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01/12/2010

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Scot Augustson

Mandatory Heroin! Mandatory Heroin!
I vote Mandatory Heroin!

Wes Andrews

“We will do more new local plays when local playwrights write better scripts.”

The obvious follow-up is: do you have a process in place to evaluate local scripts? You say that local plays are bad -- how do you know that? What local plays come across your desk, and how do they get there?

(Out-of-town plays are often quite bad as well)

Jim Jewell

You touch briefly on a point I've been kicking about since the TPS meeting last night. Namely, sustainability of the "big houses" as an issue for the community at large.

I pointed out at one point last night that we are desperately trying to craft a season we like, we can pay for, and that won't require us to layoff our crew for a couple months. That last point has actually guided a number of recent decisions in the process.

Thinking over that more on the way home, I thought about how many theatre artists make their living here, allowing them a less-sucky way to make a paycheck while they pursue their own theatre outside of SCT. A quick glance around the office and I see multiple members of Annex, I see current and previous 14/48 steering committee members, I see an artistic associate from Backwards Ensemble, company members from Balagan, on and on.

And I know, when our AD is picking a season, is talking to us marketing folks about how many tickets we believe we can actually sell to each show she is pitching, when she is assessing risk, this is what she sees. Not just the future of this building, but the individual artistic lives that make this our daytime home.

I don't want to stand and defend the big houses in every choice they make, but I tire of the easy attacks on them I've heard so long. Can we be a world-class city without the big houses putting money into the pockets of artists? And are we really only willing to give them credit for their place in our theatrical ecosystem when they are paying artists to be artists, and not when they are paying them to teach or balance the books or manage the website or even man the copier and concessions?

I agree with so much you say, Paul, and yet I come again to the word myopic - every time I've entered this discussion, be it now or post-Daisy's-last-visit, I find artists mires in the shoulds and too often ignoring the is.

There is no world class theatre in Seattle without sustainability. Sometimes that will mean a big or medium house needs to die, sure. But if we take them out of the food chain, many of us can expect to go back to work as temps and fry cooks.

I dunno - maybe if we suffer as such, our locally-produced art will get better. I don't think so. I'd rather spend my days killing myself to promote SCT, leaving little bandwidth for my own writing, granted, than sell my soul down the river, again, for 8-a-day in corporate hell.

S.P. Miskowski

Wes, the answer is: they don't have any idea. They are justifying their process, which is to wait and see what is a hit in New York and London. One big reason Seattle is not yet the world class theater city Paul envisions is that the people who could make bold decisions are not making decisions at all. They let other cities and their critics tell them what is hot. They have forgotten the first rule of theater: It is always local.

S.P. Miskowski

Jim, I think these theaters are going to die. If sustainability is the goal, then they'd better get busy.

The complaint about local artists not making part of their living off the big houses--this is not just a personal gripe from local artists. ADs treat is as such, but it is actually a warning sign. If you don't keep your neighborhood healthy, you will go out of business. Sustain us, and maybe we can all make it. At the very least, you can tell the world you are involved in your community and you care about the artists there. It's an honorable choice.

The current practice is neither honorable nor sustainable. The big houses keep sinking, but they refuse to change. So what hope do they have?

Paul Mullin

Well, Jim, as I write to you from my corporate hell that you'd rather kill yourself than sell your soul to join, I have to say that myopic or not, I will keep speaking out against systems that set themselves as superior somehow to, say, the one where I make my living because, while they produce mediocre art they also allow artists to: "... balance the books or manage the website or even man the copier." I want arts institutions to excel at making art, not at employing artists at sub-standard wages to do what I currently do to support my family. (As for selling my soul, in addition to making art, I also think it's nice to help make make medicine that prevents people from being anemic while they're going through chemo or their bones from shattering as they grow old, but hey, that's just me.) Fact is, I took my job far away from those arts institutions so that I am at liberty to call 'em as I see 'em, myopic or not.

If you grow tired, I suggest you stop reading, and perhaps pray that others will to.

All that said, I think SCT is awesome. That's the reason I haven't mentioned you in my broadsides. You, however, seem so determined to have SCT included as a Big House, that you feel compelled to defend against attacks that aren't even aimed at you. It's very noble, but kind of goofy and pointless. Hey, when I say it like that I realize: you have just the right stuff to be a playwright!

John Longenbaugh

Hey there:

Unlike Jim, I didn't think for a moment to include the theatre that gives me a paycheck, The 5th Avenue, among the "Big Houses" that Paul's continuously ravaging. I wonder though if we'd receive some ire if Paul wrote musicals...particularly the sort that use a cast of 30 and large mechanical scenery.

But in any case, here's my thought on the overall question of Seattle as the home of "World Class Theatre."

