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August 28, 2009

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mirroruptonature

I shouldn't be too surprised, but your outline pretty well mirrors our scene here in Boston.

The space managers are a little better it seems, but the overall lack of space is a problem.

Small companies work with each other more and more. Now, more than ever, you will have the following:

A theatre company producing a play Wed-Sun will allow another company to stage a reading or put up a one-night festival of shorts on the Monday and Tuesday they are dark.

A new organization, The Small Theatre Alliance of Boston has formed to help better coordinate marketing and logistical efforts.

The visibility has improved greatly since say 10-15 years ago. Many small shows get covered by both the major papers and the local alt-weekly.


Tony Adams

I think the lack of an honest peer-to-peer review or dialogue is a server detriment. We often forget to act like grownups.

malachy walsh

I have to say, I really don't know what peer-to-peer reviewing/dialogue really means or is supposed to mean.

Or how it's supposed to work.

I've seen posts that try to define it (flux I think did a quite lengthy piece about it) but in the theatre groups I've participated in downtown (Clubbed Thumb, Soho Think Tank, for example) I definitely heard negative and honest feedback about my work.

Some of it was helpful to me. Some of it was not. Some of it I disregarded because it seemed to be coming from people who didn't get what I was attempting to do - but some of it was helpful for exactly the same reason. The words "good" and "bad" were rarely ever used - which I was happy about since I find they are mostly irrelevant concepts when it comes to art.

But there was feedback. A lot of it quite direct.

Now, I can definitely recall working with people who didn't want to hear any criticism, but ultimately I've learned that it had more to do with the way it was doled out rather than really being deaf to it.

So how would this work? And how would it be different than we what we have or don't have today?

Erez

Certainly there is quite a bit of bad theater out there, but if you do the math, indie theater produces A LOT less bad work per dollar spent and per audience member than Broadway, Hollywood, the music industry and the publishing world. And while the lack of funding is painful for all of us it is also quite liberating, it allows us to try things that well funded producers would never dare try. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t but being able to put up ground breaking work for what some people spend on one week of vacation or a dining room set or a used car is pretty damn cool. What we really need to promote within the community is for all of us to stop inviting our friends and the press to shows that we know are bad.

cgeye

Could it be that the degradation of the critical environment from newspapers -- decreasing numbers of film and book critics, their mission refocused on concise consumer reports rather than longer overviews -- has spread to theater reviewing because of pressure from management?

If so, then it's understandable that critics and practitioners feel compelled to pull their punches. If theatre supposedly competes with movies, then having rigorous critiques exposed to the public could make theatre appear to be more defective, less 'business-like' than movies.

But that creates a vicious circle -- the less honest criticism we have, the greater flaws we tolerate generally, which eventually gives the public the impression that theatre itself is a lesser art.

Lucas Krech

While funding and real estate are a constant problem for theater producing, it is interesting to note the uniqueness of various areas. New York has problems that really are inherent to New York. There is too much bad work and yet not enough work(or money) to keep everyone working.

In a similar vein I wrote about the regional problems a while back. For contrast: http://lucaskrech.com/blog/index.php/2009/04/29/regional-theatre-and-the-new-york-problem/

SC

To be honest, I have to disagree with an assessment of the Indie Theater scene as a wholly supportive community.

Martin Denton and I were emailing recently, and he wondered where my work and I have been for the past couple years (I'm an indie theater playwright/performer). I told him the truth: every time I've tried approaching Indie Theater ADs, houses (ie, The Brick), companies, or even freelance directors--to form relationships with and hopefully make some work with them--I've gotten the cold shoulder.

I've just found the Indie Theater scene to be, often, maddeningly insular and cliquish--which really pains me, because it's the scene I love to work in. Just my experience, but, wondering if it's been shared by anyone else.

RLewis

IB, I think that you've really gotten it down good & plenty. Unfortunately, as I've read elsewhere, we all know these things and there's nothing new here. The same things have been written by George and Nello in their publications for Arts Action Research, among others.

I agree that there are a lot of problems in the Indie Theater scene; there are also a ton of good things, too. I think it's worth saving.

I'm wondering if one of the things we're doing to hold ourselves back is a Branding issue (i hate that trendy word, so feel free to insert any of the other words used in the past to say the same thing). So, I ask...

Is Indie Theater too big to fail?
(cuz there's gotta be a place to fail, but no one wants to pay to see it.)

