subsidy," London quotes one economist who served as an advisor for the book saying "surely it does not take an economist to recognize a lack of money is a good part of the evils investigated." When I was young, that call seemed like the next logical step after the anti-War, Civil Rights, and Feminist movement. But in 2010, the younger generation (and me too) has given up clapping for that particular Tinker Bell, and wants to hear something new.

"But just the same, all I kept saying to everybody was, 'I want to go home!'"
Throughout most of Outrageous Fortune, there has been expressed a longing for an artistic home (the title of another London study which was supposed to provoke discussion, but whose issues remain depressingly unresolved 17 years later). Conjuring up the images of Chekhov, Odets, and Brecht, who "became synonymous with the companies...to which they gave voice," London proposes we consider James Still, who is "in residence" with Indiana Rep, as an example of a similar kind of "deep artistic connection" between a theatre and its playwright.

Here is the nature of that commitment -- try not to get too misty-eyed. First, Still lives in California, not Indiana -- although he does visit every month and he board knows who he is. Sort of like a divorced Dad and his kids. In addition, Still, who writes for television and for other theatres, "depends on the theatre for neither his income, nor even his health insurance." Good thing, because there is "no 'James Still slot' in the theatre's season" and the artistic director, Janet Allen, says "There is no presumption that we're going to produce everything James writes." Nevertheless, Still does expect "Janet and the IRT to be interested in everything I write, to be curious about it, to want to consider it. I don't have to wonder whether or not Janet will read something I write." (Are you hearing the refrain of "Hopelessly Devoted" playing in the background?) Still goes on, "From the beginning, we've treated my residency like a living, breathing thing capable of change, capable of surprise, and capable of challenges....There is a definite commitment between us...but there is also the understanding that we must be flexible, that both sides must be flexible. I sit down with myself on a regular basis and ask myself if this is still working -- not because I fear it isn't, but because I never want to take it for granted or treat it like a habit or an obligation."

Maybe I'm just old-fashioned, but this is commitment? It sounds like a chapter out of He's Just Not That Into You. This is a casual, long-distance relationship with no expectations of fidelity -- when you're in town, if we feel like it we'll get together for dinner and maybe have sex, and when you're not in town we can do what we want. Compared to Chekhov, Odets, and Brecht, this is pretty superficial stuff.

This is followed by Liz Duffy Adams, a New York-based playwright who makes her "home" in San Francisco, a 2900-mile commute; and Adam Brock who, miraculously, "actually resided in San Francisco in he late 1990s" (because after graduating from Brown he figured it would be "smarter for me to go to a mid-sized market. It was a business-artistic decision"), but now also lives in New York. Probably catches the same flight as Adams. But hey, "his Bay Area relationships persist." Facebook is a miracle, ain't it?

Finessing Broadway
Then we get Amy Freed. Freed has a large-cast farce called The Beard of Avon, which gets a bunch of regional theatre productions and then opens in New York. Hey, it can be done, right? Except there is a hitch. In order to get investors interested in putting up the money for a Broadway production (because "she would have sold her little brother for a chance to be produced on Broadway"), she couldn't do all those regional theatre productions first -- the investors felt it would suck away too many "sub rights." But without those productions, the play wouldnt have been "ready for New York." Says Freed, "That's kind of a catch-22, isn't it?" Indeed.

Kind of hard to see her story as something to be aspired to, especially since following all these productions around the country "was an enormous disruption in my life, my teaching income, my ability to write another play."

And So On
The book ends with the National New Play Network, and interesting group of 26 member theatres across the country who "pioneered the concept of the 'rolling world premiere,'" in which the Network helps fund three or more companies to produce a specific play. While this doesn't exhibit a commitment to specific playwrights, it does provide a glimmer of an idea on how to "help the theatre community wean itself from a New York-down approach to circulating new plays throughout the country."

And the last example, entitled "Audience Education 101" (when all else fails, it must be the audience who needs to be educated), comes from Steppenwolf, who has struck on the "novel" idea of letting a select group of rich people pay $75 to sit in on some rehearsals. Pardon me if I don't get up.

"You've always had the power to go back to Kansas"
And that's it. Those are the solutions. Do you understand now why everybody is punching their ticket for the HMS Self-Produce?

So if I were an AD or playwright who was really committed to the current system, I don't know what I'd tell you. I guess I'd say, "Let's start the conversation."

But like my fellow bloggers, I don't see a lot of room for optimism. Unless... well, this would require a revision of the entire model, so that it is no longer the non-profit, corporate theatre system we've come to know and...have a flexible reklationship with.

