Friday, June 19, 2009

Advice from a Communist

Artsy Schmartsy is making me a liar with his great coverage of the Skylight disaster. Thanks Jonathan! Also, Kurt Hartwig's making my dreams come true with more and more coverage on his blog.

Check out their recent posts for details, then come back here for my perspective:

I urge everyone who is upset about this to look beyond this individual instance and observe the broader institutional transition that Skylight's actions are merely a symptom of.

There is a major shift in how theatre is produced underway today. Depending on how you look at it* it's been underway for decades, or it's just starting now. Either way, the dominant model of theatre production (non-profit corporations / regional repertory theatre system) is on it's way out.**

So let's look at what's going on here, in the abstract.

First, we have a class of big non-profit theatre who function under the obsolete model. This class needs A. new life and energy. B. a navagible route to gradually acheive radical innovations without disrupting their institutions, interrupting their services, or sacrificing their employee's livelyhood.

Second, we have a class of upstart theatre companies functioning under new models who, like all new models, are rough, and need time to develop, work out the kinks and perfect the formula.

Way i see it, things can go down one of two ways:

1. The big companies can batten down the hatches, dig into their bunker boardrooms, make draconian cuts and hope they'll weather the storm. They won't. Cuz this storm (and the upstarts) will reshape the entire landscape. There will never be a good time to come out of the bunker boardrooms, and the institutions will die there.

2. The big companies can reach out to the upstarts, bring them to the table, give them the support, resources, networks they need to experiment and develop their model. In return, they'll gain infusions of new talent and audience and have a chance to chart their own route of a more gradual carful adaptation along the trails the upstarts blaze.

Now, as a communist, I'd call option 2 "recouperation" and "appropriation of small innovators by established institutions" and / or say that the small innovators have "sold out". I'd prefer to struggle through the figuring out new models on my own and dance on the grave that the establishment's bunkers have become.

But, as a pragmatist i can't help but notice that option 2 sure seems a lot more pleasant, and more likely to work, at least sometime in my lifetime.

Fortunately for the rep, skylight and the companies at the BTC, I'm probably the only communist in the theatre scene, and even i can be pragmatic at times. (and i'm going to be spending much less time in milwaukee starting this fall). Unfortunately for the big companies, they seem mostly ignorant or uninterested in option 2. Which means the communist in me stands to win some support from the other small companies, right? Lets band together, get disciplined and smash the motherfucking establishment! Right? uh... oh. okay, i guess we're not quite at that point yet. Hurns.

*Tangent 1: My understanding of the history of this transition: The broad arch of it started decades ago, by the 60's radical practices had grown enough to challenge the establishment, but where then appropriated, absorbed, and relegated to the margins, where they exist today. But now the acute rapid part of this transition begins. Now the establishment is collapsing under it's own weight, if (when) radical practices emerge as powerful as they did in the 60's replacing these already crippled institutions will be simple. This history applies to all sectors of the economy, not just the theatre arts. It's called reasoned optimism people, catch it!

**Tangent 2: as to Kurt's disagreement that the non-profit model is increasingly obsolete, here's some interesting stuff to look at: theatre tribes, Mike Daisey. Neither go as far as i do, but you can find more of my thoughts by perusing my blog archive.


Ben Turk said...

Made this post to the third coast digest article on this yesterday, thought i'd repeat it here.

"I disagree. I think the biggest problem is not in how this was handled, but in the fact that a successful artisic director (clearly he’s very popular with audiences) lost his job to an unsuccessful managing director (clearly he’s not keeping the company afloat).

When arts organizations need to cut, the last think they should be cutting is artists, that undermines the whole purpose of the organization. But, then, that’s the problem with corporate theatre, any company that runs under this model seems to either lose sight of it’s artistic purpose, or close. We need to find an arts-business model that doesn’t fall into this paradox.

There are local companies working towards this goal (and i’m not talking about my own company, we’re working toward a bunch of other goals that are pretty incompatible with Milwaukee, with musical theatre, and even with what most people consider “art”) but these other companies (alchemist, bad soviet habits, etc) cannot exist in a vaccuum. The future of theatre depends upon a transition from the broken non-profit corporation model to a new approach. Other communities are managing that transition with transparency, resource exchange, cooperation. In Milwaukee’s theatre community, everything goes on behind closed doors and with a rigid outmoded condescending hierarchy and paranoia."

