Monday, April 21, 2008

This Circus Life...

Okay, so there's your life, your significant other, your friends, drinking, talking, movies, the stuff of an actual life that you lead, the real stuff that matters to you...

...And there's work, Day-job-Land, boring but time-consuming, the complicated dance of doing well enough that you don't get fired, but not caring too much that you lose focus of the salient point: you do this for the money...

...And there's the work of this life, the plays to check out, the readings to go to, parties to schmooze and connect, keeping a finger on the pulse, who works where now, who's getting produced, who's looking for what scripts, the constant hustle...

...And, eventually, there's the art stuff, the actual writing, and re-writing, constructing plots, looking for inspiriation, building your own perfect little house to live in for a while, trying to find the time to go back into the half-finished stuff and polish it off, all of the work that should really matter...

...And there's this, writing this blog, trying to make changes, trying to do more for the field, thinking about what's going on, looking at the big picture...

...And the circus music starts up, you can smell the sawdust and popcorn, and you juggle, you toss it all up in the air and keep it moving, only spending a second or two with each one before up it goes and something else is in its place. They toss you new things, set things on fire, rev up the engine on the chainsaw. You go up a ladder, across a tightrope, dive into a pool, all the while, juggling and juggling, hoping you don't drop something fragile, something that can't be brushed off and tossed back up, hoping, when it's done, you have all of your appendages. Maybe a few new scars, but nothing too bad.

Sooner or later, though, you do drop something. It's going to happen.

So, this is a long way of saying, I kinda dropped the ball there. It got a little hectic and I had to go and live my life for a bit. It's still hectic, but I missed this conversation. I'm going to try to keep up my end.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Wonking out

So here's an analysis of Off-Off-Broadway budgets. I'm just looking at it and there are some very interesting things that jump right out. I'll be in the corner, geeking out a bit.


Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Tip Of The Hat... Sarah McL, a most excellent voice on the theatre-o-sphere...

That is all.

Us and Them

As is pretty apparent, once you wade into the artists vs. managers debate, things do get messy pretty quickly. I think this post and its comments show the messiness that erupts pretty quickly. I confess to being a bit thin-skinned on that point. I was an artist-administrator and was often treated with the attitude of "leave the money stuff to the grown-ups". Granted, I was also younger than most of the "grown-ups," but still.

The thing that I think I didn't emphasize enough below is that my issue...or my many, many issues...don't have so much to do with individual managers in any way. I've worked with terrible, terrible management, with excellent management, with very good hands-on people, with awful laissez-faire people. It's not about saying that, as a whole, arts managers are unnecessary because some are bad, or tin-eared. My issue is with the system that makes a management class a requirement. A system that lends itself to treating the artists as serfs and afterthoughts. Do all managers fall into the trap of treating the artists like very gifted child-laborers? No, but the system also means that, in general, artists have little to no control over the managers they get.

I know I don't always do it well, but I really want to reject the whole "us vs. them" frame. I don't think of us as two separate groups at odds. And I certainly don't think that "management" is THE obstacle to making better theatre. I'm certainly not looking to throw people out of jobs, or advocate the purging of all arts administrators. I'm an old-school, bomb-throwing anarcho-syndicalist, my friends; we're all the workers of the world and we need to unite and throw off the chains that bind us. The system is broken and it breaks a lot of good people.

One anonymous person asked that the big question: what do you want. Which is a good, good question. Ultimately, really, I want better theatres producing better theatre. I do want artists to be full-time staff members, as artistis, for the theatres to commit to playwrights, directors, designers and actors, not to the project. Will writing this blog make that happen? Probably not directly, but I like keeping this conversation going.

Monday, April 7, 2008

That sound you hear... Scott's head exploding in a fit of rage when he reads this.

Five jurors...four directly from the dreaded NYLACHI...and one formerly from NYLACHI.

For a national playwriting award. That, if I recall correctly, has only been awarded twice to plays that hadn't premiered in New York.

(h/t Parabasis, for pointing the way to the committee...)

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Skillz to pay the billz...

Not to stay in the world of meta, and also not to single out the very excellent rlewis, but this comment here and other ones I've come across in the last couple of days need a bit of a response.

