Friday, February 29, 2008
- Metacritic for Theatre. If you don’t know the site Metacritic.com, it’s a pretty neat thing: it’s a review aggregator for movies, tv, music, and games. It takes reviews from publications all around the country and on the web, gives them a numerical value and calculates a total score. So if a movie has nine good reviews from newspapers around the country and one bad review from a national magazine, it winds up with an overall positive review. And vice versa.
This is essential for New York theatre. One of the biggest problems on the scene is the air space that the New York Times theatre reviews takes up in the community’s mind. All that really matters is what the New York Times has to say. Even in this age on online reviews, in a city of several daily newspapers, the media capital of the world, basically two guys who write for one paper can kill any show, doom any show to obscurity, or create the Next Big Thing with one stroke of their pen. I don’t think I’m exaggerating in the slightest. There is a massive power inequity that hurts theatres, especially experimental theatres. The Times has a definite taste and if you fall outside of that, woe to you.
This has hurt New York theatre because all the boards, funders and subscribers care about is the Times review. It doesn’t matter if audiences like the play, respond favorably. If the Times review is bad, that play is dead, never to be produced again, never to be trusted. The days when the playwright’s career would also be over are gone, but it’s not much better.
A review aggregator, like Metacritic, would allow patrons to see the wider scope of press and get more opinions. It would widen the conversation and expose people to different schools of thought, different kinds of theatre. While the reviewers aren’t the sole arbiter of taste, they play an important role. We just need to regulate that role a bit more.
- A full-court press by groups like ART/NY, TDF and TCG to find ways to lower ticket prices. I went to a very good Off-Broadway show in a respectable house (around 100 seats). It really was an excellent show, though, at least for me, not mind-expanding. The cast was good, solid New York actors, but no stars of any kind. No “name” playwright or “director.” A very typical New York theatre production. I had a friend involved, so I got a comp. The regular ticket price: $45. Plus fees, if you order online. The house, on a Thursday night? About ten people, and I doubt any of them paid (though I could be wrong). Was that show worth that ticket price? Not anything against it in any way, but no. Especially considering that if I wanted to bring a date, now we’re talking $100, before dinner.
A few weeks back, I went to this theatre to see a play. It was a big, messy, joyous thing, certainly not a polished, slick piece of theatre. It looked great, was passionately performed. A big, sloppy kiss of a play. And the regular ticket price: $20. Because of a huge sponsor, granted. But under those circumstance, I could hate the play, dislike any aspect of it, and, you know what, I might still come back to see the next one. Because I’m not out a significant amount of money.
This is a big freaking part of the problem. At the current ticket price range, for most folks, the plays have no room to suck. Because of the investment. A theatre professor of mine always said that theatre had to justify its theft of time. And now, more and more, it has to justify its theft of money. This leads to more revivals, more stunt casting, more timid plays. Because there’s no room for failure.
I know that there are a lot of reasons for this problem, from union salaries and requirements to theatre costs and real estate to the price of advertising in a super-saturated environment. But there is one simple solution: money. A concerted effort from the theatre development and advocacy groups to build a pool of funds to help defray costs and keep ticket prices low. These guys can’t do it for everyone, but if others joined in the fight, were brought to the table and this problem were addressed head-on, the benefits are exponential. If Off-Broadway show from here to here are all the same low price, more people come and see them, the theatres can take bigger chances, more theatres can thrive. If I ran one of these organizations, I would make lower ticket prices across the board in five years my number one goal.
Those are my ideas? What are yours?
Sunday, February 24, 2008
I think Scott is making excellent points, but I think there’s an assumption or two in his premise that sets up a false opposition. A part of the premise of the “break from of Nylachi gravity” is that other communities are in more need of theatres, due to the density of theatres clustered around NY, LA and Chicago. But this assumes that the theatres in those places are evenly spread out and serve large parts of those cities. I live in New York, so I can’t speak to what it’s like in Chicago and L.A. (though I have certainly heard things). Here in New York, there are many, many people who aren’t being served by the non-profit theatres.
