Saturday, February 23, 2008

Welcome, RVCBard

Welcome to the theatrosphere, RVCBard, who writes the blog "Love's Labours Lost." RVCBard, "a black woman educated at an HBCU," uses her blog as a place for discussion by raising questions. Good stuff -- check it out.

Model: Two Examples of "And Then"

From the Community Arts Network website (
"Arlene Goldbard, sometimes called the Godmother of community arts, is offering an interesting workshop in Oakland, Calif. , this spring. Here's her description:

The Refresher Course, a five-part workshop series designed to refresh your vision, values and emotional vigor. I'm offering The Refresher Course every other Tuesday evening from 7-9 pm starting March 25 (subsequent workshops will be April 8, April 22, May 6 and May 20, 2008). They will take place in a comfortable location near Lake Merritt in Oakland. The series fee is $250, payable by check or credit card. Each session focuses on an important aspect of self-understanding and self-development, using guided visualization, journaling and dialogue in a welcoming atmosphere that allows you to participate in exactly the way that’s most comfortable and helpful for you."
Now, this is the type of thing that artists can do quite well, and there is a hunger for this sort of thing.

Another example -- one that I have personally experienced and been blown away by -- is the Circle Project ( Patti Digh and David Robinson use variations on theatre games and other techniques to help universities, organizations, and businesses address issues of diversity and community. They conducted a workshop last week on my campus that I attended that was truly outstanding. Robinson is a Seattle-based director who recently directed the NYC production of the play Dirt that got an excellent review from; Digh writes the inspirational blog 37 Days (, and has written several books as well. The two of them will be publishing a book entitled Toast Rules that will come out in the next several months. They represent a great example of artists using their talents as consultants.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Clancy on Steppenwolf Clones: Take-Away

For the most part, I find John Clancy's 2001 essay attacking "Steppenpups" sort of objectionable and sort of admirable at the same time. He's right: young imitators are never as good as the original. I'd love to read a similar essay that attacks much of NYC's superficial "say-it-fast-say-it-loud-say-it-without-a-pause-and-without-a-thought" style that echoes the bad old days of the 1920s. Maybe he can write that in the future (or maybe he's already written it and can provide a link).

That said, for me the money quote is this:

"If you want to create the next Steppenwolf Theatre, then do what they did. Commit to ten years with the same core of people and spend every night arguing and agreeing and thrashing around in a basement somewhere until you have your own aesthetic and vision to share."
No THAT is pure, unadulterated truth, tribal theatre folks. Print it out and tape it to your bathroom mirror so you see it every morning

Thursday, February 21, 2008

On Travis Bedard and Holarchies

Travis Bedard at "Midnight Honesty at Noon" muses about how theatre failed America from "The Left of the Revolution." The post overall is well worth reading in its entirety, and I urge you all to do so -- I have read it a couple of times!

I'd like to focus for a few paragraphs on a couple sentences Travis writes midway through the article: "Our entire universe as understood is indeed nothing but nested taxonomies. Our quarrels are from different branches of the organizational tree."

The novelist, playwright, and essayist Arthur Koestler coined the word "holon" to describe this idea of a nested structure. It, in turn, serves as one of the primary organizing principles of Ken Wilber's thought (see A Brief History of Everything and The Eye of Spirit: An Integral Vision for a World Gone Slightly Mad). I think Wilber most clearly illustrates this concept in terms of language: a single letter is complete in and of itself, AND it is part of a larger structure which encompasses it: a word; a word is complete in itself, AND it is part of a larger whole that encompasses it: a sentence; a sentence is complete in itself, AND is encompassed in a larger structure: a paragraph; and so on. So the holon moves from the most basic unit toward ever more complex units. And the complex units rely upon the simpler units to exist: if there were suddenly no letters, for instance, then every contiguous circle would collapse: no words without letters, for instance. This is known as a holarchy (echoing hierarchy). So far, so good?

