Wednesday, July 30, 2008

And Another: Mirror Up To Nature

All of a sudden, the theatrosphere is awash in thoughtful posts, this one by art at Mirror Up to Nature entitled "Morality Bites." He raises a lot of great questions about morality in the arts, and whether critics should engage their moral values when reviewing. As an admirer of the late Partisan Review literary critic Lionel Trilling, I think that art should be assessed through a moral lens, by the3 way, in case you were wondering where I stand...
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Flyover on a Roll: Science and Art

All of a sudden, there are lots of fascinating posts appearing on Flyover, this one entitled "We have scientists on the arts, but where are the artists on science?" In this post, which starts with C. P. Snow's 1959 essay "The Two Cultures," which discussed the chasm opening between scientists and humanists, there is some talk about how artists have avoided discussing science, and cognitive science in particular. While I can point to a variety of plays such as Copenhagen that belie the argument, nevertheless the question is a good one. I'd just like to say that I wrote about neuroscience in my post, "On Dopamine, Proust, and New Plays," so I'm off the hook! Anyway, overall I think the question being raised is about a certain narrow focus to artists, a lack of interest in engaging in other areas of intellectual work.
   I'd like to bend that off to the left a bit by asking my artist-readers this: do you consider yourself as an artist to be an intellectual? In other words, do you feel as if artists should be part of the Great Conversation of the Western Intellectual Tradition that Mortimer Adler most prominently discussed? Philosopher Kenneth Burke wrote in his book The Philosophy of Literary Form:

“Where does the drama get its materials? From the "unending conversation" that is going on at the point in history when we are born. Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late.  When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally's assistance. However, the discussion is interminable.  The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.”

Do you consider the arts part of that unending conversation? Do you consider yourself as an artist part of it? Is that conversation still ongoing, and is it relevant? And who are some of the speakers right now?
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John Stoehr on Whining and the Arts

Over at Flyover, John Stoehr posts provocatively about the baby boomer generation as a "generation of whiners," and how this plays out in the arts. As a boomer myself (born 1958), I have to admit there is some truth in what he says, although unlike many of my cohort I am not pessimistic. That said, I'll ask a question: is the current discussion about a living wage for artists a generational thing? I think Mike Daisey is not a boomer, nor are most of my readers. When I read about the Millennial Generation, for instance, I often see described a desire for a balance between work life and private life, a focus on local action, and a desire to lead a rich, full life. And perhaps the current way of doing things doesn't support these values.

Stoehr goes on to describe the Boomer attitude thusly:

Why compromise when happiness — and many other things, I would argue, like the American Dream itself — is your right? This attitude as applied to the arts: People should care about the arts, boomers say. They should give money to arts organizations. If they don’t, boomers say, then they’re stupid. If they don’t, then artists are victims.

Now, this is an attitude that I think extends beyond the Boomer Generation to just about every artist today. There is a tendency to blame the general public if they don't care about the arts, to say they are stupid, and to figure out some way to deal with that stupidity. True?

What Stoehr seems to be saying is that the younger generation is more optimistic, more willing to compromise in order to get things done.

I'll pull an Isaac here: what do you think?
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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Marching Order Part 2

About two weeks ago, I posted about a conversation I had with my in-laws about how new churches are supported and developed in the Lutheran Church, which by analogy provided a conceptual breakthrough for me and new "marching orders" for my efforts on behalf of theatrical decentralization. Yesterday, in a comment on Don Hall's post entitled "Exploring Money Assumptions in Theatre" (between my post about daddyland below and this one, I feel like carrion feasting on Don Hall's roadkill these days), RVCBard made my head explode in millions of stars when she wrote about the relevance to theatre of the concept of "radical welcome" being promoted in some churches across America. (Be sure to click on "marching orders" and "radical welcome" and read before continuing, or else this discussion will seem incomplete.) RVCBard writes: "I know people are funny about religion, but you gotta admit those church folks know how to get butts in seats and people involved, often for free, with less angst. I think this is in no small part due to a policy of radical welcoming." I agree.

I read the definition of "radical welcome" right after I read a post at Butts In Seats entitled "Ninety Five Processes," in which my ideas were carefully considered, and several questions raised. In many respects, "radical welcome" might serve as a partial response to that post.