New York has often been described as a large collection of small towns piled on top of each other, and that’s pretty accurate. There are definitely theatres and performance groups of all kinds located in most neighborhoods, but most of the theatres are clustered in certain neighborhoods and, more importantly, those theatres don’t necessarily serve the neighborhoods they’re in.
The overall point is that a different model will make theatre better. Scott focuses a bit on making theatre people happier; while that’s a big part of the story, it’s not the end-game (at least for me). We want a vital, passionate, relevant theatre. And everyone should have access to that. Urban centers shouldn’t be left with the same traditional non-profits, serving the same sections of the community when the more adventurous artists have left to form tribes in other places.
So I say for those of us in urban centers, look for neighborhood, neighboring communities, places where there appears to be a lack of theatre, or a lack of a certain kind of theatre. Scott’s suggestions work on that basis as well.
Wednesday, February 20, 2008
Friday, February 15, 2008
1. It's the height of laziness. Let's just do what someone else is doing, slap a different name on it, spin it just a little bit and call it "new". It reminds me of this and this and this and this. That is to say: lazy, lazy, lazy.
2. Um. It's not like you're an obscure, little-known company without an international hit to your name. Are you scared that once RENT closes, you'll need to replace that income? Hence you're doing something that sounds very much like a regular gala benefit.
3. Again, it's not like you don't have a theatre with a history of producing musicals. You're not expanding your programming, heading into uncharted territory. This isn't exactly a risk for you. So...we're back to #2. And #1.
4. I'm all for neglected musicals getting revisited, but to also revisit things that have had long, happy lives, that makes less sense. Also, there's already a company in NYC dedicated to reviving lost musicals. Again, see #1.
5. The most enraging, infruriating, frustrating, hair-pulling-out upsetting thing: YOU'RE A THEATRE DEDICATED TO NEW WORK. NEW WORK. Not a bunch of musicals that have been sitting on a shelf. And even if you wanted to give another chance to underappreciated works, produce them. Don't give them bullshit "high profile" readings. You have a theatre. Produce new musicals. Produce new work. Give new voices a chance. Don't do "readings" of old musicals, which, if they're hits, will invariably be given new productions and keep new musicals in readings and workshops. Take some chances!
Honestly, if this was announced by Lincoln Center or if City Center was expanding the Encores! program, it wouldn't be nearly so enraging. But NYTW doing it is such a shock and so depressing. And senseless. It's easily the most boneheaded thing announced by a theatre this year (and the year is still young...)
"The flaw in your analysis is that in the Foundation model there is no
product bought and sold, merely created and distributed. The Standard Model
of theater business treats the art, rather than a boon to be distributed, as
a commodity to be bought and sold.Thus, the Standard NFP Model was started
as a charitable organization and has become a Corporate Machine."
A fair point. But I think that's part of the problem with the Standard Model. In your normal "corporate" entity or business, if you're the CEO, top manager, chair, what-have-you, there's some flexibility to market your product more effectively. You can deal with competition, changing markets, make decisions about efficiency more easily because the buck stops with you. The money coming in is spent as you see fit, or as demanded by your product.
In the Standard Theatre Model, as it's used in most places, the artistic/professional staff is hamstrung by their board. If the board doesn't support their decisions, the decisions don't happen. Again, the specter of the foundation world creeps in: the Carnegie Foundation doesn't have to worry about competition, doesn't have to worry about replenishing its funds (not through "sales", at least not as far as I know). They have to make sure that their treasure is well-spent, the books balance and none of the Carnegies are making money off of it.
I agree that there is intense pressure on theatres to operate as a business, but within this framework of having a board that can veto your business decisions and not take the blame for timidity or falling revenues. I'm of the opinion that the first place you start to change this is by changing the model. And not being afraid of the word "corporate". It certainly has the connotation of staid, controlling, timid business, but it doesn't need to. Rethinking how we talk about organization and working models is as important as rethinking the models themselves.