Let's apply this model to something else: football, and the nested structure that leads to the NFL (this is somewhat simplified, but you'll get the idea). The first level is represented by high school football teams, where a very large number of young players learn the basic skills to play the game. The next level are the college teams, which are fewer and are comprised of the best of the high school players -- there are still a lot of college football players, but fewer than there were high school players, and the skill level is higher; the next level is the NFL, which is comprised of only a few teams made up of the best of the college players. The key to this development is that at each level the players are playing the same game and being taught the same skills, so that each higher level of complexity can build on the skills developed previously. The holarchy would not function well if, at the high school and college level the players played with the traditional oblong ball, but when they hit the NFL they played with a basketball. There must be continuity to successfully winnow the ranks so that only the best are competing in the NFL.

If we apply this to the theatre, we run into a lot of trouble. The lowest level is again high school, where lots of young actors (we'll focus on actors for the moment) perform mostly in musicals and a few plays. The next level is college, where fewer become theatre majors, and where they perform in a mix of plays (classic, contemporary, musical, perhaps a few new plays) much broader than the first level. Now what? What's the next level? Well, let's assume it is the regional theatres, where an even smaller number of actors are working, and where there is a similar mix of plays to college. Now what? What is the next step? Let's make a controversial step here: the next step, and final destination, is Broadway, where only a very few actors perform. What is the nature of the plays there? The majority are musicals, with a few plays thrown in. In fact, we're back to the high school mix. But here's the problem -- since they left high school, the actors have been playing the game with a different ball! Most of them haven't been honing their musical skills (singing, dancing), but rather learning another game entirely, one involving verse speaking and realistic acting styles. In other words, there is little continuity from holon to holon.

We could do the same thing with other theatrical holons: Off-Off Broadway to Off Broadway to Broadway. Again, the skills developed at one level doesn't really transfer well to the next level "up." However, this latter holarchy lacks the reliance of higher holons on lower: if Off-Off Broadway disappeared, it is doubtful that Broadway would also disappear in a poof, unlike sentences that would disappear if letters disappeared.

All of which is to say this: while theatre people often behave as if each "level" of theatre is a ladder to the next level "up" (with perhaps film thrown into the mix? Beyond Broadway, perhaps?), the fact is that there is no real holarchy, no real ladder that reflects the development of a set of skills. Sure, a Broadway actor is a lot better than a high school actor, but is a Broadway actor in The Lion King better than an actor playing Lear at the Guthrie? Perhaps he is better at singing and dancing, but the Guthrie actor is probably better at verse speaking. The connection is weak.

So a "revolution" such as I am proposing is not really a new level in an existing holarchy. It is not a feeder to the regional theatre scene, for instance, much less Broadway. The skills that would be developed -- acting, yes, but also entrepreneurial skills, community engagement skills, non-hierarchical collaborative skills -- do not feed into that type of organization. In fact, it might be helpful for artists in a theatre I am proposing to think of themselves as a breed apart, and perhaps to find the lower levels of the holarchy less in high school and college students who have honed their skills as performers than in those who were interested in a variety of disciplines -- the interdisciplinary and the unfocused.

To some degree, this may be why I often come across as exclusionary as I describe this new way of doing things. It really doesn't function within the perceived holarchy. Although when you look at the descriptions above, neither does most of the theatre.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Model: Where to Locate Your Tribe

The first three posts (Fear of Falling Off the Map, Get Yourself a Tribe, and And Then) along with the overall statement of philosophy (Empowerment) in this continuing series designed to describe a possible new model for a regional, resident theatre were fairly easy to write. This post, however, requires a leap of faith both for me and for my readers. I have no authorities to quote, no examples to point to, no data to give me support. I am operating on a combination of conjecture and common sense (by which I mean, I suppose, the most unsophisticated form of critical thinking). If these ideas seem foreign to you, jarring, or as Tevye says, "Unthinkable! Absurd!" -- you're not alone. As my friend and mentor Cal Pritner would say, turn up your crap detector to its highest setting. If you have data or experience that supports or contradicts what I am saying, don't be afraid to share it. However, don't feel compelled to tell me that this just isn't for you; if it isn't for you, perhaps you know somebody who it might be a better fit, and I hope you will pass it on.

