About Me

My photo
I'm an NYC-based director, and this is an outlet for my various musings about theater and about the city of New York. Sometimes the subjects run together, sometimes they are entirely separate, but between the two they comprise the most fitful, most intense, most trying love affair of my few years. They fill my head, my heart, my mouth every hour of every day; they could fill a book.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Inventive or Gimmicky?

I don't know if this is a legitimately interesting way to stage a piece, or just a big old gimmick, but I really wish I had found out about The Rubber Room before today. The idea (in case you don't feel like following the link) is that the same play is given to 5 different directors, each with an entirely different 5-person cast, and no communication between casts. Each night, one person from each cast goes on, never having performed with the other four before. The idea (presumably) is that each night is a fresh and totally unique depiction of five characters who really are meeting for the first time.

I would have liked to know whether it added new dimension to the text - and I think it could have - or if the concept was just that: concept-y and distracting. I'm also sort of fascinated by New York's rubber rooms and the multiplicity of two-sided stories that arise from them. The rubber room idea itself is a two-sided story. You can't just - for example - fire a teacher who's been accused of sexual misconduct without a fair inquiry, especially given how easily and carelessly a particularly manipulative child could throw around those accusations. But you can't very well keep them in the classroom around children either. So... what? What are the options there? And the concept works for the subject matter; five people with stories that can be seen from a host of perspectives merit a host of perspectives in the the interpretation of the play. Right? But did it actually work?

I'll never know. Regardless of whether it turned out to be a gripping piece of theater or a hokey gimmick, I would have loved to have seen it, would have loved to have been involved with it. Damn, damn, damn.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

A Note About The Interviews

I'm re-reading my notes and setting to work on writing out my interview with Jenna Weinberg, the founder and Executive Director of Mainspring Collective, and I'm finding that I'm, well, waxing somewhat exultant about her. So much so that I'm feeling like I need some sort of disclaimer before I publish the actual interview.

Although, "disclaimer" is sort of an inaccurate term, as it implies a desire to alienate oneself from the work and what I am trying to explain is the opposite: how deeply connected I am to it.

Here's the story about Jenna's interview, and the ones to follow. I won't even pretend that the interviews I'm preparing to conduct are at all impartial or happenstance. They're not plugs for anything, or bids for publicity. There might not even be anything to promote (although knowing these busy and talented artists, there probably will be). The people I intend to interview are people whom I have encountered during my brief time in the biz, and remember because their passion and creativity have inspired me, given me cause to keep moving forward. The interviews, really, aren't meant to be unbiased, multi-faceted representations of these artists and their work, as much as they are to show why I find these people so damn inspiring.

That said...

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Black Swan: Like Center Stage, But Sillier*

Regarding Black Swan, I have but one question. Why didn't Aronofsky just own it, and cast Zoe Saldana as Lily?

(They both wear their hair in their face because they are feisty! And they break all the ballet rules!)

I also have a few observations to share.

Observation One. In her own blog post about the movie, Mariah McCarthy says, "It’s a movie where having and acting on desires makes bad things happen... Having desires doesn’t make bad things happen.Having and acting on desires makes the world go round." True, but recognizing this on more than just an intellectual level is easier said than done. Desires are terrifying. Needs are basic (I need food, shelter, love, etc.) and wants are reasonable (I want an iPhone to get more work done on the go/play games on the subway). But desires are inexplicable and uncontrollable.

Fortunately for us, most desires fall within some range of appropriate social behavior and do indeed "make the world go round." But what about when they don't? It's perfectly good, for example, for a man to desire sex with a woman. It's even all right if, provided she's into it, he desires to tie her to the bedposts and have it a little rough. But what if he desires to string her from the ceiling with meathooks and watch her die slowly? Some people do, and the fact that I don't is not owing to any particular grace or nobility or compassion on my part. I was simply lucky enough to be born right. The understanding that something so savage, so unreasonable lurks within us and the terrifying possibilities that take shape from following that little bit of knowledge down the rabbit hole is more frightening than any paranormal spook. (This, by the way, is why TV show Criminal Minds scares me too much to watch - not the contemplation of my own abduction/torture/death). I don't think Black Swan is supposed to be some kind of cautionary tale or morality play. I think it's simply an expression of how that fear runs wild in our collective imagination.

