Friday, July 18, 2008

Opportunity: The Ignored Part of the US

The following chart uses data from the TCG database of member theatres combined with data from the US Census.

I have identified the size of each county in which TCG member theatre(s) are headquartered. I have then broken them into categories and identified what percentage of the TCG member theatre counties are in each category. For instance, 8.7% of TCG member theatres are headquartered in counties with populations under 100K, 8% are in counties with populations of 100K - 200K, and so on. These percentages have been put in the form of a bar graph and compared to the percentage of U.S. counties overall in each category. The bar graph looks like this:

As you can see, the percentages for TCG member theatres and US counties are almost reversed: there is a much larger percentage of US counties under 100K than over 500K, but there is an overwhelming number of TCG theatres in counties over 500K. This chart would be even more unbalanced if counties with multiple theatres were given proportional weight -- the number clustered in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, all in the over 500K category of course, would grow that blue bar much higher and everything else would be adjusted much lower. But I didn't want to make the data melodramatic, so no matter how many theatres were in a given county, it was only counted once.

While there is nothing particularly surprising about this lack of balance -- we've all known that theatre has long been seen as an urban art form -- I think what is surprising is how much of the US is still made up of small towns, most of whom are not being served by professional theatre at all. Of those that are under 100K that have professional theatres in them, many of them tend to be Shakespeare festivals or  the county is a bedroom community for a larger city.

When I look at this chart, what I see is opportunity. I think of a small factoid from Bill McKibben's Deep Economy: "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." I wonder about why we have come to think that a theatre can only exist in metropolises. I wonder if the same model for creating a viable theatre in a metropolis is functional in a smaller place, or whether the required skills and techniques are different -- I suspect they are. I wonder whether interest in theatre would increase if we could add more blue to the left side of that chart, and I also wonder if support for the NEA would increase as a result. I wonder whether he have created a "trickle-down" model of the theatre economy, where the rich continue to get richer while the poor wait for the benefits to work their way down to them. I wonder, when we are looking to Europe with envy for their subsidy, whether we will notice that England has professional repertory theatres in Sidmouth, Wolverhampton, Burslem and Taunton, not just in London.

We tend to look at the popularity of movies, TV, and music as being the result of a more attractive form, but I think the real reason is that they reach every corner of this country, and theatre has stayed huddled in the metropolises. Yes, it is easier for mass media to send movies, DVD's, CD's, and cable into smaller markets, but it doesn't seem to me that we in theatre are making much of an effort. Instead of recognizing when a market is flooded, we keep pouring our talents into them in the hope that we'll be one of the lucky ones -- that we'll be one of the blackjack winners. Meanwhile, restaurants, grocery stores, gas stations, and any number of small businesses manage to survive in these smaller counties. But we in the theatre think it can't be done -- impossible.

What's the possibility here?
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Thursday, July 17, 2008

On Possibility

"America is coming of age. Note the many changing aspects of America.

A maturing America means a nation conscious of its arts among all its people. Communities east, west, north, and south are searching for ways to make community life
more attractive.

The arts are at the very center of community development in this time of change...change for the better.

The frontier and all that it once meant in economic development and in the sheer necessity of building a nation is being replaced by the frontier of the arts. In no other way can
Americans so well express the core and blood of their democracy; for in the communities lies the final test of the acceptance of the arts as a necessity of everyday life.

In terms of American democracy, the arts are for everyone.They are not reserved for the wealthy, or for the well-endowed museum, the gallery, or the ever-subsidized regional professional
theatre. As America emerges into a different understanding of her strength, it becomes clear that her strength is in the people and in the places where the people live.

The people, if shown the way, can create art in and of themselves.

The springs of the American spirit are at the grass roots. Opportunities must exist in places where they never have existed before. A consciousness of the people, a knowledge of their
power to generate and nourish art, and a provision of ways in which they may do so are essential for our time.

If we are seeking in America, let it be a seeking for the reality of democracy in art. Let art begin at home, and let it spread through the children and their parents, and through the
schools, the institutions, and through government.