If you read Margo Jones' wonderful book Theatre-in-the-Round, published in 1951, you find that the goal of the early regional theatre pioneers was for every city over 100,000 people in America to have a regional theatre. The reality is quite different.

Of the League of Resident Theatres member list, the average metropolitan-area population is a little less than 1.7 million people, and the median population is about 822,000. (In reality, these numbers should actually be higher, since cities with multiple LORT theatres were counted only once. If I had included in the figures the population of cities like New York and Chicago multiple times, once for each LORT theatre, the mean would have soared upward.)

Not to put too fine a point on these data, but theatre in this country has been seen as a metropolitan art form. This is a problem in many respects, not the least of which is the lack of non-urban support for the NEA when it comes up for renewal (after all, what's in it for them?), and the lack of theatre education in the K - 12 schools. Nevertheless, Conventional Wisdom (which has a name: Danny Newman of Subscribe Now! fame, who was employed by the Ford Foundation to help regional theatres shore up their subscription ticket sales during the 1960s) is that 1-1/2% to 3% of a population will respond to a theatre by subscribing. So from a ticket sales viewpoint, a large city makes a lot of sense: 1-1/2% of a million is 15,000. Who couldn't make it on 15,000 subscribers?

Nevertheless, I am going to argue that the tribal theatre model would be more effective in a smaller area, rather than in a large city with an already-established theatrical scene. If this seems counter-intuitive, you might want to give a quick read of a previous post on this blog: "On Cows, Pastures, and Theatre," which discusses the effects of too many theatres all nibbling on the 1-1/2% of the population who attends theatre. But that is about why one might not go to a big city, not why one would actively seek out a smaller one.

First, let me be specific: how small should the town be? This is going to seem arbitrary, I suppose, but the number is mainly useful as means of comparison to the LORT numbers more than as a hard and fast rule: I would say the metropolitan area or the county should be no more than 350,000 and preferably under 250,000.

In addition, you should choose a city that either doesn't empty out at night as commuters from distant bedroom communities leave work, or you should locate your theatre within the bedroom community where they are going. If the latter, locate your theatre as close to an exit off of a major thoroughfare as possible.

My practical reasons for a choosing smaller town are as follows:

1. Real estate prices will likely be lower. Real estate in big cities is very, very expensive. Your first major expenditure will be a roof over your (and your audience's) head, so you want this cost to be as low as possible. Furthermore, don't put your theatre downtown where prices are highest, where parking is difficult, and where nobody actually lives. Cheap land or cheap rent in the downtown area will require that you locate in a dicey part of town, which will limit your audience. You want to be easily accessible, have decent parking available, and most importantly you want to be close to where people sleep at night. A theatre following the tribal model exists on personal relationships. You want to be embraced as a "neighborhood theatre," not unlike the neighborhood taverns that Ray Oldenburg writes about in The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffe Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community. You want to become a great, good place.

2. Media prices will likely be lower. Advertising rates are based on readership, and readership reflects population. A newspaper or radio station in a smaller town will give you an opportunity to reach the people you need to reach at a cheaper price. Don't be afraid to explore some of the smaller versions of these media. Sometimes they will reach an audience that the larger, more corporate media will not. Again, your goal is to become a great, good place.

My more theoretical reasons:

1. This model lives and dies on personal contact. We are trying to escape from the idea of selling a play as a product. Instead, the play is part of an ongoing relationship, a bridge between two people - an artist and a spectator. A smaller town allows this sort of relationship to be formed a bit more easily.

