by 99 Seats
Um. So. Yeah. Rocco Landesman made some news at the Arena Stage covening this week. It was the opening keynote address heard 'round the theatre world, I suppose. Well, it's not often you have the director of the NEA say that we need less arts in the country.
Except that's not what he said at all. And he didn't say we need to close small theatres, or regional theatres, or anything of the like. Even in the moment, though, people reacted as if that was what he said. Basically he was treated as if he'd announced the NEA was only going to fund Broadway shows. Which is largely the opposite of what he said, especially in context.
Trisha's post give a really good rundown of the main points he went over. If I were to sum up what he had to say in one sentence, well, I'd rip off another guy who stirred some shit up when he said it: the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. Rocco started off railing about enhancement money and how it was corrupting the missions of non-profit theatres. Ironically, this is a practice he basically started with the La Jolla production of Big River back in the '80s:
Enhancement money is key to the Dodgers approach. "I'm feeling very old," says Strong, "because I can still remember the first time Jujamcyn's Rocco Landesman used the word 'enhancement,' talking about giving money to La Jolla Playhouse for Big River—somewhere around $75,000 in addition to what they had budgeted for it. The enhancement monies were to cover additional costs of sets, lighting, and so on."
Now, though, he's very much against it and against the cozy relationship between commercial producers and non-profit theatres. And most of disgust is directed at the theatres, not the producers. He basically stated that he thought the relationship has been of greater benefit to the Broadway community, but great detriment to the non-profits.
The guy was a great quote generator, right from the start. It all kind of blew by us so quickly that the larger implications behind what he was saying didn't really take root for a couple of days. When he started off talking about the difference between the commercial theatre and the non-profit (or regional or resident) theatre being more than what tax return you file, it sounded kind of cranky and, especially coming from a somewhat reformed commercial producer, like a smackdown. But it's a real point. Underneath the skin, shouldn't they be different? Shouldn't they have different missions? And isn't really the complaint about the major non-profits that they are functionally operating like commercial producers?
He was full of bile, making it clear which theatres he had disdain for. I think you can guess the name of the elephant in the room when he was talking about theatres that are functionally commercial producers, but taking advantage of non-profit status to pay artists and techies less and produce at a lower cost than competing commercial producers. You know, roustabouts like that. Anyhoo. It was in that context, as I saw it, that he started saying we have too many theatres.
Here the commercial producer in him really reared its head. He mentioned the new numbers out from the National Arts Index to say that demand is dropping off, so supply should be. But it's not. And that's a fair question. Several people, both at the convening and on Twitter and the blogs after, have pushed back at the notion that "demand" had dropped off. Scott Walters was one, as was my friend Jeni Mahoney from the Seven Devils Playwrights Conference. Both of them noted already well-known coastal/urban bias in NEA grants and LORT theatres. To his credit, Rocco was pretty receptive to them and to Kirk Lynn from RudeMechs, who was legitimately apoplectic over Rocco's suggestion that NEA should shift to giving fewer and larger grants.
But, I think, when you add up what Rocco was saying, it seems less like he's aiming at taking the little guys out of the equation and more like he's re-evaluating his funding priorities on the basis of what kind of work a theatre is doing. If a theatre is effectively a commercial producer, but still needs the NEA to survive, it's doing something wrong.
But his point about supply and demand...what if he's just...right? And actual demand for our product is waning and won't significantly rebound. We offer, in most cases, a luxury good, inconvenient, time- and resource-intensive, an experience that can be more reliably replaced with other art forms. Is flooding the market with more theatres necessarily going to create more interest, in and of itself? But that's what we're doing: 3,000 new arts organizations have cropped up in the last three years, when the economy is in the tank. It's like we're opening Hummer dealerships. We're opening Five Guys, next to Fuddrucker's, next to McDonald's, next to Burger King. Maybe we don't need all of them. Or maybe we don't need all of them to be serving the same needs and audience.
Obviously, though, the place to trim isn't at the bottom, but at the top. If you look at the list of NEA grantees over the last couple of years, you're going to see some familiar names, some large (in some cases, VERY large) theatres that are receiving grants. Maybe the NEA needs to look at its grant requirements and make some small changes. Maybe it needs to shift its focus. Well, not much in the way of "maybe" there.
But maybe we also need to look at the field differently. Stop building quite so many institutions that need to last forever, or that grow and grow well beyond their own capacity and support. If you can't support yourself, maybe you do need to close. And something better get built in your place.
A lot of folks, and, in particular, the marketing folks who were in attendance for (or have heard about) Rocco's speech were suitably apoplectic about his flippant comment about the lack of demand for the work we do. I absolutely agree that there are ways to reach new audiences that aren't being served. I sincerely and absolutely do. BUT. If we're talking about finding new audience who will like what we're serving just because we asked them to come in a different way...we're going to be sorely mistaken about that. If we want new audiences we have to think about new things to give them. New stories. New people on stage. New ideas to feed them. What is absolutely waning is the audience taste for the work we are doing. Doing more of the same isn't the answer.
The other section of the Great Rocco Smackdown that really shouldn't go unnoticed was his full-throated defense of providing actual living wages for artists. Part of his point about having less theatres was that, then, with more resources focused in fewer places, we could maybe, just maybe, start pulling our artists out of poverty. The idea that a theatre could consider itself successful or even solvent without paying its artists a living wage should be offensive to all of us. And yet, we accept it. I was very, very glad to see the NEA chairman even bring this up.
There was even more there, like the bubble that's being created in our field by the proliferation of arts training programs at the undergrad and grad level...but, you know, this is enough to get started on, isn't it?
UPDATE: In case you're not following it, there are great comments happening at Arena Stage's New Play Blog. Also, Adam Thurman weighs in and kicks ass. And Travis Bedard was the first out of the box on Rocco. All worth taking a look at.