And let us start by acceptance, not negation--acceptance that the arts are important everywhere, and that they can exist and flourish in small places as well as in large; with money, or
without, according to the will of the people. Let us put firmly and permanently aside as a cliché of an expired moment in time that art is a frill. Let us accept the goodness of art
where we are now, and expand its worth in the places where people live."

Robert Gard, Arts in the Small Community (1969)

When I read this ringing endorsement of the power of the arts in the lives of ordinary people, and the power of ordinary people in the arts, and then I think of so many of the conversations we have here in the theatrosphere and face-to-face, I am reminded of the minister's funeral oration over the body of Alex, a young man who has committed suicide, in the movie The Big Chill. The minister looks out into the assembled mourners, mostly baby boomers who have lost their idealism, and he asks, "Where did Alex's hope go?" When each morning I catch up on the thoughts of so many theatre bloggers, I ask the same thing: Where did theatre artists' hope go? When did we become so convinced that what we do is so little desired, so little respected? When did we lose sight of our importance to a community's understanding of who it is and what it believes?

But those are the wrong questions. Those are questions based in blame and retribution, questions that points us to the past: how did we get here? It is what Carolynn Myss calls "woundology," a focusing on one's injuries and wrongs, a dwelling in the past instead of the future. How we got here is unimportant; where we are going is crucial. As artists, we need to commit to a conversation about possibility.

Peter Block, in his excellent book Community: The Structure of Belonging, describes what such a conversation is like:

The possibility conversation frees us to be pulled by a new future. The distinction is between possibility, which lives into the future, and problem solving, which makes improvements on the past. This distinction takes its value from an understanding that living systems are propelled by the force of the future, and possibility as we use it one way of speaking of the future.

Possibility occurs as a declaration, and declaring a possibility wholeheartedly can, in fact, be the transformation. The leadership task is to postpone problem solving and stay focused on possibility until it is spoken with resonance and passion. The good news is that once we have fully declared a possibility, it works on us -- we do not have to work on it.

The challenge with possibility is it gets confused with goals, predictions, and optimism. Possibility is not about what we plan to happen, or what we think will happen, or whether things will get better. Goals, prediction, and optimism don't create anything; they just might make things a little better and cheer us up in the process. Nor is possibility simply a dream. Dreaming leaves us bystanders or observers of our lives. Possibility creates something new. It is a declaration of a future that has thye quality of being and aliveness that we choose to live into. It is framed as a declaration of the world that I want to inhabit. It is a statement of who I am that transcends our history, our story, our usual demographics. The power is in the act of declaring...The future is created through a declaration of what is the possibility we stand for.

What possibility do you stand for? Block asks, "What is the crossroads where you find yourself at this stage of your life or in the project around which we are assembled?" Or more directly, and to my mind even more powerfully: "What declaration of possibility can you make that has the power to transform the community and inspire you?" And the two "overarching questions" that point to the future: "What do we want to create together that would make the difference?" And "What can we create together than we cannot create alone?"

For me, I find myself at a crossroads in this project of expanding the reach of theatre throughout America where the artist and the community meets; where virtuosity and specialization meets human creativity and common wisdom; where fear meets trust.

I recently read a powerful book by Patrick Overton called Rebuilding the Front Porch of America: Essays on the Art of Community Making. In a chapter near the end of the book entitled "The Deep Voice: The Relationship Between Art, Spirituality, and Healing," Overton, who testified in front of Congress during the hearings about the NEA's support of controversial art in 1990, makes a declaration of possibility:

The arts aren't the cause of the crisis facing our culture, they are a cure. The arts aren't the source of the hurting in our society, they are a way of healing the pain. The arts are not in and of themselves, evil; they are an authentic expression of self that manifest in an individual's courage to face life as it really is. Art that is not an authentic expression of self is not art -- it is propaganda, or a product -- but it is not art. Art is the voice of the soul struggling to express what it means to be human.

He discusses participating in a think tank meeting for the Theatre Program of the NEA where there were two members who had a history together, and what seemed opposite visions of the arts.

