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If an artistic director has quantified the dream of theatre on a spreadsheet, they are dead already.
April 20, 2009 11:11 AM   Subscribe

Monologuist Mike Daisey has a beef with the way theater is made in the United States: . He's made that beef the substance of one of his monologues, How Theater Failed America. Now, Todd Olson, Producing Artistic Director (scroll down for bio) at the American Stage Theatre Company in St. Petersburg, Florida, has beef with Daisey, too. Olson says: balance my budget, wretched actor miscreant; Daisey says: bring it.

Response from the blogosphere: Parabasis. Direct Address by Tim Bauer. Theatre Ideas (whose summary of the challenge I used for the text of the challenge link).
posted by ocherdraco (50 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
I am just going to go ahead and side with Daisey because he spells it "theater," rather than "theatre."
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:21 AM on April 20, 2009 [2 favorites]


With apologies to AEA, when I read Mike’s scoff that, “It's not such a bad time to start a career in the theater, provided you don't want to actually make any theater”, I had an image of going to my development staff and asking them to take a mandatory ten minute break every 80 minutes? Maybe I could supply the Marketing Director with a little cot by his desk? No wait, I’ll tell our Education Director to stop working after she reaches the 34 hour mark else she gets paid overtime. But I digress…

Oh, FUCK this guy.

I've worked in both offices and as a stage manager, often simultaneously (well, one in the day and the other in the evening), and you know the reason why actors/creative staff need those breaks? Because rehearsing and performing is fucking hard. And that is why I didn't begrudge those actors those breaks at all -- technically, they were my breaks too, even though nine times out of ten I wasn't using them as breaks but rather as a chance to take care of paperwork -- because it was a different kind of work from office work. I've largely retired from stage managing because it is harder than office work.

Tell you what, London, you can joke about offering your educational director an Equity Break when you change her job requirements to "obsess about how it felt when your mother died while simultaneously trying to do a sword fight and speaking in iambic pentameter."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:33 AM on April 20, 2009 [4 favorites]


Oh, Jesus Christ, I just looked at Todd Olson's bio. He's the cocreator of My Way: A Musical Tribute to Frank Sinatra. A musical revue of popular songs by the Chairman of thew Board.

That's exactly the sort of crap that gets produced in every single regional community theater in America, plays well to the blue hairs, and offers absolutely nothing in terms of artistic value. It's theater as a cultural jukebox, and the fact that he decided to take on Daisey is a mark of an overarching ego, rather than someone who actually produces vibrant American theater. And Daisey is right -- Olson's contempt for performers drips off his letter. The American Theater has, in fact, in general focused its financial might on creating huge institutions with expensive staffs, and they have done this at the expense of performers and non-mainstream artistic voices.

Here is the season he has programmed: An August Wilson show, who, as a Pulitzer Prize-winner and Broadway playwright, is among the safest choices a programmer can make in addressing race, because his plays are now seen as being museum pieces. It's a Wonderful Life, which is a Christmas show, and is to be expected. Blithe Spirit, which really is a museum piece. Driving Miss Daisey, which has the benefit of both having won a Pulitzer and been a popular movie. Hair, for Chrissakes. And then the only two plays that could be considered hard-sells, from the point of view of these theaters, where, if an audience hasn't already seen a play, they tend to be predisposed not to want to do it. One is by Mamet and the other is by Conor McPherson, a playwright who has been featured on Broadway who authored the very popular The Weir.

Not a single local playwright. Not a single new play. Of course Olson rankled at the criticism, because it is exactly about him. And his challenge to Saisey: Balance my books? Daisey's central premise is that this sort of bottom-line thinking is exactly what is strangling the devlopment of vibrant new theater in America.

Congratulations, Olson. You have managed to Make Daisey's case for him.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:45 AM on April 20, 2009 [3 favorites]


Oh, and it was stage managing,not being an educational director, that made me throw my back out for the first time in my life, London. And AEA isn't just there to give people their little breaks, they're also there to advocate for the performers and stage staff against unscrupulous admins -- like the producer who tried to duck out of paying for my thrown back by disguising the fact that he hadn't ever signed up for worker's comp. AEA wouldn't be such hardasses if administrators hadn't started being such dicksmacks. ....But I digress.



....sorry. I'm a tad bitter about that show.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:46 AM on April 20, 2009


I've seen a couple of Mike Daisey's pieces, though not the How Theater Failed America one. The ones I've seen have been smart, thought-provoking and funny. Go see him if you get a chance!
posted by yarrow at 11:53 AM on April 20, 2009


Divabat's post from last month also seems relevant to this thread.
posted by ocherdraco at 11:55 AM on April 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


Mike Daisy is the guy who had water poured on his script by a school teacher.
posted by roll truck roll at 11:58 AM on April 20, 2009


I saw HTFA here in DC at the beginning of the year, and it's very obvious from Olson's letter that he hasn't seen the piece. Fair enough; he's responding to the column, not the monologue.

But the piece addresses a lot more, and even addresses some things Daisey doesn't directly mention in his rebuttal to Olson. In particular, Olson's swipe at the fact that Daisey, as a sole monologist, is indeed a cheap alternative to a full cast. He talks about his place in the machine and his feelings of conflict over it.

He also talks at greater length about the entire interchangeable module nature of companies and casting now, and while he may like to say fuck a lot his discussion about the state of theater is far more pleasant and nuanced than Olson's response was.

The column in the Stranger has some things in it that the piece doesn't, or didn't when he put it on here in DC. The suggestion about ticket prices is certainly an interesting one. I'm not sure he's wrong but I'm not sure he's right either. That seems like something that could be transformative in theater, but I don't know that one theater alone could do it. It might be like suggesting that we could fix a traffic jam if everyone would just accelerate at the same time. Theoretically true, but impossible to actually get everyone to do at once.
posted by phearlez at 12:19 PM on April 20, 2009


The column in the Stranger has some things in it that the piece doesn't, or didn't when he put it on here in DC. The suggestion about ticket prices is certainly an interesting one.

