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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

CITIZENS UNITED v. MRS. FARNSWORTH; Does the 1st Amendment Protect Theater Companies?

In April of 2004, the Flea Theater, a non profit 501(c)3 corporation produced AR Gurney's "Mrs. Farnsworth", a biting satire attacking then President George W Bush, as he was beginning his campaign for reelection.  At the time I was a member of the Flea's  BAT acting company (though not in the cast of “Mrs. Farnsworth”) and I remember the show quite well.  Director Jim Simpson opened his rehearsals, and so all of us in the company had the chance to see the show's stars, Sigourney Weaver and John Lithgow in the rehearsal process.  The play raised many questions about power, wealth, and America, but one question that never came up, was whether the Flea had a Constitutional right to produce such an overtly political play during an election year.

Fast forward to 2010.  In the now famous or infamous, CITIZENS UNITED v. FEC case, the Supreme Court invalidated a law that banned Citizens United, a non profit company, from broadcasting it's movie "Hillary" through cable video on demand.  The McCain Feingold Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act had prohibited such independent expenditures in support of, or against specific candidates in 2003.  Now to be fair, Mrs. Farnsworth would not have been subject to McCain Feingold, as the statute only applied to broadcast political speech, not political speech delivered live on stage.  However, the justification for this Congressional action, namely undue influence by corporations over elections, could just as easily be applied to any corporate speech, if Congress viewed it to be dangerous to the democratic process. 

Comparing the degree to which these two corporations were influencing elections is tricky, clearly as a video on demand product, “Hillary” had the potential to reach far more viewers than could attend “Mrs. Farnsworth” in the Flea's 100 seat house.  On the other hand, "Mrs. Farnsworth" starred two of the most famous actors in the world, so even those who could not attend, might very well be exposed to their implied endorsement of the anti Bush message.  And "Mrs. Farnsworth" was not alone, at the same time, another celebrity, Tim Robbins was slightly uptown performing in “Embedded”, another anti Bush play, at the Public theater, another 501(c)3 corporation. Given the star power and publicity machines behind these productions, it is not absurd to imagine that they could have as much or more influence on voters than "Hillary".  This being the case, there is no reason to think that Congress would be any less justified in banning “Mrs. Farnsworth” then they were in banning "Hillary".  Thankfully the Supreme Court, in it's decision, reaffirmed the 1st Amendment rights of corporations such as the Flea, the Public Theater and Citizens United to engage in political speech.

As a result of the Citizens United decision, we have seen a call from many on the left, and somewhat amazingly even from theater artists, to do away with "corporate personhood", the nearly 200 year old precedent, first decided in 1819 in DARTMOUTH COLLEGE v. WOODWARD, which grants corporations the same Constitutional rights enjoyed by individuals.  What is stunning about theater artist’s support of this change to the Constitution, is that almost every theater company in America is a corporation.  Theater is by its nature a corporate art form, the product is result of shared input, and no one individual can claim credit or responsibility for it.  Theater artists are asking the government to change the law in a way that denies theater the free speech protections guaranteed to novelists, painters and poets.   The implications of such a change are enormous, and we don’t have to look very far in the past to see why.

In 1971 Southeastern Promotions, LTD, a New York based corporation which produced touring shows, applied for the use of the Tivoli Theater in Chattanooga Tennessee to perform the hit musical “Hair”.    That application was denied by the city owned theater, because of the nudity contained in “Hair” which officials found would not be “in the interest of the community”.   The producers sued, and in SOUTHEASTERN PROMOTIONS, LTD. v. CONRAD the Supreme Court ruled in their favor, ensuring that theatrical productions had the same 1st Amendment rights previously affirmed for books and films.  If corporations had no Constitutional protection, it is obvious that Southeastern would not have had standing  in the Court to defend their 1st Amendment rights, because they would have had no 1st Amendment rights.  The point is obvious, when one opposes “corporate personhood”, they are supporting the power of Tennessee or any state to ban theatrical productions for any reason.

