Tuesday, May 26, 2009

I Gots Things To Say...

...but no time to say them in. I've been caught in a kind of perfect storm of a big project at the old day job, a looming deadline writing-wise and pitiful attempts at a personal life. As usual, the blogging gets a bit squeezed. Later in the week, things should lighten up and I'll be back with my usual blather. I got stuff to say about tweeting the future, the banana republics we work in, and my theory of change. But you'll just have to wait, kids. Remember: patience is a virtue and builds character.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

I Nearly Missed This Great Huge Bowl of WTF

For various reasons, I've been on a bit of an internet fast these days, so I nearly missed this boat. But I wanna jump right the fuck on.

This is so messed up. And utterly unacceptable. I'm pretty poor these days myself, and I hate asking people to do things that involve money, but if you can, throw Primary Stages a subscription. And make sure they know you're doing it to support female playwrights and expanding diversity at our theatres.

And spread the word! And chime in here!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Horoscope

I'm not exactly a big believer in horoscopes and whatnot, but I read 'em from time to time. Rob Brezsny's Free Will Astrology is often surprisingly on point. And this was no exception:
LEO (July 23-Aug. 22): "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world," wrote anthropologist Margaret Meade. "Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." An excellent example of that occurred during America's Revolutionary War against England from 1775 to 1783. Of all the men in the 13 colonies who could have fought for freedom, only 16 percent did. I hope that gives you encouragement as you seek to fix a glitch in the status quo. You and your band of allies have more power than you know.

For various reasons, I've been a smidge despairing, but this actually helps. Go figure.

Getting It Right

This is what a blog post for a theatre should look like. I'm not weighing in on the argument; that's for another post. But I wanted to highlight this post. Because it reads and feels like a "real" blog. Not a marketing gimmick, the way most pieces posted on most institutional blogs (at least those here in NYC) feel. And it invites the readers to join in a conversation.

I'll have some further thoughts on the nature of connectivity and interaction soon, but I just wanted to point this out as an example of a theatre getting it right. It's not something we do a lot out here in the theatrosphere.

(Via)

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

They Write Letters

...And you should read them. Good stuff from Mission Paradox.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Modern Historical

Isaac points us to this piece by David Cote in the Guardian on the lack of American history plays. It's an intriguing point and he's got some great things to say. However, I gotta stand up for my playwrights on one particular point. Cote writes:
What of new plays about old subjects? It's hard to imagine producers commissioning a play about, oh, 18th-century American life, or a portrait of power such as Peter Morgan's Frost/Nixon or Howard Brenton's Never So Good. For the most part, young playwrights are churning out three-person plays set in contemporary, Ikea-decorated living rooms populated by quirky regular folk.

I think this gets the issue exactly backwards. I don't think that there is a real dearth of plays about historical figures and issues, or things beyond the usual "living rooms" of "quirky regular folk." To back that up, I present this, this, this, this, this and this. And that's just a smattering I pulled from memory. I'm sure there are others that I'm missing. I don't think that playwrights are shying away from it. It's just that there aren't a lot of theatres willing to go out on a limb and produce these kind of plays.

It seems that the idea is always that the audiences won't connect, won't understand the play. That may be true, but then again, all of these revivals and transfers seem to do pretty well. So maybe it's...something else. But it's not that the plays aren't out there, or even the playwrights interested in it aren't trying. For most playwrights, though, I think there's a bit of a simple arithmetic to it: historical plays aren't likely to be produced, especially by young or early career playwrights, so why write them? Maybe if there was a foundation supporting that kind of thing, you'd see more of it. It certainly worked for the Sloan Foundation and their science play programs.

I agree that there's something in the American spirit that's always about "looking forward" and letting our history, even our recent history, go down the memory hole. But there's also something to most theatre's pretty desperate need to seem "hip" or "cool" and that translates, almost constantly, into pretty, young white folk, sitting on Ikea furniture talking about their problems. And sex.

If we, as playwrights, are trying to get our work out there, it makes sense that's what most of us would wind up writing. Combine that with the undergrad and grad school obsession with "write what you know" in its most limited forms, the overwhelming amount of young, white actors and a general lack of education in historical matters both for the artists and the audience, well, it adds up to not a lot of historical plays on our stages. But theatres play an active role in that.

