Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Who? You!

Over at, the discussion of "Expressive Life" continues, and Alan Brown (of WolfBrown, who released the report on the intrinsic value of the arts) writes:
This conversation reminds me of the time six years ago when Wallace Foundation and RAND released Gifts of the Muse - Reframing the Debate about the Benefits of the Arts. After providing us with a terrifically erudite accounting of arts benefits, the authors' lead recommendation in the last chapter was to "develop language for discussing intrinsic benefits." And I wondered, whose job is it to create this new language? (Frankly, I'd hoped RAND might make some suggestions...) I imagined a room somewhere in the sub-basement of the NEA where wordsmiths were earnestly hammering away at new framing language that will, once and for all, tickle the funnybone of policymakers and convince them that the arts really matter.
The answer to Brown's "who" question, of course, is us. Bloggers, artists, educators, citizens, anybody who recognizes that the creative life of this country has been stolen by corporations (including non-profit corporations) and sold back to us as high-dollar products produced by underpaid and overpaid specialists. As Obama said back when he was a candidate, "We are the people we've been waiting for." But it requires that we become educated in our field.

Back in June 2008, I wrote a post about what I had learned attending the National Performing Arts Convention, where a discussion (on of the WolfBrown report was centerstage. Among artists, at least artists who blog (and by the way, when you're done pointing us to female bloggers, Isaac, would you find out where the blogs by actors are?), the report was virtually ignored, or dismissed. Here is what I wrote:
But what I have learned here at NPAC is that those who wield power in the theatre -- the administrators, the board members, the foundation staff -- do read these studies, do recognize the value of the data and the ideas, and do put them into action -- and that is how they maintain their power. They think more broadly about the art form. The result of lack of knowledge is a diminished power for artists, who give over control of their art to those who will take the time to study, to learn, to think. Mike Daisey, who brilliantly performed How Theatre Failed America here in front of the assembled administrators, rightly condemns the low status of actors on the regional theatre scene, but there is also truth to the idea that their status is low because they have given away their power by not being knowledgeable about broader issues than the latest theatre gossip, and not being willing to educate themselves on the issues and speak their mind together to demand change. They fear repercussions, yes, but they also avoid engaging anything but the most insular issues.

We in higher education must do something to change this know-nothing orientation. Instead of giving semester-long classes in auditioning, we need to empower our actors to take control of their art form, develop entrepreneurial skills, understand the context of their art form within the larger culture and economy, and become powerful, engaged artists who will not allow themselves to be manipulated and exploited.

The only way that things change is if artist become empowered, and they only become empowered if their are educated. Paulo Friere's classic Pedagogy of the Oppressed should become required reading for all theatre people so that they can understand what is at stake in developing their critical consciousness.
We're all busy, yes, and these reports often aren't page-turners. But like Outrageous Fortune, or better yet like Gates of Opportunity, the more we know the better understanding we have of the actual situation (and not just our own little corner of the world), and the more we know the better decisions we can make. Do we have time? Clay Shirky says we do, and he's right:

We are at a turning point in our culture. As Shirky says, in the 19th century it was gin, and the 20th century is was the sit-com, but we are starting to rouse from our binge and want to participate. We can wait for others to change things for us, or we can dig in and do so ourselves.

Bill Ivey, again as part of the Expressive Life discussion, provides a good reason why we need to take control of this discussion:

Now I'm not a conspiracy theorist (really; I'm not) but if I were it would be easy to frame the entire nonprofit arts scene as a plot to keep smart arts people from ever thinking about things like copyright, union agreements, media ownership, or mergers in the recording, film, and television, or live performance industries. They give the NEA an extra ten million some years, and it's all "high-fives;" the next year they take it away, and we spend thousands on seminars to help us cope with the funding crisis. All the while, bigger forces are quietly tying up the Internet, expanding the footprint of IP, while allowing heritage assets to be locked up in the vaults of a few merged media giants. The nonprofit scene can be viewed as a medium-sized sandbox in which arts people are asked to play for a pittance while mainstream policy actors use legislation, legal interpretation, and regulation to expand controlled revenue streams. But I'm not, just not, a conspiracy theorist...

I don't think you have to be a conspiracy theorist to see a lot of truth in what Ivey is saying. We have allowed ourselves to be distracted from the real conversations, and while we've slept, others have made decisions that have a great impact on us. Now we look at the figures and see that arts participation is at the lowest level in years. Are we going to change course, or are we going to ask the band to play just a little bit louder?


cgeye said...

"Now I'm not a conspiracy theorist (really; I'm not) but if I were it would be easy to frame the entire nonprofit arts scene as a plot to keep smart arts people from ever thinking about things like copyright, union agreements, media ownership, or mergers in the recording, film, and television, or live performance industries"

I'm reposting this from Parabasis, because even though a conspiracy might not be in place, it's funny how the decentralization, deprofessionalization and de-unification of theatre professionals echoes what happened in the Cold War art world: The championing of the deliberately-apolitical abstract expressionist art movement, backed by the CIA to discourage both political art and unionized/Communist cultural movements.

The regional theatre movement as it evolved might not have been drawn up at Langley, but it moved toward the same goals as post-WWII modern art: An emphasis on edifices and bureaucracies solidly aligned with commercial interests (the museum and dealer, over the artist); the de-emphasis on the group in favor of the star (regardless whether that star is created regionally or is imported from the approved cultural centers); the evolution of films and TV to be seen as steps up on the ladder of success, rather than seen as non-influential distractions from group work.

