I love me some Isaac Butler. I think that's more than apparent. He was one of my inspirations for starting this blog and, even when my output is slow, I make it a point to read his stuff and hang out at his place. He's written a doozy of a post on the strengths and weakness of the "indie" theatre scene. (I guess Off-Off-Broadway is old hat now?) It really is good stuff, thorough and well-thought-out as usual (despite some funky formatting problems - did you write it originally in Word 2007? I've had problems cutting-and-pasting from the new version of Word into Blogger...but I digress). You absolutely should RTWT.
But...here's the thing for me: it's totally pointless. I'm sorry, Isaac. It's cathartic and everything, but it's all stuff that we all know. That out here in the blogosphere we've all talked about and talked about and talked about, fought about, broke up about, got back together about. I've only been kicking around here for a couple of years and I know I've written on this stuff, and so have you. Not enough money, not enough space, not enough noise, too many shows. Yep. All true. We need more collaboration, more connective tissue, more money. Yep. We do.
Maybe I'm feeling the same late summer bitterness and cynicism that's going around, but I don't think we're alone in this. I think that the folks who run the theatres know it, they read our blogs from time to time, they freaking live it. I know I lived it when I worked in theatres. The real question is how is it fixable? I don't know that it is. Because of one of the big, real insights in his post, the 200-pound gorilla in the middle of the entire theatre scene: some of the work is bad. Hell, let me give in to the cynicism all the way: a lot of the work sucks. Period. And there's nothing we can do about that. Because it's not really a bug. It's a feature.
We work in lightning, in alchemy. You put together a group of passionate, energized people of varying levels of talent, organization and sanity, shake vigorously and sometimes, you get brilliance. Sometimes you get a big, fat turd. And that's the life we've chosen. But because of that, you know what: no one with money is going to give it to us, willy-nilly. Whenever I talk to someone on the "inside" about the crappy funding practices and wack funding priorities, pretty soon we get to the real crux of the problem: no one wants to give money to something that sucks. That's why basically every theatre in town, at every level, is exactly one bad show away from failure. Once you stink, it's hard to get that stench out of the seats. We're all dependent on hand-outs to survive, whether they're handouts from rich people or rich foundations or handouts from the government. And none of them want to piss money away.
And the really great thing about this problem, well, the two really great things, are that it's a beautiful, double-bind, Catch-22 situation. One, you really can't tell. There was a show announced this spring, at a theatre that I rather like. It was a big, ambitious production of a neglected American classic. It was cast with slightly starry people, but interesting actors, many of whom had solid theatre credits under their belt. I was excited about it, thrilled. And I was stoked when I got a comp offer during previews. Sweet! Except it was the worst show I've ever seen and I walked out of it. And it was a huge, honking failure. On paper, it was awesome. But somehow, somewhere in the process, it went horribly wrong. You can't quality control that.
(Sidebar: I was trying to think of the opposite situation- something that, on paper, sounded like a terrible idea, an awful, train-wreck of a show, but that turned out, in actuality, to be great. Can anyone think of something like that? Maybe Spring Awakening?)
The other part of the double-bind is that our community will resist it. We don't want quality control. You know what people call it when you start talking about quality control measures? Commercialism. The reason the city and the rich people are willing to invest significantly more money in stadiums and movie studios and even opera companies and museums than theatres is because they know that those entities are trying to please their fans, going out of their way, sometimes even to the detriment of what they're supposed to be doing (cf. the recent Yankees and Mets) in order to "put butts in the seats." Well, that and make money. If a theatre company announced its intention to have the biggest box office ever, as a goal, it would be shunned. Probably rightfully so, but that's a bigger issue, a bigger conflict for this community to deal with than "We can't get enough good press."
When your top strength, that anything can happen, in the rehearsal hall, in rewrites, on stage at any given time, is your biggest weakness, you're screwed. And maybe there is a level of just accepting that we're kind of screwed. Until theatre companies can find a way to make money of their own without being pilloried as turning commercial or sacrificing their core values, we're kind of screwed.