Tuesday, March 29, 2011

And What Next?

As is its wont, the theatrical blogosphere is full of people getting angry. And that's okay--that's the purpose of theatre blogs: analyzing and decrying the failures of theatre as it is now, explaining how it should be, figuring out what areas need to be fixed, and warning of impending doom.

In this case, the furor has been over this piece by playwright Mat Smart. (I found it through Don Hall's sharp response.)

Both articles are worth reading, but in brief, Smart argues that playwrights fail because of:

our general laziness,
inability to commit,
defeatist attitude,
lack of talent,
and unwillingness to truly listen and change

He says, and Hall amplifies, this basic idea: "Stop complaining about the broken system and start making better work."

I'm not entirely in agreement with this attitude. After all, most systems that are in action today are flawed. I wouldn't say "stop being lazy" to the many victims of our desperately broken economic system, for instance. Laziness didn't sink the economy, boundless greed and nonexistent regulation did. (And while it's tempting to continue that particular rant, I'll stop here.)

So yes, I find that kind of pure "stop complaining and just do it" attitude to be limited, and often lacking in nuance and understanding of circumstances. But there's a whole lot of truth in it. Here's the attitude I'd like to see: After you've diagnosed the problems, focus on what the solutions are and how you can make them happen.

Everyone won't agree on the diagnosis, and everything isn't fixable. But there's certainly a lot you can do.

For example: Leonard Jacobs, of the fascinating, infuriating, and essential Clyde Fitch Report (whose current incarnation has ended due to his acceptance of a wonderful new job, but will hopefully continue under new management soon), was very fond of discusssing the unsustainability of the current arts funding model. Government arts funding is always a target and always shrinking, foundation support is unreliable (and in our current economic situation, also decreasing), and an attitude of entitlement and begging for huge checks won't be enough to keep arts organizations going. He made a good case, and I think a lot of what he says is true. (I haven't studied the issue enough to make a certain statement.)

But the conversation that was all too rare in discussions of the failures of funding models was a look at what a better model would look like, how we'd get from here to there, and what can be done to move that along. There was an awful lot of diagnosis, but very little treatment plan.

This is true of anything in theatre. Of course the rate of new play production is not as high as playwrights would wish it to be. Of course some playwrights get lots of attention and production while other equally good playwrights are comparatively ignored. Of course playwrights who are female and/or non-white don't have an equal playing field. Of course dramaturgs and other collaborators have their own opinions of what would make a play better, and share them. Of course critics don't always get what the play is going for, and don't always like it.

And that's just part of the litany for playwrights--actors, designers, administrators, critics, and audiences have their own long lists.

(By the way, to break my own rule, let me air this dramaturg's complaint: I am tired of people acting as if my profession is made up of uncreative hacks who bastardize precious, beautiful works of art in the pursuit of monetary gain. First off, dramaturgs have less power in the rehearsal room than assistant stage managers. We offer questions and suggestions, but not dictatorial instructions. Second of all, theatre is collaborative. If honest feedback from someone who is smart and cares deeply about the play will destroy the precious flower of your work, then the problem is with the work and/or the thin skin of its creator. Prose authors accept and appreciate editors, and welcome feedback. Why are a few people so very against the work that dramaturgs do? How can they sincerely believe that we're what's wrong with new plays in America? Alright, rant finished.)

To get back on track--the whole list above is accurate to a degree. Some of the items are serious problems, some are just the nature of how things work. (Yes, the primary consideration of a theatre is to do the best work for itself and its audience. The theatre company wouldn't be doing its job if it weren't focused on what's best for the theatre company.) But while there is a value in finding problems, there is more in finding solutions.

And solutions are being found. The National New Play Network has organized dozens of "rolling world premieres", allowing new plays to get multiple productions and avoid the problems of being unproduced after their world premieres. Victory Gardens' Ignition Festival, devoted to developing and producing new works by artists of color under the age of 40, produced The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, which proceeded to sell out, become a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and transfer to an Off-Broadway run.

