Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Outrageous Fortune, Chapter 4: Return on Investment

The great blog-thru continues!

We got a little bit off-track due to the Arena Stage Black Playwrights' Convening this past weekend (more on that soon). But we're back, with one of the more frustrating, complicated and hard to sum up chapters in Outrageous Fortune. "Chapter Four: New Plays Onstage" covers a ton of ground, not all of which I'll get to in this post. If Chapter Two is the ribcage, as Isaac says here, this chapter is the large intestine: twisted, switchbacking, coiled up, dark, messy and kind of full of shit.

But let's get a couple of things out of the way first:

The 93 theatres represented in this study report that a little under 50% of their total offerings for the last three years have been new plays.

That's probably the most significant finding here. Of course, defining new play is a bit of a slippery slope. Through all of the statistical backs-and-forths of the last couple of weeks about the world of play production, that's become exceedingly clear. Is a play written three years ago still a new play? Is a play that's been produced five times last year a new play? Is a play that hasn't played in your area a new play?

What muddies the water is that the theatres have a pretty strong incentive to put fat fingers on the scales: funders fund premieres and first-productions of new plays a lot more. It's in their best interest to call as many plays as possible a "new play" or "premiere."

(A sort of a sidebar: as Isaac points out here, there are a lot of indications that the artistic directors and theatre staff members are being...well, somewhat less than straightforward in their answers. And this is another one of those places.)

So...really, who knows? As I said here, the fight for more new play production may have been "won." And it's easy to see why: money. There is funding available for works that qualify as new that there isn't for second or third productions. If there's anything that we all know, it's that money changes everything. And it seems to have changed the field. But at what price?

For me, the money quote for this chapter is this:

"In other words, subsidy for process and production, experiment and attempt, has become investment. And investment seeks specific, quantifiable returns."

That's the crux of what's happened to our theatres, to our playwrights, to our community. We've entered into a space where everything is for sale at a price and investment is measured in concrete results. This goes for all kinds of relationships. One of the most dispiriting stories in this chapter is the one about the director who asks a "leading playwright" what he should ask in exchange for putting together an informal reading of a new play for a playwright. Not $50 for chips, but what piece of the future of the play.

Plays are a commodity to be leveraged. Their future earnings are encumbered and theatres are less interested when it becomes clear that they won't make any money off a second production. The newness is the key ingredient. It's what the funders want, what the audiences want, and, in a weird way, what the playwrights want. I don't mean this as an indictment of the theatres alone.

Since the first production is likely the only one, we hold off, hoping to put our chips down right when the wheel turns to our number. We invest time and energy in theatres, but as soon as the investment doesn't pay off, we're off to the next theatre. We are complicit in the system that Mike Daisey called the importing of freeze-dried talent. We don't want to be tied down to some funky regional theatre or little upstart, so we can cash in. We're all looking for a proper return on our investment. And that return is, apparently, not counted in satisfying work or relationships. And the more's the pity for all of us...

(I was supposed to wrap up this today, but I have a bit more to say. So...tomorrow!)


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