Observation Two. While watching Nina struggle to dance the Black Swan and finding herself unable to lose control and give herself over to it, I thought to myself, "Dear God, this is why I failed as an actor - I'm Nina." In my acting days I wanted nothing more to give over control to something deeper, to "feel it," as Nina describes it with her last words. But upon further reflection, I wonder if my inability to reach that moment wasn't what made me fail as an actor but what made me become one in the first place. I wonder if the people who recognize that blind, visceral piece of the human psyche and spend their lives running toward it instead of away from it are artists. And possibly religious mystics. And maybe we're not really meant to touch it at all but for some reason, some of us believe that, frightening as it is, touching it will be as divine as it is terrible.

Observation Two Point Five. Upon finishing this post, am kind of annoyed that such a silly movie inspired such Deep Thoughts. Lame.

Observation Three. I am really, really tired of people conflating dark desires with sexual desire. Dear Puritanical America, Please grow up. I'm bored. Love, Leigh.

*This is true.

PS. Actually not an insult. I love Center Stage for its pure ridiculousness and Black Swan - while I wouldn't go so far as to say I loved it - was also enjoyably ridiculous.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Director Development

I've been thinking a little more about the concerns Trisha Mead raised in her conversation with Rocco Landesman via the 2amt blog:

...There is no clear path for a director to develop his or her career without founding their own theater company. Young directors found institutions in order to build reputations... Perhaps by inadvertently requiring them to prove themselves as producers before allowing them to work within our institutions as directors and artistic directors we are creating a system which rewards theater companies that are made in haste, repented at leisure?

And the resulting brief twitter conversation I had with her (found here).

I had another thought, a thought just a trifle too long to post on Twitter, so I'll put it up here instead.

I originally put forth the idea of creating director development programs, much like some of the new play development programs in existence across the country. But now I'm suddenly wondering: why not pair the director development with the play development?

Every time I see or hear about a new new play development program, I think Oh. I would love to be a part of that. What I wouldn't give to be learning from and collaborating with all of these exciting up-and-coming playwrights. But, try as I might to deduce from its website and/or any other available information, I cannot seem to figure out how to get involved as a director. I know play-readings and workshops attached to the programs - at the Lark, for example, or New Dramatists - often have directors, but for the life of me, I cannot figure out where they are coming from. Do the playwrights bring them in? Are they resident directors with the company or the program?

The Lark does the best I've seen at setting out some general guidelines for how to become involved as a director, but even those are somewhat vague and indefinite, nothing compared to the concrete, accessible submission proccess accessible to playwrights.

Or, take the workshop-in-rehearsal process currently developing Amy Freed's Right to the Top, one of the many #newplay development initiatives provided by Arena Stage. (Strangely, the Arena Stage has producing fellows who are paired with the playwrights in residence, but no comparable program for directors - why is that?) This looks like an amazing experience, and I would kill to be a part of it. And why not? Not only would it be a learning experience just as helpful to a director as a playwright, but it would lay the groudwork for a deeper collaborative relationship between playwright and director, one rooted in creation and development rather than simply beginning in rehearsal.

That would be real benefit in this kind of approach: the collaborative energy and possible partnerships it would facilitate. Playwrights need directors and directors - oh, let me tell ya - NEED playwrights. The difference between having a collaborator with whom you work well and whose work inspires you can be the difference between creative life and death.

Just a thought.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Connectivity and Possibilities

I saw Better Left Unsaid this past weekend, right from the comfort of my own couch, and it got me thinking about a lot of things.

The live-streamed play was, to put it simply, just really cool. It was a totally unique way of seeing a performance, and it was executed extremely well. The streaming was smooth and high quality, and the use of the three cameras that shot the production was engaging and dynamic, but unobtrusive enough that I never lost the feeling that that I was watching a play as opposed to another filmed medium.

The interactive features were great touches; the Twitter comments worked well, and I loved getting a tour of backstage, and watching the chats with the actors and tech people.

And, I have to admit, it was really, really nice to be able to support my colleagues from the comfort of my own home.

Watching the production ignited some flames of ideas that had been kindling since taking part in the #newplay discussions: one of the things that excited me most about the discussions about collaboration and connectivity that came out of the convening was the possibility of using new connective technology to collaborate across geographical boundaries. I touched on this briefly in another #newplay post, but Better Left Unsaid has got me considering the actual, specific ways to use this technology to our advantage as artists.

