Saturday, July 05, 2008

Mike Daisey Responds to American Theatre

Mike Daisey provides an excellent response to Teresa Eyring's "How Theatre Saved America, Part 1." I am looking forward to whether American Theatre will respond to the suggestion that they devote an issue to this topic, or whether they will do a two-part dismissal and pretend they've dealt with it. The fact is that everything is not alright on the regional theatre scene, and not surprisingly given the way it is set up, it is the artists who are getting the dirty end of the stick. TCG represents the institutions, not the artists, so they may look the other way. Regardless what their response is, it will be indicative of the state of the theatre.
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Thursday, July 03, 2008

Terry Teachout's July 2 Almanac

"Provincialism is not merely lacking city taste in arts and manners; it is also an increasingly vital antidote to all would-be central tyrannies."
           John Fowles, introduction to G.B. Edwards, The Book of Ebenezer Le Page

Thanks, Terry and John!

And to my readers: have a great Independence Day!
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Resource #5: Grassroots Theater

This is a rerun from January 2007, but for people interested in a more geographically diverse theatre scene, Robert Gard's classic is a source of constant inspiration:

As the book description explains, "Robert Gard’s timeless book is a moving account of one man’s struggle to bring his dream of community-building through creative theater to citizens around the country. He traveled across America—from New York’s Finger Lakes to the prairies of Alberta, Canada, to the backwoods of northern Wisconsin—discovering and nurturing the folklore, legends, history, and drama of the region. He talked to ballad singers, painters, the tellers of tall tales, and farm women, whose poetry and painting reflected the elemental violence of nature and quiet joys of neighborliness. Grassroots Theater reminds us that an individual’s creative vision transcends technology, current events, and changing demographics." Originally published in 1955 and re-released by the University of Wisconsin Press in 1999, this book still has the power to inspire and refresh. Gard's vision of a theater rooted in a community and committed to works created by citizens who live within that community was realized through the Wisconsin Idea Theater housed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Extension, and the Wisconsin Rural Writers' Association. This very personal and engaging book gives insights into the trials and victories, and the people and ideas that Gard encountered as he brought his ideas into existence.

A few quotations that I found inspiring:

"It seems to me that a stream of fine new community arts leaders should be issuing from the University of Wisconsin and, indeed, from all universities and colleges of the nation. The universities and colleges are training artists, many of them, and training teachers. The theater departments are training actors, technicians, directors, and writers for whom there is at present little place in the profession for which they are being trained. No consideration is given to the fact that a profession might be developed in community life in theater. The young person graduating from the university has little concept of the scope of te theater to be developed, of the delicate social problems of fitting himself and his talents successfully into community life. He is too frequently a failure when he attempts it."

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Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Resource #4: Ireland: A Novel

So far, my resource recommendations have been specifically about theatre, but often the place where you can find equal inspiration is in books only indirectly or analogically connected to the theatre at all. This is definitely the case with Frank Delaney's wonderful  book Ireland: A Novel. In this case, the book itself is wonderful, but I would like to specifically and enthusiastically praise the audio version, read by Delaney himself., whose beautiful Irish brogue and storyteller's instincts makes the tale pure magic. If you want evidence that telling the stories of a specific place -- in this case, Ireland -- can soar into the realm of myth or dive into the depths of tragic realism, you need only read or listen to this tale, which traces the history of Ireland as well as tje story of a young boy, Ronan, who fall sunder the spell of an old storyteller and spends his entire life trying to follow in his footsteps. Through it all, the melding of history, myth, and imagination can make every theatre artist understand the roots of his or her craft, and the power that lies in word and imagery. The simplicity with which Delaney evokes scenes ranging from prehistory through Ireland's sorrowful battles in the early 20th century, coaxing the mind's eye with the grace and power of a true master, could serve as a supplement to Peter Brook's The Empty Space, an illustration of Rough Theatre, Holy Theatre, and Immediate Theatre -- but never, never the Deadly Theatre. The audio download, which takes nearly 18 hours, is well worth the time and the money. Turn your iPod into a personal storyteller, and rediscovery the reason you went into theatre in the first place.

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Herbert Blau in 1964 -- Psychic?

