Friday, February 25, 2011

Off to See the Wizard

As Teresa Eyring notes in her TCG blog, there was a small group of arts "service organization" leaders invited to DC to discuss the recent #supplydemand issue with NEA leader Rocco Landesman. I was one of those invited. I must admit, I felt honored to be invited to the table.

Prior to the meeting, which had no agenda beyond that it was about #supplydemand, we were sent a compendium of the conversations that had occurred since Landesman's address at the Arena Stage "From Scarcity to Abundance" convening caused the flap to begin. Most of the writings were blog posts, but there was some MSM articles as well, and I think even some tweets. I printed out the whole thing -- it came to 266 pages. I must admit, when I read these writings back to back, I found myself increasingly depressed at the level of discourse, which rarely rose above the depth of a child's plastic swimming pool. When "who will decide" is the most you can muster as an argument against the idea that we need to decrease the supply of theatres, it's an indication that you're not particularly serious. But my attitude changed when I entered the NEA conference room at 3:00 Tuesday afternoon following an eight hour drive from Asheville.

I must confess, I don't know what I expected from this meeting. The night before, I had received a phone call from Teresa Eyring wanting to talk about what the upcoming discussion. It seems that most didn't want to talk about "supply and demand," but rather wanted to get Landesman to stop talking about supply and demand and instead focus on something more "positive" about the arts. Given the political situation, many people thought that this wasn't the time to raise such issues, which might get picked up by foundations as an excuse to cut their arts funding, and legislators looking to do the same thing. I listened, and said I understood, but also pointed out that, from my perspective with CRADLE, the discussion of supply and demand actually opened up a space for discussion that applied to my work in small and rural communities, and that the status quo worked against what I valued. The next morning, as I rose at 5:00 to hit the road by six, I became increasingly convinced that we needed to have the supply and demand conversation as originally planned. I stopped at a McDonalds and wrote Teresa an email expressing my intention to keep the focus on that conversation, and expressing my resentment about the prospect of the conversation being hijacked.

I arrived ten minutes late (parking in DC is horrendous), and the meeting had begun. And so had the attempt to refocus the discussion. I tried unsuccessfully to control my anger, but after a few minutes I expressed my opinion, passionately and probably a wee bit too strongly. I often find, when I am among long-time arts leaders, that I express myself a bit too strongly. I always feel decidedly working class in such gatherings.

Anyway, I'm not certain what I expected from the meeting. I think I usually set my expectations too high, and go in hoping that just this once a group of leaders might actually do some innovative problem-solving, that, given the assembled experience and intelligence in the room, a breakthrough might occur. I don't know why I always hope this will happen -- it has never happened before in my entire life, and I've attended a whole lot of meetings. And it didn't happen at the NEA, either, I'm sorry to say.

I'm not sure what Landesman was hoping for, but he seemed to think it as a good meeting. He did a lot of clarifying about what he meant and didn't mean, trying to mollify the assembled leaders. And maybe that's what he wanted to accomplish. Anyway, whatever it was he wanted, I hope he got it. What I heard was a lot of the same old same old. But I was happy to be at the table, and apparently enough of a wild card that people would occasionally say something about small and rural communities, lest I speak too strongly again.

The one thing I heard that did make me cock my head to the side, however, was the way that bloggers and tweeters were talked about by the assembled leaders. It wasn't good. Many of them seemed to see the whole on-line conversation as airing dirty laundry and working against the field, as people just speaking off the top of their heads and engaging in crazy talk. This came up again and again. And that's when I became a more confirmed blogger and tweeter.

These leaders are used to controlling the conversation from their privileged positions. If they think it ought to be talked about, it will be; if not, it will be silenced. Things should be decided behind closed doors, away from the prying eyes of the public and preferably not within earshot of artists. All this on-line democratization of conversation just works against creating a unified message to the general public. And just who is it who thinks there might be too many theatres in New York and coined the term Nylachi? (Ahem.)

Now, this attitude wasn't universal -- there were some people, like Mark Valdez of the Network of Ensemble Theatres, who didn't seem to think blogging and tweeting was out of bounds. But it came up frequently enough to be a theme. And as I said above, I wouldn't say that references to "death panels" and getting all oogly-googly because some blogger posted (gasp) charts from Econ 101 to make a point really was our best work, but damn it, I read a lot more new ideas on-line than I heard in that room on Pennsylvania Avenue. And those charts were helpful in clarifying the debate a bit.

So dammit, blog on, tweet away, be heard, share ideas, come up with crazy suggestions, innovate like mad because innovation isn't going to happen top-down; innovation never happens top-down. The top is committed to the status quo, and has lost the sense of the necessity for change. I may feel sometimes like we can do better in the theatrosphere, but even what we do is superior to the well-worn thoughts of most arts leaders.

Oh, by the way, when I left the meeting, I found that my car had been towed. Which, when all is said and done, just seemed sort of fitting...

UPDATE: I should probably publish the list of attendees:

Linda Parris Bailey, National Performance Network
Victoria Bailey, Theatre Development Fund
David Dik, Young Audiences, Inc. (by phone)
Mario Garcia Durham, National Endowment for the Arts
Kathy Evans, National Alliance for Musical Theatre
Teresa Eyring, Theatre Communications Group
Sandra Gibson, Association of Performing Arts Presenters
Adam Huttler, Fractured Atlas
Rocco Landesman, National Endowment for the Arts
Jason Loewith , National New Play Network
Lesley Malin, Shakespeare Theatre Association of America
Susie Medak, League of Resident Theatres
Ralph Remington, National Endowment for the Arts
Mark Valdez, Network of Ensemble Theatres
Scott Walters, Center for Rural Arts Development and Leadership Education

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 ...