Thursday, February 28, 2008

Words from a Current Neo-Futurist

I received an email from Bilal Dardai, a current Neo-Futurist ensemble member, after I posted about the company. I took advantage of the company to ask whether they continued to follow the model that Quinn describes, and whether they actually have any ancillary activities. Bilal responded:
Indeed we do. The company does sell merchandise, for example, which includes books and zines containing things we've written as well as a CD and a video-taped production of one of our prime-time shows (TML is our flagship show, but we also put up three to four new "prime-time" shows a season). Much of our work is available for non-professional licensing; plays from TML are performed often by college and high school groups and a few of our prime-time shows have had new life at other theaters.

We do offer workshops in Neo-Futurism and other disciplines such as short-story writing and mime/movement; this allows us both to spread the aesthetic we espouse and to bring in income for the theater and the individual artists who teach. These are not "After School" programs, but they are under the banner of our fledgling attempts to create a more comprehensive education program.

Quinn does describe the basics pretty well. We do have an office infrastructure, with Artistic, Managing, and Development directors. Our founder, Greg Allen, occupies the seat of "Founding Director" with the mandate to seek out teaching residencies as well as other miscellaneous activities designed to spread our theatrical mission to a worldwide audience. Our AD is empowered to handle much of the day-to-day decision-making, but our most major decisions occur with the collective weighing in as a whole. If one of us has a major objection to a policy change, then that policy change cannot go forward. (This model has, as you can imagine, both benefits and detriments.)

But we do still take care Publish Postof the day-to-day chores; we do still stick around the theater after each show and clean up. Performers in our plays often act as their own running crew. Everybody is responsible for their own props and costuming. Our AD spent the past few months rehearsing and performing in a show across town and it fell to some of us to handle the duties he wouldn't have time for. When we're functioning at our peak, the sense that the company as a whole belongs to each of us tends to inform our involvement with what we do besides the art itself.
Thanks for the info, Bilal! Oh, by the way, devilvet's eyes ARE deceiving him: their space used to seat 154, but now seats 150 when they brought in more comfortable seating and included a center aisle.

Jacobs, Daisey, but More Importantly: A Tribe

Leonard Jacobs complains about Mike Daisy, Marsha Norman, and the annoying practice of actually discussing ideas instead of "taking action."

Mike Daisey responds point by point.

If you like dustups, it makes good reading. But for my money, the most important paragraph is this from Daisey:

I will say that we have created a model of a tiny ensemble—there are two members, we share all proceeds absolutely communally, and we have forged work that is successful because we are nimble, quick and obsessed with addressing the issues our culture isn't speaking about. I would not recommend it to everyone, but in these dark times it is a model we've made work for ourselves when many others sputter and fail.
So: another example of a very small yet productive theatre tribe.

Example of Tribal Theatre: Neo-Futurists

As many of you know, I have been inspired by Daniel Quinn's Beyond Civilization: Humanity's Next Great Adventure for the idea of a theatre tribe. Quinn uses three examples to illustrate his concept of the occupational tribe: the weekly newspaper he and his wife ran for a while; the small circus; and the Chicago Neo-Futurists. In 1999, when the book was published, he wrote a section called "Another tribal example" on page 155:

The Neo-Futurists are an ensemble of artists who write, direct, and perform their own work dedicated to social, political, and personal enlightenment in the form of audience-interactive conceptual theater. (These words from the group's on-line Statement of Purpose.) Working in a "low/no tech poor theatre format," the group put together a unique postmodern dramatic endeavor that features an ever-changing collection of thirty plays performed in sixty minutes under the umbrella title Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind. This signature work has (as of this writing) been running in Chicago since December 1, 1988, and had a successful run at the Joseph Papp Public Theater in New York City in 1993. In 1992 the Neo-Futurists opened their own Neo-Futurarium, boasting a 154-seat theater and art gallery.

