Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Parallel Conversations*

After many, many recommendations from various sources, I've been reading Remix by Lawrence Lessig. A fascinating read and definitely provoking many thoughts in me. But one, curious thing I've found about it is how little, I find, it applies to theatre. There's a lot of great stuff in it about new ways of creating work and about the ridiculous nature of our copyright rules, but, in my experience, little of that applies to theatre. There are definitely artists doing work that approaches the kind of stuff Lessig describes in terms of "remixes" (here's one example: Venice Saved), but, by and large, my experience is different. Most theatre performances, while definitely affected by the audiences, don't substantially change due to audience interaction (outside of improv and the Neo-Futurists, anyway). Isaac touched on some of that here.

I write the play. The company rehearses the play. Then we perform the play. The audience either engages or not. At the end, they leave with the memory. If we gave every audience member a memory stick with the script on it at the end, or maybe a video of the performance they saw that they could then edit, we'd be approaching what Lessig is discussing.

But there is something valuable for theatre artists in his book, and it's something I want to explore further: the nature of economies. What kind of economy is theatre? Are we an open-source, trust-and-collaboration-based sharing economy or a commercial, product-development-and-production economy? I think we're some hybrid, and that's where things get sticky.

In the comments to this post below, Scott says:

What I'm trying to get at with the Wal-Mart analogy is that artists need to find a place and stay there. If that place is NY or Chicago or LA, fine, then stay there and commit your life to creating for that place; if it is Marshall NC or Normal IL, fine, stay there and commit your life to creating for that place. But stick someplace, put down some roots, and really become a fixture, listen and absorb. This rootless Wal-Mart culture saps the lifeblood from the arts, replacing it with a thin water that is called "American popular culture" that is the result of theoretical ideas about what Americans "like," not real experience. That's all I'm saying.

And that's when I start to feel the disconnect that I sometimes have when we have these conversations. Like we're talking in parallel. I think that, as artists, we deal in a sharing economy. I write a play. I give it to a director and we collaborate. We bring in actors and all of us collaborate. The play is enriched for the experience (hopefully). We do this, for the most part, for intangible benefits. Largely this part of the work happens outside of the structure of theatres and is largely unpaid. It's done because we love it, we love to do it, and we like each other (at least at the beginning of the process).

Theatres exist, mainly, in a commercial economy. They're looking for products to sell to their audiences. They operate as businesses, but talk the lingo of a sharing economy and (often) take advantage of artists who are trained to work, and usually work best, in a sharing economy. It's from the theatre side that we get the Wal-Marting of American Theatre. That's their business model.

This is what I mean by the title of this post. Often, I think Scott (and others) are talking to artists about changing their economy, or rather about how their economy isn't working, when it's the theatres' economies that are the issue. I don't mean that artists are uninvolved in the system, or incapable of changing it. It's just that it's not necessarily only up to them.

Even on a slow work day....lunch calls...more soon....


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