Friday, April 11, 2008

Bill McKibben on Music in Iowa in 1900

I was rereading Bill McKibben's excellent book Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future
and came across his interesting discussion of changes in the music industry, and the possibility of an economic model that might be more focused on the local. Talking about the music industry's resistance to the changes occasioned by new digital technology, he writes that "if they can't protect their profit margin, they argue, [the music industry] argues, there will be a 'reduction in creative activity' because without the possibility of growing rich, fewer people will write songs."
Perhaps. But people wrote songs for millennia before they had any chance of making big money at it. At most, you could make a decent living as a wandering bard -- a profession that seems to be coming back into style....Such changes aren't only taking place in America. In England, government figures showed 'a live music renaissance underway across the country,' with half of pubs, clubs, and restaurants featuring at least occasional live acts. Bands still sell recordings, but more and more, they sell them to the people who come to the shows, audiences that are interested in a shared community at least as much as virtuosity.
It would be interesting to brainstorm about how theatre might follow this model. I attended a Christmas concert here in Asheville, the Swannanoa Solstice, that featured a couple traditional Celtic musicians, and during intermission and after the shows, people were lined up six deep trying to buy CDs. I know: I bought three myself. In England, they sell copies of the script in the lobby, and people buy them. How might a theatre create something that could be taken home by enthusiastic spectators?

McKibben goes on:
It's as if musicians were suddenly like the new wave of farmers able to grow smaller quantities of more interesting crops and find reasonably profitable markets for them. The live shows that provide more of their revenue are the equivalent of farmer's markets, places that customers love not only for the product but for the experience. No one gets supperich ala Mariah Carey or Archer Daniels Midland or Exxon Mobil, but plenty more people get to do something lovely, whether it's grow berries for their neighbors or write songs for their region. This parallel universe may not replace the centralized global one, but it's clearly gaining.
It is this vision of a more low key, localized arts scene that continues to motivate me to write about the theatre tribe idea.

Then McKibben introduces a historical fact that made my jaw drop:
How far might it go? Here's a statistic that gives some small indication: in 1900, in the state of Iowa alone, which was then crowded with small farmers, there were also thirteen hundred local opera houses, all of them hosting concerts. "Thousands of tenors," writes Robert Frank [in Luxury Fever], "earned adequate, if modest, livings performing before live audiences.
Imagine that: 1300 opera houses in Iowa alone in 1900 when the population of the United States was roughly 1/4 the size it is today. The idea that the arts require a large urban setting in order to survive is a recent prejudice that is brought into question by historical facts like that offered by Frank and McKibben. It might more accurately be stated that the current corporatized, globalized, business model that is built on the dream of fame and fortune rather than the art itself requires a large urban setting. Disconnected from that model, and reimagined on a local scale, other options may be possible.

At least, that is what I believe.

Mike Daisey Gets the Theatre Is Territory Treatment

Excellent interview (as always -- we really need to applaud Ian for his excellent interview questions) with Mike Daisey on the Theatre is Territory site. Lots of great stuff, but I especially liked this:
10) Why is theatre important?
Theater is important because it is the most human art form, because it is directly about the intricacies of the human heart, unfolding in an actual space in actual time between the humans on stage and the humans in the audience. It is storytelling writ large, without forgetting the core mechanic of storytelling – that the creation of narrative is the process of human consciousness, and seeing it play out, participating in that process as an audience member, is the highest calling possible in art.

Theater is not just important—I believe it is easily the most important art form that exists. In an age of increasing corporatization and identity-loss, it is a humanizing process that happens live in a space all around you, speaking directly with narrative and story to the concerns as a human being navigating the world. Theater is ourselves, the best and the worst of us, and as such we are charged with a terrible responsibility to work harder, deeper and more honestly to help ensure we’ve given it all we ever had.

I love that he says theatre is the most important art form that exists. I think that ought to be said more often. I know, I know -- comparisons are odious, but I think a little local pride might not hurt things.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Ken Davenport Makes a Good Point

Ken Davenport, at Producer's Perspective, takes the non-profit theatres to task for their Broadway contributions in his post "More Stats on Who and What Are Winning Tonys." Here's the money quote to my mind:
"In the last 20 years, there has only been 3 New Play Tony Winners produced by non-profits. Obviously you can see what business the Broadway non-profits are in in this city: revivals, which are generally regarded as safer choices.

