Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Fear of Falling Off the Map

OK, let's start exploring the ins and outs of a new model for regional theatre, keeping in mind the goals described in the post above. From here on out, my steps will be more tentative, since we will be going in new directions where our thought experiments may be contradicted by so-called Conventional Wisdom. While there may be some data that we can use to bolster our ideas, and I will try to locate data to do that, some of what follows may be based on conjecture. All I can ask is that you give the conjecture a fighting chance in the war against Conventional Wisdom. (If you want to see how Conventional Wisdom works against innovation, read Jason Grote's "Long Overdue Response on New Play Development," paying particular attention to the reasons offered as to why his play 1001 couldn't succeed outside of Denver.)

The first hurdle we have to deal with is the fear of regionalism. For instance, Jason worries about "falling off the map" if he leaves NYC. It is a real concern if one holds certain dreams.

So my first question for those who might be considering the ideas that will be developed here is: What are your personal goals as an artist? Would you be willing to "fall off the map" if, by doing so, you were able to have a life in which you earned a reasonable living -- let's say, a salary similar to a professor at a small state school that would make you comfortably middle class -- and you had the opportunity to do theatre work consistently and could control your own artistic career? In other words, would you be willing to give up the dream of fame and sudden riches for a secure salary and the ability to do work you care about on a consistent basis?

Think about this carefully, because it isn't an easy question to answer. Most of us are brought up over the years to conceive of our work in terms of fame and fortune, rather than day-to-day existence. Even those of us who are most committed to a vision of regional theatre likely harbor dreams of national recognition (this blog, for instance, is read mostly by non-Asheville people -- if I am so committed to my region, why am I spending time writing for national distribution? The dream of national recognition is powerful!)

This question, which must be answered by each individual artist, lies at the center of the struggle for healthy regional theatres. I would be willing to bet that all those companies that people point to as examples of how companies inevitably fall apart and break up did so because many of the members could not let go of dreams of fame and fortune. Herbert Blau, whose bookThe Impossible Theatre: A Manifesto about the creation of The Actor's Workshop in San Francisco starts with this sentence: "The purpose of this book is to talk up a revolution," and throughout Blau committed with almost religious fervency to Decentralization. But he closed up shop and moved himself and most of his company to NYC in mid-season when Lincoln Center came calling in the 1960s. It wasn't enough for him to do the work in SF, he needed to save Broadway. And that's another aspect of the Cinderella Myth: it may not be about your own personal fame and fortune, but a desire to save the world and throw the moneychangers out of the temple of art. It's a powerful mythological tale, the Cinderella Story, and artists put up with a lot of financial insecurity and personal frustration by subscribing to that pattern.

But unless you can give it up, unless you can focus on the work as an end in itself and not as a means to an end of fame and fortune, unless you can find your heart's joy in the creation of theatre with little thought of being "discovered" by "Important People," then this model is not for you. You must commit to the idea that "small is beautiful," and that the local is more important than the global. If you can't, then stick with the status quo.

And that is OK. I have great respect for those who slave away against high odds in pursuit of their own personal dream. Everybody doesn't need to commit to the same dream. We're not looking to wipe out the current model and replace it with the tyranny of our own. We just want to create an alternative that fits those who share differing values and dreams. If you are one of those people who think they could be happy working outside of Nylachi as long as there was some level of financial security (otherwise, why do it, right? You can be on the edge of financial disaster in Nylachi and at least have the dream of wealth and fame to keep you going, but to be on the edge of financial disaster in Missoula MT is another thing entirely), then keep reading, because that's our goal.

But the first hurdle is letting go of the fear of "falling off the map." Can you do it?


Tony Adams said...

"as long as there was some level of financial security"

Devils advocate: Why is it better for an artist to need to rely on theatre for financial security?

Looking over the course of theatre history, that's not an outcome with a very high probability.

With the exception of a few administrator positions, I don't know hardly anyone who is able to do that. Hell, even Mary Zimmerman--MacArtur grant and directing on Broadway, all over LORT houses and now the Met-- still teaches.

"a secure salary and the ability to do work you care about on a consistent basis?"

Does that secure salary have to come from a theatre?

Would/does removing that reliance by having other sources of income free an artist, artistically?

Scott Walters said...

Tony -- While this will be a fuller post at a later date, I agree with you. That said, the key is for the THEATRE to provide this additional income. For instance, for a while I was a consultant for a consulting business that wanted to use artists to provide content for consulting gigs in team-building. Their intent was to develop curriculum and then pay artists a fee to deliver it, while they took the lion's share as part of their business. Why rely on a go-between? Why not develop the curriculum and deliver it as a theatre company? There are many other such opportunities for theatre people to use their skills that should be coordinated by the group and included in the theatre's schedule. This would be a way, for instance, to employ a larger number of ensemble members -- when they weren't doing a play, they would be consulting or whatever. The point is to control the business rather than let others control us.

Anonymous said...

to Tony:

In addition, people like Zimmerman are working out of NYC, where their monthly rent is twice my entire monthly budget in a smaller town. Were Zimmerman living in, say, Georgia, she'd probably be making more than enough to live on -- without teaching.

Tony Adams said...

actually she's based in Chicago and teaches at Northwestern

Anonymous said...

Ah. Well, my point stands, with relation to such people based in NYC ;)

Unknown said...

Combining entrepreneurship and theatre artistry is the trick. And if you are the theatre artist attempting it, you must guard against becoming a full-time entrepreneur who can only wistfully recall his days as an artist. Keeping balance. Very tough.

Scott Walters said...

Very tough. Just about everything is tough about being an artist, no matter how you approach it.

Think Again: Funding and Budgets in the Arts

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