"For, my dear colleagues in art. let us face it: the biggest impediment to the growth of theater throughout America has never been, as the cry goes, economics or stultified communities, but the timorousness and self-deceit of people in the theater who are always deploring lack of subsidy and want of opportunity to do 'meaningful things'; who dram of companies 'like they have in Europe.' but wouldn't go beyond New Jersey to find one; who are tame, submissive, and even ignorant of the way their art, often never practiced, has been debased in this country; who let themselves be humiliated and humiliate themselves before the meat merchants of casting offices; who, prey of agents, prowl the studios and seek out showcases rather than create stages in places all over the country that would wlecome them; who drift away from meanigful opportunity when it confronts them because it doesn't pay enough or because it looks impossible or because the new is really intimidating or because surrender seems more profitable; who take one quick shot at it, and then surrender; who are not artists because they have forgotten to think as artists, or never did. Many know they have sold out, and they follow the normal recourse of the delinquent in blaming their delinquency on the conditions that prevail, thereby impacting the conditions. Some, deferring to the fact that at some point theatre is business, put it into premature collusion with big business. Some, conviced it is a business and chiefly a business, are available at a price for any show, converting what are sometimes rare skills to the most corrupt ends, of which even the spirit of their union -- whose protection, as mere jobbers, they really need -- wouldn't approve. Some, who really have the welfare of the theater at heart, desire to make it a civic venture before they make it a civic need, not to mention a primal artistic impulse in themselves. Either they start a project pretentiously and fail dismally, or more frequently they abandon it at the first resistance or earliest 'better' opportunity. What has kept America from creating a significant theater up to now is that our talented people, and they are legion, have never stayed together long enough to do so." (italics in original)


"We all of us need to rid ourselves of the idea that what we do in the provinces is mere biding of time, a training ground for a tryout for the Metropolis; and that our primary function is to serve up to the community, by making plays available, what the community already has elsewhere."


"Because there aren't that many jobs available yet, we have the immediate task of getting theater people to behave like artists instead of drugged pigeons in a chicken coop. There was a time when it seemed both brave and necessary to go to New York. Actors had to have actors to play with. I have pointed out that there were always theatres around, but let us say they were too inept or the actors overlooked them. Now, however, a few decent theaters are clearly there and new resources are at hand. True, none of these theaters have the reservoirs of talent it needs, and thus it is no revelation when somebody writes that the regional theaters don't have casts to match those on Broadway. Given all the talent congested there, no wonder. First things first: the talent must move. We must attract it by offering a drive and a sense of audacity that is not true of the theater they have known. Young people coming out of the universities must be told squarely that even the absence of salary -- which, yes, we all deserve it, though it may not be there right away -- is not sufficient reason for yielding their art to the rat race.
Let them take jobs, let them be apprentices (they;ll wind up doing it, fruitlessly, in summer stock); if they don't like what we have done, let them create their own theaters -- there are places all over the country ripe for them. But let them not wait for the system to accomodate them when, after making their rounds, they are already deformed."

Herbert Blau -- The Impossible Theatre: A Manifesto (1964)
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Ottawa Arts Center: The Start of Something Exciting

Afriend of mine from college, Caryn, lives in Ottawa, IL. She has a bachelor's in theatre with a concentration in creative drama from Illinois State University, and an MFA in Theatre for Youth from Arizona State University. She also is an expert signer for the deaf (she signed for Barack Obama when he visited her town), and a wife and mother of four kids. She lives in Ottawa, IL about 90 minutes southwest of Chicago. She contacted me via Facebook not long ago, and discussed her desire to create an arts center in Ottawa.

"OK- hey- I need some great first steps advice for a start up for an arts center in a small town. I have all kinds of stuff I've looked at, but if you were to break it down, ABC your best advice for starting..."

I responded with the URL for the Community Arts Network, and a strong recommendation that she find a copy of Tom Borrup's The Creative Community Builder's Handbook. I also said:

To my mind, the keys are: 1)interdisciplinarity -- have people doing different art forms; 2) active outreach -- if you build it, they will come...if you ask them to come. 3) accessibility -- don't get all strung out on high quality, focus on the experience of community.

Then things started happening. A message from Caryn:

There's a strange wind blowing here.... I'll try and summarize this in an orderly way. (ha!)

