Friday, March 21, 2008

An Approach, Not a Method

From Presentation Zen: Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery by Garr Reynolds.
"Presentation Zen, however, is not a method. Method implies a step-by-step systematic process, something very much planned and linear, with a definite proven procedure that you can pick off a shelf and follow A to Z in a logical orderly fashion. Presentation Zen, then, is more of an approach. An approach implies a road, a direction, a frame of mind, perhaps even a philosophy, but not a formula of proven rules to be followed. Methods are important and necessary. But there are no panaceas, and I offer no prescriptions for success. Success depends on you and your own unique situation. However, I do offer guidelines and some things to think about that may run contrary to conventional wisdom..."
Like Reynolds, the ideas on theatre tribes presented on this blog are more of an approach, not a method. An orientation, a frame of mind, perhaps even a philosophy. But not an instruction manual.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Point Blank

Next month, I will be 50. I don't have time to wait for society and the government to change its priorities so that they fund theatre at the level it deserves. I need to think of something that works now.

What Did We Learn Yesterday?

Over at "Never Trust Your Pet with the Devilvet," Bob has written about yesterday's blogslide about values in a post entitled "Talk Is Only Half the Battle."Most of the post is about encouraging more vigorous debate in the theatrosphere. As everyone knows, I haven't been one to steer clear of debate, although recently I have been trying to debate in a way that is more productive than the sort of slash-and-burn debates that used to happen in the past. I don't have time for pissing matches anymore, and I know for sure that Bob isn't suggesting more of them. So to Bob's request for an "Amen" concerning vigorous debate: Amen, Bob, preach it.

More importantly to me are a piece of the original post, and a comment connected to that post. Bob wrote, "Yesterday, I heard a few interesting things. I also heard an echo and echo and echo of tired things I've heard before." Then he wrote in the comments: "What good was yesterday if all we do is reaffirm and recite? Yes, it might give us (lot of us and them talk yesterday) a momentary thrust of catharsis...I want more!"

He's right -- what good was yesterday if we don't do more than just say our piece? When I read all those who contributed, I started seeing a common thread. While Bob may feel this is something he's heard before, nevertheless there seemed to be common agreement about one thing: one thing that sets theatre apart is presence, a sense of being in it together with the audience, dialog, community, call it what you will but it is all pretty much the same thing.

So what is the next step, the action step? Well, I hate to risk glibness, but walk your talk. All of you who are artists, look at the work you are creating and ask yourself: does this really take full advantage of what I feel is most unique about the theatre? If not, is there a way I could add something to the event itself that would bring it closer to my ideal? It's like a mission statement -- you use it to make decisions about what opportunities to take advantage of and which to let go. I think if we all did that one simple thing it would change the face of the theatre. If we all made sure that what we believe to be theatre's value was at the center of the theatre we actually create, then at least our elevator speech would parallel what was actually happening in our theatres. Without that, yesterday truly was an empty event, wasn't it?

On Salaries

A snapshot of why it might be a good idea for most theatre artists to think about a different business model than the current corporate Big Box theatre.

Here are the salaries of the artistic directors for two of America's major LORT theatres:

AD #1: $325,000
AD #2: $400,00

And Managing Director salaries for the same theatres:

MD #1: $308,000
MD #2: $208,000

AD #1 and MD #1 oversee a LORT B+ contract. Minimum actor salary for this period (these are figures that are two years old): $754 per week -- total if 52 weeks worked: $39,208

AD#2 and MD#2 oversee a LORT A contract. Minimum actor salary: $800. AD #2 is on a 40 week contract -- weekly salary: $10,000.

Compared to CEO salaries in corporate America, having a leader making between 8 and 13 times as much as the lowest paid actor (we won't compare it to the lowest paid employee) is pretty reasonable. But then, those CEO's are also overseeing a revenue stream considerably larger than the $16M - $29M of these theatres.

