Tuesday, February 01, 2011

The Need for Theatre R & D

Kudos to Rocco Landesman for coming back to engage the field about the "supply and demand" issue he raised (to great gnashing of teeth) at the New Play Development Program convening at Arena Stage. I have responded below a couple times to the issue, and no doubt will continue to do so -- after all, it is the raison d'etre for the Center for Rural Arts Development and Leadership Education (CRADLE). On Twitter, the hashtag being followed (suggested by Landesman himself, which again indicates to me that he wants a conversation -- again kudos) is #supplydemand. And while Howard Sherman may resist that hashtag ("Is it just me, or does everyone using NEA’s suggestion of #supplydemand seem accepting that this is equation to debate?"), I think that it does encapsulate the issues of audience development and geographical centralization that are important for artists to address.

What I want to discuss today, however, is an issue that I discussed briefly at the convening in a breakout session about devised work, and that Trisha Mead alluded to in a response she made to Landesman's blog post, where she said "non-profit theater should exist for the good of the culture- that the arts in general are the 'R & D arm' of our society." While Trisha was speaking about the relationship between the arts and society (and I'm not certain I agree with her analogy, but I'll have to think about it more), I'd like to talk about The Field of Theatre.

On the plane on the way to DC, I finally got around to reading an essay published last year in March by Hasan Bakshi, Radhika Desai and Alan Freeman on the Australian Arc Center for Excellence Creative Industries and Innovation (CCI) entitled "Not Rocket Science: A Roadmap for Arts and Cultural R & D." I'd like to explore some of the ideas in the essay, but I'd first like to draw your attention for a moment toan analogy about another discipline: the sciences.

In the sciences, a researcher applies for a grant to run an experiment on a certain subject. He has a hypothesis to test, and a way to test it. If the grantor sees value in the experiment, it is funded. The researcher then fully designs the methodology of the experiment, runs the experiment, and then publishes the findings, with a complete review of literature and a clear description of the methodology and the findings, in a journal. The journal is peer reviewed, so at both ends of the process, the researcher's work is evaluated by qualified members of the field.

If we could look at a theatre production as an experiment for a few minutes, we see certain parallels. We often will seek funding for a particular project, and once the money is received we create the production. But the last part, the part I underlined above, is usually totally ignored. We don't feel the necessity of communicating to The Field.

The result of this truncated process is that The Field doesn't develop. Techniques and approaches remain local knowledge, known only by those who worked on the production. Vocabulary isn't shared and integrated. It is as if a scientist discovered a cure for cancer and didn't tell anybody about it, but instead just moved on to the next research project. OK, that's not a great analogy, but the point is that, across the country, theatre artists are reinventing wheels that already have the treads worn off them elsewhere.

When I first arrived at the convening, I ran into Ben Pesner, co-author with Todd London of Outrageous Fortune, and he told me he was reading the TCG publication The Artistic Home: Discussions with Artistic Directors of America's institutional Theatre that Todd London, Lloyd Richards, and Peter Ziesler published in 1993, and Pesner said that nothing has changed in 20 years -- the same conversations could be occurring today about the same problems. During one of the convening sessions, in a Tweet heard 'round the world, Polly Carl, the Literary Manager for Steppenwolf, said when she was head of the Playwright's Center in Minneapolis she and a research assistant had done a review of literature about the new play development processes and she said that looking over old notebooks, she realized "we regurgitate the same new play conversations every 5 years." Why? Because we don't engage The Field.

Admittedly, this ought to be a role for academia, but academia is filled with profs so obsessed with training the next generation of creative cannon fodder that we're not doing it either. Gotta get the fourth show of the semester on its feet! No time to think about The Field!

And I suppose it is a little intimidating to think that the things we discover in the chaos of rehearsal might be applicable to someone else somewhere else doing some other production. But scientists make that leap all the time -- the feel a responsibility to publish their research results, because others build on those results. At the convening, we spent a bunch of time, for instance, trying to define "devised." Heck, the first convening I went to was called "Defining Diversity." How can we ever make progress if we never get past definitions? To bring together that many high-powered, thoughtful people and to have them spend their time on definitions is a pity. But it had to be done, because nobody is communicating with The Field.