And, frankly, so does the press. David actually does pretty well, and kind of undermines his own argument with the Time Out Best of 2008, which features some homegrown period/historical plays, particularly some experimental things, like this. But it also features a major revival by a British director. And these are the kinds of things that theatres wind up looking for. Who's hot? Who's exciting? And then they book them. If British directors are in vogue, then everyone's got to have a British director. Until the next trend comes along. This is the system we have, and largely, the reason it's so broken.

Playwrights are definitely complicit in this (and I know I've written more than my fair share of people sitting on lovely furniture and talking plays), but we're not alone.

Awkward Age

It's apparently Travis Day here at 99 Seats HQ. (I actually wrote this post this morning, but I'd started it a few weeks back.) On my Seven Concrete Steps to make theatre better, Travis makes a great point:
99Seats called out for his practical revolution in a widely shared post, and I was sort of puzzled as to the acclaim because…
Isn’t that what the storefront and indie groups are already doing?
The only difference is the money and the money will come. Success breeds attention breeds respect breeds financial support.
But what choice will you make when that moment comes? Will you cash it in for better board members and a yearly executive salary? Or will you dance with who brung ya?

And that, right there is the key thing. He's totally right. All theatre companies start off in that place, that larval stage where everyone does everything and you make it up as you go along and do what you can to make your show happen and engage. But the way the system is set up, that's only a stage, the infancy of your theatre. You're expected to grow up, get real and do a whole bunch of things to qualify for more funding, more support, more money. The foundations want you, not only to have a 501(c)3, but have a certain kind of profile. Same with local governments. Not to mention the general burnout that happens, so you add staff. All of these things are what leads down the road to institutionalism. And we all agree that institutionalism is bad. But it seems unavoidable.

I think what a lot of us are saying out here is AVOID IT. By all means. We've got to stop thinking like those early days when we're laying it all on the line for our art is just a stage. It's the whole thing. And we can focus some energy on making it sustainable. If there's any decent argument for institutionalism, and I rarely hear any, it's that it's sustainable. But that's the problem: it's self-sustaining to the point where the main purpose of an institution becomes to have an institution. We lose track of what's important in the interest of being important. The Seven Steps and, honestly, most of this blogging I do, is in the interest of staying true to the work and true to your mission and letting the other chips fall where they may. If after five years, you're burned out, don't necessarily go out and hire a marketing director. Think, Do I want to keep doing this? Maybe you don't. And that's okay.

For an art that's almost entirely ephermeral, we place a lot of emphasis on permanence. That calcification is killing us. I think we need to re-think that and re-think the life cycle of the theatre company. It might be best if we all stay in a state of arrested development for a while.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Interesting...

...Very interesting...

Via.

Another for the Amen Corner

And not just because it's baseball and theatre together. Mostly because it's awesome. So read some Travis.

Isaac on Institutions

Isaac dives in the fray here and expands on what I was saying really well. Check it out.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Upon (Slightly) Further Reflection...

Sometimes you see your own words in a different context and they strike you in a new way. When I saw the words "racist institution" in Isaac's post here, it actually seemed a bit...harsh. Now, granted, the whole post was pretty harsh and I do generally say some harsh things around here. But still...when I wrote that post, I'd just seen Ruined was pretty het up by it. It's definitely a play that makes you want to stand up against injustice. Not that a play is equivalent to a war or something, but you know what I mean. So...I feel like a slight expansion, clarification, whatnot seems right. Or at least a longer, more substantive discussion.

As I said, I don't think that the people working at MTC are racists, and calling the operation a "racist institution" might have been a tad over the line. It's not like they're the Klu Klux Klan or something, or a bastion of segregation, obviously. So I don't mean to tar anyone with the David Duke brush there.