Forgive the dumb question, but which link goes to that column?...if he's suggesting raising ticket prices, that MAY be something that Equity is at fault for (and, despite my sputtering support of Equity above, something I think that Equity needs to budge on a little).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:26 PM on April 20, 2009


Here's the article in The Stranger. It's referenced in Daisey's response, but not linked to in the FPP.
posted by ocherdraco at 12:31 PM on April 20, 2009


Here's a link to the column in The Stranger.
posted by moonmilk at 12:32 PM on April 20, 2009


Wow, I'm interested in theater in this country, but I don't really like Mike Daisy as a figurehead for it. He can't go five words without being self-aggrandizing or self-congratulatory, calling himself an artist, or his work "high culture." Dude, you're a ranter. A sit-down comic, a blogger who charges admission. Your monologues are facile "theater."
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 12:38 PM on April 20, 2009 [3 favorites]


Well, Ambrosia Voyeur, have you ever seen a live show by Mike Daisey? He's a highly trained actor, and a skilled monologuist whose delivery makes for compelling theater. What he does may look easy, but it isn't. Which isn't to say that you have to like it, or think he's wonderful. However, he is a performer, a craftsperson, and I'll wager even the IRS categorizes him as an artist. You know, "artist" is actually a legitimate description for people who make a living doing the sorts of things he does. It's sad that the job description carries so many negative connotations these days. Calling oneself an artist isn't any more self-important than calling oneself a baker or a chef.

ocherdraco, thanks for putting this post together. I've taken a break this year from working in the theater to return to grad school, but I have worked with some of the people and in some of the theaters mentioned in Daisey's interviews. I do not know Todd Olson, but his letter and Daisey's rebuttal had me in stitches. I think Mr. Daisey is actually a great representative for this battle. His points are spot-on. I laughed out loud when I got to the point where Mr. Olson proudly stated that he was a libertarian artistic director. This is great stuff, and he got his rear end handed to him rather smartly.

The off-broadway theater that I called home for many years (and whose sole mission was to produce new American work) raised a tremendous amount of capital for a new building complete with two stages while I was there. I understand the conflicted, guilty feelings surrounding this sort of ostentatious real estate development, especially for a non-profit supposedly dedicated to fostering progressive grassroots artistic and creative work. The new building reeks of good taste and modern design, and although I love the structure there's something about it that seems distancing, and I would like to think the money could have instead gone toward hiring more production staff and/or lowering ticket prices.
posted by stagewhisper at 1:21 PM on April 20, 2009


Balance my books? Daisey's central premise is that this sort of bottom-line thinking is exactly what is strangling the devlopment of vibrant new theater in America.

I'm surprised we haven't made it this far without someone saying "It's not called show business for nothing!" and frankly, I'm glad for it.

I agree with your assessment of Olson, Astro Zombie. But unfortunately for some struggling theater groups (and I admit I'm speaking mostly about community theatre) the only way they're gonna get butts in seats -- and local sponsorship -- is to schedule safely. The bluehairs unfortunately can make or break a season, which you wouldn't know from Saturday Goddamn Matinees.

Back during the early 90s recession, the local summer stock company I lived near put on an original "Noises Off!" style farce which, of course, included a fake program for the show-within-the-show. One of the ads in the program was for a business which proudly stated "We like the funny plays the best!" It may have one of the best jabs in the entire production and one of the sharpest in-jokes, because that summed up the attitude the sponsors had. Too much O'Neill and they got disturbed in spite of the "marquee value." But go to an old standby like Blithe Spirit or Charley's Aunt and they were placated.

I don't know how well Olson's company is faring but I know companies around Boston which always resort to the crowdpleasers, and even then they misjudge. The venerable North Shore Music Theatre, struggling financially after a fire a few years back, decided last year to forego the traditional holiday production of A Christmas Carol in favor of a High School Musical touring cast. Getting the teenyboppers (and their parents) in sounds like a good idea, but the backlash from the traditionalists socked them fierce and the kids more or less stayed away. Last I heard they're still struggling to raise the funds for a 2009 season.

But then again, around Boston we are lucky because there are still outlets for the non-traditional which can thrive. Mike Daisey's water-pouring incident happened at ART in Cambridge. But for every company which can program with risks, there's another group which, if they want to do Shakespeare, always resort to the comedies for the best audience grab.
posted by Spatch at 1:28 PM on April 20, 2009


It's interesting how some people react to Daisey; I have a friend who similarly finds him monumentally irritating. You're obviously entitled to your own taste, Ambrosia, but I couldn't disagree with the two of you more about your justifications. I'd wager that you, like my friend, have never seen anything of Daisey's performance other than what's on YouTube or you'd never call what he does being a "comic."

Daisey's pieces certainly contain some ranting; they're personal monologues. The two I have seen - "If you see something, say something" and "How theater failed America" - intertwine the personal with the impersonal, and some things move him to some real passion. Both pieces also contained some very quiet and intense moments. I've sat in theaters where everyone was completely silent by way of personal effort and in ones where they were silent because they'd stopped breathing, waiting to see what was next. Daisey's were the second kind.

To some extent this perception problem is Daisey's. His work contains a pathos that just doesn't come across the same way in his online persona. Some of the precision of his speech comes across a little... snotty. That's his failing and it's unfortunate if it's keeping away people who'd love his actual performances.

However, to take issue with him because he calls himself an artist? Please. There's a long tradition of douchebaggery around that word for sure, but Daisey puts his time and earning potential where his money is on that one. You're mischaracterizing him when you claim he calls his stuff "high culture" - the exactly quote is "The scene being interrupted is actually more about using Paris Hilton as a way to describe the excessive narcissism of New York City, but it is also true that it uses the metaphor of fucking her as well. What can I say? I like the collision of high and low culture."
posted by phearlez at 1:30 PM on April 20, 2009


But unfortunately for some struggling theater groups (and I admit I'm speaking mostly about community theatre) the only way they're gonna get butts in seats -- and local sponsorship -- is to schedule safely. The bluehairs unfortunately can make or break a season, which you wouldn't know from Saturday Goddamn Matinees.

I know that's the case, but I don't care. It's bad for theater, and saying there just is no other business model while endlessly relying on this one strikes me as being just as short-sighted as newspapers spending decades ignoring or devaluing the Web and then whining when it replaces them. Those blue hairs are going to die, and they are demanding theater that is already dead.