I'm probably wrong, but the shape of progress has been, in these cases, a shift toward corporate work -- corporate backed, corporate owned, corporate friendly. That isn't a conspiracy theory; it's theatre history.

Scott Walters said...

Great points, and great links. But I am puzzled: "it's funny how the decentralization, deprofessionalization and de-unification of theatre professionals echoes what happened in the Cold War art world"... I'm not clear why decentralization is part of this list, and I am not all that crazy about deprofessionalization, either. I'm generall FOR these ideas -- so could you explain this parallel?

Cole Matson said...

Actor blog here, Scott: The Unicorn Triumphant - The latest post I have up is on the idea of a theatre company run according to the monastic Rule of St Benedict (and its emphasis on hospitality, gentleness, and community).

I read several actor blogs, but they're mainly focused on narrating the trials and triumphs of finding work and building one's career, and most of them are out of NYC or LA.

One seeming hurdle for actors, I think, is the idea that if you can't direct, you're helpless to put on your own work. I stink as a director, and as a playwright. (I know, I've tried.) But I know the kinds of plays I want to do, so I've developed some producing skills. I can find a director.

Also, most actors just aren't interested in doing their own work. They want a shot at Broadway or a series regular role, so earning a spot in other people's shows is where they focus their attention.

Finally, the biggest reason why you don't see very many actors advocating decentralization and a return to smaller communities is the idea that only bad actors stay in small towns/cities, and only actors who couldn't cut it leave NYC or LA. Even I feel a bit of shame (irrational though it is) at the thought of showing my face at my NYU studio and telling my former classmates who are now doing edgy downtown theatre, "Yeah, I was doing Bye Bye Birdie in Baltimore." (Never mind that when I lived in Baltimore I was happily doing theatre as my day job as well as in the evenings, while most of them were waiting tables as they auditioned and felt miserable.) But even in Baltimore, there were only a few ensembles and actors who *wanted* to be in Baltimore and live and create in that community. Most actors were on their way to DC, or Chicago, or NYC, or LA. If you weren't, it probably meant you were a "community theatre" actor.

Scott Walters said...

Yes, Cole, I know that is the biggest reason. Of course, it is a big fat lie, and if it is really thought about, it makes no sense at all. Are you a better actor because you have a NYC zip code instead of a Baltimore one? When you paid your toll on the GW Bridge, did your talent level rise? Of course not -- you're the same actor you were, you just have entered the Myth of NYC. And if you "want a shot at Broadway or a series regular role," that's certainly the place to be.

My interest is in finding theatre artists who haven't drunk deeply of that particular Kool-Aid, who think that there is nothing intrinsically superior about the audience in NYC over the audience anywhere else, who think that people deserve to see theatre everywhere not just in urban areas, that care about the work as an end in itself not as a means to "fame," who have enough critical thinking skills to reflect on the NYC myth they've been taught and recognize its idiocy (and it doesn't take many critical thinking skills to do that). So all those actors your described need not apply.

As you note, you may not be able to direct -- that's OK, find someone who does. But neither of you should do only your specialty -- you need to act AND hang lights AND do outreach; and the director needs to direct AND handle marketing AND teach middle school classes AND... You get my drift. Read Daniel Quinn's "Beyond Civilization" and pay attention to the idea of "occupational tribes."

I have addressed for over four years now the idiocy and unsustainability of the current system of centralization. Finally, some are starting to recognize the problem.

Dennis Baker said...

I think actors have been sold (and chose to accept) a lie that states actors should focus on "the art" and let other people worry about the other "big picture" stuff.

We need more actors realizing that no matter how hard they work, no matter how many audition workshops they attend, no matter how many different headshots they get, it will not get you more work, more artistic challenges, and more support. That place doesn't exist for many actors, despite the way it's sold.

What they can do is realize that there is an artistic world outside the commercial/non-profit theater, and it's a good place to be. Yes, that place is where actors will need to take control, develop entrepreneurial skills, understand the larger context. But the only way actors will see the bigger picture is to let go of what is right in front of them.

Cole Matson said...

As I've been musing on Scott's recent posts, I hit upon another issue. As actors we're taught that our job is to serve the director's vision. We can create within that vision, but even when we disagree, we're there to serve him, so he has the final say over our artistic choices. Now this in effect hands over our creative power to someone else. If I trust the director's vision, I'll absolutely let him have the final say, trusting that we agree on the essentials, and that he's a more objective eye who can see how my choices fit into the bigger picture that the audience sees. I may not be able to see a discordant note that he can, and I'm willing to be guided by him to correct it.

However, if I don't trust the director and I completely and fundamentally disagree with what he's trying to get me to say, I can't in good artistic (and sometimes moral) conscience just say "yessir" and get on with it. (Or if I do, there's gotta be some greater overriding reason why.) I think the jobbing-in actor-for-hire view of a career puts us at risk of just focusing on our next career building block, rather than on building a body of work *and a community* in which we can live with integrity.

Part of the benefit of producing your own work as part of a stable ensemble is that you're able to work with like-minded people whom you can trust. This trust, this building of community, leads not only to better work, but also to deeper relationships and a stronger sense of mission.

I'm still a jobber at the moment, but I'm building a band of colleagues whom I enjoy working with and who want to tell the same sorts of stories I want to tell. I'd rather spend as much of my time working with them as possible. And eventually, once I've solidified the tribe that's starting to reveal itself, do most of my work as part of an ensemble, artists and audience in community.

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 ...