Friday, January 16, 2009


Well put, George, well put. And definitely something I can get down with.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Habits, Bad and Otherwise

Isaac asked about habits here and this really landed for me. I'm coming back to writing and theatre after a pretty long layoff. Though, the more I think about it, the more I realize that the layoff, in and of itself, wasn't all that long, maybe three or four months, but it was intense. For a variety of reasons, I was seriously giving up theatre and looking for something else to do. I recently decided to come back and then, almost through sheer luck and providence, I found myself with a reading scheduled for next month. So now, I'm trying to get back into the habit of writing. And, man, it's hard.

Not writing is suprisingly easy. You sleep late, stay up late, drink too much on weeknights, get into all kinds of trouble. No need to carry a notebook around. You can spend as much time on facebook or Daily Kos or whatever gets you off as you want. It's a good, easy life.

But I found out pretty quickly that it's really unfulfilling and unsustainable. Drinking is a terrible, terrible hobby. No matter how good your day job is, it's still a day job. And so...back into the breach, right?

But what I'm dealing with as I dig back in is how to make it sustainable. The writing I did before was full of bad, bad habits. Waiting until the deadline is looming to get working. Overloading myself to take advantage of every single opportunity that presents itself. Being so close to the deadline, there was never really enough time for rewrites, re-thinking. Just getting enough on the page to satisfy. Like I said, bad, bad habits.

So I'm trying to learn new habits. But it's definitely slow going.


So. Um. Yeah, for fear of starting some kind of flame war, or Nazis in the basement situation...Well...I just gotta...

Dude. You must. Chill. I have hidden your Firebird keys.

Seriously. I don't even really have words. What James says here is pretty good. (Isaac ain't too bad, either.) But, since I'm me, I'll go on a bit more.

What I was talking about here is personal joy, the joy of creation, the joy of connecting with other people, your collaborators, your audience. I'm talking about the feeling we have when we do good work. I'm not talking about making people happy or feel good or whatever you're talking about. Beckett writes some pretty dark, hard, complicated stuff, but for all of that, there is still a palpable sense of joy to his work. Whatever nihilistic philosophy you work with, I do think that without some sense of joy in it, it won't live in the world.

I was planning to talk about this a bit more, but yeah, I like comedies and I like making people laugh. But that's me. I don't insist that everyone stop writing their "serious" plays and start flinging pies and slipping on banana peels. There's room for everything out there. know...relax, dude.

(A kind of dubious h/t to Isaac...uh, thanks?)

Monday, January 12, 2009

Finding Joy

Apropos of really nothing, I'm thinking about why we go through all of this, why we deal with moribund theatres, crazy people, indifferent audiences, a hostile culture, all of that. I find myself yelling in bars at the top of my lungs about this stuff, buttonholing people to rail about What's Wrong With Theatre Today (or Tomorrow, or Next Year or Whenever and Always), and I stop and think, why the hell do I we do this? And then I remember: joy. There is joy.

I'm currently working with a young playwright who's come to town for her first New York reading. She is a bit younger than I was when I had my first reading, but not by too much. Sitting next to her in the rehearsal room, you can feel the waves of pleasure and joy coming off of her like a warm, comforting smell. It's a lovely, lovely thing to be in the room with. And a thing to remember.

We all make the same gallows joke about this life: none of us got into it to get rich, so we might as well have fun. But it's true. When we started, we didn't think we'd get rich. Ever. But we enjoyed it. Only later do we learn about royalties, box office, commissions and fees. We edge towards them, because they're shiny and pretty and we can buy food and beer with them. We try to keep one foot in the pool of joy we sprang from, but sooner or later, we slip out. If we're lucky, we land in a bigger, deeper pool, or at least a puddle of cash and comfort. Mostly, though, most of us hit the hard ground somewhere between joy and comfort. We want out of that no man's land, but don't know which way to reach. The best of us can stretch, one foot in joy, one hand in wealth. Too many of us crawl into cold comforts. Today, I'm trying to find my way back to the pool of child-like joy. If I make it back, maybe I'll forget that I ever have to leave it.

Friday, January 9, 2009

I Go Away For A Few Months...

...And look what comes up. I've long been an advocate of just this type of site, doing just this kind of work. In a town with about a trillion theatre reviewers, we all know that only one matters. We're stuck with their reviewers being the voice of note, no matter what anyone else says. Most unfortunately, as I saw time and time again, pleasing the Grey Lady has become a second motivation in selecting a season. Not a good situation for theatres or artists. So anything that can be done to bust that stranglehold is a good thing. Ride on, Critic-O-Meter!


While I am feeling very bootstrappy lately, I think this is a very good thing. So check it out.

UPDATE: And also check out this from Isaac. If I could have gotten my act together, I would have written something half as clear and spot on.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Bailouts or I Don't Mean To Be A Dick, But...