Does anyone doubt that given the chance, a state like South Carolina might decide to ban plays that depict homosexual relationships, or which mention abortion?  The ability of the state to summarily shut down theater performances which they do not think are in the interest of the community is a horrifying prospect, and one which I believe almost all theater artists would oppose.  I ask everyone involved in theater to think very carefully about these issues before deciding their stance on “corporate personhood”.   The right to freely express social and political ideas on stage is vital, not only to art, but to the health of our democracy.  If a 90 minute attack ad presented through video on demand is the price we must pay for that freedom, I humbly suggest it is worth it.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Where the F*ck is F*cking Mamet?

Alexis Soloski had a fascinating piece a few months ago in the Voice, in which he asked several prominent playwrights who they believe the greatest living playwright is.  The top choices were not terribly surprising, with Albee and Churchill leading the way.  What struck me as odd, is that there was no mention at all of David Mamet, who, with the exception of Albee (and possibly not) may be the best known playwright in the country.  I won’t go through Mamet’s whole CV here, especially since Wikipedia is back up and you can check for yourself, but we are all familiar with his plays, his prizes and his founding of one of the most influential theater companies in America.  So how can it be that he is left out of this conversation entirely, even by playwrights who hedged their bets and listed several favorites?  It seems to me that Mamet’s sacrilegious conversion to conservatism and the Republican party  may have a part to play in this.

I am certainly not suggesting that any of these playwrights, all of whom I have respect for, and many of whom I have known professionally and socially, said to themselves “well, Mamet’s pretty great, but I’m sure as hell not naming a Republican.”  Indeed with the possible exception of Machado, none of these playwrights are known for the kind of quick, harsh dialogue that is Mamet’s stock and trade, so its not surprising that they mainly chose writers closer to their own styles.  It also may be the case that Mamet’s success as a screenwriter has muddied the notion that he is first and foremost a playwright.

Still, the list put me in mind of a Jonah Goldberg article on Mamet’s political transformation from back in 2008.  Goldberg writes “Already, critics are saying his work is slipping. Soon, they will say his work was never that great to begin with”.  At the time I thought Goldberg was being a bit hyperbolic, after all, Pulitzers and Tony nominations are not easily struck from the historical record.  But seeing the list compiled by Soloski, I couldn’t help wondering, is this really happening?  I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know that as far as politics are concerned theater operates with a left wing group think.  When an artist steps out of these accepted boundaries (and with the exception of the late Ron Silver, theater has very few examples of this) it is not greeted as a healthy diversity of philosophy, but a betrayal of the principles all “right” thinking people know to be true. 

I could be off base here, it may be that in a “top ten list” by these same writers Mamet would figure prominently.  Perhaps I will ask a few of them and report back to the blog.  

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Rise of the Mini Run

There are some very good reasons why the three week minimum run is the dominant form of new play production in New York.  The costs, both in money and time, associated with traditional theater production demand a sufficient number of shows to be even partially recouped.  Theater critics, believed to be so key to the success of a show, see little point in reviewing one that will be closed by the time they file their criticism.  Even theater audiences, view a solid run, as having a greater weight, or seriousness than the more haphazardly scheduled plays which you might find in a Fringe Festival, or a NYMF.  However, as the economic realities and audience indifference of recent years make the rental of a theater for a month increasingly difficult, it is encouraging to see so many companies in NYC embracing the concept of the mini run.

The biggest advantage of the mini run, is fairly obvious, by limiting shows to 1-8 performances over a short period time companies slash the cost of theater rental.  While it is true they have less total shows, or chances to recoup, each of those chances has a much better rate of success.  Not only does the  company condense its houses, instead of spreading their audience over multiple nights, they also better target their performances, so they avoid those Tuesday and Wednesday night shows that make small theater producers pull out their hair.  Often, spaces that offer limited runs, have more than one show programmed per night, further reducing the cost of space.