Sometimes the theatrosphere gets close, when a discussion goes on long enough to get beyond the initial position statements. But rarely, and rarely is it based on research.

Let's look at what Bakhshi et al has to say about this. Noting that R & D has tended to be defined in terms of Science and Technology (S & T), the authors notes that arts and cultural organizations need to recognize:

that the development of new products or processes, no matter how creative, inventive, or socially useful, does not constitute R & D if it remains tacit. The Frascati Manual [considered the Bible of R & D] requires R & D to clearly articulate research questions, apply dedicated rigorous methods, and produce replicable findings which can be made explicit for dissemination. The methods and outcomes of arts and cultural R & D must be explicit and capable of generalisation across the sector. This requires arts and cultural organizations to shelve the notion that the sources of art, culture and creativity are necessarily mysterious.
You're having flashbacks to college stats classes, aren't you? But I ask that you withhold your judgment a bit longer. The authors go on, in a section entitled Creative experimentation per se is not R & D, "experimentation and innovation in content and form are inherent to the arts. There is a sense in which every work is new." That's what we all claim, right? However, they go on, "if, as is usual in the arts and cultural sector, the knowledge created and the methods used are neither made explicit, nor codified, nor replicable for extension and use by others, sunch innovative activity falls short of the requirements of R & D -- even if it leads to innovation in the wider creative economy." In other words, it ain't enough to experiment, we need to generalize from the experiment and then share that knowledge widely. We miss both of these in the arts. We just do shows.

But what if the various people who do devised work, for instance, didn't only create a product, but tested out devising techniques, generalized the technique as a pattern (ala Christopher Alexander's idea of a Pattern Language for architecture), and shared the pattern to The Field for others to use? This is what Anne Bogart did with Viewpoints, and why Viewpoints has taken off as an approach to rehearsal -- she gave us a vocabulary, exercises, techniques and approaches that we could apply to our own work. Stanislavski did the same thing. "Proper, informed, structured R & D," Bakhshi et all goes on, "is needed for arts and cultural organizations to ride such great waves of change. It goes beyond mere individual artistic creativity, just as the knowledge needed to run a railway so vastly exceed the knowledge needed to build a locomotive, or the knowledge needed to electrify whole nations goes so far beyond the knowledge that produced the dynamo and the light bulb."

Applying this to our current Landesman-prompted discussion of #supplydemand, how can we complain about the fact that he is using traditional economic concepts developed for capitalist markets when we, as A Field, haven't developed our own terminology concerning business models or done our own studies about the effects of saturation on an arts market? The best we can manage is a few furtive gestures toward Lewis Hyde's The Gift, which we likely haven;t actually read all the way through, and some huffing and puffing about the importance of diverse expression.  But, as Bakhshi et al writes, "trialling new business models is urgent, as social and technological change makes old, often implicit, business models irrelevant." Surely every theatre company in America (or the world, for that matter) isn't operating on the same business model! How are they structured? How are decisions made? How is income generated and distributed? As Bakhshi writes, "The key point is that the knowledge be shared. This means it must be made explicit and have clear mechanisms for dissemination."

I know, I know -- that involves a lot of writing and thinking, and we want to be in the rehearsal room or at the computer creating our next work of art. But don't you think that scientists would much rather be in the lab than writing up their research? But they feel a responsibility to The Field. And consequently, the sciences advance, whereas we in the arts simply go in circles.

"The possibilities are immense," Bakhshi enthuses. "Arts and cultural organizations working with, rather than against, its grain, can lead social change towards a society more suffused with culture. They can embed themselves more purposefully and fully in ongoing social processes, and can create specific new ones. By learning from R & D-intensive industries, by allocating funds and specific intellectual resources to experiment and understand emerging ways -- aesthetic, social, and technical -- of satisfying evolving needs and demands and creating new ones, they can create their own knowledge about the changing sources of value in new forms of artistic experiences and apply it to yield innovations -- new processes, products, and systems -- for delivery."

By the way, I also think that the NEA needs to get on board with this idea. At the moment, most of their grants go to the creation of specific products, but I think that part of the expectations for anyone who receives a grant is to publish their findings. I know some of the documents I had to write when I finished my grant might be applicable in other situations, but my report disappeared into the files never to be seen again. This is also where a journal like HowlRound can contribute.