I think we've all often heard the argument that theatres need managers because artists don't have the skill sets/the right mindset/the interest to do the dirty work of management. It's usually broken down into artists=left-brain and manager=right brain. Someone's got to manage the money and deal with the business, the argument goes. Left to their own devices, artists can't manage the cash, so they should stick to the art stuff and let the business people stick to the business stuff.

Um. Not to put to fine a point on it (and at the risk of offending): bullshit. I call bullshit on that.

A while back, I met with a theatre consultant who said a very, very interesting thing: theatre artists are particularly skilled at providing a product on a hard deadline. We have our opening night and 95 times out of 100, we produce our product on deadline. You show me a designer who isn't aware of their budget, I'll show you a designer not worth their salt (going over their budget is another matter I'll get into below). Artists may be funky, they may be messy or even occasionally flighty, but they're not dumb (well, mostly not). That attitude is part of the false dichotomy and part of the disempowering of artists.

Art and money are intimately connected. The problem arises, I think, because the "artists" have different priorities than the "suits". (I really don't buy those distinctions.) Taking the designer example from above, you take a designer and ask them to build a budget for a show. They certainly can and they can probably stick to it. But give them a budget that doesn't share their priorities and that's a different matter.

Every artist is their own business. We often have to juggle not just the job of making our art, but the job of marketing ourselves, hustling for opportunities, the job of building connections and, for most of us, a "real world" job that pays the bills. We're constantly adjusting, budgeting, setting priorities, managing time and scheduling. We make investments in new technologies to help us, new techniques to make ourselves more marketable, new methods of reaching our audiences. We set our own priorities.

But once we're involved in a theatre, we're expected to relinquish all of that, and act like helpless children. We shown our sandbox, told to play there and not get the sand all over the place. All of the hustle, hard work, time-management, budgeting and marketing that got us through the door are chalked up to talent or luck or whatever and we're expected to leave that stuff at the door, so the grown-ups can work on our behalf.

I'm not saying that ALL artists have ALL the skills to be effective managers. But then again, not ALL managers are good at their job (and let me tell ya, I've got stories to curl your hair). I'm just disputing that we "need" managers because the artists can't/won't do it. We can, we're used to it, we have the skills. You just have to trust us.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Money, Meet Mouth

As I was talking about here, I'm trying to be more proactive about my work. I've finally decided to get off my ass and do something. If I'm going to stay in New York for the duration, I have to make more of what I want to happen here. I'm going to get into this in another post, but it's so easy to get into a passive place as a playwright. You write and you write, and you wait and you wait for someone to take a chance, give you an opportunity. It wears on you, all of the waiting, and all of the wheel-spinning while you wait. If there's anything that drives playwrights crazy, it's the waiting.

And, as I weigh whether or not staying in New York is worth it, I just can't wait anymore.

So I'm finally taking Scott's advice and getting a tribe started. Here in my NYC neighborhood. It's a great place, full of artists of all kinds, including theatre, but not much in the way of theatre performances opportunities. There are lots of places to use, though, mostly non-traditional venues, which I like. I like using re-purposed places, unusual places. It heightens the community connection.

I want to share with you guys, as best I can, what this process is like. It may not work, it may not help, but it's something to try. I have to say that I'll still be guarding my identity pretty closely. Several folks have been very, very kind and offered opportunities and advice, and it's all appreciated in the extreme. Being anonymous is still new to me and I still want to protect myself a bit. I'm sure I'll get over it before too long, but for now, I'll be scrubbing things to keep the details obscured.

The first steps for starting a theatre tribe in New York: 1) find collaborators and 2) lay down some ground rules.

Since I'm particularly excited about connecting my tribe to my neighborhood, this changes how I go about finding fellow travelers. Ordinarily, I would just gather my favorite theatre people. Unfortunately, not all of them live in my 'hood. So I sent around an e-mail, looking for theatre folks. I got some good responses and found some people I didn't know were theatre people in the 'hood.

For me, the ground rules:

- All are welcome. I have no interest in being a "selector", in reading through scripts or holding auditions as anything more than informational sessions. I want the door to be open to all, whatever their skill level. Yeah, I'll sacrifice in some ways, but it will also keep it more authentic.

