Some Thoughts on the Indie Theatre Scene From a Practitioner
NB: I am really only writing about New York here, I’d love to hear what other people’s experiences of the indie/grassroots/whatever scenes in their town’s.
NB2: This is very rough. Commentary is welcome.
NB3: Please forgive the wonky formatting.
The weaknesses of the Indie Theatre Scene can be roughly categorized thusly.
(1) Lack of Adequate Funding (And Funding Sources)
Many problems spring forth from this one issue. The lack of quality stage managers, for example. As one Artistic Director told me “Finding a good stage manager in the off-off world is very difficult. You want to find someone really good with little experience, because as soon as they have both quality and experience, they’ll be too busy to work with you.” As a result, good stage managers are frequently either (a) people with good organizational skills who need to be taught how to stage manage while the director is also directing the show, (b) angels (or people involved in the production company) or (c) recently graduated theatre students. Of these, Group A is the least desirable and also the easiest to find.
Another problem is attition. Some people are dedicated to indie theatre and sticking it out. They view at as something necessary to them as people rather than as a potential profession (profession in the sense of something they get paid to do, I’m not talking about dedication here). Others view indie theatre as where they are now not where they are planning on staying. As a result, losing actors to gigs that pay actual money is frequent, scheduling around people’s remunerative conflicts can be a nightmare etc. On top of this, the “scene” such as it is has rather a lot of turnover as people leave to other cities, other fields, better paying jobs etc. There is very little institutional memory as there are, essentially, no institutions.
One artistic director, when asked by me how he’d run his theater if money were no option, said “I’d pay every actor $5K a week”. His point was that he could avoid the above issues if he could pay people enough. He had also just lost a lead actor to a film.
In addition, lack of adequate funding can make professionalism more complicated and difficult to achieve. When someone is doing something at night essentially as a hobby, that can have an adverse affect on someone’s level of commitment to a project. In New York, the carrot of “being discovered” or a show positively affecting someone’s career helps mitigate this. I am told in other cities where it really is someone’s hobby, these problems are far more pronounced (one director told me of an actor with some experience wanting to reschedule rehearsal because the weather was going to be nice the next day and he wanted to go hiking.)
More—and more creative—funding sources need to become available. Something like the NYC equivalent of The Awesome Foundation would be a good start. As David Dower pointed out at the TCG conference, stabilizing the grassroots theatre world would not take a lot of money and small amounts of money can go a long way.
(2) Expensive, low-quality real estate
To paraphrase Richard Foreman: the artist problems in New York are real estate problems. Space in New York City comes at an outrageous premium. The facilities groups have access to are frequently in states of disrepair, with out of date equipment, low storage spaces and bad backstage facilities. They also cost easily $1,500 a week at a minimum. Companies get around this by producing in rep spaces such as the spaces run by Horse Trade, the Gene Frankel and the 78th Street Theatre Lab. These spaces tend to have more severe quality issues but are dramatically cheaper. In my mind, the value in these spaces is fairly dramatic. A show at Horse Trade if you’ve worked out the right deal with them, costs little up front and the rental is largely taken out of your box office. You trade exclusivity for this and the spaces can be tricky to work with. But many spaces costing over a grand a week are not actually much better.
One of the other issues in space quality is the lack of good space managers. Many space managers are extremely hostile, unhelpful, hate their jobs and/or view renters as potential Visigoth Hordes coming to burn their peaceful village down. As the space managers rarely own the spaces, they often fail to understand (on an emotional or cognitive level) that the money you are paying keeps them in business. There are good space managers out there (I had a great experience with Kyle et al at the Access and I think Eric at 78th Street is one of the nicest people working in theatre) but bad space managers can make the experience of doing quality work much much harder. (As can, from a design perspective, the lack of up-to-date drawings and all sorts of other little things).
(3) Low Visibility for Work
Let’s just admit it: Supply vastly outweighs demand. This is why festival glut is a really serious problem. Individual shows have a very difficult time getting attention even when festival season isn’t happening. Now that festivals happen year round, getting visibility is even more difficult. The stereotype of indie theare is that artists either (a) guilt-trip their non-theatre friends into seeing work they’re not really going to like and subsidizing it with the ticket prices or (b) that theatre artists make up the bulk of the audiences at indie theatre shows. While both stereotypes are based in some kind of reality (people who do theatre care about theatre and want to see theatre etc.), these both arise out of the same supply-demand issue.
Recently, the Collective Arts Think Tank has put some thought into this issue and recommends that we, essentially, cut down on supply. While I agree, the question automatically begged is who is meant to be cutting down on supply? Now, the Collective Arts Think Tank is largely centered around performance companies doing generative work, but it’s still worth asking. Vallejo Gantner is a co-signatory. Is PS122 going to reduce its programming by 50% while still seeking the same level of funding from donors and foundations? My guess is no (nor would I were I he). Who, then, is supposed to take the hit and reduce their supply? Who puts down their gun first in the Mexican Stand-Off of Off-Off Broadway?
The truth of the matter is that as long as work is largely funded by the artists themselves with a few outside donations and the occasional foundation kicking in some grant money every now and then, there’s no incentive to reduce supply (unless the producers get laid off from the day job funding their theatre company). The market does not in any way influence what gets put on (this is a good and bad thing). What determines it is simply staying power. Who will stick it out the longest, go the extra mile, dump more of their own money into their shows, and who will go with them. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing, but it’s one of the reasons why supply is so high.