Seems odd, doesn't it? I know the mission statement for each theater is different, but you would think that non-profits would be the ones taking bigger risks, wouldn't you?"

Yes, wouldn't you...

Great Posts by Mike Lawler

A lot of good stuff at Mike Lawler's ecoTheater blog, especially the following:

"Unending Growth" -- great quotation: "Conservation in art, however, can be a scary notion for many artists. It screams “Limitations!” to them, and they (we) tend to wince, and turn away from it, often moving all the quicker in the opposite direction. I say don’t let conservation (of all possible resources — from electricity to building materials) act as a scary limiter, but rather as creative challenge. After all, just how much technology is needed to tell a story?"

"A New Model, Part I: Localization and Self-Sufficiency"-- great quotation: "o, this much seems clear: self-sufficiency is as important as, and may be considered part of, any concept of localization in a model of a new theater that considers eco-responsibility or sustainability as part of its mission."

"Sustainability" -- great quotation: "the term sustainability remains one that I feel lends itself to the mission and goals of ecoTheater. While it may remain a word that is hard to pin down, I think my readers know what I mean when I use it regarding theater production: the goal of taking into account “the rights of future generations” when considering how we create art."

Statistical Analysis of Off-Off-Broadway Budgets

The New York Innovative Theatre Foundation recently released a report entitled "Statisical Analysis of Off-Off-Broadway Budgets" (download pdf here -- h/t Matt Freeman). I haven't spent a huge amount of time with it, and I suspect there are others who are more involved in that scene who can comment in a more enlightening fashion, but I will say that I appreciate the NYITF's everyman approach to the report. The numbers have been crunched in a meat-and-potatoes kind of way that allows a blogger like me who is good with numbers but never had a stats class to understand the basics, and that is good, although it may not be scientific or statistically nuanced. I do think that the study would have been better served by examining not only the averages, but the median numbers as well. For instance, Chart 7 shows the overall production budgets and announces that the average production budget is approximately $18,000, which is true. But the median amount -- the point where 50% of the budgets are higher and 50% is lower -- would be in the $10,000 - $15,000 range. The same is true with many of the other charts, e.g., the average OOB company produces an average of 3 productions a year, but the median would be 2 productions. The reason for the difference is that in such a small sampling the top end has an inordinate effect on the averages. Nevertheless, good info.

For my readers, the takeaway figure may be this: "We recorded approximately 1,700 unique Off-Off-Broadway listings for the year."
  • Conventional Wisdom response: "See? That's why actors go to NYC -- that's where the work is!"
  • My response: "Does NYC really need 1,700 theatre productions when there are communities around the US with few to none?" Tribers, get out a map and find a website that gives info about cities in the US, and start looking for the ideal place for your theatre, so that you can regularly do your work. Remember: "For most artists, making good art depends upon making lots of art...The hardest part of artmaking is living your life in such a way that your work gets done, over and over." (Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland)
    • Quotation from Seth Godin's recent book The Dip: "If you enter a market that's too big or too loud for the amount of resources you have available, your message is going to get lost. Your marketing disappears, your message fails to spread. Think twice before launching a mass-market brand of chewing gum. Like adding just a few pounds of air to a flat tire, launching a product into too big of a market has little effect."
(To those who are already in NYC and who love it: no need to listen to me -- keep working, and good luck!)

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Puzzling Headline does a great job compiling articles on theatre from across the world, so it might seem niggling to question this rewritten headline for an article in the Chicago Tribune entitled "Chicago playwright Tracy Letts wins Pulitzer Prize." rewrote this "Far From Broadway, Letts Is On To the Next Play." Can you imagine? Letts, a Chicago playwright from Tulsa OK, is starting to work on a new play far from Broadway! Who knew such a thing was even possible! Well, maybe he'll become a real playwright and move to NYC, like say David Mamet, another Chicagoan who headed for NYC and then attained the pinnacle of LA.

