Thursday, December 17, 2009

Three Parties

This is the season for parties. Every theatre, organization, company, you name it, is throwing a holiday/Christmas/Solstice bash and inviting all and sundry. They're sometimes good times, sometimes a chore, sometimes even exciting and full of drama. That's why we love 'em. Well, that and the free booze and vittles. Nothing beats a good cheese spread and a plastic cup of cheap wine.

In the last week or so, I've gone to three parties hosted by three different theatres, two on the same day. In light of the ongoing discussions of diversity and community, what I saw there was in ways interesting, a bit encouraging and definitely noteworthy. So I figured I'd share my observations with you all.

The first fete was actually not a holiday party; it was a benefit for a company I've worked with as a staff person. I volunteered to help out, because I'm a nice fella and because I want them to produce my work someday. The name of the game, right? I figured I'd give them a couple of hours, do a little gladhanding, remind them that I exist and score some free eats. I should have known better. Those people worked my ass, for about eight hours, especially at the end. Most of the event staff was made up of former interns, all largely doing the same thing I was, but all were about ten years younger. Old folks like me shouldn't be up at midnight on a school night lugging boxes down the back stairs of a fancy banquet hall.

This was a big gala benefit for a company that's a bit known for, not to put too fine a point on it, starfucking. Having worked there, I can say that accusation is both true and not true. Yes, it's true that they lean towards finding "name" people for parts and have traditionally done so, but it's never (or very rarely) at the expense of finding good people. They don't produce a lot and want to get a lot of bang for the buck, so...stars of stage and film with some theatre cred get the nod. Sometimes it works well. Sometimes, yeah, less so. But it's genuine starfucking, if that's a term.

Benefits are really board events and the board of this theatre is fairly high-powered. Big Broadway producers and dealmakers. Yeah, they tend to use this theatre as a place to try out works on the (sort of) cheap. That's part of their business model. Like most other theatres, the other part is the one, big, gala benefit that pays for the bulk of your season. You rent out a big fancy hall, get the whole thing catered like a wedding, your board invites their fanciest friends, whether or not they've ever set foot in your theatre and you throw a party and ask people for money. A lot of money.

This benefit featured auctions: a silent auction and a live auction, with a real, live auctioneer from Sotheby's or something. The things auctioned off were high-end watches and cigar humidors, trips to Italy, set visits on hit TV shows, all donated by board members and friends who have things like villas in Italy and produce hit TV shows. Nice work if you can get it.

The crowd was dotted with recognizable stars, stars of TV shows and movies. There were photo ops a-plenty. Hell, I was even a bit starstruck and I'd worked with some of these folks before. It was glamorous and it was supposed to be. Looking around the room, the attendees were almost uniformly white, with a median age around 55 or 60. A lot of couples, a few single ladies, very few single men. I worked with this theatre for a couple of years and I'd never seen the majority of these people at any shows. But I gathered that many had attended galas like this one before.

The staff working the event, like I said, was mostly former interns and staff members. I knocked the median age up quite a bit. They were mostly in their early twenties, it was mostly women, and almost all white. Most of what we did was invisible, in support of the event. They did feed us, nicely, but the opportunities to meet the attendees, talk to them about the company or theatre were limited. When it was over, they left with their gift baskets, all smiles, having had a nice meal, flowing booze, and the warm feeling of supporting the arts.

A couple of days later, I was at a holiday party, hosted by a developmental theatre, another one I'd worked at. Needless to say, it was a very different affair. It had, obviously, a different ostensible purpose, of course: it was a party. No admission, no auctions, no money changing hands. It was catered, really, but there was food, provided by the theatre. It wasn't a fundraising opportunity, but many, many board members and funders were there, mixing and mingling with the staff and the artists. It was HUGE. Really. A shit-ton of people packed into the space. Loud, hot and sweaty. Like a party. Because it really was a party.

Here, the median age was about 45, roughly. The largest clump of people were artists between 30 and 40, I'd say, playwrights, actors, directors. The racial mix was pretty diverse. Still, though, the funders were primarily white and older and the artists were diverse and younger, but the spread wasn't quite as pronounced. We all circled around each other as the staff schmoozed both the funders and the artists. The main goal was to make sure everyone had a good time and felt welcome. And we did.

This crowd was a Who's Who of indie theatre in New York. Artistic directors of small, upcoming companies and some established homes for new work bounced off of Obie-Award winners and emerging playwrights. It was a business crowd, even amongst the fun. Everyone was talking about their last project, their current project, their next project. Someone asked me, "How's the work?" I launched into a bit of a diatribe about my current day job and my frustration with it. She looked at me blankly until I said, "Well, at least I have time to write." "Oh," she said, "that's what I meant by 'work.'" It was that kind of crowd. The people there were moving solidly into the prime of their careers and the room felt like it. There was a buzz there, a palpable buzz. Okay, the free flowing beer and decent wine helped. But also the atmosphere of the place itself. As a developmental theatre, it doesn't produce. Instead it really does just develop, and provide a place for writers and artists to explore and grow without the pressures of production. It's a rare thing in this field and people love it for that.

Then I left that party to head over the holiday party at the theatre that's my artistic home. I'd already run into a number of people headed for the same party, but we all said the same thing: "We're waiting to head up there because there won't be a lot of food and we want the old fogies to head home." A bit tongue-in-cheek...but largely true. This party was a "potluck," i.e. everyone brings the cheapest thing they can in the hopes that someone else bring something better. You see the logical flaw there.

And sure enough, there were some nice hors d'oeuvres, good cheese plates, but no real food. Plenty of booze and still some old folks left. It's a membership theatre with an aging membership, so that's be expected. The median at this party was hard to figure out, though, since there were two distinct clumps of people: 50 and up and 30 and down. Not a lot in the middle. The older crowd were the longtime members. The younger crowd was largely made up of staff, interns, some actors and a young playwrights group that's a part of the theatre. There wasn't a lot of mingling between the groups. When I got there, the younger folks were pushing for louder music and the start of the dancing, while the older folks had arrayed themselves in the theatre, and wanted to keep talking. Again, this crowd was almost entirely white (I was one of a couple of flecks of pepper in the sugar bowl) and on balance more women than men. The conversations were generally small talk-y, some catching up with people, some sharing stories. This group, for all of its dysfunction (or maybe because of it) functions more like a family, so it was more like a family reunion than a work party. I didn't see any board members or funders, just artists and friends and significant others.

Like a family, this theatre is often a hotbed of tension and simmering resentments, and this party was no different. There always seems to be some malcontented faction somewhere, skulking about and glaring at their rivals. Sometimes that's me. This time, I had had a couple of beers and was well into a good mood. Or at least a mood for some dancing. I joined the ranks of the youth movement and agitated to get the Christmas music off and drop some good danceable music. Eventually, it happened. The alterkochers shuffled off (largely...some hearty souls remained), the Beyonce and Prince started and the groove was attained. By then, the crowd had given way almost entirely to the under-30 set, finally ready to do their thing on the stage. I might have hung for longer, but someone had busted out the cheap bourbon and before I knew it, it was time to go home. Before I did something regrettable. The place was still jumping when I bundled up and went back out into the cold.

This was a thoroughly, utterly and totally non-scientific and subjective study, but it does seem to come close to the kind of demographics you see in the NEA study that just came out. Again, not much of a surprise, but still it's always interesting to see it in actual life. I'm sure there are other parties you've attended lately. Who's been at those parties? What have they been like? We're in a social business and the social side is just as important as the business. This is the season of parties. Who are you seeing gathered around the cheese plate?

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