If we compare these salary to the annual revenues, we see another story: the head of Dell, for instance, received 0.7% of Dell's annual revenue as salary, whereas AD #2 received 1.4% of the theatre's revenue. Combining the AD & MD, Theatre #1 pays salaries of nearly 4% of annual revenues to two people, and Theatre #2 pay 2.1% of annual revenues.

Hey, I'm not griping about people making a decent salary. And in many ways, these people are at the top of their professions. But I agree with George Bernard Shaw, who said he didn't have anything against money, he thought everybody ought to have some. Somehow, something seems out of whack.

Play the Theatre Tribe Game

So yesterday, a bunch of us blogged about the value of theatre. Here was my contribution. Here's the theatre tribe game: read the posts (and any other posts you think would help you) and put together four bloggers that you think would, philosophically, form the basis for the best theatre tribe. Don't worry about skills unless you want to. The book Good to Great talks about "getting the right people on the bus" to make your group take off. Instead of a car, you have a 4-seat sedan -- who oughta be in it?

West End Journal?

Does anybody know anything about the theatre blog "West End Journal"? I can't figure it out. They seem to be reposting just about everything I write, with an occasional Theatre Is Territory post. I don't mind -- I mean, I'm always credited and given a link. But I can't figure it out, can you?

Well Put, Nick!

In a reply to a commenter on another blog who quoted Sherwood Anderson on artists who talk and think art is more important than it is, Nick (Keenan, I believe) responded:
I understand where you're coming from, and I used to be an artist that only talked through my work. I've designed 100 plays in the last 5 years, and worked on 12 since the beginning of the year. But speaking from experience here - for me, that's become like designing without having a production meeting first. Over the long term, it doesn't work. That's why I picked up blogging - to promote ideas that benefit the entire theater industry - because the alternative means reinventing the wheel again and again for the rest of my artistic life. Yes, there are talking artists slip and talk first without adding to a constructive conversation, and there are people who are working things out for themselves for the first time. There are also collaborators and people truly committed to the idea of making our work better through a higher level of cooperation, and online tools like blogs and forums are where it's at to make that kind of stuff happen.

I get mad when the conversation gets shut down because someone calls 'BS' without engaging in the full conversation. There's a lot of talking heads here, and it's difficult to follow - but that doesn't mean that everything being said is BS, or pointless. It has real value, and it's a prerequisite to making a more sustainable theater that is better for everyone. It may make you feel superior to say what you said here, and that's your right, but I then challenge you to engage critically, point by point, and push the conversation forward to something that matters to you. I encourage you both to walk the talk. In that sense, there's nothing necessarily elitist about theater at all, only perhaps the people who have felt empowered to claim it as their own.
Nice. I get so tired of having to defend conversation and the exchange of ideas, as if it were somehow a tertiary activity similar to - I don't know what -- trading baseball cards or something. Without conversation, new ideas don't happen -- read Group Genius or Collaborative Circles if you doubt that. Without new ideas, the status quo stays the status quo. And in our society, if you stay the same you fall behind.

Thanks for standing up, Nick!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Theatre's Value in Three Words

A group of us (see list below) have decided to blog about one topic today in the hopes of creating some synergy. The topic is the value of theatre -- what makes theatre unique and/or valuable in today's world. The experience for the theatre blog reader, I suspect, will be like looking at a cubist painting in which you simultaneously see a single form from a variety of perspectives and times. We might call this "Theatre Descending a Staircase." (Let's hope, following the Duchampian theme, it does not more closely resemble his "Fountain.")

Anyway, Slay, the founder of this particular feast (thanks for the suggestion, my friend) includes in his fascinating post Ben Cameron's idea, common to most for-profit businesses these days, that theatre needs an "elevator speech" or "talking points" -- a few well-chosen words that express what theatre is about, why it is important, why someone should want to attend it. Sort of like the devilvet challenge (say it in 250 words), only even shorter. When I did the devilvet challenge, I used 108 words, which was pretty good for me. But today, I wanted to boil it down even further. I got it down to three words:

Flow + Dialog = Theatre

There you go! Check out everybody else's ideas at -- what? That's not clear? OK, don't blame me if I go on and on. And on and on.

