Saturday, June 16, 2007

Thought Experiment #1

I have been reading Daniel (Ishmael) Quinn's Beyond Civilization: Humanity's Next Great Adventure, which puts into a non-fiction form some of the ideas addressed in his earlier novels. While it is beyond the scope of this blog to do a full discussion of Quinn's New Tribalism (for more info, go to, I will use some of his ideas over the next few posts to try to kick around how a different system for doing theatre might work. As I said,these will be thought experiments, so if you are inclined to comment that you "don't want to do X," please keep it to yourself -- nobody is going to make you do it. In fact, if all theatre people suddenly decided to sign on to one of these new ideas, it would probably be a bad thing. Nevertheless, what I'd like to ask my readers is to brainstorm with me on some of these topics. As you probably know, one of the first rules of brainstorming is that you don't say no to anything, you simply build on it. There will be lots of time to evaluate, but it needs to be done separately from the creative process. OK? Here goes.

As a starting point, let's begin with this from Quinn:

Old minds think: If it didn't work last year, let's do MORE of it this year.
New minds think: If it didn't work last year, let's do something ELSE this year.

Let's be new minds thinking, shall we? Let's leave the old meme behind, at least for a while. Instead of trying to tinker with the theatrical system to make it work "better" for us, let's just mentally walk away from it for the time being and consider alternatives and see what happens. And for our purposes, let's think of whatever we come up with in terms of a non-NYC environment of your choice. In other words, let's think in terms of places that are not awash in theatre, where perhaps the price of real estate is more reasonable, and the pool of people to draw our audience from is smaller.

The goal is to think of ways we can do the kind of theatre that inspires us and our audience, and do it in a way that might inspire a deeper connection between audience and artists, create a more viable financial model for the artist, and disconnect theatre from the marketplace in the minds of the audience.

OK, let's start with a little piece that is nonetheless crucial to the way we offer theatre. And remember, we're brainstorming, so no squashing ideas, but feel free to offer ideas of your own.

Old minds think: We must sell more tickets than we did last year.
New minds think: What if we didn't sell tickets at all?

OK, so the thought experiment is: if we didn't sell tickets to a performance (or a season), how might we survive as artists? One caveat: whatever ideas we generate don't necessarily have to provide a 100% living income for everyone involved in the project (as it is, many, many small productions lose money and pay those involved almost nothing). The idea simply needs to bring in something that helps the company to live.

I'm going to offer a few ideas as starting points, and then I hope that others will throw in ideas of their own in the comments section.

Instead of selling tickets, what if a production company:
  • Sold memberships to a theatre club that offered free attendance as part of the membership. You could come as often as you like, and bring guests -- sort of like a country club.
  • Asked audience members to bring food that would be distributed to the company members in exchange for the performance.
  • Had a pre-show potluck dinner for company and audience.
  • Bartered for items needed by the company -- a list of items would be provided in the program.
  • Asked willing audience members to "adopt" a company member for a day, providing them with food (and shelter?).
These seem kind of tame -- I hope you can do better. Other ideas?

Friday, June 15, 2007

Warning: Academic On Board

I want to be upfront about any ideas I post in the future: I am a teacher, not an artist. I am a teacher who does theatre, not a theatre artist who teaches. I am a teacher by choice, not by accident. I am not a "frustrated artist" who "fell back on" education.

When I was in grad school, I originally went to get an MFA in Directing, but I soon discovered that I wasn't happy. I was good at it -- I had been directing since I was 17 when I started, with city funding, my own summer theatre and had had a string of successes as a freelancer in Minneapolis (where I was known for my comedy and farce skills), but when each show opened, I found myself more relieved it was over rather than excited by its reception. During my second year of grad school, I won the ACTF national criticism contest, which allowed me to spend a month at the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Conference. One afternoon, I found myself sitting around talking with Gitta Honegger and a bunch of Yale dramaturgy professors about Brecht. Afterwards, I thought: those are the kind of conversations I want to have! I want to focus on ideas! And so I switched to the doctoral track and never looked back.

I now teach play analysis (see my textbook Introduction to Play Analysis published a few years ago by McGaw-Hill), theatre history, dramatic lit, directing, and Theatre of the Oppressed. All of which is to say: I'm an academic.

As someone noted, I often give what he called "advice to the players," by which I mean that I come up with suggestions for different ways to do things. I'm not going to go out and do them myself, which I suppose might seem a bit duplicitous. So let me explain how I justify giving advice to artists trying to actually make a living in the theatre.

My experience is that the amount of energy needed to start a career in the arts AND manage to pay the bills is huge. It is exhausting work, and it takes up a lot of time. Most theatre artists don't have the time, energy, or inclination to graze in all kinds of books, and write, and ponder. They're just trying to keep their head above water!

