Friday, June 23, 2006

Simple Question

Over at Creative Generalist, Steve Hardy is blogging about things he has learned at a conference in Toronto called IdeaCity. He writes:

Steven Rechtschaffner, former CCO of Electronic Arts, touched on several creative points. When presented with an idea, he says that the best response is the simple question, "What inspired it?" Learning of the inspirational root helps ground the idea, attaches a story to it, and fleshes it out a bit more. He praised the power of naivete, remarked on how art imitates life imitates art, and advised that if you're an idea person you must seek out cultures of "yes" and leave cultures of "no".

What a terrific question to ask first, rather than "what's wrong with this idea?"

Thursday, June 22, 2006

The Model (Draft) -- Part 2

As promised in Part 1 of this draft of a model theatre, the topic is now "The Artist in the Community." What I mean by this can be described best by taking apart a sentence in the previous post: "What does my community need right now?"

As a question, it sounds simple, but has several separate parts each with different, but conjoined, ramifications.

First, "my community" indicates that you are part of the community, and it is part of you -- no more Mysterious Outsider. Thus, the term "embedded." I know: the current connotations make me uncomfortable too, so let's try to disconnect them. I mean the broader definition of embedded: To cause to be an integral part of a surrounding whole. MY community means that you are an integral part of it, you claim it as yours, it emcompasses you. To some extent, this is a change from the modernist norm, which placed the artist outside of the community and valorized the perspective allowed by this disconnection. Here, you sacrifice perspective for detail, long shot for close up. This also means that the artist -- and I mean all of them involved in the theatre -- must live in the community they serve. No more drive-by performances. The artists should also be seen at the grocery store, the church or synagogue, the soccer field, the library, the voting site. They need to have a life that reaches beyond the rehearsal hall and makes contact with a diversity people with a diversity of perspectives. Artists have a tendency to live in gated communities where only those who are "in the know" and "one of us" live. As a result, their productions begin to lose richness, complexity, wholeness.

Second, the word "need" requires that you be connected enough to that community to recognize what it already has too much of, and what is lacking. You can feel it, you experience it in your heart. The word "need" is not the same as the word "want" -- usually a community will want more of what it already has and likes. Need requires balance. It is a dialectic: the artist in the community determines what the widely held thesis is and provides the antithesis with the goal of a synthesis. The artist supplies the yang to balance the community's yin. Oppositional complementarity. This is art as a thermostatis activity. I borrow this term from Neil Postman, who uses it in terms of education in his sequel to Teaching as a Subversive Activity, which he called (thermostatically) Teaching as a Conserving Activity. You set you thermostat to a certain tempertaure; its job is to make what is too warm cooler, and what is too cool warmer. As Postman writes, "A thermostat, in short, releases a counterargument." The thermostat does so not out of spite, not out of a spirit of criticism, but in order to achieve dynamic balance. So the artist is not solely focused on expressing a personal vision, but rather on serving the community's needs.

And finally, "right now" means there is no universal solvent, no single aesthetic that applies across time and space. You use the language that will have the greatest impact at that moment, the forms that will be most compelling at that moment, the images and metaphors that will have the greatest traction at that moment. The artist must become a master of as many languages and styles as possible -- he or she must have a sizeable artistic toolbox.

All of this pertains to the plays that are chosen, the stories that are told, and the relationships that are formed.

What's the slogan? Be here now.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Addendum to Model -- Part 1

Thank you, Alison, for this quotation from Australian playwright Daniel Keene, who, in his graduation address to the Swinburne University of Technology's Small Companies and Community Theatre Course, said about the theatres in France that receive public funds:

An important point to note is that these subsidies are granted only if the theatre fulfils a legal requirement that the theatre provide a public service. This public service can take many forms and is often called Social Action (it's what we in Australia would call Community Theatre). The same goes for National Theatres.
There are many kinds of Social Action, ranging from actors and directors running workshops or performing plays in prisons and in hospitals, working with handicapped people, running classes and performing in schools and workplaces and running workshops for specific groups such as new immigrants, the unemployed, single parents, retired people, etc. All of this is offered to the people involved at no cost to them.

What all of this means, of course, is that theatre is obliged to participate in and contribute to the wider social, cultural and political life of the community in which it exists. This is not seen by the theatres as any kind of burden, but as an essential part of the theatre's work; in fact, it is considered one of the fundamental reasons why the theatre exists at all. In France, theatre is considered and has always been considered to be a central part of the social, cultural and political life of its community. What is most important is that the community understand that the theatre belongs to them: it exists for their benefit, to help express their concerns, to celebrate their lives and their culture and, ultimately, to defend and maintain
their right to free and open public expression.

