Friday, July 11, 2008

The Theatre Problem

So, i've kinda thrown my opinion of theatre around quite a bit lately. On Schmartzy's last days effort to make his MKE blog a debate forum and on a number of theatre blog comments (internet access at work expanded suddenly). Now i'm thinking a general statement of my views rather than a bunch of snarky comments would be useful.

First we need to define "theatre artist". The theatre artists i am concerned with are the ones who seek to challenge themselves by producing the kind of work that is not easily produced in the current theatre environment. You wanna do Shakespeare in a calssy auditorium? That's great. You are a theatre artist, but you are not the kind of theatre artist i am concerned with here. My solutions will not solve your problems (only a fountain of youth for your patrons can do that). I predict that my solutions will temporarily breathe new life into your shit, but in the end we're going to be replacing that ever shrinking pie you've been hoarding with a brand new one, and your share is gonna be a lot smaller.

So now we know who i'm talking to. If you aim to push theatre into a glorious new golden age by realizing the intentions of what was happening in theatre before the 80's shut everything down, if you will acheive this by focusing on new works and new mothods that utilize the strengths of the medium in the present (and future) post-virtual context then we're on the same page and we can talk about improving our lot.

Alright theatre innovators, here's the facts. First, art is business. Like it or not artists who lack business skills, organization and sense need to learn it. If you don't want to be exploited or abused your best chance is to know how to do the business end of your work yourself. You don't necessarily have to DO all the work yourself, but you need to be involved in it and capable of doing it. This goes for everyone. Actors, directors, producers, techs, and non-theatre artists too, painters and poets get fucked over just as much as we do, and need to prepare themselves. You can't just trust the company that's hired you, or the business manager you hire. If you don't make the business of your art YOUR business, then you have no one to blame but yourself when you fail.

Second fact: New theatre cannot exist under an obsolete business model. The non-profit reperatory regional theatre model (whatever you wanna call it) is broken, and as far at the theatre artists i'm concerned with go, it's irrepairable. Bourgeois patronage is a sinking ship and it's time to get in the lifeboats people.

The third fact is there are many lifeboats available to us it's only a matter of choosing one. Now is not the time to sit and ponder up a new theory on how to do things. Now is the time to act. Read some history and choose a lifeboat with your favorite hodge podge of Growtowski, Artaud, Brecht, The Living Theatre, The Wooster Group, Peter Brook, etc etc etc. There are many many great ideas that were only afforded a splash in the pan in the old theatre world. These can be great resources for the future.

So, you've hasilty picked your lifeboat (no time to be too choosy about this thing, grab one and get off the wreck!) and this is where the metaphor falls apart, cuz the fourth fact is, whichever lifeboat you've chosen, however carefully, it's going to have to be rebuilt repeatedly while you're navagating the turbulent seas in it. Luck and uncertainty play a huge role, and the only way to know how sturdy or maleable the lifeboat is, is to try it out, you might sink it, but you can try a new one. Either way, you might as well jump in now, cuz any hesitation is only cowardice. Spend an hour or two on wikipedia and on these blogs and then start a production based on your chosen hodge podge of ideas. Whatever you think might serve your aesthetics, ethics, and community.

Then, as you produce, never stop learning. Meet with critics, artistic directors of existing companys, artists in your community, retired experimenters. Once you've got a production or two under your belt these people will be more likely to give you some of their time, wether they've seen your stuff or not. Ask them out to coffee, and take notes. Also, spend more time on Wikipedia and replace your leisure reading or nightly TV watching with the biographies or works of your lifeboat's architects.

This brings us to the next fact: if you are going to participate in the revolutionizing of an art medium, that art medium is going to consume your life. Friendship? Entertainment? A relationship? A career? Only if it serves your art. That the kind of commitment the revolutionaries are making. If you wish to stand amung us, all you have to do is step up to that commitment.