- To paraphrase a quote from one of my favorite movies (despite the fact that it's a dark, little thing): everybody works, nobody quits. It'll start slowly, but especially once we get into shows and such (if we get there), everyone pitches in on everything in some way.

- Not to get all Commie, but to each according to his/her need, from each according to his/her skill. Someone comes in the door with a script, they'll get a reading. If they really want a production, we try to make that happen. Someone walks in looking for a part, we find someone to write it for them.

This is all, of course, pie-in-the-sky for now. First off, the dreaded, evil reading series. I know, I know, but we have to start somewhere.

More as we go...

Standing at the Crossroads...

I was out the door. I really was. A few weeks back, I'd had it. I felt like my life in NYC theatre was going nowhere. I was fresh off a couple of rejections, stuck in the midst of rewrite hell on plays I've been working on forever and wasn't getting right. This isn't working, I thought. This isn't working at all. At New Year's, I had a long, frustrating and ultimately fruitless conversation with my dad, one of those conversations most artists have with their vaguely disapproving parents, the one where they oh-so-subtly advise that you give this pipe dream up. That conversation that really, really stings when it seems like nothing is panning out, when the plays aren't getting any better, when the production opportunities seem to be going to everyone you know except you, and when it's New Year's and you're realizing that you're well-past wunderkind age and should be feeling more comfortable in your work. That conversation that, underneath everything asks, "Is this really where you're meant to be?"

And add to that nearly a decade spent working in theatres as an administrator and not having health insurance or anything like a pension fund and barely even a savings bank. You're at the point where other people start getting serious raises at their careers, moving up in the world, but for you, you're in the twilight zone. Too experienced for an entry-level position as a script reader, not quite experienced enough to be an artistic director. And there just ain't that many associate artistic director positions out there. But, if you switch careers, throw in the towel, in most cases, you're starting at the bottom anyway. So...damned if you do, damned if you don't.

And I just plain felt damned.

So I was out. I'm still young(ish). I write firecracker dialogue, craft decent stories. I mainline pop culture like it was fresh china white and I'm a rock star from 1969. I like working with other writers. I even like assignments. You see how this math adds up. I've got a rented room, a temp job, and only a semi-serious significant other.

Mix it all together and what comes out on the other end? L.A.

I have some friends there, some connections. I've been once and liked it. I've even heard the decent things about the theatre scene. All in all, it ain't a bad idea.

Theatre, especially in New York City, can be such a thankless slog, an unending grudge match between you and about 500,000 of your closest frenemies. Sometimes, just throwing in the towel and saying, "New York, you win this round," seems like the only thing you can do to salvage even a shred of sanity.'s still my home, the place where I feel like I can own the sidewalks (even if I don't today). It's a big change, and a huge shift. So...I drag my feet and hope, just hope that something will change here, some chance will happen, some door will open.

And I guess I'm realizing that, before I throw up my hand, I can give it all one more shot, and really not hold back. Reading around the theatre-o-sphere the last couple of days has really inspired me a bit, to get up off my ass, stop blaming the system quite so much (which isn't to say there ain't a lot of things wrong with it) and do a bit more. Make my own doors, or jump through a window or two. It's the least I can do.

Besides, it isn't like California is going to fall into the sea. Tomorrow. I hope.

Time to pick a road...

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Hear, Hear

Turnabout is fair play, I hear, so since Matthew Freeman tossed me a nice link here, I'll toss it right back to him and this very excellent, thoughtful and well-stated post.

He hits on a lot of things that I was trying to say here. Most of us out in the field know the problems, know the things we want to see and are largely going back and forth over methods. We get so caught up in the "how" that we sometimes forget the "why". And we forget that, as Freeman says, we're all in this together.

I'm disenchanted with the standard model. So, when I start my theatre, I won't have the standard model. Scott wants tribes in small cities. Great! Let's have those, too. John says, in the comments here, that the problem is that not enough theatre people are running theatres. Then let's get it more. It's not all mutually-exclusive, zero-sum games.

The important part is this: we all want there to be better theatre, more vibrant theatre, more exciting theatre more readily available to more people than what we have now. How we get that theatre is up to us. Part of what's happened in the psychology of artists (and, I think, especially theatre artists) is that we've internalized this whole Calvinist, Puritan idea of what we do as being inherently frivolous and somehow needing massive justification. It automatically puts us on weaker footing out in the world, that feeling of having to convince the world that what we do has merit. And it does (and I hate to even utter this loathsome term) contribute to a culture of victim-hood and begging. (Ugh. I need a shower.)

