Tuesday, March 31, 2009

All Of This Has Happened Before...*

(So, apparently, that little break was way more little than I expected. I left my memory stick at home today with the play I was working and have nothing to do at work. So...there's this.)

Apparently, watching a lot of television leads to philosophy. Two of my favorite shows lately, this one and this one lead me to this philosophical idea: eternal return. Or for the more theatrically minded, The Circle of Life. Or also, so it goes, if you want to get all literary.

In the back and forth below, I said something I think bears a little repeating: theatre is not dying. There. I said it. I'll say it again: the American theatre is not dying. There is not doom and gloom on the horizon. We will not all be replaced by life-size high def screens playing the collected works of Michael Bay. I do not believe this. And, I think, in most of your hearts, you do not believe this.

On the flip side, the theatre has been dying since the day after Oedipus Rex closed. There was always some better time, when the plays were better and more varied, the artists happier, the audiences plentiful and engaged. Whether it was five years, ten years, fifty years or whatever, it was better and the current time is a pale shadow. Plays are crasser, shallower, the audiences are old now and out of touch and the artists are unsatisfied and unhappy. Critics have said it, theatre schools have been founded upon it, pages of ink spilled over it. Theatre has been a dying art since the year 3.

So it goes.

I'm being flip about this, I know. But it does drive me up the wall. What I was trying to say here wasn't that it was good, or right, or even unfixable. But it is. It simply is. And there has to be a point where you recognize it and make your decision about what to do about it. Not what to say or who to talk to, but do. And where you're going to put your energy.

I don't think it does theatre any good to have people running around like Chicken Littles, throwing up their hands and saying, "The sky is falling." Because, from the outside, it ain't. It ain't falling at all. Yes, of course, I believe it can be better and, yes, of course, I believe we can all be acting towards change, but the professions of disaster don't help our case and keep us in this reactive, begging mode.

This isn't to say that theatres closing and jobs and opportunities drying up isn't a problem for all of us. I'm talking about the attack to that problem. How do we engage it? I've worked in theatres for a healthy chunk of my adult life, but I'm a playwright. I think like a playwright. I engage this problem as a playwright. Other people engage it in different ways and kudos to them. We will all come together at some point. I do have faith in that. Theatre is continuing to develop, grow and change. As it evolves, we evolve. We may not always like the current state. We may have more velociraptors and less peacocks. But like the old joke about the weather in New England, wait five years and it'll change.

When I approach all of this stuff from the standpoint of an artist, and trying to be an artist only, my horizon does narrow a bit. I think, "What am I going to write next? What do I have to say now?" Among the people I have to banish from my mental studio, along with critics, artistic directors and my parents, right there are the good fighters, saying, "How is this making theatre better?" I can only write what I write. Once it's done, I can figure out how to use this script to make the theatre I want to see, want to be involved in. Right now, I'm focusing on being an artist. And if theatre is dying art form, smothering in its own pretensions and creature comforts, if good work is snuffed out, well, then, what the hell's the point?

The point is I can opt out of that system. Just...opt out. Or opt in partly, slightly, or decide that in the ecology of theatre, I'm not an oak, growing anywhere. I'm an orchid and I flower better in fewer places. And, yes, Scott, I know: the oak suck up all the nutrients and light and the orchids die off. But if I'm a successful little orchid, I make other orchids and sooner or later, we take over the oaks. But, huh, what do you know? The oaks gave us shelter, and added some nutrients back and when they're gone, we go. But then we're all mulch and new oaks and orchids grow. (I should note here that I literally know nothing at all about plants, ecology, or oaks. That may not have been readily apparent.)

Our ecosystem is out of whack, that's for sure. But unlike the real ecosystem, this imaginary one isn't going to kill us all. Honest.

All of this has happened before...and it will happen again.


Parallel Conversations*

After many, many recommendations from various sources, I've been reading Remix by Lawrence Lessig. A fascinating read and definitely provoking many thoughts in me. But one, curious thing I've found about it is how little, I find, it applies to theatre. There's a lot of great stuff in it about new ways of creating work and about the ridiculous nature of our copyright rules, but, in my experience, little of that applies to theatre. There are definitely artists doing work that approaches the kind of stuff Lessig describes in terms of "remixes" (here's one example: Venice Saved), but, by and large, my experience is different. Most theatre performances, while definitely affected by the audiences, don't substantially change due to audience interaction (outside of improv and the Neo-Futurists, anyway). Isaac touched on some of that here.

I write the play. The company rehearses the play. Then we perform the play. The audience either engages or not. At the end, they leave with the memory. If we gave every audience member a memory stick with the script on it at the end, or maybe a video of the performance they saw that they could then edit, we'd be approaching what Lessig is discussing.

But there is something valuable for theatre artists in his book, and it's something I want to explore further: the nature of economies. What kind of economy is theatre? Are we an open-source, trust-and-collaboration-based sharing economy or a commercial, product-development-and-production economy? I think we're some hybrid, and that's where things get sticky.