Because as exciting as internet connectivity is to me, it leaves me with a sort of conundrum. What I love about theater, what sets it apart from every other art form, is the liveness of it. There is nothing quite like actually being in a room with the art as it's being created. There's an immediacy to it, and a sense of community that is inherently lost when you put someone miles away and behind a computer screen.

It's definitely an amazing thing to join in a nationwide, or even worldwide conversation about art. But what about actual making and experiencing of the art? The question of how to reconcile the possibility of connective technology with theater's need for immediacy intrigues me, so I started jotting down some ideas.

This is all really rough - nothing cohesive or fully formed about any of it yet. But I thought I'd start thinking and sharing nonetheless.

A couple of shows I remember hearing about that have connective possibilities:

The Lysistrata Project. Does anyone remember when the Iraq war first started and, in protest, schools all over the country participated in performing Lysistrata at the same time? I remember because both my old high school and my college participated.
  • What if you live-streamed all of the productions at the same time? Or had a website where you could access all of the productions at any time?
  • You could coordinate with other productions in other areas to realize same artistic vision in multiple places.
  • Or the opposite: connect w/ other creative teams in other places to make each production distinctly different. Or some combination of the two, e.g., certain ideas or design elements are agreed upon by all creative teams, but within the structure, a certain degree of creative autonomy? Or - each team charged assigned a different approach to design or given a different theme to explore within the same work.
  • Really like the idea in general of presenting the same show in tandem across the country for the purpose of making a particular point or reaching a goal.
  • Like! What if - if we were talking about Lysystrata, say - you could tweet to the White House or your representatives while you were watching it, or there were links shown (on the website, or even live too) about how to get involved. Or a hashtag, to create a dialogue, with a running account of the conversation?

The recent performance of Antigone that I read about, but didn't see where they used Facebook, Twitter and/or YouTube as the chorus.
  • Imagine it was all scripted and taped, but is there anyway to use that as a connecting point? A greek chorus, say, streamed in from 12 different parts of the world?
  • Relatedly, what about the possibility of exploring characters or story elements that that can be told/seen/experienced remotely?
  • Or! The same story, told from two different points of view, in two different places - in both places you see one angle live, and other live-streamed, and vice versa... does that make sense?

Some other ideas.
  • Two shows in repertory in two different places: the first one is live, the second, live-streamed.
  • The same show, but some scenes or acts shown live, some streamed from different places.
    • You could do it exquisite corpse style, where each creative team gets the script (or maybe just a portion of the script) w/ no communication and see what happens.
    • Or the opposite: extreme collaboration - skyping in to one another's rehearsals - online production meetings - maybe even live actors communicating with streamed actors on stage.
  • That last one - live actors communicating with streamed actors on stage - could also be applied to the idea of telling the same story from two points of view in two different places.
  • Live-streamed play readings or workshop forums via Twitter.

Oh man. I didn't expect it, but I'm actually really excited about a lot of these ideas. There is definitely a project in here somewhere.

If anybody has any stories of a collaboration over distance that worked out well, or other ideas to keep building on, I would absolutely love to hear them. Or, if anybody is interested in thinking more about/putting into motion any of the above ideas, I definitely want to talk to you.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Looking For a Good Read?

About ten months ago, I thought to myself, hey, I can write. I have opinions. I could totally be a blogger. Then I wrote about 6 posts, said, "hey, something shiny!" and forgot about it. But the idea kept gnawing at me, and after dreadful summer of burn-out, dead-ends, and self-doubt, I came back to the project, invigorated by a need for expressive revival and new paths to creative fulfillment.

Since September, I've immersed myself in the online/blogging community at large, and I've collected an astounding amount of insight and knowledge from it. I have an exciting and ever-growing list of thoughtful bloggers whom I follow regularly (see the blogroll). But there are a few (mostly theater) blogs I want to call out specifically for having consistently engaging content that I look forward to reading week after week.

Parabasis: As thought-provoking as it is eclectic: where else can I follow an academic analysis of one of favorite TV shows, read the most incisive review of Broadway's most talked-about play a month before the critics got to it, and be challenged by bold and considered political opinions all in the same place?

2amt: If you love making theater, and you know how to work the internet, you should be following 2amt. End of story.

