Saturday, April 19, 2008

At the Intersection of Certain and Appropriate

I just discovered Leopold Kohr, an Austrian economist who was a mentor and inspiration for E. F Schumacher, author of Small Is Beautiful. In a speech entitled "The Wisdom of Leopold Kohr" delivered at Yale in October 1994 and posted on the E. F. Schumacher Society website, Ivan Illich provides this nugget:
I see Kohr as the one social thinker who picks up the biological morphology of D'Arcy Thompson and J. B. S. Haldane as the starting point of a social morphology. These scientists studied the proportion between form and size in living creatures. Mice appear only within rather narrow parameters of size. One intuitively grasps mousyness—that familiar form of a small, compact body with a tail that scurries across the floor on four swift and delicate legs. Such beings come in sizes from an inch to a foot. Haldane demonstrated that the form of mousy proportions cannot exist outside this lower and upper limit. Since the weight increases with the cube of its size, legs able to move a larger rodent would have to thicken beyond mousy proportions. Kohr discusses society in analogy to the way plants and animals are shaped by their size and sized by their shape. He is uninterested in the timeless and weightless critters fabricated by social scientists. As a friend remarks, these abstractions appear to come out of "social thought about mice on the moon."
Kohr's contribution is to be found in his social morphology. There, two key words reveal his thought: Verhþltnismþssigkeit and gewiss. The first means proportionality or, more precisely, the appropriateness of a relationship. The second is translated as "certain," as when one says, "in a certain way." For example, Kohr would say that bicycling is ideally appropriate for one living in a certain place, like Oberndorf. An examination of this statement immediately reveals that Òcertain,Ó as used here, is as distant from "certainty" as "appropriate" is from "efficient." "Certain" challenges one to think about the specific meaning that fits, while "appropriate" guides one to knowledge of the Good. Taking both "appropriate" and a "certain place" together allows Kohr to see the human social condition as that ever unique and boundary-making limit within which each community can engage in discussion about what ought to be allowed and what ought to be excluded. To consider what is appropriate or fitting in a certain place leads one directly into reflection on beauty and goodness. The truth of one's resultant judgment will be primarily moral, not economic.
In many ways, my efforts to create a theatre model appropriate for non-metropolitan areas are poised at the intersection of "certain" and "appropriate." I am seeking to devise a model that adjusts its "proportion" to an "appropriate" size for "certain" specific places. One of the challenges of doing so is avoiding a universality that undermines it roots in specificity. What is "right" for Wichita KS may not be right for Sioux Falls SD or Marshall NC. The proportions have to change, and the tactics and techniques have to be able to adjust to the specific context. If one's potential audience in a rural setting is smaller than in a metropolis, how does one adjust one's theatre to the appropriate proportion for the region? How does one adjust one's aesthetic? How does one adjust one's company size or ancillary income ideas?

The regional theatre movement to some extent approached this model in the reverse order. The Ford Foundation had a model of a regional theatre in mind -- a certain scale, a certain business model, a certain audience -- and the founders of regional theatres looked for places where that model could thrive. If Danny Newman posited that a certain small percentage of the population could be expected to subscribe to a regional theatre, then one could mathematically figure out how large the city needed to be in order to accommodate the size theatre one felt was ideal. So Margo Jones sets a goal of a professional theatre in each city of 100,000 or more. In 1951, when she wrote this goal, the US Population was 154,877,889; now it is roughly double that, so perhaps the goal shifts accordingly.

I am trying to follow Kohr: if a theatre is in a town of 60,000, what proportions does it need to assume in order to thrive there? The challenge: how to create a model with an adjustable waistline?

Nice Mike Daisey Interview

Check out the Mike Daisey interview with Jonathan West, whose blog attack on Mike Daisey spawned a post from me.

Defining Local

The theatre tribe idea is predicated on an artistic version of localism: "a range of political philosophies which prioritise the local. Generally they support local production and consumption of goods, local control of government, and local culture and identity. Localist politics have been approached from many directions by different groups. Nevertheless, localism can generally be described as related to Regionalism, and in opposition to Centralism." Here is Asheville, as in many communities across America, there is a strong "Eat Local" movement that surfaces in a strong system of farmer's markets and Community Supported Agriculture (or CSA's). This is a movement that also opposes the invasion of Big Box stores in favor of supporting local businesses.

