Sunday, June 21, 2009

Radical Practices and Basic Macroeconomics.

Oh, the internet, it is a web! I touched it and now i'm tangled again. Fuck. I've got a tour to book!

But Kurt Hartwig cued me into some cool shit, which has me thinking more about this stuff.

My initial response to this cool shit, and Kurt's assertion that what i'm doing has been done before, would be that merchantilism, that transition period between feudalism and capitalism took a LONG time. Our transition might take just as long, and be just as start-stop and bizarre.

But, more specifically, i'd say the 90s (when his RAT example went down) were a boom time for capitalism, if the RAT happened now, during a bust, the infestation would be much easier. I've seen work from Theatre in My Basement, performed at Salvage Vangaurd, perused the Rat Sass blog, so i know at least some these groups still exist today. Lets make something happen now when the time is right.

But, I wonder... it seems (and i might be wrong here) there's an unfortunate correlation that frustrates my central claim here. Seems like radical Theatre is strongest when the economy is also strongest. Which means radical theatre is most present when it is least likely to succeed. This makes sense; theatre (even poor theatre) is something like a luxury for audiences, and something like an expensive hobby for the artists. In hard times we're too busy trying to eat to make or see a whole lot of radical theatre. Hurns.

But, this adversity is a challenge! An opportunity. It only means we need the discipline to aggressively pursue our "hobbies" even though we increasingly can't afford them. It'll be a tough slog, but i'm ready for it!

BUT... there's also the flipside of the correlation, the other causal relationship that kind of makes sense. Radical artists working extra hard to succeed in bad economic conditions will, like any hard working entrepreneurs, eventually contribute to ending the bust and reinvigorating the economy. Then the mainstream theatres with funding will siphon off talent and audiences (just like corporations with investment capital siphon talent and customers off the entrepreneurs). The architects of the reconstruction will be crippled and marginalized by their own success. Hurns. Major fucking hurns.

Well, then fuck it. Looks like compromising, communicating with, working with, or in anyway helping the establishment theatres is inherently against our interest. I withdraw my advice, the BTC can fuck off and die, the sooner and the more completely, the better.

Sheesh! That makes me a tactless asshole, doesn't it. A bitter, curmudgeonly, negative vibe merchant. But, really, i'm not. I've met some very nice well-intentioned people who work at the BTC, people who started with Theatre X's help, and then accidentally dug X's grave. Lots of people i know or could hope might come see my shows probably also know someone who knows someone who works there. Really, only surly punks like someone who says anyone else "can fuck off and die" like i just did, and surly punks mostly spend their money on cheap beer, not theatre. Looks like I'm better off keeping my mouth shut, feining ignorance, saying "oh, Skylight, oh, BTC renters, i feel your pain" and then privately celebrating their demise, and capitalizing on their absence.

But... that feels really dishonest. It feels like pretending i don't know my own interests. That i don't know something in order to better use my knowledge to my advantage later. I'm uncomfortable with that, cuz i might be an asshole, but i'm not a creep or a liar. (I'm fucking terrible at it). Maybe i shouldn't be. Maybe i should take a certain friend's advice and get better at lying. I mean, this is basically what the Skylight did to Theatre X to get that building in the first place, isn't it? They have it coming.

Except maybe their ignorance wasn't feined. Maybe they really didn't realize they were fucking X over. Maybe they had good intentions and just didn't realize what the long term effects of their actions would be. Maybe they don't understand how economic necessity undermines even the best of intentions.

So, then, seems like the proper tactic is to be completely open, lay everything out on the table. Make it so no one can pretend not to know. Maybe i oughta write an open statement to every established non-profit theatre in the country during this trying time, here's a rough draft:

"Hey mainstream theatre establishment! I'm about to commit the next ten years of my life to rebuilding theatre in america. I'm gonna live out of my car producing theatre for free in basements, bars, classrooms and alleyways for audiences that you can't even begin to tap now but who'll probably be ready to subscribe after they settle down and squirt out some babies. I'm gonna burn myself out doing it, (i'm already 30, so i've got a late fucking start) and when i'm done, i'll have contributed some small portion to a rebirth of theatre as an art form (and a growing economy.)

I know full well that once that rebirth happens there'll be a moment when you have the leverage to buy me out. If I've been successful, you'll be ready to buy out everyone I've surrounded myself with, you'll buy out my actors, my audiences, my techs (shit, you're already are buying them out now). If I've been really successful, you'll kiss my ass and talk about how much you love and respect me, and you'll frame the buy-out in terms that make it sound like an opportunity. But, i know that if i take that opportunity it's a devil's deal, it'll break my organization, and it'll leave me begging for scrap roles in your shitty shows. I'll turn you down, and everyone will think i'm a stubborn irrelevant shithead.