But I do think that Ruined is a victim of institutional racism. It seems remarkably clear to me, looking at the record. I did some more research today and since 1999, including this year, there have been 10 Pulitzer Prize winner for Drama. Of those 10 plays, 7 originated Off-Broadway. As of right now, 7 played on Broadway, either before or after they won the award. The three Off-Broadway plays: Wit, Dinner with Friends and Ruined. Ruined is the first Pulitzer Prize winner not to play on Broadway since 2000. Plays originally produced in New York by MTC have won 4 four of the last ten Pulitzers. One, Rabbit Hole, opened on Broadway. Proof transfered before winning the Pulitzer, Doubt after. Ruined seems pretty likely to end its run at MTC.

It's not like moving a play is something new or strange or difficult for MTC, even moving a show during rocky financial times. It's hard to imagine that an institution that purchased a Broadway house less than a decade ago would somehow lose the ability to move something. And, yes, I know that many shows are struggling and the financials across the board are bad. But even still shows are moving and opening and running. And, as I said, large cast shows are indeed opening and running.

And usually when a show receives wide acclaim and box office success, the buzz about a move starts going. And, in general, the producing theatre is a source of that. So far, nothing out of MTC, nothing in the trades, nothing about moving a show that's been extended six times.

Now I don't have access to the box office returns for the Off-Broadway run. That's definitely true. If I'm making the wrong assumptions, I'm open to being corrected. Please do. I would love to think that MTC has been working furiously behind the scenes to make the move. That would be awesome. But I just don't.

Because there is a lot of ingrained racism and prejudice in our theatres. Good plays are ghetto-ized as being of limited interest, with limited appeal. The traditional wisdom holds that the "regular" audiences won't really be interested, or the kind of people who go to Broadway won't be interested. But when I looked at the Broadway grosses, that doesn't seem to be the case. And since I'm just some anonymous blogger and those numbers are public knowledge, you'd think that someone considering a move would take them into account. And, again, maybe someone did. None of us know.

We do know that a play like Ruined does have some things going against it. And one of those things is that it's a "black" play. And when you look at similar plays, with similar drawbacks, but "white" plays, they don't seem to face the same obstacles. And that's what you call insitutional racism.

Digging Deeper...

At the risk of going overboard and not to seem like a loon on this, but...well, there's this. At A Producer's Perspective, Ken Davenport helpfully posts the B'way grosses for the week of 5/10. Two things jump out at me (and probably you, too):

1. Out of sixteen plays currently running on B'way, Joe Turner's Come and Gone at LCT ranks 8th. Accent on Youth? 12th.

2. That translates, cash-wise, into $52K a week more. And, at $235K, it's bringing in more than both of the other non-profit B'way plays.

And Joe Turner isn't exactly a star fest. So...there's that.

Sarah Made Me Do It

Because, apparently, the revolution will be twitterized.

Things To Think About

Rocco Landesman...NEA...Thoughts, thoughts, thoughts...all of them intriguing. I'm of the "wait-and-see" variety...

I've Finally Found It.

Quite possibly the dumbest thing on the internet. Maybe ever. Jaw-dropping, stupefying, fear-for-humanity-inducing stupidity. Just...wow.

Via.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Calling It Like I See It

So. I'm going to say something here. I'm going to put something out there, kind of bluntly. And it may not be pretty. I don't normally call people out like this, but this time, I can't avoid it and can't put it nicely.

I think MTC is a racist institution. Flat out.

To be fair, most of our institutional theatres are, but this one is just plain dumb obvious.

There just really isn't any other possible reason for their lack of institutional support for their production of RUINED. I saw it and it is flat-out awesome, as many, many people have said, repeatedly. It is smart, heartfelt, touching and incredibly brave. It's also a classic "play" play: unit set, all in one place, naturalistic storytelling (with some lovely touches of theatricality), strong characters and poetic language. It's been extended six times at MTC's Off-Broadway home. And, oh, yeah, it won the Pulitzer Prize (just in case you hadn't heard). Not to mention near universal acclaim. So...it runs Off-Broadway and as noted in many other places, this is what they're running in their Broadway theatre. Not this. And this is next year.

I don't throw the race card out there often, but I honestly can't imagine what else is going on there. When a show opens Off-Broadway to wide acclaim and big, shiny awards, the buzz machine starts going. Whenever something closes, they start talking about whether it can move in there. And this year, for RUINED? I haven't heard a peep. Not on Playbill. Not anywhere. Not even a story about how they'd love to move it but there aren't any open theatres. Because there are.