I bet nyc theater is 10x bigger than when I got here in the '80s, and now we're calling it Indie Theater. Great. It includes Off Off Broadway, downtown performance, mid-town wanna-be-transfers, actor Showcases, experimental theater, first-run workshops, and non-pro community theater. Heck, Fringenyc even had dance works. Where's the line(s)?

I think that audiences are scared to take the risk to see much Indie Theater, cuz they have no idea what they'll get. (When most shows topped out at $5, it wasn't that big a deal.)

There was a day when shows would proudly call themselves Experimental, and audiences went cuz they wanted to and they knew -roughly- what to expect. Actor Showcases used to proudly label themselves as such, so that agents knew to come and what to look for - Actors, but that doesn't happen anymore. And there was a time when producers wouldn't bother marketing Workshops - they were internal process events for invited friends. Today, you can go to a show with advertising only to see something with actors still on book.

Indie Theater is so big now, that audience are wary, cuz they can't see the trees from the forrest. So, I worry that until we're more honest about what we call what we're doing, IT will just be a catchphrase for Everything Else.

I love Jerry Talmer (currently in the hospital, btw), who's alleged to have coined the phrase "Off Broadway", but more and more I see the disadvantage of naming what I do in relation to something (Broadway) that I have no interest in. Off-Off Broadway as a name was probably unavoidable then, but Off-Off-Off Broadway reveals this fatal flaw, cuz no one's gonna utter that.

First, there was Broadway, then Off Broadway, then Off-Off, but what comes next (that is still professional theater and not the bottom rung)? Is there a way to distinguish IT from all the rest? Is there a way to better identify our sub-sectors that facilitates audience access? Or is this all some community theater (where failure is expected) that's really just a humble hobby?

Brad McE

I used to live in NYC and I currently do theatre in Dallas.

There is barely a big enough scene here to be put into categories, unless maybe: funded and unfunded.

Dallas shares with NYC the space problem. Everything is new here, so there are not even any delapidated spaces, really. Old warehouses and the like don't stay that way very long before they are bulldozed and made into high end shopping or more lofts.

We are a car city, so everything is spread way out, too. This kind of dilutes the geographical "scene."

There is just as much bad work done here as anywhere else, comparatively, but the artists (and audiences) don't necessarily seem to learn from it. The quality bar stays not-too-high.

Really good, dedicated artists eventually leave for bigger markets, so there is a whole constant community of mediocre to pretty-good artists doing theatre here.

We are not really a "community" like elsewhere (NYC, Austin, Seattle). Since it is a small theatre town, everyone knows each other and we see each other socially and at parties, but when it comes to the work, we seldom get out to see each others shows and each company is kinda out for themselves first and foremost.

Recently several bigger organizations have had artistic leadership step forward to kinda bring the theatre community together a bit, like Dallas Theatre Center's new A.D. Kevin Moriarty (new in town) and Theatre Three's elder staesman Jac Adler. I'm curious to see how it will pan out.

Sara Cormeny

So many interesting thoughts here!

Some people who are interested in the question of peer-to-peer critique may find the Critical Response Process or CRP, as developed by Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, of interest. Personally I am not a honkin' huge fan, but I do appreciate that she and her troupe have come up with a simple method that has actual best practices associated with it and may help some groups better define their own feedback process. Here's a link to her book, but you can also Google "Liz Lerman CRP" and get a lot of good info.

Second, I feel like the Washington DC nonprofit arts scene does not suffer from amateurishness or a lack of professionalism, despite the fact that very few of our artists manage to work full-time in their performing-arts pursuits. I would attribute that to the high standards promulgated by some exceptional theater artists here, including the amazing Zelda Fichandler who founded Arena Stage, Joy Zinoman who founded and runs Studio Theatre, Howard Shalwitz who founded and runs Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, and Michael Kahn who runs the Shakespeare Theatre (and who could be said to have founded it in its current incarnation, I'd venture). So many theatre artists in DC have worked directly with these leaders, who bring high professionalism and exacting standards and who have basically trained, in the workplace and on the stage, the great actors, directors, arts administrators and designers who work in our town. There's just so many people at all levels of the theater world here who have "come up" at one time or another working with one of these four artistic directors. I don't know how you create a Howard or a Zelda, and if I did I'd start minting them and sending them around the country to do that work of training up the next generation. But I would encourage arts leaders -- board members, other artistic directors, arts councils in cities -- to seek out those talented, disciplined visionaries and then get them a posse, in ten years you'll have a re-vamped level of professionalism throughout your city's arts scene, in my opinion.