This is an example of what I mean by community involvement. The other aspect, and perhaps the more important aspect, is being aware of what a community "needs." Which means embeddedness...

Point of Intersection: Time, Energy, and R & D

I see an important point of intersection between Isaac's post "Let's Talk Technology," in which he writes that "from an aesthetic perspective, I think that in theater we have not figured out how to respond to the invention of television and film. Not really"; Matthew Freeman's "Work / Life /Art Balance," which starts out "Work and Life Balance is a constant struggle for most working adults. Add a desire for a life in the arts, and many of us are in the midst of a constant battle of attention, exhaustion and dedication"; and my post "Before I Begin," in which I complain "Things are changing at the speed of light, and we are dawdling, tinkering at the edges of how and what we create" and I urge that we need to "leap-frog" into the future.

The point of intersection: it takes a great deal leisure and energy to think up new ideas, and most working theatre artists are exhausted from trying to make ends meet while simultaneously creating theatre. If the theatre hasn't come to terms with film and television, it might be because during that time we've spent all our energy trying to put food in our mouths.

All of which is to say: where is theatre's Research and Development? Most innovative industries put a percentage of their income into the development of new ideas and products. They do so, because not to do so would lead inevitably to a decline in market share and eventually bankruptcy. But theatre doesn't have R & D -- or rather, we do our R & D on the factory floor.

Sure, we have "experimental theatre," but such theatre isn't about research, really. For all practical purposes, "experimental" really means either "really weird" or "extremely difficult." There is no commitment from experimental artists to actually "test out" new ideas in any intentional fashion, and there is little interest from non-experimental artists to attend such performances looking for new ideas. Both aspects are equally tragic: the mainstream theatre desperately needs an influx of weirdness, of innovation, of new ideas; and the experimental theatre really needs more focus and, in addition, more money.

If mainstream theatre was really doing its job, it would view the fringe as the place where its next Big Thing was going to come from, and it would reward those things when they arose. In the software industry, companies like Google are on the lookout for new, innovative companies with new, innovative ideas and they reward those companies by buying them and making them rich. Not so theatre, where only occasionally does the mainstream "reach down" and reward the fringe (Julie Taymor springs to mind), and usually only individual artists, not entire companies. Why aren't scouts from the regional theatres out looking for innovative companies to "merge" with like, say, the RSC and the Royal Court have done in England; instead of creating haphazard and unfocused "second stages," why not import entire companies and allow them to continue to create their usual work under more economically viable conditions, and allow the parent company to cross-polinate and benefit from the influx of ideas? If this were the model, instead of the "free agent" model of every man for himself, then there would be greater motivation for groups of artists to form stable companies in order to develop a distinctive and unique approach to theatre.

That would be one way to create Theatre R & D.

The other way (and there are probably more) centers on the universities. Right now, theatre departments across the country are focused on the creation of ever more young theatre artists who are trained to do the same damn thing we've been doing since Thespis stepped from the dithyramb and shouted "hey, look at me." Faculty members whose focus is production, which means most of them, simply crank out a season of traditional plays done traditionally in order to train traditional actors and traditional designers to do more traditional productions in the future. Faculty members with a more research orientation tend to crank out investigations of ever more obscure plays analyzed with ever more obscure theoretical techniques that have nothing so say to the mass of theatre practitioners.

What a waste.

Why aren't universities undertaking experiments with the goal of helping the profession to prosper and grow? Why aren't regional theatres teaming with university faculty to do low-cost experiments, instead of teaming with them to provide internships or a theatre space?

The answer is probably because we don't think about theatre like this. We think advances in theatre come as a result of lone geniuses who, in a flash of insight, change the face of theatre forever. Well, things have gotten too desperate for that model to function efficiently anymore. We need more intentional weirdness.

Welcome, Poor Player

A new theatre blog by an academic -- and one who promises to talk about the idea of "professionalism" soon! Welcome Tom of Buffalo! See the sidebar!

The Model (Draft) -- Part 1

OK, here I go, responding to Brian's request for a Vision. I am going to start with the umbrella concept that permeates every other detail (and this will not be new to anyone who has read this blog in the past):


What do I mean by this? Do I mean that a theatre should only do plays about the community where it lives? Absolutely not.

What I mean is that some theatres -- the theatres I am creating a model for here -- would be a part of the community where they are situated, and should also form a community around themselves.


I believe there should be theatres that are "embedded." I choose that word because of its recent connotations with journalists who are embedded with troops in Iraq. An embedded journalist trades one thing in order to receive another. He trades away total independence in order to acquire an inside view; what he sees is, to some extent, controlled by the community within which he is embedded, but at the same time he sees aspects of the community that an outsider would not be allowed to see. Independent journalists are crucial to the world, as are independent artists/theatres, and I would not make embeddedness a universal aesthetic. Diversity of viewpoints is important to the wisdom of the group.