1. You send me a great book title
2. Meet with Wendy- she tells me I need to meet the local librarian, she might be helpful.
3. Caryn gets confused about life plans
4. Caryn goes to library, looking for book Scott recommended, even though our town probably doesn't have it.
5. while on line catalogue searching, library lady asks me if I need help. I always say No Thanks. Today, my mouth opens, and I say.. I can't find this book in the whole prairie cat system.
6. She goes to her desk. Can't find it. Goes to Amazon. Reads the summary. types away for a few more minutes, we chat. She keeps reading online, and finally says " my name is Vicky, T-WHO are YOU? This book looks amazing!! I give Scott Walters full credit for the recommendation.
7. She says, I'm buying this book for the library for you to get, right now. No, I'm buying it for the library, AND I don't want You to wait, I'm ordering it too from some other library. I'll find it.--
8. I give her my 30 second resume and life story on request.
8.5 She jokingly asks me, Why are you in OTTAWA?!?! ( which is what everyone asks me ) I give her the geographical history. Find out she is from the next suburban town over from the one I grew up in.
9. She stops and says, I will do anything in my power to help you. (all she needed was a pink bubble, and a fairy wand, I swear to God) You can use the library annex for classes, meetings whatever. We need to set a time to meet.
10. We wrap it up and I go to find my daughter. Vicky comes and finds me. I just ordered the book. She leaves.
11. She comes back again. Here is my card. We will talk soon. Poof She vanishes.

ok- a lot more happened in this ten- fifteen minute scenario.. a flurry of ideas, timeliness, readiness of Ottawa, etc etc... she is pumped.

All because YOU gave me a book title.

After some cheering and references to The Alchemist, I wrote: "What you are setting off to do is challenging, but that's why it is worth doing, right? You can make a BIG difference in Ottawa, and help to strengthen the sense of community through the arts. In Phoenix [where she had been in grad school], you are a drop in the bucket; in Ottawa, you are a tsunami!"

Yesterday, I received this:

ok... alchemist karma of the day.....

cell phone rings... strange number, no surprise, as so many people are calling about the peter cook workshop. ( sorry, i can't be bothered with caps right now) THis lady asks for me, tells me she was at the LIBRARY today, and talking to VICKY, by chance b/c she is looking for some kind of a BOOK to start a COMMUNITY ARTS CENTER in ottawa. Vicky says, OMG-- this lady was just in last week.. Caryn... you need to call her.... so .. we are meeting on Tuesday to brainstorm, check each other out and see if we can pull together. I guess she has no arts background , but really feels we need this here...she spoke with the owner of the new Montessori school who has a creative writing degree from Columbia, and a background in Opera and musical theatre.-- she was all about it too.

Can this all really be happening?

Caryn is in the early stages of planning, and there is certainly no guarantee that her project will come to pass, or that it will thrive if it does. Like all projects in the arts, or anywhere for that matter, there will be ups and downs. I offer this (with Caryn's permission) primarily to illustrate two things:

1) that if you commit to a dream and talk about it, you will find that people will suddenly appear who want to help you. (You will also find that people and events will appear to discourage you, but that is simply a way to make sure you want it badly enough to overcome objections. (Thanks to Randy Pausch's Last Lecture for that inspiring idea.)

2) There are many more people than you think that are creative themselves or interested in supporting those who are. A librarian, another person who is interested, a Montessori person with a creative writing degree. More will appear, especially if you welcome all sorts of self-expression.

The likelihood that an idea might spread "virally" seems greater in a small town, where there are places that large portions of the community share, such as libraries. In the case of Ottawa, there is also a recent town focus on revitalization, and a new person hired to lead that effort.

I wish Caryn the best of luck, and I hope you will, too.

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Comment Moderation On

Dear Readers -- I have enabled comment moderation for the time being as a way of assuring that my comments box doesn't turn into a place for one or two people to endlessly bicker with me, which I'm certain that my other readers find tedious. No, I am not referring to Don Hall or dv -- you are welcome as always. My preference is to have an open forum, but for the moment that is not going to work out. I will likely restore open comments at a later date. In the meantime, I will try to approve comments in a timely manner (if I can figure out how that works -- I have never done this before.)