Well, maybe it's the cast size. Because large-cast straight plays just don't do well on Broadway. The same goes for ensemble dramas without a big name star in them. But then again, plays with all-black casts are huge, colossal failures, so no one would want to take that kind of risk.

And that kind of thinking is the worst kind of institutional racism. The kind that sees a stirring, beautiful play as a "black" play with a limited audience, in spite of all the obvious signs. The kind that makes you think the theatre programmed it because it was the good and noble thing to do, not because they thought the play had legs. But then to basically ignore it and let it languish Off-Broadway instead of making any effort to move it, that's another level of cowardice. (And, yes, before you start in, I don't think that playing to full, 299-seat houses is languishing. This isn't about the merit of the work; it's about equal treatment.)

Just for the record, the audience tonight was well-mixed, if not a little on the ordinary theatre side. A lot of older white folks, a few older black folks, a smattering of young people. And it was nearly entirely full on a Tuesday night.

I want to give the staff and board at MTC the benefit of the doubt. I really do. And I don't mean to be some anonymous guy out here ranting on the internets and cut them down. But after watching this play and the tremendous effort given by an incredible cast, it deserves more, a broader stage, a bigger audience, a wider reach. And it deserves a theatre to give it that support. If only MTC had a Broadway theatre that is devoted to producing new, challenging works that it could move into. Oh, right.

Seriously, though. This situation speaks to the institutional racism that drove August Wilson nuts. Because I don't think that anyone who works at MTC is a racist, or is thinking, "Well, RUINED is a black show, so we're not going to give it our support." I just think that the whole system is rigged against a show like RUINED and geared towards a show like AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY. Maybe they have tried and failed to find the capital or the right theatre or something. Or maybe they got a lot of "Not interesteds." But they left it there. They didn't take it to the press, to their audiences, to the wider world. And if they tried and no one cared...well, that's another matter. But I'd think that MTC has some pull in this town. Somehow, so far, it isn't moving further and that's the fact.

And I just had to call it out. A part of what's going wrong is that we're not calling things out when we see them. Especially after seeing this play, I couldn't sit by and say nothing. So it's out there.

If I'm wrong about any of this, please, please let me know. I'd love to be wrong about this.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Defending the Indefensible

I'm a big, big fan of Travis Bedard (as evidenced here), but I've been meaning to talk about this post for a while now, because I kind of disagree. Speaking of standing ovations, he says:

If I stand at your show? I’m not being polite. Applauding is polite. Standing is (or should be) the 30% tip of the performance world. I ain’t clapping because your famous and making an entrance, and I ain’t standing because I paid $50 (or $100 or $200) for my ticket. You want a standing ovation from me? Knock it out of the park.

This is sort of a trend in theatre circles. There's usually an article about the ubiquity of standing ovations and how degraded they've become once or twice a season. And then there's this from someone else I'm digging on lately, Ethan Stanislawski at Tynan's Anger:
It's no secret that audience behavior has taken a downturn on Broadway. That may be a bad thing for an individual show, but it's worse for Broadway overall; it means that the people with no experience seeing a Broadway show don't understand why they can't keep there phones on or text during a production, and when someone calls them out on it, they're less likely to see a show again, thinking it rude or snooty of a person to tell them how to behave after spending hundreds of dollars on tickets.

It's become a fairly common complaint. And I think it's off the mark and counter some of the things that we want our shows and theatres to be: accessible, engaging, interactive.

We treat the cell phones and the talkers and all of the "poor" behavior like it's the actions of poorly raised individuals who just don't know how to act out in the world. A couple of years ago, that was definitely true. Now...I gotta say...not so much. Cell phones and the way we use them are no ingrained in the fabric of our society. If we want to lament that our society has become tolerant of general rudeness, sure. But this isn't a lack of education or even experience in the theatre. It's how people interact with the world now. I think we would do well to simply acknowledge that.