Mihaly Csikszentmihaly (jeez -- where were the Ellis Island officials when this guy was emigrating from Hungary? -- anyway, it is pronounced "chick-SENT-me-high," which actually is sort of fun to say) is the man behind the concept of flow (cf Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience , Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, and Finding Flow: The Pscyhology of Engagement with Everyday Life). Wikipedia summarizes the idea thusly: "Flow is the mental state of operation in which the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing, characterized by a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity." It occurs when there is a confluence of high challenge and high skill. Csikszentmihaly (thank God for cut-and-paste) says "Very rarely do people report flow in passive leisure activities, such as watching television or relaxing."

I think flow is what many of us think theatre ought to be: challenge plus skill; and its absence is what we complain about when we talk about Broadway or Broadway in Chicago smashtaculars. But this isn't geographical or commercial -- you can find flow on Broadway (I think, for instance, that Sondheim creates flow in the musical theatre) and you can find relaxation at a storefront. It is about intention.

One of the keys to flow is that there needs to be a balance between ability level and challenge. If we conceive of ourselves, as artists, as the creators of flow experiences, then it is contingent on us to know and understand our audience so that we can create productions that challenge spectators to dance along the edge of their skills. Smashtaculars underestimate the audience's skill and keeps the challenge level low, which ultimately leads to boredom for the audience. But the opposite is often true as well: artists will pitch the level of challenge too high, reflecting their own skill level rather than the audience's, which ultimately leads to frustration for the audience. Like the three bears, we want the balance between challenge and the skill level to be just right.

This is the promise of presence. Because the artist and the audience during a performance shares the same time and place, dialog is possible. Not true for TV, radio, or film, right? Not true for books or visual art. Only the live performing arts have this possibility.

What is sad is that we have forgotten this in favor of monologue: we talk, you listen, then we run away and you go home. Dialog doesn't have to happen as part of the play (although it certainly could, and can be powerful), but it ought to happen sometime during the experience. People want to talk to each other -- not only the one of two people who accompanied them to the play, but to others as well. And if we could facilitate that talking by giving them a common point of departure (the play) and building the structure for it to take place -- among themselves, with the artists -- then the experience has a chance to expand into interpersonal flow. Conversation is another activity that Csikszentmihaly lists as having great potential for creating flow.

Margaret J. Wheatley writes in Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future: "We humans want to be together. We only isolate ourselves when we're hurt by others, but alone is not our natural state. Today, we live in an unnatural state -- separating ourselves rather than being together. We become hopeful when somebody tells the truth. I don't know why this is, but I experience it often. Truly connecting with another human being gives us joy."

The challenge is for artists to tell the truth, and create a work of art that lets others share their truth. Telling the truth is a high challenge, and it requires high skill to engage it, and the result is joy, flow.


flow + dialog = theatre

Who wouldn't value an opportunity to have a peak experience and then talk about it?

Please also visit Theatreforte, Theater for the Future, Rat Sass, Parabasis, The Next Stage, Steve on Broadway, Theatre is Territory, Freedom Spice in the New Mash-Up World, Mike Daisey, An Angry White Guy in Chicago, Bite & Smile, and That Sounds Cool. And devilet. And Mission Paradox. And Tony at Jay Raskolnikov. Paul Rekk twice!

And be sure to check back here for additions to that list.

And join the dialog!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

From NEA's Bill O'Brien

On a whim, I forwarded a link to my post on Rural Theatre, along with my post "A Vision" and the "NEA Google Map" to Bill O'Brien, the NEA spokesman quoted in the Columbus Dispatch article. I received this very kind email in return, and will likely call him later this week. Here it is (quoted with his permission):

Hi Scott,

Thanks for writing. I enjoyed reading the first blog you linked below a few weeks ago when someone brought it to my attention.