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Resource #3: Engaging Art

Engaging Art: The Next Great Transformation of America's Cultural Life has been one of the most exciting reading discoveries of the summer for me. Edited by Steven J. Tepper and Bill Ivey (former head of the NEA and author of the recently published Arts, Inc.), the book is filled with essays that make you think about theatre and the development of theatre audiences in new and exciting ways. My plan is to devote some attention to individual chapters rather than do a single review -- stretch out the meal, as it were. Today, I'll be examining "Can There Ever Be Too Many Flowers Blooming?," by Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, which was published in 2004.

Schwartz talks about studies that have been done that compares how people's behavior changes according to the number of choices they have. The first he refers to was done by psychologists Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper "in which shoppers at a gourmet store were confronted with a display that offered samples of a high-quality, imported jam. On one day six flavors were on display and on another day twenty-four. Shoppers who stopped by the display and tried the jam were given a coupon that saved them a dollar on any jam they bought. Iyenger and Lepper found that the large display attracted more customers than the small display. But when the time came to buy, shoppers who had seen the large display were ten times less likely to buy as the shoppers who had seen the small display." (italics mine)

Additional studies sounded the same theme. "Students given a large number of topics from which to choose were less likely to write an extra-credit essay than those given a small number of choices." "When owners of convenience stores were convinced to reduce the variety of soft drinks and snacks they had available, sales volume increased, as did customer satisfaction." "Young adults made more matches in an evening of speed dating when they met eight potential partners than when they met twenty." "When employees are offered a variety of different funds in which to put voluntary 401(k) retirement contributions, the more funds that are available, the less likely they are to invest in any at all."

For those who have been following my campaign to convince more people to stop flooding into the metropolitan areas and instead create theatres in places that have been artistically underserved, Schwartz's essay should prove heartening. Instead of adding to what Schwartz calls "choice overload" in, Say, New York City with its 1700 off-off-Broadway productions each year, you can instead take advantage of the tendency of people to buy more when they have fewer choices. In response to those who argue that there just isn't a sufficient audience in smaller places to support a theatre, you can point to the jam shopper's multiple of ten as an argument.  Don Hall has expressed concern that I paint too rosy of a picture, and that it isn't as easy as I make it out. Frankly, I don't think selling theatre in any place, no matter the size, is easy. Neither do I feel it is as hopeless as some would make out who argue that you need a city of a million people in order to supply the handful necessary to keep a theatre going. To some extent, Schwartz bears my guarded optimism out.

However, Schwartz wonders aloud whether culture is different, noting that unlike jam there is not a one-to-one relationship between products that prevents you from buying both (I'm not certain why you can't buy both jars of jam, too, but oh well). As he notes, we all have limited time and resources available for cultural activities, and that is true no matter where you live.  INevertheless, he notes that "doing culture may stimulate demand for more culture." This is the theory, outlined in another essay in this book, that is referred to as "do more do more," i.e., those who do more tend to do even more; those who are part of a service club, for instance, are more likely to also attend a performance because they are the type who do stuff. No matter where you are, finding those people who lean towards the arts already is a good way to find your own audience.

One of the things that is lost when the number of choices is narrowed is diversity, not because an art must appeal to the mainstream, but rather just because, well, there's only one choice. This would be something to keep in mind when creating your program options: how can you commit to diverse offerings and resist the temptation to "narrow cast."

In the end, Schwarts provides something for everybody, no matter where you live and what you do, to feel good about and to worry about. Which to my mind is pretty exciting!
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Dennis Baker writes his thoughts on the New York Times article about the OOB production of Epitaph for George Dillon." Truth be told, I behaved like the NY Times myself, writing my own blog post while failing to acknowledge Dennis as the person who forwarded the article to me. So a Big H/T to Dennis, and please give his post a look see.
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What has happened to Theatreforte? No posts for almost two weeks. Have I missed an nnouncement?
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Monday, June 30, 2008

Be Quiet! We're Making Progress!

There is an oft-told story about leadership that goes something like this:

A large group of explorers are cutting their way through a jungle, hacking through the underbrush with their machetes, working with superhuman strength to clear a path to their goal. One of their members breaks away from the group and climbs to the top of a tree in order to get a sense of the landscape. Looking around, he realizes that the group has slowly lost their direction and are heading at a 90 degree angle from where they want to go. "Hey! HEY!" he calls out. "What?" come a voice from below. "We're going in the wrong direction! Wrong direction!" he shouts. The voice from below shouts back: "Be quiet! We're making progress!"

