Wednesday, June 24, 2009
A Thought About Bias
And there's the whole tourism aspect. Since women playwrights are often hemmed into writing plays about women and "women's issues" (whatever the hell that means), there's a good chance that another woman would be very familiar with those issues and attitudes and able to smell out false steps more easily than a man. Since a man is a tourist in the world, he takes it all in at face value, maybe even elides over some of the false steps because, in his mind, it's fresh and new and innovative.
When you're dealing with a culture rife with sexism, racism and other forms of inequality, it takes on many, many forms.
Monday, June 22, 2009
One Last Thing...
Shouting Myself Hoarse
A couple of days back, Isaac posted this piece on having Broadway shows that recoup donate 1% of their profits to an unrestricted fund for artists. I thought it was a good, simple and relatively actionable idea, so I forwarded the link to someone I know in the institutional world, for their thoughts and feedback. I got back a long, thoughtful, but ultimately disapproving e-mail from my friend, who had some good points about why that kind of plan wouldn't work, or couldn't be implemented, some points I disagreed with, and some worthy of discussion. Near the end of the e-mail, though, my friend basically said that these ideas come from people who don't really know how the industry works. Which I took some small exception to. But I also encouraged my friend to post that e-mail on Isaac's site, since, knowing him, he'd be very willing to engage the points raised. That hasn't happened and I don't think it's likely to. Maybe my friend e-mailed Isaac privately. I doubt it, but maybe.
And that for me is one of the reasons that I've been slowing down here. I've felt it for a while and kept trying to figure out ways to put into a post, but that experience encapsulated some of the frustration I've been having with the theatrosphere, this blog, my thinking about all of these stuff, even.
I don't currently work in a New York theatre, but I did for a long time. I don't consider myself some amateur who has no idea how business functions or what the expectations are. I do. I just happen to disagree with a lot of those expectations. I think the same goes for a lot of us out here writing. We disagree with the status quo. That's not ignorance; it's dissent.
The thing I love about the internet, the theatrosphere, blogging is the conversation. The idea of comments and linking and having a wide-ranging conversation about what's going on in the field. Sometimes, you go too far and step in a pile of crap. Sometimes you stumble upon a hidden gem or overlooked corner. It's supposed to be a back-and-forth, point and counterpoint, where we're all contributing. But over the last few months, especially, I haven't felt like there's been a lot of back-and-forth. The voices out here are strong, captivating and interesting, and the point of views are great and each one is unique. But it feels like we're coming from the same place and, in more ways than one, saying the same things over and over and over. They're good, smart things. But it feels like an echo chamber sometimes.
The attitude of "well, they're all a bunch of idealists with no sense of how the world works" contributes mightily to that. The people working in the system, for the system don't come down here and tell us what they think. It leaves me more frustrated to feel like either they agree with us, but are too afraid for their jobs to say anything or they disagree completely with us and don't feel like the conversation is worth being a part of. Either way, it sucks.
I don't really begrudge the people working in the institutions their way of life. I've been there and I know it. What's frustrating is that it's all so one way. Why not defend institutions? Why not defend the system? Why not join the conversation, even anonymously? For all of our fire-breathing and flame-warring, I think we actually want to hear what you believe. And we're willing to incorporate new ideas into our own. When I went on my MTC rant, and Isaac dropped some actual information on me, you know what? I backed off. The silence of our institutions about this stuff is what leaves me feeling so angry.
After a while, you just want to focus on the work itself and leave the system to sort itself out. But, for me, part of the frustration is actually the thing that makes this blog possible: my anonymity. I'd like to talk more about my work and my projects and what's exciting. But I don't want to let the cat out of the bag just yet. And I don't think it does much good to talk about the work in generalities. The one thing you learn in playwriting school: specifics, specifics, specifics. That holds true in blogging.
So...I'm not throwing in the towel. But I am taking a break. I've shouted myself hoarse out here, yelling at the battlements, hoping someone is listening. I'll be back, once I've let myself lay fallow. (I just figured I'd throw as many metaphors as possible in there.) I'm still available at 99seats-at-gmail.com, if you want to drop a line. I'm always happy to correspond.
I'll see ya on the Rialto...
Monday, June 15, 2009
Thursday, June 11, 2009
Under the Influence
Alan Ayckbourn: the most prolific playwright in the Western Hemisphere (and probably both hemisphere). Dude writes a ton.
What I Steal: Write a lot. (He wrote all three plays in The Norman Conquests in three weeks. All three. At the same time.) Never write the same kind of play twice, even if you're writing about the same subject. Everything - style, format, genre - is fair game. Entertain 'em.