Except that now i've written this. I've taught you and everyone else how the economics works, how your well-intentioned offers of opportunities, community, networking, are actually a bad fucking deal. I know it, and I've told you, so you can't pretend not to know it. I've also told my friends, my actors and my audiences. When these people look at your intentions and ask themselves if you're being deceitful, or ignorant, they'll know that if you're ignorant, you've chosen to be ignorant. Willful ignorance is feigned ignorance, it's deceit."

Hmmm... seems viable. The success of the revolution depends on everyone better understanding economics. What's the best way to teach? Demonstration. By looking at Theatre X's history from a distance, in terms of how the economics played out between the institutions, the organizational structures, not how the specific individuals acted under these economic pressures, i'm able to learn things that might apply to me, that help me avoid the situations under which the bad decisions that broke that company up look reasonable. Same applies for every failed revolution of every kind. If we're always learning, learning, learning then nothing anyone has done was for naught.


Deborah said...

Ben, your right about economics, theatre x's past and the future of new forms of theater. stay flexible, don't buy into "secure financial arrangements". When Theatre X was lean and had no building to support or subscription season to support or a board worried about financial stability, we flourished. Because we could roll with whatever came our way and when a new play wasn't working out, we'd take a hiatus to regroup and no be forced to perform on a schedule. Of course, there is always the tradeoff. there is always a pound of flesh to be paid. That pound of flesh will be a surprise and something you never expect but its always there. Your choice is to choose who you pay your pound of flesh to.

Michael Neville said...

I'm intrigued by what you have to say. Admittedly, my first hook was that Deb Clifton likes you---just goes to show how hooks help. Everybody's favorite knob Damien Jaques posted a piece in the JS from the New York Post wondering if plays with conservative topics could survive. My opinion is that most plays have a dialectic going on, and even if its presenting artists are lefties, the "other side" is certainly represented. And I don't know what's so terribly liberal about "The Lion King," Tom Stoppard's plays, etc.
The reality is that, usually, it costs a lot to put on plays and, usually, to see them. We in the theater know how to get cheap seats, but it's still largely a prosperous person's art form. So I salute you for doing what you're doing.
Please knock off worrying about getting old. How old will you be in 20 years if you don't do what you're doing?
Michael Neville
ps Theatre X got dry screwed, but it took a long time, and they performed a lot of miracles in the meantime.

Kurt Hartwig said...

Seems to me you're mixing and matching a bit - or at least I feel mixed and matched.

in the first place, every time you use the word "obsolete" I've begun thinking of the scene in the Princess Bride when Fezzig says "Inconceivable!" one too many times, and Inigo asks, "Does that word mean what he thinks it means? Because I don't think so." I'm paraphrasing, forgive me, but the point remains - I get the feeling you're using "obsolete" to mean "out of date," perhaps, but those aren't synonyms, so it ends up sounding like "stuff I don't like." It's an emotional, rhetorical move, and while I think you have to have those, this one isn't doing you any favors.

More to the point, when you talk about the mainstream theater world stealing away the people you've surrounded yourself with, actors, techs and so on, "your actors," well - you need to clarify Marx's position on personal property first of all, and second these people were never yours to begin with. They are their own.

Are they working with you because they love theater? Are they working with you to get experience? Are they biding their time? As you say here with some frequency, what you're doing is economically unsustainable. Could be they've hit the wall before you have.

I know you know this, but the way you're writing obscures your meaning, at least to me. Mixed and matched.

Fight fight fight! (Because Strike strike strike! is so 1935...)

Ben Turk said...

Thanks Kurt, some clarifications:

Obsolete means "no longer in use, or no longer useful" my whole claim is that the non-profit theatre model is no longer useful, but it is unfortunately still in use, so yes, i could be more precise in word choice.

"Stealing away my actors" is short hand for "i've put a bunch of people on stage the first time in their adult lives and some of those people chose school, shakespeare, and empty promises of a career in theatre. These people were lied to and taken advantage of, but don't know it yet."

How this relates to economics is this: there are two economic systems existing in competition with each other right now. Capitalism is dominant, but declining, while communism (or whatever more pleasant word you'd like to use) is rising. This transition period is a muddle, with a lot of back and forth.

I'd argue that the new system is actually more economically sustainable, but capitalism still controls certain institutions (government, aristocracy) and social norms, which occasionally give it artificial strength, and allow it to undercut the new system.

But the new system grows stronger, smarter, more radical with each iteration, and the cycles have been going on since 1850, or before.

I think the present iteration is especially interesting, because it correlates with new technology, and in some sectors of the economy (the music industry) it's starting to win the fight outright. There is an opportunity today to push this cycle further than previous cycles, to advance the systemic transition rapidly, possibly even over the tipping point.