Could we please stop referencing NYC in references to non-NYC artists?

99 Seats -- Good Stuff!

While I was gone, there was a flurry of great posts over at 99 Seats here, here, and here. Apparently, he has been fielding comments concerning the idea that artists are generally seen as needing a manager to take care of all those nasty little business details. 99 Seats calls bullshit, and I do too. As a theatre historian (and as any of you who have ever taken an undergraduate theatre history course ought to remember), it wasn't until very recently that the artists didn't handle all their own management -- thus, for instance, the term "actor-manager" that was prevalent throughout the 19th century. Make a list of famous actors or playwrights throughout theatre history, and you will inevitably end up making a list of famous managers as well: David Garrick, William Shakespeare, Moliere, Edmund Kean, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Henry Irving to name just a few from a much longer list.

One anonymous commenter wrote: "Theaters hire staff so that artists can do their job and not worry about getting people into the seats or money to pay for their project....I agree that artists are not "too dumb" to handle operating a theater, but would they want to?" My response to this question would be that artists should be aware of a direct connection between their artistic decisions and their business decisions. In fact, I was just talking to David Robinson, director of the remounted Dirt in NYC, who was telling me about a theatre he worked for where that was the slogan: all artistic decisions are business decisions, and all business decisions are artistic decisions. So the reason that they would "want to" get involved in the business end is that it has a valuable effect on viewpoint and context. Should artists do it all, from writing every press release to designing every advertisement? No, of course not, but involvement on a decision-making level is important.

To that end, and perhaps most importantly, the blogger at 99 Seats is going to create his or her own theatre tribe in NYC. In "Money, Meet Mouth," the starting point and basic ground rules are laid out, and updates are promised. I, for one, am looking forward to seeing how it turns out, and I send the best of luck.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Ranting on Teaching, Backstage, and the Level of Discourse

Nick at Rat Sass apparently thinks my rants have lost their zip of late, dwindling into disjointed grumbling that teeters on the edge of whining (heaven forbid!), so I will try to zero in on a few targets.

Wait For It
Let's start with this little story from our anonymous student at the Director Sector (I apologize in advance for pasting the entire post her -- please check out the original so his hit count rises -- but this story is too much):

“Okay, class,” Professor McPsycho chimes. She puts her fingers to her temples and rubs them, as if she has a migraine. Her eyes are closed. “On Monday, I want you to come in here, and…” She flings her right hand out, pointing towards the back of the room. Her eyes are still closed. She finishes, “…and wait.” She turns around and strolls out of the room.

I look at my neighbor. He looks back at me with the most puzzled expression I’ve ever seen. I glance at the rest of my classmates, and they’re equally dumbfounded. After several moments of silence, the class finally begins to start the process of leaving the studio theatre and moving on to our next class or whatever it is that we have to do. In my case, lunch.

The weekend flies by, as weekends tend to do in my town. Monday morning quickly arrives, and I stroll off to class. I sit down off to the side, so I can watch my classmates’ reactions to the lesson. I like to watch people, to see if they understand as well (or as poorly) as I do what is being taught. McPsycho strolls into the room, her presence dominating everyone’s mind. She spins around, looks at the class, and smiles.

“Good morning, everyone,” she chimes. She looks around. “Who would like to perform their homework assignment first?”

I had a bad feeling about this. A very bad feeling. Nobody moves. Nobody knows what the homework assignment actually is. A very bad feeling.

“How about you?” McPsycho is staring at me.


I shake my head and shrug as if to say, “Sorry, didn’t do it.” She shakes her head at me and makes a mark in her book.

“Should’ve been prepared. Tsk tsk.” She looks around.

“Fluffy!” McPsycho calls out to a short guy with curly red hair. He awkwardly walks up to the front of the room. He clearly has no clue what he’s supposed to be doing. McPsycho smiles broadly and sits down and watches. Fluffy just sits there, doing nothing.

“Bravo!” McPsycho exclaims.

The entire class looks bewildered, Fluffy included.

