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State of the Theatre

February 21st, 2008 1 comment

Recently, on the Neohiopal listserve, an article was circulating, which, I’m sure, has made its way around everywhere else as well. The article, by Mike Daisey, is about “How Theater Failed America.”

First, I thought I would comment on it just because the language, the passion, the intensity of the article was so powerful and convincing that I was just impressed…overcome by it. Then, of course, the diatribe against the failure of regional theatres to serve the artists in the theatres, a reality with which I’m not so familiar (in terms of personal investment and time) but am seeing now first hand has convinced me to throw my own two cents into the mix.

First, as I mentioned, there is the writing: “I abandoned the garage theaters and local arts scene and friends and colleagues—because I was a coward;” or “We survive because we’re nimble, we break rules, and when simple dumb luck happens upon us, we’re ready for it.” There is no hedging in this piece. There is no tip-toeing around the subject. Daisey is angry, and so brutal. Blunt. “Their [actor–Equity, no less] reward is years of being paid as close to nothing as possible in a career with no job security whatsoever, performing for overwhelmingly wealthy audiences whose rounding errors exceed the weekly pittance that trickles down to them.”

Ouch. This is a pissed off fellow. And after reading his article a few times, I agree: he should be.

I guess the reason that this article moved me so much has to do with where I’m at now: working with a young, small theatre driven by a visionary artistic director who flatly wishes to have two things: a successful theatre; a troupe of actors, technicians, and playwrights who can make a living doing what they love. This is what regional theatres were supposed to do. According to Daisey “The movement that gave birth to [the theatres in Seattle] tried to establish theaters around the country to house repertory companies of artists, giving them job security, an honorable wage, and health insurance. In return, the theaters would receive the continuity of their work year after year—the building blocks of community. The regional theater movement tried to create great work and make a vibrant American theater tradition flourish.” But, as Daisey continues, “That dream is dead. The theaters endure, but the repertory companies they stood for have been long disbanded. When regional theaters need artists today, they outsource: They ship the actors, designers, and directors in from New York and slam them together to make the show.”

In Cleveland, I know from general conversations that the above matches what was happening at the Cleveland Play House. Conversations among actors always turned to the fact that they had post-office boxes in New York to handle their resumes because they got a response from auditions that way–that is to say, they got no response as actors from Cleveland: despite a mission statement dedicated to “our community.” I think this is less true of Cleveland Public Theatre–which is truly the theatre of Cleveland. The Play House may as well be on another planet. But the facts that Daisey outlines remain, the theatres stand, but the people (who make the theatres work) are constantly changing–and not out of choice.

I am also more acutely aware of the problem as I am switching from an MBA program to an MNO program (Master of Nonprofit Organization). This educational emphasis places me directly in line with the practices of modern regional theatres: namely, the professionalization of things unrelated to the activities of theatre itself: that is, putting up plays by company actors. Perhaps Daisey’s article is just this, a bemoaning of the professionalization of how theatres are run. Afterall, virtually all organizations today have undergone something similar to this: colleges and universities can’t run in old models, they’ve had to hire marketing departments and development departments and masses of people dedicated solely to making the school succeed in the community financially and socially. The same is true of hospitals, sports organizations, museums, and other non-profits. But does this make it right? Daisey writes, “Not everyone lost out with the removal of artists from the premises. Arts administrators flourished as the increasingly complex corporate infrastructure grew.” And this is precisely what I have described, and what I fear about my own role in modern theatre is–that is, beyond the playwriting I hope to do.’

The biggest reason the artists were removed was because it was best for the institution. I often have to remind myself that “institution” is a nice word for “nonprofit corporation,” and the primary goal of any corporation is to grow. The best way to grow a nonprofit corporation is to raise money, use the money to market for more donors, and to build bigger and bigger buildings and fill them with more staff.

One of the more troubling things that Daisey brings up (as if the whole thing isn’t troubling enough to begin with) for playwrights is the following: “Literary departments have blossomed over the last few decades, despite massive declines in the production of new work.” It is almost an off-hand comment. But the implication for playwrights is this: more workshops, more staged readings, less real productions. Further, works like “On Golden Pond” find “revivals” at the Play House, while new, vital work relevant to our time and our psyche right now (by vital new playwrights) is left out. As Daisey drolly points out, “It’s not such a bad time to start a career in the theater, provided you don’t want to actually make any theater.”

Daisey’s cynicism hits rock bottom when he writes, “Better to invest in another “educational” youth program, mashing up Shakespeare until it is a thin, lifeless paste that any reasonable person would reject as disgusting, but garners more grant money.” For me, there is a big NO SHIT here. How many “educational” and “youth programs” do you see now? But really, who is to blame for this? The arts organizations or the funders? My bitterness on this subject is acute, as a relatively new technology award program for which my university program just applied was rejected in favor of dozens of awards for “educational” and “youth programs.” What a sham. It’s hard to tell nowadays whether the organization’s started the programs to make money or made money because of the programs; but I think the reality is the former. And where does the cycle end?