To those who respond, reasonably, that these are institutions and not individuals that are making the changes, I present one more example: Caitlin Montanye Parrish and Erica Weiss. Caitlin is primarily a playwright (in addition to being a critic and more), Erica is primarily a director (in addition to being a dramaturg--who worked on Chad Deity, incidentally--and more). Both happen to be friends of mine. And last month, after years of working together and with others, they hit the jackpot. Caitlin's play A Twist of Water, co-created and directed by Erica, opened in a Route 66 Theatre Company production to excellent reviews, then got excellent publicity due to a visit from Rahm Emanuel. After a nearly sold-out run, it's transferring to an extended run at the Mercury Theatre. Lots of factors intervened to make it the success it has become (and it's wonderful, by the way--you should really check out the Mercury run if you haven't seen it yet), but at the core is two people, believing in their art, working tirelessly, taking advantage of a productive partnership and collaborating with a large group of talented people. There are no guarantees (and nobody can predict runaway hits like that), but it can be done.

I don't say this from a position of perfection--complaint and paralysis in the face of difficulty are long-time plagues of mine, in life and in art. But in the interest of making good art and being happier people, lets broaden our vision: once we've discuss the problems, let's discuss what we can do to solve them. And then let's do it.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Towards a Definition of Terms

What? A post? I'm as surprised as you, honestly. I could blame the wide variety of commitments that kept me away (day job, An Enemy of the People at Stage Left, planning LeapFest, the 2011-2012 season, and playwright residency at Stage Left), but the simple truth is that I haven't wanted to blog in the last several weeks. I'm trying to get back into it, though, so hopefully more will show up soon.

To start, here's a discussion question. What, exactly, is community theatre? I'm inspired to ask this question by an excellent post by Monica Reida just under a week ago. For those too lazy to read it, tsk tsk, but here's a brief summary: she attacked the reflexive disdain for "community theatre" among so many people in the industry. For some, the term has become a synonym for amateurish, cheap shows that are a trial to sit through. She responded that she's seen plenty of superb community theatre and plenty of awful professional stuff. It comes down to the question: what is the actual difference between community theatre and non-equity theatre that doesn't pay any of the artists?

This led to a huge conversation--54 comments, at the moment, which would be any blogger's dream. And since this is a valuable conversation, I thought it should be presented to more people.

Here's my provisional take on it: I don't entirely agree that the only criterion to distinguish among types of theatre should be pay. Community theatre does seem to have features that distinguish it from other forms.

First off, there is the obvious issue of pay: as a rule, community theatres do not pay their artists. They are of course not the only theatres of which this is true. I have only once in my career been paid to act, for instance, and I'm sure many artists have had valuable theatrical experiences for companies who are unable to afford even a token payment.

Then there is the question of season selection. As a general rule, community theatres produce less adventurous, more audience-pleasing theatre: musicals, comedies, mysteries, American classics. This is far from a constant thing. Monica gives many examples of community theatres in her home state of Iowa producing adventurous fare. To take another example, Akron, Ohio's Weathervane Playhouse has produced a wide variety of plays in recent years: in addition to standards like Pippin, The Nerd, and Children of Eden, recent seasons have seen productions of Love, Valour, Compassion, A Doll's House, The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia, and A Long Day's Journey Into Night. I have no idea how good the productions were, but that's beside the point: no theatre always succeeds, and ambition is always a laudable thing.

The question of "professionalism", while interesting, is ultimately a dead end. One could define it by the number of people involved who have training in theatre, but even the equity world is full of people who fell into theatre and made major careers of it without having a degree in it--and community theatres certainly have people with theatre degrees working there. Professionalism can be defined as a company and group of artists who have competence, class, and respect for those who work with them, but it would be foolish to say these qualities are missing from community theatre--or that they are always present in equity theatre. It's too slippery a quality to use as a good criterion.

An interesting point is one of geography: based on my observations, community theatre is most prevalent in locales that don't have paid theatre. They are usually seen in suburbs or smaller towns. When in large cities, they are often in neighborhoods underserved by larger arts organizations. It says something important about the human and societal need for art: even areas that can't support large theatres will usually make their own to serve their needs.

The difference to me seems to come down to mission. In general, community theatre's mission is right there in its name. It's for the community. What matters is involving local people in making art, having a worthwhile experience, and getting people in the community to come see it and have an experience together. This isn't to say that the excellence of the art isn't important. It is. But it's generally not a case of "great art at any cost". What matters is the community.

But I'm hardly an expert on community theatre, and as I said, this is just the definition that's running around in my head now. Does anyone have any thoughts to contribute?