2. You want to be a large fish in a small pond. You don't want to be one of a large number of theatrical offerings that already exist via theatres that have had years to stake their claims and establish their audience. That said, it could be helpful if there is a community theatre or college theatre in the area, so that the theatregoing habit already exists. If this is the case, the key is to team up with these theatres rather than compete. You don't want the existing theatre folks to be hostile to your efforts. You can help each other.

3. You want to enter the life of the community. You and your company members want to get involved in the community as much as possible through charities, organizations, churches, schools, shelters, political organizations, whatever. Again, the smaller the number in a community, the better likelihood that you can form relationships.

These philosophic reasons can be applied to an extent in larger metropolises as well, especially if you identify your theatre with a specific neighborhood rather than the whole city. However, the practical reasons may be less transferable.

Foundational Principle: Daniel Quinn

From Daniel Quinn's deceptively simple and inspiring Beyond Civilization: Humanity's Next Great Adventure:

The river I mentioned earlier is the river of vision. Our culture's river of vision is carrying us toward catastrophe. Sticks planted in the mud may impede the flow of the river, but we don't need to impede its flow, we need to divert it into an entirely new channel. If our culture's river of vision ever begins to carry us away from catastrophe and into a sustainable future, then programs will be superfluous. When the river's flowing where you want it to flow, you don't plant sticks to impede it.

Old minds think: How do we stop these bad things from happening?
New minds think: How do we make things the way we want them to be?

No Programs at all?

Programs make it possible to look busy and purposeful while failing. If programs actually did the things people expect them to do, then human society would be heaven: law enforcement would work, our justice systems would work, our penal systems would work, and so on.

When programs fail (as they invariably do), this is blamed on things like poor design, lack of funds and staff, bad management, and inadequate training. When programs fail, look for them to be replaced by new ones with improved design, increased funding and staff, superior management, and better training. When these new programs fail (as they invariably do), this is blamed on poor design, lack of funds and staff, bad management, and inadequate training.

This is why we spend more and more on our failures every year. Most people accept this willingly enough, because they know they're getting more every year: bigger budgets, more laws, more police, more prisons -- more of everything that didn't work last year or the year before that or the year before that.

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. (p 8-9)

This blogger is trying, as best as I can, to think of something else. To not come up with a new program -- more government funding, more foundation support, better marketing, higher wages -- but a new vision of things the way we want them to be. Or at least, the way I and a few others who are following this blog want them to be. But let's be clear: if you're happy where you are, and you're happy doing what you do the way you do it, then by all means keep doing it. Don't mind me. This blog does not exist to make you feel guilty, or foolish, or craven, or misguided because you are following a more traditional path.
God help us if every Nylachi theatre artist suddenly hopped the train for South Dakota.

But if the way things were done last year didn't work for you, then let's try to do something else this year. I'm piecing together my intellectual Legos one way; there are many, many other ways they snap together. I can't guarantee I have found The Way. Hell, I'm still trying to determine through the mist of my imagination and knowledge what my way is. Every time one of you communicates with me, pointing out a pothole over here and a great stopping place over there, I get a clearer idea of the terrain. And it helps to know that there are some people traveling along a similar path, even if they're not walking arm-in-arm with me.

For those who are following a different path, I truly wish you well. This blog's going over here.

Next up: where to locate your tribe.

Tagged: Page 123

The nice people at "Long Live the Village Green" tagged me with a meme:

I. You have to look up page 123 in the nearest book around you.
II. Look for the fifth sentence.
III. Then post the three sentences that follow that fifth sentence on page 123.
IV. And then tag five people, just like you were tagged.

The book nearest to me is Nonviolent Communication" A Language of Life by Marshall B. Rosenberg, which I a reading for a campus reading group through the Center for Teaching and Learning. The sentences are as follows:

"'No, I wasn't enjoying the conversation; in fact, I was totally bored with it.' At the time, I was surprised to hear his response because he had been the one doing most of the talking! Now I am no longer surprised: I have since discovered that co0nversations that are lifeless for the listener are equally so for the speaker."
Yikes! When you write a blog and those are the sentences the universe plucks out for you, it makes you stop and think!