As many as thirteen members are active in the company at any one time, though the average performance tends to involve only eight or so. In addition to writing, directing, and performing Too Much Light, these thirteen perform virtually all the chores associated with the theater and the production -- manning the box offcie, cleaning up, recycling, producing the programs, buying the props, and so on.

My Chicago readers may know more about the organization, and more about what has transpired since 1999 (I didn't have time to take a look at the current website). Regardless, what is important here is the example. To Quinn's mind, the Neo-Futurists are a tribe because the different activities of the theatre are spread throughout all members of the tribe.

I think it is a good example, but my model takes it further so as to include the creation of ancillary activities to extend the theatre's income beyond simply ticket income. So I would go further than the Neo-Futurists, but as a starting point it is helpful to look to them through Quinn's eyes.

Actor's Inequitiy

I urge you all to join Actor's Inequity!

devilvet Challenge -- Part 2

On Tuesday, I responded to devilvet's challenge to tell him in 250 words or less how I was going to change theatre for the better. I did it in 108 words, which, as you know if you've been reading me with glazed eyes, may be a record for succinctness. But devilvet was not one to be impressed by mere bullet points -- oh no! He wrote: "Great! I like it! Now I want an outline of tactics under each of the four points. Top 3 ways to achieve each of the four points." Now, I'm harboring suspicions that devilvet is actually hoping if I put all this out there in a bullet-point form, then I will have shot my wad and lapse into internet silence. We'll see. But I will accept devilvet's challenge. (beat the drums! sound the trumpets!) The numbered items are what I wrote Tuesday; the lettered items are the tactics. Here goes:

1. Decentralization. Get out of the major cities and gather somewhere else that isn't already choked with theatre. No drive-by guest artists from Nylachi.

a. If you have a place in mind, for God's sake go there -- this is about freedom. If not, go to this website (cities with a population of 50,000 as of the year 2000) and find a group of cities that are under 350,000 that appeal to you.

b. Research these cities: demographics, cost of living, real estate prices, number of educational institutions in the area, number of arts organizations in the area (professional and amateur), population density (off the top of my head, it seems to me that a moderate density would be best -- say, between 2,000 and 8,000 people per sq mile), primary employers

c. Narrow it down to two or three and visit, if possible. Do what Zacharay Mannheimer did: meet with people and hang out. Repeat as needed.

2. Localization. Form an ensemble that will stay together for a while. Preferably with at least one resident playwright attached who writes plays for the ensemble. Become an active member of the community. Listen.

a. Join Theatre Tribe to meet people who might share your interest in a new model and talk about the research you've been doing in #1 above.

b. Discuss these ideas with friends who you enjoy working with and who might share your desire to relocate. Pure talent is less important than a commitment to tribal values. Read Daniel Quinn's Beyond Civilization together and discuss it.

c. Put together a group of theatre artists who together have the skills necessary to operate all aspects of the theatre. If you have a lot of directors and actors, you're not done. You need at least one designer, and the longer I think about these ideas, the more I think you need to have at least one person who either is a playwright, or is interested in developing their skills in that area. Also, be sure you have someone who is interested and knowledgeable, or willing to work hard to become knowledgeable, about management.

3. Tribal economics. Pool income. Take out what you need to survive. Each member brings more to the table than their theatrical specialty. Ensemble controls ancillary income. Everyone does everything.

a. Theatre talent isn't the sole criterion; you need to discuss ancillary skills. These are skills that can lower costs within the organization (for instance, if someone has skills as a handyman and can fix plumbing or electrical problems, they are valuable; if someone is good at web design, that is good; if someone is a good ad salesman, that is good), AND skills that can create additional income (for instance, people who would be willing to develop the skills to serve as a consultant in some area, or people who like children and could operate a day care or after school program, or people who are good gardeners who could grow food for the company and could sell food at the farmer's market).

