by David Dower
There's so much swirling around the internets these days about the #SupplyDemand discussion that was touched off by Rocco Landesman in his appearance here the week of From Scarcity to Abundance: Capturing the Moment in the New Play Sector that it's hard to keep up. A quick blog roll, before I wade in:
With all this activity, the high emotions, high stakes, and gnashing of teeth, it seems almost as though we spent the four days of the convening in an alternate universe. How could 125 people be gathered in snowbound DC talking about "abundance" in such an environment? And how, if that was the topic, would it kick off with something that turned into this #supplydemand debate?
(What you can't really see by the way is that all the Broadway League folks sat in the front rows and most of the nonprofit folks in the back. Why was that?)
So, he wasn't giving a "keynote" to the "Abundance-heads" so much as he was speaking to his friends on both sides of the profit divide about things he was thinking about right now. The convening actually started immediately after these remarks. Among the things he was thinking about was this issue of supply and demand. He first had some strong things to say about the cozy nature of the relationship between the commercial and nonprofit producers-- things that people may want to come back to once the dust settles on this #supplydemand tempest.
I'm left wondering, though, how this discussion bounces off the rest of the week's agenda of moving the #newplay sector to a deeper appreciation of, and responsibility for, what I've repeatedly said is a "Golden Era", a moment of abundance for new plays and the people who make them. Is this "abundance" part of the "oversupply", if you even accept the premise that there is such a thing as too much theater?
I noted in the discussion throughout the convening a conflation of the notion of abundance with the amount of activity-- the number of new works being produced-- and that's not exactly what I mean by the term. (It's not at all what I mean, really. I'm talking about resources, not activity. But that'll have to be another post as this one is already well past acceptable limits for a blog!) And on the level of activity, I'm not sure I think it's a problem, per se, that there are too many new plays being produced, nor do I think that is what Rocco was saying.
Much of the hue and cry from the responders in the debate has been on the level of hysteria about "who gets to choose". It's disheartening to see our own group descend into the level of discussion more befitting the "death panel" reactionaries. But in the world of indie theater, the grassroots of the theater world, the hyper-abundant activity is largely taking place well outside the realm of NEA funding. And the audiences we're talking about there are so heavily comprised of "friends and family" that we can't really be talking about whether there's too much of that, can we? I will admit that I find myself, personally, oversupplied-- or at least unable to keep up with the number of invitations to the supply-- but again, I don't think this is a relevant measure of what we're talking about. It's not, at any rate, that abundance I'm interested in capturing.
I'm hoping that as we move along in this discussion about capturing the moment for those to come behind us, we can get focused on resources instead of activity. Define those resources broadly-- beyond simple calculations of money and productions. I was at a meeting of the NEFA Touring Theater Initiative in Austin (talk about "abundance-heads", those Austonians have it captured!) and I was really struck by the key resource that NEFA's brought into this mix for most of the artists is not so much the cash as it is the expertise of the Advisor panel. And then, when the advisors pool their organizational resources-- space, relationships, performance weeks, production facilities, even their context in terms of place (some Universities, some major urban centers, some major LORTS, some Festivals)-- it's a real smorgasbord of resources that are available to the pilot projects.
If we measure the abundance in terms of activity, we quickly run up on the problem of redundance as a drain on abundance. Because it's in the sameness of things-- models, programs, aesthetic tastes, cultural background, geographic setting, missions-- that we really start to come up on the challenge of demand for the supply. Scott Walters keeps encouraging people in search of a "room of their own" in the American theater to look outside the major urban centers. Rebecca Novick sounds the call for differentiated models as a way out of the redundance trap. And all around the web people are crying "not so fast" on this question of too much supply where communities of color are concerned.
To Mariah MacCarthy, I wish you luck and a clear sense of purpose beyond simply doing your own thing. Because you clearly have the grit and the drive to make a difference when you get it going on.