Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Define "Broken"

Scott links to this piece by his blog-brother, Tom Loughlin. It's a pretty good summation of where things are. I have some pretty significant differences with it, though. Particularly this section:
Sometimes it’s not even a question of finding solutions. In many cases the solutions are out there just waiting to be implemented. I think it goes deeper than that. We, as a culture, seem to have a deep affinity towards inertia. We want things comfortable. We want things to be predictable. We want them to be the same. And we do not want to have to do the hard work involved in maintenance. Consensus seems harder than ever to achieve.

Emphasis mine. I think this gets the problem wrong. Yes, there's a lot that's not working for a lot of people in theatre, but it's not a matter of a general malaise or laziness. It's a matter of a pretty entrenched power structure that, as far as some people are concerned, is working pretty well. And they're committed to keeping it that way.

Tom singles out theatre education as a place that:
broken because it trains students for a broken profession while simultaneously breaking their personal financial situations by leaving them thousands of dollars in debt with no practical way of recovering their money. This piece of news seems not have reached theatre departments, but even if it had, theatre departments have too much invested in what they currently do to ever change.

And that last sentence is the key part. As far as theatre administrators are concerned, the system is working just fine. The money comes pouring in, the students are showing up, and leaving with degrees and everything is happening as it should. Some are successful and some are not and that's the nature of the business. In fact, any suggestion otherwise is pretty damn threatening and they'd rather not hear it. In fact, they ignore it because, for them, it won't work.

I went to a grad school here in New York and, after I left, I got pretty fed up with the school and some of the very public choices that they made, in terms of some outreach things. I finally wrote a pretty angry letter about it to the administration and cc'd a number of grads. I felt like I was summing up how a number of us felt about the program and the way it was run. I went as far as to request that I be left out of any alumni outreach and would even return the degree if it meant forgoing the debt. And, frankly, I was one of the moderately successful grads. You would think that this would have sparked some conversation, some back-and-forth. I did receive back a fairly thorough fisking of my letter, but that was it. They don't think it's broken. It's not even just laziness or inertia. It's actual injustice.

Many of the people who are hard at work in our theatres and arts institutions and schools may be have some inkling that the system is stumbling. They feel like it's harder and harder to just stay in place. But these are things that, like Tom, they attribute to the larger society, rather than the power structures that are in place. There is quite the will to rebel, if the various theatre blogs are any representation. Along with the will, there are the tools and the language and the strategies. But they don't happen in a vacuum. The Daisey-Olson exchange is the perfect example of that. Todd Olson is, in essence, saying the old quote: "The system we have is the worst system, except for everything else." It may not be perfect, but it gets the job done and is reliable. They do think they're Bill Belichik; they're making adjustments to play the same game, within the same set of rules and guideline.s What we're asking them to do is try a whole new offense, never punt on fourth down or punt on third down. The Rick Ankiel analogy is better. That's not an adjustment. That's rethinking what you're doing fundamentally. And that's just plain hard. There's a reason why Rick Ankiel is a singular story. You spend your life doing one thing; it's not easy to do another thing. Plus so much of your identity is wrapped up in that.

Now, imagine that, instead of being a total, sudden bust as a pitcher, Rick Ankiel just slipped down and down the ladder as he got older, but was still able to command a pretty significant wage. Maybe he'd slide over into a reliever or a closer, but he'd still be a pitcher. He's still making money at it, so if you ask him, he's not broken. He just needs an adjustment. It's the same place our financial system is at. Wall Street doesn't think it's broken. It just needs an adjustment.

If that's what Tom is thinking when he says "inertia," I can agree. But I don't think it's a one-sided problem. The other end of this is actively maintaining the status quo and would really rather not make the changes because the new system is less likely to be beneficial for them. And any system that's less beneficial for them is, by definition, broken. Who wants to participate in a broken system. I guess that's the real question for the rest of us...


Scott Walters said...

I agree with you -- except when you say "There is quite the will to rebel, if the various theatre blogs are any representation." My impressions is that theatre bloggers are as committed to the status quo as everyone else. Oh, sure, in a bar after a show they may unfurl their courage a little, but most of them are too scared to say anything that others might find take personally -- don't want to offend anyone who could hire them in the future. Don Hall is one who doesn't pull his punches, but where are the other radicals? I don't see them.

Yes, the power structure is keeping the status quo going. That's why I hammer on TCG so much. That's why Daisey has to waste his time responding to Olson's challenges. And so often, the response from the theatre bloggers is: hey, these guys are trying, don't hammer them, can't we be more positive and talk about more government arts funding and maybe how to use Twitter to increase audiences?

That's the stuff of inertia.

99 said...

I don't know if I totally agree there (obviously). Don definitely doesn't pull punches and that sort of "fuck it all" honesty is rare in all places. But I do think there's a lot of unrest out there, being spoken of and is looking for that flashpoint. I think your own work is part of that. Yeah, there are establishment voices, trying to shout it down and certainly the establishment is shutting it out, but I think the pump is primed and all we needs the catalyst.

For my money, I don't think that it's a waste of time for Mike to respond to Todd at all. I think that's exactly what we need. It's not about the approval of the establishment; in fact, it's the opposite. To bust out the apocryphal Ghandi, first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win. The anti-standard model has been ignored so far, in any meaningful way. Maybe it's time for some good old-fashioned scraps.

Scott Walters said...

I only mean it is a waste of Mike's time, not a waste of time to respond. Mike is an artist who is also trying to create new work, but because of the topic of HTFA he keeps being sucked into the role of activist. It would be nice if there were other voices added to his own -- he seems to be hanging out there alone an awful lot.

About Don -- sometimes I'm not totally certain what his vision is except artists ought to be tougher and give up thinking they ought to make money as artists. In many ways, he is a spokesman for walking away from the corporate model entirely and starting over from scratch, a belief I share. That's where Mike and I differ: I don't give a damn about fixing the regional theatre because it is broken so bad it would have to be bulldozed, in my opinion.

Which brings us back to Loughlin's post. Third base.

99 said...

Heh. Love a good Abbott & Costello reference.

I don't think it's a waste of Mike's time because he's proving his exact point: artists can be trusted to think about the overall health of an organization. It's not fair for him to advocate that artists be put on as staff people and given a measure of control and then say, "Well, I'm too busy as an artist to do that." It's essential that, given the opportunity, he rise to the occasion. Standing around and insisting that other artists do things that you won't do is the worst kind of hypocrisy and it would undermine his whole thesis. We have to be able to be activists, artists, administrators and advocates. Otherwise we're back to first base (ha!) and saying we need administrators to do the dirty work while we keep our beautiful minds free.

Scott Walters said...

Who? What? I don't know!

Like I say, I'm glad he's doing it, and you're right -- if he didn't do it, the conversation would be over. I wish more would speak up, though.

Tom Loughlin said...

You know, actually I agree with your statement about entrenched power structures quite a lot. I wish I had put it that way. But one thing I think is apparent is that entrenched power structures think they are doing good, and that's where the inertia lies. Convincing fundamentally good people that they are no longer doing good takes a lot of energy.

99 said...

I see what you're saying about inertia. It's used so much to mean laziness. But this is more like an ocean liner. It's going somewhere, but if you think it needs to go somewhere else, it can be hard to adjust the course.