One, from a very prestigious private foundation, kept talking about the beauty and magnificence of art because it lifted her spirit. To her, art makes meaning and beauty and this is the kind of art her foundation was interested in funding, This is art that inspires transcendence. The other person was from a theatre cpmpany from the south and he talked about art as that which must challenge the status quo. To him, art is not something created to be beautiful, or to make people pleasant or happy or comfortable. Art is something that confronts what is wrong and unjust in our society and is designed to make people feel uncomfortable. To him art reveals what is wrong with out world and, in so doing. demands something be done to change it. This is art that inspires transformation.

As I listened to them, it seemed to me they weren't really disagreeing. In essence, they were both saying the same thing, but in a different weay. To understand the nature of art, we have to understand it in both its "ascendant" and "descendant" purpose. Art can, through ascendance, through the elevation of the human spirit, help us transcend what we know, what we see, what we understand. When art does this it is "awful" (that is, full of awe). This is when art lifts the spirit. It is the exhale -- art that empties us and sucks the air out of our lungs because of its power and the truth of the simple/complexity it protrays in such a profound way. This is when art reveals mystery and truth and grasps us with such intensity that it transcends the human condition, and leaves us changed, forever. Art is one of the few things left in our world that can create this much-needed sense of "awe-fullness" in us.

But there is another function in art, art as descendence. Art can be an invitation (sometimes compelling) to descend from the surface of our lives -- beyond the facade and the masks, to the depths of our existence -- the deep place where truth exists. When art does this, it is the inhale -- driving us into ourselves, forcing us to gasp for air, taking in the force and intensity of the experience inside of us because of the power and the truth of the simple/compelcity it portrays in such a powerful way.

The one, the descendent function, reveals what is and shouldn't be. The other, the ascendent function, reveals what isn't but could be. Art can be beautiful and lift our spirits -- but art can also force us to face the truth -- to descend to the deep place and see the world as it is and shouldn't be. They both do the same thing -- they are a way we can transcend the condition of our lives -- a way we are transformed. These two functions cannot be separated -- they are converse images of the same creative force -- the same truth.

He then, in one of the most powerful descriptions of what art can do to heal, describes when he was invited to speak at the dedication of the Huntsville Vietnam Memorial in 1994. A Vietnam veteran himself, Overton had not spoken about his experience in Vietnam since his return to the US in 1968. Reluctantly, he agreed. He stood up in front of a crowd of older and younger people, mostly veterans of various wars, and he talked about his experiences on a flagship in the Gulf of Tonkin, and later in a naval hospital in Japan. He closed his speech by reading a poem that he wrote specifically for the dedication ceremony about his experiences with the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC. The poem, entitled The Healing Wall, is stunning and deeply felt, and while I would like to share it with you, it is much too long for this already-long post. But in it, he describes his unwillingness to experience the wall, and then his eventual visit in which he looked for a name that he did not find -- his own, and he felt the pain of having survived. He ended the poem with this line: "No more walls, please, no more walls."

He writes:

I will never forget that afternoon in Huntsville. It was an emotional experience for all of us. Following my speech, people were very quiet, still. It reminded me of my visit to the Wall in DC. Slowly, people began to move, looking through the crowd for someone to hold, to hug. There was a need to touch. There was not a lot of talking. I saw men of my father's generation with tears running down their faces, something that is all too rare for them. I saw sons and fathers embrace -- with a kind of knowing and understanding that may not have existed before. That afternoon in May invited a small community, deeply wounded by the war, to heal. My speech and poetry did not do the healing. The people did. What I did was extend the invitation. What writing the poem did was invite me to name my own healing and celebrate it. And, by sharing the poem with that community, I invited others to name their own healing and celebrate it with each other as well.

After I read his poem, and imagined his reading of it, and after I finished the essay, I wondered whether it was ascendant or descendent art, and the more I thought about it, the more I felt that it was both, like a descent into hell and a resurrection. In Ireland, Frank Delaney tells a story of an Ulster king who always had his cart pulled by two horses, a black horse and a white horse, because they represented both sides of himself that he must always ride yoked together. Perhaps that is when art is truly transcendent and inspired.

