Saturday, December 31, 2005

More on the Film of "The Producers"

Norman LeBrecht does a nice job analyzing what he considers the failure of the film of The Producers, and much more insightfully than A. O. Scott's misguided attack on theatre audiences. LeBrecht, a fan of the original film and the musical, but not of the new film, writes:

"The sole heartening aspect of The Producers as a movie is its like-for-like
vindication of live art over canned, its proof positive – and how positive –
that the musical will carry on running on Broadway, in the West End and on tour
for years after its synthetic transposition is consigned to the dump bins of DVD
stores and the lower recesses of cable television."

I haven't seen the musical or the new film, but that doesn't stop me from agreeing with LeBrecht. There is something quintessentially theatrical about a stage musical, and that simply doesn't transfer to film. It has something to do with the circular flow of energy between stage and audience that is cut off in film, which is a one-way medium. (Lovers of the fourth wall might take note.)

While there are many theatre people who might not be enthralled by musicals in general, I think there is value in examining what makes the form continue to thrive. It is simply too easy to dismiss the form as successful because of pandering -- I think there is more to it than that.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

In my comments box, MattJ responded to the following quotation from my post on ensemvle: "if we really value the idea of an ensemble, and we also value the security of a liveable and consistent salary, then perhaps we need to break away from the industrial approach to the creation of theatre as a product and become more creative about how we generate income."

MattJ wrote:

Definitely. How can we do that without compromising our art form or assimilating with the capitalist consumerism we are rebelling against?

I'm also interested in the idea of the ensemble artistically. Yes, it would be great to have more rehearsal time, the creation process really does need to get more emphasis. One way to combat it is the ensemble idea. Back in the day Commedia Troupes could whip out plays at will in a combination if improv and acquired skill. But they had also trained with each other and knew how to work together. Anne Bogart does this stuff with the SITI company and Viewpoints, and I'm sure there's others as well. But I think it's an area of theatre that needs some more emphasis.

MattJ does a good thing here: he tries to come up with a solution, even a partial one, to the challenge. He identifies very clear perameters for the exploration ("How can we do that without compromising our art form or assimilating with the capitalist consumerism we are rebelling against?"), and he offers a solution: improv.

This leads me to ask for the combined brainpower of the theatre blogosphere to brainstorm: how might we create the possibility for an ensemble within the current theatre atmosphere?

I can think of a couple possibilities, and I hope others might contribute more. Here are a couple:

1. Pool resources and share expenses. I'm not talking about the traditional commune idea, which has gotten a deservedly bad rap from its 1960s weirdness. But nevertheless, would there be a way for a company to share its resources. For instance, buy a house together to house the company (or better yet, get an arts patron to contribute a house rent-free for a year), or on a smaller scale cook communal meals. The general idea is to reduce as much as possible the amount of money it takes to live, so as to allow more time to create. (The old saw is that time is money, but the reverse is also true: money is time.)

2. Rehearse and/or perform in non-traditional spaces. One of the big costs for a company is paying to rent space. Would it be possible to rehearse in a basement, a community center, a garage? Could performances occur in a church, a hotel ballroom, a garage, an attic?

Other ideas?

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Charles Isherwood on Collectives

The Playgoer quotes Christpher Isherwood, and I find myself on Isherwood's side!:

"True theatrical collectives - companies of actors and artists who repeatedly work together to hone their craft, establishing a cohesive aesthetic - remain a vital part of the European theatrical landscape. By contrast, the phenomenon is virtually nonexistent in the upper realms of New York theater, where the demands of the marketplace reign supreme and even the finest casts are assembled for a single production.

What we lose out on is what I found so transfixing in the productions mentioned: the singular ability of a unified company of actors to conjure a world that compels us with its truth, whatever the style or tone of the material. This is something different in kind from assembling an array of terrific performers for just one occasion."

