Friday, May 1, 2009

You Say You Want A Revolution? or Seven Concrete Steps

As the week winds down, and we come to the end of another May Day, I find myself thinking about the gauntlet Isaac threw down here and here. Especially given my last, inchoate rant, I'd rather end the week with some constructive, semi-coherent thoughts about the future, the immediate, near future and what can be done. I absolutely agree with Isaac that simply saying things suck is not a plan and saying that we should junk the whole system and start over is not a strategy. On the flip, though, I do agree with Scott about how easy it is to stay working within the status quo and winding up just another part of the system. So, in the words of the commies, what is to be done?

I'm writing this mainly off the top of my head and coalescing various threads of thoughts that I've had rolling around. It may not all hang together, or it might be that dreaded old thing: a manifesto. Either way, here are five things I think we can do to hasten the theatre revolution here in New York City. This will be incredibly parochial and local and specific to this market and environment.

1. More 13Ps. It's been a couple of years since they burst onto the scene and everyone was hailing this amazing new way of making theatre: no artistic director, or rather, 13 artisitic directors. A company committed to the artists, first and foremost. A company run by artists. And far as I know, it's the only one. What's up with that? Where are the directors pulling together to do one of these for themselves? It's actually a remarkably simple model. Rob Handel has a particular set of skills, but given that most theatres are staffed by directors, he can't be the only one. And if you're saying that the shows haven't been that good (which I would disagree with), fine, then. Do it better. We don't need to create new models. We just have to use all of the ones we have.

2. Civil disobedience. No, really. Straight-up rule breaking. In particular, the NY Showcase Code. We all know it sucks, needs revising and is keeping small companies from doing great work and we all know it won't get done. Not on its own. So fuck it. Have Equity UN-Approved Showcases, Readings, what-have-you. I don't mean this as a license to abuse actors in any way. Just don't give a fuck about it. If you want to use Equity actors, encourage the use of silly pseudonyms. This system only stands up because we all act like it does. Let's just stop. If that means you can't use "real" "Equity-approved" venues, find other ones. As long as they're safe, clean and suitable for your purposes. Break the rules and sooner or later the rules will change.

3. Make your theatre Open Source. If you're in rehearsal, post script changes on the web, post rehearsal reports. Tape meetings and post that. Have as many open rehearsals as you can. Stop guarding our process like it was the Holy Grail. Share it, for others to learn from and use. And to do that...

4. Use new media. Really use it. Use it to build audiences and community. Use it the way Battlestar: Galactica used webisodes. To fill in the story, to tell the story in a different medium. If you have a theatre company with a website, post short films of plays, of readings of plays (helpful if you flaut the rules). If you're in rehearsal, post as much video as you can. Start thinking of the internet as a community-building device, not just a one-way communication tool.

5. Use your fan base. We all have them. People who know our work, know us, love us and will come out to see what we do, and will even pay a reasonable fee to do so. That's power. You have Facebook friends? Make more. And get them to come to your readings and shows. However you can. And don't be shy about it. In fact, use Facebook the way bands use MySpace. Build a real fan base and that means you can walk into a theatre and demand some respect. You're bringing in people. If they don't want that, what are they doing in theatre?

6. Act like a rock band. This follows on that last point. The music industry is as crowded, if not more crowded than the theatre industry and it's hard to make a living or bust out, but bands do. And they do it with their own blood, sweat, tears and duct tape. Form your theatre company like you're forming a band, a small, tight-knit crew of people who share ideals, influences and goals. Put yourself out there like you're a band, a unit. And control as much of the marketing and audience interface as you can. Design your own logo, draw it on your jacket and wear it around town. Carry your own stuff in and out venues and only play rooms that fit your style. Use mailing lists and websites to keep your fans up-to-date and ready to come out and support you. And love your fans. Respond to your fans. Make sure they know you can't it without them. They're why you're here.

7. Show ferocious loyalty. So much of this business is predicated on an utter and complete lack of real loyalty, especially on the way up. You're expected to drop your director, drop your actors as soon as a theatre dangles a production in your face. They will only love you as long as the NY Times loves you. Then you're out. And we wonder why it's so lonely and so depressing. Show loyalty. Demand that your collaborators are in the room. And be prepared to walk away if you're told "No." We are all in this together, and sometimes we have to lock arms and march.

And a bonus track. 8. Learn to say "No." Even to the big jobs. Piggybacking on 7, say no if the vibe isn't right. Say no if the collaborators are all wrong. Say no when the notes don't make any sense. And don't look back when you walk away. Too many of us stay in the game, dancing to someone else's tune because we think, down the line, we'll get to call the shots. Well, the tune never ends and we never get the baton. Start saying no and cashing in when you don't like it. Yeah, you'll get called a primadonna and difficult. Yeah, these opportunities might not come around again. But the thing about this, especially for playwrights, this thing of ours is a long con. It takes time to develop. We have time. And there really aren't any shortcuts. The wrong call is the wrong call, no matter when. So trust that voice that says, "This isn't all it's cracked up to be" and push away from the table when you have to. Protect yourself out there.

Okay. That's what I have to say. Let's make this a constructive summer deconstructing stuff.


isaac butler said...

Hey 99,

On the civil disobedience front... this one happens all the time. No one in small theatre seems to have even read the staged reading code, and little things with the showcase code (particularly total number of hours of rehearsal allowed and not paying anyone more than the actors) get violated all the time. There's a kind of wink-nudge thing going on.

This is the thing... I feel like we take it as an article of faith that the Showcase Code is demonic, and I'm not so sure that's true. You shouldn't be paying people more than you pay your actors. You shouldn't be able to run a show for more than four weeks without paying people. You shouldn't be spending more than 25K on a show without paying your labor.

The one provision in there that seems honestly destructive is the fact that you can't bring a show back again within a calendar year without moving to a mini-contract.

I mean, I'm open to being convinced, and I have lots of friends who are very enthusiastic about scrapping it, but it seems to me that real estate issues are far more destructive to small companies than labor relations and, as a good ole fashioned lefty, I'd rather take on the landlords than a union.

99 said...

The way I look at it, the main complaints about the Showcase Codes are the restrictions on runs, remounts and rehearsals. And it doesn't seem like actual revisions to that is coming any time soon. I'm a big old lefty and a big fan of the union, but Equity seems to be blocking a lot of good work from happening and frustrating the process. I know there are tons of things that happen outside of the code on all fronts, but I'm saying, do it publicly. Big publicly. Wear it as a badge of pride that you're flauting the rules. And that isn't an invitation to abuse the actors. In spirit, follow the rules: don't overwork people, don't do dangerous things, and by all means pay people appropriately and honor favored nations. Just don't get that piece of paper. Maybe they'll change it, maybe it will just be irrelevant. But take a larger measure of control about the work and don't shrink from the fight.

You're right, though: the real estate thing really is the biggest thing. If we can figure out how to screw the landlords, then we're in business.

Zack said...

Amen. This really made my day, 99seats. Thank you.

Scott Walters said...

This is a GREAT post. I hope that you get some followers. These guidelines could really start movement.

IanKnox said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jeremy said...

hey hey amen, brotha.

dennis baker said...

There is a lot of great stuff here.

I think loyalty, and saying no to projects that just are not right, are two big things that need to shift in whole artistic culture, especially the performers. Do you think it comes down to a power/priority shift? One in which the performers hold up the work and fellow artists over the possibility of money, fame, and the next big gig.

Also social media is something that all artists & theaters need to tap into. It is all about transparency through connecting and creating the conversation, starting with the fan base, and spreading from there.

Jay said...

Long-time subscriber (but only occasional reader) and this post is fantastic. Nice work!