Two Fates

Tuesday, October 12, 2010 Leave a Comment

A thought exercise in the form of a hypothetical question: if you had to choose between the following two fates for theatre, which would you choose?

Fate #1: It’s 2030. Communities have responded to the pressures of globalization by developing vital local identities through theatre. Everyone in the community participates in the daily process of theatre, taking turns making it and watching it. Theatre is woven into the rituals of life – there are plays for being born, plays for dying, plays for the changes of season, plays for marriage. There are no professionals because theatre is seen as a process between people, and not a cultural product. No one makes a living doing theatre, but everyone does theatre to live.

Fate #2: It’s 2030. A rising tide of global wealth has allowed government and corporate funding to greatly increase their support for the arts. A professional theatre is in every city and most towns, and middle class wages are paid to the artists who live and work there. A sizable portion of the population goes to the theatre at least once a month as an expression of civic pride and cultural savvy. While some amateurs dabble in plays, most leave theatre to the professionals, recognizing its true beauty is best reached by great artists. Theatre is a respected, middle-class, specialist profession that communities support for its civic value.

Of course, this question is somewhat slippery, as a truly vital amateur theatre may help lead to a truly vital professional theatre, and vice versa. But sometimes it feels like the efforts of our profession are geared entirely towards the latter fate, and often in unnecessary opposition of the former. And lately, I find some variation of the former fate feels more like home. How about you?

8 comments »

  • kenny said:  

    God, if ONLY the first option could win out. I’m too cynical to expect it … not in a culture where the “coolest” indie-bands are cutting deals with corporations before even making their first demo -- http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/10/arts/music/10brand.html?_r=1&ref=music

    What we will in fact have in 2010 is probably the exact same thing we have now. A handful of Broadway theaters doing complete garbage; another handful of Off Broadway theaters doing plays almost exclusively by playwrights with MFAs from Yale; and, finally, a bunch of little theaters catching on to pop culture trends ten years too late.

  • kenny said:  

    Meant to say ... what we'll have in 2030 ...

  • Adam said:  

    I want both. I think it's important for people who are not movie stars to be on stage. I want to see people like people in the audience on the stage. what that means in various communities varies, but I am for a democratization of theater.

    I also like movie stars.

  • Liz Maestri said:  

    Fate #2. If theater wasn't specialized, there wouldn't be any more "convenings," i.e. free coffee and pastries.

    This is a tougher question than it first appears. Do we want to be out of a job for the sake of democracy in theater?

  • August Schulenburg said:  

    Liz,

    That strikes at the heart of it. I sure would like to make a living just making theatre, but my reasons for that have changed. In the past, it seemed to me some proof of excellence and necessary validation. Now that I've seen year after year of great artists struggle to make ends meet, I know better; and my interest in access to greater resources are all practical.

    If I was able to only be a playwright (and actor and director), I would be a better artist, because I would have more time. If Flux had enough money to pay a salary, that would allow us to do a better job of making theatre, because we'd have more time. It is simply a practical concern, and the work continues with or without it.

    And as I've watched theatres with great resources make boring plays, I've come to believe that money isn't always a blessing; that institutions by their very nature exist to perpetuate their existence; and the larger the theatre, the more resources are spent simply pursuing more resources.

    And what I love about theatre has nothing to do with any of that. To me, the act of creation is a daily thing, as necessary as food in feeling if not in fact, and it gives me such a propulsive joy I want everyone to have it.

    We work in an art form where the medium is the human body evolving through time. By its very definition, theatre belongs to everyone who has a body. And yet, somehow it has become something separate. It is bound up in expectations of value that cannot begin to plumb its depths. We are measuring light with a ruler.

    All right, I'll calm down. Free coffee and pastries are important. And I love artists getting paid. But lately I only want Fate #2 if Fate #1 makes it happen, and sometimes it feels like the profession is rowing in the other direction.

  • RVCBard said:  

    Free coffee and pastries are important.

    My reading will have birthday cake! So nyah!

    And I love artists getting paid. But lately I only want Fate #2 if Fate #1 makes it happen, and sometimes it feels like the profession is rowing in the other direction.

    I prefer Fate #1, all things being equal, mainly because the price for Fate #2 seems too high.

  • Dave Marcus said:  

    I think we already exist in fate #2, except for the part about everybody going to theater. Your scenario seems to suggest that an influx of money (forgive the pun) would inevitably lead to a greater interest in theater by the public. I think this is false. Money is not the problem, the problem is that theater companies do not provide a product that most Americans want, its like saying we could make the Abacus compete with the calculator if only we subsidized Abacus companies.

    Your first model has the potential to change how we experience and create theater, but I think its very important that these smaller scale, boutique theater experiences exist in the marketplace, the fact is not every one will want to create theater, just as I don't want to paint or write songs, but still enjoy galleries and albums. I would like to think of theater more the way we think of restaurants, big ones, small ones, cheap ones, fancy ones, even chains and food trucks. By giving the populace theatrical entertainment options, we can judge what kind of work and social scene can restore some level of relevance to the art form.

  • August Schulenburg said:  

    Dave,

    Good points, though I think I look at your economic issue through the lens of Baumol's cost disease. As the price of paying artists to make theatre has risen without a commensurate increase in productivity, the cost of a ticket has risen to cover that until people are priced out and the aesthetic focus of theatre shifts to please those who can still afford tickets. This is certainly fine if you consider theatre a luxury product, but I do not. The alternative is to pay artists less, which has its own series of consequences.

    The abacus comparison only works, I think, if you consider theatre's form of "counting" replaceable by another more economically effective medium. Many consider filmed storytelling to do that; I currently do not, believing the local and live aspects of theatre essential to how it counts.

    The second point I agree with, but only if you're talking about theatre as it is currently defined by most people. I define it more widely, taking in any local live story telling event from a Madonna concert to a church service; and while there are those who have no interest in any form of live local story-telling, I believe they are the exception and not the norm. I think it is a basic human hunger, and much of my dabbling in neuroscience and evolution (some shared on this blog) has been to explore how that hunger became hardwired in our minds.

    Further, I think story-telling increasingly needs to be local and live, because all of the advantages of the online world (which I clearly love) have significant side effects; both in the fluidity of online identity and the lack of responsibility that emerges from it to the capacity for viral thought of both good and ill to move through minds without the essential check of local context. That's a complex thought I need to unpack in a later post, but I hope when I do, you will see in it some of the parts of conservative philosophy I like:)

    And I'm very much excited to explore the big menu version of theatre that Sticky is a great model of; and I'm interested in doing so in a way that causes more participation and less exclusion by reconsidering theatre's true value.