The central question of an embedded theatre is: "What does my community need right now?" Perhaps your community seems too parochial and it would benefit from seeing plays by playwrights from other cultures, or plays about other cultures. Perhaps your community has had an influx of immigrants and they would benefit from seeing a play that touches that issue. Perhaps your economy is in transition, and factory jobs are being sent oversees -- maybe you do a play that touches those issues. Perhaps your community seems too focused on money, and it would benefit from seeing a play about spirituality.

The key word in that last sentence is "too," and it is the most important word in the embedded theatre's lexicon. Such a theatre is situated to create a balance, to counteract tendencies that seem to be tipping too far out of equilibrium. This means that your theatre doesn't have a single ideology, but rather one that shifts according to shifts within the community.

This, in turn, affects the relationship between the community and the artist, which will the topic of the next installment:

Something to Be Learned? -- Part Two

Steve Rubel over at Micro Persuasion summarizes, in a post called "Media - Mass = Journalism 2.0," an article that recently appeared in the Washington Post entitled "As the Internet Grows Up, the News Industry Is Forever Changed." While the article itself focuses on how journalism is being changed by the internet, Rubel broadens the focus: "It's a must read for every PR professional. If you're doing your job the same way you did five years ago, look out. The floor you built your career on is shifting..." The bullet points he makes are as applicable to theatre PR as any other industry. How can theatre make this leap-frog? What role will the theatre blogs play? What role can they play? How can theatres benefit from this change?

June 21: I have just discovered that YS, over at Mirror Up To Nature, has posted a brilliant exploration of this in his post "Look Who's Getting Defensive, or Too Little Too Late." Check it out!

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Something to Be Learned?

NPR ties into the new technology and succeeds -- theatre?

But Before I Begin...

Edutech blogger Clarence Fisher over at Remote Access blogs this:

Hence the need to leap - frog... We need to leave behind ideas of incrementally increasing our understanding, and incrementally changing our teaching methods, slowly bringing people up to speed. This idea worked fine when ideas of literacy and education were not rapidly changing; but they are. We need to be be able to leap - frog in our understandings, in our methods, and in our tools, allowing us to move to where the kids are. If we do not become leaders to our students, we will be followers, seen as irrelevant, and left to cry in our books while the kids are off setting the agenda.

I think the same is true of theatre. We need to leap-frog. Things are changing at the speed of light, and we are dawdling, tinkering at the edges of how and what we create. Worried about the greying of the audience? Then start leap-frogging! The revolutions of the 80s and even the 90s are Old Hat. We need to be innovating as if our life depends on it -- because it does!

Don Hall over at Angry White Guy in Chicago says something similar, and he lists a few of the current innovations.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Describing a New Model

A good and brilliant friend of mine, Brian Santana, who sometimes reads this blog, emailed me:

I was thinking about this question the other day: you often talk about the problems with the current theatrical system and the corrective measures that should or could be embraced to combat these ills. However, in all of this discussion, I have never been able to form a clear picture of what the theatre that you describe would look like. Perhaps this is because theatre would be concentrated towards particular communities, and therefore, theatre would be slightly different in each community.

Brian then goes on to use the opening of Robert Brustein's masterful Theatre of Revolt and Rachel Carson's Silent Spring as examples of writers who have painted a picture of the future as a way of defining the present, and illustrating the changes that should be made. While I am not capable of rising to the heights of a Brustein or a Carson, I do see the wisdom of his request.

So in the days that follow, I will attempt to describe what the theatre I envision might look like. Having said that, a disclaimer is in order: I'll only be able to describe a few of the manifold possibilities. I will present a broad sketch only, in the hope that somebody might be willing to embroider on my ideas, and extend them much further than I can myself.

Disclaimer 2: I don't have much hope that my ideas will be in the least bit original. I suspect that many, many theatres across the country and throughout the world have been using most of" my ideas" for decades, and it is simply my own ignorance that leads me to claim them. In fact, I hope that this is so, so that it won't be necessary to recreate the wheel. And I sincerely hope that others will not feel the need to ridicule my ignorance -- as a college professor, I am a big target.

Disclaimer 3: What I describe won't be for everyone, nor is it my claim that these should be the single way that theatre should be done. An art form is best when it is being done in many different ways. Diversity is richness.

I will also cannibalize from my previous posts, which in this new context might gain new perspective.

I welcome into my comments anyone who might want to build on my ideas, or tinker with them in some way. It is my hope that those who don't like the ideas won't feel compelled to condemn them here, since one's own blog is really the best place to put forward your individual vision.

Having written this, I'd better start thinking of things to write!

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 ...