This is related to another issue (Which is interrelated with the next point). Success is poorly defined. A show that sells badly can still be an artistic success. A show that no one liked can still be beloved by its creators. If success is poorly defined, failure is also poorly defined, and thus a company ceasing production is largely based on factors that have little to do with the actual work.
(4) Severe Quality Control Issues
Most theatre is bad. There, I said it. There’s plenty of bad theatre happening in large venues with lots of money. Money does not determine quality (although it can help create an environment in which quality is easier to create). That being said, as a practitioner and viewer of indie theatre, it’s worth noting how often amateurishness pervades the scene… plays frequently have uneven casts, clumsy staging and poorly-thought out design.
Sometimes, this is made up for by the early-Sam Shepard qualities… energy, intensity, immediateness etc. but oftentimes, it is not. Frequently shows display potential excellence with little actual excellence.
There are many reasons why this is so, but one that keeps coming up in conversations with peers is the lack of frank peer-to-peer dialogue about the work created. If frank peer-to-peer dialogue about work is to happen, it’s most likely going to happen in person-to-person private contact, in meat space, not cyber space. Artists don’t really want to hear criticism and their friends don’t really want to deliver it. In addition, there is little effort put out to question non-friend audience members as to their responses to work. The rule of thumb is at times that if the creators were happy with it, the audience’s experience of it can be easily dismissed.
I’m painting in broad strokes here, of course, and I’ve seen lots of excellent work that I wouldn’t have seen anywhere else were it not for the Indie Theatre scene (Fight Girl Battle World and Universal Robots being two recent examples) but the truth of the matter is, a lot of work is sub-par. And it’s very difficult to convince first-time audience members to take a risk on indie theatre (Despite the excellent price point) because of their worries about the quality of what they’re about to see.
It’s also why—as one producer/director told me—“we need to plaster any good reviews all over the fucking place like needy children to get people to believe we don’t suck”. Which gest back to the visibility issue.
This also returns us to the issue of Poorly Defined Success. If market considerations are irrelevant (and again, I think it’s in general good that that’s so) due to self-funding and the work “plays be its own rules” or some other “has its own terms” type thing going on, then no matter what happens, the play can be defined as a success. As a result, the only way of separating wheat from chaff overtime becomes exhaustion. But how dedicated you are is not the same as how good you are.
I think most civilians would be surprised on what theatre people create out of next to nothing. The show I’m directing right now has multiple costumes for five actors (including a hand-made giant chicken outfit) for under $300.00. Theatre folk—and especially indie theatre folk—are amazingly good at stretching every dollar and at using technological innovations (particularly where sound design is concerned) to accomplish this.
What amazes me every time I do a play is the amazing resources contained just in the human beings I work with. Many of the people working in indie theatre are polymathic in their interests and talents. And because the scene is not dominated by theatre MFA folk, there’s more of a diversity of background and kinds of experience and knowledge. Talented and generous people are able to bring their diverse backgrounds out to help make the show better.
Necessity being it’s mother, resourcefulness is of course deeply intertwined with Inventiveness. When design in the indie world is inventive (and it’s worth saying, often it is not as stated above) there’s a sophistication and ingenuity behind it that really cannot be found elsewhere no matter how much money you spend. It’s more magical to transform a shoebox into a kingdom than it is to build a replica kingdom out of plywood.
(2) Supportive Community
Really, one of the best things about working in indie theatre is the communities of artists that have developed. It reminds me a bit of what someone told me about living in Portland, Oregon, “No one has much money here, so there’s a real desire to help people out and make the best of it. You get a lot of invitations to come over to a potluck”. These communities then overlap and “intermarry” in a way, helping expose artists to new collaborators in a safer way than the usual blind-audition process.
In addition, I have found indie theatre artists to be in general a fairly selfless, generous lot. We go to see each other’s shows (when possible), we help each other when sets need to be built or crises emerge. We consult each other when we need help. We work together in strange overlapping circles and learn from each other, then bring this knowledge back to our own little fiefdoms. It’s really remarkable, and quite moving to experience. It’s like having a very large extended family. For example, I’ve never worked with Vampire Cowboys, but I know so many people who have (or are just part of the same social circles) that when I met Qui and Abby we were basically already friends.
I think this one speaks for itself, really. If you’re looking for variety in theatre, the indie theatre scene is the place to go. You can see a gajillion new plays on any given night, all with very different sensibilities jostling with company created work that ranges from commedia derived spectacles to somber meditations on death. In some venues you can see one show at 8 and see its polar opposite at 10.
The one chink in variety’s armor is the classics. There aren’t a ton of productions of either the classics or the I guess you could call it “20th century rep” in the indie theatre scene. I don’t personally think there should be. That territory is very well covered elsewhere, and it’s fine to let other people do what they do well while doing what we do well.
(4) Audience Demographics
While in my experience, indie theatre audiences are not as racially diverse as they probably should be (and would be if the work produced was more diverse) the audience for indie theatre is in general young, hip, interested in the arts, well read and/or educated etc. They are, in other words, the audiences that large institutions increasingly talk about trying to rope in to their shows.
As time passes and it becomes clearer that the Indie Theatre Scene is its own scene-- rather than the minor leagues for institutional theatre—addressing these (and other) weaknesses by building on our strengths will be the way forward. In some cities the grassroots or indie theatre scenes have already gone their separate ways from the larger LORT theaters that dominate the landscape of their cities. I’m interested in finding out what innovations and different ways of thinking have arisen from this.