I hope you will all be patient while I think through some new ideas aloud...

First is the issue of "conservative" versus "innovative" approaches. "You have a choice between different formats and genres to focus on or ignore," Butts in Seats writes. "It would be disappointing to have groups nudged toward some form of what their advisers know or think would be appropriate. It is still their word that releases the money." Indeed, this is true. As with all grants, in order to receive money an organization or individual must be doing something that falls within the values espoused and promoted by the granting organization. Believe me, as someone who is in the midst of writing a grant for the NEA and is looking around for other granting organizations, I am very aware of what must be done to have even a hope of receiving support! Unless you are independently wealthy yourself, that is the nature of grantsmanship, and you simply don't apply for support from organizations whose values you reject.

In the case of the organization I am conceptualizing -- let's call it the ">100K Project," since it's focus will be on small and rural communities and regions with populations under 100,000 -- the focus of the organization will be less on the choice of programming (i.e., what plays are being done) than on the theatre's relationship to the community, a relationship that is suggested by the idea of radical welcome. A church following these principles has a relationship with its congregation that is active, engaged, open to conversation, welcoming, and intentional; likewise, a >100K Project theatre would be expected to foster such a relationship as well.

To that end, it is better to think not in terms of a traditional 5-play season-type theatre, but rather a community arts center where there are a variety of arts activities occurring. Some of these would, of course, be full-scale productions involving only the paid artistic staff, others might be productions that combine community members with the paid artistic staff, and others might involve the paid artistic staff facilitating the creativity of unpaid artistic community members. Similarly, events might run the gamut from full productions to low-tech events such as poetry slams, short story readings, storytelling and story circles, and other such events. The goal would be to make the theatre a place of continual activity and creative exploration. Theatre artists applying for a 3-year salary grant would have to demonstrate an interest in founding such a place, and develop a preliminary plan tied to the community where they propose to create the theatre.

In addition to salary support, the >100K Project would supply resources and instruction to help develop such a place -- the founders would not simply be thrown in the deep end with the expectation that they learn to swim quickly. There would be some on-line courses available to introduce the basic ideas and techniques, and then at least one live consultant assigned to their theatre to serve as a mentor and advisor.

Every six months or so, the paid artistic staff would provide a report to the >100K Project administration that would outline what had been done and assess its impact on the theatre and the community. The artistic staff would receive feedback, and dialogue and creative brainstorming would follow. Failure would be expected, but through a process of assessment something must be learned from the failure. The primary commitment of the >100K Project's administrative staff would be to the success of the theatre.

Butts in Seats 15-20 year timeline for self-support would be unacceptable (the salary subsidy runs out after 3 years), but perhaps the issue is in the definition of self-support. Like any theatre, it is likely that this type of theatre would require additional income beyond earned revenue. This might come in the form of grants, local or regional governmental support, individual contributions or other sources (and the central organization would help with this). Because the theatre would have a 3-year track record of activity, it would be more attractive to outside funders. While the central organization would no longer be paying salaries, this transition would have been planned for, and the central organization would still be available for other resources and consultation. However, after three years, the theatre would be expected to include in its budget a small percentage for the >100K Project central organization. I guess this would be the equivalent of tithing, and would symbolize a commitment to supporting others who wish to set up theatres like this.

There are many theatre people who will read this description and think, "this is not for me." That's fine. I don't expect it will, and like any granting organization, there is no requirement that anyone apply for support, and there's not unlimited money anyway (hell, at the moment there isn't a dime). It does require an artist who defines their contribution more inclusively than our Romantic-era artist-centered definition, and that might involve a different approach to educating artists. But I do believe that, in order to attract funding, the >100K Project needs to have a clear purpose and set of values. It can't simply be an institutional version of Daddy and Mommy providing a three-year allowance to anyone who happens to want one. The goal is to make the map below a darker shade of yellow by the creation of theatres that thrive and that, through their presence, strengthen their communities through dialogue, creativity, leadership, and active citizenship.

Monday, July 28, 2008

daddyland On Theatrical INteraction

Over at Don's place, a commenter named daddyland has laid out pretty clearly some of the things that many of us have been saying for a while about liveness, presence, and interaction:

In response to Don's "Exploring Money Assumptions in Theatre," daddyland wrote:

A couple thoughts...