I'm sure every theatre artist across the whole nation has seen it by now, here, or here, or here, or in your inboxes. It's big news and a big deal. I haven't donated money, mostly because I'm crazy-stupid-out-of-control poor right now, but my feelings about it are complicated. The thing that brought me out of my short, semi-retirement was a fundraising drive from a theatre I've been associated with. I've got very, very mixed feelings about all of this, some of them are...kind of...hard, I'd have to say. I really feel things like this are part of a culture of begging that disadvantages all of us. Before you jump right to "What a Dick!" allow me to elaborate. You might still think I'm a dick at the end of it, but at least it'll be clearer why.

So, okay, a major institution makes a series of bad decisions, operates outside of its means, substitutes fantasy numbers for real numbers, takes money from a number of sources in good faith and when it all comes crashing down, as such schemes are wont to do, they put their hands out and start begging for help. When it's a bank or a mortgage company, it's a bailout and a fair number of us say, "Screw it, they made bad calls, they should pay the penalty." When it's a theatre, though, we e-mail all of our friends and raise high holy hell, as though, without this theatre, theatre will cease to exist, all opportunities will dry up and we'll all have to get day jobs. Oh, wait...

Snark aside, I found myself getting pretty pissed off about this campaign, in exactly the same way I got pissed off at the bailout and in much the same way that I got pissed off at the theatre that asked me for money this past fall. It wasn't all straight up, communist, righteous rage, but it was close. Thinking about the situation at the Magic, though, made me think about all of those times that theatres put out all-points bulletins for money. Yes, this financial situation is bad and will affect all of us, artists and audiences. But let's also be honest: this is the first time a theatre has come close to collapsing. There are a lot of reasons why, but usually it's one thing: gross mismanagement. Which, despite the way their website puts it, is actually what happened at the Magic. It wasn't just the bad economy; it was bad choices. Choices made by staff members, by the board.

When I first heard that they were $300,000 in the hole, I was shocked. The financial crisis had hit a lot of places in a lot of different ways, but it seemed like a lot of money to suddenly go missing. Way too much money. I was actually very gratified to read that article, because then it makes sense. Plus I was glad to find that there were consequences for someone. Like the bankers and the bailout, too often with arts organizations, they have these shortfalls and whatnot and do these fundraising pushes, but the people at the top keep their jobs. That doesn't make any sense at all. If we expect the CEO of Lehman Brothers to step down, we should expect the CEO of a theatre to step down. We should expect the board to step down. Their whole job, legally, is to check the numbers and make sure everything is kosher. And clearly, they didn't.

These things happen in theatres because we let them happen. Bad managers, sometimes even criminal managers come along and they bankrupt our theatres and we all bond together in the spirit of kumbaya and the community and bail them out. And, sure, they hire better managers immediately, but we all know that down the line, there will be another bad manager, or overoptimistic manager, or whatever. Like the banking industry, most theatres are living just outside of their means and eventually, it's going to catch up to them. But have no fear: they can just beg their way out of it.

The other thing that pisses me off is that they're asking the artists. And usually they go for the artists they've worked with. Who have usually already given of their time and (quite often) money. There's this patronly attitude of "We've stood by you, now you stand by us." As though the relationship wasn't reciprocal. It almost feels like a shakedown, like the implicit promise is "Keep us afloat so you'll have a job one day."

I wonder, if you looked at the list of donors, how many "civilians" you would find on it. A theatre with 30-year history in a city should have pretty strong ties to the community. And I'm sure they do. But does it look like this? That's what happens when a community rises up to save something of value to it. It would be pretty telling if the community that rose up to save the Magic was the theatre community. It would tell what community they're serving. But that's probably another post.

The Magic has a great history and they've got a great season planned and it does seem like the confluence of a shitty employee and a bad economy sucker-punched them (though this post asks a number of the right questions). Bad news all around. And no one is going to step in overnight to replace them. But...(again, approaching dickitude here) would it really be the end of theatre in SF? Really? All of those artists who've worked there, who live in San Francisco, they're going to stop working tomorrow? The audiences who have supported the Magic will stop going to theatre, won't be able to find another play they're going to like? Really?

We talk about how important, how vital, how necessary to human life theatre is, yet we never invest in that. We invest in the opposite proposition constantly: that theatre is so special, so rare, so difficult and magical, that only a select few can produce it correctly, there are only narrow bands that it can survive in and it must be protected. I don't know if we get it both ways. I don't know if it serves us to have it both ways.

Listen. I don't wish the Magic, their staff or anyone ill will. I've been there, seen some good shows, had a reading, met good people. This isn't just kneejerk bitterness or contrarianism. I do wonder what a business model based entirely on begging is doing for us as a community. I do wonder what a culture that says gross mismanagement is okay is doing for us. And I don't know what message it sends to the world. It would be a shame if the Magic failed. But it's also a shame if the Magic is saved and three months later, we stop asking why it nearly failed.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

What Does Meaning Mean?

Isaac got the ball rolling with a long post about post-show talkbacks and why artists don’t like to talk about what their work means. Matthew Freeman picked it up, examining it from the perspective of a writer. I figure I’d take a whack at it. I think there’s a semantic issue here.