Lanford Wilson: after I was turned onto Lemon Sky, I devoured everything else of his. I saw all of the productions of the Signature's Lanford Wilson season.
What I Steal: Write for actors, not to actor-proof it. Tell all the truth, but tell it slant. (Yeah, that's Emily Dickinson, but it applies.)
Naomi Wallace: One of the more unsung greats working today. Slaughter City and One Flea Spare just plain blew me away.
What I Steal: Political writing can be emotional and powerful. Let images do some of the work for you.
Constance Congdon: Tales of the Lost Formicans basically made me a playwright.
What I Steal: Have fun out there, even when you're writing about the heavy stuff.
Tony Kushner: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It's all been said before. And it's all true.
What I Steal: Do your research. Use your research. Pull in all the disparate threads. It will come together.
August Wilson: The grand old man, R.I.P.
What I Steal: There's nothing wrong with telling the story straight. And using a lot of words. Use lots of words.
What are you stealing?
Wednesday, June 10, 2009
I Like This.
The Million Dollar Question
In all of this, I continue to wonder why we're so worried about institutional theatre? Let them die out in 15 years. They've had a good run.
A fair point and one, I think, a lot of people would agree with. Like, a lot of people. We get our revolutionary fervor up and think, "Screw it. Let 'em fail." And I'm not one to argue that anything is too big to fail. But there is something to all of this discussion. I think the reason is here.
We want to let the institutions go? Fine. Then we need to have a pretty good and clear plan about how to NOT become institutions and repeat all the same mistakes. We'll make new ones, to be sure. But the story of the last fifteen years is that all of the small, hardscrabble, make-it-up-as-you-go-along theatre companies that cropped up in the late '80s and early '90s have either folded or turned into institutions. The system is going to push us that way. How do we push back? That's really the conversation.
I'm not saying I wouldn't love a seat at the big table, but if they keep serving what they're serving, I'll pass. I can make my own food. I just have to make sure my recipe is in order. (Not to belabor a metaphor...except I did.)
But, Then On The Other Hand...
And Isaac is right on: better marketing isn't working. Not even close. And you have to see that, artistic directors. You have to know that, managing directors. Lipstick on pigs, and we all saw how well that worked out.
There is an audience out there, a hungry, excited audience that is actually interested in live performance, in real engagement. And they're seeking it out in places where they can get it. Those places are not in your theatres. You're not doing the kind of work they want to see. They're not dumb, or easily fooled or pandered to. Not really. And they are reachable. Absolutely. You just have to give them more.
We hear the mantra of "education, education, education." It's as though we're ready to write off everyone between the ages of 22 and 45 as lost to us, a philistine generation of videoheads and thrill-seekers. You're not seeing them. cgeye in the comments thread above mentions sketch comedy. Here in NYC, we're seeing that big time. UCB is churning, humming along (by all appearances), doing relevant, interesting work, sometimes three shows a night, and staying connected to the mainstream culture. It's quick, it's fast and it's connected. It's not about turning all of your shows into improv sketch comedy, but look at their models, look at their ways of connecting to the audience. You don't need more robust e-mail lists. You need to give young people something to bring them in. And, will you listen, it's not just sex, hip-hop and drugs. You sound like Michael Steele when you do that. And these people aren't stupid. So don't treat them as such.
And don't treat them like just another consumer you want to sell your product to. The whole point of outreach shouldn't be "Well, we have to replace our old, boring, dying audience." It has to be about engagement and connection. You know, those things you say theatre does better than television. Except more people feel engaged in their television shows. You have to connect to them and their lives. Not some 45-year old's idea of a young person's life, but their actual life.
I'm not saying this will be easy. It won't be. We've done a pretty good job over the last twenty five years turning theatre into a backwater, regressive, backwards-looking art form. But it can be done. You do have help. Out here on the internets are dozens and dozens of people who want to help you, all over the world. We love theatre and we want it to thrive. We may talk dirty, say nasty things or tell you things you don't want to hear, but we love this thing. Take a listen. Or even better, join the conversation. Mostly? We know what we're talking about. And we're willing to learn about the things we don't know. This is an easy first step. Start talking to us.
Here endeth the lesson.
Taking It Away
One tantalizing bit that pops up in Isaac's notes is a fairly incendiary point worth discussing, especially in the light of the excellent conversation happening here, on Isaac's big takeaway post. In this post, Isaac reports:
(3) AD View: Some agree with the playwrights, but by no means all. ADs are terrified of losing audiences. Angry at critics, worried about new media poaching their viewers. Agreement that the NPD system has dead-ended. "It has become much harder to develop new plays due to financial concerns". ADS unsure if boom of writing has improved quality of writing. Issue of unfinished/televisual/shallow/small work. "Playwrights aren't writing for our audience"
Emphasis mine. And let that emphasis sink in. I think the general assumption I encounter in these conversations is that everyone is frustrated about new play development and production in this country for the same reasons. But the way I read this, ADs are frustrated for a very different reason. The plays coming out aren't working for their audiences. And that's the problem they're facing. In a way, it's the opposite problem that artists are facing, or the coming at it from the opposite way. Playwrights often feel like the process bleaches the interesting out of their work and loses them the audience they want. ADs feel like the process is turning out plays that aren't of interest to the audiences they want to keep. And so here we are.