A quick look at TCG’s theater facts from 2000 and from 2010 tells the story pretty neatly.  In 2000, 21 million theater tickets were sold by TCG non profit theaters, in 2010 31 million were sold, a slightly higher rate of growth than US population, that’s the good, or at least, not so bad news.  If you look a little deeper though, you see that in 2000 those 21 million people attended about 66,000 performances, by 2010, the 31 million attended over 160,000 performances, more than double.  That means that in 2000 the average performance was attended by 317 people, while in 2010 the average performance was attended by 190.  This is why in the past few years there have been so many calls to winnow the field, to encourage contributors to give more money to less companies.  This is quite a defeatist attitude, and frankly a bit selfish on the part of those companies who feel entitled to the greatest share of the funding. 

Instead of working towards less theater, we should be working towards better targeted theater.  Of those 160,000 performances in 2010, how many were throw away nights with tiny audiences?  How many shows had strong opening and closing weekends, and floundered in the middle by biting off more venue time than they could chew?  These superfluous dates in the traditional three week or more run are a horrible waste of theater’s resources.  Not only is the artistic effort on these dates wasted, but the time and energy spent finding the money for these dead shows keeps companies from operating efficiently.

We can point to several recent examples in NYC that use the mini run to great effect.  Last month, both Larry Kunofsky and Eric Meyer had plays produced in mini run form, and both “the myths we need…or How to Begin” and “The Scavengers” were fully realized, complex works of theater, efficiently created by talented artists.  Another take is the series, The Neo Futurists “too much light makes the baby go blind”, is a different show every night, as is “Serials”, the successful late night show at the Flea theater and Dysfunctional Theater Company’s “Unlicensed” at Under St Marks .  In my own experience, Sticky which my company produces rarely offers any one play on more than one night.  Even beyond NYC producers are taking advantage of the mini run, In Vermont next weekend three short plays by Dennis Moritz will have four performances, bringing more theater to a rural area, without risking any tumbleweeds blowing through the house. 

For the mini run to take the next step in cultivating new audience for theater, it must cease to be thought of as a rung on a theater company ladder.  Most playwrights I know abhor the term “emerging”, because nobody knows what in the world it means.  At any given point in an artistic process, they are simply playwrights regardless of their depth in the river of obscurity they are emerging from.  The same must be true for mini runs.  The idea of the mini run as try out, has a long history, based in fringe and other festivals, we all the know the stories of shows exploding out of the Fringe or Under the Radar into bigger, better houses.  But those stories are the rare exception.  Producers have to realize that in reaching for that tiny sliver of pie, they have been building a new form, a new method of making and selling theater all its own.  These new forms constitute a New Theater, a faster, cheaper theater that can address things that happened yesterday, as the Civilians have been doing with their Occupy shows.  For the foreseeable future, mini runs will have a strong role to play on our stages, its time to find out what they are really capable of. 

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Uncreative Destruction, What GALA tells us about who buys tickets and why

Since the Washington Post reported on GALA Theater’s disappointing decision to postpone Mathew Paul Olmos’ new play i put the fear of méxico in ‘em much of the conversation among the New York theater kids (including Olmos’ own thoughtful response, and a post from NYTR blog editor Jody Christopherson) has centered on the whether GALA’s choice is the right one.   The choice they faced, by all accounts, was between a new challenging play which was less likely to enjoy large ticket sales, and a more traditional, less challenging play that was more likely to enjoy large ticket sales.  But there is a deeper, frankly much more troubling issue at play here.  How did we reach the point where a new play, by a hot young writer, about one of the most controversial political topics in our country, can be a harder sell than a battle of the bands and a one woman show about grief that premiered in 1979?  Why aren’t we, as theater companies, able to cross over and make plays be sexy and fun events that people actually want to go to?   Maybe its because we do a poor job of discovering what the audiences want.

