Friday, January 1, 2010


It's 2010 now, the year we make contact. I spent part of this morning finishing Outrageous Fortune. It really is an important read and something everyone working in and around the American theatre should take a look at and take stock in. I haven't fully digested it, but there are some big, quick takeaways.

The authors strike a fairly optimistic tone in their wrap-up. The last chapter is about things that are working, companies like 13P, Pillsbury House and Cornerstone, residencies like James Still's at Indiana Repertory Theatre, cities with supportive theatre communities like San Francisco and programs like Steppenwolf's First Look 101. All are very good things and certainly pointing the way forward for the future.

Ending on that high note is good, since the rest of the book pretty much says we're all screwed.

We're facing a kind of perfect storm of overlapping difficulties. At the root, the problems boil down to a serious lack of money, which, in this country, means a lack of freedom and self-determination. For theatre, it seems to boil everything we do into a Hunt for The Play, not a nurturing of artists, or really about building connections to an audience or community, but an unending, self-devouring search for The Perfect Play that will be a critical and commercial hit (though, really, a commercial hit is more desirable). That's very much what I took away from it. There is lip service to all sorts of things, but, in practice, the push is for The Play. Theatres are all trying to hedge their bets at getting the first crack at the next Great Play and once it becomes clear that a play won't be Great, it's discarded and the Hunt begins again. The precarious financial lives of playwrights put them in the same place, trying to write one perfect play that provide a source of income and advance their careers. The Great Play is the golden ring and once it's complete and perfect, that's the end of it. That's how we know the system works, as they say.

It's all rather discouraging. The hardest parts to read are about the disconnect between artistic directors and playwrights. Most of the playwrights feel like there is great writing happening, but not being produced. Many of the artistic directors all feel like there are less great plays. Everyone agrees that there is great work not being produced and that the reasons are almost entirely financial. Artistic directors are looking for plays with scope, vision and heft, yet can't really afford those plays. Playwrights want to write topical, passionate plays of scope and vision and heft, but face a system that takes too long for work to get produced, and demands that scope, vision and heft fit in a single set with a small cast. So many of us are demoralized and depressing and feeling out of joint, but what's the remedy?

That's the sticking point. When I worked in a small, struggling Off-Off-Broadway theatre and watched the production process up close and personal, I started feeling like I was doing damage to theatre. I thought it was just burnout after five hard years of nearly non-stop, 24 hour a day work. But that feeling has persisted and reading Outrageous Fortune really helped crystallized what it is.

So did reading this post from Scott. In particular this bit, recounting a dream he had about cars stuck in a snowy, empty parking lot:
Everyone is working hard to get to the top, where they encounter an empty destination and a bunch of people stuck and spinning their wheels. Nobody is questioning the worth of the quest to get to the top, nor are they thinking about ways to get unstuck. They just continue to spin their wheels in the same way they always have.
Over the last few months, I've found some great things out here in the blogosphere and some great conversation and arguments. It's been a great rousing conversation, but ultimately, it feels anti-climatic because it's not really changing anything. We all seem to recognize the issues and the problems, differ about the tactics or solutions, sometimes question each other's motives, intelligence or honesty, spin our wheels in the snow and the system rolls on and on. As much as I hate to say it, Thomas Garvey has a bit of a point when he says that the critics of the Standard Model are lobbying for inclusion in the same model. Scott hits the same point and it's an insidious bit of mission creep. If, all of a sudden, the barriers came crashing down and my plays were being produced in exactly the same system that we have, it wouldn't be any fairer, any better, any different. I'd just be inside the circle. And I probably wouldn't fight as hard as I should to change it. The same model, but more receptive to me, isn't an improvement. Scott makes much the same point. A lot of what we're doing out here is trying to make the system better, but keep it in place, keep playing by its rules.

What Outrageous Fortune really drove home for me is how futile trying to change the system would be. It's not just one thing that needs fixing and then everything will be fine. It's all an interconnected nest of problems, assumptions, practices and vested interests. A lot of it, I think, comes simply from this country being the country it is. Cash is king, almost to the exclusion of all else. That's a lot of ship to try to turn. Even with the best of intentions and an army of followers, we'd probably still fail.

So. What's next? Let it go. If the ship is heading to the shallows, or an iceberg, or just heading out to the open sea without enough coal, let it. We can cast off in dinghys and chart our own course.

One of the small trends that Outrageous Fortune only touches lightly on is the trend of self-producing. There is something to that. That's the way I'm heading. More on that soon...


Ethan Stanislawski said...

What bothers me most is that even shows that do make it OOB, and get great reviews, have difficulty going any further. Some of the best shows I've seen in the past few years have all been OOB, and I never heard anything from then again.

Joshua James said...

Great post, and this bit:

"It's been a great rousing conversation, but ultimately, it feels anti-climatic because it's not really changing anything. "

Is kind of why I don't blog much at all about theatre any longer, for me (and not putting this on anyone else) it seemed to fall too often into fighting over words with no real end in sight ... again, that's just my impression as a blogger. It's not stopped me from reading blogs, of course. Just that I felt too often I wasn't affecting change in a positive sense.

Alec D. said...

Despite all this, I derive some hope in the fact that many of our generation (those in their 20s and 30s) are so frustrated with the current model, and it's precisely the members of this group that are the future leaders of theaters, and also potential starters of new ones.