b. Once you have put together the group who will be working together, spend time discussing collaborative processes. How will the season be chosen? How will casting happen? How will business decisions occur? Who will have primary responsibility for what aspects of the operation of the theatre? (Hint: simply because a tribe has a "flat" organizational chart doesn't mean that there aren't people who have certain responsibilities -- it doesn't mean, for instance, that every design choice is put to a vote or something.) The clearer you are about processes, the more effective and efficient the group will be. There are many books that have been written exploring these issues -- read them. Don't ignore the wisdom of experts.

c. Write a letter of agreement for everyone involved that spells out responsibilities and expectations. Be explicit about as much as you can. Do you want a commitment of a certain amount of time with a renewal periond? Say it. Figure out a way that slackers can be voted out. If everyone is expected to contribute all income to the theatre, say that, and outline how it will be divided. Again, the more you do in advance, the more efficient and effective you will be once you're trying to stay afloat.

4. Education. Teach young artists the entrepreneurial and collaboration skills needed to control their own artistic lives and truly co-create.

a. Learn social entrepreneurial skills. Not only grantwriting, but budgeting, marketing, networking, political activism, teaching artist skills.

b. Teach collaboration skills. These skills not only can be learned, but it is necessary that they be learned. It is not a natural skills, and a great deal of frustration could be avoided if young people truly learned how to effectively collaborate. This should be seen as a priority as important as traditional skills. It is the foundation upon which a theatre tribe will exist.

c. Teach community involvement and service learning. For a tribal theatre to work, everyone involves needs to be active members of the community. They need to be comfortable volunteering, attending community meetings, meeting politicians, getting involved in religious or social organizations, and so forth.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Just In Case You Thought I Was Making It Up

Not to bring up old dustups, but for those of you who thought I was exaggerating the biases in the media, read this:

A movie about to be filmed in Pittsburgh is casting Gothic characters -- including an albino-like girl and deformed people -- to depict West Virginia mountain people, says David M. Brown in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (2/26/08). "Regular-looking" children need not apply. ... "It's the way it was described in the script," Belajac [the casting staffer] said Monday. "Some of these 'holler' people -- because they are insular and clannish, and they don't leave their area -- there is literally inbreeding, and the people there often have a different kind of look. That's what we're trying to get." ... "From the standpoint of being a lifelong West Virginian, it's upsetting, because there are so many wonderful people to come out of this area," said Jeff Pierson, director of arts for the West Virginia Division of Culture and History.

As I said at the time, that there's some bullshit.

On Rants

Because I value Nick's observations, I spent some time last evening reflecting on his criticism of my tendency to occasionally use this blog for rants against the current way we create theatre in this country. I asked myself what purpose I thought such rants served, and whether I could put those reasons into words that would make sense to other people. Because I want this blog to be more than a place people come for entertainment; I want it to be a place where people come for inspiration, and for hope, and maybe for some guidance. And the more I thought about it, the more I found myself thinking back to when I was a senior in high school in 1976, and the effect that Paddy Chayefsky's brilliant film Network had on me. I thought about how electrifying the scene below was at the time. If you have never scene this film, please rent it; if you have and think you remember, I hope you will watch this scene in its entirety anyway to remind yourself of the details.

(Isn't Peter Finch great?) The importance of this scene was not in Finch's Lear-like, water-drenched rant, but rather in the last minute of the scene where William Holden's daughter opens the window to find that, one after another, people have come out of their apartments and are expressing their rage. And it isn't the expression of that rage that is central, but the fact that everyone on the balconies hear that other people share their frustration -- suddenly, they realize that they aren't alone, they are a part of a large community of hurt and angry people who don't want to take it anymore. And that's important.

It is important to realize that other people are equally frustrated with the fact that the current way of doing things forces people to work a full-time job and then choose between doing theatre or spending time with their children and/or their spouse. It is important to realize that other people resent having to leave places they love and move to New York if they want to be cast in the so-called regional theatres. It is important to realize that other people want to devote themselves to theatre, but have to do commercials and TV and film in order to make ends meet. It is important to realize that others are frustrated that they can't get their plays done on the stages of the regional theatres because those theatres are focused on Guthrie's 50+-year old classics.