About Last Night: This may be an inappropiate generalization, but I often feel like theater critics - while I understand their role in the art - crave the opportunity to tear a piece of work apart, and have little understanding of or involvement with the actual creative process. Not so with Teachout. I get the feeling from him that he loves and appreciates the art form in its totality, the process as well as the product. He wants to exalt what is really good about theater, and if that means honestly appraising what's bad about theater, well so be it. And he's not afraid to make a go of it himself, which I respect and admire. His blog is thoughtful, accessible, and entertaining. I always look forward to reading it.

The Clyde Fitch Report: A wealth of news and commentary on a number of subjects, ranging from interviews to arts advocacy to current and topical theater talk. (And the fact that the three examples I pulled are the first three links on the site should be an indicator of its consistent awesomeness). A fabulous resource and good reading as well.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Yoga Lessons

During a recent yoga class, whilst in half-pigeon, our teacher advised us to back off the position if we felt a great deal of pain.

"Now, there's a difference between pain and tenderness," he clarified. "Tenderness we deal with - pain we don't." Oh, I thought, a tad let down. It's not that it wasn't good advice - of course it was - it was just that in this class (and possibly in the yoga world at large) there is a lot of emphasis in the connection between how we respond to our yoga practice, and how we respond to life in general. You know, calm, focus, presence of mind, even in face of painful experiences - that sort of thing. An ability to lean into the pain and accept it, rather than pushing against it.

So it was with a little disappointment that I acknowledged our instructor's advice; while very practical and appropriate for the yoga practice itself, it didn't seem to translate well to the yoga-as-life metaphor. To say that we "don't deal with pain" - isn't that completely backwards? Isn't the learning to deal with pain rather than backing away from it exactly the point?

But then he continued: "Tenderness is normal - natural. We want tenderness. But pain, pain is not natural. Pain is your body's way of saying Stop doing this, you're hurting me."


Maybe it does translate after all. Perhaps there is a wisdom in knowing the difference between the tenderness that is simply the business living, the natural result our spirits stretching and tensing in the world, and real pain - pain that shouldn't be. And further wisdom in understanding that that pain is not an unbearable burden, but rather a way of communicating to ourselves, stop doing this, you're hurting me.

Friday, February 4, 2011

More #Newplay Thoughts: Devised Theater

I found it interesting that roundtable discussion and breakouts on devised theater that began on Day 2 of the #newplay convening came on the heels of the "Big Thoughts from Four Big Thinkers" panel because it seems to me a major theme running through the ideas they presented was collaboration. Meiyin Wang spoke about it indirectly, predicting how the barriers between different theater artists will come down, giving way to theatermaker hybrids - designer/playwrights, actor/funders, and so-forth. Kirk Lynn hit the nail right on the head, proclaiming that in the future, more artists will follow his company, the Rude Mechanicals' example and seek out collaborations as a "healthy" and effective way of making art. Marc Masterson encouraged listeners to seek out creative alliances.

The future of theater, at least through the lens of this discussion, seems bent toward collaboration. So it's interesting to me, in that light, the concerns that were raised about devised theater, particularly the loss of the playwright's primacy - that is, the act of taking the playwright out of the driver’s seat and putting the creative process in the hands of the group.

It makes me wonder: is there a difference between collaboration and devised theater? Perhaps collaboration is just the umbrella term under which devised work falls, but there seems to be a distinctly different flavor about the two concepts. And if there is a difference, what is it? Is it a question of when? Does devised work come out of rehearsal, whereas a collaboration occurs before rehearsals begin? Is it a numbers game? Two's a collaboration, three's a crowd/devised work?

Of course ultimately it's all semantics, but I think the key to creating successful theater, especially when it comes to navigating a group dynamic and respecting an artist's primacy, is for everyone to be on the same page about how it's going to be created. Developing a shared vocabulary is a part of that.

Why? Well, take for example, the concerns Lydia Diamond raised during the initial roundtable. In her report for the New Play Blog, Trisha Mead relates the following story:

Woolly Mammoth is trying to devise a new play development process that will live somewhere between the traditional institutional process and the devised work of a festival like the Public's Under the Radar.

[It was] noted that some of their most successful projects have been created with young playwrights who "didn't know any better yet" and were therefore willing to give over their work to a director who helped them to learn about their own play, yielding "AHA" artistic moments that were greater than the sum of their parts...

...At which point Diamond became distressed at the idea that the playwright’s primacy - that is, his right to be in the driver's seat of his own creation - should be supplanted by the group.

