Saturday, January 30, 2010
I'll commit the Institute right now, in this public forum, to hosting a convening of playwrights and organizations committed to the residency model. And we'll use the weekend to investigate and develop the notion of The Homing Project.
Looks like this could get off the ground. Please put your seats in an upright position. AsDavid says, "2010 is the year we will look back on as the year the "next" was born. Let's make it so..."
P.S. David is anticipating a cry of alarm from me, I assume because these commitments aren't necessarily to playwrights who are in the community or committed to staying there. But at this stage of the game, I'm all for any innovation at all. It's not how I'll be doing things at CRADLE, but it's something I could see my Drama Dept participating in, and at this stage anything that moves the ball looks pretty good to me.
Thursday, January 28, 2010
"The institutionalized non profit cultural sector ... is tasked with, as it should be, stewardship of the highest expressions of humanity, with its transmission to the next generation intact if not enhanced, and with ensuring the widest enjoyment and appreciation of these defining achievements by as many people as it can engage - this mandate crosses material, visual, dramatic, literary and musical culture - voice and heritage."Hoo, boy. Really? "Stewardship"? The "highest expressions of humanity"? "Transmission to the next generation"? And this "mandate" includes, well, everything artistic (as long as they are, you know, the highest expressions). Take my breath away. "Mandate" indeed. Definition of mandate:
|1.||a command or authorization to act in a particular way on a public issue given by the electorate to its representative: The president had a clear mandate to end the war.|
|2.||a command from a superior court or official to a lower one.|
|3.||an authoritative order or command: a royal mandate.|
Exactly who provided this "mandate"? Hmmm? All those Upper West Side millionaires? I'm thinking a little reading of John Carey's What Good Are the Arts? might be a good idea right about now.
But Ellis is sort of aware that what he's saying smacks a wee bit of me-first elitism, so he writes:
I feel this has to be said in a way that does not diminish other aspects of expressive life that [Bill Ivey] is rightly high-lighting as neglected. Here's a stab at encapsulating it: the ecology is unbalanced in part because many expressive social interests are under-articulated, and Bill has highlighted them and has suggested an agenda around them. It's an agenda that it is intellectually compelling but it is difficult to see how and by whom it will be pursued. Meanwhile other agendas are over-articulated: a move toward a balanced ecology requires us to address both issues. [ital mine]Smooth move, that one. These under-articulated empressive social issues should be addressed, but shoot, who's gonna do that? Couldn't be that, maybe, I could do that, because, well, I speak for the over-articulated expressive social interests represented by the "non-profit cultural sector" on the Upper West Side of New York City. So, until somebody actually speaks up for those folks who are not members of my club, I think we should just focus on..well, us...and let those other people take care of themselves.
And I love "under-articulated" and "over-articulated" -- its like it is a problem that could be solved by a speeech therapist. Let's translate:
- Under-articulated = virtually ignored
- Over-articulated = sucking up all the air in the room
I feel this has to be said in a way that does not diminish other aspects of expressive life that [Bill Ivey] is rightly high-lighting as neglected. Here's a stab at encapsulating it: the ecology is unbalanced in part because many expressive social interests are virtually ignored, and Bill has highlighted them and has suggested an agenda around them. It's an agenda that it is intellectually compelling but it is difficult to see how and by whom it will be pursued. Meanwhile other agendas are sucking up all the air in the room: a move toward a balanced ecology requires us to address both issues.Except we can't really address both issues because we don't know who is the spokesperson. Let's see, who might be a spokesperson?
- Eric Booth
- Arlene Goldbard
- Dudley Cocke
- Wendell Barry
- Gene Logsdon
- Ellen Dissanayake
- Maryo Gard Ewell
- Patrick Overton
- LaMoine McLaughlin
Then, after Ellis is through, Martha Bayles, in a rehashing of Ortega Y Gasset's Revolt of the Masses, steps up and defends "elitism" as a a necessary way to make sure that the masses don't get to uppity. "Resources aren't infinite," she writes, as if somebody thought they were, "and the unspoken goal of every human being's self-expression being appreciatively received by every other human being is absurd." Not quite as absurd as that reframing of the debate. "So," she concludes, "choices must be made, and unless the cultural marketplace is to become even more of a lottery than it is now, those choices must be based on some sort of evaluative judgment." Wait for it: "So elitism -- i.e. cultural authority -- is required if "we" are going to achieve any of the goals presented here." Elitism = cultural authority = making choices = without critics, the deluge.
I'm not certain how Bill Ivey is putting up with this nonsense. That's why I could never be the head of the NEA -- nope, I know you wanted to ask me to step in for Rocco, but don't -- but I just know my head would explode. The thing about these people engaging in the Expressive Lives bloggersation is that they are consultants and arts researchers and they have spent a lot of time figuring out abstruse, high-toned ways to cover up the pure power grab that is their true meaning. I'll take the theatrosphere any day, where Don Hall calls people douche bags and Mac Rogers hits me with a 2 x 4 -- at least I know what the real message is.