Finally, I think that more new arts organizations should resist the pull of nonprofit status. Foundation funding is not all its cracked up to be, and we should push the arts leaders in our regions to be more open to a for-profit model for arts creation. Not that I'm some rabid capitalist and I'm not trying to create the next Broadway. But non-profit status is, as you aptly point out, no guarantee of financial stability or artistic success, and so other models might be the basis of a more diverse arts scene, less dependent on foundations and big-ticket donors. Most of your fundraising in the funky, independent non-institutionalized years is going to be on the basis of personal relationships anyhow, and I think you can be surprised how few individuals and businesses care about whether they'll get a tax break by being involved in your new venture. In DC, we've been so lucky that the Cultural Development Corporation exists to provide access to performing spaces, office space and housing for artists, and that their visionary leader Anne Corbett has organized this to benefit nonprofits, individuals and for-profits alike. More cities should take note, it's a good model that has lots of potential. And more emerging arts leaders should also get a good adviser who can talk with them about the pros AND cons of nonprofit vs. for-profit (or noninstitutionalized) status.

David Dower, who gets such a great mention here, pointed me to an interesting resource for artists: Creative Capital, a New York-based foundation that runs seminars for artists on fundraising as an individual (the old patron model revived, is my sense).

And, for any artist struggling with how to fund the work, I think that Michael Kaiser of the Kennedy Center has written a book that is so very much worth the cost: The Art of the Turnaround. You can find it wherever good books are sold, yadda yadda.

isaac

Hey Sara,

Great thoughts. And as you may or may not know, I consider Joy ZInoman to be my theatrical mom. Acting in two shows directed by her when I was 12 and 13 changed my life dramatically for the better. And I love Creative Capital, although their grant process really will only help writers and.or auteurs. It's built around an assumption of single ownership and authorship of a work, and thus is poorly suited to theatre. If you like Creative Capital (as i do) you should consider reading Lewis Hyde's THE GIFT.

Anyway, I do want to take issue with one thing: I think the Liz Lehrman technique and its adherents are directly responsible for the lack of authentic dialogue in theatre. While in an ideal format it roots out bullshit or the efforts of people to write the play for the playwright, in practice it's a giant recipe for euphemism and people not saying anything of actual value for fear of offending.

Sara Cormeny

Oh, also, on Poor Definitions of Success -- I disagree. There are some very clear Definitions of Success that you enumerate -- financial, artistic, and reach to the community are some you point out, in the broadest terms let's say.

I think that many artists (like many people) are afraid to aim for any clearly-defined measure of success, and even more afraid to share whatever success metric they are chasing with their other stakeholders. I think the problem usually becomes: If You Don't Shoot for Success, You Won't Hit It. As an arts supporter but not an artist, I try to help the artists whose work I admire better envision, in their own hearts and in the public sphere, what Success is for them, determine whether they've found it on a project as well as overall, and if not what they need to do to achieve it.

I would venture that as an artist, you need to seek those people out who will be brave with you in aiming for success even when failure is possible and, dare we say it, likely. And, you need to put a claim on those people by telling them what success is to you and demanding that they demand it of you. AND, you need to listen when those stakeholders tell you what you need to do to refine your methods of getting to success, or how to increase, decrease or shift the meaning of success for you and your company.

Sara Cormeny

Ack -- THE GIFT! Great first chapter, super, I recommend it all the time. The whole fairytale/storytelling/potlatch stuff is genius. But then, I tell those unfortunate enough to be buttonholed by me on this topic -- STOP READING. Because the rest is, mostly, claptrap. But that first chapter -- heavenly.

I do agree that CRP itself quickly and obviously devolves into the Please-Stop-Criticizing-Me-Already Process. But I do value that Lerman sees critique as a valuable part of the arts process, and applies a method to it, and shares that method very transparently with her dancers and other stakeholders. I am inspired by that example, and think that other artists who feel like their art has been shackled by mediocrity (and the board members who love them), should consider coming up with their OWN No-Seriously-Critique-This-Mess Process, write it out in simple language with clear steps, and share it with the rest of their group, and see if that gives any relief. If an artist is in the thrall of artistic mediocrity and it bothers her, she might as well try kick-starting the scary process of getting better feedback with something like CRP.