That is why I encourage lurkers to stop lurking and express themselves in my comments box, even if it is just to say "I agree." This is why I created the Theatre Tribe discussion site so that people can join and connect with people who share their experiences and frustration.

There are some who will call this whining. They will tell us to suck it up and deal with it. But change only happens if people express the fact that the status quo isn't working, or isn't working for many people, or isn't working for you. We can't afford to keep losing intelligent, creative artists because the economics force them to make either/or choices about their lives. We should not only feel sorry for the Seattle actress Mike Daisey describes in his essay, but we should feel upset that the art form that we care so much about has been diminished by the loss of her talents, and the talents of thousands just like her.

Nick is right: it isn't enough to just rant, isn't enough to just express frustration. But it is the first step. It may be preaching to the choir, but sometimes you have to preach to the choir if you want them to sing. And sometimes the choir needs to hear all those other voices, the voices of the congregation, raised along with theirs to give them the courage to sing in a voice that is loud and clear and confident. And that's not whining.

There is one other moment in the Network scene that is important. It is the moment that immediately follows the opening of the window, when William Holden cocks his head in surprise when he hears the first voice raised in anger outside his apartment. Holden is an insider, and the frustration he hears being expressed is unanticipated. He didn't know that people felt that way.

One of the great things about the internet is the ease with which ideas can be spread. Seth Godin calls these "ideaviruses." You can cut and paste posts into emails and send them to other people you think might need to hear those words -- I urge you to do that. And you can send links to people you don't know, but who you think need to hear something -- I urge you to do that. If you know of a theatre in your town that is importing actors instead of using locals, send them a link to my post about this. If you want regional theatres to do more new plays, send them a link to a post about this. Use my blog, use my words, to be heard. Email the TCG at and include some of Mike Daisey's words or my words or some other person's words, or use your own words, or a combination of all of those -- but raise your voices so that you are heard. Let people who can do something know what the problems are on the ground. Let them hear your experiences. Give them a chance to see the world from a different perspective, to empathize. The only way things change is if you communicate.

We're not powerless to affect change. Look at the theatrosphere -- ideas get picked up. commented on, they circulate from blog to blog. Suddenly, everybody is talking about My Name is Rachel Corrie or theatre tribes or the ethics of criticism. If it ends there, something important haas happened, but it need not end there. The next step is to communicate those ideas to people beyond the theatrosphere through emails or letters or phone calls.

So use these rants however you like -- for your personal catharsis, to form a link between you and others who share your feelings, to communicate your experiences to the powers that be. But use them. And use them to communicate.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

MY Response to the Devilvet Challenge

devilvet: "So tell me in 250 words or less how you are going to change theatre for the better?"

1. Decentralization. Get out of the major cities and gather somewhere else that isn't already choked with theatre. No drive-by guest artists from Nylachi.

2. Localization. Form an ensemble that will stay together for a while. Preferably with at least one resident playwright attached who writes plays for the ensemble. Become an active member of the community. Listen.

3. Tribal economics. Pool income. Take out what you need to survive. Each member brings more to the table than their theatrical specialty. Ensemble controls ancillary income. Everyone does everything.

4. Education. Teach young artists the entrepreneurial and collaboration skills needed to control their own artistic lives and truly co-create.
There -- 142 words to spare.

Tony's Definition of a Changed Theatre: Perfect

Tony at Jay Raskolnikov has responded to devilvet's challenge with 250 near perfect words describing the goal of a theatre tribe. He writes:

We live in a fractured society; few know their neighbors; people are clamoring for community. I look toward a theatre that explores how stories and the art of storytelling can cross cultures, heal old wounds, reconnect peoples, create communal experiences and forge new paths forward. A healthy theatre should be a gathering place, like the town-squares of old; one that provokes and entertains, wounds and heals, challenges and affirms.