When I came to Seattle 15 years ago from working in London's fringe theatre scene, I set out to see if Seattle would be my home or just a way-station. I saw a LOT of theatre, particularly when I started working as the Weekly's theatre critic. And here was my assessment: the stuff here was just like the stuff in London. That would be 20% godawful and 10% brilliant, with the rest of the stuff somewhere in-between. There was less of it, of course, and I found the big houses less exciting and polished than what I'd see at the National or the RSC, but the percentages of what thrilled me, what satisfied me, and what bored and appalled me was pretty much exactly the same as what I'd seen during my three years living in the World Capitol of Theatre.

The main thing that's changed in Seattle's theatre scene since 1995 has been that there's less of it--the mid-size scene collapsed along with the Fringe Festival, and they took out a couple of stratas of companies and venues. So I guess that means there's less "world class" stuff as well. But without wanting to get disputatious (particularly with Paul!), 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? Why not just assume that we are--and trust me, we are--doing work which already is "world class?"

Paul Mullin

Hey John, first and foremost, I would love to write a big musical for a 30+ cast and awesome tech. Can you get on the 5th to commission me for that? My rates are very reasonable. Or hey, if not me, how 'bout anyone? Cuz I know the 5th does a lot of that commissioning stuff.

Now, business done, I hear what you're saying about the whole "world class" issue, and since my next major essay goes to that very question, I'm hoping you won't mind if I quote your comment.

The sneak preview is this: we should care about "world class" cuz it gives us something to care about. And it helps put butts in seats. I say this because I know you're a big butts-in-seats kinda guy and so am I. And so, I suspect, is Mr. Jewell, though I understand that his first priority is keeping artists employed in non-artistic jobs.

S.P. Miskowski

So we are back to the point I made a few days ago, Paul. I said then that Seattle is creating world class theater. 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. John probably has a lot to say on this subject. 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 that stupid idea that any publicity is good. It isn't. 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, and without being ponderous or boring. 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. Can we get away from the juvenile snark of the 1990s and move forward?

Is that possible?

Jim Jewell

Paul, I am a big butts in seats guy, partially because it's my job, but also because I think empty-seat theatre is sad. In fact, I advocate for a more audience-centered approach to theatre from top to bottom.

Unlike John, I'm happy being disputatious with you, because so few will throw down with me at all (not because I'm tough, but because I'm a pain in the ass) and the fact that you can do so while being both erudite and snide at the same time is a big bonus. I'm an East Coast guy at heart.

Plus, if nothing else, I am a tipper of sacred cows by nature, and while all artists I have encountered are wank artists, us theatre folk tend to be the most precious about it. And I think you and Mike Daisey and many others need to get some pushback when you confront these issues.

Look, I'm not a defender of everything big houses do. I've also worked quite a bit for the Rep, and the best move they could and should and probably won't make would be to hire Jerry Manning as AD because he respects and cares for the local scene. But, I think often the zealousness of the attacks gets us drunk on righteous indignation and leads us far afield, away from solutions.

So, I'll continue to read and comment and converse until you lock my ass out.

And I'll give your medical profession corporate job it's due. Very noble, and if it pays the bills, alll the better. I just know I have yet to have had a corporate gig I would trade for my pittance-paying job, but that speaks more to poor past choices than anything.

S.P. Miskowski

Just to clarify one thing--when I say I've seen world class theater in Seattle, I am talking about the fringe. Because a resulting problem with the companies still resistant to local artists is that they lack vitality. Home grown = higher stakes? Maybe.

On the plus side, SCT has long made it standard practice to hire Seattle actors and ACT appears to be trying to branch out and make their connection to fringe theater stronger. How can that effort find greater support?

Having said that, most of the Seattle work that has knocked my socks off has been in fringe theater. I see big shows from time to time in the big theaters. I admire the lobbies.

Mike Daisey

"And I think you and Mike Daisey and many others need to get some pushback when you confront these issues."

I'm getting plenty of pushback--that's so not remotely an issue. I'm good.

"I've also worked quite a bit for the Rep, and the best move they could and should and probably won't make would be to hire Jerry Manning as AD because he respects and cares for the local scene."

That is very, very true.

Louis Broome

“We will do more new local plays when local playwrights write better scripts.”

That statement assumes non-profit theaters choose scripts based on quality or entertainment value. They don't. They choose scripts based on their built-in marketability, which most often means a chestnut or a favorable quote from a New York Times review.

Please read, "How Not to Write a Play," by Walter Kerr. It's one of the best books on theater ever written. Or read my favorite quotes from Kerr's book here - http://bit.ly/7Vo1P and here - http://bit.ly/6HZpjg

Kerr's view of theater history was vast. "How Not to Write a Play" was written in the early '50s, but I promise you it's relevant to this and all discussions about today's theater.

One of my favorite quotes:

"Every great play we have ever been lucky enough to feast our eyes on has come out of a popular [for-profit] playhouse." Pg 39.