RLewis

I've heard other people poo-poo Lerman's CRP, and with the subjective nature of art, any critique process will probably have some kind of flaw. But after hearing about it for years, and reading what it's supposed to be, I finally took a workshop with Liz when she came to nyc. It made all the difference. I even used her process and The Field's system to create my own version for HERE's resident artist program. Sure you can knock CRP, but until you've actually gotten it from the horse's mouth, you really just don't know.

David Dower

Isaac-- the Creative Capital Professional Development Workshop is separate from their grants program. Check it out here: http://creative-capital.org/pdp

If you can figure out a way to get to one, it's a major game changer.

RLewis

I think, don't quote me, but the next CC grant for theater is not until 2012 (and I believe the last one was only open to previous awardees), so don't get your hopes up on that one.

Their related, and equally competitive, MAP fund is answering questions today:

>>>>>
MAP Online Chat Thursday, September 3rd
Be sure to join us for a MAP Fund Online Chat on Thursday, September 3rd, 3pm Eastern Standard Time.

To participate in the MAP Online Chat:

1. Download AOL Instant Messenger
2. Create an AOL Instant Messenger screen name.
3. Send an instant message to AIM member, MAPentry, at any time during the chat to be invited into the MAP chat room.

A transcript of this session will be posted online and additional chats will be held in the coming month. We are also happy to answer your questions by phone at 212-226-1677 or via email at mapinfo@mapfund.org.

We look forward to speaking with you!

http://www.mapfund.org/

Carl Benson

Really interesting discussion across the board here, specifically for me, Sara's comments about for-profit vs. not-for-profit, Isaac's about supply and demand, and RLewis's thoughts on branding.

My biggest beef with the not-for-profit arts world is that it is inherently self defeating. By setting up as a non-profit, you are, to an extent, saying that the company will never make money and will consistently need subsidization in order to survive. Essentially, there is not enough demand to fully pay for the art being created.

Branding (marketing etc) is huge in changing the level of demand for theater across the board. As the Intertubes and other impersonal tech weave more seamlessly into our lives, the demand for live, human to human contact/performance/interaction is going to increase. You simply can't get that online, which is why bands are now making most of their money touring as opposed to the sale of records, which are now largely promotional/marketing tools as opposed to solid revenue streams. In short, we've got to start marketing theater in a way that competes with bars, concert venues, clubs and restaurants.

I agree with Isaac that currently the market doesn't have much to do with determining what work gets produced, but I think Theater in general could stand to pay a bit more attention to ticket sales and the bottom line. If a non-profit company can get a production paid for before the first ticket is sold, then what incentive does that company really have to make sure the production is something people want to see?

The basic difference between the two business models is that non-profits are culpable to their board of directors and big donors, while for-profits answer directly to the market and the people actually buying the tickets. And to be honest, aren't these the people we should be answering to?

Currently, if your theater is backed by charitable funding, your artistic fate lies in the hands of the relative few who dole out the grants. There is, however, a sorely underused, undervalued, and generally under appreciated though potentially limitless supply of funding ... ticket buyers.

Great blog, great discussion, love reading it, and please keep up the good work and on-point commentary.

Best,

-CB

RLewis

I just wanna say that I think Carl adds some great stuff to this discussion, revealing how this thread just scratches the surface as it has already faded into the background.

And as for...
"By setting up as a non-profit, you are, to an extent, saying that the company will never make money..."

...I don't think that's what my 501(c)3 actually says. What I believe it says is that I can not pay Board members or stockholders any share of any profits... a dividend. It does not say that the company can't make money.

This reminds me of a young theater company some decades ago that began with readings in, i think, a ymca basement, where some guy named Andre Bishop was a playreader and straighten-up things after the readings. By the time I interned at this company, Playwrights Horizons, they were workshoping the first act of Sunday in the Park with George while they had Sister Mary Ignatious, The Dining Room, Genuises, and (i'm forgetting one) in unlimited runs at OB theaters.

PH was the 2nd largest OB theater then because of ticket sales; and they also got (at least) their share of grants, but that didn't lessen the artistic drive and pride that determined what they produced, their artistic fate, and the incentives that kept them growing.

I'm just saying that if the focus is on the Work... doing good work, and leadship has integrity, then none of Carl's suggestions are mutually exclusive, legally nor morally.

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