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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 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.


  1. Hey, Leigh-- thanks for joining in. Wanted to make sure you knew you could check the quotes for yourself. The whole session is available to stream at #newplay tv. He starts at about the 8min mark.

  2. Leigh,
    Your first paragraph totally described me that day!
    I love you/Trisha with creating not "community theatre", but community-BASED theatre. When do we start?

  3. David - Thanks for taking the time to check out my thoughts! The #newplay convening was such an exciting event, even from afar. I think it will shape and change the conversation theatermakers will be having for a while. I did not know that the panels and discussions are still available online. I knew they were being live-streamed, but for some reason, I took live-streaming way too literally, and thought the conversations were viewable only as they were happening live. Silly Leigh - now I know what my weekend plans will be.

    Nicole - I'm glad I'm not the only one who practically had an aneurysm on Thursday! Yes! Community BASED theatre! As for me, I can't wait to start! I plan on moving back to my hometown in New Mexico within the next year or so. It's a community with a small but rich (and passionate) theater scene. It will be the perfect place to put these ideas to practice. Of course, I'm going to have to change the name of my blog... :-P