I work as a teaching artist for a company that arranges to take high school kids to Broadway shows and every time we do, we're expected to give the kids a lecture on "proper" behavior in a theatre. It's a lesson they find pretty annoying and demeaning. When we were preparing the students this time around, I really felt like we were basically telling them to sit quietly, with their hands folded neatly in their laps, and smile. What better way to tell them that what they're going to see is boring. And, on the flip side, every single actor I know loves student matinees, because they get so much feedback from the audiences. The kids are actually more engaged when talking, acting out or whatever.

It's one of those things that keeps theatre feeling regressive and old-fashioned. It's part of the read-only nature. And, as we're seeing, read-only forms of expression are dying out. If we want to remain relevant, especially to younger generations, we have to prepare for interactivity.

In this American Theater piece, Kyle Jarrow talks about theatre being more like rock shows. If you go to a rock show now, everyone has a cell phone out, tweeting it, calling friends, taking pictures, uploading it to their facebook page or whatever. It's part of the experience. And it's an understood part of the experience. At movie theatres, yeah, they have their lame announcements, but the ushers aren't telling anyone to turn them off. And that culture pervades. Theatre, as live performance that's somewhere between rock show (hopefully) and movie, has different needs and requirements. Thinking about how we deal with cell phones is something I don't know if we're doing enough, consciously.

I say we go one of two ways. One way, we get serious about theatre as Temple or Sacred Space, and say no cellphones. Period. Not make sure they're off, especially after intermission, but none are allowed here at all. Not in the house, not in the lobby, not in front of the theatre. And we're going to confiscate them if we see them and return them after the show. Right now, in an effort to be amenable, we're in a grey area. We don't mind if you use it up until the lights go out and as soon as the lights come up, but please try not to use it when the show is going on. Or we'll look badly upon you. Get serious about it.

Or two. Embrace it. Encourage it. Work cell phones into your plays. Give people numbers to call during the show to talk to the characters backstage. Encourage people to post to your theatre twitter feed during the show. At this point, we should be teching cell phone rings in the show. It's going to happen and the standard issue is that it's disruptive to the actors and audience. Well, make sure it's not disruptive the actors. Make 'em work with it in tech.

And the standing ovations? I think it's part of the interactive nature of it. Yeah, they're totally degraded from what they used to be. In the wide world, standing ovations happen all the time. But rather than happening only when something exceptional has happened, they also happen at the point of the audience's greatest involvement. At a Yankee game, when Mariano Rivera is down to his last strike, the audience rises to its feet. But then again, they rise to their feet when Derek Jeter is up in the third with a man on first. And when A-Rod went up in the fifth, down one run. And when Joba Chamberlain had two strikes on Papi in the sixth. (This is clearly a fantasy, but roll with it.) It's became an audience's way of saying "We're here with you." Do we really want to discourage that? They're here with us. And that's a good thing.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Things To Think About

George Hunka has an idea.

And I also quite like this.

Talk amongst yourselves.

This One's For The Theatres

As Isaac noted here, the biggest cost that small NY theatres face is space rental. And, in fact, this drives a lot of the overall decision-making. It leads to the Edifice Complex in theatres, since we see renting as throwing money down the drain, not to mention, if you own your own space, then you can rent it out and make money (though that rarely seems to work out). I was just talking the other day with an artistic director about this very issue. The very high rents constrain a lot of other costs and decisions. And since commercial rents are out of our control (at least directly) and there are fewer and fewer places to rent space from for shows, it seems like this isn't like to change. Or...is it?, I ask slightly disingenously.

Maybe it's the grey, rainy weather here in New York. Maybe it's the Cinco de Mayo hangover (free tequila shots...oh my). Whatever it is, I'm still feeling a little revolutionary. I'm reading this book right now and thinking about ways of making theatre open source. That, combined with this article on Employee Free Choice (stay with me here...), led me to think about these ideas for theatres, small and large.

- Roommates, not subletters. For small theatres that rent space on a show-by-show basis, look for roommates. Real roommates. Usually, when we talk about these sort of arrangements, companies are either looking for significant others or subletters: significant other (i.e. "co-production") who shares the risks and rewards, your values and, ultimately, the same property or a subletter (i.e. "dark night" programming), who uses what you have but with limited rights and responsibilities for a short time. I'm talking about a different arrangement, a more equal footing arrangement, where two companies share the rent, possibly run shows in rep (which has the added benefit of extending the run, natch), where the two design teams work in tandem, each theatre has its own administration and whatnot, but you split the box office evenly, cross-promote, share as many resources as possible. Maybe double opening night party/benefits. Whatever arrangement works best for both companies. This would require a lot of collaboration and serious transparency and trust. But those are good things, right?

