Friday, July 31, 2009

Through the Looking Glass

I've been at my current day job, officially, for a year as of tomorrow. (I temped there for about eight months before they hired me full-time.) I'm very, very, exceedingly lucky. Just a little bit after I was hired, the economy went into a tailspin and the company I work for had some scares. Still and all, they hired me, give me a nice salary and benefits (I even got dental!). I'm doing better than a lot of folks.

(Speaking of which, a couple of different folks sent me this today. If you live in NYC, take some time, do the survey and use username ART371.)

I haven't worked in a theatre for almost two years. It will be officially two years in September since my last position ended (short-term fellowship). It's the longest I haven't been associated with any theatre in a substantive way for most of my adult life. I moved to New York at the tail end of the '90s, did my first intern stint about a year after I got here, joined a writers' group right after that, went to grad school here in the city, got my first arts admin job right when that ended. All and all, I spent the better part of a decade in 99-seat black boxes and cramped, script-filled offices.

I had friends who worked day jobs, square, regular day jobs and wrote in the evenings or mornings or on weekends and saw theatre where they could. Mostly, I felt kind of sorry for them. Sure, I worked long hours for lousy pay (when I got paid), with demonstrably crazy people, but I was making theatre, 24/7. I was immersed in it. I told myself, I could understand, because while it was a theatre job, it still took me away from writing. It was still a day job, after all.

But it wasn't. It isn't the same. I was still on the inside. I knew the game, the players, the inside dope. Maybe I wasn't a player, but I was in the game. And now...I'm just a regular schnook. A complete civilian.

I never know anything before it hits (Well...not exactly true, but close.) I try to see shows, but usually only ones my friends are in or I get a comp to. I write when I can and have actually had a productive writing year, but all of the other stuff, going to readings, meeting people for coffee, going to benefits and galas and whatnot to press the flesh, that's the part of this that's hard when you have your 9-to-5 gig and want to have something like a personal life.

When I was in grad school, one of my teachers always told a story about how, at the O'Neill Conference once, when he was just there as a spectator, he bought an ice cream cone for an literary manager and that was how he got his first big commission. That's how the business side of this works. It's a step away from secret handshakes and backroom cigars (maybe less than a step sometimes). When you're in it, it's easy to forget it. It's the air you breathe. But once you're out of're out.

There are times when I feel like Ray Liotta at the end of Goodfellas, living the easy life in Arizona, a nobody who can't even get a good bagel.

Next year, my boss is hoping to move me up to manager and give me a nice raise, make me a vested employee. But the price of that has been doing my actual job all day. Less time on the internet, less time on my own work when I'm at the office. It's a devil's bargain. When he told me about it, it made me long for the devil I already knew, the one I'm still chasing. But would that be better? Would it better to try and go back, back to cramped offices, working 24/7 for a lot less money and no security, no benefits, just because it made me feel more alive? I don't know. But I miss it.

A while back, some of my new co-workers and I were trading horror stories about old jobs. I, of course, trumped them all with the harrowing tale of how I got fired from the same job...twice (though a co-worker holds the record for getting fired three times) one summer, the same summer I went six weeks without getting paid after having paychecks bounce for the six months before that. And then I stayed at that job for another two years. They all looked at me like I told them I hijacked trucks and robbed airlines for a living. How could you do that?, they asked. How could anyone?

It was the life I chose. Just the life I chose. kind to those of us out here, especially those who have been where you are. Cut us some slack. We've forgotten your secret handshakes and shibboleths. But we're true believers still.

And cut me some slack. I'm still trying to figure out when I can keep this blog up.

In Which I Frag A Bit

I'm not normally the fragging sort (well, kind of), but I wanted to point this out. Isaac writes an interesting, substantive post (in response to an interesting, substantive post by Matt Freeman) and ends with a good, intriguing question: what delusions, like the delusion that a play taken in over the transom (as they used to say) has a snowball's shot in hell of being produced, are we collectively clinging to? Good stuff and a good place to start a substantive conversation about how we're approaching not just our work, but the business of our work. Way back when, I'd written some stuff about that, too. These kinds of little lies pile up and pile up and turn our whole field into a hypocritical pig pen of mud and effluvia. And we all wallow it and wonder why people treat us like we smell. But I digress.