Every time a regional theater produces Nickel and Dimed, the play based on Barbara Ehrenreich’s book about the working poor in America, I keep hoping the irony will reach up and bitch-slap the staff members as they put actors, the working poor they’re directly responsible for creating, in an agitprop shuck-and-jive dance about that very problem. I keep hoping it will pierce their mantle of smug invulnerability and their specious whining about how television, iPods, Reagan, the NEA, short attention spans, the folly of youth, and a million other things have destroyed American theater.

The solutions are somewhat obvious, though not easy: if a regional theatre appeals to and raises a good portion of its budget from “grey hairs” and appeals to and raises the rest of its money from children, the overtly apparent question is “what happens to all the people in the middle?” After all, a bell curve is a bell curve for a reason: the middle is where it’s at, not the ends. Strange that theatres uniformally run against logic. But, as Daisey points out, moving toward this middle means several things, the most daunting of which is change. No more hobknobbing with wealthy white greys or controllable drooling puppet-lovers. Further, you’ll actually have to work and think about what you put up: no more standard musicals, or “on golden ponds,” or “midsummer night dreaming.” Now you’ll have to move toward interactivity, multimedia, content that is aggressive and that challenges the audience. Theatres will have to enter the uncomfortable realm of questioning their communities, their society, their culture–and not just leeching off it. You’ll have to ditch the old standards and take risks, something that artistic directors beholden to boards and ticket sales are afraid to do–after all, look what happens in modern sports. Two bad seasons and you’re done.

There are clear steps theaters could take. For example, they could radically reduce ticket prices across the board. Most regional theaters make less than half of their budget from ticket sales—they have the power to make all their tickets 15 or 20 dollars if they were willing to cut staff and transition through a tight season. It would not be easy, but it is absolutely possible. Of course, that would also require making theater less of a “luxury” item—which raises secret fears that the oldest, whitest, richest donors will stop supporting the theater once the uncouth lower classes with less money and manners start coming through the door. These people might even demand different kinds of plays, which would be annoying and troublesome. The current audience, while small and shrinking, demands almost nothing—they’re practically comatose, which makes them docile and easy to handle.

Better to revive another August Wilson play and claim to be speaking about race right now. Better to do whatever was off Broadway 18 months ago and pretend that it’s relevant to this community at this time. Better to talk and wish for change, but when the rubber hits the road, sit on your hands and think about the security of your office, the pleasure of a small, constant paycheck, the relief of being cared for if you get sick: the things you will lose if you stop working at this corporation.

So what does this mean? It means that you need to support what is new, what is original, what is alive: not the lumbering death that is the proscenium stage and tired old plays. Don’t settle for what the corporate theatres dish out for you–seek out what is new, what is alive, vital. Find theatres like convergence-continuum and support them. Hold on to them for dear life. For as Daisey writes:

Corporations make shitty theater. This is because theater, the ineffable part of the experience that comes in rare and random bursts, is not a commodity, and corporations suck at understanding the noncommodifiable. Corporations don’t understand theater. Only people, real people, understand theater. Audiences, technicians, actors, playwrights, costumers, designers—all of them give their time and energy to this thing for a reason, and that dream is not quantifiable on any spreadsheet.

NEOMFA Playwright Festival

January 26th, 2012 No comments

This year’s NEOMFA Playwright festival will be at convergence-continuum‘s Liminis theater.

The 2012 NEOMFA Playwrights Festival features thesis productions of Plant Life by Mike Williams, Directed by Geoffrey Hoffman and Nothing Funny by Jarod Witkowsk, directed by Clyde Simon, at The Liminis. Plant Life will run Thursday, February 2 – Saturday, February 4 and Nothing Funny will run Thursday, February 9 – Saturday, February 11. All shows are at 8:00pm.

“These plays are the culminating experience of three years of intensive study,” says playwright and professor Mike Geither; the plays are co-produced by Convergence Continuum, NEOMFA and Cleveland State University.

The Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing (NEOMFA) is a consortium of Cleveland State University, Kent State University, The University of Akron, and Youngstown State University that allows students to take classes on four different campuses and earn a degree from a single unified writing program. Emerging writers may study in four genres – creative non-fiction, fiction, playwriting and poetry – and take advantage of the resources offered on all four campuses. Since its inception in 2005, the NEOMFA has offered small-group workshops, open readings, summer travel fellowships, and high-profile visiting writers, in addition to career-preparing internships, competitive graduate funding, and a diverse Midwestern landscape that tempts the creative eye.

More info can be found at the neomfaplaywright website.

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