As an artist, I have a point of view, a story I’m trying to tell. I bring to the work my own issues, philosophies, politics. I write a play about a black student at a predominantly white school, I’m saying something about race relations. I write a play about a woman choosing between a lover who’s a self-centered artist and a lover who’s a generous banker, I’m saying something about what’s important in love. I know this. It’s why I write. Because I have some point of view on the world that I want to share. There are plays that I simply can’t write, or couldn’t write with any degree of honesty, because I don’t believe in their message. I know what I want a play to say, what message I’m trying to convey. I may not always be able to articulate it clearly, but I know.

I have a play that revolves around an act of plagiarism that one character benefits from and, in the end, wins a coveted award. In a conversation recently, an artistic director suggested that that character NOT win the prize, but that the actual author should win. I balked immediately. That’s not what the play is about. That’s not what it means. The action of a play, for me, is part of its meaning.

There’s a school of playwriting that I find alternately ridiculous and enlightening. Some playwrights are taught to put “artist statements” on the front of first drafts. Usually they’re verbose and totally on the nose. But it is helpful and enlightening for a writer to think, “What is my play about?” It helps in communicating clearly to collaborators and it helps in communicating clearly to audiences.

Sometimes there's an over-reliance on "authenticity" as the measure of a play. The whole "I'm the artist, my hand is guided from beyond the infinite, I'm merely the vessel" pose. We are in control. We make choices, a lot of choices, sometimes for conscious reasons, sometimes for unconscious ones. But we shy away from owning those choices as if that makes it less "authentic." It can be both. We don't have to act as though all we're doing is transcribing the voices in our head, but it also doesn't mean that the plays are simply constructs to convey some message. The two can work together. Brecht is a great example of this. His plays have meaning, they have messages, political messages and it's always clear what he's saying. Especially because he puts titles in and wants you to always remember that you're in a theatre. At the same time, though, his characters move authentically through their world. That's what separates the best of Brecht from pure agitprop or propaganda.

On the other hand, usually when someone is asking you, “What does your play mean?” it seems that they’re really asking, “How do you want me to feel about this?” And that’s a question we can’t and shouldn’t answer. Since Americans are very bottom line, we like to know what’s going on at every turn. That’s why movies soundtracks are usually so intrusive. That’s what some find frustrating about plays. Meaning = the lesson. And that’s something we should be resisting.

Hamlet has meaning. You can feel deeply in it how Shakespeare felt about family, obligation, revenge, the weight of living up to a father’s memory. This is all apparent not just in language, but in the action and plot of the play. There’s a reason that Hamlet is full of sons trying to avenge their fathers. And for most, it’s a futile effort. Tells you something about what Shakespeare thought, doesn't it? But it doesn’t tell you how you're supposed to feel about that. That’s the art part. And the part that a lot of people want to short circuit.

Change We Need

Now the holidays are over, we can start thinking about resolutions, new years and fresh starts. Especially with one of the most historically significant events in my lifetime looming, it's worth thinking about change.

I'm a bit of a political junkie and this past fall, the internet was the equivalent of a crack house for me. I bounced around from blog to blog, obsessively pouring over polls, policy, strategy, as did most of the people I know. Several other theatre bloggers, like Isaac and Matthew, regularly post about politics. I've approached this blog with a fairly narrow focus, but I think there are lessons to be learned about how to change theatre from what we've all just experienced.

There is a correlation between the worlds of theatre and politics, in terms of culture. Both feature a cumbersome, white male-with-money dominated power structure. Both are ostensibly meant to serve the greater good, or the largest number of people, but, in practice, wind up serving those who can afford to participate. There are similar entrenchments and entitlements to each. I could go on, but you get the picture.

So we've just seen something of a revolution in politics. Not necessarily a political revolution (there's a lot that remains to be seen), but definitely a break with the strategies, patterns and processes that have heretofore "worked." In the end, not only were they successful in terms of electoral goals, they also brought a large number of new people into the conversation. Since "audience development" is one of the biggest, emptiest buzzwords in theatre circles, looking at how the Obama campaign did what they did as a huge exercise in audience development could be very interesting.

It's sort of a thought experiment. What could a theatre built on the principles of the Obama campaign look like? So, it's driven primarily by small donations. We cap donations at, say, $2,000. That levels the playing field a bit, because money does dictate influence. We move away from institutional/governmental funding, since there are limits to what they can give and, certainly in the case of theatre, limits to what the money can do in many cases. We create space for interactivity, actual communication between the theatre and our constituents. Generally, when theatres talk about interactivity, new media or whatever, it boils down to one thing: how can we tell them about our show? It's mainly one-sided. But people crave connection, not information. Whether it was ultimately true or not, the Obama campaign gave the feeling that the door was always open and the conversation was two-sided. We would make and depend on True Fans as our base and to carry our message. This is more than word of mouth; it's prostelytizing. It's commitment from the audience to what you're doing.

Obviously, in the end, a ton of other factors were involved, but the underlying structures are adaptable. Why shouldn't we try?