I mean, I loves me some Noel Coward, but plays like that should be the subject of occasional revivals, not the economic backbone of American theater.
posted by Astro Zombie at 1:37 PM on April 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


What's the difference between 'regional theatre' and the the dozen theater's in Chicago? I feel like this is an argument about something I don't understand.
posted by garlic at 1:39 PM on April 20, 2009


I continually get spam regarding Mike Daisey. It peaked a year or so ago, and back then it was all about "How Theater Failed America", but I still get about one email a month, at an account that gets very little other spam.

I can't seem to Google anything about a spammer connected with, or equivalent to, or abusing the name of, Mike Daisey. My darker nature grumbles that probably people who normally hate spam don't mind it from him because he's all arty.
posted by gurple at 2:09 PM on April 20, 2009


Really interesting post, thanks. I am confused however as to why people seem to be calling Olson "London". Am I missing something?

Anyway, I agree with a lot of Mike's points but can't help but feel, well, sorry for Olson. I wouldn't want to be the AD of a large regional in this climate. Captain of a large frigate in uncertain waters, frantically bailing it out. No wonder he may not have the time to stand back and try to see things from another perspective.

Here in Vancouver I've noticed an admirable trend among certain of the large regionals--they have been programming space into their seasons to co produce shows that have been previously produced by some of the (incredible and prolific) independent theatre companies in town--therefore granting those companies (many of which work with a relatively permanent ensemble, as Daisey describes American regional theatres as lacking) resources they may not have had and access to an audience group they may not have previously seen at their shows. In turn, I can only hope that these shows are widening the interests of audience groups that have previously perhaps been more interested in perhaps less artistically meaningful fare.

This isn't happening often and widely, but I hope the trend grows.
posted by stray at 2:14 PM on April 20, 2009


What's the difference between 'regional theatre' and the dozen of theaters in Chicago?

Nothing, really; "regional theatre" denotes all theatrical activity outside of New York, from summer stock to Steppenwolf. It's really a weak and outdated term, and its only use in this context is to denote the companies that can't rely on an external tradition of theater-going for support and thus have the starkest choice between producing tested revivals, taking on an unwieldy development staff, or trying for the more adventurous, artist-oriented approach that Daisey advocates.

Speaking of Chicago: The venerable ensemble-based American Theater Company brought in an artistic director who promptly set to stripping the actors of any input into the theater's affairs. The result: 23 out of 28 ensemble members walked out last month.

"ATC—which now basically consists of a bigger-than-ever staff...a building, a board, and a million-dollar budget—will hold its annual fund-raiser April 30. The theme is “Chocolate & Pearls,” and they’re hyping the $200-a-ticket event as a celebration of '24 years of creating professional, ensemble-based theater in Chicago.'"
posted by Iridic at 2:27 PM on April 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


I am confused however as to why people seem to be calling Olson "London". Am I missing something?

Stray, I think it's because one of the blog posts I linked to makes that mistake.
posted by ocherdraco at 2:31 PM on April 20, 2009


Iridic

The new artistic director of American Theatre Company may have a big ego but that Reader article is not really that good. Here is a better one from Perfom Ink.

PJ and the board seem to be living up to the stated mission of ATC and is actually making good choices for the season with some new works and some edgier still new shows. Also the ATC space is awful to work in though I haven't seen a show there.
posted by Uncle at 2:54 PM on April 20, 2009


"all theatrical activity outside of New York"

seriously? that's a pretty irritating definition.

Isn't Steppenwolf 'ensemble-based'? I just saw Rime and the Rose by House theatre, and their program said they were ensemble based as well. The other 2 shows I saw recently were by CIC and Chicago Shakes, and they look like they aren't an ensemble, but it seems like there's at least a decent number of ensemble theatres in Chicago.
posted by garlic at 3:17 PM on April 20, 2009


What's funny to me is that you could say almost exactly the same things about how American poetry failed as well. Once the universities got their hands on it and took it away from the people (and actually offered degrees in how to write the stuff) it was all over.
posted by bardic at 5:10 PM on April 20, 2009


Those blue hairs are going to die, and they are demanding theater that is already dead.

But how, exactly, does satisfying the "blue hair" market prevent people from offering exciting new theater that engages with contemporary problems in urgent ways to young people? Is it just a problem of the association of ideas? Do young people associate the very idea of theater with the elderly and therefore shun it? How many failed productions, then, do you have to mount (attended neither by the blue hairs nor by the young) before that association gets broken?

It does seem to me that if there are playwrights out there who are writing plays that young people will actually pay to see, it shouldn't be impossible for them to find companies that are willing to stage them. Going regularly, as I do, to both professional and student theater--the one definitely dependent on the blue hair crowd and priced beyond a lot of the younger set, the other often wildly experimental and dirt cheap, and attended mostly by blue hairs and young drama students--I'm rather pessimistic about the idea that there's a huge untapped audience of young people just waiting for slightly cheaper tickets and more "daring" plays.
posted by yoink at 5:17 PM on April 20, 2009


What's funny to me is that you could say almost exactly the same things about how American poetry failed as well. Once the universities got their hands on it and took it away from the people (and actually offered degrees in how to write the stuff) it was all over.

So when was this golden age when American poetry belonged to "the people"? And just how, exactly, did the universities go about "taking it away" from them?
posted by yoink at 5:20 PM on April 20, 2009


Going regularly, as I do, to both professional and student theater--the one definitely dependent on the blue hair crowd and priced beyond a lot of the younger set, the other often wildly experimental and dirt cheap, and attended mostly by blue hairs and young drama students--I'm rather pessimistic about the idea that there's a huge untapped audience of young people just waiting for slightly cheaper tickets and more "daring" plays.

There are two theatre companies that I've seen that consistently draw a younger audience. The previously mentioned House Theatre of Chicago and MadCat Theatre Company in Miami.