Wednesday, January 27, 2010
Dudley Cocke, the Artistic Director of Roadside Theatre, once said to Arlene Goldbard:
I always make the proposition that we are the storytelling animal and that language and story has been our selective advantage, and that’s why we’re still sitting here having espresso in the afternoon.
There have always been these contested narratives. If story is how we understand ourselves and understand the world, then there’s always going to be these contests of stories. If one just goes to a neutral mode and isn’t active in telling and trying to search for one’s own story individually and then in group, then somebody else will be there with a story and be there ready to tell your story within their story. It’s like a guy in Choteau, Montana — a dry land farmer — told me: “We got so much incoming. We want to send something out.” ("The Path of Stories")
Surely diversity, when it comes right down to it, is about balancing the incoming and what is sent out.
For 30,000 years the arts answered a variety of humankind’s most basic needs. In recent decades something odd happened. We allowed the arts to become specialized, peripheralized. We allowed “the arts” to change their fundamental definition so that they resonate with relevance for a few. It isn’t that the arts changed; it is that we lost the vital connection between the purpose of the arts as they are generally understood, and the human needs of the broader community of people they used to, and still can, serve.Ian goes on that several times at the California Arts Advocates meeting where Booth served as facilitator, and where Arlene Goldbard was a keynote, people said " until we can have an honest conversation with these people who in some fundamental way(s) are very different from us, it’s going to be very hard to know what (if anything) we can do for them." There are two important pieces of this statement: 1) we have to have an honest conversation with "these people" who are "very different from us," and 2) we need to change the preposition at the end of the sentence from "for" to "with."
By the way, I agree with Ian's frustration with the Expressive Life conversation at ArtsJournal.com. When intelligent people devote several days tinkering with words instead of engaging the ideas behind the words, there is a problem. It's like a multi-day branding exercise. The ship is sinking and they're tinkering with the logo on the bow. It seems to me that Ivey is attempting to address what Eric Booth said: "We allowed the arts to become specialized, peripheralized." But he's getting this all tangled up with Intellectual Property issues, which are connected through the limiting of creative activity, but which are perceived as legalistic issues. What is really maddening, as is so often the case, is that people can't think beyond their frame. The other commenters are all focused on non-profit arts institutions and traditional artist-specialists -- even Steven Tepper, whose great introduction to Engaging Arts addresses this issue, seems to get tracked towards the traditional status quo.
Anyway, we have to address Booth's point: the arts are specialized, peripheralized, irrelevant, and missing a vital connection to the broader community.
This conversation reminds me of the time six years ago when Wallace Foundation and RAND released Gifts of the Muse - Reframing the Debate about the Benefits of the Arts. After providing us with a terrifically erudite accounting of arts benefits, the authors' lead recommendation in the last chapter was to "develop language for discussing intrinsic benefits." And I wondered, whose job is it to create this new language? (Frankly, I'd hoped RAND might make some suggestions...) I imagined a room somewhere in the sub-basement of the NEA where wordsmiths were earnestly hammering away at new framing language that will, once and for all, tickle the funnybone of policymakers and convince them that the arts really matter.The answer to Brown's "who" question, of course, is us. Bloggers, artists, educators, citizens, anybody who recognizes that the creative life of this country has been stolen by corporations (including non-profit corporations) and sold back to us as high-dollar products produced by underpaid and overpaid specialists. As Obama said back when he was a candidate, "We are the people we've been waiting for." But it requires that we become educated in our field.
Back in June 2008, I wrote a post about what I had learned attending the National Performing Arts Convention, where a discussion (on ArtsJournal.com) of the WolfBrown report was centerstage. Among artists, at least artists who blog (and by the way, when you're done pointing us to female bloggers, Isaac, would you find out where the blogs by actors are?), the report was virtually ignored, or dismissed. Here is what I wrote:
But what I have learned here at NPAC is that those who wield power in the theatre -- the administrators, the board members, the foundation staff -- do read these studies, do recognize the value of the data and the ideas, and do put them into action -- and that is how they maintain their power. They think more broadly about the art form. The result of lack of knowledge is a diminished power for artists, who give over control of their art to those who will take the time to study, to learn, to think. Mike Daisey, who brilliantly performed How Theatre Failed America here in front of the assembled administrators, rightly condemns the low status of actors on the regional theatre scene, but there is also truth to the idea that their status is low because they have given away their power by not being knowledgeable about broader issues than the latest theatre gossip, and not being willing to educate themselves on the issues and speak their mind together to demand change. They fear repercussions, yes, but they also avoid engaging anything but the most insular issues.We're all busy, yes, and these reports often aren't page-turners. But like Outrageous Fortune, or better yet like Gates of Opportunity, the more we know the better understanding we have of the actual situation (and not just our own little corner of the world), and the more we know the better decisions we can make. Do we have time? Clay Shirky says we do, and he's right:
We in higher education must do something to change this know-nothing orientation. Instead of giving semester-long classes in auditioning, we need to empower our actors to take control of their art form, develop entrepreneurial skills, understand the context of their art form within the larger culture and economy, and become powerful, engaged artists who will not allow themselves to be manipulated and exploited.
