Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Model (Draft) Part 3, Where We Hear from Isaac

My apologies for the rather lengthy silence on my part.

In response to my Model (Draft) series, Isaac emailed me the following (which mysteriously disappeared from my comments box):

You are right. It is in the long-term interest of organizations to invest as much as possible in local talent. This has to be done both by building that talent (ie. offering acting classes in smaller markets) and supporting/hiring that talent.

There are some problems both short- and long- term that come out of this, and we have to reckon with them as we move forward: (1) Building up local actors and then, when they've finally come in to their own, watching them move to New York and probably never work steadily in theater again. But they'll make a good living doing various small parts in commercials and Law and Order.

(2) It's not that having a 100 #ered zip code gives you acting talent, it's that there are so many talented people here hungry for a break etc. that's it's a lot easier to cast a fairly wide net and
get (on average) better people. This is why regional theaters that can afford it cast out of New York. It's not *just* regional
snobbishness and inferiority (although it's that too). It's that there's a huge pool here, and a lot of available talented people who are so used to doing showcases they'll gladly move out of town for 10 weeks for decent pay and lodging.

(3) Provincialism and complacency. These are NYC problems too (believe me they are BIG TIME). In the regional system, it looks like going to see a play and seeing a reasonably talented actor give the same goddamn performance they give in every goddamn play while, simultaneously, the organization that employs her doesn't really grow or change because they like the way they're doing things and there isn't enough new blood to stir it up (this has happened in quite a few regional theaters I know, including one i've worked with fairly extensively).

So this is my recommendation... or this is where I see taking your idea... working exclusively with actors who live in the area can prove problematic (perhaps) but we certainly need to shift more of the burden to raising the next generation of theater professionals through audience outreach and classes! Lots of classes! use the talented, well trained people to create more talented well trained people. It'll also help generate more income. Finally, fill various production roles with people from out of your area from time to time to create change and variety as well as opportunities to grow and learn. And (as well) to create the opportunity to bring people from the outside
in who might want to move to your area.

That's my idea, in a nutshell. I think only going local has (at this point, with the system as pernitious and well developed as it is) only long term benefits, while mixing it up a bit might (MIGHT) produce both short and long term gains.

Some thoughts for you. What do you think?

First of all, I think Isaac makes some very, very good points. I like his idea of providing classes -- not just as talent development, but as a way of improving the connection between the theatre and the community.

I also agree that there are a lot of talented people in NYC, and you may want some of them involved in your theatre. The idea of occasionally bringing people in from the outside to shake things up is excellent. The extension of this would be for the regional theatre to actively seek out small theatres anywhere in the country who are doing something well that is different from what the regional theatre is doing, and then, in essence, "merge" with this theatre -- sort of like when Google acquires a small start-up.

But let me be more explicit about what I mean by "local actor" (or director or designer or playwright). It doesn't necessarily mean people who already live in your particular town, although this is certainly a great place to start. But more importantly, no matter where the person comes from, it is important that they become a local actor/director/designer/playwright. In others words, it is important that they hang around for a while.

Which brings me to an important subject: money. In my opinion, theatre artists should be paid well. Duh, but how often are they, really? They might make an OK salary for the couple months they are under contract, but then they're cut loose. As a result, they spend the last month of their contract looking around for the next gig. This affects focus.

In my opinion, theatre artists should be on a 9-month or a 12-month contract that makes them instantly middle class. They should have the employment stability and the total income to buy a house if they want, take out an auto loan, have kids and send them to private school or summer camp, or whatever other things that middle class people do. This should be the starting point when creating the budget. All too often, the starting budgets are built on the backs of the artists themselves, while everybody else gets paid the going rate. This works against creativity, because artists cannot focus on their work when they are working a "day job" or worrying about paying their bills each month. I also think that decent pay might undercut the tendency for actors to head off to NYC once they've developed their talent -- why give up a good thing? How this might be funded is the subject of a future post.