I don't mean to trash Isaac's commenters, most of whom I like and generally agree with, but look at the comments there. Not much in the way of discussion about delusions, collective or personal, about the way our business works. In fact, the thread avoids all of that to talk about the ins and outs of Isaac's anonymous theatre company and other similar companies. Eventually, it turns into a conversation about the open submissions policies. Maybe it's just me, but we all know that they're kind of bullshit and generally useless in getting that particular play to be produced. In a way, that's the whole point of both of Matt's piece and Isaac's piece. Isaac expands on it, from a director's point of view, at the end of his piece. And no one picks up the ball.

I wish we would. The one thing that I find incredibly frustrating about our community is the veil of silence over so many things. I think we're all dealing with so many conflicting messages and impulses and trying to navigate tricky waters and we get used to going it alone. We help maintain these hypocrisies by not calling them out, speaking their names or even just admitting when we fall into them.

Here's one I think a lot of us early career people can and should talk about more: loyalty. One of the big canards is that we should all be looking to find good people to work with and then work with them as much as we can. Get to know them, build a real rapport and mutual understanding. It's also supposed to help us build our careers together. I hear of it working for other people...sometimes. Particularly writers with a strong style. But mostly, in the real world, theatres are always eager to have you dump your collaborators. Almost immediately. I've been on both sides of that one.

When I was in grad school, I wrote a short play and worked with a cast on it for a couple of years. We had a performance at the end of school that went over pretty well and a small theatre co. approached me about putting it up. The very first thing they wanted was to dump the cast. I was young, not even really out of grad school and eager, so I went along with it. They put up a casting notice which happened to be in the same space my original cast was putting up a brief remount. My director was suitably upset and I explained to the theatre co. that it was wrong to put that notice up before I'd had a chance to talk to my director or my cast. Maybe I was a little too impassioned about it, but I never heard from them again.

Years later, when I was on the producing end of things, a festival I was working with was putting up a workshop of a new play. The playwright had an actor he'd worked with several times before in mind for a central role, someone who understood his work. This particular festival prided itself on being a bit starry and name-y and had a star-ish person (i.e. someone who'd done a lot of tv) in mind for that role. The playwright was unsure, but was finally swayed. You can tell the rest; in the end, the starry actor wasn't quite right and the play suffered for it. It was events like that that left me feeling like I was doing more harm than good working in theatres.

There is such a gap between our rhetoric and our actions and, I think, as theatre people, we think we're covering it up so well. But it's widening further and further and sooner or later, it's going to swallow us.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Watch Your Status Updates

Well, since, apparently, I'm back (back-ish), and I'm talking about the clash of new tech and old ways, I should talk about this. It's not New York theatre, but it should be something on our radar, especially those of us out here in the blogging world. And, not to beat a dead horse too much, it explains some of the lack of fire of the theatre blogosphere.

If you don't feel like linking through, the short version is this: the board and managing director of a music-theatre company in Milwaukee* withdrew job offers to two actors in their upcoming season based on statements made on Facebook. On Facebook. This following on the heels of firing a long-time and apparently beloved artistic director. The board president's stated reason for the firings: the Facebook comments "violate...the obligation of artists who perform at the Skylight Opera House."

So much for open dialogues with management and artists.

I don't profess to know all about this situation. Interestingly, a friend of mine has been regularly posting on Facebook about the situation and the heartbreak it's been causing. It's very clear that the artists who work at this theatre feel a strong connection and a strong stake in the theatre. That's supposed to be good, right? That's the ideal that Mike Daisey and others, including me, are talking about. Artists invested and engaged in the management of the theatre.

The problem is that, in most cases, management's idea of investment is like the Republican's idea of bipartisanship: you agree with everything I say and you're invested. Any disagreement, questioning, or dissent is viewed as disloyalty and somehow damaging to the theatre. You either stifle it or...yeah, there's really no other option there. Stifle or security will escort you out of the building. And that goes quadruple for anything said on the internet.