I would love to see your imaginary theatre flourish some day. In a way, it reminds me of the way the Barter Theater was formed, which is one of my favorite stories from the field. It would take someone of considerable passion to steer it along, which I think is true whether you were trying to make vibrant theatre in Asheville, New York or Dubuque.

I said quite a few things to the journalist on this subject that did not make it into the article. I think he did a great job with it for the most part, but I personally don't think it left you with a very accurate impression of prejudices that do or do not exist in me or at the NEA, but I think I can understand how you made some of your observations.

I became engaged in and committed to excellent live theatre while growing up in a farm in Iowa. Much of the most excellent theatre that I have had a hand in producing occurred in modest (to put it lightly), sub-99 seat spaces.

I'd be happy to discuss eligibility requirements, review criteria or any other topic that could help familiarize you with how we fund theater and musical theater projects here at the NEA. If you don't catch me at my desk, I'll call you back as soon as I am able.


Bill O'Brien
Director of Theater and Musical Theater
National Endowment for the Arts
202 682 5510


devilvet writes a thoughtful post on "How Best to Use One's Strength." Wisdom.

On William J. Baumol and the "Cost Disease"

I love the theatrosphere. What is best is when a discussion happens elsewhere that leads you to make connections to people and ideas you hadn't considered. This is certainly true of the discussion at 99 Seats on "A Multitude of Casualties" and "Good Point...And Some Follow-Up Thoughts." Both of these are addressing the discussions concerning new business models for nto-for-profit theatres. I was particularly inspired to respond by a section of Chris Casquilho's comment that is quoted in the former post. Chris writes:
One of the glaring oversights in every thread I've read about creating a
new business model is the total lack of math. The general agreement among
audiences and NFP theatre producers is that ticket prices are too high - that
costs are too high to take risks, etc. Due to tricky things like Baumol's Cost
Disease, "affordable" theatre exists in a state of what traditional economists
call "market failure" - meaning the cost of the supply is higher than the
existing demand is willing or able to bear. NFP status provides a vehicle
through which we create subsidy that compensates for the difference.

If we ditch the NFP model, where is the subsidy going to come from?
I'd like to talk about "Baumol's Cost Disease," which had a major impact on the development of the regional theatre movement through William J. Baumol's and William G. Bowen's 1966 book Performing Arts, the Economic Dilemma: A Study of Problems Common to Theater, Opera, Music, and Dance. At the time that Baumol and Bowen were writing, a "cultural explosion" was being declared by writers like Alvin Toffler (The Culture Consumers, 1964) and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund panel report The Performing Arts: Problems and Prospects (1965, headed by Nancy Hanks, who would become the frist NEA Chair), both of which helped lead to the passage of the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act of 1965. Baumol and Bowen, and the Twentieth Century Fund who paid for their report however, deflated that bubble.

As Joseph Wesley Ziegler put it in his 1973 book Regional Theatre: The Revolutionary Stage, "the 'cultural explosion' had already proved to be largely a myth: the natural increase in population and per capita income had given the appearance in the early 1960s of increased interest in the arts, but the percentage nof people interested in the arts had not grown significantly." (63) This inconvenient truth, however, was largely ignored in favor of a truth that was more useful to the growth of the regional arts -- the "cost disease."

What Baumol and Bowen said that had the most traction was that the income gap in the performing arts was inevitable because unlike industry, the performing arts did not benefit from increases in productivity -- it took the same number of actors to perform Hamlet in 1965 as it did in 1601, and it took the same number of musicians to play Beethoven's Fifth Symphony now as it did in the 1800s. So while productivity remained flat, wages continued to rise as did other costs, and the result was that either ticket prices would have to rise beyond levels that patrons would be willing to pay, or there will be an income gap. Based on this "cost disease" concept, Baumol and Bowen made a strong case for foundation and governmental support for the arts by pointing out the "inevitability" of this income gap. The effect of this can be most dramatically illustrated by the case of one of the eraly regional theatres, the Arena Stage in Washington DC as led by Zelda and Thomas Fichlander.