The next fact, you are going to fuck up, and you've got to commit everything to the possible fuck up until it's clear it was a mistake, then get back on your feet and start again. If you're still breathing, you can still start over. I may be in the middle of one giant fuck up right now by remaining in Milwaukee Wisconsin as it goes through a sort of citywide identity crisis. Are we an art city or a bar town? Can we be both? The only way we can know is to give it 100% effort and then quit the city if we fail.

Okay, now, for my lifeboat, my recipe, my company. Insurgent theatre has been guided by the following principles since our first production in the summer of 2003.
1. Theatre must be affordable and accessible. Our productions are priced to compete with or undercut movie theatres.
2. Artists must be compensated with the full product of their labor. All profits are returned to the workers in the form of company ownership / control and callous cash payment.
3. No experience necessary, dedication required. Success has less to do with being "gifted" or "love of theatre" than with simple hard work.
4. Arts administration is anti-art. We have no fundraising, business management, or marketing branch. The company is artist-run.
5. Art must challenge and engage. We will not pander to bourgeois audiences or institutions.

We've mostly done open auditions and had some of the best luck with people who'd never been on stage before, and some of the worst experiences with the most theatre-y of people. We do a mix of full length original works, one act extravaganzas with less experienced community artists, 24 hour shows, and street theatre. All are done trial and error, all supporting each other, often working in collaboration with other local groups that share our ethic and aesthetic. We've experimented with an ensamble workshop. All administration, fundraising, and marketing work is done by a few core members with help from everyone else. We do not have non-profit status, a bank account or a legal existence. Every show we've done by ourselves has made a little money, which goes to two places: the future productions and even distribution among everyone involved in the show.

The modifications to this lifeboat that i am currently most interested in making are: 1. longer more thorough rehearsal processes that workshop the scripts and develop peices colloboratively with a quasi-ensamble atmosphere. 2. continuing to do short one-off shows and 24 hour shows to maintain a public presence. 3. touring the fringe theatre and DIY circuits with our major productions after local runs.

I hope to expand this, increase the little money we make and reduce everyone's dependency on our day jobs.


Scott Walters said...

I'm with you except for this:

"if you are going to participate in the revolutionizing of an art medium, that art medium is going to consume your life. Friendship? Entertainment? A relationship? A career? Only if it serves your art. That the kind of commitment the revolutionaries are making. If you wish to stand amung us, all you have to do is step up to that commitment."

You gotta participate in life! You can't eat, drink, and sleep theatre, because you lose the ability to say anything about real life, which is supposed to be our subject, right? A large portion of people in our society have families, and mortgages, and get laid off, and try to live in the same place for a while, and we as artists have to write something that speaks to them, not to other artists. Otherwise we end up with plays about plays, or plays about a very narrow band of experience. Part of O'Neill's greatness came from his life experiences as a sailor, a drunk, a revolutionary, a member of a family. There needs to be balance, so we can write and create work that resonates beyond our own frame of reference.

Otherwise, this sounds great!

R. Winsome said...

I see what you're saying, and i've got a few responses:

1. In my experience, real life has a way of being unavoidable.

2. with increased openness of the art world, and more affordable access to the means of art production, the class of people who consider themselves aspiring artists has grown rapidly, and will continue to do so. The audience pool who is interested and involved in aesthetics and ethics grows everyday.

3. The kind of theatre i'm interested in creating is not the kind of story-telling O'Neal specialized in. Theatre as a cathexis between the author and audience through characters and actors on stage is pretty played out. Non-aristotilian forms need not be rooted in the creator's personal experience.

Over-all, you're still probably right, and i think you may have hit the root of some current frustrations i've personally been having.

R. Winsome said...

i've gotta add one more response, and this one is, i think the strongest.

4. I'm talking about revolutionizing an art medium, not merely producing art. In an ideal world, art won't require such an all-consuming commitment, but we can't get closer to that ideal world without radical changes, and making those radical changes succeed requires A LOT of work, if we wanna see those changes happen in our lifetimes, and if as few people are working on them as there seems to be, then we need to commit a lot of our life to those changes.