The third in a series of essays entitled:
Towards a World Class Theatre
When I started mouthing off in a more public and formalized way about the state of theatre in Seattle, I expected some blow back. This is the Northwest after all. The very same person who in real life might cross the street in order to avoid saying hello is happy to anonymously savage you in your blog’s comment section.* What I did not anticipate was that the most controversial thing I could propose would be that theatre professionals should work together over the next five years towards making Seattle theatre world class. This, apparently, was apostasy that certain Seattleites simply could not abide. The objections sorted out into three essential themes:
“What are you talking about? We’re already world class dammit!”
Why do people not think it's a "world class" theatre community now? If you talk to someone who moves here from... the midwest or the south, they are enthusiastic about the Seattle theater scene.
Heidi Heimarck, responding to the 2009 Rain City Projects Survey†
We all may look back ten years from now and recognize that Seattle is today a thriving community. There are issues, yes, but there's some great stuff going on if you look at it right.
Jerry Manning, RCP Survey
Seattle is just about a world class theater community, it just is not aware of it, and seems to refuse acknowledging it.
Jose Amador, RCP Survey
“Five years?!? Are you crazy!?!”
5 years is a short span of time, given the effect the economy is going to have on the arts over that period.
Anonymous, RCP Survey
I think Seattle has lots of potential, but I'm not sure it could get there in five years. But lots and lots of potential.
Rachel Hynes, RCP Survey
I have packets of Kool-Aid if you'd like some.
Andy Jensen, RCP Survey
“Define your terms or prepare to die!”
I'm not sure what it would mean to be a "world class" theatre community.
Mike Daisey, RCP Survey
Define “world class.” If world class means NY or London, why would we go out of our way to suck that hard? “World class” doesn't mean anything, it's not a tangible objective. It's a marketing term, a feeling, some kind of psychological compensation. A goal is a $10MM theatre industry by 2020. A goal is 20 Seattle-based playwrights making $100K annually by 2020. A goal is every Seattle theatre at 90% capacity by 2020. Whatever the goal, it has to be tangible - something that can be measured in precise terms.Louis Broome, RCP Survey
Does it mean Seattle theatre is regularly discussed in world newspapers? …Other countries regularly import Seattle productions to run in their local theatres? Plays written by Seattle natives are produced in other countries? Seattle theatre gets lots of mentions in The Drama Review? … What goals do you propose that when met signify arrival? How is Seattle tracking today against those goals?
Jeffery Reid, commenting on my kick-off essay “Towards a World Class Theatre”
I hate the need to be world classy unless someone can define it for me.
Matthew Smucker, 2009 RCP Survey
To have a world class theatre town, you must first define what that means. You define the goal. I believe that we discussed the importance of having a goal and you coyly responded several times that that was not necessary.Margaret Mullin, my sister, in an email I asked permission to quote.
My sister is right. I did respond that it was not necessary to define my terms, but there is nothing coy about it. We not only do not need to lock down what “world class” means, it would be unwise for any single one of us to try to do so. Louis Broome hit it on the nose: “‘World class’ doesn't mean anything …. It's a marketing term, a feeling…” Such was always my intention. All the extremely smart Seattleites, Louis and my sister included, who demand something perfectly specific and quantifiable are, to my mind, like a group of outraged soda lovers storming Coca-Cola headquarters demanding: “What do you mean, ‘Coke is it?’ What the hell does ‘it’ mean? You say you’d ‘like to buy the world a coke’? You can’t be serious? Do you know how much that would cost?”
Having worked at the lowest levels in corporate America for nearly two decades to support myself and my family, I am exhaustively acquainted with the standard management mantras:
You cannot change what you do not measure.
If you’re not measuring, it doesn’t count.
But as someone who has heard these litanies chanted, at putatively great Seattle companies where I have worked from MidCom to WaMu— companies that dominated their industries and then ultimately failed— I know how deeply data-bedazzled senior management can fixate on charts and dashboards that actual workers have no realistic way of affecting for good or ill. Such high-minded, good intentioned strategizing has become the roadmap for enfeebling an entire nation. As my good friend and great editor, Charlie Loyd points out: “WaMu failed precisely because it had goals so clear and measurable that they took over from sanity.”
So what I am proposing is a little different. I am asking all of my colleagues to decide for themselves what would make Seattle a world class theatre town, and then work on those goals on which they believe they can individually move the needle. We can employ the “wisdom of crowds” to get this done. Surely a gifted scenic designer like Matthew Smucker has different ideas about how to elevate the game to “world class” than a gifted managing director like John Bradshaw, and both of them would differ from a poor playwright's approach. With us all working diligently, though, in our separate tracks, overlapping when possible and appropriate, we could certainly reach our collaborative goal of world class theatre; and once there, not need to debate the point, because, like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart espousing his timeless definition of pornography, we will “know it when [we] see it.”
We are theatre professionals— I usually prefer “show people”, but for the sake of this argument, make no mistake, we are professionals, whether or not we pay dues to an out-of-touch union. We ply the art of theatre—the art of “say-so”. I say it, and thus it is so.
I am the King of England come to Agincourt.
This wooden O holds the vasty fields of France.
Seattle will be a world class theatre town in five years.
I understand not everyone is sympathetic to this particular brand of rhetoric-as-reality. Louis Broome again: “As mission statements go, ‘Seattle as a world class theatre town,’ stirs me not at all. ‘Seattle is the epicenter of a theatre revolution,’ is a good start.” But I have misgivings about bandying a word as inescapably violent as “revolution.” It implies a zero-sum game— some winning while others lose. The game I suggest, if played well and with underlying generosity, need not have any losers at all. Revolutions come and go and tend to be suggested by folks who do little if any of the actual fighting. This city craves something more sustainable. (And if Chairman Mao taught the world anything, it is that nothing is more hateful than a sustained revolution.)