Instead of the institution dominating the stage, the meeting of actor and audience sharing a story should dominate the institution. All should be paid what they earn together, equally—while sharing an equal burden for operating the theatre. All involved need to actively work at getting people in to see the show. We need to work as hard, if not harder, at this than at making a show. If one refuses to help earn revenue, they should not share in it.

We need to open the closed-loop of theatre folk primarily/solely doing theatre for other theatre folk. The image of the lone artist needs to give way to the image of an artist communicating with his/her community.

If theatre can truly peer into our collective consciousness, our nightmares and ecstasies, the tragic and comic—it must be done collectively. Art and entertainment should find their way back to another in the stories that give rise to both. We must see past the veneer of entitlement--if we expect people to see our work, we have to give them something worth seeing.

Now that there is some great writing!

Mission Paradox: Watch Out for the Game Changers

Over at Mission Paradox, we are asked how we will respond to the Game Changers. I'm going to steal a big chunk of the post, but hope you will read the rest and also watch the Seth Godin video. He writes:

While people get caught up in arguments about new plays versus classical works, or why people don't go to dance recitals, somebody is out there thinking about the theatre business as a whole, the dance business as a whole . . . and working on a way to change the whole damn thing.

This person . . . these people . . . are game changers. And you need to be ready for them.

Look at the music biz. For decades the big guys thought things could never change.

But they did.

When the wave of change hit they didn't respond to it nearly quick enough.

So now many of those companies are fighting for survival.

It is no different for the arts.

Eventually somebody is going to figure out a way of funding and selling theatre that is going to allow for well paid artists, complex artistic expressions, etc.

Somebody is going to figure out how to build a well respected arts gallery in 5 years, not 25 years.

When that happens, how are you going to respond?

I'm curious how people are going to answer that question...

Two Sides of the Same Coin

Nick at Rat Sass apparently thinks that Mike Daisey's essay and my rants are counter-productive. In his post "Pere Dayz Preempts Discussion," he finds great "dishonesty, self-deception, or spin doctoring" in the fact that Daisey's short essay in the Seattle weekly "The Stranger" is not as complex as his performance, and that it had a subtitle -- a subtitle! -- that bore the same title as his play. Daisey wrote about this on his website: "I know, the essay is subtitled with the name of the show—I wrestled with this, the editor wanted it that way, and that’s how it came out." If you have ever written for a newspaper, you know that this has the ring of truth -- critics, for instance, do not have total control over the headline over their pieces, for instance. But Nick sees some ethical breach in this, one that is worth dismissing Daisey's points. He writes: "I can’t judge how much Mike actually “wrestled” over the title. I’m not sure if he finds any real ethics involved in such a decision beyond those contained within the PR concerns of linking the two together. And as we all know, the realm of public relations and advertising often has a somewhat more malleable understanding of the ethical value assigned to terms such as 'clarity' or 'truth.'" But clearly he has judged how much Mike wrestled with this, and found him wanting. By using the name of his performance as a subtitle, Nick finds Mike guilty of *gasp* self-promotion! Perish the thought. Perhaps he should have published under an assumed name.

When I questioned him about this seeming obsession with finding perfidy in Mike Daisey -- remember, he accused Daisey of cooking up a self-promotion scheme following the water-pouring incident as well -- the real issue surfaced, as did Daisey's connection to me. In a response to my comment, Nick wrote:

"You like the Daisey rant. As I have already said, it matches well to similar rants by you. And as I have also already said numerous times about your diatribes, they are detrimental to the discussions about and proposals for new models we all are attempting. You always claim you are moving beyond your rants, but you continually fall back to them. You can’t seem to help yourself.

What Scott Walters said but what does not seem to stick for him is:

“It is fairly easy to describe what one is against, but much more of a challenge to describe what one is for.”

I have an intense dislike of self-righteousness, probably because I am so prone to it myself. So when I see it in you and Daisey and others, I jump on it."

I stand convicted: I do like Daisey's essay and what I have heard so far of his monologue. I think he is speaking a truth that has long been buried, and yes, I am trying to speak a similar truth. The Theatrical Emperor has very few clothes, and there is something rotten in the state of LORT-dom.