Now, if we're operating from the perspective that the playwright has an idea, writes it down, loves it, nurtures it, brings it into being - it's HIS story, HIS world, HIS play - if within that context someone (or ones) says during the course of development, "We want to change XYZ about your play," and the playwright, being too young or timid to know how to stand up for what he wants, goes along, then I agree, that doesn't seem quite fair. The writer deserves to have the last word over HIS work. But if the circumstances were such that the playwright should bring a new work to the table to be discussed and developed by the group and the playwright knew that going into it - is that so unfair? Or if, say, the group approaches the playwright and says "We have this great idea that we want to explore together - will you be our playwright?" Who, if anybody, has the artistic control in that situation? Does it change if it's the playwright who approaches the group, rather than vice versa?

No one will argue that are as many ways to bring a play into being as there are ways to skin a cat, and when it comes to collaborations of any kind, somebody is going to lose some creative control - that's kind of the point. But the trick, if you ask me, is to make sure everybody is clear from the start on exactly what kind of project it is, and what exactly that means. How? By developing that communal language. By engaging in a dialogue and asking the questions, when is it YOUR play, when is it MY play and when is it OUR play? and by answering them clearly and collectively.

One of the things that stood out to me in the most during the #newplay Twitter-flury last week came during the primacy vs. group dynamic debate; a comment by playwright Kristoffer Diaz:

I don't want to be god, but I do want to be the artist that all other artists take their cues from. #newplay

At first I was just vaguely amused, because as far as creative hierarchy is concerned, that sounds about as close to god as you can get. But the more I thought about it, the more valid it sounded.

I've known plenty of colleagues (and a few college professors far to full of themselves) who would consider the director to be the one calling the creative shots for the production, but that just doesn't seem right to me. If you ask me, my job is not to speak, but to combine and amplify every other creative voice in the room in a way that is consistent and powerful. My job is to listen.

So naturally, I'm drawn to collaboration in general, and particularly devised theater. More ideas! More voices! More listening!

In this sense, the question of primacy involves me less immediately: As far as I'm concerned, I have none. Or, very little. I'm a quilter, not a weaver. Coming, as I do, from this perspective, yes, I am curious as to when and how the artist(s) can claim artistic ownership over a project. But really, only as it influences my more pressing question: which collaborative permutations really work? Is giving the playwright total artistic control the most productive way to create a story? Lydia Diamond claims that relinquishing a playwright of his primacy does not serve the playwright's vision. But does it serve the play? Please don't get me wrong, I'm not advocating that anybody should be allowed to manipulate another's creative or intellectual property for the sake of the art. When it's yours it's YOURS. What I want to know is, does it work better when it's ours?

Back to Diaz’s tweet: my first thoughts on reading it were, Fair enough. Somebody’s got to be the artist from whom everyone takes their cues, and I don’t think it should be me. It really ought to be the playwright.

In terms of “traditional” process (ie, the playwright writes a script, develops it, turns it over to a creative team (director/actors/designers etc.) to rehearse and perform) I stand by that. It makes sense that the playwright’s voice should be the most regarded in the room. But in terms of more collaborative/devised work, is that necessarily true? For work that, well, works to happen:

1.Does the person in the driver’s seat need to be the playwright?
2.Does there need to be somebody in that seat at all?

First of all, let’s be honest. A lot of times devised work doesn’t really work. It was interesting to note that many artists at the convening drew back from the label, "devised theater". I am not one of those artists, by the way, probably because I haven't used it enough to feel the judgmental repercussions of being slapped with the label. I still regard it as an exciting new frontier to explore, filled with unknown trails and channels that chart new directions to get at the proverbial it. I’ve seen enough amazing stuff to know that there's something really exciting going on here that I want to be a part of.

But don’t get me wrong. I’ve also seen a lot of really really bad devised theater too. The kind of work that makes theater artists uncomfortable identifying with the term and makes Isaac Butler of Parabasis declare that devised work is “messy” and a process that is often “used to justify shoddy work.”

Is the reason for this messy/shoddy outcome a lack of artistic leadership? According to Guy Yedwab, the answer is yes – or at least yes, devised work works better with a traditional rehearsal process and a director/dramaturg/editor at the helm to bring the piece together. Over on CultureFuture, he attempts to answer some of these questions on when, whether, and how devised work works, as well as more clearly define the term:

Note that devised work is a different drafting process; one that requires rehearsal space and other resources. A lot of devised work companies make the mistake of conflating the drafting process with the production process; they don't leave time between the creating of something and the process of making it good -- the editing and finessing process. That, I think, is what causes Isaac to wish that the "director" or the "playwright/editor" had been more present.