- No more fees. This is more for the mid-sized-to-large theatres. And it address some of the talk about artist-administrator hybrids and it also speaks to this basic inequity. Stop paying playwrights and directors one-off fees. Give them a salary, a real salary, complete with taxes and benefits. It's a burden, I know. But I'm not talking about giving them a year's salary. We do this with actors in our portable system, but we expect playwrights and directors to take their fees and then show up every day when they don't have to go to a day job to keep their health insurance. So...pay them, the same way you pay the actors, on a weekly basis, with health and benefits. No more commission fees. You want to support a playwright while they write a play? Support a playwright while they write a play. And if the board or the financial department starts to care about what they're doing while they pull down their princely $180 over ten weeks or whatever, make them read scripts. Or grant proposals. Or attend staff meetings. Maybe they'll help you raise more money. Or find a great script. Or, heavens forbid, write a better one, when you give them an office they can use. Stop buying us off at cheap prices.

- Embrace term limits...for everybody. Including companies. No one ever said that theatres were supposed to last forever. Maybe they shouldn't. I'm a big TV person and a huge fan of LOST. That show was losing its way, beginning the long meandering slide that winds up with Robert Patrick and Annabeth Gish. Then a funny thing happened: they got an end-date. That gave the story focus and drive. It's how the British are able to make such compelling shows (among other reasons). So...why not set out to do a specific thing and then wrap it up when you're done? "We're going to take five years and explore the role of the individual in society" or whatever your mission is. Personally, I'd rather this was done on the federal level with a special theatre 501(c)3 that expires every five years and you have to re-submit. Force yourselves to examine where you are, where you've come from and have you said what you wanted to say. There's no rule against forming a new company, finding new partners or re-upping with old ones. But we have to start acknowledging that things change. And that's okay.

- Read this.

- Cap Donations. I often talk about the regressive nature of theatre and how, inevitably, the big money wins out, one way or another. Let's level the playing field a bit and cap the size of any donation, either foundation-based or individual. Yep, you'll need more donations to get up to your needs. Go get them. And the people giving the smaller amounts will have the same voice. It would also mean, essentially, changing how we build boards, since, right now, your board is full of rainmakers. Rather than having the bigwigs who write big checks making the decisions about your budget, maybe it's the little guy who knows lots of people and can sell your theatre better. That seems like a good person to have on your board.

- Screw the foundations. Now I love me some nice, easy foundation support, but as I think I mentioned...somewhere I can't find right now...I think that foundations are a part of the overall mission creep we've experienced. They want certain things, certain assurances that their money won't be spent willy-nilly on art, so their grants tend to be restricted and given to theatres whose structure resembles a foundation. And that's how we got into this whole mess. So screw 'em. As with Equity, nice and pubicly. Make sure everyone knows that you don't take a dime of foundation support. Just direct donations from individuals. Maybe some city money (if there's anything to be had). Stay out of that game and the temptations it provides. Keep your board full of wacky crazy artists and spend your money on the shows. Start a program when there's a need for it, not a grant for it. Seriously: think like a business, not like a charity. Fuck charity. We earn what we make and we eat what we kill. (I don't know why this got so agressive all of a sudden...but there you have it.)

Well. Okay. Enough. That all turned out much more off the top of my head than I intended. So, for the rest of the afternoon, I'm going to go wander into a cafeteria, with saliva dribbling out of my mouth and scream about socialism.

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...

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 yet...as 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.


Hear, Hear

Here.

Backwards, Forwards

Not to go back to this well again, but there's a point here I want to tease out a bit and discuss. Among the controversial things that she says here, YJL calls theatre "our most backward art form." I thought about that for a good long while, did some other reading and then thought about it some more and I decided: I agree. Theatre is backwards and kind of regressive, especially given the way we approach it in this day and age. This is the part that makes me feel depressed and a bit cynical about it all. I'd really rather not, especially given that there's so much good talk, discussion, production, news, and excitement out there right now. Plus I'm in the middle of writing and prepping a workshop, but then I stop and have to do a gut check.