I know there are many people taking that opportunity, i have no illusion or intention of "leading" anything, but rather of participating in something that's spontaneously happening, and encouraging as many others as possible to do so as well.

This post is about recognizing how the undercutting happens, often in sheep's clothing, often without the cutters and the scabs even knowing it. It's about being transparent and clear that taking a paycheck (and i hear they're pretty meager paychecks) today supports a system that is increasingly undervalueing artists while short circuiting a more sustainable, artist-empowering alternative. It's about making better decisions, not letting our comrades wander into the marsh of compromise (that metaphor is so 1918).

Anonymous said...

"i've put a bunch of people on stage the first time in their adult lives and some of those people chose school, shakespeare, and empty promises of a career in theatre. These people were lied to and taken advantage of, but don't know it yet."

Careful there. You said it yourself: "...those people chose..." For better or worse, you have to be respectful of their individual decisions, regardless of whether they've made the smae choices you have. If that is the extent to which you trusted these artists in the first place, perhaps they became cognizant of that, and it influenced their decision to move on. You can't call them adults and then say you know what's good for them and they don't. That's not fair and it's contrary to your own noble beliefs about self-expression (at least from what I've read).

Or, I suppose it's ossible that these actors were indeed sheep who needed your guidance. God, I hope not! Or then why were you working with them in the first place.

(And, no, I'm not a former colleague trying to defend myself. Just an observer with a gut reaction.)

Ben Turk said...

I think that establishment theatre is a very closed manipulative system. Mike Daisy and Jill Dolan's ( statements and the reactions of the establishment against them supports my view.

Your formulation leaves no room or sympathy for victims of con artists. Is everyone who's ever been conned or misled a sheep? Can't adults be lured into bad decisions against their friends' advice? What are those friends supposed to say to the con artists?

I don't think that people who buy into the false promise that going to school for theatre will result in a living wage doing the work they love are sheep. i think they make that decision in an environment that is made opaque and unavigable by a toxic combination of 1. outdated expectations from their parents, 2. bullshit social pressures, and 3. misinformation from universities that are increasingly acting like businesses, rather than trust-worthy institutions, and 4. the requirements of businesses who want college graduates not because they're better qualified, but because they're wracked with debt and desperate enough to put up with soul-sucking work environments.

This goes beyond theatre students (but it's especially true for people with art degrees) there are tons of college graduates who got no real career benefit from their degrees. People who regret their time wasted (and money spent) in school. I'm one of them. Are you saying that each and every one of these people is a sheep?

Anonymous said...

While some may be conned, I'd like to think that others are aware of the risk they are taking and know that it will not be any easy life.

In hindsight, do you think you were conned? You're brighter than that! (or is this a new thing?)

As for myself, all I can say is: baa. baa.

Ben Turk said...

i think i was totally conned. I tried to resist, spent a couple years post high school in the working world, then blew my savings on my first semester's tuition, cuz it just seemed like the thing you're supposed to do.

I met tracy and started writing ReVerb my last semester, as a result, I failed two classes. If i wasn't so close to finishing, i woulda dropped out. I'm now paying off my loans as aggressively as possible to repair this mistake.

When i took the playwrighting class with you, it actually cost me nothing due to loopholes in my job's education assistance program and the tax code. They closed the loophole shortly afterward, otherwise i'd have taken a stage combat class under the pretense that it'd somehow help me sort mail.

I fully endorse retaliatory cons!

Anonymous said...

"When i took the playwrighting class with you..."

Um? We took a playwriting class together?

(Really. We've never met.)

Ben Turk said...

Oh, shit. i thought i was still talking to Kurt!

Sorry, my secret friend.

Anonymous said...

Seems like you have a point... and maybe you don't have a point... and then again you may have nothing to say... and then again you probably don't have anything to say... but maybe you may have something to say, but nobody will listen to you, or maybe you'll have something to say (I mean really important, life changing, but because you're such an insipid jack-ass no one will listen to you) but you'll simply be ignored. And maybe you'll realize that there are only so many words that may be used in a lifetime and that you've chosen to use them unwisely.

Or maybe you'll simply realize that you're a person of no importance and that you are easily forgotten.

Anonymous said...

wow. that wasn't nice.

(and it wasn't me. remember, i'm the good anonymous!)

Kurt Hartwig said...

another economic model

Ben Turk said...

Yes. I like this a lot. Can't find many people in Milwaukee who'll make that kind of commitment (and even moreso can't find audience enough to support any people who would try to make that commitment).

As far as food and keeping the audience around, Bedlam focuses very much on that, brunches, after parties, etc. Missoula Oblongata goes further even, they occasionally do shows where they visit the audience's house, prepare a 4 course meal for them and perform a totally unique play written and produced just for that night.

I hear rumors about a regularly occuring multi-disciplinary art party that'll be happening in Milwaukee, more on that as it solidifies.