To me, it would be perfectly plausible to use a devised work process to create a first "script", and then to put a traditional-style director in charge of it and say, "make this good." In the traditional-style directing process, as it was communicated to me, the director and the cast operate in a mode of trying to bring a particular intention to life in the most sharply defined way possible. No reason why you can't do that with a work that has been created in an ensemble-derived environment.

All right, fair enough. But it’s the drafting process – the devised part, where the script is created – that’s what I’m really curious about. Should there be a leader during that process as well, or does imposing a creative hierarchy to the creative process defeat the devised point? And must the leader be the playwright? Or might it be the dramaturg, or the editor, or the (oh dear) director?

When I think back to my personal experiences with devised work, one instance leaps out at me as being particularly successful. During the rehearsal process for What Work Is (if you’re curious about that project, you can click here), I developed two fantastic monologues with a particular actor named Clare. In both cases the process was more or less the same:

•We started with a poem which we read together, analyzed and discussed its meaning. We talked about how we identified with the poem in our own lives, and how the character Clare was developing might identify with it.

•I asked her to, on her own, develop a scene or monologue for her character that reflected the themes and ideas that we had discussed in the poem.

•She returned with her monologue, which she performed for the group and we discussed. I asked her questions about where and how this fit in with the larger conflict/character arc we were in the process of developing. Based on our discussion, I suggested that she make certain changes, highlight certain aspects that were more central to the play’s narrative as a whole, etc.

•She came back in with the changes, and we would read, discuss, repeat.

I suppose, despite my previous distaste for the idea, in this case I was the artist “from whom all the other artists took their cues,” as Diaz put it. But, at the same time, part of what worked so well about the collaboration was Clare’s strength as a playwright. The beautiful, moving monologues that Clare wrote were hers and hers alone, and could never have been created without her own clear, personal vision. In fact, much of the misfires (and there were many misfires involved with that show) of the early rehearsals were a result of the actors looking to me for leadership and me not knowing what on earth I was doing. The process really took shape, as much for me as for them, when they began to take real ownership over the roles and stories they were developing.

Hmm. I don’t have answers here, just questions.

It’s a strange and delicate relationship between creative autonomy and group dynamic, both in terms of respecting creative ownership and finding a rhythm that creates strong, powerful art. And if the “Four Big Thinkers” of the #newplay convening are right, it’s one we as artists are going to continue to have to grapple with as we move toward a more collaborative future. But I, for one, can’t wait.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

#Newplay Thoughts Continued

Fair warning: I'm probably going to be marinating on the #newplay convening all week.

I've been doing some more thinking about Landesman's indictment of non-profit theaters that are, for all intents and purposes, competing in the commercial market and his assertion that we need to re-define how the government allocates funding for non-profit theaters.

I agree. I think it's valid that if a a play is competing in the "commericial market" then it's not really playing fair to also access funds that should be available to projects that are taking more risks, and stand on less stable financial footing. But then, how do we define things like "risk taking" and "stable financial footing"? Most commercial projects do not recoup their investment and, on the flip-side, are we saying that all non-profit projects - all projects that deserve funding - should explicitly not hold mass appeal? That doesn't seem right.

That leads to the following question: "Is it possible for a regional theater to be true to its mission and non-profit status and ALSO create work that resonates with the cultural majority?"

Well, yes. And this is not just true of regional theater, but of all theater. Resonant art is not necessarily in opposition with the cultural mainstream. I'm fond of saying the only difference between what we call "art" and what we call "entertainment" is that entertainment is art that has successfully resonated with people on a mass scale.

Which is not to say that art that resonates, but not on such a broad spectrum, isn't equally important. And because it is, by nature, not financially viable, this is where non-profit funding, grants, and government subsidies come in. This is the "R&D" aspect of creation that we've all been talking about. It doesn't make money, but still performs a vital service to society and it's our responsibility as citizens of a civilized nation to nurture that.