What we also lose out on is the kind of on-going relationship between artists and audience that leads to a much richer, more knowledgeable interaction on both sides. Playgoer also applauds Isherwood, but goes on: "But does he breathe word anywhere of funding? Dream on..." Funding is certainly an issue, but what is interesting is how theatres regularly find the money to pay administrators, but not artists. Your values show up in where you put your money. That said, part of the problem may be in how we conceive of the job of the artists. The Actor's Equity contract is very specific about what actors can and can't do without additional remuneration. The model is that of the industrial worker whose union determines what the conditions of employment are. But art is not industry. If, instead of being regarded as employees hired to do a job, actors (and directors and designers) were made artistic partners with a stake in the success of the institution (not unlike the shareholders in the Globe, for instance), then a perhaps more creative approach to the work might lead to the ability to pay a decent salary to the artists. Wouldn't you agree that artists would welcome a steady, liveable salary and might be willing to undertake additional work to create the conditions needed to provide that salary?

Let me give a concrete example or two. I have begun working with a consulting group that provides leadership and team-building events for businesses. What sets this company apart is that they use the arts as a central part of these events. Plays, dance, music, visual art -- all are used as a catalyst to conversation. For instance, a performance of the play "Art" was used as a starting point for discussion of communication and conflict. Such events could provide considerable outside income for artists connected to an institution. Actors not appearing in the current mainstage offering could develop offerings for such leadership events, and also participate in them. Right now, actors could be hired by the consulting group independently, without violating Equity rules, and that's fine, but the money is in providing the entire leadership event, which an institution could do. Obviously, this ain't pure art, but it is income that might provide the wherewithal for an institution to pay a liveable salary to a company.

This idea could be expanded to include community building activities which could be supported by grants. Using short plays as the starting point for discussions that might address local problems. Again, it ain't pure art, but it is income. And surely it must be better than working as a waiter.

The point is that, if we really value the idea of an ensemble, and we also value the security of a liveable and consistent salary, then perhaps we need to break away from the industrial approach to the creation of theatre as a product and become more creative about how we generate income. Yes, Playgoer is right if we think about it in the usual way -- in order to support an ensemble, we would need more grant money. But I wonder if we might become a bit more self-sufficient if we thought outside the box.

What's a Manifesto For?

As we've been discussing Frederick Turner's manifesto, several commenters have either expressed a wish that Turner had expanded on his ideas more fully, sometimes bemoaning the fact that the ideas as expressed seemed trite; or rejected the manifesto in its entirety because he or she objected to certain aspects of it. I'd like to address these.

A manifesto almost by definition is epigramatic in form. To elaborate on the different statements in Turner's manifesto would take a book or two -- books that Turner has, in fact, written: "Natural Classicism" and "Culture of Hope" seem to fully flesh out those ideas. A manifesto distills the ideas. I have checked these books out of the library to see what the basis for the ideas is mainly out of curiosity, but there is a part of me that wants to say, "Who cares what Frederick Turner thought about when he wrote that manifesto? What matters is what I think about!"

I have no interest in being a Turner apostle, or anyone's apostle for that matter. And my impression is that nobody else wants to be an apostle, either -- not this independent group. But I am trying to piece together my own aesthetic philosophy, because part of what I do as a teacher involves demonstrating that such a thing can be done. My idea of beauty may have nothing to do with Turner's idea, yet I may find his statement compelling, so it is up to me to define my terms. If Turner thinks beauty means classical aesthetics, then that is fine -- I can still agree with the sentiment without agreeing with the specifics. It seems to me that SpearBearer Down Left, in his post concerning Turner's Manifesto, picks and chooses those things he agrees with, and rejects those he does not, and that's how it should be. But when he indicates approval disagreement [I misread SBDL's original post, and I stand corrected] with certain ideas, he often adds "I'd love to see this expanded upon." Instead, I'd love to see him expand upon it! What does he find in the idea that is objectionable? How does he interpret the terms. (I'd also like to see him do the same explication with the things he rejects accepts, which he has marked in bold.)

All of which leads to a question: was there anything in the manifesto that you could subscribe to, and if so how did you interpret the idea? It seems to me that such a question might lead to a conversation. Another discussion-starting question might be: what sort of plays might Turner's ideas lead to?

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Merry Christmas To All...

...and to all a good night.
I have had a wonderful day with family, and am now altogether contented. Time for sleep.

Think Again: Funding and Budgets in the Arts

Every once in a while, I think I'll post a link or two to posts written earlier in the life of Theatre Ideas that seem worth revisiting ...