Monday, April 13, 2009

Learning Curve

I've been meaning to post on this for a bit, but have been a touch busy with this and that. But nonetheless, I still think it's worth talking about.

For those who weren't following what happened, there's some background here. In essence, the founding members of an ensemble company broke away to form their own company when they felt the artistic staff and the theatre's board of directors were altering the company's mission. Many of the ensemble members had been with the company for more than two decades.

Don Hall asks the pertintent question: what do we learn from this? It's a question I connect with very deeply. When I moved to New York, it was always my dream to be a part of an ensemble company. I've been a member of one for a few years now and I've discovered that it's a very complicated creature.

The company I'm a member of is of some longstanding, and has a fairly large membership. But we keep running into the same issue that the American Theatre Company in Chicago ran into. Namely, how do continue to grow and develop while at the same time, honor your past and the contributions of your members. It's a tricky dance. And very, very few ensemble companies pull it off for very long.

Eventually time catches up to you. You form a company of like-minded 20 year old, or 28 year olds or 30 year olds and ten years down the line, doing a great play featuring teen characters becomes problematic. If your membership is predominantly white, encouraging diversity creates a rift. And that's not even talking about the basics of group dynamics: some people rise up as stars, some people languish in the shadows and it's rarely fair or equitable or even predictable how that's going to break out.

I read a great book on the history of Circle Rep a few years back. In the end, it was both depressing and encouraging. Towards the end of the book, the author noted that, due to the "stars" leaving for television and film and more lucrative jobs, the company was left with character actors. Which is a bit of a rude thing to say, but an honest description. And the nature of things, I suppose, in a way. It was encouraging, though, because the book was written in the late '80s and Circle Rep persevered for another decade. So, maybe it wasn't the end of the world. The company did fold eventually, though.

So...maybe the lesson is this isn't supposed to last forever. Companies can serve their time and their mission and then end. I find that, in theatre, we move pretty quickly from thinking that theatre is essential to this theatre is essential. And that may not be the case. Maybe after a few years, you don't like each other, or you don't want to keep doing it and it's time to let it go. I admire the ATC folks (now of the American Blues Theater) for starting their own thing, rather than, as happens too often, revolting and chucking out the AD.

Part of the corporatization of theatre is the institutionalization of theatre. It leads to mission creep and evening out of the rough edges and individuality. Maybe theatres should only last a short time. Or maybe 501(c)3's should be time-limited and you have to re-apply and gather your founders together and think about what you've done and what you're doing. Just because an organization can last forever, that doesn't mean it has to.

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