By divorcing itself from the free market, not-for-profit theater denies itself the greatest tool for discovering what people want that was ever created: the free market. Under a free market, products succeed and fail based on the desire people have for them and their willingness to pay for them.  By distorting those outcomes through artificial mission based funding,  theater cannot generate the raw data needed to climb out of its abyss of irrelevance.  GALA’s unfortunate case exemplifies this perfectly. By every standard that dramaturgs and theater grad students hold dear, Olmos’ play is the better choice. So why on earth would it sell less tickets?

In a meeting I recently had with a marketing firm regarding my company’s theater show, one theme emerged over and over: who is your audience?  This simple question explains exactly how theater has wound up in its current trap.  Clearly, in this case, GALA’s audience is older, more established in their creature comforts, and more interested in ispirational shows that we artists might find less challenging. Many companies face this reality.  The reason they face it is that their economic survival is tied to this more stayed demographic, whether it be through funders or subscribers.  NFPs serve the interest of the people who pay the bills.  Institutions such as GALA may have a role to play in today’s theater world, but it is not, and never will be, to reinvigorate the theater marketplace.  Until that new market emerges, it matters little what shows go up when.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Some Notes on the Recent Unpleasantness

The controversy over Tom Laughlin's blog post regarding racial disparities in theater has provided a good window into the ways in which both theater and broader discourse in our culture have gone badly off track.  Increasingly we are living in what can only be described as a society of outrage. Ideas with which people disagree are no longer, discussed, dissected and counterbalanced, instead they are delegitimized as inherently immoral, or bigoted.  Loughlin's interpretation of the data concerning race and theater attendance are flawed in ways I will discuss below, but there is nothing to be outraged at in his post.  A few days after Loughlin's post surprisingly blew up on Facebook, a reply from Ron Russell popped up on feeds, and his mean-spiritedness as well as his unwillingness to address the actual issues in Laughlin’s piece are quite telling, as is the outpouring of support for his attacks. 

The basic argument Mr. Loughlin makes is that statistics show that white people in our country are more engaged in theater than other groups, and that this is the case because theater as we think of it today is a product of European culture.  Mr. Russell's reply argues that these disparities exist because of limited access to theater, and that the moment minorities are granted equal access they will "wrest that form from the grips of lowly thinkers like you and me, and make it remember and fulfill it’s true purpose as a potent tool in our nation’s endless quest for equity and justice".  Both writers miss the point, and interestingly, they miss it for very similar reasons. 

Loughlin's biggest error is in drawing a distinction between African American and Western Culture.  African American culture is a part of Western Culture.  Just as Irish culture is a part of Western Culture, even though that island was the last spec of land to be integrated with the rest of Europe.  However, it is difficult to blame Loughlin for this error, as our society, and especially the more left leaning parts of our society, including theater, constantly hold African American or Black culture apart from the rest of the culture.  This is a trend dating back at least to the 60s (even further in the case of Marcus Garvey, for example), that  desires to maintain the purity of black culture, while at the same time integrating it into the broader "dominant" culture.  In the US black culture is vastly more vital to our society than Greek culture is, even though Greece is the cradle of our culture, so we can see that tenure is not the key to value in our so called "dominant" culture.

Mr. Russell is equally guilty of this mistake.  His belief that minority theater creators will wrest the form from lowly white thinkers is exactly the leftist, paternalistic racial ideology that leads to the character of the Noble Savage or the Magical Negro.  The notion that either in spite of, or as a result of oppression, the oppressed possess special powers to teach us good lessons, is as common in American storytelling as it is repugnant.  It places all of us, as theater artists, in boxes.

Perhaps though, the biggest irony of this whole kafuffle is that the basic premise of Mr. Loughlin's post is flat out wrong.  Black people go to the theater in droves.  According a 2007 New York Times article on the Urban Theater Circuit, which those of us who are old enough might remember as the Chittlin Circuit, attendance at these inspirational black plays is astounding.  One producer of such plays David Talbert estimates that he grossed $75,000,000 over a decade with 12 plays.  At around 30 bucks a ticket, that a lot of black theater goers who neither Mr. Loughlin, nor Mr. Russell seem to take into account.  Nobody takes Urban Theater Circuit plays very seriously (though 75 million dollars and lines around the corner probably take the sting out that disrespect), and that's a shame, because there is much to learn from this production model, even if it is not the re imagining of European theater that Mssrs Loughlin and Russell seem to think would represent a true embrace of the form from minorities.