I also admit that the sentence he quotes is mine, and I think it is true: it is easier to describe what one is against than what one is for. But I was not implying with that sentence that I or anyone else should ignore what one is against and speak only about what one is for. They go hand in hand. Like black ink on white paper, they provide the contrast necessary to clearly communicate. When people protest the war in Iraq, they didn't do so by simply chanting what a wonderful world it would be if we weren't fighting, they condemn the wrongness of it. To ignore what is bad is to tacitly endorse it, especially when the status quo is being preached every day in theatre classrooms, magazines, and newspapers across America as the only reasonable way for business to be done.

When someone like Jonathan West, an artistic director for 11 years, trots out the artistic value of being a Starving Artist, it must be countered strongly, because it is the theatrical norm too often accepted as unquestionable truth. And when he dismisses as "not an artist" a 41-year-old actress who can't take a life of poverty anymore, somebody needs to blow the whistle and call a foul. John Clancy, in the comments to my post, says we should give West a hand and instead of a slap because... I don't know why... because he's younger than John and I, I guess, and ten years ago John says he'd have said the same thing. From my point of view, this makes it even worse! We now we have yet another generation of people following the same self-abusive pattern and calling it love. It's like women who stay with their abusive husbands because "I love him, and sometimes things are good." Are you nuts? John writes: "Yes, there's a defeatist attitude and a "fuck-it-just-leave-me-alone-to-die-here-alone-and-unsung" song being hummed in the background to Jonathan's words, but there's also a quiet strength and resilience in the counter-melody. He says, "just show up to work." That's all any of us are saying, at the end, or at least that's all I'm saying. Show up to work. Every day. No matter what you're getting paid. Yeah, ask for more, but show up while you're asking for it."

You know what? I know few theatre artists who don't show up for work no matter what (if anything) they're getting paid. I did my share of that when I was a freelance director in Minneapolis. That's part of the problem. Why should producers buy the cow if they can get the milk for free? Why should producers pay you more when there is a line of youngsters behind you who will work for bus fare? And the worst part is that artists do it to each other -- many of the producers are artists themselves who produce in order to get their work seen. The feel guilty about it -- they are not rubbing their hands with glee -- but they feel they have no choice. It is a vicious cycle.

Isaac at Parabasis is wrestling with Saul Alinsky's Rules for Radicals, but he is made uncomfortable when Alinsky's tactics are applied to theatre because "embracing the Alinsky school means doing one thing in those above battles that I'm not totally comfortable with: treating those who disagree with you as your enemies. When you're dealing with a corporation that is refusing to hire black people, I have no issue whatsoever with, for example, personalizing the problem by making it about specific people rather than the corporation as a whole, or whatever. But I'm not entirely comfortable with doing that with my fellow theatre artists, or theatre administrators." And I have the same discomfort with Alinsky, frankly -- I think we have a society that eats polarization for breakfast to the point where it is no longer effective for enacting change. But I don't think I or Daisey are attacking individuals, but rather a system that ultimately is abusive and destructive to theatre artists. Daisey is finally pointing out the weasel under the cocktail table that has been attacking everybody's ankles but they were too polite to say anything. I recently directed Thousand Kites, which showed that it was not only the inmates in America's prisons that are being abused, but the guards as well -- they suffer under a system that puts them both into destructive and damaging lifestyles. The same is true of theatre: the administrators are working as hard, and often for as little remuneration, as the artists.

For too long, theatre artists have accepted 84% unemployment, a migrant lifestyle, constant underemployment, low or no pay, and little control over their careers as being "what we signed on for when we chose it," as West puts it. It is time to say enough is enough. Every year or so, a group of academics will come together and wring their hands in worry, thinking maybe they shouldn't be producing so many theatre artists, given the employment realities. I say, instead of thinking about creating fewer artists, we should be focusing on creating more jobs, and I mean more paying jobs that do not require artists to give up their claim to lead a reasonable life. I believe this is possible, but it is only possible if we fully recognize the problems of the current way of doing things.