“Now, class,” she says in her sing-song voice. “Who wants to wait next?”

I nearly fall out of my chair. She had wanted us to act like we were waiting for something. The rest of the class went up there, one by one, and pretended to wait for a bus or for a friend or for whatever. I sat off to the side, frustrated and flustered. I got a zero for the assignment.

Go figure.

My recommendation for our all-too-patient young blogger is to tell Professor McPsycho that he was, in fact, waiting all along -- he was waiting for her to actually teach him something worthwhile, and that he's still waiting. It won't help his grade, but it might make him feel better. It wo9uld make me feel better.

This is what comes of so-called teachers who once read portions of An Actor Prepares (not the whole thing -- I mean, who actually reads the whole thing, right? That would take, like, hours! And then there are all the sequels -- Building a Character and Creating a Role -- I mean, jeez Louise, there must be a show to rehearse) and who came away thinking that being an acting teacher means keeping students baffled and humiliated. It prepares them for the Real World.

In fact, it is abuse, and deserves to be called what it is: bullshit. There is absolutely no value in making your "homework assignment" so obscure that the students don't even know it is an assignment. In addition, this teacher better have had a damn good reason to have asked students to learn how to "wait," because if that was the sole purpose of the "exercise" it is empty nonsense, which is what all too much acting "training" amounts to.

Dear readers, I suspect that you, too, have suffered such idiotic pedagogy during your undergraduate (and graduate?) education. Please, please feel free to use my comments box to share those experiences. It is only when such idiocy is exposed, and the charlatans who pass it off as teaching are unmasked, that things might actually get better. (I almost feel as if I owe it to the profession to create a new blog devoted wholly to the topic of horrible theatre teachers, but I don't think I could stand the daily frustration.) If you wish to remain anonymous, email me at walt828 at gmail dot com.

Mike Daisey and the Case of the Backstage Blogger

This teacher's idiocy is dwarfed by the "Backstage Editorial Department" at Backstage's "BlogStage" (blogstage? blogstage??? WTF?), which wrote a post entitled "The Sweet and Sour Smell of Regional Theatre Success" (a title that has all the wit and grace of a bowling ball rolling down the stairs) that addresses Mike Daisey's essay and performance "How Theatre Failed America." Before we deal with the heart of this post, let's start with the backstage editorial department's (BED for short) reference to President Bush's increase of $20.1M to the NEA budget, which restores the NEA budget to $144.7M, the "highest level since 1995" as the BED trumpets, as "fiscal nirvana." Let's just think about that for a moment -- "fiscal nirvana." Funding levels of 1995.

A quick Google search for an inflation calculator reveals that $144.7M in 1995 would have to be $200M today to be equivalent. So in fact, far from fiscal nirvana, this budget represents a 27.6% DECREASE over 1995 levels of funding.

But the reality comes into even great focus when you realize that the NEA budget in 1981 was $159M. 1981 was the first year of the Ronald Reagan presidency. Had the NEA budget simply kep up with inflation, its 2007 budget would be $395M.

In fact, $144.7M today is the equivalent of less than $58.5M in 1981! If we celebrate this budget, we are the biggest idiots in history.

Is there no historical sensibility at BlogStage? No critical thinking skills? No ability to use Google? You don't even have to do math -- just plug in the numbers.

The BEDs then take the "mainstream media and the blogosphere" to task for having a sour mood. Apparently, we should all be skipping about this insult.

The essay gets worse, and Mike Daisey has responded effectively to it here. But let me quote a few particularly boneheaded arguments:

  • In response to Daisey's statement that "the original intention of the regional theatre movement" was to "to house repertory companies of artists, giving them job security, an honorable wage, and health insurance,"the BED responds trenchantly: "There's no founding document stipulating that all nonprofit theatres must be repertory companies..."
Well, duh. There's no "founding document" period. That there isn't a founding document doesn't mean there wasn't an overall sense of what the movement was supposed to do. If you read Zeigler's Regionla Theatre, the original intention of the Founding Mothers of the regional theatre movement becomes very clear, and it runs pretty close to what Daisey says. There was a belief in the value of a permanent company and a rejection of seeing the regional theatres as touring venues for a group of guest artists. Even Tyrone Guthrie, who is responsible for bringing the first stars into the regional theatres, did so with the understanding that they would stay for at least a season.