As I've mentioned before, I've been reading a lot about new technologies and the way it's changing organizations and businesses and the way the world is operating. And with each book I read, except for Mark Penn's Microtrends, which I bailed on, because it's crap, I felt, "Well, this doesn't really apply to my field. At all." I'm reading Wikinomics now and they lay out four principles of "Wikinomics": Openess, Peer Resources, Sharing and Acting Globally. It struck me that, in terms of operation and in some ways, necessarily, theatre doesn't really hit any of those points.

When I was reading Lawrence Lessig's work, Remix, I couldn't see a way for it to apply to theatre. Theatre can't really be open source. It's is stubbornly read-only. When Scott says here, that art is passively consumed, how does that describe theatre? We can encourage people to participate, but they can't rewrite, re-imagine, remix it. There are no (or relatively few) mash-ups in theatre and they're only done by professionals.

When I was in college, I had a professor who said that theatre had to justify its theft of time. Theatre asks a lot of its audience: it can only happen in one place, at one time; you're supposed to sit still and listen; once upon a time, you were expected to dress up for it. It's inconvenient, now, probably moreso than ever.

A while back, Isaac brought some of this up in this post, the effemeral nature of theatre. It happens once for you as an audience member and that's it. As a writer, you have to work with that. You HAVE to mention the gun in the first act, show the gun in the second act, so that when it goes off in the third, you haven't lost anyone. They say that, in movies, any writing on the screen has to be there long enough for it to be read three times, and that goes double true for theatre: you have to underline it so the bluehairs won't lean over and whisper, "Who is that?"

And let's not even talk about the subtle classicism involved: the 8 p.m. start time. So, if you don't have a certain kind of job, you can't make most shows.

What does all of that add up to? Backwards. And it's built in. Theatre is missing out, in some ways, on advances other arts can make. We're not really evolving. And that may be part of the frustration that younger theatre artists feel.

When I started thinking about this post, a few weeks ago, I was feeling a bit more down on theatre than I am right now. I actually meant to start this off saying that I was thinking of getting out of theatre, or at least de-prioritizing it in my artistic life, not for the usual "you can't make a living" stuff, but because it can so confining, artistically, stylistically, as an industry. And because it seems like the world is moving ahead at light speed and we're still chugging along in steamboats. Because it seems like if I want to reach people and affect change in the world and get a message out, there are so many great tools to use and using them in theatre seems so impossible.

I really do think that a large segment of our audience gets turned off because theatre is read-only and they're coming up in an on-demand, interactive world. Now, rather than feeling necessarily defeated, I'm thinking, how do we expand our thinking about what a theatre company is and does? How do we reach out to the people in read-write culture and bring them in? How does interactivity work in theatre? I think underneath a lot of the discussions we're having out here in the theatosphere is that question: how do we evolve? How do we evolve how we make our art? How do we evolve our organizations and institutions? Otherwise, we're neanderthals, wondering where the woolly mammoths went. (I know I'm mucking up the science. Sue me.)

But it's Friday, it's May Day and it's a day for thinking about revolutions. How do we revolve?

Hmm....

I'm really not too sure how I feel about this. Not sure at all. I think I disagree, but I'm not sure what, exactly, I disagree with. I've read it over a couple of times and I know there are some specific points where it loses me.

Part of it is I don't think he takes the differences in funding very seriously. Britain and most of Europe have a very well-funded arts scene. That's not the case here. And the whole cultural difference about modesty or self-assurance...I'm not sure what that's about. I know plenty of brilliant writers here in the states who don't have much in the way of confidence.

And then his list of five qualities unique to theatre...I guess I disagree with, well, several of them. I don't think that #3 and #4 are particular ONLY to theatre, I definitely disagree with the thing about the lost art of listening and I think #5 is a serious overstatement.

But there's something else about it that I just don't...connect with. What do you think?

Hat Tip

Let me join the chorus of approval and give Scott a big, ol', slobbery shout-out. Rock on. Kudos. Good job.