Thursday, January 14, 2010

Outrage and Fortune, Part 1: The Price of Everything

The cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.
- Oscar Wilde
Another favorite quote of mine, and one I've long wanted to use as a title or epigram. This post is as good as anything else.

Re-reading the first chapter of Outrageous Fortune this morning on the subway to work, I realized how sad it made me. There is a pervasive sense of cynicism throughout it that dragged at my spirit. Maybe I'm an old softie underneath my gruff exterior, but it kind of hurts to read about the depth of distrust and the lack of communication between playwrights and theatre leaders.

To back things up a little bit, a lot of things have been flying around the interwebs about this book and the study and some of the conclusions. I too have been flying them and mixing it up. As I embark on the Great Blog-Thru, I think it's worth it to revisit some things. First of all, it's not all about playwrights. The lives and fortunes of playwrights take a fair amount of it, but it paints a bigger picture of how plays are being developed and produced. And that's where a bit more focus should go.

I can't find it right now, but in a comment I posted somewhere today, I noted that the failure the book outlines (and, even from the first chapter, it's clear that it's outlining a failure) is a failure of play development and not so much play production. Some of the numbers that have been bandied about tell part of that story, too (more on all of that shortly). Plays are being produced, and, though play production has shrunk dramatically, new plays are being produced. So why is everyone so unhappy?

In the first chapter, we hear from playwrights, artistic directors, producers and others and no one is feeling satisfied with the state of affairs. We all know the reasons: money, money, and then more money. There isn't enough, too much has been spent on buildings (The most heartbreaking line from the chapter? "Houses for the art, bigger and more beautiful than ever before, but few homes for artists."), too much focus on the bottom line. It distorts the entire nature of the conversation. (The other heartbreaking line? Not even from this book; it's a quote from Theresa Rebeck's book, Free Fire Zone: "When a theatre tells you that you have a home, what they really just mean is that they want the right of first refusal on all your plays and they don't want to have to pay you for it.")

The disconnect between playwrights and artistic leaders is, I think, one of the outcomes of this distortion. We simply don't trust each other enough to speak the truth. Or at least the theatre leaders don't really trust the playwrights (and to a clear extent, the authors of the study) to tell us, or even themselves, the truth. They talk about loving plays to produce them, and making homes for artists, but they also don't want messy first drafts. They want plays that wrestle with the issues of the day, big, ambitious plays, but they can't afford to produce them. It must be as frustrating for them as it is for the playwrights.

On the other side of the gulf are the playwrights. While I don't agree that their complaints rise to the level of whines, a sense of naivete, bitterness and frustration comes off the pages like heat. They bemoan the lack of leadership, the lack of vision, the influence of boards. All of which is real. But, in the end, there's a lot of throwing up of hands and hoping for someone else to fix it all. Even worse, there's a lot of acquiescence. We go along with a system we all know is broken and then complain when it cuts our feet.

It's worth reiterating, as Gus does here, this study covers a small, small section of theatre, and it's a bit circular in its selection: the authors approached people who work in new play development and they pointed them the way to other people and so on. It's a tiny sampling of artists and theatres. But if this is what people at the heart of new play development much better could it get?

As a community, we've become so obsessed with the price of things, the things we have to give up, compromise on and sacrifice. We tally the lists of things we're willing to give away: rights, control, vision, money. And in exchange...what? What value? How much do we focus on value, worth? How much do we value each other? How do we break the hold our cynicism has on us?

Outrageous Fortune asks a lot of questions. Here's to hoping we find some answers.

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