When I lived in Chicago, I went to every single House show. Often multiple times. I can't remember a time where the number of 20 and 30 somethings in the audience didn't vastly out number other age groups. MadCat's audience is more diverse in age, but every time I go to see a show there, I'm never been the youngest person there (I'm in my mid-twenties). MadCat attracts hipsters of all ages -- from teens to those in their 70s, but doesn't attract the staid bluehairs.

Both of these companies have a very different vibe to them than any other professional theatre I've been to. The shows are events. It's much less like a traditional theatre experience (the House didn't even have programs*), and more like a concert in terms of the whole experience.

Even a more traditional atmosphere can bring young people in, if you partner it with an event. I saw Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre this past week, and after was invited by a friend to the Green Room Society Party. About 200 people my age and slightly older were drinking and partying with the dancers of the company. There was booze, there was salsa music provided by a DJ, and there was the high of coming straight from seeing the absolutely fucking brilliant "Revelations."

I do think there is a young audience out there. I've seen them. Even in the bluehair state of Florida. However, they need more than cheaper tickets and "daring" plays -- they need a completely different experience than the traditional theatre experience. Not many theatres want to or are willing to provide that or even know how.

*Apparently in the three years since I moved to Miami they have traded in their trading cards for programs. This makes me sad.
posted by JustKeepSwimming at 6:02 PM on April 20, 2009


Is it just a problem of the association of ideas? Do young people associate the very idea of theater with the elderly and therefore shun it?

As someone who doesn't go to the theater, I can say yes for me the very idea of theater is associated with a kind of pretention and stuffy classism that puts me off. That assumption on my part could and most likely is wrong, just speaking as if you'd asked me point blank.

I guess it's a shame I've never given theater a chance, but then again the theater I've seen was never as interesting as what Mike Daisey is doing. I guess I need to get out more.
posted by nola at 8:06 PM on April 20, 2009


Poetry was never a major phenomenon in America, but it's all but died since MFA programs after World War II became the gatekeepers of literary merit and it became the purview of aging white males talking about themselves and their upper-middle class angst.

More here: The American Poetry Wax Museum

The best American poetry today has little or nothing to do with the universities. I'd imagine the quality play-writing and producing has just as much to do with established theaters.
posted by bardic at 8:44 PM on April 20, 2009


It does seem to me that if there are playwrights out there who are writing plays that young people will actually pay to see, it shouldn't be impossible for them to find companies that are willing to stage them. Going regularly, as I do, to both professional and student theater--the one definitely dependent on the blue hair crowd and priced beyond a lot of the younger set, the other often wildly experimental and dirt cheap, and attended mostly by blue hairs and young drama students--I'm rather pessimistic about the idea that there's a huge untapped audience of young people just waiting for slightly cheaper tickets and more "daring" plays.

There's no money in theater if you're an artist. I've been a playwright for a long time, I think I'm regarded as a pretty good one, and I barely make a nickel on it. I write for a living, so I have to prioritize what I am going to write, with the writing that puts food on the table first.

The blue hair crowd is killing American theater in the same way that grant-based educational theaters are killing American theater. It's a world of finite resources. Putting on a play is not cheap, and one of the most expensive aspects of it is developing an audience. But there is a limited pool of funds for theater, and, in most towns, these are almost all eaten up by community theaters and theaters that rely on grants, and program around them. And some of these are behemoths. Large staffs, huge buildings, etc. And they produce Noel Coward and Shakespeare and It's a Wonderful Life, and don't do new work, or works by unknown playwrights, or works by local playwrights, because their audience doesn't want to see it.

There is almost no young audience for theater in this country. And it's because there is precious little new work being produced that speaks directly to experiences of young people, and increasingly few playwrights who even want to bother. It takes a lot of time to write a play to only make a couple of hundred dollars for it and have it only be seen by a few hundred people. American theater, and regional theater, has thoroughly misprioritzed their resources toward the building of structures and paying of office staff, and has made paying writers and actors such a low priority that in many places doing so is, at best, a hobby. But if you try to produce anything else, and your local playhouse is doing blithe spirit, you're going to discover that, thanks to their resources, they have already done a really fine job of finding local donors and getting as much out of them as they are willing to donate to local theater.

And, honestly, maybe this is the way it goes. Theater has been through dozens of iterations, and maybe this is an especially bad one -- and I say this as someone who works in, and writes about, theater in an unusually good theater town. Maybe theater needs to die out a little, and be rediscovered, and turn into something new. Because this current model is not sustainable, and the next generation of possible theatergoers is getting a lot more out of YouTube at the moment that they are from live theater, and with good cause. YouTube is made by them and for them. Most American theater is not.
posted by Astro Zombie at 9:01 PM on April 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


Where I come from, the only people who don't get paid are the actors.

Yes, the designers don't get paid enough to live on, but they get paid.

The directors get paid a larger stipend than the designers, but nothing to write home about.

The playwrights and their agents get royalties.

The musicians get paid the hourly union wage.

The office staff, set crew and costume crew get paid a living wage - though in most cases a living wage means the same as "Walmart pays a living wage."

The actors? If they're lucky, they get paid a $75 stipend for the whole run.

So, I would estimate that 75% of the "theatre professionals" in town are office staff, another 24% technical staff. We probably have 4-7 people who are making a living as actors in town (at the local children's theatre) at any given time. They have zero job security from season to season to season.

The folks who actually trod the boards making money for the rest of the local theatre world are volunteer actors, on whose good graces the theatre professionals depend for their livelihood.

There is a sort of con game built into the system that persuades otherwise rational people that performing for free so that the box office worker can almost make enough money to survive makes sense. That, somehow, volunteering yourself for a potential public evisceration by the local drama critic is worth it because the applause you may receive is worth more than the $55-60k a year the managing director is getting for choosing to stage Always... Patsy Cline for the sixth time.

Let me tell you how many high school students I know that get amped up to listen to a local diva sing Patsy Cline tunes. I'm estimating 1 and his life's goal is to get on American Idol.

Theatre, at least locally, isn't about creating art. It is about survival. If all you're trying to do is survive, you're probably not doing a whole lot that will help you plan for the future or alter the ways you do things to create better art.

Which I think is one of Daisey's main points. Survival is not success.