Overton describes a possibility for theatre and for the arts -- a possibility of healing. Sometimes healing requires surgery -- the cutting of flesh and the inflicting of pain in order to remove that which is diseased. Other times, what is required is nursing, care-full tending and attention. But the motivation is the same: to heal. That is an attitude of goodwill, of caring.

And so I declare here the possibility of caring as a relationship between artist and community, a mutual healing to be shared through descendence and ascendance, inhaling and exhaling, together. I declare the possibility that our fellow citizens hunger for what we can create together, by bringing our imaginations together in one place, and that like Jesus with the loaves and fishes, we can feed everyone through an attitude of abundance. I declare the possibility that all people everywhere share this hunger, and deserve to be fed what will most nourish them.

What is your possibility? What is the crossroads where you find yourself at this stage of your life or work in the project around which we are assembled? What declaration of possibility can you make that has the power to transform the community and inspire you?

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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Read You Some Tony Adams

Wow! Suddenly the theatrosphere is being blessed with long, thoughtful posts about the issues raised by How Theatre Failed America. This time, it's Tony Adams doing a bang-up job. Read the whole thing, but here's a quotation from "Artists as Administrators":

Until more artists take control of the mechanisms of production, take on more of the tasks required to produce theatre, things will only worsen.

If institutions are to place more priority on artists, artists need to be a part of the institutions. The days of an army of artists making a living solely on the boards, never really existed. We need to stop clinging to that notion and take control of our livelihoods. And if more artists were wearing multiple hats: acting and sitting in marketing meetings, directing and working in the audience development offices, stage managing and working the box office, writing plays and grant proposals-- if more artists involved themselves with the day to day operations of theatres, their knowledge and priorities would quickly become a part of the fabric of institutions.

Artists, administrator and audiences would benefit (and probably see better theatre.)

I sometimes suspect that I have not made this point clear enough when I have written about the theatre tribe: this is a business model for entrepreneurs, not employees. The only way to develop one's art is to control its production.
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Karl Miller: Great Post

Along with several other theatropherians, I recommend Karl Miller's excellent post "Against a National Theatre." Others have offered quotations; here's the one that caught my eye:

The Theatre, as a place, must find a place for itself that doesn't require submission to avoidable bureaucracy and scarcity. I have no doubt that there are more than enough amazing actors, directors, and designers to fully populate a dozen regional circuits, but that the overwhelming majority of them are sitting idle in New York. The same things that make New York an invigorating cauldron also make it an insulating womb. If one wishes to divine a sexy "American" imperative from all this, consider this next revolution our Manifest Destiny of the Bodied Soul or something. Artistic cognition can be contemplative, critical, cathartic, kinesthetic, and polysensual ... but it is also the site of something much simpler. It is sui generis and it is pure exploration. I've said this before -- we feel a kindred calling with priests, doctors, musicians, judges, social servants, and gym teachers. It's about time we recognized our kinship with explorers and left mom's basement. Because I'd like to think New York is the Heart, Brain, Soul, Womb, Tomb or Towering Cock of American Theatre, but more and more it looks like the Liver. Now before any of my colleagues bristle at that metaphor, recall: the liver is still the BIGGEST internal organ, and every drop of life blood must pass through it. So I freely validate any claims to size or universality. I only ask that we remember in turn the Liver's true function: to digest and detoxify.
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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Marching Orders

Over the Fourth of July, my wife and I had our extended family over for a meal. After the chicken and potato salad had been eaten, I got into a conversation with my father-in-law that was quite interesting. Bud is a retired Lutheran minister who gave up his career as an engineer at General Electric at the age of 40 to go to seminary and become a minister. So I asked him how it was that pretty much every small town you go through has at least one church of some sort, and many have several. It doesn't matter how small the community, there seems to be a church somewhere.

He was able to answer only as a Lutheran, although I have since heard that the Episcopalians follow a similar process.