There are important discussions to have here, but we can only have them with good will and calm heads, we must not invite, nor accept invitation to a discourse which divides us as creators of theater.  Rather, we must work together to solve the bigger problem, ensuring that theater is an important part of the lives of all Americans.  

Friday, January 6, 2012

Rearranging the Deck Chairs

In the past few years there has been a great deal of interest in reforming the way in which not-for-profit theater is funded.  This is a wonderful development for theater, and a discussion which for many years has been taboo.  The fear of giving credence to right wing attacks on public funding of the arts kept artists and producers silent on this subject for the better part of  three decades.  Now, whether as a result of the economic downturn, or the failure of the current system to create  new audience, people are beginning to imagine better ways to move forward with NFP theater funding.  As positive as this change is, and it is, it fails to go far enough. 

Let’s focus on three approaches, all of which found their way into many facebook feeds in the recent past.  First Rocco Landesman’s 2009 speech to Grantmakers in the Arts, second the copious blog of the Collective Arts Think Tank, and finally, Alex Kilgore’s thoughtful article “The Shame of Theater” in the Brooklyn Rail.  All three of these ways forward share a common thread: the idea that funders, otherwise known as rich people and granting organizations, should better target their donations, giving more money to less artists.  In Landesman’s case this means less shows, so that trees can be seen for the forest; in CATT’s vision, funders would focus on “professional” companies, rather than amateurs; and in Kilgore’s new world, preference would be given to companies that actually produce plays, rather than engaging in what he properly calls new play “development hell.”    I argue that none of this can solve the real problem.  The real problem is that less people are going to theater, and therefore, it is becoming less and less relevant to the lives of average Americans.  Here are three issues that I feel are not addressed by this new take on public funding,  but which would be fixed by moving completely away from a public funding model.

1. Who decides what is good?

I give CATT and Kilgore credit for trying to create new criteria upon which rich people and granting organizations should base their funding. However, under their plans, these funders remain the gatekeepers of  theater production.  They decide who gets to produce. Theater companies, hoping to be good enough to benefit from their largesse, are still in the position of creating art that generates grants, not audience.  This would be fine if these gatekeepers had a good track record of pushing the form forward to newer larger audiences, but the exact opposite is in fact the case.  As Landesman points out, less people go to theater, even though more money is granted to it.  This can only mean that the funders are not very good at picking winners.  Rather, they give on the basis of their own idea of what constitutes good art.  Not only is this undemocratic, it also creates a whole bunch of shows that most people in our society have very little interest in.

2. Means of production

It seems to be an accepted fact that theater costs more to produce than it recoups in ticket sales.  The current model of  a 99-300 seat house, with full lighting and sound and all the bells and whistles, simply cannot pay for itself. Therefore, proponents of the NFP system argue that public funding is needed lest we lose these precious amenities forever.  None of these new approaches listed above do anything to redress this fiscal imbalance. Much the opposite, they require more money to be dropped into the black hole for the good of our culture.  Many people seem to believe that theater will cease to exist if there isn’t money for the $1,500 scrim that we really need for the end of Act II.  This of course is nonsense. Theater is thousands of years old and it will exist under any economic circumstance.  In fact, in order for theater to thrive, and grow, there must be creative destruction, the old ways must be replaced by newer, better, more efficient methods.  Perpetuating a style of theater that is already at least half a century old does nothing to bring new audience in.  When companies have to fight to survive, they will create work that people will pay for, and not just rich people.  By cutting overhead and focusing on work that people want to see, we can make theater relevant again to the vast majority of Americans who currently view it as entertainment for wealthy old ladies to talk about at lunch.

