Friday, July 25, 2008

Lyn Gardner on Young Artists

I continue to catch up with the Guardian blog, this time an article by Lyn Gardner called "How Do Young Artists Become Established Artists?," which provides, in my opinion, an outstanding argument for the value of long-term ensembles. One percentive paragraph:

I suspect the current explosion of work in Bristol, although enormously fragile, has been a lot to do with the mutually supportive environment of Residence, and If you look around at some of the great companies from Forced Entertainment and Complicite to Kneehigh it's clear that playing together, eating together and even, yep, sleeping together is all grist to the artistic mill. Ideas spark, projects are born, creative relationships that may last a lifetime and sustain endeavour are formed. It's why the BAC's idea of offering artists six-month live-in residencies is a good one. But we need other places to get started and further more obvious ladders of progression too.

As a side note, but one that I think ought to get a lot more attention throughout the theatre scene, I offer these two sentences:

Traditional places to showcase work such as the Edinburgh and London fringe are out of reach of anyone who doesn't have £10,000 to spare. Do we really only want theatre made by those from affluent backgrounds? 

Or $20,000 in the case of a NYC showcase production. Young artists become established artists by hanging out together creating work and having all those conversations that spark ideas. Another reason why I am trying to develop a foundation for the creation of theatres across this country that will support young artists when they need it most -- right away -- not when they've already got a foot up. Like so much of what America does (e.g., so-called "trickle-down economics" and tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, we reward people when they no longer need the reward and ignore those who struggle. It is ass-backwards.
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Chris Wilkinson on Actor-Managers

OK, I'm way behind on the Guardian blog, but if you haven't already read Chris Wilkinson's thoughts about the dearth of actor-managers in contemporary theatre, I enthusiastically recommend you do so. Here is a few paragraphs to whet your appetite:

Yet I can't help but wonder whether this lack of performers in positions of leadership is a sign of a deeper malaise in an industry that persistently infantilises actors and forces them into subservience. There are over 30,000 people registered with Spotlight, the industry's casting bible, and this extraordinary level of competition means that actors are often conditioned to accept that work is hard to come by and all the initiative must lie with those artistic directors, theatre directors and producers who create most of our theatre.

Indeed, in my final year of training as an actor we spent huge amounts of time with our teachers discussing how best to impress the industry, which head shot to use and so on. But it was not until our last ever week that the head of our course suggested, in passing, that we might want to set up our own companies to produce our own shows. It was a great idea, but we were given absolutely no advice whatsoever on how to do this. It was as if this kind of thing did not count as "real work". And as Lyn Gardner has shown, this appears to be an attitude in many drama schools.

Yet it is by doing this that performers can wrest back some control over their careers. Just look at the work of Filter Theatre - a young company founded and run by two actors and a musician that has gone on to produce stuff at the National, the RSC and the Lyric Hammersmith. And while many people from my year at drama school languish in unemployment, there were three girls who got together and founded Jagged Fence, and are just about to produce their third show, Stars in the Morning Sky, at the Riverside Studios.

Almost everything we are discussing these days comes down to, at root, who controls the work you do as an artist. Auditioning and dependency is the price you pay for your refusal to shoulder responsibility for more than your own individual role.
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Anonymous Comment on Making a Living

Playgoer has an excellent post entitled "Broadway: Meaningless?" about David Cote's article "The Great White...Wait!" concerning whether Broadway is still the gold standard for theatre. In Playgoer's comments box was this anonymous comment that I'd like to draw more attention to:

I don't think everyone is dying to get to Broadway because it's Broadway (although some are). People are dying to get to Broadway because of the money and the emotional satisfaction of being able to support oneself doing what one is trained to do. The cache of Broadway is not merely production values (which, in my opinion are often quite poor compared with the mega regionals). It about seeing people for whom theater no longer a "hobby" but a "career." If people could have a career (in the financial sense) in small theaters, those theaters would have the same respect as Broadway (as is the case in Europe).

Like this commenter, I am mostly in agreement, and in fact that has been my focus as I have worked toward a new theatre model for small and rural areas. I believe that, given a choice between spending one's time auditioning or worrying about your next gig and having a reasonable living doing what you love no matter where that place is, I believe that many theatre artists will opt for the latter over the former.

The key is to create the alternative possibility in the imagination, and to demonstrate a workable model. As Playgoer says about reminding those who think only in terms of a Broadway transfer that there are other options, so we must remind those who would portray American theatre solely in terms of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles that there are other alternatives.
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Thursday, July 24, 2008

What Was Sold

I happened to stumble across a book entitled Theater in America: Appraisal and Challenge, a report put together for the National Theatre Conference in 1968. The preface indicates "In November 1961, at the annual meeting of the Nationa Theatre Cobference (NTC) in New York, the Board of Trustees established a major project for a National Appraisal of the American Theater. The purpose of the project was to prepare an accurate, up-to-date, critical report of the 'total, multi-faceted image of theater in the United States in the third quarter of the twentieth century' -- a picture, as it were, of the whole state of the theatre, where it is and where it is going."