Wednesday, February 13, 2008
At one theatre I worked at, the big battle was getting the founding Artistic Director to relinquish control of the finances. Granted, he had made some bad choices, but the reasoning was that it wasn’t “business-like” to have one person make the major decisions, oversee the finances and decide the course of the organization. If that’s not business-like, what the hell are businesses doing? How often do you read about someone being the Chair and CEO of a major corporation? Often. And that’s basically the situation many theatres have, at least when they start. In fact, when the board forces out a CEO, it’s usually described as a coup, especially if it’s a founder. And it’s usually a bad sign for that company.
If we looked at theatres as what they are, small businesses, the attitude would change. But we don’t. And the Standard Model is one of the big reasons we don’t. Because it wasn’t designed for theatre. It has a different purpose and history.
A few years back, an arts consultant I met with explained this to me and it literally blew my mind. The Corporate Model is not corporate at all. It comes from a totally different world: foundations. In the early days of the non-profits, when the underpinnings of the regional theatre movement were put in place, when regulation was sought, the federal government looked to foundations to set up the rules. And they did, based on their model. Look at it this way:
When a family (or a company) has too much money, they create a foundation to distribute it to those who need it more than they do. The foundation’s prime purpose is to make sure that the family (or company) doesn’t just give the money back to itself, that there is a fair and even-handed policy. They act as a firewall between the money and the family.
So, with the Standard Model in theatre, instead of money, it’s art or talent. The artists have it, but need a board to tell them how to use it, how to support it, so that they don’t waste it. It makes more sense now, doesn’t it? They stand between the art and the masses, directing it, deciding how it should be used effectively.
This same consultant regularly said that theatre artists excel at one particular skill that’s important to business: delivering a product on time. We have a deadline, a drop dead deadline that (in most cases) must be obeyed. As a group, we can manage our time and set our priorities and achieve our goals. But still there is the perception of artists as being wasteful and frivolous. Mostly because we have different priorities.
One of the first steps in making theatre fully vibrant again is letting go of this attitude and remaking this model. Having a group of people dictating to the artists how their talents are to be “spent” does no one any good. We have to define for ourselves how we want to operate.
There is a legal question, since, for 501(c)3 status, you need to have a board. The loophole is that the government doesn’t care too much about how your board is organized. As long as it approves of your budget and meets a few other requirements, you’re good to go. You don’t have to buy into the idea that your board is financial engine of your theatre and therefore holding the keys. Other models are possible…
This play left me a bit cold and a bit befuddled. One thing I thought was a thought I had when I saw this play in Chicago: why not change the locale? Okay, fine, that means asking a playwright to make changes, but what makes this story particularly British? And, if it’s so British, why is it being produced in the U.S.? It may be a nativist thought, but if you’ve got a group of (mainly) affluent white urbanites talking about ideas, why not just change it from London to New York and let people use their own accents (or hire local actors)? Unless the British-ness is part of the selling point.
As for the play, it has its moving parts, and some very, very good performances. But, for my money, it plays with a stacked deck. Atheism almost always comes out on top in plays about religion. Inevitably, the atheists have the better arguments, the wittier lines, the snappy rejoinders and believers are presented as either stupid or terminally naïve. In most cases, the plays revolve around the atheist being forced to deal with some emotional truth, which is always hard for them, but eventually they come around. Believers are shown to be either saints or hypocrites. This play doesn’t deviate from that story much.
Personally, I’m a bit of an agnostic and I was raised by both fervent (and sometime hypocritical) believers and by passionate atheists. I think this is a vital conversation for our society to have and because it is a matter of ideas and beliefs, theatre is a perfect place to have it. But more often than not, we get plays that are meant to make one side feel better about itself. “Look,” plays like this say of atheists, “we have emotions! It’s hard for us, too!” This isn’t a conversation, it’s propaganda. Plays like this, in my opinion, contribute to the widening gaps in our culture.
I tend to talk in ideas and abstracts, but sometimes the specific is good. And, frankly, sometimes, I have opinions. So I’ll be taking advantage of my anonymity and sharing some thoughts on shows I see.
I have no interest in being a reviewer, both for personal and career reasons. I don’t intend to slog anyone unnecessarily, but I might have harsh judgments and who wants that coming back to bite you in the ass. And personally, my impulse is to cheer my friends on, to generate good will, but sometimes, you have to call them as you see them.