When members of a com
munity decide they would like to start a congregation, they contact the synod and the national church organization (e.g., the Evangleical Church in America, or ELCA) to express their interest. The central administration then sends a Mission Director to visit with the community and to determine the level of interest. Prior to becoming a minister himself, Bud had been a member of such a group interested in forming a church, and he remembered being in a car with church representatives and the Mission Director writing on an envelope the expectations. According to a representative of the North Carolina Synod that I contacted (and this is how Bud remembered it as well): "The funding for new starts generally comes from three sources: The national church, the synod and the local community (area churches). Roughly a third is shared by each for the first few years and then as the mission grows more is picked up by the new church itself. Most of the funding in the first few years goes toward the pastor’s compensation. In fact the pastor is usually on the payroll of the national church for the first few years and the synod and local partners send resources to Chicago to help offset the costs." Once the church is independent, it is expected to make annual contributions back to the synod and national church. What about when, I asked, the new congregation gets on its feet, and decides it wants to build a church? "Most of the costs for a building is covered by the congregation, but our Lutheran Men’s organization provides loans at 2% interest which is a great help." I was also referred to the ELCA website, where I found PowerPoint presentations for some of the training sessions that the new congregation representatives are asked to attend as part of the startup process. The ELCA provides resources and training, as well as an experienced advisor assigned to the new congregation.

So to sum up, the process goes like this:
1. Costs for the first few years are evenly split between the new congregation, the regional organization (synod), and the national organization (ELCA).
2. Money is provided primarily to cover salaries.
3. After the first couple years, the new congregation takes on a greater share of the financial burden until it is financially independent.
4. At that point, the congregation begins to make annual contributions back to the regional and national church, which continues as long as the church continues in existence.
5. The congregation is responsible for raising enough money to build a church, if it so desires, but a service organization provides a source of low-interest loans to help with that process.

Now, let's compare this to the way we do things in theatre.

To apply for grants at most foundations, especially the governmental programs, the theatre usually has to have been in existence for a while -- to the best of my knowledge, three years seems to be the minimum. To qualify to receive such a grant, the theatre must have a history of quality work, and of community support. Once the theatre has become stable, foundations are more likely to give it money, and often the percentage of the theatre's annual budget made up of unearned income increases as the theatre becomes stronger and bigger. New buildings are paid for through capital campaigns.

In other words, except for the church and theatre both being largely responsible for raising the money for a new building, the two systems are opposite!

However, the more I thought about it, the more sense the church model began to make. It is during the first years that a theatre would benefit most from its founders being able to focus their attention on developing programming and building its relationship with the community. In our current system, this is precisely when the members of the theatre are most likely to be working a day job and using their evening hours to rehearse. Thus there is literally no time for the theatre's staff to forge relationships in the community, get the word out about what they are doing, design programming that will increase their profile, or do many of the myriad things that would put the theatre on its own two feet. Furthermore, this is when a young theatre could most use the assistance of an experienced consultant, who could provide advice on how to build their audience and publicize their work, design programming and outreach. They wouldn't be reinventing the wheel, or trying to figure out which of the many books has useful information. Once the theatre is on its feet, it would be more able to contribute to a centralized fund that would help other theatres get on their feet, and the more theatres there were contributing, the more money would be available to start new theatres. So the movement could build. Meanwhile, the central organization could field proposals for the creation of new theatres, and proactively encourage the geographical distribution of theatres throughout different parts of America, and different sized towns.

This organization could also provide education in the form of workshops, but also devise college curricula to educate young theatre founders in the skills needed for such theatre tribe work, and be a funnel of theatre proposals. A good senior thesis or MFA project might be to form a company and write a proposal to the national organization, who would then fund as many good proposals as possible. Thus instead of heading for New York or Chicago or LA, young people might graduate from college directly into a salaried job founding a regional theatre, and thus be more inclined to resist flooding the major markets with new artistic cannon fodder. The central organization, through its grant making process, could focus funds in different ways: one year, there might be special funds available for anyone proposing a theatre in a town of 50,000 or less, another year the funds might go to theatres to be founded in Montana and Wyoming, another year to theatres being founded in Hispanic communities.

