Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Outrageous Fortune: Chapter 1: Build a Bridge, Don't Take Swimming Lessons

[A handful of bloggers have been called together by Isaac Butler to spend a week blogging about the recent book published by the Theatre Development Fund (TDF) entitled Outrageous Fortune: The Life and Times of the New American Play by Todd London with Ben Pesner and Zannie Giraud Voss. Today, we will all blog about Chapter One, then break into groups to blog about succeeding chapters, and finish by all blogging about the final chapter. Isaac Butler at Parabasis will provide links to all.]

First, I'd like to thank London, Pesner, and Voss not only for their work on this book, but for their willingness to resist sugar-coating the material. In the introduction, TDF Executive Director Victoria Bailey notes that "much in this report may be painful to read," and she is right. London et al show us the current situation warts and all, which I believe is a service to the art form. Artists need to read that others are as frustrated as they are -- that they are not simply whiners and losers who need to suck it up and keep at it, but rather trying to do quality work within a dysfunctional system. The larger picture -- this study uses 250 surveys received from "working professional playwrights at all stages of their careers, including Albee, Congdon, Dietz, Letts and many others whose names you would recognize (including my blogging friend Laura Axelrod), as well as surveys of almost a hundred theatres across the country -- reveals an entire system in disarray, not simply individuals in dismay. Chris Jones may characterize this as whining, but that is a term that is always used as a weapon to shut up anyone who questions the status quo. The consistency of the complaints is indicative of a real problem.

Also, I should note that this study combines quantitative and qualitative research, and it is the qualitative that dominates the book. While I suspect that Ian David Moss at Creatiquity may wish there was more pure data to crunch, in my opinion the voices that are heard is what puts meat on the bones. There are occasional data points included, which throw into relief the images that the dialogue describes. I also applaud London for not attributing comments to particular playwrights, which would likely allow people like Jones to dismiss remarks by attacking the individual who said it. Like the use of the term "whining,' this is a common ploy to shut up voices of legitimate dissent. Jones complains about the use of qualitiative research, point to an "outrageous passage" that characterizes the Goodman audience as all over sixty. Jones whines that "Nothing is served by presenting such patently inaccurate and reductive anecdotes as fact (as distinct, say, from accurately surveying the Goodman's audience demographics)." But London does not present it as fact, but simply as a generalization that reflects a particular viewpoint. Analyzing the Goodman's demographics misses the point, which is to qualitatively present the view from the inside of the process. I'm sure the Goodman can provide Jones with its demographic data, and Jones can print it.

There are enough issues raised in the first chapter alone to provide fodder for a month of blog posts. I could write for a week ot two about the playwrights' and artistic directors' oft-repeated complaint that audiences aren't open to new narrative forms. And maybe I will.

But right now, I am going to focus on a section of Chapter One called "Bridging the Divide: Relationship, Continuity, Home" that appears at the end of the chapter. Harkening back to "Chekhov, Moliere, Shakespeare, O'Neill," London notes that "history suggests that the success of playwrights and plays, more often than not, is fed by the continuity of artistic relationships." He notes that "numerous" playwrights see continuity as an ideal, and the name they give to that ideal is "home" -- "artistic home, creative home, producing home."

Of course, this connects to the discussion often raised on theatre blogs, and then brought to the national scene by Mike Daisey's How Theatre Failed America -- the tendency of many larger regional theatres to job in artistic personnel for individual shows, rather than form an ensemble of artists who work together over a longer period. As London notes, it isn't just actors, directors, and designers who are experiencing this displacement, but playwrights who also feel the loss. Like most theatre artists, the "search for home in the theatre now has a nostalgic quality, since hardly any hold out hope of finding one within the current climate." That's a kind way of saying that artists are in despair, they've given up -- the cynical ones with a shrug ("That's just the way it is," they intone knowingly, "no point crying over spilt milk"), the idealistic ones with a frustrated sigh ("Doesn't anybody see that it doesn't have to be this way? We're making choices"). They are almost embarrassed to express a desire for a "sense of home," because such a desire is "really radical." In order to put distance between the longing and reality, one playwright essentially puts scare quotes around the concept, saying "The hokey notion of the family is so important."