To my mind, academia ought to be the R & D for the theatre. We should be trying things out, coming up with ideas, documenting performances, and spreading the word about what is new and exciting. And we should be putting this into readable, accessible forms so that the exhausted artist can grasp the ideas easily (as opposed to the jargon and obscurity in academic journals, for instance). To me, blogging is a great way to do that.

So I will float ideas and opinions about things I have thought in the hopes that some artist, looking for inspiration, will be inspired by something I've written to try something different. Many people will read these ideas as disguised attacks on the status quo, and feel the need to defend current practice. Obviously, to suggest an alternative is to imply that the status quo isn't satisfying. But when I suggest that we need to decentralize the theatre, for instance, I am not saying that every theatre person in NYC ought to pack up and head for the heartland. But I am suggesting that there are other possibilities available if NYC doesn't call to you in a full voice.

I guess what I am warning my readers about is the fact that I may suggest fairly radical solutions to problems, which is easy to do if I'm not actually going to do the thing myself. So I am not suggesting a universal panacea, no matter what I say, but rather an idea to be added to the vast array of possibilities. If the idea doesn't appeal to you, don't feel that I am judging you for not doing it. Heck, I'll make all kinds of suggestions, some of them harebrained! So don't feel it is necessary to defend yourself. But if you have a suggestion on how to make the idea better, please please please contribute it.

Laura Axelrod's Meme

I have been tagged by Laura Axelrod for her 5/5/ meme. I am to answer five questions about my area of expertise and passion. Here goes!

Name your area of expertise/interest: Teaching.

How did you become interested in it?
When I was working my my master's degree -- originally an MFA in Directing that morphed into a doctorate in Theatre History and Criticism -- I had an opportunity, as part of my assistantship, to teach an introduction to theatre class. I was totally engaged by the challenge of figuring out how to communicate the excitement of theatre to a general education student.

How did you learn to do it?
First, it was trial and error. Sometimes I'd try something and it worked beautifully, the next time I'd do something else and it would bomb. Then I started to read books on teaching: Teaching With Your Mouth Shut, The Paideia Project, and so on. It is still a combination of those two -- I learn something new every semester.

Who has been your biggest influence?
First, it was a professor I had at the University of Minnesota, who was also one of the most prominent dramaturgs in the nation at that time: Arthur Ballet. He taught an intro to theatre class in a 300+ seat theatre and you could hear a pin drop. His lectures were amazing! But soon, I started to see that lecturing wasn't really the best way to engage with the material, and I started learning about discussion. I was inspired by Mortimer Adler, whose attempts to revamp K - 12 educational techniques was fascinating. Lionel Trilling, the Partisan Review critic, made me look at literature from a moral perspective, by which he meant as an example of a way to live. Now, it is Paulo Friere, who book Pedagogy of the Oppressed is powerful.

What would you teach people about it?
It's not about the teacher or the subject matter, it is about what the student does with the subject matter, and what connections he or she makes to their own life. Teach theatre history, for instance, like the students are Indiana Jones and we are raiding tombs looking for riches to bring back. Teach dramatic literature like the questions being asked pertain to the way you live your life day to day. And always, always encourage creativity and innovation. It isn't about obedience and compliance, it is about independent thinking.

Thanks, Laura. And I tag thw writer at Intermission, Charlie Willis, Tony Adams, David Warlick, and Arlene Goldbard.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Some Advice From Daniel Quinn

I have just finished reading Daniel (Ishmael) Quinn's Beyond Civilization: Humanity's Next Great Adventure, about which I hope to write more in the near future. For the time being, let me just recommend it to anyone interested in exploring a new way of making a living.

Near the end of the book, Quinn offers some words of advice, which I need to print out in big block letters and tape to the wall over my computer as a reminder of how I need to focus my energy. He writes:

People will listen when they're ready to listen and not before. Probably, once upon a time, you weren't ready to listen. Let people come to it in their own time. Nagging or bullying will only alienate them.

Don't waste time with people who want to argue. They'll keep you immobilized forever. Look for people who are already open to something new.

Funny I should read these words tonight, after earlier in the day writing the post below. I have learned recently to take the word "coincidence" out of my vocabulary. I like Quinn's clear and simple style of writing. And what he has to say -- more on that later.

"We're Being Attaaaaaaaacked!" (A New Code of Ethics)

When my stepsons were younger, they had a computer game (and I am mortified to say I can't remember its name -- maybe somebody can remind me) in which one of the characters, in addition to regularly saying "Yesh, milord" in a hilarious accent, would suddenly shout a mush-mouthed "We're being attaaaaaaaaacked!" And then all hell would break lose.

That's how it recently feels in the theatrosphere, and specifically this blog. A lot.