Anonymous said...

Learn to spell, edit & write if you want anybody to take you seriously! Also, some HTML chops would serve you well.

Ben Turk said...

I consider blog posts as semi-informal online conversation, just like we don't need to always use perfect grammar and diction when speaking in person we don't need to use perfect spelling when blogging.

I know enough HTML to build the insurgent theatre website, which while not flawless is, i think, pretty impressive for an auto-dictat who's busy with a day job, and running a theatre company.

but, i must admit, you are correct, these are both areas where i could strive to improve. I will try and do that for you.

In turn, could i ask you to do something for me? Could you maybe strive to substantively respond to what content you can discern from my admittedly imperfectly proofread post? I'd really appreciate it.


Anonymous said...

From a different (less-pedantic)anonymous:

"The future of theatre depends upon a transition from the broken non-profit corporation model to a new approach."

Don't hold back. Where have you seen this transition in action? It's a concept worth further exploration. Perhaps some locals could benefit from a little fact-finding junket. I know you've had the benefit of touring recently to some other locales. If other cities are putting the dream into action, and there is a model to follow, we need to know.
(I'm sorry if you've already covered this elsewhere in your blog -- you've got a lot of material out there to sift through!)

And to the earlier anonymous: what html chops are needed here? There are only a few valid tags in this tool. It's not exactly a rich-text environment.

Ben Turk said...

Sure. I tend to think that small organizations (like my own, or Nonsense Company, or Missoula Oblongata) best represent the future of theatre, but these companies are more like touring punk bands than theatre companies, so i don't know how much you could learn from them.

Of the larger, more solid organizations that might offer more ideas to milwaukee's theatre community, the top of my list is definitely Bedlam Theatre in Minneapolis. Here's my post about the incredible show we did there: I think they are legally a non-profit, but run differently than any other i've seen. A junket up to minneapolis during the fringe fest would be highly beneficial, as there are dozens of cool companies there.

I've performed in many multi-disciplinary art spaces that are really cool. making your theatre space function as more than a theatre is definitely a good idea. Salvage Vangaurd in Austin TX is a great example of something that's primarily a theatre, but also hosting experimental music, films, and an art gallery.

The Brick in Brooklyn is another great space, haven't performed there, but saw an amazing show and really liked the organization.

There are bunches of underground venues we've also played, but that's not a really useful model for professional companies. Rooms Gallery in Chicago is a pared-down theatre company that lives in their space, has little to no administrative costs, but still produces very clean, polished professional quality work, and cheaply. Also in Chicago, the neofuturists have some amazing radical practices.

I hear good things about rude mechanicals in austin and the annex in seattle, but haven't been there.

But you don't need to leave the city to find these things. The Alchemist is trying to make theatre outside of the non-profit model by linking it with a bar, they're interested in working with the broader community.

On the more dirty punk side, The Borg Ward is a great example of a multidisciplinary DIY space, they mostly do concerts, but we've performed there, and are planning to do so again. Allying with them can help them improve their services, and might gain credibility and audience for the right kind of show. The Cream City Collectives is another DIY space worth looking at, they're mainly concerned with radical activism, community and education. Darling Hall was an active DIY space primarily devoted to theatre in this city, but they got shut down for hosting some irresponsible DJs who stole business from bars by spinning the best music in town and selling cheap beer without a liscense on New years Eve. Had some above-board theatre companies helped them take theatre seriously enough to not risk this kind of thing, they'd still be around today, introducing tons of new people to the stage.

Kurt Hartwig said...

Yo Ben

It's not that I think DIY and Tribal Theater is a dead-end, but it has been done before, in various iterations. The main one that I know personally is Erik Ehn's RAT conference, which was a big deal briefly in the early '90s.

I'm tackling the non-profit issue bit by bit at my blog
and as I go through that, I'll eventually tackle the issue of size and scope of the fringe (not the festivals).

Ben Turk said...

Awesome. Thank you for sharing. I've looked it over briefly, and look forward to more thorough research.

Is anything going on with this today?