Hokey indeed. As a theatre historian, it is baffling to me how willing artists are in this country to dismiss what has been proven effective throughout most of theatre history. Yes, Shakespeare AND the rest of the Elizabethans created work within ongoing ensembles, yes Moliere AND the rest of the theatre artists of the French Neoclassical era, AND the commedia dell 'arte troupes, AND Chekhov and Odets and O'Neill and and and. And lest someone wants to make the case that this is a thing of the past, we might look to the Royal Court as a model, or to Ariane Mnouchkine and Peter Brook and Peter Stein and and and. What is it about the American theatre that is so committed to the idea of a "free agent nation," failing to recognize the artistic value of an ongoing relationship between artists? Michael P. Farrell, in his book Collaborative Circles: Friendship Dynamics and Creative Work, makes the importance of continuity explicit. Frankly, in the current system, it is a miracle that decent work gets done at all.

However, creating an artistic home would by definition mean staying put, committing to a place, sustaining and inspiring creativity on an ongoing basis, and establishing trust and a willingness to risk short-term failure (every play and every performance will not be a masterpiece) in the interest of long-term success. Yes, that is "really radical," at least in our frenetic, uncommitted society.

One artistic director frets that to commit to a playwright might undermine diversity. "The danger can be that then you end up producing the same artist all the time, and nobody else has an opportunity. There's always that balance that needs to be achieved -- How can you both create an ongoing commitment to artists, and leave some avenue open, not just because it's good to support other peoiple, but because we need to continue to have changes in terms of the kinds of voices that we have on the stage?" With this very legitimate question, the central problem of the modern regional theatre suddenly is revealed: the small number of productions done in a season.

Because, again, if you look back at theatre history, you see that this problem has already been solved. The Lord Chamberlain's Men didn't only produce Shakespeare, they had a relationship with many playwrights. Furthermore, Shakespeare wasn't only a playwright, but also an actor and a shareholder in the theatre. Moliere's troupe did Moliere's plays, yes, but also the plays of other playwrights (such as Jean Racine), who they also nurtured. The Moscow Art Theatre didn't only do Chekhov's plays, but many others as well.

But these theatres did a lot of productions, so they needed a lot of plays. As long as regional theatres only do a handful of productions each year, and only a small percentage of those are devoted to new plays, then the worried artistic director quoted above is right to be concerned. The answer, however, is to do more plays.

And why could these historical theatres do more plays? Because they were creating within a sustainable, "light" production framework. The Lord Chamberlain's Men weren't building massive sets and costumes for each individual play, they were done on a blank stage with a minimum of set pieces and the costumes they had in stock. Theatres in the English Restoration and in Moliere's time had three different backdrops that were used for whatever plays were done that season, and the costumes were drawn from stock or owned by the actors. More current, Peter Hall wrote about this in his wonderful book The Necessary Theatre, where he discussed his work at the Young Vic and the value of a "light" production aesthetic. (I wrote about this here.)

We have painted ourselves into a corner by our dogged commitment to a means of production that is time-intensive, resource-heavy, inefficient, and linear. Playwrights long for an artistic home, and so do other theatre artists, but we have created a system that thwarts that desire at every turn. Winston Churchill once said, "First we shape our structures and then our structures shape us." What is true for architecture is true for the structure of theatre productions. Outrageous Fortune shows us that we don't much like the shape our structures are forcing us into. Buckminster Fuller said, "Revolution by design and invention is the only revolution tolerable to all men, all societies, and all political systems anywhere." Perhaps it is time for theatre artists to visit Fuller's "design science" which Fuller described thusly:

"The function of what I call design science is to solve problems by introducing into the environment new artifacts, the availability of which will induce their spontaneous employment by humans and thus, coincidentally, cause humans to abandon their previous problem-producing behaviors and devices. For example, when humans have a vital need to cross the roaring rapids of a river, as a design scientist I would design them a bridge, causing them, I am sure, to abandon spontaneously and forever the risking of their lives by trying to swim to the other shore."
Outrageous Fortune suggests implicitly, and I agree explicitly, that it may be time to build a bridge, instead of encouraging our theatre artists to become better swimmers.