The starving can survive - if they eat each other.
posted by Joey Michaels at 10:23 PM on April 20, 2009


Look, I haven't seen any live Daisey, and I would LOVE to, beause I love all kinds of performance, and I KNOW he's an artist. He's still a self-aggrandizing buffoon about it. That's part of the nature of his act, isn't it? Theater of one? It seems like he's living with very blurry boundaries between life and performance, and hey, how avant-garde of him and all, I hope Charlie Kaufman pays him royalties, but I don't think it makes him a good spokesman for theater, even only experimental theater, generally, because his extremely particular perspective and justifications of egotism, to me, makes his logics seem compromised by inappropriate, performative rhetoric.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 10:39 PM on April 20, 2009


You're smart, bardic, but you're a few years behind. The outsiders of 20 years ago are all in tenure-track jobs now.
posted by roll truck roll at 7:10 AM on April 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


There is almost no young audience for theater in this country. And it's because there is precious little new work being produced that speaks directly to experiences of young people, and increasingly few playwrights who even want to bother.

It seems to me at best unproven what is cause and what effect here. Are young people not going to the theater because it doesn't speak to them, or does it not speak to them because they don't go? The professional theater I attend regularly stages new plays (usually more than one per season). It has also put on some starkly contemporary readings of older plays (e.g. _Antigone_, Calderon's _Life is a Dream). Nevertheless, half the audience is regularly using the looped sound system for the hearing-impaired and anyone under 50 stands out as strikingly youthful.

Putting on a play is not cheap, and one of the most expensive aspects of it is developing an audience. But there is a limited pool of funds for theater, and, in most towns, these are almost all eaten up by community theaters and theaters that rely on grants, and program around them.

I think there are probably a couple of questionable assumptions at work here. One is that if this money wasn't going to the established theaters it would go to exciting new collaborative ventures that are testing boundaries and ruffling feathers (etc. etc.). But why would it? The kind of person who gives $10,000 to have a plaque with their name on it added to the "donors wall" at the local theater doesn't have $10,000 sitting around marked for "theater" and then look around for some theater to give it to. Of course they'll give it to the established and proven institution. The whole point about exciting new trends in any art form is that they come, initially, from outside those institutions.

As for the cost of putting on plays. Well, that rather depends. I can't envisage a daring, iconoclastic, radically transformative theater that somehow emerges fully formed with the same kind of funding (and the same kinds of elaborate sets, lighting, costumes etc.) as mainstream institutional theater. Isn't the point, again, of this new wave to emerge out of guerilla productions--rented storefronts and warehouses with the actors providing their own clothes as costumes etc.? I've seen some fabulous low-rent productions of that kind. Apparently the actors aren't getting paid by the mainstream theater anyway, so if they're dying to work in more exciting material, why don't they not get paid in shoestring productions of exciting new stuff rather than not get paid in yet another production of _Blithe Spirit_? Wouldn't that cultivate a younger audience who would then follow those artists and those playwrights as they move into more established theaters?
posted by yoink at 1:18 PM on April 21, 2009


Apparently the actors aren't getting paid by the mainstream theater anyway, so if they're dying to work in more exciting material, why don't they not get paid in shoestring productions of exciting new stuff rather than not get paid in yet another production of _Blithe Spirit_?

The problem with that, though, is that even the shoestring productions have expenses. I once co-produced a show for the New York Fringe Festival -- it was probably the barest-minimum-expense show we could have possibly done; working with the Fringe Festival means that the particupation fee we paid to secure the performance space included the cost of lights and sound, so we did NOT have to rent those items separately. We also were able to take advantage of the special group rate on publicity, and insurance for the production -- for we had to have insurance. We also were doubly fortunate in that we had only one cast member, our "set" was a card table, our "props" were something the director dug out of his closet, and our "costume" was what the actor dug out of HIS closet. We also didn't have to pay a lighting designer, costume designer, or set designer, and the playwright was one of the co-producers and donated what woudl have been his royalties to the production.

It STILL cost us about $2K to mount all that -- the insurance was one of the biggest expenses, I believe. And, we were also limited to only six performances -- and we could only keep half the box office proceeds, so we only got about $7 per head for people who came to the show. And there were only 50 seats in the house where we performed. We actually made a profit of about $100, and considered ourselves to have been a raging success because most people were operating at a loss.

Regular shoestring productions don't have the luxury of having a central body doing their publicity for them or securing equipment for them, so they have to pay for set, costume, props, design, and space all separately. Plus they have to handle publicity by themselves, and handle insurance. Moreover, they often don't have enough money to really advertise broadly, so nine times out of ten the young theatregoer doesn't know that the show existed in the first place. Most of their shows also have the life span of mayflies, because while a standard "showcase" contract ("showcase" is what the union calls the shoestring shows) can run longer than six performances, the actors' union doesn't let you go more than 20 performances. Finally, the shoestring production faces the problem of being an unknown commodity, which turns off more people than it turns on ("....it's actors we don't know and a playwright we don't know, how do we know whether it's any good? I guess we'll go see a movie instead, at least we know who Brad Pitt is and it's only $10.").

And even in a production like this, the union says you have to pay the actors something -- usually it's "transportation to and from all rehearsals and performances," which most productions handle by giving you subway fare. And that can add up; say you have 20 rehearsals and 20 performances, that's about 80 subway rides -- the going rate here in NYC is $2 each way, so you're looking at about $160 per person. Even if you have only two people in the cast that's over $300 just in pay to the actors alone. You would need to have 21 paying audience members just to cover that actor pay ALONE -- and there's no guarantee you're going to get that.

Despite all of that -- people DO work on shoestring productions of exciting new stuff. But if the audience doesn't know about it -- which, as I state above, often they don't -- the companies producing the exciting new stuff can only go on for so long before everyone goes broke, and either disbands or does a production of ANNA CHRISTIE because hey, everyone's heard of Eugene O'Neill!
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 2:01 PM on April 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


Despite all of that -- people DO work on shoestring productions of exciting new stuff. But if the audience doesn't know about it -- which, as I state above, often they don't -- the companies producing the exciting new stuff can only go on for so long before everyone goes broke, and either disbands or does a production of ANNA CHRISTIE because hey, everyone's heard of Eugene O'Neill!