In the comments here, I used the metaphor of the current state of the Republican Party and I want to tease that out a little bit more, because it's remarkably apt, I think (obviously). The GOP is caught in a bind: their base is rapidly dwindling into irrelevance, but if they try to widen their reach, they will lose their base AND their identity. The GOP can't very well just, overnight, turn into the Democrats Light. They've built an identity as the party of rich white men and, by God, there are still rich, white men to be served. Not to mention they've built a long record of hostility towards minorities and other groups, except for a few scattered cases of tokenism largely seen as pandering. They're largely fucked in a world that is moving, at lightspeed, towards diversity, inclusion, new technology and new ideas.
Even typing it all out, it feels pretty familiar. Mainstream American theatre has built an identity as an entertainment (largely) for wealthy (relatively) older white folks. If they try to widen their reach, they run the risk of losing that audience AND suddenly seeming like they're pandering. There are still wealthy older white folks to be served and they don't want the same things that younger audiences want. Most attempts to bring in younger audiences are dismissed as pandering. And the world is moving, at warp speed, right out from under them.
When I read that quote above, I was actually able to put myself in the place of a standard AD for a second and really feel the tension of their life. Even if they want to push the envelope and do riskier things, they are (at least nominally) servants to their audience. Should they be expected to chuck the blue hairs and old fogies because they're going to die off anyway? But, if you try to serve their needs and wants, you wind up pissing off the younger crowd and not building a future audience. Then you throw in the critics, who are either going to take you to task for playing it safe or pillory you for trying too hard and failing. You have a board that wants to keep the theatre in the black and make sure the donations they bring in are used wisely and well, a literary staff made up of young people who are eager to bring you something new and interesting and ultimately unproduceable, a marketing staff that's busting its ass to get ink for the theatre and doesn't want you to cast some theatre actor you've loved for years when there's a B list movie star looking for cred, a development staff trying to keep those same blue hairs from cancelling their membership because that last show had just too many cusswords in it or had some confusing structure. And, unless you're at one of the really huge institutions, you're underpaid, if you're lucky, you're teaching at a college or university, and chances are you have a family to support.
I mean. Who the fuck wants to do that job?
And the worst part? You can't really tell anyone about it. You go to Baltimore, to Denver, to Chicago, to conventions and meetings and already everyone in the room is looking at you like you're doing something wrong. Or like they want something from you, right now. And you have to talk about the big picture and keep the standards flying. Because if they know how curdled it all is, they all really might move to L.A. to write for the CW. You're an ambassador for the art. Not to mention that, like the princess in the old fairy tale, the worth of your theatre is falling out of your mouth every time you talk. You grit your teeth and tell everyone how hard you're trying, but the market won't bear it. And your market won't. And here we are.
I don't mean to write a long apologia for the hard-luck lot of the artistic director. But looking at it from their point of view...I can see how we get here. The question is how do we get back.
Tuesday, June 9, 2009
The Flop Theory
I'm not saying it's a bullshit fear, but it may be totally irrational. Since we haven't seen the full report, this may count for a small part of the Artistic Directors' issues, but it seems prominent and important enough. And it also feels real. It feels like the theatres are afraid that a bad show will wreck them. But I don't know of a single case of that, at least not off the top of my head.
I've seen some bad shows, and I know of a lot of theatres, at all levels, who have produced critical and artistic failures, of all sizes and shapes. But I've never heard of one going down solely because of a bad show. Or even of an artistic director fired because of one bad show. Now a string of bad choices, sure. Poor financial management, absolutely. Even just plain old bad luck or force majure has definitely brought down theatres. A success might have staved off some of that, but I don't know of one where a single bad show tipped the balance.
Now, maybe they're willing to cover it up and call it "financial mismanagement" when they just mean risk assessment. Or creative differences or whatever. Maybe it is more prevalent than I think. Maybe it's always just lurking around the corner. But I'm more inclined to think it's an institutional fear and a carry-over from a theatre's (or an artisitic director's) early days when, absolutely, a bad show, or an unnecessarily expense show, can bring you down with no coming back. Interestingly, when a theatre is small and everything is on the line, they seem more inclined to take bigger risks. But to carry it over when your budget is topping a million dollars, you have a robust board and a semi-stable audience and (hopefully) a strong community of artists around you...just doesn't make sense.
