by 99 Seats
I should preface this by saying that I think the world of Alli Houseworth. We hung out a bit at the last Arena Stage Convening I was at. She's good people and her Twitter feed is chock-a-block full of awesome. So...hopefully, she'll keep talking to me.
But I had some issues with her rant, posted here. To be sure, there's some stuff that I agree with and I may be reacting from a defensive posture as one of those fussy, sniffy, pesky little artists, but there's a lot of hooey in there, too. And some fairly clear blind spots.
What set Alli off, apparently, was the general sense at the TCG Conference and other places that arts marketers are, as she puts it, "stupid and evil," and that "playwrights don’t think that marketers can do their jobs." You know, I'm not going to dispute that. Right now, the prevailing wind is blowing pretty strong against arts administrators in general and a lot of people are giving arts marketers in particular the stink-eye. As budgets shrink, artists get paid less and less for fewer and fewer opportunitites, we see three-person marketing departments with their regular paychecks and health benefits as a symptom of the problem. Like the Edifice Complex, the Massive Staff Infection is seen as another rot killing good institutions. I ain't saying it's fair or even accurate, but Alli's not crazy or jumping to conclusions. I think she's just missing the other side of the ledger.
I don't necessarily think that playwrights don't think marketers can do their job...but I think most playwrights think that they can do a better job than most marketers. Simply because, being a playwright, on your way to your production at the nice LORT house or Major Off-Broadway house or whatnot, you've already had to market your play. That's all us young hustling playwrights do: we make FB invites, write up synopses, harrass our friends and family into coming to readings and workshops; at the smaller theatres, we cook up promotions and plan dance parties; if we're self-producing, we're writing press releases and trying to drum up interviews and press coverage. Many of us know how to do your job and we know how to do it with this play intimately because, from the minute we finished it, we've been marketing it. Even if you read the play (and, Alli, I know you do), you read the play, what? A year ago? Six months ago? We've been with this thing for a long time and we know who we want in that audience. Partly, it's nervousness that makes us hold on tight. Partly it's that we know what we want.
Institutional marketers do have an advantage over us, though: you live there. Generally, we're showing up in town two months (if that) before the show. Maybe we've been there before, but maybe not. And we haven't had to market there. But we still know what we want. If it's a new play, or something "edgy," frankly, we are a bit scared that you're not going to know what to do with it. Maybe it's a new audience for your theatre. Maybe it's an audience that we're afraid has already been alienated by your theatre. Back at the Black Playwrights Convening, a lot of playwrights of color voiced frustration with feeling like it was up to them to reach out to the black community when their plays were being produced, even if a theatre had produced other artists of color. Those audiences weren't cultivated, so it's inventing the wheel every time. And that's work that is often put on the playwright. It doesn't breed a lot of trust in the institutions.
Personally, I have...mixed feelings about marketing. I've done my share of it, especially as Co-Artistic Director of The New Black Fest. It feels like, to me, once the marketing machinery gets started, it takes on a life of its own and can run away with a project. Suddenly, you're tied to the marketing schedule, the need to make certain deadline to satisfy certain publications or entities and not the artistic life and needs of the work. Suddenly casting decisions become about the marketing angle. The work and even the point of the marketing become secondary to the marketing. Once we're selling out and reaching enthusiastic audiences, it's never over. We have to reach more and more people and market it all over again. The beast has to be fed. Sometimes I wonder how healthy that is.
The thing about all of this is...Alli doesn't need to hear this. She's passionate about plays, passionate about the work and can see the bigger picture. She's also passionate about marketing. All of that makes her very good at her job. She is, as David Dower calls them, a bright spot. Other marketers...maybe not so much. Other institutions, maybe not so much. But, unfortunately, all of this talk will do nothing to change their minds. And on the flip side, there are playwrights who are down with marketing the high holy hell out of a play, who get that folks like Alli are there to help and to get them the best, most enthusiastic audience possible. Other playwrights...not so much. If it's unfair to tar the bright spots with the brush of the out-of-touch, aloof marketer, it's unfair to tar all playwrights with the fussy, sullen baby brush. Not everyone knows how to play well with others. There's a strain running through our playwriting culture that resists marketing entirely, as commodification of art. Those playwrights will never look kindly on a marketing department. We're not all those playwrights.
One last point. Towards the end of her rant, Alli says one thing I do take major exception to:
“Wouldn’t it be cool if there was a take-your-artist-to-work day?” says Houseworth. “Come with me for a day and see what I do, and understand the challenges of having to make the bottom line. Look at my revenue projections and look at my staff that I have to make money for, so they can have jobs so you can have a job. Look at how I am advertising, and my vision for the play.”
When I'm talking about the Staff Infection, that's the mindset I'm talking about. The theatre has to make money to support its staff so that the staff can support the arts. I think that's ass-backwards thinking. I'm not saying that arts administrators shouldn't have jobs and that we don't need them...I'm not saying that exactly. But, in that formulation, the artists are the low person on the totem pole. Sure, we're being "supported" and "served," but it's as though we simply couldn't do anything without all of you. I kind of resent that thinking. If all the LORT theatres in the country simultaneously closed tomorrow, I would still make theatre and find a way for people to see it. I'm happy to work with you, to share a vision of my play or of the theatre, but as an equal participant, not the invalid who needs a hand-out. Raising money to pay a staff to raise money means all the money is going to the staff, not the artists. That's a dangerous trend. I don't think Alli meant it that way, but as an artists (and sometime administrator), that's how it came across.
At the end of the day, though, we're all in this together and all working asses off to make theatre happen. The more we can focus on that, the better.