So it still sounds like there just ain't an audience out there rather than there being an audience who just aren't being served. Or, there is an audience, but it's small, fragmented, and the valiant efforts of some amazingly dedicated and gifted people simply aren't sufficient to nurse it into something larger.

The thing I wonder is how that happened? Did parents stop taking their kids to the theater at some point (I have to say that I almost never see parents with kids at the theater--something I see all the time at, say, ballet). That's how I started going, and why I've continued to go ever since. I mean, people rail at the blue hairs, but the blue hairs were going to theater 50 years ago when they were young. Many of them went to edgy experimental theater, and then got involved in founding their local professional theater company, doing bake sales and raising funds and attending performances in various weird temporary locations. Back then, they were the ones putting on productions of Beckett and Ionesco and being told that it was crazy wacky stuff that wasn't "real" theater by their parents. But they were still interested in the older stuff that their parents had thought was cool as well; they loved theater and they thought it was an important, living, developing tradition. So what happened? Why isn't the next generation interested in any of this stuff at all? Why have they given up on the art form as a whole, rather than any particular genre within it?

I have to say I find it depressing and baffling.

Still, there is one thing to be said about Daisey's hypothesis. We should soon enough get to see if he's right. The blue hairs really are dying out. Pretty soon the regional theaters are going to lose their audiences and start going under. At that point, willy nilly, the world of American Theater will change radically. If it leads to a golden age of new work pitched to enthusiastic young audiences, then we'll all be winners, I guess.
posted by yoink at 3:13 PM on April 21, 2009


So it still sounds like there just ain't an audience out there rather than there being an audience who just aren't being served. Or, there is an audience, but it's small, fragmented, and the valiant efforts of some amazingly dedicated and gifted people simply aren't sufficient to nurse it into something larger.

The thing I wonder is how that happened? Did parents stop taking their kids to the theater at some point (I have to say that I almost never see parents with kids at the theater--something I see all the time at, say, ballet).


Partly that. But also, radio happened, then movies happened, then television happened, then video games, then the Internet.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:11 PM on April 21, 2009


But also, radio happened, then movies happened, then television happened, then video games, then the Internet.

Well, all of those except the Internet were around 50 years ago. And young people still go to live concerts as well as listening to their iPods. Young people go to ballet, and that's an art form that is arguably far less "contemporary" than even the staidest regional theater. Why does filmed drama remain viable (if only just) but live drama--outside the musical--steadily sink into oblivion?
posted by yoink at 4:42 PM on April 21, 2009


Well, all of those except the Internet were around 50 years ago....

....And "50 years ago" is when people generally say that theater started to decline in terms of popularity. 50 years ago the "adults" were people who didn't grow up with television and movies, so they were in the theater habit; movies and TV were still to a degree novelties. Over the past 50 years, though, the balance has gradually shifted as the people who grew up with a TV always around started taking over and making their own choices.

And young people still go to live concerts as well as listening to their iPods.

Young people go to ballet, and that's an art form that is arguably far less "contemporary" than even the staidest regional theater.

But dance has a definite niche audience, and filmed dance is very, very rare. It's a little different -- seeing dance live is generally the only way you get to see dance period.

Why does filmed drama remain viable (if only just) but live drama--outside the musical--steadily sink into oblivion?

Convenience, price, and consistency. If you want to see live drama, you have to get in your car and go somewhere, and either pay out the nose or run the risk of it being bad because it's in a church basement. But with a movie, at least it's got something of a standard of quality -- maybe it's not fanstastic, but at least it's not TOTALLY terrible, usually, and if it is, you're maybe only out ten bucks instead of 40, or 75, or 200 (in some cases). Or if you're just renting it, or it's a Netflix thing, you didn't even have to leave the house -- it was only a couple bucks and you could watch it at home in your underwear. Or if it wasn't even a movie, just a TV show, you didn't have to pay anything. Maybe it's not the best thing you ever saw but it's there, and you didn't have to leave the house.

My theories, anyway. Take this with a grain of salt, mind.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:04 PM on April 21, 2009


The thing I wonder is how that happened?

Theater can do things that movies and TV can't. I think part of the problem is that, instead of embracing all the things that are uniquely effective live, much theater has moved towards being more like TV or film or "how it was staged back in the day."

There are some very successful theatre acts, but they're almost all pure spectacle - Blue Man Group, De La Guarda, heck even Circque du Soleil.

I'll also note that there's been some impressive success stories with improvisation - notable Comedysportz in certain cities. Paid actors plus full houses.

Theater will survive and thrive as it transforms both its business models and its content to, as I said, do the things TV cannot do.
posted by Joey Michaels at 5:26 PM on April 21, 2009


There are some very successful theatre acts, but they're almost all pure spectacle - Blue Man Group, De La Guarda, heck even Circque du Soleil.

Those things are all fine, in their ways, but to me there is something uniquely exhilarating in seeing a great dramatic performance live. There's an immediacy, a visceral quality that even the very greatest films can't match (not that I'm saying that theater is "better" than film--great film acting is just as profound an art as great theater acting--and I love them both; it's just that each provides a kind of pleasure the other can't).

Actually, here's one thing which I think is part of the reason that people don't go to the theater--they need to re-learn the conventions of theater acting. Most people who have only ever seen film acting find theater acting too "stagy" (hah!), too overblown, too artificial. They are so used to film's extraordinary intimacy (where a raised eyebrow can be a lightning bolt) that they find everything on stage cheesy--like silent movie acting. Conversely--and in some ways paradoxically--I think people find stage acting too confrontational, too "in your face"--they're used to film's voyeuristic safety: we're the unseen observers. I know I've heard people who aren't habitual theatergoers say that they always feel somehow embarrassed at the theater--to see these people emoting away right there in the same room with them.

That's why I think that part of the explanation is some kind of lost generational link. Kids somehow didn't get enculturated into theater, so they find it weird and offputting. They want to apply the frames of reference that the use to make sense of films to the plays they do see, and in the terms of those frames of reference nothing quite seems to make sense, or to measure up. Maybe the only answer is to provide free tickets to people under the age of 18 and hope that that will drag in enough of a young audience to get them to learn how to watch a play?
posted by yoink at 5:46 PM on April 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


Well, you've gone someplace interesting.