A few years’ back, a play of mine received a particularly bad review. It was one of my first and one of the only really negative reviews I’ve ever gotten. And the writer was a fellow playwright. Of course that bad review ate at me for years, literally. I wasn’t particularly friends with the playwright in question, but our circle of friends and collaborators overlapped. And I would say to myself, whenever I saw him across a crowded room, or read about his work being produced or workshopped, I’d think to myself, I owe that guy a pop in the nose! Finally, after a benefit for some mutual friends, we found ourselves at the after party and, of course, the review came up. And, no, I didn’t pop him in the nose. He seemed more disturbed by it that I was, frankly. It was the only review he’d written and he felt terribly, not just about me, but about others involved in the same production he’d been less than kind to. Needless to say, I no longer wanted to punch him; he’d very much gotten the worse end of the deal.
I do believe in karma, so I don’t want to be in that position. But I do want to share my thoughts on what’s actually happening on New York stages, as I see it. So these aren’t reviews, just responses. One guy’s thoughts on shows. Always after opening and after other reviews have hit. I may be an anonymous gadfly but I’m one who follows traditions.
So I saw this show the other day and this is actually a bit kind, if you ask me. This is a company I have a lot of respect and admiration for. They fill a vital place in the playwriting world. The scariest moments in a playwright’s life are the ones right after you leave a university program and are left to your own devices. The support and opportunities they provide are unbeatable. So this isn’t meant to tear it down in any way. And the show is slick and entertaining and a ton of fun. I have nothing against entertainment or fun, especially in theatre.
But…I felt they could do better. Ask for more from some very talented writers. Push them harder. Expand the playing field. The oldest cliché in writing, “write what you know” is as much axiom as advice: you write what you know. And, inevitably, young writers come back to two subjects: parents and sex. This particular evening is full of both: out-of-touch parents, bratty girls and sullen boys, sexual insecurity and awkwardness, lovers both hopeful and jaded. They’re written with varying degrees of skill and insight, but really, it’s the same story over and over, told in similar ways (naturalistic two-handers). It’s not bad, just…ordinary. One of the things I’ve loved watching this group over the years has been the variety of styles and subject matters. Read this, this and this for some background. (I link to these not as an endorsement of their content, but for the descriptions of the plays. I have my issues with the Times, to say the least.)
Not all of these plays were successful, or, in some cases, even good. But they were trying to reach past the easy stories to larger things. I was disappointed to simply be entertained at their latest show.
Tuesday, February 12, 2008
Jump in on the comments and tell us: If you were taught collaboration in a university program, either grad or undergrad, how was it done? Was it a workshop class where playwrights, directors and actors (maybe even designers) developed projects together? Was it a class focused solely on the collaborative process, tools and strategies for communication? What texts did you work from? Any textbooks? What models were you taught?
This young man asked an actor at the auditions (which were sloppily run, at best, also a producer problem) where he’d “stolen” a character from. In the one rehearsal I attended, he wasted time, asked the actors to do ridiculous things for no discernible reason and gave nonsensical notes that seemed to indicate line readings. Not to mention that our main character was not present. This was a train wreck of a rehearsal.
And then to top it off, he sent me a long, wordy e-mail of suggested rewrites. Not just notes, or thoughts, but actual rewrite suggestions. Part of my frustration with him is when we had a brief discussion of rewrites (in the middle of the rehearsal), he indicated his thoughts on how the ending of the play should be re-worked. I disagreed, and tried to explain why I had (mostly) the ending I wanted and what I was looking for, in terms of rewriting and workshopping, was that I wanted to support it better. His e-mail was, in essence, a four paragraph reiteration of his original idea, explaining that he’d thought about it and the “right” way to end to the play was his way. Plus, he quoted Harold Pinter.
This isn’t just a rant about a bad director. I’ve had them before, I’ll have them again. It’s not even a rant about a young director. He may turn out to be a fine director down the line. But that’s exactly the point: How will this young man learn to be a better director?