Again Ziegler, who in 1962 went to the Arena Stage as an "administrative intern" on a grant from the Ford Foundation to improve his management skills (and who later served as the head of the Theatre Communications Group), provides the perspective:
By the time I arrived, the Fichlanders [Zelda and Thomas] had mastered running their theatre to the point where they could do the job without a budget. They simply never spent more than the box office and grants brought into their coffers. Each year there was either a breakeven situation or a surplus....Since that time, however, the picture has changed. During recent years, Arena Stage has always incurred an "income gap" -- commitments to creditors over and above funds brought in as earned income. It is characteristic, I think, that after moving into its new building Arena Stage did not have income gaps until they became acceptable. Income gaps in the performing arts became acceptable with the publication of the Twentieth Century Fund's The Perfomring Arts: The Economic Dilemma, which proved their inevitability and opened up the possibility of deficit funding for theatres. The other justification for income gaps came from the establishment, at the same time, of the National Endowment for the Arts, the federal government's first step in accepting support of the arts as a proper function. Arena Stage, with its extraordinary administrative savvy, saw the income gaps could be funded; from then on Zelda instituted additional programs which could be judged suitable for foundation assistance and which assured the Arena Stage would need help. (34-35)
Thus, Baumol's "cost disease" became a self-fulfilling prophecy, and like a crack dealer introducing the drug at the schoolyard, Baumol quickly had the performing arts addicted to a combination of government and foundation subsidy. The other pusher in this scenario was the Ford Foundation, which pumped millions into the regional theatre, pushing small-scale operations like the Mummers Theatre in Oklahoma to build a huge theatre far beyond their needs, and funding young regional theatres to import actors from NYC to fill its stages instead of building ensembles committed to a community.

The fact is that Baumol and Bowen were right on both counts: there WAS no "cultural explosion," it still was and would continue to be a pastime aimed at the economic elites, and they were also right that given a business model that emphasized large theatres, large budgets, and a production aesthetic that mimicked NY, an income gap WAS inevitable. But the conclusion that was drawn from those two truths -- that what was needed was private and public subsidy -- was flawed.

First of all, in the case of theatre there was, in fact, an increase in productivity: it was called film and television. While we choose to see these as different art forms, the amount of crossover that occurs between the artists of all three belies their difference. While it still took the same number of artists to perform Hamlet, film and television multiplied exponentially the size of the audience. In other words, theatre was being mass produced through film and television. What should have happened at that point, and didn't, was a reconsideration of the business model. Instead, Baumol and Bowen recommended that the government and rich people bail us out.

Think of this in terms of, say, furniture. For most of history, furniture was created by local craftsmen who made chairs one at a time and sold them to customers in their town. With the rise of industrialization, chairs could now be mass produced in factories, with the result that prices fell. There still were craftsmen making chairs by hand and selling them to people in their town, but the business model had changed as had the market. Chairmakers did not demand government subsidy, but rather went about changing their way of doing business.

Theatre might have done the same in 1965, but didn't. Instead, we learned to beg. According to the most recent Theatre Facts published by TCG, regional theatres now have a whopping 48% of their budget coming from contributions, and only 52% is earned income. Chris is right to wonder "where the subsidy is going to come from," because we have reached a point, like Blanche Du Bois, where we are completely reliant on the kindness of strangers!

To me, this is unacceptable. The NEA annual budget is an insult, and an intentional one in my opinion. Artists continually point with outrage to the fact that more money is allotted to military bands every year than to the arts in the country. Do we really think that is an accident? The federal government annually reminds us how little our work is valued. Meanwhile, in response to the gutting of social services by the administrations of the last two decades or more, the private foundations have shifted their money elsewhere to address the myriad social problems that have worsened. So the arts experience a double-whammy: both sources of largess suddenly are reduced precipitously.

