Thursday, August 6, 2009

Banana Republics (with an automatic update)

I spent a number of years working at an Off-Broadway theatre that was fabled for its turmoil, nutty characters and general dysfunction. Those of us who worked there and survived have all found that, when we go into the outside theatre community, people treated us with the same mix of respect, wariness, admiration and fear that people treat Vietnam Vets with. "You worked at X? Were you in the shit?" "Yeah. I was in the shit."

When I was working there, though, I felt differently about it. I did love it and I certainly loved the people I worked with, but there was another metaphor that came to mind: banana republic. It's decidedly non-p.c., but, boy, it was accurate. The A.D. was committed to running the theatre by strict democratic principles...when it suited him. When it didn't, he ruled by fiat and declaration, enforced by fear of exile. He was a master of engineering the vote he wanted (it's a member company, so there were a lot of votes). He stayed in power very much because there were people around him who believed in the mission, stayed true to the ideals of the revolution. And he took advantage of every last one of them. A pure, absolute dictatorship.

When it was finally time for me to leave, I thought, outside of here, it will be different. Sure, lots of theatres are poorly run, but they can't all be like this. I managed to find one place that ran like a true commune, a hippie-paradise. But that was the only place.

Isaac's talked about Saul Alinsky's classic Rules for Radicals quite a bit in the past, so I finally got it from the library and started reading. It's good, very good and very interesting, especially in the context of current events. But as I was reading it, a thought popped into my head, "Well, this is neat, but it has nothing to do with theatre." It was kind of jarring. It's a book about passionate change and ways of connecting with your community and making a better world. These are things that have nothing to do with theatre? In a way, no. Not at all.

They have everything to do with theatre-making, the act of creating theatre, the kind of theatre you may want to do. Everything to do with creating a theatre company from scratch. All of that is good. But it doesn't have much to do with making existing theatres better. Because they're all banana republics.

This may not be the most relevatory concept. But when I'm thinking about our delusions about theatre, this is high on my list. Thinking about some of the things that Isaac says here (which set off a whole other thing) about trying to make an argument and the fine line we out here in the theatre blogosphere tread between making our points forcefully and pissing off the powers that be just to piss them off, I realized that, in a way, it doesn't matter. Our good arguments about doing things differently, our passionate discussions about new concepts and approaches, none of that matters. Because, unlike a political discussion or movement, the folks on the inside are not going to change. Period. They're under no pressure to change. Seriously, we could send every single playwright in New York to protest outside of the Manhattan Theatre Club and there's no way Lynne Meadow is going to change her tune. She doesn't answer to us. In fact, she doesn't really answer to anyone. I suppose, at the end of the day, she does answer to the board, but not necessarily.

That's the reality. What makes it all delusional is that everything we do is couched in the language of democracy. Theatre are service organizations, responding to a urgent need in the community. In all of the language, both the institutional language and the personal language, they're building homes for artists, or serving the craft. Always humble servants, doing what the best they can for the people. We treat them as such, as responsive, public service organizations. If we bloggers, or journalists or enough artists make enough noise, we'll get them to change their ways. I don't think we can, or we will. They don't work in a democracy. The sooner we can let that go, the better theatres we can make. If we're honest with ourselves about how it works, we can be honest with our audiences and our funders and our artists. But muddying the water by pretending to be open to suggestion and ideas just confuses everyone involved.


So. The update that comes right with the original piece. I had that whole post rattling around in my head for a couple of days and just didn't get a chance to write it down. I felt really good about it, really good about my points. Yeah, this really nails it, I thought. And then, today, I read this. (In case you missed it, here's some background.) And my whole thesis comes crashing down. Because right there is a case of concentrated, public agitation causing changes at a theatre. Maybe it's the exception to the rule. Maybe it's a portent of things to come. We'll see...

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