If you ever have the chance to read the Natyasastra - a classical Indian text that's basically a religious how-to manual on how to stage Sanskrit drama - it is a bit of an eye opener. It talks at length about how the educated, refined audience are the ones you should aim your shows at and goes to great length to explain how to do just that.

There may have been a time when the rougher, less educated members of society attended theater in the U.S.A. (I think of the New York theater riots in the 18th century), but more and more often over the years, the blue bloods pushed the hoi-poloi out.

Theater became increasingly a high society event. As the children of high society grew less interested in theater - and more interested in, for example, boob jobs and cocaine - most stopped attending it.

Then there's the whole "art for arts sake I'm picking apart my penis with a knife" style of theater and art that alienated a whole bunch of people.

I mean, why go somewhere where you feel socially out of place to see somebody attempt to offend you or confront you or what have you? Ed Sullivan is on and he has this really nice ventriloquist act on tonight.

Theater is viewed by many as the province of the old, the wealthy and the intelligentsia, filled with artists that want to stage Brecht for workers that they would be afraid to share a beer with or with accountants who want to bring back Annie because it sold out its run during the blockbuster 1983-84 season.

Community Theaters are frequently filled with amateur actors patting themselves on the back for getting most of the lines in The Last Night of Ballyhoo correct, charging $35 dollars to customers who then try to figure out whether the production actually sucks or if they just don't get theater.

And don't get me started on academic theatre, where the only qualification a professor needs to have to direct a college or university main stage show is a MA theatre degree with a focus on writing papers about the avant garde theater of Bolivia, 1972-75.

Anyhow, I think part of the reason people don't go see more theatre is that theatre is only marginally interested in seeing them, and then when theatre does see them, it screams "WATCH ME AND I DON'T ESPECIALLY CARE IF YOU ENJOY IT! I KNOW WHAT YOU LIKE BETTER THAN YOU DO! ALSO, DONATE!"

But let me tell you how I really feel.
posted by Joey Michaels at 9:13 PM on April 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


Ironically, I think there was once a time when the kind of theater that Joey michaels is implying should be the case did actually exist, and also ironically, it also existed during an economic downturn. The administrator for the Federal Theater Project had some amazing ideas for bringing theater to the public and making it accessible -- in fact, that's precisely what she was counting on, and that's precisely what got her fired becuase it was working.

....And it still IS. A theater company I sometimes work with had already decided to re-stage one of the FTP's "Living Newspaper" pieces this season; it went up a couple weeks ago, and I saw it. It was fascinating how well it held up -- and it sounds like it would have satisfied just about what everyone in here is saying about how to engage an audience.

...Except just about nobody had heard of this company or the play, so almost nobody went to see it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:19 PM on April 21, 2009


I know Todd Olson - he is an extremely nice guy who loves and adores actors. He also has a fairly conservative sensibility. Probably more conservative than Mike Daisey's, but not nearly as conservative as his company's program would suggest. He's running a multimillion dollar company in St. Petersburg, Florida, guys. You think he should be programming an all Artaud season? Give the guy a break.

The problem with the theatre everywhere outside of a few spots in Manhattan is that it seems ignorant of or even hostile to the basic idea of American capitalism. If the art you are making is compelling enough to get a working person to open his wallet and compensate you for it, then you have something to offer, and you can figure out the rest with a good business plan. But if all you are doing is throwing parties for rich people, or filling out applications for foundation money that really should be going to someone who is starving, than you must really have nothing to contribute in the first place.

The truth is that it’s hard for theatre people admit that what they do is really no different than running a restaurant or a bookstore. They want to pretend they are Shaman living in Elizabethan England by way of 1920’s Berlin. Their lack of resources, which never changes, is always blamed on some combination of stingy government, conservative patrons and uneducated audiences.

Uh, how about do your job really well and handle your business? I realize that every regional AD in the country would scoff at such nonsense, but that only indicates how drunk on patronage they are. And I don’t want to hear about how the only way to sell tickets is with the friggin’ Christmas Carol. You want abstract? How about De La Guarda, Blue Man Group, Stomp, Cirque Du Soleil, The Donkey Show? You want edgy? How about Avenue Q or Spring Awakening? You want political? How about The Vagina Monologues? You think anyone working in these shows is hurting for health insurance?
posted by ivanosky at 12:02 AM on April 22, 2009


You think anyone working in these shows is hurting for health insurance?

Well, if they're volunteering to play roles in those plays while the managing director is the only one getting paid, yes.
posted by Joey Michaels at 2:58 AM on April 22, 2009


You want abstract? How about De La Guarda, Blue Man Group, Stomp, Cirque Du Soleil, The Donkey Show? You want edgy? How about Avenue Q or Spring Awakening? You want political? How about The Vagina Monologues?

De La Guarda is an Argentinian import. STOMP is a British import. Cirque du Soleil is a Canadian import. All three had the luxury of having built up an established following in their countries of origin to have had enough money to adequately fund a move to this country.

THE DONKEY SHOW isn't running any more.

THE VAGINA MONOLOGUES, AVENUE Q, and SPRING AWAKENING all started as shoestring productions -- but they had the luxury of having a production staff who had enough money to spend the years it took for all three shows to be sufficiently developed to the point of success. SPRING AWAKENING, in particular was in development for seven years. At their inception, all of these shows also faced limited runs and then disappearing back into oblivion, like all the other off-off-Broadway shows that existed during their inaugural seasons; the only thing that brought them further was someone had enough money to give the production staff to afford them the luxury of going further. It doesn't always work that way.

You think anyone working in these shows is hurting for health insurance?

Depends -- are you talking about the original off-off-Broadway casts, or the Broadway casts? Very frequently, when a show does get moved from off-off-Broadway to Broadway, or even to off-Broadway, there are many cast replacements. Another Cinderella Story, URINETOWN, boasted a cast of about 10-15 actors playing 22 characters during its initial run at the 1999 NYC Fringe Festival. Eventually, it got an off-off-Broadway run, then got promoted to off-Broadway, then to Broadway.