Back in the '90s, there were all of these jokes about the artistic director of a major NYC theatre that had a big ol' moneymaker that (presumably) gave them a big war chest/cushion that this artistic director burned through on a couple of ill-fated major projects. But then the AD would come up with a great show and make the money back. That cycle went around and around a couple of times before the AD moved on, to much fanfare and postitive memories (at least in public). But no one ever really thought the theatre would go down. And it didn't.
It's like the survivor of the Great Depression who hoards their pennies, even in good times, because they know in their bones that catastrophe is right around the corner. But it's not going to be as bad (at least we hope not). But sometimes I think it's also a nice, convenient excuse to explain the general timidity of institutions. Something they tell themselves to make it okay to aim for the middle of the road.
But, seriously, folks: am I out to lunch here? Is there some major example I'm missing/forgetting? Is it different where you are?
Monday, June 8, 2009
So Not Tweeting the Future...
I'm a big fan of facebook and I'm a big fan of new technology. But maybe I'm just old school enough to be a little slow on the tweeting. So apologies to my followers. Sorry I can't keep up.
There are really great things happening there, though. So check it out. The future of theater is definitely going on out there.
Isaac threw down quite the gauntlet over at his place with this series of dispatches from the conference. As many have remarked, there are literally enough thoughts, observations, informational nuggets and ideas there to power about ten blogs for about three months. I'm not quite up to that level of hardcore blogging, but I can at least weigh in on part of it. I'll start at the tip of the old iceberg. In his notes on the soon-to-be-released new play study, Isaac notes that "theaters consider themselves one flop away from closing," which isn't necessarily the most mind-blowing revelation, but seeing it put so succinctly and plainly kind of hits me in the gut. And I think it connects to the most excellent David Dower is talking about here. David notes:
We speak of a nationwide affliction called "premieritis", a condition which prevents theaters from producing second and third productions of works that have already given up their world premiere to someone else. The data on the topic in the TDF study is curious-- it seems to show that many, many more theaters claim to have produced world premieres than playwrights say have had premieres. It raises a question about whether there's a common usage of the term 'world premiere' being applied across the field, or whether organizations are misreporting, or perhaps there are plays receiving their world premieres that somehow haven't charted with the playwrights in the survey pool.
But I'm more concerned with whether or not we are actually suffering the sort of epidemic of premieritis that we seem to assume we are. Part of my concern about telling old stories is that they can be very hard to stamp out once they get going. Remember that old e-mail about Nina Totenberg saying on NPR that Congress is going to cut the funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting? It was an e-mail that started back in the late 90's, I think and it was reporting on a newstory of the day in which it was launched. But it was picked up and forwarded millions of times over several years (Has it finally died, btw? Have I inadvertently revived it here?!?)
Is it possible that it's not really the world premiere that's important, but the feeling of exclusivity? Is the feeling of having something special that only you have, and that makes you worth more?
If you feel like any play can be a flop and take your theatre down, then you want to do everything you can to enhance your properties. If it's slapping on the word "premiere," then you do it. Whatever you can do. We have an epidemic of "premieres." North Midwest Premiere! Greater Akron Downtown Premiere! I've had plays given productions, definitely productions, off-book, costumed, teched, under-rehearsed productions that were open to review that we called "workshops" because again, not being able to call something a premiere, at least here in NYC, is a big drawback. But it's just a marketing term, a label that says "you can't get this anywhere else."
Even one of David's examples, the co-production of Ruined, is the best of all possible worlds. You call something a "co-production" so you can still call it the world premiere, but you already know if you have a hit or a flop on your hands. Nice and safe. And safe is the operative word.
The obvious question is how close are most theatres to closing. If "premieritis" could be a myth, then is the idea that one bad show can doom your theatre also a myth? But it's a myth that affects how theatres behave. The bunker mentality cripples us all. And leads to worse things.
This part is gossip. I recently heard a story that kind of scared me. A young, emerging playwright is being produced by a major NYC theatre next season. Another, smaller theatre was also planning a production that would overlap with the big theatre's run. And the big theatre put pressure on the small theatre to re-schedule their run. And the way I heard it, it had more to do with not wanting their "property" diluted by over-exposure than about protecting the playwright. This is the mentality of hanging on by our fingertips. And it doesn't do any of us any good.
Wednesday, June 3, 2009
A Tale in Contrasts...
This and this. One of these things is something I like and think is good. The other...well, is sort of okay, but seems largely mistaken. I'm sure you can guess which is which.
This via this.