There were chapters on the New York Theater -- Broadway and Non-Profit Organizations; the Community Theater; Educational Theatre; and the Professional Resident Theaters. They noted that the regional theater had grown from 12 theaters in 1950 to twenty-three in 1960 to sixty-two by 1968. So the movement was no longer in its infancy, and it was starting to blossom. So what were some of the observations and predictions?

First, it drew a distinction between it and the commercial NY theatre: "instead of being set up for the production of a single show and then dissolved at the end of its run, they are organized for continuity of management and artistic policy, and, in the main, of performing and technical personnel, playing extended seasons of 20 weeks or more..." NTC, the authors go on, "has a special interest in this movement, having dedicated itself from the beginning to the decentralization of theater in the United States...[M]ost of them have certain goals in common, which set them apart" from the NY commercial theater and the educational theater "and which make them part of what we have called a movement."John Reich, the director of the Good man, described his program for success, which included "careful casting: combining some guest actors of repute with the regular company, including students, but offering the guest players only parts they have not previously performed, and screening them judiciously for their human qualities and potential influence upon the company as well as for their artistic talent."

"The majority of the regional theater's professional actors," the authors continue, "come from the New York theater. The success in luring good actors away from New York is due chiefly to the challenging and varied roles available. An actor offered four or five roles per season which has has always dreamed of playing, and which would never be available to him in New York, becomes friendly toward the idea of a prolonged residence in another city. Any good actor is interested in improving his art and recognizes that roles in great plays enlarge his horizon and skills. Conditions and pay in regional theaters, too, are quite favorable. These theaters employ actors both on production and on seasonal contracts. Of 25 regional theaters replying to NTC's queries, 12 employed on contract per production while 19 employed actors also by the season. Their actor's average salary is reported as approximately $200 per week -- far better than the general average of $50 - $65 a week for off-Broadway shows."

"The professional actor in regional theater, therefore, has greater security than he does on or (still less) off-Broadway, unless he happens to be continually in demand. This offer of security may be the strongest asset possessed by these theaters in drawing and holding talent and in building a cohesive ensemble." {ital mine]

"In spite of the relatively good pay, seasonal contracts, and challenging roles in the regional theaters, managing directors report a considerable turnover of actors. Only about three-quarters of a typical company return each season..."

The authors conclude, "the Professional Resident Theater movement -- and it is a movement -- has broken the stranglehold of Broadway by planting in almost half a hndred cities across the land, and even in Manhattan, professional organizations permanently rooted and growing in their communities; also by demonstrating that it can attract good actors in large numbers away from the lures of the Great White Way by offering seasonal securrty, challenging roles in classic, modern, and experimental productions, and a chance to live more stable, normal lives -- and even raise families if they choose -- while expanding and perfecting their skill as artists."

Their last words: "NTC closes its report on the professional resident or regional theater movement with some optimism, much hope, and many perplexing questions. The most encouraging fact is: it exists, it is here to stay -- so far, so good."

Forty years later, when people like me or Mike Daisey draw attention to the problems of the regional theatre movement, and discuss the abandonment of the founding values, we are called "naive" by the current leaders, and others express doubt as to whether there has ever been a time in the American theatre when there was a possibility of stability, of commitment, of an escape from the blackjack model of regional theatre. This report belies those doubts. It clearly shows that not only were those values and ideals held by the leaders of the regional theater movement, but far from representing "naive" ideals, they were actually being successfully implemented and lived. Nineteen of twenty-five,  or 76% of the resident theatres that responded to queries, employed actors by the season. The average salary of $200 per week was the equivalent today of about $1250 a week, which made actors firmly middle-class.  And if the authors of this study were right, and the offer of security was "the strongest asset possessed by these theaters in drawing and holding talent and building a cohesive ensemble," then the abandonment of those values and that commitment to security represents a betrayal of the regional theater movement by its leaders, and a gutting of what made it unique and healthy.  And that is shameful. And to forget that such a theater existed, and did so in a healthy and vigorous way that was the cause of "optimism, and much hope," is to buy into the ahistorical, cynical culture that has taken over our arts institutions. And we must demand that we do better, and accept accountability for readjusting of way of doing business to reinstate what was most promising about the real regional theatre that came into being in the third quarter of the twentieth century.
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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Letter from Paul R. Pierce

Mike Daisey reprints a great letter from Paul R. Pierce, Producing Director of the Springer Opera House, which I find inspiring. Give it a read.

Tomorrow, I will post segments of a mid-1960s report about theatre in America that describes where the regional theatre was then, and what it intended to continue to be.
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Monday, July 21, 2008

TCG Member Map

Thanks to the good people here on campus, I now have a visual representation of the distribution of TCG theatres across the US.

The Artistic Home: How Long, Oh How Long?