In the comments to this post below, Scott says:

What I'm trying to get at with the Wal-Mart analogy is that artists need to find a place and stay there. If that place is NY or Chicago or LA, fine, then stay there and commit your life to creating for that place; if it is Marshall NC or Normal IL, fine, stay there and commit your life to creating for that place. But stick someplace, put down some roots, and really become a fixture, listen and absorb. This rootless Wal-Mart culture saps the lifeblood from the arts, replacing it with a thin water that is called "American popular culture" that is the result of theoretical ideas about what Americans "like," not real experience. That's all I'm saying.

And that's when I start to feel the disconnect that I sometimes have when we have these conversations. Like we're talking in parallel. I think that, as artists, we deal in a sharing economy. I write a play. I give it to a director and we collaborate. We bring in actors and all of us collaborate. The play is enriched for the experience (hopefully). We do this, for the most part, for intangible benefits. Largely this part of the work happens outside of the structure of theatres and is largely unpaid. It's done because we love it, we love to do it, and we like each other (at least at the beginning of the process).

Theatres exist, mainly, in a commercial economy. They're looking for products to sell to their audiences. They operate as businesses, but talk the lingo of a sharing economy and (often) take advantage of artists who are trained to work, and usually work best, in a sharing economy. It's from the theatre side that we get the Wal-Marting of American Theatre. That's their business model.

This is what I mean by the title of this post. Often, I think Scott (and others) are talking to artists about changing their economy, or rather about how their economy isn't working, when it's the theatres' economies that are the issue. I don't mean that artists are uninvolved in the system, or incapable of changing it. It's just that it's not necessarily only up to them.

Even on a slow work day....lunch calls...more soon....


Get Big Picture

Saw these guys last night. As always blew me away. But for whatever reason, when they did this number, I thought about all of us out here in the theatre world.

There's gonna come a time when the true scene leaders
Will forget where they differ and get big picture...

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Get Busy Living or...

Since I'm back here, I figured I should explain the latest gap. I got nothing as cogent as Isaac to say (though Scott's thoughts on the follow-up are really good). I kind of just got busy, writing a new play (in something like three weeks), getting ready for a reading of another, short play (and meaning to do rewrites there, too...eventually), going out on the occasional date, working my regular 9-5 gig, and doing teaching one day (now, two) a week. Not mention friends, karaoke and watching lots and lots of television programs. (And I haven't even gotten to this one yet...and I know a couple of the writers.)

And so...something had to give. And it was you guys. Or rather, this thing. Which, I'll tell you, isn't necessarily the worst thing in the world. Not that this blog is so awful (I'm not fishing for compliments here); I know it's not. And it probably does some useful service in the world or the theatrosphere (or however that's spelled these days). But...really? I'm happier writing plays. So I think I'll be doing more of that for a little while. And it turns out, it's hard for me to write and blog. Not so much for others, so go read them for a while.

Me, I'm looking for a sandbox to play in. I want to build sand castles, quick, dirty, messy and maybe beautiful, let the tide take 'em and build some more. Isaac is right: we trade in smoke and mirrors. I say, it's a feature, not a bug. I'm tired of trying to make plays perfect. I want to just make some plays. I want to write a metric ton of first drafts and then find some poor sucker willing to let me dive into his pool and put them up, as is. It was good enough for Shakespeare. Hell, it was good enough for Nicky Silver. It can be good enough for me.

Before I head out to play in other people's sandboxes (and maybe pee in a couple of pools), a couple of quick things:

- This is old, but still...heh, indeed.

- Scott, I love ya, dude. No matter what pops up in the comments. But please to remember this: some folks leave small towns for good reasons. Sometimes it's not the place for you, your talent or your life. Sometimes you have to travel, learn a few things about yourself in order to come back (a la Doc Hollywood...or Cars...or Jeff Daniels). Staying, returning to your small town should be presented as an option, but it's not the only one or even a better one for many, many young artists. That's just as irresponsible as presenting New York (or Chicago or L.A.) as a the solution to all of their problems. Ideas are good, options are good, but there is a reality out there.

- And speaking of reality...let's say theatre is not dying...not even really ailing. Let's say that theartre will go on and on and on for all of human history on this planet. And let's say that it will look like this forever: there will be big fancy theatres that do shows and plays and whatnot and appeal to the widest audience with the bluntest objects they can find and there will be mid-sized theatres that ape the big theatres and there will be small theatres that do their own thing, some trying to be mid-sized theatres, some not and there will be little theatres struggling for oxygen, growing, blooming, dying in short bursts, all the time, all over. And that is what American theatre will be. And no blog, no book, no single theatre company is ever, ever going to change that. Let's say all of that. Then...as a wiser man than I once said, "What are you prepared to do?"

Remember, the first thing we all learn about theatre? It's about action.

See ya in the funny papers.


I Actually Laughed Out Loud...