Recently, I found myself at the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE) website, which has descriptions of how to determine what is a local business. "Sometimes determining which businesses are local and independently owned can be difficult," they write. "How about a locally owned McDonald’s franchise? How about an insurance agent with a national company and a local office? Many businesses participate in cooperative marketing, offer exclusive lines, and have all sorts of other business agreements." In answer to these questions, they offer the following series of questions:

  1. Is the business privately held (not publicly traded)?
  2. Do the business owners, totaling greater than 50 percent of the business ownership, live in your local region?
  3. Is the business registered in your state, with no corporate or national headquarters outside your region?
  4. Can the business make independent decisions regarding the name and look of the business, as well as all business purchasing, practices, and distribution?
  5. Does the business pay all its own rent, marketing expenses, and other expenses (without assistance from a corporate headquarters)?
Looking at these questions, what jumps out at me is what makes a regional theatre so different from most other businesses. If you run through these questions, I think all regional theatres would be able to answer "yes" to every question, and thus claim the mantle of a local business. But what sets them apart from a traditional for-profit business, and what makes it so necessary that we make a clear definition of Localism" as it applies to regional theatre or what we are trying to create, is not ownership and control of decision-making, but rather the workforce itself.

In order to define a "local theatre," we might refocus question #2 on the fulcrum point of the issue:
"Does the artistic staff, totaling greater than 50 percent of the artistic staff, live in your local region?"
To my mind, 50% might be overly generous -- I would prefer a much higher number, and in the case of a theatre tribe I'd want the number to be 100%. But it would be interesting to find out what percentage of a regional theatre's artistic staff are residents of the county in which they are working. Where are they registered to vote, for instance?

A quick tour of the actors in the Guthrie's Midsummer Night's Dream, for instance, would reveal what seems to be an admirable number of Minneapolitans in the cast, many drawn from the Univ of MN / Guthrie BFA training program, which would win my applause. Their production of August Wilson's Gem of the Ocean is a presentation of local Penumbra Theatre's production, which seems also to include mostly local actors. Kudos to the Guthrie!

It is difficult to get information about the Goodman's actors -- I found no links to castlists or actor names. However, there is an "Artistic Collective" that "is a diverse group of outstanding American theater artists who make Goodman their artistic home," which includes Robert Falls, Frank Galati, Mary Zimmerman, et al -- all of whome seem to live in the Chicago area. Their link for auditions says that they have annual auditions in Chicago and "frequently" in NY, and they tell in-town actors that "Goodman holds out-of-town auditions infrequently, and the need for actors outside the Chicago area depends specifically upon the demands of each individual production." Perhaps most indicative is that auditions held outside the Chicago area are "by invitation only..." So it is difficult to make a judgment.

I encourage you to do your own research concerning a theatre of particular interest to you. Is it a local theatre?

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Herbert Blau on "The Impossible Theatre"

In 1964, Herbert Blau published The Impossible Theatre: A Manifesto. This is how the book began -- the first two paragraphs that set the tone:
The purpose of this book is to talk up a revolution. Where there are rumblings already, I want to cheer them on. I intend to be incendiary and subversive, maybe even un-American. I shall probably hurt some people unintentionally; there are some I want to hurt. I may as well confess right now the full extent of my animus: there are times when, confronted with the despicable behavior of people in the American theater, I feel like the lunatic Lear on the heath, wanting to "kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill.

My friends, wanting to spare me my murderous impulses and practicing a therapy I respect and despise, tell me to calm down, give it time, things are happening. Things are happening: I want to look at them and see what's really happening. And to those who share my view of what the theater might be but defer to the sluggard drift of things, I want to say what Brecht's Galileo said to the Little Monk, temporizing in pity for those who, fixed in the old routines, scrape a living somehow -- on the premise that if whatever is is not right, it is at least unalterable -- "I can see their divine patience, but where is their divine fury?"
Nearly a half century later, I regularly hear the same advice: calm down, give it time, things are happening. It used to be that one could say that change in the theatre was glacial, but these days even glaciers change faster than the theatre does. And while I do not feel quite the level of hostility as Blau-Lear, I do often wonder where the divine fury is.