He’s at a fairly well-known school already. He has presumably been working with directors, both his professors and his fellow students. He may have even taken a class or a workshop. He’s not un-bright (well, that may be stretching it). So…what happens now?
This is part of the problem, and big part of it. Theatre is a collaborative art. I’m willing to go out on a limb and say that making theatre is the most collaborative of arts. It can only happen, even in this day and age of technological advances, with a group of people working toward a common goal with a common language and understanding. This doesn’t happen magically. It is taught.
Except our theatre programs don’t teach it. Actors learn to act and do whatever is necessary for them to achieve the best performance possible. Directors are taught to direct, to bring their vision to the stage, by whatever means necessary. Playwrights are taught to write their play and then defend it from predatory actors and directors by any means necessary. How does this help plays? How does this help theatre grow?
My young director is a bit of a bonehead, but somehow no one is taking him to task for being a bonehead. How does this help? And I lay this at my own feet as well. A serious conversation is needed, but I’m unwilling to do it. In part because, well, why invest in this kid. But partly because, as the playwright in this position, it doesn’t feel like it’s my job. (There's another post on powerlessness when things go wrong, but that's for another day.) But whose job is it?
So…how do we fix it? Well, we start by teaching collaboration. A class on collaboration should be a part of all college and grad school level curricula. And not just a “throw the kids in the pool and see what happens” kind of thing. I had that in my deeply dysfunctional grad school, a weekly, three-hour workshop that taught playwrights, directors and actors to fear their professors and classmates, that taught timidity and safety. Instead there should be classes on how collaboration works, on techniques and skills used in collaboration, on how theatre is made by many hands and voices.
We need to make better artists. Better equipped artists. We have to get them young.
Thursday, February 7, 2008
But, in short, I agree. The complaints are obvious and manifold. The solutions are trickier, stickier and harder to come by. But that’s where the conversation should head.
A play is an ephemeral thing, and there’s something about the relationships you forge in theatre that can have the same quality. When you’re working together, it’s so all-encompassing: making the play is all that’s happening in the world. But when it’s over, you go your separate ways until you work together again. Working in a theatre can be the same experience. The turnover rate, between interns, staff members, associated artists, company members, what-have-you, is so high that every couple of years, the theatre is a whole new organization.
That’s what it felt like on Monday night. I walked into a place that had been my home and found new people there. New kinds of work, different priorities and values. This isn’t a knock on the show (though I had some concerns) but the biggest thing for me was this: it wasn’t a show that I would have ever produced. In almost every way. I’ve seen other shows at this theatre that I wasn’t involved in, but I’d never felt such a huge disconnect between the kind of work I do and the work that they’re doing.
It was a profoundly isolating experience. Even more isolating that the usual feeling of going to someone else’s cast party. I always feel out of place, drinking and partying with people who are celebrating something that I’ve had no part in. This was worse because my connection to the theatre had once been so strong. But things change.
No grand point about theatre here, just a personal observation. I’ll get back to the ranting soon…
Saturday, February 2, 2008
Because it doesn’t work. And, in each passing year, it’s working less and less.
Let me say this upfront: theatre is not dying, will not die. Period. I’ve never been one of these people who believed that theatre would someday vanish from the world like the dodo. If anything, theatre’s like the coelacanth. Everyone will think it’s dead, but it’s out there, hiding. What I want is for theatre to stop hiding. Theatre can be truly vital again. The tools are there. The talent is there. The urge and need is there.
Over the last few years, whenever I’ve talked to anyone who’s working in theatre, the overwhelming feeling I’ve gotten is one of powerlessness. Artistic directors feel beholden to their boards. Artists feel beholden to artistic directors. Audiences feel let down by the theatre. And board members feel beholden to the audiences. Young artists feel that they can’t break through. Older artists feel like they have to keep doing the same thing over and over to stay in. There is a palpable feeling of disconnect between the primal artistic urge and the product that hits the stage and the audiences feel it.