I will continue to write about the abuses, and I know that Mike Daisey will continue to perform his piece and, I hope, write more essays. And I will also continue to promote alternatives such as the tribal model I have been writing about for weeks. And I make no apologies for either activity.

Ultimately, they are two sides of the same coin.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Jonathan West on Mike Daisey

Mike Daisey links to Jonathan West's commentary on his essay How Theatre Failed America. West, "a Midwestern writer, actor, and stage director" who "co-founded Bialystock & Bloom Theatre Company... and served as the company’s Artistic Director for 11 years" oughta know better. What he gives us is is a very clear and vivid view of the self-destructive ethos that has made theatre an art form that refuses to support its artists.

He writes:

But now I need to go on a bit about the bug-a-boo I have with Mike’s contention that Theater failed America. In his article, I sense an underlying sentiment from him that somehow the American theater artist is inherently entitled to a middle-class existence. Entitlement is something I've never considered when it comes to having a career in the theater. If you ask any artist making theater in America today whether they made the choice to be an actor, actress, designer, director or craftsperson because of a need for comfort and steady work, my guess is that you would receive an overwhelming “no”.
Let's examine this paragraph a bit. First, I don't think Mike Daisey, or I for that matter, am suggesting that there is an "entitlement to a middle-class existence." Entitlement means "the right to guaranteed benefits" -- please note the word guaranteed. Nobody in their right mind would argue that the decision to be a theatre artists guarantees one to a middle-class existence.

What I am arguing, and what Mike Daisey seems to be arguing (I will not put words in his mouth), is that the decision to be a theatre artist should not disqualify you from a middle-class existence. While one might not choose to be a theatre artist "because of a need for comfort and steady work," neither does one choose to be a theatre artist out of a need for discomfort and sporadic work. There is no correspondence between doing quality theatre and not eating, not having a home, and not health insurance. The art of theatre is not benefited by being filled with artists who are a) young, b) tired, and c) worried about whether a bout with appendicitis will put them on the streets.

Now comes the cliched bravado:
A life in the arts comes with great highs and great lows. But that’s what we all signed on for when we chose it, right? I knew that my life was going to be tough when I really knew that I was going to fully sign on as a dedicated member of the theatrical community. But I also knew that I would be in the company of a hearty band of tenacious dreamers who would help me, through good humor and generosity, to shoulder the burden of working 47 different types of jobs and constantly worrying about my inability to ever really retire and live in a sunny condo in Florida.
Gag me. "Tenacious dreamers." No, Jonathan, that's not what we signed on for. We signed on for a life devoted to our art, not for a life of grinding poverty. It's not like we decided to become monks. This is the same logic that leads to people telling migrant workers, hey, you knew you weren't going to get rich being a migrant worker, what are you complaining about the piss-poor wages for?

In a paragraph that is breathtaking in its condescension and idiocy, West writes:

In his article, Mike Daisey talks about a friend of his who is giving up after trying to be an actress in Seattle. I don’t think that lady is weak, I just don’t think she’s a true artist. True artists are a combination of two things: talent and tenacity. The talent is the easy thing. The showing up day after day for guaranteed rejection, humiliation and unfair treatment that is just part of the job description of being an artist is the real work. Mike Daisey’s friend, it seems to me, was not made of the stuff for the real work that goes on throughout an artist’s life. You can still be talented and have a hobby. It seems to me that is the case of his actress friend. She's a great hobbyist who, for very sane, rational reasons, chose to move away from something that was crushing her soul.