  • In response to the question "Is it right for regional theatres to rely on cheap labor when top administrators (i.e., artistic and managing directors) often earn six-figure salaries? Indeed, was the nonprofit business model meant to make people rich?," the BEDs off-handedly reply, "Yes, this is an old squall: No artist or staffer ever feels adequately compensated for his or her work."
This is the theatrical equivalent of Bush's appalling response to the dovorced woman with three kids who worked three jobs: "Uniquely American, isn't it? I mean, that is fantastic that you're doing that. (Applause.) Get any sleep? (Laughter.) " Essentially, the BEDs have said the same thing to theatre artists: hey, everybody always feels underpaid. Uniquely American, isn't it? Get any health insurance?
  • In the next paragraph, they gasp that "Daisey's solution is a wholesale re-evaluation of the regional theatre system." Imagine that! Assessment! Why, it's shocking! But then they relent: "We ask industry leadership organizations, such as Theatre Communications Group, to consider Daisey's criticism seriously; perhaps they could convene a special conference to address whether administrators receive outsized shares of the funding pie, thus denying theatre artists appropriate compensation. Daisey also notes that regional theatres too often import actors from New York. That too should be a prominent part of the agenda."
Now, there's an idea: have the TCG ask the industry leaders whether they are making too much money. That should get to the bottom of it. Because you know, these theatre bloggers and performers can't be taken seriously. I mean, that whole thing about actors being imported to the regional theatres could be just a rumor, right?

And then the post concludes with this non sequitir:
  • "Yet we also call on everyone to sell the public on giving generously to your local regional theatre. The American theatre community is depending on it."
I spit Coke all over the screen when I read that. How does that follow? If the money I contribute is going to line the pockets of AD's and MD's, why should I keep on giving? When is there going to be some assessment, some critical thinking, some accountability? And when is every critical statement not going to be greeted with a plea for forbearance and a whine that they're doing the best that they can and they desperately need our support?

What these two instances, one in academe and one in the theatre press, symbolize to me is a much larger problem with the theatre: the dismal level of theatrical discourse. When our teachers and our journalists show such a lack of depth, such a dearth of critical thinking, such a superficial understanding of theatre history -- well, is it any wonder that our art form itself is about as deep as a child's plastic swimming pool. Back on September 19th, 2005, I wrote my first post on this blog entitled "Where Are Our Ideas?" The theatrosphere, in my opinion, has raised the level of discussion over the years, and we are now dealing with substantive issues rather than gossip. Perhaps the Rachel Corrie controversy helped make that transition. But overall, the discussion continues to be woefully inadequate, and should be much more critical and much more radical. Yes, BEDs, yes, we need a re-evaluation of the regional theatre system, and every other theatre system in America. We need to look at the whole thing with hard, critical eyes that aren't glazed over with sentiment and fear. Not in order to demonize those who are struggling within these systems, but rather to make the systems better, more equitable, more just, more effective. We need to create a theatre system that deserves to receive more government funding, and funding from everyone else, not that has to beg for it. And we have to do this ourselves, not bring in some TCG panel of so-called "experts."

That is what we are doing in the theatrosphere, and it is a very important function that we must take seriously. To us, it may seem as if we are just typing opinions onto a screen, but the fact is that we are advancing the conversation. The issues we raise are suddenly appearing in the MSM, and so it is important that we argue those issues with both our passion and our reason.

Oh, and while I'm ranting, I'd like to respond to those who think that this discussion was prompted by Mike Daisey, and is the issue du jour. I think Daisey is great, and his essay and his performance makes the subject matter entertaining and enjoyable, and as a result it is getting the attention it deserves. But my second post on this blog, on September 19, 2005, was called "Decentering the Arts," and the next day I wrote "Regionalitis,"and two days later "Regionalitis II." This conversation has been going on for at least three years. And it needs to continue with vigor.

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 ...