The only way that things change is if artist become empowered, and they only become empowered if their are educated. Paulo Friere's classic Pedagogy of the Oppressed should become required reading for all theatre people so that they can understand what is at stake in developing their critical consciousness.
We are at a turning point in our culture. As Shirky says, in the 19th century it was gin, and the 20th century is was the sit-com, but we are starting to rouse from our binge and want to participate. We can wait for others to change things for us, or we can dig in and do so ourselves.
Bill Ivey, again as part of the Expressive Life discussion, provides a good reason why we need to take control of this discussion:
Now I'm not a conspiracy theorist (really; I'm not) but if I were it would be easy to frame the entire nonprofit arts scene as a plot to keep smart arts people from ever thinking about things like copyright, union agreements, media ownership, or mergers in the recording, film, and television, or live performance industries. They give the NEA an extra ten million some years, and it's all "high-fives;" the next year they take it away, and we spend thousands on seminars to help us cope with the funding crisis. All the while, bigger forces are quietly tying up the Internet, expanding the footprint of IP, while allowing heritage assets to be locked up in the vaults of a few merged media giants. The nonprofit scene can be viewed as a medium-sized sandbox in which arts people are asked to play for a pittance while mainstream policy actors use legislation, legal interpretation, and regulation to expand controlled revenue streams. But I'm not, just not, a conspiracy theorist...I don't think you have to be a conspiracy theorist to see a lot of truth in what Ivey is saying. We have allowed ourselves to be distracted from the real conversations, and while we've slept, others have made decisions that have a great impact on us. Now we look at the figures and see that arts participation is at the lowest level in years. Are we going to change course, or are we going to ask the band to play just a little bit louder?
Tuesday, January 26, 2010
devilvet: "So tell me in 250 words or less how you are going to change theatre for the better?"
1. Decentralization. Get out of the major cities and gather somewhere else that isn't already choked with theatre. No drive-by guest artists from Nylachi.There -- 142 words to spare.
2. Localization. Form an ensemble that will stay together for a while. Preferably with at least one resident playwright attached who writes plays for the ensemble. Become an active member of the community. Listen.
3. Tribal economics. Pool income. Take out what you need to survive. Each member brings more to the table than their theatrical specialty. Ensemble controls ancillary income. Everyone does everything.
4. Education. Teach young artists the entrepreneurial and collaboration skills needed to control their own artistic lives and truly co-create.
Machiavelli once said "There is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, that to institute a new order of things." There is more to that quotation -- something about how you earn the enmity of those who have succeeded in the old system, and the suspicion of those who have begun to experience a little success in it as well. That's been my experience. People prefer the known evil over the possible good.
So now people are talking about self-producing as an end in itself, a way to control one's art instead of being at the mercy of gatekeepers. And I applaud that empowerment with all of my heart. And the loudest applause goes to James Comtois, who has put together some practical information for people. James, in a world of easy and successful self-publishing, you might want to consider formatting this and making at available through Amazon's CreateSpace. I think people might like having a bound copy for reference. So often we hoard our information in the hopes that what we know will give us a leg up on the competition, but that actually prevents the field from advancing. In this world of blogs and self-publishing, we should all start sharing what we know, both good and bad.
For my part, my contribution is to shift the focus to small places and what Bill Ivey calls the "expressive life." Over at ArtsJournal.com, Ivey, the former NEA head and current director of the Curb Center for Arts, Enterprise, and Public Policy. and who along with his colleague Steven Tepper are publishing some of the most innovative ideas about a new artistic order currently available, began a discussion about shifting the emphasis from "art" and "culture," two terms that carry heavy political and social baggage, to "expressive life." Predictably, he is encountering the usual resistance that Machiavelli predicted hundreds of years ago. Follow the discussion -- it will go on for a couple days -- and note how strong the status quo is when it comes to new ideas. That someone as well-known and well-respected as Bill Ivey is getting such flack gives me, pretty much unknown and oftentimes disrespected, some hope.
Maybe I need to get out my copy of The Prince...
Monday, January 25, 2010
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?"
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...
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.
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?
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 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.
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.
Sunday, January 24, 2010
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.