Last night, I skimmed TCG's 1988 publication The Artistic Home: Discussions with Artistic Directors of America's Institutional Theatres, at the suggestion of Tony Adams who wrote in his recent post "Artists as Administrators" that "Reading it it sounds like a time warp. Little has changed." That's for sure. Particularly disappointing is the chapter entitled "Thinking Beyond Four Walls: The Individual Artist as a National Priority." There's a great title, right?  Here are a few subtitles:

1. Artistic directors are concerned with keeping artists in the theatre; they need to constantly renew their commitment to making their theatres homes for artists.
2. Theatres and artists alike need to find creative ways to address the chronic undercompensation in the field.
3. Theatres need to build better long-term relationships with artists and find ways of integrati9ng them into the ongoign life of institutions.
4. There is a need to invest in the future of the art form and the profession by taking responsibility for the training of and access for future artists and nontraditional artists, including minority and women artists.

Sound familiar? So why, in twenty years, has so little happened in this regard? Here were the assembled leaders of America's regional theatres -- what many would regard as the most powerful people in the non-profit theatre world -- and yet, do we see any progress? It leads me to wonder about leadership in this so-called "industry" -- should TCG have taken this report as its priorities following this gathering? Is publishing a book enough? Is there another group who should be taking leadership roles? Because we all know what happened after this assembly, right? The same thing that happens after most conferences: we all return to our normal context, and we might be a little inspired for a while, but very quickly we are sucked back into the day-to-day struggles of life and we lose sight of what was inspiring and we just keep keeping on. So how do we stay focused? How do we enact change?

As I dipped in here and there in the book, and also looked at the appendix where there were "highlights" from the various topics, it occurred to me that the book is almost totally concerned with problems. The group will acknowledge that doing X is something that would benefit the theatre, then what follows are the reasons that get in the way of X, and few but the most minor suggestions are offered. Here's one designed to address #1 above: "Providing convenient and attractive housing for guest artists, equipped with fu8rniture, telephones, television, even fresh flowers." And another: "Actively welcoming artists into the theatre community by greeting them at train stations or airports, organizing group parties, hiring company managers sympathetic to the needs of artists, and encouraging volunteer groups to create their own methods for making guest artists feel at home." These represent 2/3 of the "highlights" for that particular problem!

The highlights of #2 read like the table of contents for recent blog discussions: "Artists express deep frustration at not being able to make a living or maintain a life while doing the work they love in the theatre;" "Artists increasingly view theatre as a young person's profession; for people under 40 whose financial responsibilities are modest;" "theatres are troubled by thge difficulty of getting and keeping commitments from actors;" "geography and distance work against theatres located away from the commercial production centers where actors feel they need to be based to have access to other work;" "the disintegration of the resident acting ensemble of the '60s and '70s may have reinforced a feeling of insecurity on the part of actors entering the profession;" "while a growing number of artistic directors are attracted to the goal of creating resident companies, most agree that the current economics of theatre conspire against permanent ensembles of sufficient size."

Some of the solutions they propose: "employing more artists...on a year-round basis..." "setting the goal of raising fees for guest artists..." "exploring new incentives for artists to choose work in theatre over higher paying work in film and television, such as establishing and maintaining exciting collaborations among artists;" "taking collective action whereby a group of theatres pool resources to support a writer, director, or designer on a year-round salaried basis" (notice the absence of actors in that list); "creating new structures for larger, looser networks of artists than are currently identified as 'ensembles'..." "reevaluating compensating arrangements for playwrights..." "encouraging larger institutions with more resources to increase salaries as much as possible in order to allow artists to also accept work at smaller theatres with fewer financial resources" (this one made me laugh); "seeking outside paid employment for actors -- commercial work, voice-overs, teaching, docent tours, advertising connections -- to supplement their salaries and connect them with the community..."

 Some of these ideas are more interesting than others, and most shift the responsibility to others. Which seems to be the major problem with this book. Instead of talking about what they could do as artistic directors, and accepting accountability for taking those actions, these artistic directors laid out the to-do list for everybody else in the organization -- primarily the trustees, because if there was only more money... (When I read discussions such as these, I am constantly reminded of D. H. Lawrence's short story "The Rocking-Horse Winner": "There must be more money. There MUST be more money."

It is a disappointing book for just that reason. There seems to be little acceptance of responsibility, little recognition of one's personal power, few examples of specific commitments. It was like a 17-day pity party: "Gee whiz, it sure would be better if we did a few of these things, but how can we do that and keep doing things exactly the way we've always done them?"

Mike Daisey has revived this conversation amongst the TCG artistic directors, who apparently circulated his Seattle essay amongst themselves and huffed and griped about it for quite some time. "Naive," they said; "just let him try to run a theatre sometime, then he'll see" they said. With absolutely not recognition that what he was saying is simply an echo of what they had said twenty years ago. In effect, he was asking them, "So, did you ever DO anything about these issues?" The answer, obviously, is mostly no. Rather, over the twenty years since The Artistic Home was published, what has happened, apparently, is that the AD's have decided these problems are intractable, and the best thing they can do is put a few fresh flowers in the guest artist's apartments and make sure they have cable TV.

It leads me to contemplate the Buckminster Fuller quotation that is written to the right of this post, and recognize why my efforts have been more focused on creating a new system instead of reforming the old. There just doesn't seem to be the will to change anywhere.
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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 ...