The New York Theatre Workshop fires its entire production staff and there is some level of outrage, but most of it is pretty muted and expressed in terms of disappointment rather than condemnation. Some of the responses to my question about anonymous reviews revealed the source of this lack of fire: a wish to avoid offending someone lest your opinions lessen your employment options.

And yet I return to Blau's words, and to the fact that it was because of those words, because of his book The Impossible Theater, that he was asked to take over Lincoln Center from Elia Kazan and Robert Whitehead in 1965. The wife of one of the members of the Lincoln Center search committee read enough of the book to recommend Blau, and the rest is history. The deader the air surrounding an art form, the more sweet is the smell of the fresh air that blows in as a squall. Blau did not mince words in his book about his disdain for Broadway:
To talk about Broadway is mainly to carp; but we must carp and carp louder, not for Broadway's sake, but because it remains the chief referent for theater in this country and, more outrageously, the chief aspiration for young actors, directors, designers, and playwrights. Bless Broadway, it will survive, if anything does. And nobody would spend his good time beating a dead cow if there weren't so many who still held it sacred, or fed up to the theeth, still buzz like dumb flies around what they tell you is a carcass.
He was a revolutionary, a reformer, and he wasn't afraid to speak truth to power, to rail against what Brook called the Deadly Theatre, to thunder about the waste of talent and potential. He didn't worry about who he might offend, in fact he wanted to offend them. And the result was not that he was shunned, but rather he was invited to clean out the encrusted stalls of New York.

As Willy Loman says in Death of a Salesman, "The woods are burning!" Who will call the alarum? Who will risk raising their voice in order to draw our attention to the imminent danger?

This is a time for the Harold Clurmans and the Herbert Blaus of the theatre to be heard. They have been warning us for almost 3/4 of a century. Isn't it time to abandon our reserve and set up a howl that could be heard from one end of this country to another?

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

TCG Books! Wha...?

So I was thrilled to get my TCG Books catalog in the mail yesterday, especially since book orders for next semester are due today and I wanted to use some plays TCG publishes (I plan to use August: Osage County in my play analysis course, for instance). So I turn to the "New Titles" section and find August: Osage County, and I turn the page to see other books and there is Eric Bogosian's Talk Radio. Hmmmm. A twenty-one year old play being re-released. I wonder why? So then I read the blurb:
Eric Bogosian's Talk Radio -- his breakthrough Public Theatre hit that was made into a film by Oliver Stone -- was revived recently in a "mesmerizing" (Newsday) production on Broadway, with Liev Schreiber playing the role of the late0night shock jock that Bogoisan himself originated...
So let me get this straight. The reason that the TCG, the publishing arm of the Theatre Communications Group which was formed to support the non-profit theatre in this country, has republished this play is because there was a Broadway production? Now, I could be totally wrong about this, but I'll bet that there were productions of that play in regional theatres across the US. But the reason it is being published now -- with a picture of Liv Schreiber on the cover -- is a Broadway revival.

And I find myself wondering: is there no publisher or media outlet or organization that takes as its inspiration the regional theatre? Is there nobody, including the regional theatres themselves, that aren't being wagged by the NYC tail?

What Do You Think About Anonymous Reviews?

There is currently a discussion on an Asheville website about whether posted reviews ought to be anonymous or signed. I believe that if someone is going to express an opinion, they should have the courage to claim it and not hide behind anonymity. I also believe that that is the sign of a mature theatre community -- that people can exchange ideas and opinions in a way that is honest and respectful, and that leads to growth on the part of those involved. Others believe that the theatre community is too tightly-knit to allow criticism without worry about consequences, and that anonymity allows people to express their opinions freely. What do you think?

Monday, April 14, 2008

On the Economy and the Arts

Laura Axelrod at Gasp! contacted me regarding the NYTW situation, seeing this as just the tip of a much larger, and more frightening, iceberg. She writes:
I don't know why it hasn't occurred to anyone yet but our country is in deep trouble
financially. And I'm astonished at the lack of perception among many of artists/writers who insist that things are going to be normal for our country. They aren't. Many are still insisting that government will support the arts, when we are, in effect, broke. I don't think our credit-based economy can hold up against the mad printing of money by the Fed.

