Thursday, July 12, 2007

Small Theatre Aesthetics

I am late in noting this gem of a post by Travis Bedard at "Midnight Honesty at Noon," which gives excellent advice for people trying to produce plays on a limited budget. In a nutshell: quit your bitchin' and use your creativity instead of whining about how poor you are. He says it much better. Be sure to check it out.

Reactions to Tribalism Post

Despite having this blog for several years, I have just now figured out how Technorati works -- sort of. Ahem. Please no "old dogs" comments... Anyway, I was able to follow a few people who commented on my tribalism posts.

Don Hall, for instance, posts an endorsement with reservations in "A Tribe Has No Divas." Read the whole thing -- as is usually true with Don, he combines idealism and pragmatism with just a tang of skepticism. Sort of a Bacino's deep dish pizza of ideas. (God, I miss Bacino's.)

Anyway, there was a part of his post I wanted to address. He offers this scenario:

Jack can't get cast in anything substantive. He joins a theater tribe through volunteering his time and energy. He does box office, sweeps the floors, picks up the drycleaning, folds programs. In the back of his mind, he anticipates an eventual pay off for his labor. He is frustrated the next time he auditions for a show with the tribe and is not cast - after all, he has swept the floors and cleaned the toilets, he deserves an opportunity to be in a show.

The tribe can do one of two things. Cast Jack (even though he is not talented or skilled enough for an onstage role) and water down the artistic product, the very thing that whole tribe relies upon for its sustenance or not cast Jack and risk losing their volunteer janitor or worse, put up with the constant headache of an unsatisfied box office guy who is now starting to want that wage, given he can't seem to receive any artistic fulfillment.

My interpretation of Quinn would be that this isn't tribalistic behavior, but something more like the current theatrical model of internship, where young people do crappy jobs in the hopes of getting their foot in the door (and on the stage). According to Quinn, a tribe is a "coalition of people working together as equals." My reading of Quinn is that you don't "
join a theater tribe through volunteering [your] time and energy," you join a theatre tribe by having something to offer that extends the tribe's earning power. You enter as a full member, not a junior member working your way up, and you only join if the tribe accepts the value of what you have to offer. So this isn't about doing the crap jobs -- everybody does these jobs, because they are necessary to produce work. But if you want to act, you must make that desire clear when you join, the tribe must see that as a needed and useful contribution. As Quinn notes, "A group that doesn't take good care of its members is a group that doesn't command much loyalty (and probably won't last long)." So having a frustrated actor cleaning the john isn't a great way to survive.

This is why Dennis Frymire's description of the Shadowbox Cabaret is not a description of a tribal theatre. Here's why:

The company runs on the philosophy that everybody in the company does everything: Not only do you perform, but you serve food and drink, you prepare food and drink, you run box office, you sweep the floors and clean the bathroom. [So far, so good.] If you can get past the fact that this requires 14 hour work days from the core company, and even more from the members who have "moved up", it looks great on paper. [the "core company" and the "members who have moved up"???]

Here's where the train goes completely off the tribal track:

The less-talented in the company are strung along, being told what they need to change to get stage time, while still having to do equal work as the people who are getting the stage time. [Uh-oh -- this is not a coalition of equals...] (I know of one girl who had corrective eye surgery done so she wouldn't have to wear her thick glasses, and thus, have the right company image.) [Shouldn't have let her in if you didn't like what she brings to the table in the first place...] Also, if a tribe is supposed to mean that everyone is getting their share equally, that was corrupted as well: When I was with the company, average company members were taking their meager pay [of $1000 a month] while one of the founding company members drove a beemer. [ding ding ding!!! That's not how it works, people -- the proceeds are equally divided. There is no hierarchy.]
In another part of the comments, Kerry brings up another problem:

I was in a playwrights' collective for a while in the Bay Area, and continued to participate from afar for a couple of years after I moved back to Chicago. After a particularly trying conference call concerning collective bidness, I got a call from a friend who used to be in Oobleck. I told her "I'm going to say a phrase, and I want you to utter the very first thing that comes to mind. Ready? Okay. 'Consensus-driven, nonprofit arts collective.'" She screamed loudly.