But I think we should look back to history. Specifically, to Shakespeare's Globe (is this a violation of the Garvey's Law?). Shakespeare was a shareholder in the King's Men, and also a householder in the Globe. Meaning that he had a financial stake in the theatre's success. As one of the chief playwrights for the company, it was up to him to crank out new material that would bring in audiences hungry for new material. If he wanted to do a "formal experiment," he had to weight that desire against his desire to pay the rent, not only for himself but for all his fellow shareholders and householders, who were all relying on him to crank out two-three-four plays a year (could we get Tony Kushner on that schedule, PLEASE?). And he not only wrote plays, but he acted, and helped run the theatre space -- hell, he probably swept up the pit after the groundlings spilled food all over it. And they also took in apprentices, for whom they were responsible to provide room and board in exchange for teaching them the theatre ropes and, possibly, integrating them into the company. In short, Shakespeare had a real commitment to the success of his theatre, and a stake in its success. Which is, in essence, self-production, right? The solution that so many have rediscovered.

But this freelance, freeze-dried, imported, global theatre economy isn't going to make it. We need to get married, settle down, and commit to making this thing work.

11 comments:

isaac butler said...

Scott,

Great summation! Holy crap!

A think i said to someone over gchat last week that i'll repost here was that, basically, Lodnon's call for more money makes a lot of sense in a specific context: The current regional theatre system was built upon certain promises of funding that never came through. The current system of working actually probably could "work"-- which is to say, fulfill the goals it set out to fulfill rather than the current goal of surviving and occasionally growing-- if it had more money. I actually do believe that.

The questions are... do we want to give it more money? is it worth it? and if we did believe it was worth it... how likely is it that the system will get an influx of the probably tens of millions of dollars it would take?

And to me the answers are... Not really, maybe and totally unlikely to impossible.

I do think the system could be made better by a large influx of capital, i think a lot of the problems have arisen by trying to do too much with too little, resource wise (and putting short term self-interest ahead of long term goals). But I'm not sure I really want the current crop of theaters to have more money. I'd rather that money go towards to epopel who are doing it right than trying to create incentives for people who are doing it wrong to do it slightly better.

Christopher Ashworth said...

Maybe this is perverse, but I find this situation thrilling.

I can't wait to see what all this newly unfettered energy is going to make in the next few years.

Scott Walters said...

If so, count me among the perverse, Chris. As long as we can shake off the old tropes and think freshly, this could be an exciting time.

Isaac, I totally agree. Well stated.

David Dower said...

Broken record here, but I think a:) this is the year the "next" comes into view; b:) that we have have the resources RIGHT NOW in the #newplay sector to create that "next"; and c:) that the "next" will rely, in large part on a rational organization of those resources AND on a healthy respect for diversity-- of approach, of aesthetics, of geography, of cultural perspective ("the come from" as I heard it defined this past weekend...), and of demography (is that right? I mean age, class, educational level, etc.).

It's a Design Science issue, if we keep the Fuller influence alive here. The system is ineffective (and not just the LORT system, the whole system) and spinning its wheels as a result. This is the year that we design and test effective solutions for that "next".

Sleeves rolled up, puttin' my back into my shovel, and happy for the work.

Scott Walters said...

David -- Like you and Chris, I think we have reached a crisis point that will serve to tip us into something new. It is clear I need to read more of Bucky, but I am glad that somebody like you is starting the next conversation. When Mike Daisey started it two years ago, there were a lot of nay-sayers accusing people of simply being whining losers. Now, I think we can all sense that something needs to change.

99 said...

I think you're good on the Shakespeare. In fact, I think you're pretty much good all over.

David J. Loehr said...

Well said. As someone who's been self-producing for six years--and turns out several scripts a year among other theatre duties--I'd say we're all on to something here.

My challenge to the theatre world in general is, why don't we work together? Specifically, what if the major theatres--and by major, I mean the big regional theatres as well as any company that has its own building--what if those theatres adopted one or two local resident professional theatre companies?

Instead of sucking up rent money from groups that might want to use an empty black box space for a show, embrace and support them. I'd happily let the AD and ED of a major theatre join my board, let them have some say in what we'd produce in their building.

Best of all, make those resident companies part of the overall season. That means more theatre events in your building, maybe drawing newer and younger audiences, different audiences. It means more theatre events made easily accessible to your current patrons. (Those patrons might be interested in other theatres' shows but just not know about them. Now they would.)