Then there are those who see the effort as beneath us, like my colleague, former Seattle Weekly drama critic John Longenbaugh, responding to my essay “1448 Afterwords and Forwards”: “I really wonder if the whole question is frankly provincial. I really don't think that London, Chicago or New York artists, critics or audiences worry if they're still doing ‘world class theatre.’ So why should we?”
Ah. I think I see. Nothing is more provincial than aspiring to be more than provincial. What wonderful latte logic: frothy, appealingly bitter, and artfully laced with a barely noticeable hint of syrupy self-loathing masked as indifference. But the strong and black cup-o’-joe fact is that you can safely bet your sweet ass Chicago cares. A lot. As do New York and London. As a former reviewer, John might take particular notice of the title The Chicago Tribune’s drama critic Chris Jones came up with for his blog, Theater Loop: News from America’s Hottest Theater City. How is that for self-aggrandizement? And from a critic no less! Boosterism like this is a flogging offence among Seattle’s professional theatre goers, as S.P. Miskowski, who recently moved to Los Angeles, points out in her response to Longenbaugh's comments.
The work I've seen in Seattle is, as John said, on a par with New York and London. What is not world class is the way theater is perceived in Seattle. When people decide where the limited amount of money will go, they fail to consider that theater is making the city more livable, more exciting, and more interesting. They fail to give theater its due. So do (some of) the critics. My view is that theater artists accept lousy critiques from unqualified reviewers on a regular basis out of fear that if they don't make nice they will be squashed. …And there's the smug assumption that positive reviews are what we want when we say we want better reviewing. It isn't. We want people who can read and write and evaluate. We want people who stay for the entire show. We want people who write about the show and not themselves. Most of all, I hereby call for a change in attitude among editors and critics--to take theater seriously as an art form. I dare you to take it seriously.... Take as a given that Seattle IS a world class theater city, and keep that in mind when you plant your butt in a free seat and start taking notes?
Where I differ with S.P. is that I think critics own less responsibility for the “it-ain’t-cool-to-think-you’re-cool” campaign than many artists and artistic directors themselves. Then again, I have innate issues with ceding any undue influence to a questionable and ever shrinking handful of opinion mongers. Certainly no one can deny that this self-defeating predisposition against self-promotion runs deep and wide through Pacific Northwest culture. Its origins are beyond my East Coast ken or caring to explicate, but suffice it to say, in the theatre at least, we can and will change it.
Chicago, New York and London never miss a chance to promote their respective scenes. They not only “worry” about it. They spend money on it. Lots and lots of money to make sure their theatre districts keep drawing tourists and locals alike, to the playhouses themselves and to all the businesses that depend on them: the restaurants, bars, souvenir shops, and so on and on. We want, in a few short years, to be able to go to our mayor, now newly elected, and say, “Seattle is now a world class theatre city. We said it would be so. We worked at it and made it so. Everybody who lives here and everybody in the greater American theater community knows it. Now kindly spend some of that money and prestige we have earned this city back on us.”
As I inveigh against self-defeating specificity, let me be specific about one thing. I am not asking that we benchmark ourselves against New York or London or Chicago. Playing a toy replica-scale, inferiority complex-driven version of their game gets us nowhere. Our smallness and uniqueness and, yes, even our geographic remoteness can work just as strongly for us as against. You can get your arms around the Seattle theatre scene. You can, if you work hard enough and long enough, confidently claim to know all, or almost all, of the players. A small, nimble, semi-quarantined community such as ours can make its own unique claims on world class. We can, if we want, be doing work that no one anywhere else could possibly do.
We are show people. We can claim to be anything we want to be. The more outrageous and untenable, the better, so long as we ultimately back it up through sheer creative brilliance. We are not obliged to subscribe to any preordained corporatized benchmark. The audience is our only arbiter. So long as we give them what they want, or better-- what they did not even realize they wanted until we made them want it in the first place-- we are doing our jobs superbly. We should stake our claim, without irony or arrogance, to becoming a world class theatre community, and when, and only when, we convince our audiences, then world class is what we will be. Because we say so.
Before this: "Theatre Takes Place: Why Locally Grown Plays Matter"
*I no longer allow anonymous comments on my blog. As I wrote when the first one was posted:
I know it's considered the custom of the internet country to post anonymously, but there is no tradition of it in the theatre. In the world of live performance, one says one's words in public and stands by them with their body. So as a rule I won't be accepting any more anonymous posts. Stand and deliver, people!
†Many of the quotes I have included in this essay came from the 2009 Rain City Projects Survey, which, as a member of the RCP Board, I helped to design and distribute, and then analyze the returning data. The results were made public in August of 2009 and a more detailed report is available at RCP’s Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/home.php#/notes/rain-city-projects/the-rain-city-projects-survey-results-are-in/123960970745
Because I am an unrepentant data geek, and because this essay does not have any other pictures let me share one of the results graphs here. You can draw your own conclusions, but clearly a majority of the Northwest theatre community currently believes Seattle is a good but not great theatre town. Its rating as a new play community is significantly less high. I think these are connected. Once we get better at developing and disseminating strong locally grown plays, our stock as a theatre town will rise to “world class.” That is a data gauge needle that I can get behind trying push.