And, listen, I know the reasons: bad news is bad news. If people who work at your theatre are out there, slagging your management, investors, uh, er, I mean, donors (yeah, donors) get nervous. Audiences won't come to some theatre run by a bunch of idiots, of course. Right? I'm being a bit facetious, obviously. The interesting thing is that these two guys, despite disagreements with the management, were apparently still willing to work there. Because they loved the work. Which should be the point.

Rather than engaging these guys and whatever their issues and comments were, they freaked out. Which always makes the situation worse. It's funny; I've read a couple of things around the internets talking about this post by Marc Lynch about how the current beef between Jay-Z and The Game can be seen through the lens of geopolitics. I think it applies here, too.

In a way, and I'm crashing through some kind of Overton window or invoking some variant of Godwin's Law here, I know, but, as near as I can tell it, basically the establishment views people on the internet as terrorists. Unshaven, mentally shaky, passionate fanatics who are willing to throw bombs and kill innocents to make their philosophical points. Whenever someone writes something on the internet, the terror threat level jumps up and the establishment has to decide how to deal with it: root out the evildoers, cover up the attack and ignore it, sometimes take political advantage of it, whip up some populism and set them on your foes (a la the recent dust-up in Boston). Negotiating with terrorists is not an option. It would be surrendering.

Of course, out here in the internet, the old truism applies: one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. We're Che Guevara out here in the hills of Bolivia (yeah, I'm making a hash of history, what of it, you want to fight about it?), reading Kant and Marx and trying to make a better world. Yeah, we'll break a few omelettes, but that's how the cookie crumbles (or the metaphors mix). We don't want to destroy everything, just the bad parts. We're willing to negotiate to get what we want (well, most of us are).

This is true, I think, across the boards, but very, very true in theatre, and I think the Skylight situation highlights that. Sooner or later, the theatres will have to ask themselves what the other options are. Especially once the unwashed masses are storming the Bastille.

*Edited because, in my vast East Coast ignorance, I thought that Skylight was in one place, but it's completely in another place. And I should love Milwaukee since I've fallen desperately in love with Schaefer in a can. Apologies to both cities for not being able to tell them apart.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Well, well, well...

To be honest, this was...unexpected. Very much so. It's almost like someone was paying attention. Who knew?

Faux "Aw, shucks" aside, it is nice to not feel so much like I'm shouting at blank walls. Thanks, David. It's much appreciated. And I hope you continue on with it, and the other fine points on the list.

Though I do have to note that, in the first paragraph, he deals with the substance of my post a bit. Then he launches a broadside against George Hunka, for his comments on the post. That takes up the bulk of his post. And then he invites more bloodsport in his own comments.

I'm all for passionate discussion and disagreement and forceful argument about the issues. This is a big community and we don't all agree about a lot of things. But one of the more tiresome things are these little brush fires and assaults on blogging style. I like both Isaac Butler and Thomas Garvey a lot. I can see both of their sides in their dust-up about Emily Glass Sandberg's study. I'm not linking to any part of it. You can find it. Because, in a way, it's unproductive. Because it's about blogging more than it's about theatre or sexism or anything else (though Thomas is talking a bit more about journalism in general). And it just feeds the feeling that out here we're all about character assassination and tearing things down. I'm not saying that Isaac, Thomas, David or anybody else isn't talking about the issues, or trying to tear anyone down. Like I said, I like and respect all of them. But it's an easy trap to fall into. When we talk about the inspiring stuff, the positive stuff, the real engagement, the posts languish. When we slag, burn, and flame, the comments pile up.

I know I've felt the tug of a good battle. It's quite alluring. But it doesn't add credibility. For those of us out here, trying to talk about what drives us crazy, what doesn't work, or what does, and how we can make theatres better, what we really want is credibility. We may be vulgar and rude and we certainly don't suffer fools gladly or pull our punches. But we don't want to be seen as just a bunch of howler monkeys. Or at least as smart howler monkeys. Or maybe just funny ones.

Nonetheless, I'm glad to make the blogroll. It's funny that I did, just about I'd given up on this whole thing. Maybe I'll keep it up for a while.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

What You Wish For

This busted me out of my latest semi-possibly permanent-retirement. There's always something.