I think the structure of the theatre should reflect these goals. I'm particularly interested in the Elizabethan company model, which had a three-tier structure of shareholders, hirelings, and apprentices. Shareholder bought into the theatre and were part owners. They were paid a percentage of the box office according to their percentage of ownership. Hirelings were paid a specific wage to do a specific job. Apprentices were given room and board, and they could move up the ladder as they became more fully trained. There was a fourth position: householder, which meant you were part owner of the theatre real estate itself. Right now, most people in the theatre are hirelings, but what would happen if you were a shareholder in your theatre? How would this change your relationship to its operation? How would it change the way that productions were chosen? How would it change the finances of the theatre?

Hirelings could be brought in to provide diversity of viewpoints, and the logical extension of the training Isaac mentions would be to have apprentices. Shareholders could buy into the theatre's real estate and become householders, thus providing another source of income.

Money leads to stability, stability leads to community, community leads to more money. It is a circle.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Global and Local

Over at Que 23 (see blogroll), Lucas Krech presents and alternate vision to the one I have been laying out. His idea of "Global Frequency and Networked Art" seems to move theatre into a non-localized company of free agent artists brought together for specific projects according to their particular strengths. It is a powerful vision, and one that has many things to recommend it. I urge you to read it. While I have not yet completed the posts for my Model Theatre, and I also have an email from Isaac Butler that I wish to contribute, I think the general outlines of Lucas' and my visions, at least as it pertains to this aspect of production, are fairly clear.

From your perspective, what are the strengths and weaknesses of each approach? And also, is there a level where the two visions meet in any way?

The New Guthrie Theatre

Over at "The Bleat," James Lileks takes a look at the new Guthrie Theatre and finds it wanting. Lileks does an amazing job showing us what seems to be an appalling building (I lived in Minneapolis for many years in the late 70s and throughout the 80s, so I know much of what he is referring to).

It is when Lileks examines the building in terms of the surrounding area that he makes, to my mind, his most insightful and damning comments (read the article and, more importantly, look at the pictures). He writes:

It’s every post-war cultural institution in the country: a spare and rational temple for the high cult of art. The only cultural antecedents are to the era in which the cultural antecedents were abolished. That’s what annoys me about the thing, really – aside from its inscrutable fa├žade, ham-fisted massing, coy little smokestack marquees and shuttlecraft bridge. This is where the city began: the waterfront, the falls, the mills. Washington Avenue, now in the midst of a remarkable rebirth, has a mix of old and new, but the new knows enough to defer to the old concrete giants, the stone-walled warehouses, the tumbled ruins. The old world was hand-made, brick by brick. It’s possible all the old mills and warehouses would have been made of blue glass if they’d had enough of the stuff. But would it have been too much to ask of the architect to make the Guthrie looked like it belonged on this ancient plot?

Lileks is talking about community -- about a building, which is symbolically the public face of the institution it houses, that refuses to be a part of the community in which it resides, that refuses to incorporate the community's (architectural) history into its view of itself. It was a building designed by a European architect (an import from outside the community, like the actors that the Guthrie employs) who had no understanding (or at least no respect) for the cultural context of the building. Instead, the Guthrie slams into the surrounding neighborhood.

What is sad is that, in some ways, this actually reflects the Guthrie's (and our own?) view of theatre's part in the community. It slams in, bringing "culture" to the unwashed and unsophisticated masses, without respect or understanding for where those masses came from, where they are, and where they are going. We expect them, like the building surrounding the Guthrie, to adapt to us. Take your dose of culture and like it. We know better, and these imported artists definitely know better than those of you who lack the global perspective necessary to truly be in the know.

