Thursday, January 14, 2010

A Bit of A Clarification

Scott, in the comments here:
Your comments on statistics are problematic, IMO. Data is data, and it is what we are woefully lacking in all of our discussions, so we end up relying solely on our own limited experience. Yes, the way you make your definitions influences the results, so make sure your definitions actually reflect what is central. But don't throw data out the window, consigning it to the subjective dustbin, just because the data can be examined through different filters.
I wanted to pull this out because, in my late night blogging frenzy, I left out a couple of key points.

1) I don't think this is a useless endeavor or that stats don't matter. I'm sure some folks read my post and thought, "Well, now that his side is losing, he doesn't care about stats!" Not true. Very much not true. In fact, after all of the backs and forths, and continuing explorations, I've come around to Gus' point of view: we very much need a full and clear database of productions, something comprehensive and searchable. Data does matter and very much so. If we're going to have any clarity on the situation, we need hard numbers.

2) What I've found a bit frustrating about the tallying of new works that's going around is that it is anything but hard numbers. Lists are generated, but some things are held out. Leave out the Shakespeare festivals because that skews the numbers, folks like Terry Teachout say. Leave out the specialists, because that skews the numbers, Thomas Garvey says. But we leave in the theatres that only produce new plays? Or if we take them out, what do we have left? How much of the field are we actually looking at? That's the subjectivity of filters I was talking about. I think this is a three-dimensional issue, but we keep looking at it in two-dimensional slivers. I would rather we look at it in full, all things on the table and then try to figure out what it means.

3) And the figuring out what it means is another kettle of fish entirely. That's really where everyone's biases kick in, right? The more I think about it, the more it starts feeling like the old Woody Allen split screen gag from Annie Hall, where Annie and Alvy are each at the therapist and each therapist asks them how often they have sex. "Constantly," Annie says, "3 or 4 times a week." "Never," Alvy says, "Only 3 or 4 times a week." Let's say that the stat from Outrageous Fortune is right and new play production accounts for roughly 45% of play production in the country. There are definitely some who would say, "See? Nearly half! Whiny playwrights, STFU! You're good! More classics, please!" Others would say, "WTF?!? Less than half?!? More commissions, please! More productions!" Facts are indeed stubborn things and numbers are good, hard things, but they're all only tools. The question is what are you building with them?

But again, I don't think the Numbers project should be abandoned or that it's not useful. It's been exceedingly useful and productive. But I would rather we start talking about what to do about it. I guess it always comes back to the old commie question for me: what is to be done?


Scott Walters said...

I'm glad for this clarification, which I agree with. One of the most disturbing things to have come out of this discussion, it seems to me, is the fact that TCG doesn't have a complete searchable database of productions -- this in 2010!

I think we skip to "what is to be done" far too quickly. "How" is the fastest way to short-circuit a change conversation. First, interpret the data, then reach a decision on the values to be used to determine the way to address the problem (if there IS a problem). We have a tendency, IMO, to dismiss a problem if we can't come up with a workable solution almost immediately (I'm not saying that is what you are suggesting). If it is worth changing, it is worth batting around for a while, don't you think?

P.S. My word verification is "prove" -- ha!

99 said...

I agree with that and don't mean to short-circuit the conversation. We're still trying to get a good picture of the "what": What is the actual state of play production in this country. What's being done at those 1,900 theatres and where are they? Once we figure that out, then it's the "how."

But I personally do get frustrated when we keep sifting over the same, incomplete information and try to apply some perfect filter that gives us what we want to see, or what someone else determines as proof. I'd like a more scientific distance until we know what we're dealing with.

Scott Walters said...