But still they come. Yes, dozens, thousands of small theatres in New York have been snuffed out, but not really by lack of audience. In New York, theatre, including Broadway (which only about 45% of the time earns the name “theatre”), is the single largest generator of tourist income. Without theatre, this city would dry up and die. And not just because of all of the starving artists, but because people would have less reason to come here. Significantly less. People want to go to theatre, they crave theatre, they seek it out. They will make do with movies, with television, with whatever they can get their hands on. Theatre, in some form or another, will exist. Always.
But what kind of theatre will we have? Theatre that excites, informs, provokes, connects, entertains? Or the theatre we have now: theatre that is merely adequate, that fits the bill if you want live entertainment, but not much more, theatre that appeals to only a small subset of the population.
The standard model of theatre creates this. Innovation is frowned upon, pushing buttons is discouraged. Challenging the audience…no, no, no. Our subscribers will walk out. They will write angry letters. They will not come back. So we don’t.
New York Theater Workshop pulled its planned production of I Am Rachel Corrie, not due to death threats, but threats from funders. Let that sink in. One of the underlying assumptions in the standard model is that the “money” people handle the money and the “art” people make the art. This is never how it works. You can’t separate producing theatre from money. Money is part of the equation, and it should be. How it is, though, is the ultimate question.
What I want to talk about are different models, ones that encourage, support and reward innovation. One that put the artists at the center of the organization. Ones that don’t create this oppositional thing of money vs. art, as though only one can be served at any one time.
The grand sum of this model is that theatre is being produced for those who can afford it. We see plays about wealthy white people living in urban centers because those are the people sitting in the seats. And they’re sitting in the seats because they can afford to. This season, tickets for a straight play running in an mid-sized Off-Broadway house are $60 each. That’s $120, just for the tickets, for one night out, for a play, not by a “name” writer or featuring a “name” cast (though, it’s a play I like quite a lot. So see if you can get comps.). Through on that a good dinner, and you’re looking at a $300 evening. What if you don’t like it? How many people can put down that much money for one evening?
This is what the standard model is producing. This is the problem.
Theatre isn’t dying. But theatre artists are. And the audiences that most need theatre aren’t being reached
The federal rules on non-profit organizations (501(c)3 status) requires that the organization have a board of directors and corporate officers. Early in almost any theatre company’s history, these people are the artistic members of the community, along with friends, family members, mentors, the people providing the initial funding. All decisions, both artistic and financial, are made by the artistic members. Usually, there are only nominal titles, but the work is done by all capable of doing work.
The early days of a theatre company is catch-as-catch-can. If you can write a decent sentence, you’re writing grants. You can count, you’re the money person. Very rarely does anyone have any training in what they’re doing. Often, they just walked into the office at the right (or wrong) time.
If the company is successful, the grind of artistic administrative work usually takes its toll. Also, with more money coming in from artistic endeavors and better fundraising, means there’s money to hire a staff. This is the first step in institutionalization and, in general, the artistic members are all involved in this discussion and in the creation and staffing of the new positions.
As the company grows, new board members are brought on, board members who have more money, access to more money for the theatre. As more money comes in, the staff grows, the positions become more departmentalized and “professional”. Also the board begins to grow in power and influence. This is generally regarded as a good thing. A board that provides more money exerts more influence on the growth and direction of the company.
Eventually, the standard business model emerges: the organization is effectively cut in half. On one side, you have the artistic staff: Artistic Director, Literary Manager, Associate Artistic Director, etc. On the other, the administrative or business staff: Executive Director, Managing Director, Development Director. In very large organizations, there’s little meaningful contact between the two. The artistic staff reports to the Artistic Director, the administrative staff reports to the Executive Director, the Artistic Director and the Executive Director report to the board. The board, in stark legal terms, are responsible for the financial health of the theatre. If there are improprieties, it’s the board that’s ultimately responsible. If there are financial setbacks, it’s the board that deals with it. In real world terms, this means that the board is directing the actions of the organization. In general, they have the power to hire, and fire, both the Artistic Director and the Executive Director. They approve the theatre’s seasonal budget, at the very least, have nominal veto power of the selection of plays. At the end of the day, the buck stops with the board.
This is true for most any middle-sized or larger theatre from New York City to Des Moines to San Francisco.
It’s a big part of the problem.
Keep reading for the problem…