A while back, I took a very, very excellent workshop on collaboration and we spoke at length about music-theatre and musical theatre and the rise and fall of the NEA. It was a kind of a free-wheeling conversation that raised a lot of questions about our methods of making art and our assumptions about the way it's all supposed to work. One of the points raised was that, often, in reaching out for funding, arts groups emphasize the "practical" benefits of exposure to the arts. "If your child listens to Mozart, he'll be good at math! If your child learns to read the works of Ovid in Latin, she'll be ready for law school!" Rather than this simple idea: "If you're exposed to the arts, you'll be a better human." In making the case of our usefulness, we often undermine our worth as artists, as doing something essential to humanity.

At the end of the day, for me, the works of Shakespeare and Moliere, Miller and Williams, Kusher and Vogel, Wasserstein and Wilson, Belluso and Washburn, they make us better people. And should be celebrated for that. We should be able to take comfort in that.

Yes, boards are very complicated things that are hard to get right. And, yes, the audiences are getting older and it's harder to find new one. And, yes, the ticket prices are out of control. And, hell, m*f*ing yes, the economics of this field need a revision, but goddamn it, we make better humans. Let's keep our eye on that ball.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Connecting the threads...

I read a lot of blogs. I have a fairly dull day job with little actual oversight, so I roam the internets quite a bit. And, in part thanks to this blog, I've been reading a lot of theatre blogs. I mean, a lot of theatre blogs. (I really need to get a blogroll going one of these days.) So today I read this...

and this...

and this...

and this...

...and the wheels of my brain get rolling, clicking along, and I'm trying to take a step back and think: okay, so, what does all of this mean? How does this all work together? What's all of this saying about the state of things in our little part of the world?

Not to say that there's some secret behind it all, some single idea that addresses it, but...okay, there's obviously some serious pay scale inequity going on. And there could well be some shifting of priorities needed. There are a number of overlapping issues, questions and problematic things that pop up. And make sure to check out the comments, particularly here. That's the last bit that I was thinking about now.

So...the audiences are bored, too. The artists are frustrated. The administrators are feeling hamstrung. The critics are wondering where the fire is. So...okay, what's working? Exactly? I know we're getting good plays sometimes. Is that enough? Can we expect more? Should we?

It does feel like Scott is right. (How often do I say that?) At the root is the economic inequity and expectations. You have a major institution, a major board and they expect things from their CEO. It puts the top executives in a very different economy from the rest of the organization. But there's something else...

I might be assumptions. We're all making assumptions about how things are, what the audiences want, what the artists want and we're not talking to each other quite enough, not asking each other the questions. And we're all assuming that individuals won't/can't change it. It seems that enough people are frustrated and unhappy. Something's got to give.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

What is to be done?

We all know it. We all know the problem. We all know the solution. What's the sticking point? What are we waiting for? At the very least, why aren't we, the theatre professionals and amateurs, the working stiffs and practioners, why aren't we howling in the streets, banging on doors, signing petitions? Is it really just apathy and fear and the seduction of the easy road? Is it self-interest?

This is all so very, very simple and we know it. I had a great conversation with a friend who works for a major foundation. And you bet your ass my friend knows it. The suggestion I got from my friend: write these people and these people and ask for meetings, go for lunches. What stops me from doing it? Is it cynicism?

It's like we're all stuck in this boat, this huge massive ocean liner and we see the iceberg, it's there, it's plain as day and we're steaming straight for it. We all know that we have to turn. Maybe some folks are thinking, "We can't turn fast enough." Maybe others are thinking, "If it's not this iceberg, it'll be something else." It could be, "The captain will never listen to us." There are definitely some thinking, "Get me a life raft out of here! We can make it to that island!" What are the rest of us thinking? Or are we just listening to the band? (Sorry, had to squeeze that in there, that's the rule, no Titanic metaphor is complete without the band. Re-arranging the deck chairs is optional.)

Whatever our reasons, we have to get over it and start making noise. Start speaking out, start making it change. We have to get over ourselves and get the ball rolling.