3. If a play falls in the forest...

Ultimately the biggest problem confronting theater is audience indifference.  If you ask 100 people off the street who their 5 favorite living playwrights are, a few might say David Mamet or Edward Albee and then stare off into space,most will just look at you quizzically.  Theater is not an important part of most Americans lives and that is because we don’t create theater for most Americans. We create theater for the left wing elite wealthy people who fund it.  They want confirmation that America, war, and white men are bad, and we give it to them.  This a point recently brought to the fore by Mamet himself.  There is a notion that art is somehow above the people, that it should instruct them, that their intellectual betters should guide them with their unique understanding of how the world really is or ought to be.  Even if these messages were important for people to hear, they are not hearing them.  Maybe instead of  hopelessly trying to force “good art” down people’s throats, we should find out what they want to see, what they want to pay for, and take their money for it. 

The not-for-profit system is not broken, it is functioning as it always has, as a way for the wealthy and connected to decide what theater is.  But if we deny ourselves the free money and fancy galas, we can connect to people again.  We can produce low budget, well targeted theater that means something to everyday citizens.  Kilgore ends his article with the following line, “If we don’t examine the machine, and the big funders don’t investigate the authenticity of the institutions they fund, development hell could erode the divide between commercial and nonprofit and in 20 years we might be able to examine them under the same microscope.”  In Broadway’s 2010-11 season we saw Jerusalem, House of Blue Leaves, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo and Motherfucker with the Hat.  Is this evidence that Stephen Adly Guirgis is suddenly “commercial” bullshit?  Is Rajiv Joseph?  Not at all, clever producers have found ways to make money off of them, or so they hope.  It is time for theater to stop relying on the kindness of strangers.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

A Brief History of Theater

Theater began about 12,000 years ago, nobody knows where because at the time they did not yet have playbills. These two guys were out hunting and this funny thing happened, the one guy with a spear was chasing this, um, well, kind of like an antelope, but we don’t have them anymore, and anyway, so he trips and falls, and as he is falling the spear flies out of his hand and lands point down in a huge pile of mammoth dung. So the two guys start laughing and when they get back the chicks were like, “what’s so funny”. So instead of just telling the story they kind of act it out a little, think stone age running man, one of them puts on an animal skin and pretends to be the antelopish beast, the other guy reenacts his fall some with some comic flourish, and theater was born.

This went on for about 9,000 years until in 1,000 BCE some people in Eurasia made a stunning realization. They began to write the stories down, with different parts so that it could be performed by many people, in many places, at many times. These people, became known as “actors” from the Greek “Aktos” meaning people who don’t get paid. In addition to “actors” this period saw the invention of house managers, upstaging, and industry comps. Theater at this time, and for the next 2,000 years would performed mainly in amphitheaters, which was nice because it meant you didn’t have to pay a lighting designer.

By the sixteenth century CE the world was ready for a new kind of theater, Shakespearean theater, a deep and troubling psychological theater, but with plenty of fart jokes (it is a well known fact that Shakespeare never heard a trumpet without giggling a little). Though still technically outdoors, the new Globe theater used new lighting methods, and quickly burned to the ground. In addition to lighting design this period saw the advent of the costume designer, scalped tickets and company mission statements.

Not much changed until the dawn of the 20th century when Stanislavski realized that he could sleep with more actresses by convincing them that they had to “research” and “become the character”. His success was astounding, the amount of sex going on in dressing rooms more than tripled, and in a birth cry of postmodernism, the foibles of the actors became as much a part of the show as the play. It was at this time that Actors Equity Association was formed. Originally conceived of as a Ponzi scheme in which lesser known, poorer actors paid dues to ensure the rights and livelihood of more established richer actors, AEA soon blossomed into the only union in the world that can boast 90% unemployment among its members.

That brings us today, theater’s golden age, when as many as 1 in 40 million Americans report having been to a play in the last 20 years.