It is an arrogance and lack of respect that alienates. It will be interesting to see whether the community actually fills the Guthrie, or whether it will come to sense the hostility embodied in the building and stay away.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Caught My Eye

Creativity guru Eric Maisel, on his blog Creativity Central, wrote a post on April 30th on May Day that caught my eye. I'm not certain why. Somehow, I think this connects to what I have been writing about concerning the relation of the artist to the community.... Anyway, after quoting the lyrics to the song Internationale, Maisel writes:

You can see, I think, why many intellectuals of the first half of the last century fell in love with Communism. Take the French writer Andre Gide. In 1937 Gide traveled to Russia, like many European intellectuals of his time hoping to revel in and celebrate Soviet Communism. The ideals of socialism, an inspiration to a generation of thinkers who felt certain that the growing power of oligarchies and corporations were bound to subvert the western democracies, provoked Gide’s journey, a journey that had become the equivalent of a Leftist Grand Tour.

Janet Flanner, writing from Paris for the New Yorker, recounted Gide’s journey. As did many of his compatriots, Gide came away bitterly saddened and completely disillusioned. As we now know and as Gide learned firsthand, the socialist ideal, as beautiful as it might be in theory, could not withstand the realities of human nature. People were bound to ruin it, and they did. Stalin was only the worst offender in that regard, a titanic tyrant ruling over a multitude of pint-sized tyrants.

Flanner concludes her piece on Gide’s reversal of position with a point of real interest to creative people. “Gide notes,” Flanner writes, “that because of the emotions which Communism arouses, the truth about Russia is usually told with hate and the lies with love.” This rich observation extrapolates. We artists, roused by emotion, often do the same thing. In our work, we end up hating more than we should and loving more than we should. This tends to make our work too cynical, on the one hand, and too romantic, on the other.

We excoriate our small town because our disrespect for its values and its denizens has turned to hatred. At the same time we eulogize the plight of the one poet our small town has produced, turning her into a troubled saint, when in fact she was just a smart anorexic better at words than at life. In the process of hating our town and loving its poet we distort and make unrecognizable the truth about our environment, our neighbors, and our artists. A great gulf is manufactured and our intentions to see clearly tumble into it.

How can we love and still see clearly? How can we feel the legitimate outrage we feel and still see to either side of it? I think that these are harder tasks than anyone imagines. I think that our enthusiasms blind us and our hatreds blind us in ways that confound us. An artist may inadvertently paint unicorns and never stop painting them, or inadvertently paint violent gashes and never stop painting them, exactly because he is trapped in an infatuation, like the intellectuals’ infatuation with Communism. This infatuation, compounded of wishful thinking and raw emotion, does not let reality or maturity in.

Thoughts to ponder...

Hear! Hear! Terry Teachout

Terry Teachout of About Last Night (see blogroll), in his Wall Street Journal column, ends his terrific article on regional theatres with the following sentence: "Take it from a critic who now spends much of his time living out of a suitcase: If you don't know what's hot in "the stix," you don't know the first thing about theater in 21st-century America."

Now that a NY critic has said it, it is time for regional theatres to take the next step. Make a banner of Teachout's words and put it in your artistic director's office as a reminder, and then walk the walk. If you're proud to be a regional theatre (and you should be), then be proud to hire and retain regional actors. Your claim to being a regional theatre is shot to hell if the actors and designers and directors are regularly imported from NYC. How can you claim to be a regional theatre if everybody except your office staff lives somewhere else?

Intiman Blog

Many thanks to Dorothy over at Freedom Spice in the New Mashup World (see blogroll) for drawing my attention to the Intiman Theatre's blog about rehearsals for Richard III. While I would have liked the blog to be a bit less "perky" and more honest about the rehearsal process, I think this is a good example of a theatre trying to create community by giving the audience a somewhat-honest peek at an upcoming show. As I said, I think such a blog could benefit from a more "warts-and-all" approach that would give insights into the struggles and fears as well as the triumphs -- such an approach might get people pulling for the show. (Of course, the question to be dealt with is the effect on rehearsals of having hurts and conflicts blogged about -- something to work out). Anyway, check it out:

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 ...