And what is our response? Like infants who suddenly find their bottle taken away, we wail at the top of our lungs about the injustice of it all, and we point at Europe and complain that they have higher allowances than we have.

It is so undignified, and so disempowering. How in the world can anybody in this country take us seriously?

So we need to go back to Baumol and Bowen, yes, but we need to address the economic issues they raised from a different perspective, one that looks at how our so-called "aesthetic choices" are not only aesthetic but also both economic and ecological -- in fact, essentially economic and ecological . We need to question ourselves about what values are reflected in our way of doing theatre, and whether, in fact, they reflect a typically American reliance of more and bigger "stuff" instead of creativity and hard-headed realism. Take a look at this picture from the recent production of Tamburlaine the Great at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington DC and ask yourself whether it is likely that Marlowe's original production was quite that elaborate. Perhaps it isn't just lower wages that made Hamlet economical in Shakespeare's time, but also a commitment to an aesthetic that relied on language instead of "stuff."

We need to stop crying and figure out a way to stand on our own two feet and reclaim our power and dignity as independent artists rather than pathetic and ungrateful beggars groveling and sneering at the kitchen door of our society. Until we do that, we will always be looked down on by American society.

Rural Theatre

Thanks to Nick at Rat Sass for pointing this out to me (I need to resubscribe to the Art Journal feed -- I got annoyed and unsubscribed). It was an article in the Columbus Dispatch entitled "Audiences, Support Growing for Rural Troupes." The article draws attention to Mad River Theatre Works (West Liberty, OH), Roadside Theatre (Whitesburg, KY) and Barter Theatre (Abingdon, VA). Nice article indicating that it is not only possible to have a professional theatre in smaller towns, but also that the support is growing. And it includes a good description of how artists and audiences interact on a more personal level ("We . . . buy a gallon of milk at the supermarket. That's where we get our reviews," says the artistic director) and how the atmosphere is different ("a feeling of more of a camaraderie -- of a closeness -- to the actors" says an audience member).

Perhaps I am over-sensitive to these things, but there was one part of the article that annoyed me. Here it is -- see if you can spot the annoying part:

Arts organizations in big cities receive most of the National Endowment for the Arts grants because metropolitan areas have more projects.

In the past five years, though, the agency has increased by 14 percent its support of arts that reach rural and other underserved areas.

"Our funding comes from taxpayers in every corner of the country," said Bill O'Brien, director of theater and musical theater for the NEA. "It's just appropriate for us to consider the cultural health of every American.

"But it has to be good. It has to be access to excellent art, not access to mediocre art."

If you chose the last two sentences, you win. To my mind, the NEA's ass(umptions) are showing. Why would it even be necessary to suggest that the rural art being supported "has to be good...not...mediocre"? When talking about all the money being funneled to New York or Chicago or San Francisco, would Mr. O'Brien feel similarly compelled to make sure it was understood that those productions have to be good? No, it would be assumed that if they got NEA money they were good. But when talking about something outside the metropolises, and off the radar of the MSM, the NEA representative feels compelled to issue a disclaimer concerning quality.

This prejudice is not only common, but unashamed. In conversations on this blog, many commenters have insulted the work being done in non-Nylachi venues with an impunity that I have found shocking. There is an assumption that anything outside of Nylachi is lower quality which is unfounded and, frankly, offensive. There is crappy theatre everywhere, and excellent theatre everywhere as well. In fact, I don't think the prejudice has anything to do with quality, at least as far as the NEA is concerned, but rather with budgets and buildings. If a production isn't being done in a multi-million dollar arts palace with big bucks being spent on design and actors being flown in from NY, then the NEA needs proof that the productions are good.

The assumptions that are strangling the American theatre run deep, and aren't even recognized as being prejudices. They must be countered whenever they arise.