We’ve become so accustomed to theater being a beggarly art that we’ve forgotten its glorious show business past. Marlowe, Kyd, Shakespeare, Jonson, Fletcher and their cohort were in it first and foremost for the money. No money, no Hamlet.

The vital forms of our time, painting, sculpture, music, film and, some would argue, games, are driven by people (artists, hucksters, investors, opportunists, assholes) on a messianic mission to kill, with malice aforethought and the keen edge of a new idea, anything or anyone not constantly innovating. Vital artists don’t play games; they force the game to change.

Innovation is anathema to non-profit theaters. Their inability to innovate, to compete with film, TV, and now online content, has made them irrelevant. Casting the non-profit theaters as villains and challenging them to change is a waste of time and energy.

Poverty, "corporate hell," theater as hobby, non-profit stasis, the status quo - people, these are not your only options. Words and actions need to shift from working within the existing paradigm to creating a new business model, one without a profit ceiling.

Paul Mullin

Jim, as a fellow East Coaster I not only welcome your pushback, I crave it. I'm convinced that change will only be possible with earnest input from theatre professionals from across the board. If, at times, some of us seem drunk with indignation, it may be because we've sat too long at the bar and watch our beloved art form sold short. So I guess here and now I want get up and take a refreshing, ideally sobering, talking walk with whomever will join me.

I want to hear from you. I want to hear from Mike Daisey, though I welcome him more as an outsider who 100 years ago wouldn't have been considered a theatre artist anymore than Mark Twain or Charles Dickens working the Chautauqua circuit (but more on that in my upcoming essay "The One-Person Show: The Lazy Artistic Director's Best Friend.") I even want to keep hearing from Louis, even though this is the 3rd or 4th time he's commented on my posts, insisiting that talking about all this stuff is useless and that the only thing that matters is proposing a new profit-based model, while failing to the note the irony that he's talking about all this stuff without actually proposing said model. (I am reminded of Ayn Rand, and not in a good way (if there is, in fact, a good way to be reminded of Ayn Rand.))

So come one, come all, but know that we will be talking with, not just at, each other.

As for Jerry, I think the world of him and wish him well. But he has a track record of talking talk without walking walk. So I think waiting for him to do the right thing if/when he gets the official nod is foolish sky-piety. If he wants my endorsement, Jerry should prove himself a friend of new ways of working and of locally grown new work here and now. Waiting for him to do it later is like hoping the fox, on just his word, will carry little ol' chicken me across the river safely.

Carl Sander

I feel compelled to clarify the events of last summer concerning my three stanza poem so as no one is left with the impression that I dropped a slab of text on the stage and walked away. The story also illustrates some of the points that Paul is trying to make about the genius of 14/48, and the dismissive way theatres (not just big and not just local) deal with most writers, not just local. (Submit! will you just submit)

Yes it’s true, I showed up on Saturday morning with a four page nursery rhyme. At midnight, I had nothing, and some part of myself said “use rhythm, rhyme and repetition to say something honest about ‘A walk on the wild side’, that nights theme. So I wrote honestly and in verse about the joys and loneliness of sneaking away from your life to do coke, drink and pick up strangers. When my pen dropped from my hands at 2:30 I had four pages without character delineation or situation. Then, as my head was hitting the pillow, I remembered a 14/48 piece by Kristen Neubaum that Matt Richter had directed at old ConWrks where he arbitrarily rented a monkey suit and space suit and a waiters outfit ( I think) and put his actors behind music stands and had them read the play. I thought, “well it’s kinda a nursery rhythm. Maybe they’re characters from a kids imagination”, and as I brushed up the poem over breakfast, I added that to the mix.

We’re getting better at 14/48 because we’re learning from one another’s successes and failures.

Driving into the theatre in absolute terror that this day was destined for disaster, I came to the realization that the dramatic thrust of the poem is a confession. So when I sat down with Tim (praise be the 14/48 gods and all their works) I said, “It’s a confession. Maybe it’s a Raggedy Anne doll, a space man and a robot at an AA meeting”. He calmly divided that poem into an opening, three different confessions, and a ending. Then we picked Annette, Bob and Shawn (praise be the 14/48 gods and all their works) and the game was on. Over the next hour I watched Tim place the proper actor with the proper lines, divide up the choral passages and shape the piece to fit the actors and their strengths. At one point he used the natural tendency of Shawn Law to strut like a rooster, first letting him play the lines as a boast and then taking the next two lines and giving them to Annette and Bob with the instructions to use the text to put Shawn in his place and make him take what he’s saying about himself seriously.

Absolute brilliance born of over 15 years of knowing these actors.

When I left rehearsal at 11:00 the poem was a play with characters (a fairy, a teddy bear and a super hero) a beginning, exposition, rising action, conflict, a climax, and an ending. Tim was largely responsible for making that happen, and if they had been using “The Raven” or Psalm 137:4 it may have been just as good. But if they read the phone book or a cereal box, it may have been as funny in places, but not as deeply poignant.