So the choice is clear -- we can continue "regurgitating the same conversations every five years," and spend lots of time never getting beyond defining terms, and allow people in politics and economics slice and dice us, or we can become intentional about our Field, and develop it as if we care whether it lives or dies. We're all smart people. Let's focus that intelligence on the broader issues.

Monday, January 31, 2011

More Thoughts on Rocco Landesman at the Arena

A few days ago, I wrote in response to Rocco Landesman's address to the New Play Development Program convening that began on Wednesday. In it, as has been widely reported, even by the New York Times, Rocco suggested that perhaps the nonprofit theatre system was "overbuilt," that demand is falling at the same time as supply is rising, and that we may want to consider "thinning the herd," as I put it on my blog post Wednesday night.

People didn't take too kindly to Rocco's statements. You could hear a collective bristle in the auditorium, one that increased in volume once the blogging world got involved. Trisha Mead called them "fighting words," which was then followed by posts saying that Rocco was calling for, in essence, Death Panels. J Holtam over at Parabasis, who like me was actually there, gets it about right when he writes, "But, I think, when you add up what Rocco was saying, it seems less like he's aiming at taking the little guys out of the equation and more like he's re-evaluating his funding priorities on the basis of what kind of work a theatre is doing." (italics mine)

Some people felt betrayed, writing "With friends like this..." There was a certain nervousness to hear the head of the NEA saying such things when the Republicans are once again suggesting that the NEA be zeroed out. Shouldn't he be the Number One  Cheerleader for the Arts? But the Chair of the NEA is more than that -- or at least, he ought to be. He ought to using the money that he has to make an impact in the field and to influence its development. To put it bluntly, I don't want the NEA to just spread money around, but to do so in a way that leads us beyond the status quo.

That said, while Rocco didn't say anything directly about funding only the Major Theatres, it doesn't take a genius to recognize that that's where his interest lies. While many have noted his background as a Broadway impresario, I think it is more relevant to note that he is a former student and protege of Robert Brustein, the former head of the American Repertory Theatre at Yale and Harvard and critic for the New Republic, who has long believed that the NEA ought to stop funding all these rinky-dink arts organizations and give the dough to somebody who knows how to use it (i.e., to Brustein). He's published these articles in many of his books. I remember when I was writing my dissertation about Brustein that he got particularly exercised about giving money to Folk Arts, which were just to darned lower-class for words.

The NEA is a grantmaker, and people like Landesman who lead such organizations are responsible for setting priorities. If we don't like the priorities, we need to argue about that issue, not throw a hissy fit about "how dare he." At least Landesman is out front with his opinions, so we can actually engage the issues directly, rather than having to tease out his opinions.

The slogan of Landesman's NEA is "Art Works," so if we want to engage this debate, we need to doing so on that basis. It's about economics and jobs and communities. Arguinf aesthetics is a waste of time; objecting to the use of the terms "supply and demand" is a waste of time. That's the vocabulary.

My argument is that, in fact, the nonprofit theatre isn't overbuilt in general, but it is overbuilt in certain places. We don't need more theatres in NYC, or Chicago, or Minneapolis, for instance -- that audience is largely tapped out, at least if you accept the idea that only a small percentage of people are interested in attending the theatre (I don't accept that, either, but I do think that developing a new audience means developing a new approach). One way to increase demand is to open new, untapped markets. If there are too many restaurants competing for diners in your city, then look elsewhere. My particular interest is the arts in small and rural communities, but it isn't only those places that are underserved. There are many medium-sized cities, suburbs, and other such places that are also being ignored by the lemming-like flow of artists to NYC in search of fame. There is a large swath of entire states in the midwest that have no TCG theatres at all.

This approach does a couple of things to make Landesman's job easier. First, it connects to his theme of Art Works. Second, it brings arts funding into a larger variety of districts, so that it is harder for politicians to score points against the NEA because their constituents in their district are benefiting. I know these ideas aren't sexy -- we want to talk about the wonderful things the arts does for the richness of humanity and so forth -- but we're talking about funding, politics, and economics and we need to talk that language.

So What Rocco did was send a warning shot over our bow. How are we going to respond? With hysteria, or focused resistance?