posted by Trisha Mead, reporting from the "From Scarcity to Abundance" Convening
"We're all one enterprise. We just file different tax returns." Paul Libin on the state of the American Theater, as quoted by Molly Smith at the introduction to the #newplay convening.
"I would like to start... by calling bullshit." - Rocco Landesman, in response to Paul Libin's quote, at the beginning of his remarks to the #newplay convening.
Here's a recipe for a hell of a conceptual fist fight. Convene 100 or so people from around the nation, each of whose mission in life is to grow the field of new work for the theater. Each of whom represents an organization that is fighting to generate new audiences, new ideas, new structures for expanding the American theater.
Then place a guy in cowboy boots in front of them (who happens to control the largest pool of public arts funding in the U.S.) and have him baldly state, "Look. You can either increase demand or decrease supply. Demand is not going to increase, so it is time to think about decreasing supply."
Bam. Knuckles cracked, Conceptual throwing stars were whetted and readied and a whole room was suddenly electrified into response. What does he mean there's too much supply?!? What does he mean we can't increase demand?!? Who determines which theater companies are wheat and which are chaff?!? And what are the consequences of this assertion for my own theater company? A pretty great way to start a #newplay convening, even if (particularly if) you wildly disagreed with every syllable of the assertion being made by our nation's nominal top funding dog. What else did the chair of the NEA have to say?
- He is deeply concerned about the increase in public/private partnerships. The dramatic increase in non-profit theaters receiving "enhancement money" from for-profit Broadway producers has him concerned that this the flood of money available from "enhancement" projects will handicap the artistic selection process at our regional theaters, over-privileging plays with "Broadway potential" over riskier, more locally focused work.
- He is concerned that the regional theaters are moving away from the values of their founders. Zelda Fichandler and Joe Papp, he argues, started regional theaters as a deliberate counter-culture to the for-profit Broadway community. He declared, "The founders and funders of the great institutions wanted to work outside the exigencies of the box office. They wanted a protected environment to do work that otherwise wouldn't exist." Some time in our recent past, he feels, we have moved from a culture of "opposition" to a culture of "success." We've become obsessed with our metrics of success... ticket sales, Broadway transfers, reviews... We are losing the impetus to create work that is chosen deliberately because it is unsuitable for commercial production.
- He finds it scandalous that it is impossible for a professional theater designer, director or playwright to make a living wage in this country purely through work in their artform of choice. He feels that the overabundance of theater companies is partially responsible for this scarcity of living wage work for theatermakers. Fewer companies, more generously funded, would be able to create more living wage jobs for the artists they employ.
- And finally, he is very interested in seeing regional theaters invest in more work that is designed specifically for their own community, rather than passing around the latest Broadway hit. He wants to see regional companies generating work that speaks directly to their own communities... work that shares and reflects the unique values of its particular audience. He is concerned that it has become too tempting for regional artistic directors to program work with a potential Broadway transfer in mind.
Reactions to these concerns and assertions were pretty varied in the room, but here are a few common themes that arose:
1. Michael Rohd from Portland's Sojourn Theatre kicked off the question period with a question prepared in advance and emailed to Diane Ragsdale, the moderator of the discussion. He asked, in the aftermath of the President's State of the Union speech about education being the Sputnik of our time, and particularly in light of the importance the President placed on innovation as the key to our retaining our prominence as the world's economic engine, why was the arts not included as one of the keys to help build a more creative and innovative economy? And what were we doing to get the arts higher on the President's agenda?
Rocco's response was illuminating- he spoke about the work that's being done to build relationships with cabinet level agencies... embedding the arts in domestic policy through strategic partnerships with HUD and the Department of Health and Human Services. The result is an expansion in the government money that is being used to support artists and the arts (without necessarily running through the contentious NEA appropriations process).
2. Is it a false dichotomy to equate for-profit with non-risk-taking? After all, the vast majority of for profit theater projects do not recoup their investment. One Broadway producer in the room who was currently working on precisely the kind of profit/-non-profit partnership that Rocco was concerned about challenged the notion that to be a for-profit producer was some how in opposition to being a true artmaker or a cultural critic. The inverse assumption was also questioned: Is it necessarily true that regional theaters, by definition, must place themselves in opposition to the cultural mainstream? Or is it possible for a regional theater to be true to its mission and non-profit status and ALSO create work that resonates with the cultural majority?
3. What is the potential impact of this assertion that it is time to decrease supply? As Kirk Lynn from the Rude Mechanicals pointed out in the question period, a $3k grant to an organization of his size has real impact on the work they can generate and how many audience members they can reach with it. The $25k grant to a $4 mil organization has less relative impact. He wonders: Is this weeding out of the overabundance of the theater community going to concentrate more resources into the hands of already large institutions? And what will that mean for the companies whose work isn't compatible with the structures of large institutions?
4. One commentor Scott Walters from CRADLE took issue with the notion that we cannot impact demand. There is a third option, he argued, between decreasing supply and increasing demand- we can create new markets. He argued for investment in opening up more rural communities to professional arts experiences. Rocco seemed very interested in this idea, since it aligns with his desire to see more arts organizations focus on their own relationship to place... to the needs and concerns of a theater's own community. He argued that it was essential to generate more work for and by smaller rural communities, and there was a shared responsibility between the NEA and small arts organizations to seek out opportunities to pair funding with projects that reach those communities.
As the session wrapped up and conveners prepared to move to the next event, the buzz all over the room had a similar refrain: Shouldn't we focus on growing demand and creating new markets (and don't we have proven techniques to share to do this?) And how will this hypothetical winnowing of supply impact the institutions we are currently responsible to? Who will get left out in the cold in this proposed new world order? And most importantly, who will be nominated to determine, on a community by community basis, which arts orgs are vital and which are unnecessary? Are there new gates being buillt? And what values will those gatekeepers hold?