...at the clearest sign ever of the death of hip-hop. Because it takes a nation of theatregoers to fear a black actor.

Really, Victory Gardens? Really? Two plays with centering around "hip-hop-loving/influenced" youth? Do you know how un-hip that makes you look? You're worse than Michael Steele.

Monday, March 9, 2009

A Day on the Farm

Via Scott, here's a great post by John Stancato of Stolen Chair Theatre Company about his trip to New Paltz, NY (a toddling town), which is apparently the CSA capital of the world. The idea of theatre as CSA (or, as John uses CST) is a pretty good one. Take a gander...

Friday, March 6, 2009

Interesting News...

It's not often Playbill brings you something that's, well, intriguing and interesting, but this story is. Casting updates are rarely actually "news;" we all know that they're essentially (if not actually) just published press releases. But this one...I think, is. And should be.

Having an African-American actress play this part is actually a major shift in that play. Ms. Rashad is quite light-skinned, but she can't really pass. So the question becomes...since it's about a family...what happens with the rest of the cast?

I just saw it, with Estelle Parsons, and I was somewhat surprised to find that it's a great play. I knew it was a great production, but in the play itself, I found a depth I hadn't heard hinted about. With Pulitzer Prize-winners, the tendency is to pick a play that makes rich white people feel comfortable. Whether it's a safe exploration of a subculture, a serious meditation on the effects of white people on a minority, or, more often than not, a play about the very serious problems of rich white people. I'm not faulting all of these as plays, or saying they're not good, but they live within a very narrow wavelength.

August: Osage County starts off very much about the problems of rich white people, but near the end, it gains a resonance about the generation raised during the (first) Great Depression and how that experience changed them and affects their families and, by extension, the country. It's not too heavy-handed, but it's there and it's effective (more effective than the standard, minority-outsider-observer). I can definitely see why it won the big prize.

But if you change the racial mix of the play...woo, boy. I think you wind up with something even more interesting and complicated. Not to mention making the whole family biracial...it would be absolutely worth seeing again.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Macro and Micro

In the comments to this post, the estimable Don Hall raises a good question:

Pragmatically, how do you propose we deal with what we have while still working
to change what we have?

And given Scott's thoughts, I think there's a bit of a disconnect happening here. There's a crisis going on in theatre. Well, maybe not exactly a crisis, but a sense of impending doom and fear among theatre professionals, as well as a feeling of dissatisfaction among artists. In a way, these are two different issues, with some overlap. I read a fair amount of political blogs, like Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein and they talk a lot about the whole Republican fixation on cutting spending during a recession because, if you, as a person, don't have enough money to cover your expenses, you spend less, and so the government should behave the same. This is a silly idea, and misunderstands macro-economics and micro-economics. I think there's something similar at work here. (This is likely a pretty big stretch, but go with me for a moment.)

How do I propose we deal with what we have while still working to change what we have? By working with what we have and working to change what we have. As an artist, I have the micro issues to deal with: writing my plays and getting my plays produced in the best way possible. Since I'm not a wealthy person and can't put up the cash to produce in a fancy, off-Broadway venue all myself, that does mean, to one extent or another, dealing with the theatre as it is. It does mean having to deal with the system and trying to find the best way for me to maintain my integrity and vision. For me, that does mean looking at my work as a "product." Not in a "how do I make this product appeal to the widest audience to make the most money" way, but in the "where will this have the best home" way. I am still a solo craftsperson in a marketplace of craftspeople. I do make chairs, and I make them the way I like to make them. But I do have to have people buy them. But maintaining my integrity is all on me. That, I think, is the micro level, the street view.

On the macro level is working to change the way theatres operate. That may involve creating my own theatre. That may involve gaining a position of some control in a theatre and changing their policies. It may involve moving to another part of the country that's underserved. It may be some combination of those. My career as an individual artist may be a help in that, providing me the appropriate pedigree to the appropriate people. It may get in the way, depending on what I want to do next with it. But that's a different kind of change and a different kind of mission. They're connected and interwoven, but there are different approaches to both.

So...back to Don's question: what do I intend to do? Write good plays. Write plays I'm proud of. Find the best homes for those plays. Hope to make some money. Or at least build some cred. And then use that cred and that money to make better theatres. And keep having these conversations, keep trying these ideas out in large and small ways. I've kicked around starting a theatre company in my 'hood, but I've found that it is hard to balance the two. So right now, I'm focusing on writing my plays.

I don't think everyone should take that path. Hell, I'm not even sure it's the right path for me. Since I took my "vacation" from all of this, I'm a bit less of a bomb-thrower. But it's a long way from choosing not to throw bombs and selling out.

We absolutely need the revolutionists and the iconoclasts, kicking down doors, setting the joint on fire. But we also need sleeper agents, fifth columnists and inside men, too.


I only met him in passing here and there, but most people I know who knew him loved him. And, hell, the man lived a good long life of writing. Much respect.