Unknown said...

I haven't read the study but with all these excellent commentaries, it looks like I'll have to break down and do so soon.

I'm glad you brought up the "light production" values. With one notable exception -- and that only in the writing not the realization on stage -- I write my plays to have one set/backdrop. Sometimes it is one set piece on a bare stage with light and shadow providing the rest. (I haven't read the Hall treatise either but will). I do like hats specially made for some of my shows, though.

And certainly "produce more plays" is great advice. Will the ADs have enough time left to kiss rich butt, though?

Reading this was an excellent expenditure of time today. Thanks. Scott!

ps. It will take some changing attitudes on the part of actors, as well as playwrights and ADs, to evolve to the point where companies are the norm here.

Dennis Baker said...

Of the first round of reflections, I connected with yours the most (by no means a contest). Something that has stuck with me from watching How Theater Failed America is the idea that many American theaters no longer value people over everything else. To the shows specific point, donors get the name placket on the bathroom stall, while the artists barely scrape by.

As you mention, what is in vogue are big sets and new buildings, not the chance to give the artists, a salary with health benefits and a artistic home where they can have a balanced work and life.

@Uke I concur actors (and all theater artists) need to evolve and create companies where, through community, the care of people come first.

Scott Walters said...

Uke -- Definitely this is a long-term change process. I think the first step is admitting there is a problem (and not shrugging it off with a 'that's just the way it is" cynicism), and to acknowledge that there are possible solutions to start from. Getting there takes longer, but the admitting is half the battle.

Christopher Ashworth said...


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As always wonderful. Added to bookmarks.

Andrew Wood Acting Studio said...

Brilliantly said. So brilliant, it inspired me.

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Carl Benson said...

Well written post with excellent points. Going anecdotal to back one up.

I run a small company in SF called PianoFight. We do all new work and have never had a set which cost more than $200. Because the work is new, most of it is also set contemporary, so costumes are usually pulled from actors closets.

After a bunch of incredibly frustrating blog conversations on the Merits of TCG's "Free Night of Theater" campaign, in which I argued that giving away a product that nobody wants isn't going to increase demand, I sarcastically posted on some comment that instead of Free Night, we should do something cool like huck rotten veggies at actors and charge more for it.

So we did it and here's the video:

Shit was bananas and really fun. It was basically a 25 minute set of veggie tossing tailored sketch comedy, which we'd written one night earlier in the week. It wasn't perfect, and we'll do it better next time (yes, there will definitely be a next time), but the point is that the biggest budget item of the eveing was the vegetables. No set, no development process, no outlandish costumes, just people performing for other people. It was simple, fun and messy.

Which I guess is my real point. Live performance is messy. Shit happens. People drop lines, improvise, set pieces fall down, orchestra members fall asleep, audience members heckle. Live performance is always inherently messy because there are always uncontrollable variables. So if we know going into it that the nature of the beast we're trying to tame can't actually be tamed, then why do we spend years agonizing over read thrus and drafts and readings and months and months rehearsing it till it's dead and hours and dollars on sets that are going to be unusable and gone immediately after the show's gone? Doesn't make any sense.

Anyway, I told that story because I agree whole heartedly with your point about simple theater. Not saying we can't have theater that builds lavish sets, takes 20 years to develop one script or flies in a designer from Milan to work out the costumes etc, just saying we should place less importance on it.

Thanks for the post,


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 ...