Yes, there'd be a minimum of technical support--the landlord theatre would want to handle their equipment themselves, most likely. But if the shows themselves are funded and produced by the resident company, that's almost like having four or five free shows added to your schedule. That looks good to the outside world.

And no, not everyone would get adopted. This isn't for small community groups or hobbyists. This would strictly be for companies that produce good work, consistent work. If some of it is original work, even better. And if they have a local playwright at their heart, that's something every major theatre ought to embrace.

James Still's name isn't bringing people into IRT. And most theatres don't rely on tourists coming to town. You want the local audience to be excited, you want them coming through the doors. With my theatre company, we have a growing audience that comes to shows specifically because they know I wrote the script. We've done the research, and the majority of them gave that as their reason for coming to a given show. "Interesting story" was a distant second. But we've built that relationship for more than six years now.

Maybe by working together, we could actually improve both models from within without having to start from scratch or fight for what little money there is available out there...

David Dower said...

And here's where understanding what's already happening in the sector can help us. I believe there's a program in play at Steppenwolf, has been for years, that does pretty much what you are talking about. They have a Visiting Companies initiative, which we're shamelessly stealing at Arena Stage when we get into our new building. And YES, you've got it right-- it's not a free-for-all. It's a revenue-neutral program, not a money maker for the host. It's curated. There's a quality and readiness bar for the indie theaters to clear. Yet there doesn't seem to be a shortage of companies meeting that challenge in Chicago. My guess is once we're clear about it here, and can focus on the program once in new building, DC has plenty of projects that will qualify. This is part of the alignment that will be a feature of the "next": thinking of space as a resource for the whole community. And not just space. Expertise. Materials. Programs. Advocacy. There's a ton of resources that can be shared without devaluing them. Put 'em play!

Scott Walters said...

NC Stage here in Asheville does the same thing -- it is called the "catalyst Series," and it has had a remarkable effect on our theatre scene. Thbey deserve a great deal of credit.

rebecca longworth said...

Really excellent post. I hope this energy can be put into action!

I think all y'all are on to something with this working together and self-producing thing, both in the realm of new work, and the larger realm of making good theatre, new or old, that’s responsive to our audiences and our communities rather than beholden to the bound-for-Broadway model.

David Loehr, I want to accept your challenge of working together. But I think there are some habits standing in the way – including a lack of willingness to critique each other, an inability to accept the fact that very few of us will ever be able to feed ourselves through theatre, and plain old selfishness.

That said, in addition to getting larger companies to be more community-minded, what about forming networks of smaller professional theatres that can share resources to produce work outside the bound-for-Broadway model? We can do it if we give up some of our bad habits.

I think we all need to step up as artists / producers / teachers / community members and do some of the difficult work that working together entails. Since there's never enough time or money, so I feel like the best I can do is make the change I want to see.

I'm a interloper into this conversation, but I've posted more on my thoughts here.

Thanks for reading, posting, and thinking about this.

David J. Loehr said...

When Steppenwolf started their program, I was thrilled, partly because I'd been suggesting this very idea for a long time, but not out loud online in the kind of forums we have now. And partly because it meant I wasn't insane, that this was an idea worth exploring.

I'm glad to know Arena's going to, um, pay homage to the program; I had a feeling.

It's because of the success of Steppenwolf, the potential of Arena and of the few other places that do such projects that I feel bold enough to bring it up as a challenge.

I know several small groups in DC who'd do well in such a program. Taffety Punk and Faction of Fools pop to mind immediately, and a few others. (I'd like to think a small company from Indiana might be able to visit once in a while...)

But where is this program at ATL? (I single them out only because I'm intimately aware of their seasons, since I'm forty miles away.) So many regional theatres could benefit from such a program--and they could implement it pretty quickly, I think. It would presumably be a low-cost way to boost attendance in general and get attention in the local press, etc.

I know, I'm preaching to the choir to an extent. But it's nice to finally have a choir...

And Rebecca, I'm happy to take up the challenge. You're right, there's not enough willingness to critique--either self or one another. I don't know how many times I've seen a "big" show at a major regional theatre and walk out feeling like the emperor had no clothes. Listening to other patrons after shows or at talkbacks, I know I'm not alone.

What about a blend of these ideas? Say there's a network of regional theatres featuring local companies. Maybe New Leaf Theatre does a show at Steppenwolf. Because they have that imprimatur, perhaps they can take that show to Arena. Or Taffety Punk could bring a show from Arena to ATL. Or Riverrun could bring something from ATL up to Steppenwolf. We create a network of smaller companies that could work together and work with the major regional theatres.

But I'm a cockeyed optimist sometimes.