But by the time the show made it from the Fringe to Broadway, only one of the original cast members remained -- the rest had been replaced, as part of the subsequent contracts with each new producer. The transition from off-Broadway to Broadway was the most dramatic. John Cullum wasn't hurting for heath insurance when he was playing Caldwell B. Cladwell -- but, then, he wasn't hurting for health insurance before. He also wasn't playing Caldwell B. Cladwell when it was at the Fringe. The guy who was playing Caldwell B. Cladwell during the Fringe may be okay, depending on whether his day job offers health insurance.



.....My ultimate point is that the state of theater and working in it is much too complex to point to and say, "look, people see Spring Awakening, things are just fine!" SPRING AWAKENING is a hopeful sign, but it is only one pebble, and it's too soon to tell whether the rest of the avalanche is going to fall that way.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:27 AM on April 22, 2009


Look, I haven't seen any live Daisey, and I would LOVE to, beause I love all kinds of performance, and I KNOW he's an artist. He's still a self-aggrandizing buffoon about it. That's part of the nature of his act, isn't it?

For what it's worth (which is little, because in a case like this perception is indeed reality) that is not an accurate indication of what Daisey is like on the stage or, based on my brief interaction, in person.
posted by phearlez at 9:31 AM on April 22, 2009


At their inception, all of these shows also faced limited runs and then disappearing back into oblivion, like all the other off-off-Broadway shows that existed during their inaugural seasons; the only thing that brought them further was someone had enough money to give the production staff to afford them the luxury of going further. It doesn't always work that way.

Right. This is how business works. You develop something until it is ready to show to an investor, that investor takes a chance, you execute your plans, and if the consumer likes what you are selling, they compensate you appropriately. The fact that you repeatedly refer to the risks that investors took on the shows I cite as "luxury" is precisely the problem. The same economic incentives and penalties that apply to film, television, music and even fine art (Dance is unfortunately also trapped in charity-land) need to apply to theatre if theatre wants to escape perpetual starvation.

The problem in the American theatre is not that this model is not achievable, it's that it is never even attempted, because the goal in the vast majority of circumstances is not to sell tickets and make a profit. The goals are instead to compliment a given company's abstract ideals of artistic merit, to compliment the egos and tastes of those in the community who desire a tax writeoff, to compliment the egos and tastes of certain charitable organizations, and until recently to compliment the NEA (or piss them off just enough to get attention).

The problem with this formula is that the audience comes last. Why? Because everyone knows the audience is not where your their is buttered. It's natural that the work becomes uneven or irrelevant if the ultimate accountability is not to the vast majority of people watching the show.

I think that Mike Daisey would agree with most of what I'm saying, but his prescription is different. He thinks the solution is smaller, more streamlined organizations and shift of resources towards actors and away from staff. He thinks that this would create a less "corporatized" theatre. But he's actually got it backwards. There are no major regional theatres in America that are as accountable to the customer as a typical American corporation. American regional theatres are much more akin to the party-planning charity organizations with whom they share their tax category. I think they should act more like small businesses, and if they can't make money they should close up shop.

As to the second part of his prescription, I think his emphasis on permanent acting companies is an obvious suggestion for an actor to make, but it won't do anything to solve the larger problem. I've worked at theatres with permanent rep companies before. While it's true that the audience develops a relationship with the company and can enjoy following its development from show to show, it is also true that actors in permanent rep companies get lazy and are very often cast in parts they aren't appropriate for or don't deserve. Of course, that's what happens at every company with permanent employees. It's good for the employees, but not necessarily for the product, and the problem with the American theatre right now is not that the employees aren't happy, it's that the product isn't selling.

The reason I keep referring to the system as it exists in America is that it is obviously very different elsewhere. Other countries with large cultural endownments have internalized the fact that it is important to them to fund art that a lot of people don't like and that will never make money. Those countries are culturally far less capitalistic than we are. They are also far less culturally rich and diverse. America has the most dynamic and influential arts culture in the history of the world - it's called Pop. But it is a brutal culture that requires an enormous amount of hustle and risk. People in not-for-profit arts organizations want to avoid all that, and I understand why - it's a hard-knock life. But it works. American popular music, film, television, and recently the internet have dominated world culture for a century. No one working in those fields is relying on charity or "educational" coercion to generate work. Why is theatre different?

Part of the reason is the traditional culture of the theatre itself. The historically significant rep companies were socialist organizations. The Group Theatre, the Berliner Ensemble, the Living Theatre were all formed by radical leftists at a time when people were trying to divorce artistic production from capitalism. Making money was anathema to those guys. The academics who dominate most theatre studies programs at most of the significant universities are mostly 60's-trained leftists who are in thrall to these original ensembles. So the young professionals who finish their BFA or MFA and want to start a regional company have already been told that high art requires patronage or the life of a kibbutzim. The people who move to LA learn something else entirely.

I would argue that theatre people need to accept America's cultural economy for what it is, not what they want it to be, and start trying to take advantage of it. Actors and writers in film and television certainly can't complain that the work is irrelevant or that there's no money in it. They just complain that it sucks. On the other hand, so does everyone I know in regional theatre. You know, how many actors does it take to change a light bulb?
posted by ivanosky at 6:03 PM on April 22, 2009


Those countries are culturally far less capitalistic than we are. They are also far less culturally rich and diverse.

Not to say that you're argument is entirely invalid, but having lived in America, Europe, Canada and Australasia, I can't say that I find this particular observation to be true. The theater world in Montreal, for example, was fantastically vibrant. Yes they have a more generous approach to government funding of the arts, but there were still all kinds of shoestring theatrical companies putting on fabulously inventive work in shoebox-sized venues. It's simply not the case that having the government fund artistic production acts to stifle individual creativity or channel it all into the same "accepted" forms.

Indeed, if we look back at the history of art and literature, periods of intense cultural efflorescence have been perfectly compatible with regimes of centralized artistic patronage (from Maecenas to the Medicis to the Counter Reformation and on).
posted by yoink at 1:22 PM on April 23, 2009


you're/your dagnabbit!
posted by yoink at 1:23 PM on April 23, 2009


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