I'm not the only one who is starting to see the elephant in the room. Standard issue economists - the ones who aren't whack jobs are seeing it as well. It's not being addressed in the arts/culture community and I'm concerned about it.

You might think that this is just business as usual for theater Scott, and maybe it is. But I'm willing to bet that there's going to be more of it down the line. Artists and writers - myself included - usually steer clear of business affairs. Most of them are like me - going into heavy debt to pay for schooling for a career where I'll be lucky to make a living wage. Money has always been a blind spot for most of us, and judging from the reaction to NYTW's firings, it will
continue to be.

I hope it serves as a wake-up call for all writers (not just in theater) who are still living by the old
financial paradigm. After all, it isn't just theater that's having a hard time. Newspapers are feeling it as well. But like you, I don't have much hope for people receiving the message. It seems to be human nature to only learn lessons when there's pain involved in the equation.

Anyway, not meaning to be an alarmist. What we're seeing is related and ultimately will lead to the same thing: Artists and writers suffering needlessly.
I agree with Laura. Part of my motivation for working on this new paradigm is to get out from under the old one before it starts to collapse. The regional theatre's reliance on government and foundation grants to fill in half of the annual budget each year seems non-sustainable to me. We all know that when times are hard, the arts are the first thing to get cut. So while the editors at Backstage are skipping about having the NEA budget restored to 1995 levels, we should all be watching how the markets deal with this mortgage situation, and how our society starts to change as gas prices soar over $4 this summer.

What do you all think? Chicken Little? Or are we playing ostrich?

In Praise of NCStage Co.

As anyone who has read this blog for long knows, I live in Asheville, NC, the home of several professional theatres including the North Carolina Stage Company.

Yesterday, I attended their latest production of Underneath the Lintel: The Mystery of the Abandoned Trousers by Glen Berger, a one-man show that apparently ran Off-Broadway for over 400 performances. I was there not only to see the show, but also to facilitate what I have called a "cafe-style" discussion after the show, in which the spectators who stay meet at tables of four to talk about the show.

The production was wonderful -- both entertaining and thought-provoking, and I enthusiastically encourage anyone in the area to see it before it closes April 20th. And if you do see it, go with someone you enjoy talking to and after the show go up the street to Old Europe Bistro to have a cup of coffee and talk about the ideas in the play.

I'd like to take the rest of this post to praise NCStage and the approach that Artistic Director Charlie Flynn-McIver and Producing Director Angie Flynn-McIver have taken since their arrival in 2002 in making their theatre a vibrant and important part of the theatre scene in Asheville. While NCStage is not a theatre tribe in some important aspects, I think that there is much to admire and learn from what NCStage has accomplished.

First of all, Charlie has made a strong effort to become active in the local and regional community. He is active in local politics, in the Asheville HUB project that is looking at the economic future of this community, and in other local organizations as well. He joined the North Carolina Theatre Conference and became active in coordinating a state-wide theatre festival in Asheville that brought performances from around the state for over a week of non-stop performances. When the NCTC Managing Director stepped down, Charlie chaired the search committee for a new one.

Charlie has also been very active forming partnerships, which has led to more employment opportunities for regional actors, directors, and designers. He teamed up with Flat Rock Playhouse to exchange actors for various productions, and in the process he formed a fantastic comic partnership with Flat Rock actor Scott Treadway. For the past couple years, there seems to be a Charlie Flynn-McIver and Scott Treadway slot" in the NCStage season that regularly sells out because local audiences have come to know that when these two actors work together the show will be wonderful. Their performances in Stones in His Pockets led to sold out houses for what was certainly not a "name" show. He has also formed a strong partnership with the University of Tennessee's Theatre Department and the Clarence Brown Theatre. Students in the MFA program in lighting are given the opportunity, as part of their education, to design at least one production at NCStage. In addition, there seems to be a regular rotation of actors and directors between Asheville and Knoxville. Terry Weber, who plays The Librarian in Underneath the Lintel, is an Associate Professor at UTenn, and has also served as Dialect Coach for several NCStage productions.