Monday, March 17, 2008

New Year's Intentions

I'd like to draw my readers' attention to the "How to Save the World" blog by Dave Pollard. I just discovered it recently, and while sometimes I find his love of flowcharts difficult to grasp (my spatial sensibilities are not strong), often I find he really says great stuff. This is his "New Year's Intentions 2008," which I think includes some great goals.

Leaving London

Andy Field writes in a Guardian article called "There's Life beyond LAMDA and RADA":

Every year frenzied hordes of prospective theatre students descend upon London, drawn to it like moths to a flickering neon sign. From Lamda to Goldsmith's , they traverse the city geographically and philosophically, filling up the infinite number of theatre courses that it has to offer. And when they finally graduate, these theatremakers rush out to fill every poorly lit, leaky-roofed studio space and every young writer's programme and pub theatre in a city overflowing with them. In this environment, surrounded by national critics and national institutions, it can feel like this is the only place to be.

But London is a bubble - an island of expensive flats, expensive transport and very expensive theatre spaces. For a lot of young artists and theatremakers, myself included, even living in London is a painful experience. And if you're beginning to put together small-scale work off your own bat (especially work that might be considered unconventional - work that's still finding itself, let alone its audience) then setting up shop on the gold-paved streets of this most commercial of cities can be nigh on an impossible.

Fortunately in this country we have a burgeoning network of institutions outside of London that support and promote young artists; places that foster a spirit of adventure and inventiveness.

And Lyn Gardner, also in the Guardian, writes why "The Future of British Theatre Lies in Bristol":

I left Bristol feeling cheered, not least because it felt good to be sitting around a table where so many interest groups were represented, from street arts and circus to panto producers, and live artists to children's companies. Everyone seemed to recognise that it is shared interest, not self-interest, that will really allow Bristol theatre to thrive. It was a welcome contrast to the last few months, when opposition to the Arts Council cuts has united the theatre community in some ways, but in others seems to have opened fissures.
Decentralization and cooperation. What a concept!


I've been thinking lately about the way we live. Not just theatre people, although that is my strongest focus, but everyone else, too. And myself, of course.

I am starting to realize that part of my motivation for creating this "new model" is rooted in a desire to step outside of the way we live. To disconnect from the frantic, non-stop lifestyle and take a breath. Take a lot of breaths.

In many ways, it seems to center on time, doesn't it?

I've been taking part in a reading circle about the book Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration. Last Friday, we read several chapters from the book, including "Organizing for Improvisation," which included "The Ten Secrets of the Collaborative Organization." Number 4 was "Allow Time for Ideas to Emerge." Here's how that section began:
Many people say that they work better under pressure. At some companies, tight deadlines and long hours are a semiofficial part of the company's philosophy. But the Harvard researcher Teresa Amabile has found that this management tactic usually kills creativity. Yes, it makes people work harder, but it makes them less creative. In a study of 177 employees in seven U.S. Companies -- all working in teams where creativity was critical to the success of the group -- days that were more hectic were less likely to result in creative thinking. But, paradoxically, the emploees reported that they felt more creative when time pressure was high. Amabile discovered the real story by analyzing daily work diaries written over a six-month period. The people felt creative, but the diaries showed thjat creativity on high-pressure days happened less than half as often as it did on low-pressure days. And creativity remained depressed for at least two days after a high-pressure day.
Keith Sawyer, the author, concludes "You can't rush creativity." I think part of my desire to create a new model involves recovering time. If the tribe controls ancillary activities, and thus owns the surplus value of labor, then each person would have to work fewer hours to make the same amount of money. The 15-hour day that might feel so creative, as Amabile shows, actually is not only not creative, but it depresses creativity for days thereafter.

But it isn't only that. It's aout consumption. Bill McKibben in a chapter called "All for One, or One for All" in his outstanding book Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, writes that between 1973 and 2000, "the average American employee added 199 hours to his annual schedule -- that is, the equivalent of five forty-hour weeks." People responded by buying more stuff: "Over the last thirty years, real consumption expenditures per person has doubled."