I am not a theatre industry person, I choose to go directly to film/tv. I could even see 20 years ago that all my drama/theatre profs/coaches were feeding me a line of bull that the theatre would be relevant in 15 years. I had just gotten my first taste of the internet and I knew things were about to change radically.

The theatre isn't relevant or accessible to the average man nowadays. And they don't want their taxes going towards it either. It simply cannot compete on any level with huge plasma tvs and the Home Theatre/Internet connected TV.

I saw Metaluna on last Thursday. I thought it was brilliant. The performances were all outstanding even though at times I struggled with the Dada elements. Lisa Fairmain's performance was particularly titilating and worth the enormous effort alone it took to find a sitter for the kid, drive into the city in this horrendous construction traffic, and then find parking. But I would have never heard about it if I didn't know Brownlee. Now I am telling all my friends, but my angle is the whole "Lisa F." thing. Otherwise, I am faced with the whole "why should I go to so much trouble?" question. I am selling sex here, but they get much more than that with your show.

Theatre is the ape in Darwin's theory of evolution to what the human is to the Home Theatre TV in most American's eyes. I am afraid the most effective change of tactics would be to become a bunch of terrorists and completely destroy the entire television/internet infrastructure. With no other entertainment around, Americans will flock to their local theatres, and start creating their own troupes.

All that said, I believe the focus should be on the experience an audience member can have in live theatre. It can be truly enthralling, as it is with Metaluna.

IN response, RLewis had written that theatre wasn't in competition with TV and film and plasma TV screens, but with live events such as baseball. "If digital TV were really the competition, then there would be empty stands at our ballparks (our real competition!), and that certainly isn't the case. Somehow folks manage the construction filled roads, parking nightmares and mass mobs at the gates to see the local teams play. So, clearly the Ape here is just to throw you off the trail."

daddyland responded:

I believe we soon will see empty stands at ballparks. My cousin recently bought two 50inch Plasma TVs. One for the living room, one for the bedroom--to watch sports in close up High Def. His comment to me was he loved the group spirit at baseball/football games, of which he had season tix to both the Bears and Sox, but seeing the sweat drip off a losing pitcher's brow was far more enjoyable to watch. He is moving on from one kind of experience--an experience which I still think is valid.

Market forces are deciding that the digital TV experience is more exciting across the board. That is where marketing comes in to solve your problem.

It may make you feel sick to do this, and a true betrayal of the craft, but unless it is titilating, live performance/theatre arts perhaps needs to be expressly interactive with the audience. It can take a variety of forms and concepts. Metaluna is titilating and does involve the audience. That is a start. Take part of the set home as a piece of art for your house? That's cool... How about we get crazy and have an interactive chat session with the cast? How do you integrate Web 2.0 technologies into the marketing plan? Don's video interviews with the cast are an example of thinking out of the box to market a show. But even then, his audience was limited...he was talking Dada to other industry people. I didn't know my baby's "Dada" from "Stage craft 'Dada'" until last Thursday. I don't think you have to be running an Improv Olympics or comedy show to get the audience to interact. Get clever. People want an interactive experience--that is what digital life is all about--it is not just being lazy and staring at a screen. I would counter it is the exact opposite of that.

I think the key here for theatre is not evolution, it's transformation. And it will require outsiders to your clique to help you determine where you go. You must do it now and work the hard problems before it is too late. The culture is changing rapidly.

I don't buy the titillation thing -- that's a function of liveness, in my opinion, just a more obvious element. But I think he is right about interaction, and right in not limiting it to Improv Olympics and other forms that are often thought of when interaction is mentioned. It isn't about voting for the ending as in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, although that certainly kept an otherwise uninspired musical running. It might mean creating a forum for people to interact with each other and/or with the artists -- again, not the typical Q & A, but real interaction. After all, according to a Wallace Foundation study, by far the strongest motivation for attending the theatre is "Socializing." We can fight that, taking Goethe's attitude that the audience should be seen and not heard, and Wagner's attitude that the audience shouldn't even be seen (so he turned the lights off), or we can ask ourselves just what that "socializing" means and what ways can we provide social interaction. Dialogue promotes community, and if you can create a community around your theatre, no plasma TV's are going to destroy you.
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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 ...