Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Taking It Away

Carrying on with my reactions to Isaac's TCG posts, I think one of the revelatory aspects of Todd's Big Study will be the insight into the institutional thinking of artistic directors. That's not something we get a lot of. In my last post on this, I talked about the bunker mentality. Part of that is a culture of absolute secrecy. The artistic decisions made by a theatre's staff are cloaked in mystery and shielded from any scrutiny. Sure, we get press releases about how excited they are and how excited we should be about their upcoming season, but any actual insight into how they make their decisions is, at best, told sotte voce over pints at the pub. If this study can, in some way, get at their thinking, it will do us all a lot of good.

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.


cgeye said...

Well, then, why don't more theatre companies come out and say they'll program for an older audience?

They don't have to be dinner theatre to stick to the mid-20th century warhorses, with steady, older actors, without a literary office. If they can no longer cope with the noise of new play development, then don't develop them, don't fight for grants for them, and build a rock solid subscription base.

If there is this amazingly stable market out there, why not use it? The actors who make solid bank there can always do more radical work off-season.

Maybe we should no longer resist the tide, but go with it and see what happens.

99 said...

I think that's exactly the problem. If they did, they'd find a lot of their support drying up. Suddenly, they'd be the "old people's theatre." So instead they use a lot of code words ("classic American plays" that are "still relevant") and, frankly, do it anyway. The majority of the programming is designed to appeal to their actual base. Hence "Accent on Youth" and "The Philanthropist" are given prominence and the more modern stuff is produced Off-Broadway. But, of course, the tepid stuff gets tepid reviews and poor support.

And that market is dwindling, just by nature. The issue is that the new audiences don't share the same tastes, not at all. That tension is what we're all feeling.

To be honest, I think a theatre that said it was going to appeal to middle-aged white folks, both with new plays and revivals, would clean up. Affirmative action, yo! [/tongue in cheek]

Eric Ziegenhagen said...

It's funny, this correllation between "young" and "experimental" that exists these days, whereas in the visual art world, the Bruce Naumans and Jenny Holzers are still provoking, and there is no assumption that they are catering to viewers of any particular age. Sad. As I commented on Parabasis (and as cgeye followed up), it's a shame when the experimental theater artists of today are not in dialogue with the artists or audience that created and enthusiastically championed the provocative, innovative theater of the past.

You see a 65-year-old couple in a museum, walking through a Bruce Nauman exhibit. Do you assume that they are shocked or offended? Why can't theater work this way as well -- not all theater, of course, but some of it.