Monday, May 18, 2009

Awkward Age

It's apparently Travis Day here at 99 Seats HQ. (I actually wrote this post this morning, but I'd started it a few weeks back.) On my Seven Concrete Steps to make theatre better, Travis makes a great point:
99Seats called out for his practical revolution in a widely shared post, and I was sort of puzzled as to the acclaim because…
Isn’t that what the storefront and indie groups are already doing?
The only difference is the money and the money will come. Success breeds attention breeds respect breeds financial support.
But what choice will you make when that moment comes? Will you cash it in for better board members and a yearly executive salary? Or will you dance with who brung ya?

And that, right there is the key thing. He's totally right. All theatre companies start off in that place, that larval stage where everyone does everything and you make it up as you go along and do what you can to make your show happen and engage. But the way the system is set up, that's only a stage, the infancy of your theatre. You're expected to grow up, get real and do a whole bunch of things to qualify for more funding, more support, more money. The foundations want you, not only to have a 501(c)3, but have a certain kind of profile. Same with local governments. Not to mention the general burnout that happens, so you add staff. All of these things are what leads down the road to institutionalism. And we all agree that institutionalism is bad. But it seems unavoidable.

I think what a lot of us are saying out here is AVOID IT. By all means. We've got to stop thinking like those early days when we're laying it all on the line for our art is just a stage. It's the whole thing. And we can focus some energy on making it sustainable. If there's any decent argument for institutionalism, and I rarely hear any, it's that it's sustainable. But that's the problem: it's self-sustaining to the point where the main purpose of an institution becomes to have an institution. We lose track of what's important in the interest of being important. The Seven Steps and, honestly, most of this blogging I do, is in the interest of staying true to the work and true to your mission and letting the other chips fall where they may. If after five years, you're burned out, don't necessarily go out and hire a marketing director. Think, Do I want to keep doing this? Maybe you don't. And that's okay.

For an art that's almost entirely ephermeral, we place a lot of emphasis on permanence. That calcification is killing us. I think we need to re-think that and re-think the life cycle of the theatre company. It might be best if we all stay in a state of arrested development for a while.


Travis Bedard said...

Well I obviously agree...

1. Institutions trap you with people, and work is work, no matter how much you enjoy going to the office. I work with one producing partner. That's my company. we work together because we choose to work together - EVERY TIME. When we work with others it's because we choose to work with them. The institution means that for many people they have no say in who they work with, which begins the road to "just another job" which isn't exactly how to maintain the passion.

2. Institutions feel like safety.

3. We copy the things that work. The corporate model (seemed to) work, so we aped it, and came up with the bizarre bifurcated management team and a board made of folks from outside the field.

4. I wouldn't turn down an intern ;)

5. If we treat companies like record labels - as entities that create a certain type of theatre, with the actual personnel drifting in and out, you will have continuity with lower burnout rates. If you want to do a collaged remix of Lear? Come work with us. We have some ideas on that, and the chops to make it look good. If you want to put up Brighton Beach Memoirs you find a company that leans that way.

But all of that means finding a personal style for yourself, and then having the gumption to go talk to people who can make it happen. And it may mean risking your own money in the pursuit....

Anonymous said...

Institutions are not inherently bad or destructive to the making of theater AT ALL. A well-run organization frees the company to make more and better creative choices!
Two examples: Soho Rep in NYC is a small company with an outstanding managing director and wonderful development support, so rather than "helping do everything" their terrific AD has time to direct, read plays, and plan their fabulous daring seasons.
There's a wonderfully creative young company in Chicago that I won't name where "everyone does everything." They have missed deadlines on seeking funding; I attended an oversold performance where sweaty, panicked staffers were trying to find places to fit audience and the show started nearly a half hour late, and while they are newly situated in great part of the city, a staff person frankly admitted they don't have "the time" to do marketing work to reach out to their new, young neighbors. The artistic work is promising and fresh, but without strong administrative support, they are going to go under.
There is no shame whatsoever is moving beyond the amateur attitude of "we all do everything (even if it means something doesn't get done because it isn't fun so no one wants to do it)", unless the company is more invested in hanging out together in an echo chamber than they are in reaching an audience.