The tricky part is, questions like, "Does this take risks?" "Is this art vital to society?" and "Is this financially viable?" are somewhat subjective and, from a beaurocratic perspective, not great for determining who gets government subsidies and who does not. Landesman says there should be a bigger difference between "commercial" and "non-profit" than what tax returns we file, and I agree. But if non-profit is not defined by a 501(c)3, then what *does* define it? Especially when it's possible and sometimes favorable for non-profit work to appeal on a mass level, and traditional commercial endeavors carry just as much risk for financial failure?

The question gets even trickier still when you take it out New York and apply it to smaller regional theaters. At least in New York you can say, "Look. Here are the Broadway theaters, which are clearly Commercial Projects. And here are smaller theaters and companies which are clearly not competing in a commercial market. And here are some NFPs with Broadway houses who are taking enhancement money from commercial producers, and that's not fair. You can't dip in to both pots."

But in other areas of the country, you don't have a whole bunch of big theaters trying to serve one specific need, and then a whole bunch of other theaters trying to serve another. You have one to maybe a handful of theaters that are trying to serve a whole spectrum of needs of their entire community, ranging from experiences that resonate on a community-wide level to projects with relevance and artistic merit, but a more limited appeal. So... what do you do with that?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Rocco Landesman at the #Newplay Convening (A Response to the Responses)

Okay, confession time: I didn't know the #newplay convening was happening until it was actually happening. I like to think I follow the theater scene pretty closely - I read papers and the blogs, I visit the websites, I do the Twitter - but somehow this completely escaped me. These were my thoughts last Thursday, as I idly kept my Twitter page open while answering phones at my job: Hey, that's an interesting idea from Rocco Landesman that TCG just tweeted. Hey, that's another! Oh my god, so many exciting points, where are they coming from!? OH MY GOD, now EVERYBODY'S making exciting points! What's going on?!? Why is everybody having this amazing conversation all at once!? What is this #newplay hashtag!? My brain is exploding.

I pretty much peed my pants.

I was also really, really excited because Rocco Landesman, the head of the freaking NEA was all the sudden saying what I've been saying for a really long time.

Truth be told, don't know if I articulated what I was thinking as well as I could have in that post - in fact, I felt really bad after I posted it because I never meant to imply that the only places with flourishing art scenes were NYC and other similar big cities. I tried to clarify my ideas in a comment, by saying, "I think the thing is, there's a tipping point - a point where the sheer volume of work being created stops being a boon and starts being a liability - everything, even really good things, just get lost in the din. I'm putting forth the hypothesis that New York has reached that tipping point." Which says it as well as anything else I've written. Yes, it's great that there exists such an expansive and diverse theater community - up to a point. And we've reached that point: the supply has exceeded the demand.

But I add the following caveat: the supply has exceeded the demand in New York City. And possibly other large urban cities. And I know I'm not the only person who has said that the solution is not to decrease the supply, but to spread it around. Scott Walters, on TheaterIdeas, says, "There are many medium-sized cities, suburbs, and other such places that are also being ignored by the lemming-like flow of artists to NYC in search of fame. There is a large swath of entire states in the midwest that have no TCG theatres at all." Trisha Mead, in a comment on her own report for the New Play Blog, says, "Less than 10% of urban communities (and an even smaller percentage of rural communities) regularly experience live performance," and to believe that that number is in response to a fixed demand that can't be changed is "crazytalk."

But I am so, so psyched to hear other people saying it too.

This is not really a response to Landesman's speech; I wasn't there, I didn't hear it first-hand. But I have read an awful lot of reports on it and responses to it. And people are saying some awesome, awesome stuff. So, consider this a response to the responses.

It seems like reactions largely fall into three categories:

1) WTF does he mean "demand can't be changed"?
2) Why are we talking about supply and demand anyway? Isn't that commercial theater's domain?
3) Does Rocco Landesman have it out for the little guys?

First and foremost, did he really say that demand can't be changed? I have the following quote atrributed to him from two sources: "Look. You can either increase demand or decrease supply. Demand is not going to increase, so it is time to think about decreasing supply." Did he really say that? If so I a) disagree and b) he took that back right-quick. Because his post on the NEA blog in response to all this discussion essentially outlines ways in which we can increase the demand for the arts.

But in any case, he definitely does want to talk about decreasing the supply, and I can see how those remarks would sound like a big stomping-on to the smaller fish of the theater world. But it's interesting that this was the response at large when I, the smallest of the small fish, heard this proposal and rejoiced.