When I finished speaking with my father-in-law, and finished emailing with the North Carolina synod rep, I came away with the clear feeling that this was the direction my efforts needed to be headed: to the founding and funding of a central organization devoted to the achieving of geographical diversity within the American theatre. And for all those donors who would like to have a theatre named after them, this organization could create a fund to build Del-Tec-based theatres that would bear their name at a fraction of the cost of traditional theatre edifices. This would be like the Carnegie Library system that brought libraries to small communities around the country.

If such an organization could get off the ground -- and as with any such undertakings, it is a big if -- we might see theatre tribes springing up all around this country.

Thanks to my father-in-law, I think I have my marching orders.

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What Are You Playing For? (Response)

Don Hall continues the discussion of the motivation for theatre, this time with a really interesting post entitled "What Are You Playing For?" Moving from blackjack to video games, he bifurcates motivation into those who play for the experience of playing, and those who play instrumentally to get "tickets" that can be redeemed for other things. He is the one who is playing for the experience, and Mike Daisey and I are the ones playing for the tickets. And he predicts I will deny this, which I do, but not for the reasons he thinks.

There was a wise man who once defined wealth not as money and things, but rather as time and space. That having free time to think and create and the space in which to operate is what true wealth really is. Virginia Woolf felt the same way, saying a woman writer needed a thousand pounds a year and a room of one's own. That is my orientation as well.

While I am known here in the theatrosphere as an academic, that fact is that until I was nearly thirty I was a freelance director and actor in Minneapolis. I worked at day job at a restaurant supply company, and then as a customer service rep at the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (all you bloggers who have played Oregon Trail, my boss was the creator of that game, a man named Don Rawitsch, whose biggest dream was to give up the computer business and to teach high school history). I put in my forty hours a week, and I did theatre at night. I freelanced, and I produced as well. My then-wife and I rescued a hundred old theatre seats from a movie theatre being demolished in downtown St. Paul and stored them in the basement of the house we were renting while we negotiated to rent a space in the now-tony warehouse district in Minneapolis, and when that didn't work out another warehouse in St. Paul that was condemned by the city two days before we were slated to move in. I was ambitious, and recognized by many in the Twin Cities theatre scene as an innovator. And by the time I was thirty, I was toast. I hit the wall during a production of Ibsen's The Master Builder that I was producing and directing, when one night I sat in the church basement where we were rehearsing and had absolutely nothing to say, and I realized I had no creative energy left for the project -- I was exhausted and depressed. At age 28. I couldn't do the 60 hour weeks any more. I couldn't function in my demanding job, rush home for a quick bite, and then muster creative ideas for another 3 or 4 hours.

It wasn't until I was 40 that I became a professor -- I had been working as an Assistant to the Dean of the College of Fine Arts at Illinois State University while I worked on my dissertation nights and weekends. For all practical purposes, nothing had changed. I still was working a 40+ hour a week job, and then putting in another 20 doing research and writing. Once, I directed a production of The Fantasticks at the local high school just so I had an opportunity to spend time with my eldest stepson, who was an actor and singer and who I cast as one of the fathers. In 1998, I finished the dissertation, and took a job as Chair of Drama at University of North Carolina, where I am currently. I taught a full load, chaired the department, and directed a production each year. Teaching and administering took even more than 40 hours a week, and when I was in production I added another 20. For most of my life, the 60-hour week has been a norm.

So now I am 50. And as much as I like directing young people in plays and creating interesting and creative productions, I dread going into rehearsal because I know that by the end of the run I will be so tired I can hardly function. When I come home at 11:00, my wife is already asleep, and when the alarm goes off at 5:50 I will see her for a few minutes at breakfast and that will likely be it for the rest of the day. And that will make the mental fatigue even worse, because I love my wife, and I rely on her to keep me balanced and happy, and she will also miss me and grow tired of spending her evenings alone and tired of having to carry the burden of keeping the house going in my absence. I suspect there are others like me, others who love theatre, who have something to offer, but who at some point in their lives can't keep up the 60-hour weeks.