I'm not going to tag anyone else specifically, lest they too suffer my fate. If you decide to do it, tell me in the comment box and I'll add a link to you!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Tribal Theatre Resource Website

Dear Readers -- I don't know if you feel this way, but one of the problems with blogs is that posts get buried in the archives and it is hard to find them. If you arrive late on the scene and want to catch up on certain ideas of a blogger, it can take forever to weave back through every chronological post looking for key words. Sure, you can use the tags, and that helps, but there may be tags associated with a topic that aren't on every post. Anyway...

I've decided to create a Theatre Tribe Resource Page that offers links to the most relevant posts on that topic here at Theatre Ideas. As I continue to add to it, I hope there will also be links to other on-line articles and websites that would be of interest.

I have set it up as a wiki, so if you would like to add something to the wiki, there will be a link that will describe how.

The URL is

I hope some of you find this useful!

A Question

Taking a page from Isaac's Parabasis book, here is a question: what do you think would happen to the American theatre, and the American theatre audience, if all of the major funding sources in America decided they would not grant money to any regional theatre whose season contained more than 25% plays that were older than 10 years old?

Monday, February 18, 2008

How Others See Us

Don Hall at "An Angry White Guy in Chicago" this morning has characterized theatre people as a "Community of Fringe Dwellers" similar to Hot Dog J. Frank - The Willy Wonka of Meat... He concludes: "We're all a bunch of traveling monkeys looking for approval from the Great and Powerful Corporate Mentality. Now, I'm not really trying to make some Big Point here. I just think with all the chest-thumping going on about a new model to work under, it is helpful to have an understanding of what we look and sound like to the vast majority of the population."

What a buzz kill! *L*

OK, first let's look at Don's example: Hot Dog J. Frank - The Willy Wonka of Meat. Sure, his enthusiasm for hot dogs may seem a bit over the top -- most of us do not share his particular passion. However, I would also say that his enthusiasm is contagious, and I'll bet that after about 15 mins with Mr. Frank, you'd want to have a hot dog. I did after I watched the video! He knows his stuff, he knows what makes a hot do great, and he isn't afraid to tell other people about it. If we, as theatre people, could develop his enthusiasm and willingness to look a little foolish, our theatres might be in better shape.

Second, I don't think we are as fringy as Don makes us out. And my evidence comes from the business community, certainly the most non-fringy area of American society. I offer some recent books as evidence:

My point is that theatre has moved into the mainstream business world, and one of the things that is keeping us from taking advantage of this is our seeming need to continue to see ourselves as on the fringe. If we could broaden our idea of theatre a bit, and perhaps learn to listen a bit to the experiences and ideas of people who live a different kind of life than we do -- in other words, if we could learn to diversify our life experiences, and thus diversify the theatre experiences we create -- we might find ourselves a valued part of the community. From my perspective, we have identified a little too fully with the Romantic Outsider hero of most 19th- and 20th-century arts narratives, and have embraced marginalism like a monk embraces a hair shirt -- it makes us feel pure and virtuous. But we do so within a society that has become increasingly flooded with story and with image. And that ought to be changing our own narratives as well.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Meet Sarah McL

Sarah McL at "Resources for Emerging Arts Leaders" has a nice post on "The Regional Rebellion," asking whether, historically, we are about do for a movement in reaction to the regional theatre movement, not unlike Off-Broadway was born as a reaction to Broadway, and Off-Off Broadway as a reaction to Off-Broadway. I agree with her -- we are due. My only hope is that whatever name it receives, it doesn't reference the previous paradigm like OB and OOB did. I think we need a clean break. Anyway, give Sarah a read, and connect to the links on this post as well.

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 ...