Friday, August 29, 2008

McCain Campaign Member on Health Care

For artists, particularly, access to health care is probably the most important issue in this election. Imagine the effect that universal health care would have on the arts in this nation. Well, here is what a McCain campaign member had to say about this.
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Meanwhile, On Another Blog...

Patti Digh's wonderful 37 Days blog has been running a series of posts by her readers about what they would do if they had only 37 days to live, as a run-up to her wonderful new book Life Is a Verb. I thought you might find today's post...surprising.
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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

You Can't Be Done There From There

Adam Szymkowicz publishes a portion of Gary Garrison's article about playwriting in Dramatist magazine that took me back to the discussions about bringing in out of town actor to perform at so-called regional theatres. Apparently, it isn't just actors, but playwrights, too (gee, what a surprise):

A dinner with the Seattle Rep Dennis Schebetta combined with a Town Hall meeting with local artists/administrators and passionate Guild members quickly articulated a common concern among a lot of our members: dramatists can’t get produced in their own backyards. I’ve heard this serious concern announced in Atlanta, Houston, Boston, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles and San Diego. Let me be clear: it’s not about just getting produced in your own backyard, it’s about getting produced by one of the named theatres that’s in your own metropolitan neighborhood. What was extraordinary and different (and incredibly positive) about members talking about this issue in Seattle was the almost instant call – by representatives of the three large theatres: The Intiman, A Contemporary Theatre (ACT) and Seattle Rep – for playwrights to stop focusing on something that’s probably not going to happen for a variety of predominantly economic reasons, and instead to channel that passion and energy in to either co-producing (like 13 P in New York or Playwrights 6 in Los Angeles) or self-producing. To hear representatives of the three big theatres in town say in a straight-forward, no-nonsense but kind way: “Look, we love new writers. But we have twelve-hundred seats that we have to fill or we’ll go under. And base-line economics suggest big commercial names of plays and playwrights are going to sell those seats.”

They said it. Out loud, even. They said what other theatres won’t or can’t or don’t want to say in a public way for a variety of reasons (that have to do with mission statements and grant writing, I’m sure). There was something liberating, for everyone in the room, in the truth being spoken out loud. More importantly, there was something very empowering in dramatists realizing that if they want their stories told to a local audience, they’d most likely have to figure out for themselves how best to do that. And they should. They should figure it out because every voice should be heard, and every story desperately needs to be told.

You'll excuse me, I'm sure, if I don't share Garrison's sense of glee that this was actually said out loud. Not that it should have been kept secret (after all, there's nothing all that surprising in what they said -- we've all known it forever), but that they should say such things without a shred of embarrassment, even a faint hint that they have totally betrayed the foundational purpose of the regional theatre movement: to decentralize and localize the theatre -- well, frankly, is this really something to applaud?

Isn't it time for us to actually consider whether the homogenization of our theatre literature, where we create plays that have no tie to a specific place or community, has been good for the drama? Historically, this so-called "universal" art was not the norm. Moliere wrote his plays about the court of Louis XIV and performed them for the court of Louis XIV; no matter what time Shakespeare set his plays, they all were really plays about Elizabethan England; the Greek plays were about Athens, and the Bible stories that make up the various mystery cycles had a whole lot more Yorkshire than Jerusalem in them. So what have we lost by alienating the artist from a community? What have we lost by not producing the plays of playwrights who live in the community where a theatre is located? A student of mine today in class mentioned seeing a production of The Pirates of Penzance at the Guthrie Theatre in which they inserted a single line reference to a local sculpture, and the audience went nuts. Suddenly, there was a connection that was informed by a shared reality. Moliere's skewering of the "precieuse" in The Precious Damsels was probably a helluva lot funnier in 17th-century Paris where the people in the audience knew exactly who was being ridiculed.

Don't get me wrong: I am all for playwrights taking situations into their own hands and doing productions of their own plays. In fact, I'd like to see all theatre artists do the same, so that those big regional theatres suddenly found themselves boycotted until they came to their senses. But this brazen abandonment of responsibility to the local community? Not acceptable.

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Monday, August 25, 2008

Mike Lawler: On Travel

Mike Lawler over at EcoTheater has an interesting post entitled "Lost Plane: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles" about the ethics of traveling and how it relates to the migrant artistic lifetsyle prominent within the regional theatre scene. He includes an email discuss with sound designer Lindsay Jones, who says that he logs between 150,000 and 200,000 miles a year doing dound gigs around the country. Jones writes: "“I don’t think I’d be able to continue my career as a freelance theatrical designer if I just worked in Los Angeles." Asked by Lawler about "localizing and supporting the theater in L.A. — or wherever theater artists may live," Jones replies, “There are hundreds of theatre companies in Los Angeles, that’s not the problem. It’s that quite a few of them do not pay anything close to a living wage, and have very primitive working conditions from a technical standpoint. To a lot of people in L.A. theatre is just something you do until you get a job in TV.”

There's a piece missing here -- or rather, an underlying assumption that needs to be brought up to the surface for examination, and it is located in Jones' first sentence. Lindsay Jones wants to make his living as a specialist -- a sound designer. So his analysis is probably correct, at least to some extent, given his assumptions. I would assert, however, that such specialization is not desirable for the regional theatre. I don't think that regional theatres can afford to have people around who do only one thing, whether that one thing is act, direct, design, or market. While a specialist is likely to have more skills than a non-specialist by virtue of focusing solely on one thing, such "narrow-casting" simply assures that a migrant life is necessary. If I am operating a regional theatre tribe, I am willing to trade that extra bit virtuosity that a specialist brings for a multi-disciplined artist who will maintain an ongoing relationship with the company and with the audience.

I know that goes against our national values, which puts the specialist ahead of the generalist. I would argue that, given the economics of theatre, the generalist is vastly more valuable than the specialist, and that theatre history bears this out. Moliere was a great playwright AND the leading actor for his company AND the head of the company. Shakespeare was a great playwright AND and actor in his company AND one of the owners of the company. The specialist is a symptom of our industrial approach to the creation of theatre art, a model that is fast becoming economical unworkable.
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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 ...