Because here's the thing. The extreme imbalance between supply and demand is a problem. It's a problem that, living in the really, really big pond that I do, I personally encounter a lot. And, while I don't think "thinking about decreasing supply," is a useful or practical option, I applaud Landesman for making the audacious statement that there's simply too much theater. Because as someone who loves theater more than pretty much anything else, I think he's right. And if we want to find a solution to the problem, we have to address it rather than pretend it doesn't exist.

But the solution is not to decrease the demand, and it's not a question of whether I'm insulted, or whether I consider this a threat to myself or my fellow artists. It's the fact that, as Adam Thurman put it so nicely in his blog, Mission Paradox, "The arts are a passion business and all the economic arguments in the world aren't going to stop people who feel like they must (for reasons both noble and foolish) create art through an organization." Supply and demand aren't linked in the arts the way that they are in a traditional business model. The supply just isn't going to go away.

So what is the solution? There have been a lot of good ones, but you know my favorite. So many parts of the country are completely underserved by the theater, and if you say that's because there's no demand for it, that brings us back to points 1) and 2) above.

Who says we can't create a demand? Again, to quote Adam Thurman, "10 years ago I wasn't looking at my old standard definition TV and looking for a better picture image. I didn't even know that was a possibility until it happened." Marketing whizzes create demand for products where there was none all the time. And here are markets where there is the opportunity to do so, markets that are not completely saturated, where there is space for a demand to grow.

And, furthermore, what does demand have to do with it anyway? Isn't that the point of non-profits, or at least the grants that fund them - to provide the means to do something for which there isn't enough public demand for it to survive on it's own, but is really, really important anyway? Trisha Mead makes this point well in her open letter to Rocco. She extends the metaphor put forth during the convening that non-profits function as the "the 'R&D arm' of our society, testing what it means to be human and reflecting back the concerns of the moment." And, as with scientific research, it's not just the big experiments with the guaranteed success that need to be funded. It's the little ones too, the crazy ideas and the colossal failures that lead to important discoveries.

I believe that, I honestly do, but I will say this as well: supply and demand are linked in the arts world, although in a less direct way than in the commercial world. Yes, we have to nurture the little experiments and the failures in order to find the theatrical equivalent of the "big discovery." But we should never forget that we are in pursuit of that big discovery, that eye-opening breakthrough that feeds the masses. It's not enough to be holed up in our labs clapping our hands at our own little explosions.

I think, as artists, our greatest collective aspiration is to answer a need, to a universal human yearning for something beyond our daily bread. In this sense, art does answer to a demand. I'm not sure if this is the same demand that Landesman was talking about, but all the same, it should not be disregarded. If we're not creating something that at least touches the possibility of satisfying that need, or leading to something that will then we should not be doing it at all. Hey - maybe I do believe in decreasing the supply.

The lovely and exciting part of it all for me is that that need is there in every part of the country, even if the commercial demand is not. In his response post, Landesman says that "Americans are hungry for and will seek out an expressive life." Yes. All people everywhere are hungry for an expressive life and art, in all its forms answers that hunger.

One thing in particular spoke to me about Landesman's address (from Mead's report for the New Play Blog):

And finally, he is very interested in seeing regional theaters invest in more work that is designed specifically for their own community, rather than passing around the latest Broadway hit. He wants to see regional companies generating work that speaks directly to their own communities... work that shares and reflects the unique values of its particular audience. He is concerned that it has become too tempting for regional artistic directors to program work with a potential Broadway transfer in mind.

Yes. Yes yes yes. This is hits the nerve of supply/demand imbalance at two points. Imports from Broadway are not as relevant to a community as work being generated for and by it. So audiences lose interest, they seek to meet their need for an "expressive life" elsewhere. And then on the other side of it, the artists lose interest because we want to be a part of a community that's creating new and vibrant work, not reproductions of work that was relevant 5 years and 1500 miles ago. We want to be answering to the need. The one feeds the other, artists cluster closer and closer around more active creative hubs that become quickly oversaturated and the rest of the country is left with a dearth of art where it is truly needed.

We can fix this. We can create a demand. And, even more excitingly, were coming up on a point in history where the advent of technology and social networking devices make it possible for artists to convene and create active and vibrant communities across geographical boundaries. Look at the amazing work that 2AMt is doing, or the Arena Stage's New Play Map or - oh! And now I'm getting into the connectivity part of the convening and I promised myself I would stick to the opening remarks.