On a personal basis, the latest comes from Nick at Rat Sass. I won't reiterate the usual list of complaints, nor the tendency to discuss personalities rather than ideas. I'm not going to defend myself -- I end up doing that too much anyway. But I would like to point your attention to the first comment in relation to this post, wherein Tony Adams innocently asks: "I can’t speak for Scott, but I’m not sure how promoting theatre outside of NYC is an attack on New Yorkers. I’m fairly new to the sphere, so I don’t know if there’s more to the story. But for a lot of the people who stake their claim in NYC, a lot of time seems to be spent vehemently refuting what he says. Does he just piss people off, or does he hit a nerve? I’m not trying to pick a fight, nor do I know if there is an easy answer. But I am curious to hear your thoughts." Nobody responded to Tony, and so I guess he remains as baffled as I am. But I am certain that there is a line of people who will inform him that I am evil incarnate.

What I want to focus on is that here is somebody who feels the need to assert that he is "not trying to pick a fight" by asking a question. Think about that for a few minutes. In a post a while ago, Laura Axelrod indicated she was "afraid" to admit that she sometimes agrees with me. The point I'm trying to make is not about me, the point is that the theatrosphere has gone way beyond argumentativeness to something bordering on bullying.

Laura Axelrod begins a heartfelt post as follows: "I crashed a writing group last weekend. They were meeting at a coffee shop. I overheard them talk about writing, publishing and books. They laughed. Alot. There was a feeling of warmth amongst them. I wanted to be a part of it."

That's why I entered the theatrosphere. I thought it would be a place where ideas could be exchanged and different viewpoints considered. Recently, and especially since the Rachel Corrie controversy, I haven't found that to be the case. All too often, it has been a place for virtual fisticuffs. Now, I'm sure I've played a role in that, and I'm willing to carry my share of the blame. But I am not willing to say that I am the sole source, nor am I willing to admit that everything that has been said against me has been deserved. There is enough dirt to go around.

Laura also writes: "I'm fascinated with conflict. That's why I write drama. But I don't want to blog from that energy level. I don't want friendships soaked in negativity. I don't want to be dragged into funky shit. Conflict leading to illumination is one thing. One-upmanship is something else." I agree. Finally, when all is said and done, I agree.

And I want to go on record as adopting her solution as my own: "I'm not having any more of it. If you know more than me about my experiences and opinions, bully for you. I'm not going to argue. That doesn't mean you're right, it just means that I'm saving my emotions for more worthwhile activities. Like stimulating conversations with warm, supportive and successful people."

I will continue to write this blog, and I hope that readers who are interested in new models of how theatre might be done in the communities outside of NYC will continue to read. But I will no longer be addressing the NYC theatre scene, nor will I be responding to defenses of the NYC scene, nor attacks emanating from the NYC scene. If such posts appear in my comments box, I will ignore them or delete them. I will no longer define my ideas in terms of the dominant mode of production. I plan to be more utopian.

If there are "warm, supportive" people who have been reading, but who have been reluctant to comment for fear of abuse -- this blog is now a safe zone. So I hope you will let your voice be heard. The ideas I want to explore have roots in history, but it is a history that has received little recognition by the establishment. Consequently, there is a lot of work to be done, and a lot of thinking that has to happen. It will require collaboration -- working together. Creating something different is a process that requires additive thinking -- the use of the connective "and" more than "but."

To those NYC bloggers who would like to participate in this project, you are welcome -- just leave the NYC model behind. There are many, many people blogging about NYC and indie theatre -- this blog will not be one. To those outside of NYC, and especially those from communities where theatre is not ubiquitous, I sincerely hope that you will pitch in your ideas. You don't have to be an expert to contribute something useful.

To Laura Axelrod: thank you for the indirect prompt, and I apologize if I have misused your words.

To the NYC bloggers: I think you are good people. I just can't continue to define myself in terms of NYC anymore. It is taking me "off message" and distracting me from the thoughts I need to be having right now.

In addition to the ethical code change, the focus of this blog will expand. No longer will it just be about theatre, but instead it will encompass other art forms and ideas. Most will still end up being applied to theatre, but many of the best ideas are coming from other sources, and I would like to explore them as well.

For those of you tempted to respond to this post with variations on the "pot-kettle-black" theme, as I said above I acknowledge that I am not blameless. But I need to create a new code of behavior in relation to this blog in the hopes of creating a different atmosphere. That code will start with me: I will not be responding negatively to posts on other blogs, nor commenting negatively on other blogs, nor will I be addressing the NYC scene. I hope that others will respect the code when they land here. It is my hope that someone will stumble on this blog, and say, like Laura did about the writer's group she encountered, "They laughed. Alot. There was a feeling of warmth amongst them. I wanted to be a part of it."

No hard feelings.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Zack Mannheimer

If you want to see someone putting into action an interesting model of the relationship between the artist and the audience that I endorse, please check out Zack's blog and his fascinating experiment. He is on the road now looking for a new city to relocate Subjective Theatre. I have been in touch with Zack, and am hoping to see him in early August when he is in Raleigh, and I wish him the very best of luck.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Border Crossings

Isaac at Parabasis does an outstanding job synthesizing me and George Hunka into a much more interesting position for the artists than either of us conceptualized, in my opinion. Please go take a look!

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 ...