, , , , , ,

The Metabolism Of Theatre

Thursday, September 3, 2009 Leave a Comment

One of the exciting things about engaging with the blogosphere is finding moments of common ground amidst separate discussions. Like the physicists of string theory before Witten's M-theory, we are all unknowingly using different languages to describe the same underlying thing. And like the different arms of M-theory, each language can unravel problems impossible in one of the others (truly one of the most amazing parts of the theory, which I will leave now before falling completely into amateur physicist nerdfog).

Such a case happened recently with two separate threads discussing the metabolism of theatre. How quickly should an artist produce work? How often should an audience come into contact with that work? Is there too much hastily conceived theatre, or too much expectation placed on over-developed work?

A post from 99seats featured this quote:

"If I read an interesting news story and I want to write a play about it, chances are it’s going to be, at best, two to three years before that play sees the light of day. In that time, there will be a Law & Order episode, a CSI episode, an SNL skit, a 30 Rock reference, a novel, a YouTube video and a feature film all about the same thing."
Which led Tim Bauer at Direct Address to second this idea. In the comments, Malachy enlarges it, writing:
"Another aspect is that when work is done often and quickly it changes the way audiences approach it.
Today, a play that has been “developed” over long period of time and then presented in a season that is only 5 plays long, has a lot of pressure on it to be more than it might be, artistically and financially.
The disappointment is sharper because it’ll be another 2 month before the audience goes to the next show when it’s reminded again of how ponderous theatre can be.
But let’s say, for argument that a show is loved. Even this can be detrimental since it’ll still be 2 months before someone sees the next show – rather than capitalizing quickly on the bump the show gives the theatre.
Overall, the current system with its long lead times discourages the idea that the theatre is a place to explore."

From the other side, The Collective Arts Think Tank posits that artists should produce less - that the financial obligation of presenting work before it's ready diminishes quality. Much of their excellent post (and many of the comments that follow) pushes for a slower metabolism for theatre:

"We advocate the opposite philosophy: do less with more. Meaning, make work that is fully realized, full-resourced, and created in an appropriate amount of time.
This also speaks to a problem of supply and demand. If there are hundreds of small theatre and ensembles in New York, and all of them are half-full, then we are overproducing, substituting quantity for quality. Doing less with more may also mean the venues produce fewer shows, artists produce fewer works, and audience remain hungrier longer. We think that's a good thing".
So who's right? My sense is that every artist, company, project and audience have their own unique metabolism, and a sweeping fix would do more harm than good.

For Flux, however, our way may lie in the best of both proposals: bringing our development process more frequently to our audience, while at the same time not rushing plays to full production. This would mean more Have Anothers and Food:Souls, while being more careful of programming plays before their development is complete. I'm especially interested in pairing this philosophy with something like Stolen Chair's developing CSA model (moving towards a model of audience engagement that mirrors Community Sustained Agriculture).

In this model, the monthly crop of work in development is brought to an audience, deepening their connection to the eventually fully realized production. Ideally, this relationship goes beyond a clever reframing and moves towards a substantive conversation that leads to a mutually empowered audience and artist (linking to Scott's last great post on this subject).

In this model, Malachy's goal of sharing the exploratory nature of theatre with an audience rubs elbows with CATT's goal of longer production timelines leading to improved quality. Both goals address a problem the other is ill-suited to solve; both make each other better.

Thoughts? What is your artistic metabolism? Please post in the comments below. And for a visual image of Flux's somewhat intense metabolism, I offer this hilarious picture from our retreat:

(Photo: Tiffany Clementi. Pictured: Heather Cohn, Christina Shipp, August Schulenburg, Jason Paradine.)

We can burn hundreds of calories just by focusing...

4 comments »

  • Duncan Pflaster said:  

    I like the energy and excitement of producing a play I've written as soon as I can, as soon as it's finished, though I'm aware that that's not always possible. There are a few plays I wrote years ago that I haven't produced yet because I just don't have the technical knowledge (e.g. one requires film sequences).

  • Carissa said:  

    I think the metabolism of developing theatre depends on the artist, piece and opportunity. An artist (hopefully) grows over time, so revisiting a work done years ago could provide more insight. On the other side there's a momentum pieces can gather in development to the final conclusion of production and audience feed-back.
    I think any artist striving to create 'the perfect show/live theatre performance' is always going to be disappointed. A live performance can only be as perfect as the human body. Always striving to be in shape, but accepting of what cannot be changed, genius and beauty coming from the unexpected.

  • August Schulenburg said:  

    Duncan,

    Being able to move a new play directly into production has been invaluable for me, as well; I'm uncertain if it has always been the best for Flux. For example, as we moved into production for Other Bodies, I knew there would be some small rewrites, but as we moved forward, it became clear a major rewrite of the last 1/3rd was necessary. And there simply wasn't enough time.

    That said, I think it's important for theatres like Flux to err on the side of risk - and we've been getting better at accurate estimates of our development process - The Lesser Seductions Of History was scheduled for production last year before even a first draft was complete, but after a more successfully planned workshop schedule this year, should be pretty damn near 100% ready for production.

    Carissa, hear hear! To quote Regina quoting Voltaire, "good is better than perfect".

  • Malachy Walsh said:  

    I'm glad the thought was helpful... and it sounds like flux is just the kind of company that I'd hope to be part of some day.

    I know you've been in the Bay Area as part of the BAPF, but if you come out again, please look me up. I'd love to share a cup of coffee with you.