And so the ideas that I write about here, and the attempts I am making to find a way to put them into action, are attempts to rescue time and space for others, so that they can have the experience of creativity without having to have super-human energy, and without having to give up all other aspects of their lives, and without having to have understanding spouses willing to shoulder the burden in their absence. If that is a focus on "tickets," then so be it.  I want to decrease the number of hours theatre people must spend working in a week, and I want to increase the opportunity for theatre people to have the experiences that other members of our society have, so that they can create work that speaks to those experiences. I want to increase the amount of mental and spiritual energy that theatre artists have to devote to their work, and I want to increase the opportunities theatre artists have to create work that inspires them, grows them, and inspires and grows others.

Ultimately, yes, that involves economics. But my belief is that theatre should be an end in itself, not a means to an end -- not a means to money or fame, but a to fulfillment and self-realization. And so I am trying to create a model, a way of doing theatre, that frees theatre artists as much as is possible to experience their lives and fully realize their creative potential.

I have spent most of my life tired. When I had an opportunity to have a sabbatical this past semester, and as a result became rested and was allowed to focus wholly on my own creative interests, I realized how much different things might have been, how much more productive I might have been, and how many more ideas and insights I might have had if I had a little more time and space. And that's ultimately what I am trying to provide for a younger generation of theatre artists. It's not about me, it is about other people, and about time and space.
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Monday, July 14, 2008

Denver Post

John Moore of the Denver Post provides a pretty clear look at the situation in Denver in his special report "Theater: Only a Few Make Living from Stage Alone." This is a situation that deserves such vigorous defense?

Where is this from?

What if we took the time to rethink things? Forcing ourselves to look at how things are and imagining what they could be. Not waiting for change, but being the catalyst.""

It is from a Saturn advertisement in Fast Company magazine.

An auto manufacturer can conceive of rethinking, but some theatre people...not so much. I'm with Rex Winsome (and Daniel Quinn and Buckminster Fuller): just walk away and start over. I wholeheartedly support Mike Daisey in his efforts, and think that if he were successful it would help move the theatre in the direction I want to go. But when it comes down to it, I want to create something different.

I want to rethink.

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Isaac Comes Through

God love him, Isaac Butler can be pretty quiet for a pretty long time, and then sums everything up nicely. Nice work, Isaac!
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H/t to Matt Freeman for the link to this article about those Dems who would snipe at Obama over details instead of uniting for the good of the country, especially HRC feminists who believe they have to "punish" the Dems for Hilary not winning.

I teach a course on the Harlem Renaissance, and one of the most inspiring essays we read is W. E. B. DuBois urging African-American men to fight in World War I despite the fact that the U. S. denied them basic rights as human beings. And when they came home, after having been some of the most heroic fighters in the war, DuBois wrote:

"We return.
We return from fighting.
We return fighting!
Make way for Democracy! We saved it in France, and by the great Jehovah, we will save it in the United Stated of America, or know the reason why."

Once the battle in November has been won, there will be time to "return fighting." If the war is lost, there will be no opportunity.
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Revisiting the Principles

Over at Don's place, in the comments to his latest post, Don is expressing amazement that my definition of community sounds like "niche marketing" to him, and that what I am advocating with theatre tribes is what everybody has been doing already. Perhaps so -- maybe I don't get out much.

For clarity's sake, and taking advantage of an opportunity to try to express my "vision" succinctly (which takes practice, believe it or not), let's return to the list of "Principles" that are listed on the right side of this blog, and try to describe what each principle means.

1. Decentralization. This is the idea that there should be professional theatres and theatre artists spread across more of this nation, that no few cities should be seen as the ultimate arbiter of quality or legitimacy, and that there should be a concerted effort to spread information concerning the work of theatre artists wherever they are.

2. Localization. This is a belief that artists should be long-term, active members of their community, and that their theatre should reflect a relationship with that community. Community it defined as those people who share proximity with your theatre that you consider the desired audience. Theatres are not expected to appeal equally to every member of the community, although the larger the circle of supporters the more likely a theatre will be sustainable.