NCStage has also taken on the responsibility for nurturing and encouraging smaller local theatre companies by making its mainstage -- not a second stage, but the mainstage -- available for a series of performances throughout the year. Thus, Asheville audiences have a place to go to see productions like References to Salvadore Dali Make Me Hot, Twelve Treatises on Memory, Jingle Taps, Harm for the Holidays, Would You Like Yoga With That?, The Only Thing Worse You Could Have Told Me, bobrauschenbergamerica, and many other avant-garde pieces. They do not rent the space to these groups, but instead split the box office, which makes it much easier for these smaller theatres to afford to produce. The benefit to the theatre community is plain: a real, established venue to produce their work. I'm certain that NCStage doesn't make much money from these productions, and there are probably times when it would be more convenient to have the space to themselves, but they have committed to developing the Asheville Theatre scene.

NCStage seems to be committed to a sustainable economic model that allows them to also do plays that are not simply mainstream retreads. Of course, their season contains plays such as The Compleat Works of William Shakesepeare (Abridged) and It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, but they have also produced The Syringa Tree and Home and Hedwig and the Angry Inch, as well as a Shakespeare production almost every year of their existence. They do so in a 99-seat theatre tucked in an alley in downtown Asheville (they've had the alley officially renamed Stage Lane) with a small stage and a minimalist aesthetic that serves them well. At yesterday's performance, during the curtain speech, Charlie indicated that ticket prices accounted for "only" 60% - 65% of income, an admirable percentage compared to many larger regional theatres who operate at 50% and below -- far below -- of earned income.

Recently, Charlie and Angie wrote and received a $50,000 grant from the Asheville Merchant Fund to develop a "branding and marketing" plan for Asheville arts. Not just for NCStage, but for all of the artists -- theatre and otherwise -- in Asheville. Why is NCStage doing this, and not the Asheville Arts Boucil? Well, the AAC has been a bit rudderless for a while, and so NCStage stepped up and got the ball rolling. The first meeting about this is scheduled for tomorrow, and already 57 different artists have indicated that they will attend. Very impressive.

Organizations such as NCStage, and theatre artists such as Charlie and Angie Flynn-McIver, are the type we should be looking to as a model for theatres across America. They are leading the way in exploring how professional theatre can be successfully produced outside of metropolises.

More on NYTW Firings

From Mike Lawler's ecoTheater blog, "An Open Letter from Michael Casselli":

It is sad that an institution like the Workshop has devolved in such a way. I am angry, sad and more than a little bitter at the treatment the whole of production has been put through. What is even more enraging is that none of the individuals responsible for making this decision were present at our termination - Artistic Director Jim Nicola, Managing Director Billy Russo and Heather Randall. These were the people who, according to their messengers, were responsible for this decision. All of us in production are bearing the brunt of an organization which lacks the ability to enforce any thing resembling fiscal constraint with respects to the work that occurs here, as well as an organization which cannot effectively self govern its own desires. It is disgraceful that an institution such as the Workshop, with its mission and its presence within a community which prides itself on inclusion and diversity, would act in such a way as to cut off those very people which sustain it. Any pretense of progressive agendas with respect to issues of politics or social/cultural/artistic concerns should be discarded right now. This action is a clear indication of the lack of concern for those people who give their all to this institution and it insults those who believed in the Workshop as an example of an organization that could function as something resembling a family. Obviously that family doesn’t include us. I will miss many of you but not all of you.”

From my perspective, this is just business as usual for our corporate theatre scene, which is built on a hierarchical structure that sees theatre artists are expendable, ongoing relationships as valueless, and individual accountability as unnecessary. That neither the Nicola, Russo, or Randall felt as if they had to be present to take this action is an indication of the level of depersonalization we have come to in the non-profit theatre. That a financial crisis large enough to lead to such a layoff has occurred and it isn't Nicola, Russo, or Randall who asked to be accountable for it is an indication of how closeness to the board leads to teflon administration.

And I have little doubt that from most people in the theatre, the reaction will be a small shiver up and down the spine, a shrug, and a thought: "That's the way it goes..."

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 ...