I think the bugaboo here is that every decision must be made by the group. Not so. Areas of responsibility are divided sensibly among the members of the tribe. The whole group is not voting on each light cue or marketing decision. But there is no doubt that tribalism is less efficient than hierarchy, but as I mentioned elsewhere, the inefficiency is magnified because we are never given any education in collaboration and consensus-building techniques. We think it just "happens," sort of like gravy just "happens when you cook the meat" according to Oscar Madison in The Odd Couple. We are brought up with the hierarchical model, and we don't really know how to effectively work as a group. If colleges would adopt tribalism as an additional model for theatrical production, then we would be required to teach those skills, in the same way that now we teach actors audition skills (one of the biggest waste of limited education time I can conceive of -- do business school spend an entire semester teaching their students how to create their resume?). [Someday, I will write a post venting about the incredible stupidity of the way we "train" theatre artists -- but it will be a long one, and a flamer. Stay tuned.]

Over at Collisionworks, Ian Hill, in what he calls a "massive sideline," writes:

One thing I've realized in seeing the posts about this idea is that the most fruitful tribes I've been a part of, as member or as boss (or, what I think is a more accurate term for this position in a tribe, "catalyst"), have all been based around a physical space - a theatre, a group of theatres, or a neighborhood.

He is completely correct, I believe -- a tribe is not only centered around an idea, but a place. It is comprised of a group of people who want to do a specific thing in a specific place. It isn't a launching pad for "stardom," but rather an end in itself, a way of life. If someone dreams of "moving up" to some more "prestigious" venue, then you don't want him or her in your tribe. Tribes require a commitment. And they require a place, because it is the place, and the variety of people in that place, that provide constant stimulation and broadening. Ian writes, "
When the tribe becomes a single theatre company, it tends to turn in on itself and not work as well -- inbreeding produces defects." Yes, you need new members occasionally, but more importantly, you need substantive connections to the outside world. The 14-hour day mentioned by Dennis above is a recipe for disaster as far as personal growth is concerned. Art requires air, and contact with the world. When it becomes too focused on simply "doing shows," you end up with productions that no longer have anything to do with anyone outside the tribe. Tribe members should be involved in the community, doing service work, running for office, hanging out at neighborhood centers, playing pool in the pool hall, participating in the life of the community. Otherwise, all the air is sucked out of the theatrical balloon.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Pointer: Tom Borrup

Every once in a while, I like to point my readers toward essays that I have found inspiring or stimulating. I prefer to do so without adding my own comments, in the hope that readers will offer their insights in my comments box without my having spun it first. This is from Tom Borrup's great essay "Toward Asset-Based Community Cultural Development: A Journey Through the Disparate Worlds of Community Building":

I've thought a lot about how the arts contribute to (or work against) building empowered, civically engaged communities. The paradigm shift for me came when I was able to look into the community, the neighborhoods of everyday people around me, and see a vast well of creativity, culture, art and history. I no longer saw a cultural void or vacuum needing cleaning up, educating or the importation of great art and the cultural canons.

I believe that people are more engaged when they're respected for who they are and what they bring to the table. For cultural administrators, leaders and policy makers, it's more than the half-empty or half-full glass perspective. Contrary to most cultural institutional practices, I think it's about seeing opportunity to learn from the people around us, to foster exchange among them, to respect their cultural richness, and to nurture their creativity and talents. It's not about devising better packaging and marketing strategies for the artists we decide will be best for the community.

Some reluctant arrivals to the "multicultural movement" have simply substituted the idea of importing or imposing western European cultural norms with a wider menu of great cultural accomplishments, a view that still denies the self-worth and the existing cultural resources of their constituents and neighbors. It's not that masterful artistic achievements, Eurocentric or otherwise, aren't worth experiencing, it's that they're more meaningful to those who have their own sense of cultural self and self-worth.

It's about understanding that people are interested in the cultures of others and in great artists, but are likely to shut down or turn away when these works are brought to them with the attitude that they are superior to their own cultural experience. Respectfully drawing out the creative and cultural assets of each person, and of communities of people, is a first step to sparking an expansive cultural dialogue.

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 ...