I understand, but I also think that complete information is unnecessary, and in fact often serves as a barrier to change. Social science shows us that sampling is a valid way of evaluating a situation. The TCG database doesn't reflect all 1900+ theatres in the US, true, and in addition the theatres it does include are almost all metropolitan-based. But when we talk about the American theatre, that seems to be what we talk about almost exclusively, so why the sudden interest in a complete picture now? Outrageous Fortune is about the regional theatre movement, for instance, and not the NYC OOB theatres. Freeman's "I got mine" shrug, as if all that matters is that he's getting his plays done, is irrelevant. The question is: do we think that the TCG database isn't representative of the larger scene? That it is an outlier? I find that hard to believe.

Thomas Garvey said...

I keep promising I won't get back in your sandbox, but when people email to say that you're misrepresenting me again, I feel I have a right to. I never said we should "leave out the specialists." What I would prefer instead is that you leave ME out of your fantasies. Thanks.

99 said...

I mean more the three dimensional aspect. Sampling is all well and good but it helps to know what's being sampled. To match OF's finding up with the TCG theatres makes sense. Freeman's attitude jibes with the recent OOB report (which, I think, also connects with OF, but that's for another post). A connected picture, but not necessary to do the work.

I think it's actually important to start thinking of our urban theatrical landscapes as the outliers and not the real norm. Part of the problem is the assumption that what people are seeing in the cities is the baseline.

99 said...

Thomas, I was referring to the way you and Art have generally left the one Shakespeare theatre in Boston out of your calculations.

Art said...

Hi 99,

Just so you know. I am trying to deal with hard numbers.

Several people have also commented and e-mailed to let me know that the TCG database is dependent on theatres "reporting." One of my readers did a search for a couple of member theaters at TCG and came up with a lot of blank holes. In other words, missing data.

And,like you, I too am starting to get confused as I also try to follow all the threads. People seem to change from day to day: Shakespeare should be included, Shakespeare shouldn't be included, etc.

Just so you know:

I have deliberately kept out Boston Playwright's Theatre from my data so far because they specifically do ONLY new work, just as I have kept out Actors Shakespeare Project (although, Actors Shakespeare Project did do a production of Webster's Duchess of Malfi last year.) and Shakespeare and Company because they ONLY do Shakespeare.

For now, that is what I am doing. Everybody else is fair game.

My hunch, if I go back and include the Shakespeare and only-new-work companies, is that contemporary plays would still give even Shakespeare a run for his money.

I'd just like to add that in your previous post you make a lot of assumptions about my motives.

Really, I'm not eager to prove anything. However, I am, as you seem to be, very interested in the facts.

There is a kind of accepted wisdom of the "one new play a year" strategy of regional theaters. All I am saying is that this may not be the case anymore. (In fact, as far as Boston goes, with close to 700 productions from the last decade in my spreadsheet now, I would have to say that I am within a moral certainty that this is the case.)

And, when I say that, all I am doing is reporting that information.

I won't be able, I'm sure, to compile a complete detailed and exact study, because I don't have the time. I am doing the best I can, and some theatre companies have stepped up and sent me information that was missing -which was very helpful.

Thomas Garvey said...

Uh - I have NOT left it out of my list. What you just said is another lie. Please, stop reading my blog, since you obviously cannot understand it, and please stop "quoting" me. Just do your thing, whatever it is, without me.

99 said...

Art, thanks for the clarifications and information.

I think that this will wind up being a bit of a crowd-sourced project, with various parties taking various sections. But it is, as Scott said here and elsewhere, a vital project for theatre.

99 said...

Thanks, as always, for joining us, Thomas.

Scott Walters said...

Oh come on, Thomas, if you don't want people to write about what you say, then don't publish your ideas on the web. It is one thing to say you are being misrepresented, but another to say not to comment on what you've written. If you don't want public discussion, use a paper journal and put it away in your desk drawer each night. I speak as one who has constantly borne the brunt of misrepresentation. I don't like it, it isn't pleasant, but it comes with the territory.

Thomas Garvey said...

And so does being called on it, Scott.

Scott Walters said...


99 said...

You'll notice I haven't stopped you, deleted a comment or said you were unwelcome here. If you feel misrepresented, feel free to say so. (Or, I guess, I should say "when.")