Outrageous Fortune, Some Take Aways

Wednesday, January 27, 2010 Leave a Comment

I'm late in my final post, and Matt, 99Seats, Scott, Mead, and Isaac have all done great work in summing up the shock of the book's overall impact, and made some useful suggestions on how to move forward.

Most of those suggestions, however, have been in strong opposition to the professional theatre as it currently exists. Both here and in other forums, the thesis is that the institutional system is broken.

I don't think the system is broken. I know there is important, beautiful, valuable work happening in institutional theatres. I know there are many worthy artists and administrators working hard in difficult situations to bring that work to a passionate audience. I know a number of artists and administrators are making enough money from that work to piece together a middle class life.

The system isn't entirely broken. But it may be reaching its natural limits.

The difference is more than semantic. We can acknowledge the good work happening in a flawed and limited system, and advocate for changes within that system, even as we look for alternate models to expand the adaptive capacity of the field.

This is not a zero sum game.

Remember that the regional theatre and Off-Broadway movements were once breaking radical geographic and aesthetic ground, and if they have calcified into institutions more intent on self-preservation that fulfilling their mission, that calcification came choice by difficult choice in response to the real life pressures of trying to make theatre in difficult environments.

We need to advocate for change within institutions even as we ourselves make change happen from without.

4 changes within:

1. Playwright residencies: It's not enough to fund playwrights for temporary residencies in communities. Institutions need to commit to longer term relationships, and playwrights need to accept that their role in that relationship may involve more than just writing plays. Why can't Literary Managers or Education Directors also be Playwrights in Residence? Wouldn't their ability to write for a community be enhanced by actual contact with that community? If playwrights are willing to teach and write for TV/Film to support their theatre work, why not do so instead by working to support the theatre supporting them?

2. National New Play Network: In Chapter 6 of Outrageous Fortune, this organization is rightfully presented as a positive model for how theatres can collaborate to extend the life of plays past premiere. This is an example of positive change already in motion.

3. Transparency: Institutions need to be clearer about why they choose particular shows for seasons. Any organization receiving public money owes a degree of transparency and accountability to that public; and as there is no more significant decision for a theatre than what plays they produce, the current opacity of that process is unacceptable. This transparency goes further than explaining after the fact why decisions are made; it means reaching out and involving the stakeholders, artists and audience, in that decision making process from the beginning.

4. A Hand Up The Ladder: Larger institutions must reach out to smaller theatre companies and create space for their work. In the comments section of this post on Theatre Ideas, David Loehr, David Dower, and Scott describe efforts at Arena Stage, Steppenwolf, and NC Stage to do just that (I believe New York Theatre Workshop has or had companies in residence as well). This was a theme of the Black Playwrights convening, as well, with the desire that larger institutions should support less-resourced culturally specific institutions, perhaps as Signature Theatre Company recently did with the Negro Ensemble Company.

I've already talked a lot about changes outside the institutional structure (Flux is, after all, an Indie theatre company), most recently in my 12 Holiday Wishes, and so won't do so again right now.

But I think it's important to note, as Matthew Freeman does, that our flawed system of making theatre is part of a larger dysfunction in this country. As Culture Future mentions here and I wrote about here, a large part of that dysfunction is a bureaucracy of specialists and managers that insulate decision makers from the consequences of their decisions.

Looked through that lens, Outrageous Fortune is not just a diagnosis of flaws in our new play development system; but a reminder those flaws are part of a larger, cultural dysfunction that places a higher value on hierarchical, specialist productivity than on holistic, communal collaboration. And it is good to remember that when we hold the mirror up to our theatre, we are reflecting the reflection of our nature. So, ask not what your country can do for theatre...


  • Kristen Palmer said:  

    Well said Gus. It's interesting the playwright-in-residence thoughts you have. My sense from the limited contact I've had with education departments and artistic staffs at theaters who have such things is that there is an investment in keeping these things separate and an unwillingness to believe that a playwright (or an educator/grant-writer/technician what have you) could be competent and committed enough to actually do more than one thing.

    The romantic notion of artist as sensitive hot-house flower seems to prevail on that side of the divide while the opposite is the rule of the day outside of that system.

    I'm curious about what other people's experience with this may be - or thoughts on having a split personality work-wise. Thanks.

  • Scott Walters said:  

    How did you do that? How did you have me totally against what you were saying at the beginning, and then have me cheering at the end? Huh? Huh?

    You did make me have a thought somewhere in the middle as we were transitioning from negative to positive: when the regional theatre system was invented, it wasn't invented by Broadway insiders, but rather outsiders in Houston, Dallas, DC, San Francisco and Oklahoma. When it went off the rails was when NYC took notice and tried to get in on the action: Guthrie hired stars and took a show to Broadway, Lincoln Center was treated as if it was part of the regional theatre circuit (it could never get free of the hit-or-flop mentality in the town) and Irving Blau was lured from San Francisco to take over the place, and Fichlander destroyed her ensemble transferring "Great White Hope" to Broadway.

    The regional theatre circuit is now what Broadway was in the 60s. I'm not certain we can break free of its paradigm enough to create the type of serious reform needed. Maybe we can -- David Dower is someone to be reckoned with -- but it is gonna take some tough talk.

  • David Dower said:  

    There's a whole post brewing for me on the various questions circulating at present. In the meantime, a shorthand response.

    At Arena, most visibly through the work of the Institute right now but I would say equally across the artistic strategy of the organization, we're trying to advance positive practices in support of American work and artists. That's our focus. It's not everyone's, nor would that be healthy. But that's where we are--that's what this "Little Man can do" (yes, Buckminster Fuller follows wherever I go...). So the Institute is trying to advance the infrastructure for new work nationally, and what's on Arena's stages is meant to shine a bright light on the range and quality of American work (when you see the seasons in the new building you'll be able to see this more clearly than in these interim years while we build it), and how we approach Community Engagement and how we approach our role as a local citizen of the DC theater community are all in our sites as we repurpose one of the original pioneering institutions of the resident theater movement.

    I have this gut feeling, ("gut" in the sense that there's not sufficient data under it nor has there been sufficient debate around it with colleagues in the field) that the resident theater movement started a revolution and won! Ages ago! The questions it was asking were answered a long time ago in the affirmative, and therefore it has stagnated into a place of status quo defensiveness and zero-sum survivalism. I am, personally, hoping that as a field we move to define the next battlefront, one that involves the entire field, not just subsets like the LORTS or NYLACHI or the Indie Theater. And that's why I keep coming at this from a question of rational alignment of resources and capacities on behalf of the art and the artists. The resident theater movement created a presence of professional theater local to its community in regions all over the country. "Asked and Answered! Asked and Answered!" Now that we have that miraculous victory, how do we harness the abundance it's unleashed to the greatest possible good for the whole field, and to the greatest possible role for theater in shaping the quality of life in this country.