I have a shit-ton of respect for David Cote. Seriously. He's got a real downtown sensibility, and he's very open about that, but he also doesn't let it blind him to the good parts of other styles and genres. He's put together a crackerjack team of reviewers for Time Out New York. This is just abject suckuppery. I feel about Time Out's stuff the way I feel about movie reviews in The Onion: they say what I'd want to say, but smarter and stuff. And his wish-list is a good example of what I mean. It's smart, simple, insightful and generally, right on.

Of course, though, I have a quibble. You can guess with which one.
5. Bloggers: Engage/enrage
This item will generate noise (and that’s the point): I wish bloggers would mix it up more. Does it take a Rachel Corrie fiasco to generate heat? The theater blogosphere has been dull, insular and quiet lately. We need more arguments, more dirt, more bloody knock-down-drag-out fights. Not just self-promotion, obscure manifestos and production diaries. And here’s hoping for a new breed of long-form critics worth reading.
No surprise that I have some thoughts on that one, huh?

First off, I agree with him. One of the reasons I haven't been so active out here lately is that...well, there hasn't been a lot going on, at least here in New York. There's been some serious talk about a couple of things, in particular, Emily Glass Sandberg and her study on sexism in theatre. And a lot of gushing about Les Ephemeres. Aaron at Mission Paradox is, as always, doing yeoman's work. But that's about it.

But I don't blame that on the bloggers. Not at all. It's a larger problem with our community. David is asking the bloggers to "engage and enrage" with a community that doesn't want to engage and certainly doesn't want to be enraged. We're on the outside and, in fact, as long as we seriously attempt to engage, in the blogosphere, or enrage or criticize, we're going to stay on the outside.

Part of what wore me out is the one-sided boxing match of the internet. When you set out to start a blog, you have something to say, something to share, and, let's be honest, something to gain. It's a platform for your thoughts and ideas, a bully pulpit and a microphone, a billboard on the highway. In this small, tight-knit community, let's say you're a writer, a playwright who's worked with a lot of people, built a certain kind of reputation, done a lot of administrative work, know some of the players, most of the game, and have opinions about it. So you want to start a blog. If you do it under your own name, you're hamstrung: it would hurt your career to criticize theatres you want to work at, hurt your friends' feelings, make you a pariah. So you stick to promoting your shows and doing production/development diaries. If you do it anonymously, well, then you're just some anonymous person, obviously sitting in your pajamas in your parents' basement (or your crappy studio apartment in Astoria or somewhere similarly far-flung from the Main Stem), who doesn't know what they're talking about and all of your ideas are dismissed as obscure manifestos or inchoate, long-winded rants. Either way, there's no real engagement, not with the folks that can actually change things.

You can engage with the other folks on the blogosphere and that's great. We band together, talk about the same things over and over. But is this where engagement happens? Or are we just a group of seven-year olds playing soccer, chasing the same ball down the field? It's hard to tell. But it gets draining, either way.

Not to call him out, but if you look at Time Out's blog, Upstaged, it isn't exactly a model of engaging enragement. It doesn't even really point out the engaging enraging going on. Engage us, out here, too. It's got to go both ways.

Like a lot of the information/entertainment fields right now, we're struggling against a lot of entrenchment and credentialism. Only certain people are invited to join the actual conversation or, even more important, the actual doing of things, contributing, and once you get your ticket punched, you're in and you're not coming back out. Talking to the people howling outside the gates is now beneath you, or at least possibly damaging to your credibility and credentials. So you don't.

I don't know. Sometimes it all feels like a fool's game. I write (wrote?) this blog to help make theatre in New York more interesting, more vibrant, more exciting. I chose anonymity in order to make my case more forcefully and honestly, especially since I feel a fundamental lack of honesty and openness and transparency is what's killing us. But, in the end, I found that the only thing people on the inside seemed to care about were flame wars and gossip spitting. And it's hard to shout so long into a vacuum. Especially about things you care about passionately. Sooner or later, you run out of passion.

So, David, I agree with you: I wish deeply for more engagement, more enragement, more questioning, more courage of our convictions. I just don't think it's the bloggers who aren't coming to the table.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Actually Twittering The Future

I knew someday that Twitter thing would be useful. And apparently that day is today. (Or rather last week.)