So... this past weekend, I sat on a post-show roundtable type thing for Mike Daisey's How Theater Failed America. So.. how did it go?:
(1) Sitting on the panel from stage left to stage right: Mike Daisey (moderator), me, Steve Bodow (head writer of The Daily Show / founder of Elevator Repair Service), Morgan Jenness, David Cote, Jim Nicola and Rocco Landesman. Thus when Mike said that he was happy at the cross section represented on stage, I couldn't help but be proud for holding up the "wildly unqualified" end of the spectrum. Mark Russell, previously announced as attending, was unable to make it.
(2) The Theme: YOU ARE WHAT YOU WATCH. We did not spend a lot of time on the theme, it was more the impetus for a wider conversation. And boy! Was it wide! Programming, marketing, the value of realism, ambition, August: Osage County, ERS and NYTW etc. But the emphasis was definitely on programming decisions made by artistic directors
(3) Morgan kept returning to the idea of creating and finding the right environment... that ADs have to create the right environment for more interesting work, and artists have to find the right environment to flourish in (Which might not be NYC)
(4) Jim Nicola's two points about the regional theatre movement, which I thought provided some important context.... (A) They were founded with seed money from the Ford Foundation, and the idea was that the NEA would come along and fulfill the promise of that initial seed money and that never fully happened and as a theatre culture, we've been kind of tap-dancing around that problem ever since and (B) The large regional theaters (Arena etc.) were founded in a time where the idea of a monolithic mass culture that spoke for/to "all" was the norm. That's not really possible anymore (and for good reasons) we live in a more fractured cultural environment, so maybe the larger regional theaters are no longer capable of speaking to/for everyone.
(5) Someone asked if the subscriber model was dead/deadly. I responded that subscribers are not in and of themselves deadly. There are theaters that do boring programming and don't have subscribers, but I would say that if you don't like having subscribers, you shouldn't have them. This prompted Mike to rather humorously digress into how much many theaters he's worked at hate their subscribers, "and when you hate your core audience, that's a weird head-space to be in". Mike said that he thought most theaters should get rid of their subscribers unless they're absolutely essential. Rocco said that theaters really badly need the upfront capital that subscribers offer, especially if they're going to try the model of having a resident company.
(6) Let's just say it... Capitalism is an issue. In Trav S.D.'s book NO APPLAUSE, JUST THROW MONEY he discussed the problems that vaudeville unions had... namely that vaudevillians viewed themselves as entrepreneurs, not labor and thus were too self-interested to want to form a union. After all, if you could get to the Big Time, the money was insanely high, and even being a middleweight vaudevillian paid a lot more than the manual labor that the (largely undereduated and from poor backrounds) vaudeville performers were likely to get. So they also didn't want to take the risks of not working that being in a union would provide. This same problem to some extent affects resdient (or Rep) companies. Jim Nicola was at Arena in the early 1980s when the Rep company began to falter. He brought up the example of one actor in the company who got good health benefits and $60K a year, but who then got into a film, worked with Robert DeNiro, made $60K in three weeks and became less active with the company. This wasn't the big issue. The problem was replacing him. What they found was that while younger actors (and less talented older actors) were interested in being part of the company, the older (and more talented) you got, the less that was true.
(7) Can I ask... is there anywhere we one could find out how many theaters in the United States still have resident, salaried acting companies?
(8) David Cote: Marketing is important. How a theater presents themselves to an audience is important. Look at the National in England and how they market their shows vs. the watercolor posters at LCT.
(9) Rocco: "When we were producing a new Tony Kushner musical on Broadway and a non-profit theater was doing Pajama Game, I realized something was wrong". This was said in the context of how commercial theatre (which he works in) has perverted non-profits. It's not that he thinks commercial theatre is bad, obviously not, he works in it, it's that he feels that the pull of commercial theatre has made it so that larger theaters are really aiming themselves towards the commerical world rather than towards their audiences + missions. This is something I wrote about a bit here.
(10) One of the things that impresses me about David Cote (and, full disclosure, makes me happy to call him a friend) is that I feel that he is regularly a force arguing for more open-mindedness from people. He is as impatient with people who categorically rule out realism on the stage as he is with stodgier people who have disdain for experimental theatre. This came out pretty boldly in the panel. One of the primary targets of his forceful arguing for more open-mindedness: Artistic Directors.
(11) Morgan Jenness again: What does theatre have to offer its audiences that is unique? People who choose programming should be thinking about that. What are the singular experiences to be had in the theatre? That's what'll keep audiences coming back.
(12) Guy in audience: How do you articulate what it is about a particular show or company you like/love so that a friend of yours will want to go see it? Me: You buy them a ticket and take them to see the show. I realized after I said this that this is another way that high ticket prices are problematic. I'll have to add that to the very long list.
There was a lot more than that, but that's what comes to mind off the top of my head. Of course, Aaron Riccio was there too, so perhaps he wants to offer his observations?