I thought of this story this weekend when I read the editorial by Teresa Eyring in the latest issue of American Theatre Magazine, and an article by Patrick McGeehan in Saturday's New York Times entitled "The Odds Are As Big As Their Dreams." The former is the voice from below, shouting to Mike Daisey and those who agree with him (like me) to "Be quiet! We're making progress!" The latter is a report from the underbrush, one that dramatizes the New York myth in action. I'd like to look a little more closely at the McGeehan article.

It is hard to deny that there is something sort of heroic about this group of theatre people fervently trying to mount an Off-Off-Broadway production of John Osborne's Epitaph for George Dillon, and hoping for a transfer. They are following their dreams, and that is always an admirable endeavor. Their sacrifices reflect determination and pluck: Actor Michael Rodgers, a recent arrival in NYC from California, "is now looking for his third temporary home in three months, having exhausted what he called “the deal of the century” — $100 for two weeks in the East Side apartment of a friend of a friend of a friend." Other members of the cast are in similar situations: "Christian Martin sold his car and his television to finance his move from Los Angeles to a friend’s couch in the East Village. Denise Crosby left her husband and 9-year-old son in Pacific Palisades and talked her way into a temporary apartment in Harlem. Anna Garduño, the lead actress, has been sleeping on a fold-out couch in the Greenwich Village home office of some friends." She raised money for the production from friends. Rodgers is "almost 40," Martin is 32, the director Larry Moss is 60. The actors received $20 for their work, The SM and the ASM got $100 and an $81 Metro card, and the director got nothing, but his devotion to the play is inspiring: "I’m getting nothing. But I’m getting everything. I’m getting to do the play.” McGeehan goes on: "Ms. Crosby and John Cirigliano, another cast member who lives in Southern California, said they had gladly dipped into their savings to finance their appearances in the showcase. “I can say now that I’ve done theater in New York, which gives you some credibility,” said Ms. Crosby...

Credibility. "The quality, capability, or power to elicit belief:"

I just don't get it. The absurdity of this notion would be laughable if it weren't so commonly held. This play is being self-produced and self-financed by a bunch of mostly California actors, but the mere fact that it is being performed in a 100- zip code gives it "credibility"? Where in the world does this idea come from, and how is it maintained? How would it be different if, instead of leaving her family behind, Denise Crosby and the rest of them had stayed in California, had not sold all of their belongings, and produced the show there? Same cast, same director, same play, probably a smaller budget, probably a larger audience, but everything...exactly...the same...except *poof* no credibility. Why? Why is this production, one of approximately 1700 such productions Off-Off-Broadway each year according to the New York Innovative Theatre Foundation study, being featured by the New York Times except to tacitly reinforce the myth of New York City as the "nation's theater capital," the city at the end of the theatrical rainbow where one finds not a pot of gold, but a pot of "credibility." To use a baseball analogy, they all look like line drives in the newspaper, and as long as that newspaper is the New York Times you are granted immediate and automatic...credibility.

The destructiveness of this myth is akin to the one that says that smoking makes you look cool.  It is the crack being peddled on every theatre corner in the nation, and the resulting addiction is so total that those addicted can no longer even sense the absurdity of what they are saying: “I can say now that I’ve done theater in New York," because I and my friends uprooted ourselves and bought a production for $20,000, and that "gives you some credibility."

And let's not even go into the likelihood of a play being picked up and transferred to a larger venue where "we can get paid," except to say this is the same kind of thinking that leads people to play the Lotto. All of this is a pipe dream that makes O'Neill's drunks look like cold-eyed realists. But Mike Daisey is wrong, I am wrong, every person who sees the destructiveness of this NYC shell game is wrong, because NYC is "where the work is," right? It is the "theatre capital" of America.

In the climactic moment of Death of a Salesman, Biff begs Willie, ""Will you let me go, for Christ's sake? Will you take that phony dream and burn it before something happens?" It's too late for this group of theatre artists and so many others, but it might not be too late for the young. For Christ's sake, NYC, will you let these young people go before something happens?

"Be quiet! We're making progress!"

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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 ...