3. Sustainability. This is an umbrella term that covers several different concepts. First, that a theatre should follow environmentally friendly principles. Second, that the business model should not require such a degree of commitment from its members that they are unable to lead full, rich, and secure lives over the long term. Third, that to whatever degree is possible, theatres should rely on generated income rather than contributed income. Associated with this is a business model that is collective, egalitarian, entrepreneurial, self-supporting, and self-supportive.

4. Mutuality. This is an outgrowth of localization: that the relationship between artists and audiences should be dialogic, supportive, challenging, open, and personal. Part of this means facilitating opportunities for all participants in a theatre event to interact with each other. Part of this means re-visioning the role of the artist as being less an elite outsider and more an integrated member. Part of it means creating opportunities for the community to actively support the theatre artists.

5. Education. This is the belief that the way theatre artists are educated must be changed in order to develop the skills, the values, and the goals that will support a more entrepreneurial, interactive, goegraphically-diverse, sustainable, and community-oriented theatre.

Each of these values separately have little that is new. In fact, there are historical precedents for every principle, and likely there are contemporary theatres that embrace several of them. I believe that the entire set of principles bundled together in one theatre is more rare, although I suspect that there are examples.

Note that there is nothing in those principles involving content. It is irrelevant whether a theatre is mainstream or avant garde, classic or contemporary, comic or serious or musical. Indeed, I would suspect that a successful theatre may mix and match, and include other art forms as well. What is important is that a way be found to intentionally engage the community through your work.

As it stands, that is the general description of the overall model. There are details that change and evolve, but the fundamental choices are those described. Whether it is new and original is less important to me than whether it works, and whether it can accomplish the goal of creating a decentralized, localized, sustainable, community-oriented theatre system across this beautiful nation.

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On Doctors, Lawyers, Plumbers, Actors...and Blackjack

Adam Thurman, in his post entitled "The Power of Scarcity: A Reply to Mike and Scott," writes:

If you haven't been able to carve out that distinct niche for yourself, either in the work you do, how you do the work, or who you do the work for . . . then you are officially a commodity and you will be treated like one, meaning you will get paid just enough to keep you working but never enough to be stable. It's true for doctors, lawyers, plumbers and artists . . . there is nothing sacred about the artistic profession that makes it different.

I'm going to put aside the idea that any human being should be treated like a commodity, and not discuss the moral bankruptcy that such a system exhibits. Instead, I am going to focus on the fact the commodification happens to "doctors, lawyers, plumbers..." There is at least one difference between this group and theatre artists, and I think it is important: there are over 1 million lawyers in the United States, about 837,000 doctors; there are 46,000 members of Actors Equity. So the idea that there is, at least comparatively, an oversupply of actors might be an over-statement. But what is key is that the lawyers and doctors are spread all over the nation. There probably isn't a town so small that it doesn't have at least one attorney or doctor. And yet there are six states that have no TCG member theatres at all, and 11 more that have only one. In addition, what would be the impact on the legal or medical profession if most members of it were centralized in a single city? What would happen if someone in Marshall, NC had to bring in a lawyer from New York to do their will? It is hard to predict, but I suspect what would happen is that some other way of doing things would develop. Small towns might develop "community lawyers" on the order of community theatres, where someone local provided the services themselves. This would especially true if there were no laws set up that required that licensed lawyers do the work.

The point is that what seems like lack of scarcity in the acting profession may, in fact, be an over-concentration of actors in a few areas. Ethan Stanilslawski, in a post summarizing the dialogue on this topic, writes "A bad lawyer can still make six figures, while an exceptional one can make eight figures. Theater artist should be able to make a living the same way." While I know I am not arguing on behalf of "bad artists," and I doubt that Mike is either, I would change the focus from quantitative issues to geographic: a lawyer in Marshall, NC can make six figures, and one in NYC might make eight figures." (Of course, six figures in Marshall might be the equivalent of eight figures in NYC, but let's set that aside.) My argument is that more artists could make a living in the theatre if the theatre had more geographical diversity. And in that instance, we could break out of the high-stakes poker model to one more like...well, lawyers and doctors, or at least plumbers.

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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 ...