The writer is central to the success of 14/48 and the theatre.

So what are the 14/48 Gods (praise be their name and all their works) teaching us about the relationship of the writer to the creation of theatre? It is the writer’s job to put honest language in the mouths of actors and to tell the story of the people. To know what language is going to sing and what story is going to resonate, the writer benefits by being from the audience. If a play that was only poetry landed on the deck of a local literary manager it would be dismissed out of hand. But 14/48 demands that the director make something from what is pulled out of an ice-cream cone and brought in the stage door. That is the risk we take and that is the risk all of our theatres need to take, if we are to be a world class theatre town.

Go Paul Go. Oh, and come to the Thursday night meetings! … It is part and parcel of the experience and your absences is a drag.

Paul Mullin

Carl, thanks so much for this literally awesome explication of how that piece came together, steeped as it is in 14/48 lore, and illustrating as it does how creativity feeds on creativity when encouraged to in the hands of actual artists as opposed to literary administrators.

You think I want to miss Thursday nights? You think I don't cringe at the thought of not being able to boss some Newbie like Schmader into fetching me a beer? Alas, my wife has a regular singing gig and I got roped into these last two rounds too late in the game to land babysitting for my boys

But next time, next time...

S.P. Miskowski

What we are getting at is the need for theaters with more resources than most to follow the rule of 14/48 and "Go big or go home." Taking a risk is what theater is supposed to do. It fails sometimes. It must fail sometimes. It is not an insurance company, or a bank. Its lifeblood is risk. This is terrifying to people who have settled into jobs at big theaters. Like bank workers, naturally they hope for stability. But in theater stable = dead.

The spirit of 14/48 did not simply happen. It was created by a group of individuals who were determined to eliminate from its process most of the elements that ruin theater. This proves that change can take place on purpose and for the better, in an art scene. No one can claim that the problems in Seattle theater are just there and can't be addressed.

Here is a point made by myself, Louis, and Carl:

Seattle's most crippling defect--causing the lapse between possibility and actuality, and a self-defeating sense that the work isn't world class--is the habit of receiving wisdom (plays that were successful elsewhere) instead of trusting and investing in what is discovered in its own front yard.

Go big or go home. Take a chance. Produce two local writers every year, as part of your season, and commit to that new work heart and soul. Offer programs for youth, and for older adult artists as well.

Talk to your audience--not in the offensive and dismissive and reluctant way these theaters usually do, but in the way GEVA talks with its audience--as neighbors who want to understand theater better. Send someone to see as much fringe as possible, and offer remounts of great shows. Take an interest.

Not because it's the right thing to do. Not at all. But because big theaters need to offer their neighborhood something they can't get anywhere else, in order to stay alive and vital. Right now, they are busy trying to look and sound and act like other theaters in other cities, and that is lethal. Generic art is not art at all. It's candy. It's junk. It doesn't matter where it comes from.

Great theater rises from its home territory when the people who can afford to encourage it take an interest.

And all of this was in Mike Daisey's "How Theater Failed America." Yet so little has changed in Seattle, post-HTFA. That script was so true it scared the crap out of people. That's great theater. Even if the people who should listen refused to listen, what the script said is true.

Paul Mullin

SP, thank you. I was hoping when I started all this bellyaching that voices stronger, clearer and more knowledgeable than my own would join the conversation.

And so you have.

Welcome. Again and again. Welcome.

Louis Broome

To be clear, I'm advocating abandoning non-profit business models altogether and returning to theater as a purely commercial endeavor.

When profit - which translates into food, shelter and clothing - becomes necessary, everything about theater will change - the plays, how they're produced and marketed, a theater's relationship to its audience, the roles and responsibilities of the stakeholders and investors, everything - and here's the kicker - for the better.

What I find fascinating is that almost everything the folks on this thread are clamoring for - local, relevant shows that get their hooks into the audience, stir passions and grow a following - were hallmarks of the commercial theaters of the past.

S.P. Miskowski

Thanks, Paul. Happy to join in the discussion.

I don't think my ideas are brilliant ones that everyone should adopt. I just think it's important for artists to put their ideas out there. That's how progress occurs--discussion, agitation, new ways of looking at old issues, and then someone finds a better way to do things.

It is interesting to me that no one in this thread has an axe to grind. We've all had opportunities, and productions, and a life as an artist. These conversations take place because we see a situation that is far from good, let alone ideal. And I think you would agree with me on this, but I will speak for myself:

I love Seattle and the artists who live in Seattle. I want progress, so that the extraordinarily talented people in my life don't have to keep giving up their dreams because the city they have made more exciting and beautiful doesn't recognize their contribution.

That sucks, and I do not accept it.

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