What an insulting prick. "I don;t think she's a true artist." I'm sorry. My greatest desire was to keep my temper and just point out the errors in this article, but I can't. Paragraph after paragraph, West arrogantly frames economic injustice as artistic freedom, naively expressing a belief that theatre is a meritocracy (does anybody really believe that? Is that why so many people go to grad school in order to "make connections"?) and the cream rises to the "top" ("Theater isn’t an “everyone gets the same size piece of cake” kind of enterprise. Some people succeed. Some people don’t."), that an acceptance of poverty is heroic ("Let's face it, we theater artists are all a little mad to keep putting ourselves in front of doors that more often than not get slammed in our face"), and that artists just need to suck it up and glory in the status quo (" I would love to think of myself as a theater artist through and through who derives his entire income from performing and directing, but I know that will probably never be the case. That doesn’t mean, I’m saying, “Boo hoo, this is too hard. I’m giving up on the theater.” I’ll just paste together a life with odd jobs and things outside the realm of theater that can support the work I do as an artist.") West combines a weird artistic Darwinism with the capitalistic myth of merit and an anarchistic fuck-The-Man bravado is noxious.

And he winds up with this classic: "But what we need most of all is for the American theater artist to stop whining and to just keep showing up to work."

I can't beat Mike Daisey's own response to this line:
This is classic: really, what we need most is for the artists to stop whining? Really? It's that much of a problem, the whining?

I saw this a lot in Seattle, on message boards, and from a number of other regional sources around the country: an intense disgust with the "whining" of artists. I believe it comes from a Puritan impulse--people who've been working under hard conditions in the trenches for years and years can become hardened. After all, they never make any money—why should anyone else? They haven't gotten to live in the city they wanted to and do theater--why should the next generation? Why should they have it easy?

The short answer is that we should be making things better for the future. I believe the largest missing element in the American theater is its treatment of the artists—if the actors had stability, they could be ensembles. If we had ensembles we could start winning back some of the losses of the past and forging a new tradition that is living and vibrant and based around humans, as opposed to a tradition based around real estate and subsidized buildings. We owe it to the future and to ourselves to make things better. That is the dream of progress.
Exactly, Mike. Now there's a healthy vision. West seems to argue that theatre is better if it is done by people who have no money, no time, no control over their careers, no stability, and no health insurance. That there is some sort of artistic value -- no, beyond value, some sort of artistic heroism -- in being taken advantage of. And those who think otherwise he insults by characterizing them as people who dream of a need to "retire and live in a sunny condo in Florida."

Let's make this explicit:

1) Theatre is not better if it is made by poor, tired, insecure artists.

2) There is nothing heroic about allowing oneself to be exploited.

3) Theatre can only be made BETTER if artists have the time to focus their attention on it full-time, or as close to full-time as possible, and not as a fucking afterthought during the few hours available after putting in a full day doing something else.

Jesus Christ. Can we finally grow up and stop thinking that we're sticking it to The Man if we are eating ramen noodles four nights a week in a roach-infested studio apartment? Can we give up this belief that in poverty their is virtue, and in insecurity there is inspiration? How did we come to believe so deeply in the self-destructive narrative of heroic desperation?

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Zachary Mannheimer in Des Moines

I just received an email from Zachary Mannheimer of Subjective Theatre, who left New York City four months ago to bring his theatre to a different part of the country. He is following three of the values propounded by this blog: decentralization, localization, and a new business model. Here reports in as follows:

Long time no talk. I’ve been busy, as you have been, of course. Been keeping up with your world out there, though.

Wanted to bring this to your attention – you all know why I moved out here – and it’s been about 4 months and things are moving rapidly. There was just a huge article on the project – I was on the cover of Juice (The Village Voice of DSM) and then the Register (The NY Times of DSM – take these comparisons as you will) did the article again on the front page of it’s arts section.

These are things that would never have happened in NYC. In 4 months I’ve compiled more support than in 8 years in NYC. Thought you might find this interesting. Here’s the article:

Also – to check out the whole plan – go to and click on the “More info on The Des Moines Social Club”.

Lastly – I’ve got an essay titled “The Idiot from Iowa” coming out in the NY Theater Review next month. I think you will all find it enjoyable.

Miss you guys – hope to see you all soon!

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 ...