What are we buying? Sure, some of it is for luxury items, but "much of it simply buys the services that make it possible for us to work those long hours -- more child care, more prepared meals. People who are strapped go to McDonalds." Certainly, this is as true for theatre people as suburban professionals -- while it might not be McDonalds, we are probably much more likely to eat out or eat takeout when we are in rehearsal than when we aren't. We don't have time to go home and cook a meal.

What might happen if we reduced our hours? McKibben writes, "there would now be more time for almost everything, from talking to your spouse, to sleeping in, to volunteering at the local hospital. You could grow some more of your own food, and have time to cook it, using other ingredients you got from your neighbors. You would have less money, but also less need for child care, for work clothes, for the expense of commuting."

In addition, the "more hours you work, the bigger your ecological footprint, too. That's because you're spending more money and spending it carelessly: with no time to go to the farmer's market, let alone cook what you buy there, you drive through the drive-through instead. The numbers are substantial: an American working twenty to forty hours a week requires about twenty-three acres of the earth to support him; someone working more than forty hours requires nearly twenty-eight acres." That's about 22% more.

The effects on our community are as dramatic, and perhaps even more serious. In the recent book Influencer: The Power to Change Anything, the authors describe an experiment in caring. A group of seminary students were asked to prepare a sermon on the theme of the Good Samaritan. They were supposed to report to a room where they would be guided through an alley to the chapel where they would deliver their sermon. In this alley, the researcher had placed someone who looked like a homeless person who was obviously in some sort of distress an in need of help. The test was to examine how many of the seminarians about to deliver a sermon on the Good Samaritan would follow the example they were about to talk about in their sermon and stop to help this person. However, the researchers added one element. When half of the seminarians arrived, they were told that there was a slight delay, and they had a little more time than expected to make their way to the chapel; the other half were told that they were running a little late, and that they needed to hurry a bit to get to the chapel on time. Not surprisingly, those who were told they were running late were far less likely to stop to help the homeless person than those who felt they had more time.

Expand that effect exponentially in our ever-accelerating society and perhaps we have an explanation for the slacking of interest in helping the poor, the destitute, the sick, and the desperate. Perhaps it isn't a hardening of the empathetic arteries so much as a lack of the time it takes to slow down and actually see those in need of assistance. Not to mention other people in your community -- your neighbors, for instance.

In 1930, during the Depression, McKibben writes, "the cereal entrepreneur W. K. Kellogg put his workers on a six-hour day at full pay. Productivity increased dramatically, helping pay for the experiment. Meanwhile, the company town's parks, community centers, churches, and YMCA's all flourished. Researchers who interviewed the townspeople found that their interests had grown and changed: they now asked themselves, 'What shall I do?' not just 'What shall I buy?'"

Again, McKibben: "If we are to reverse the trend of overwork, change will probably begin with small and voluntary schemes like those that have begun to change the food market" through CSA's and farmer;s markets. "A number of towns around the country, for instance, have begun to experiment with time-bartering networks. If you help an elderly neighbor cook her meals, you are rewarded with a certain number of 'time dollars,' which guarantees that 'somewhere down the line a neighbor will help you in return.' In a traditional, well-functioning community, such arrangements are unnecessary; people do the calculations intuitively, on the fly."

It is my hope that a theatre tribe might be a "small and voluntary scheme," one that would demonstrate the benefits and wisdom of having more time. The goal would be to take a step away from the status quo and reclaim part of our lives as artists, as family members, as neighbors, as community members, as human beings.

I suspect there are those who will characterize this as nostalgic or impractical. but I think there are more and more people who are realizing that the current way of living is unhealthy, and that it contributes to the ecologically-destructive approach that is destroying our planet. Whether you call it voluntary simplicity, or deep economy, or the "paradox of progress," it all adds up to a questioning of the status quo. And that's what we, as artists, do -- isn't it?

Don Hall enjoins us to "tell a different story." Perhaps we should not just tell it, but live it.

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 ...