The Playgoer: CiNE's "Re-Public"

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Sunday, April 23, 2006

CiNE's "Re-Public"

Some good Sunday reading:

My friends at the group "CiNE" published a good old fashioned manifesto in the guise of an application for the Artistic Directorship of the Public, during their search last year. (Needless to say, they didn't get the job.) Late last year Yale Theater published it as an article, and the PDF is also directly available here via CiNE's website.

The argument in sum: Joe Papp began a bold experiment back in the 50s, but his institution only became more staid the more it came to rely on traditional means of support and cut its work off more and more from society at large. In this way it is the template for most of the nonprofit theatre that followed.

Thus it is that the Public transformed the nonprofit theatrical landscape, and thus it is that there is currently nothing “public” about American nonprofit theater. Ticket prices are prohibitive; public funding has evaporated; all programming is strictly local-ized; and the nonprofit theaters themselves have come to confuse representing topics of public interest with actually playing a vital role in the civic discourse. All of which has resulted in the general public no longer giving a damn.

CiNE is not bemoaning this state of events. Far from it. We believe that if the general public has been willing to tolerate a decline in public funding for theater, it is because theater has failed to make itself essential to the public. To name a venue the “Public Theater” is to pose a perpetual challenge both to the public and to the theater. And if American theater is to thrive in this century, the challenge must be answered in the place where it was first issued.

So let’s ask ourselves: what does it mean to be a public theater, in New York, in the twenty-first century?
Whether you take CiNE's proposals as idealistically unworkable or rhetorically mischievous (my favorite is the call for corporate-commissioned playwrights to deliver overt propaganda), all of them succeed in provoking fresh thought. And in reminding us that something really is broke in our theatres and that letting go of old assumptions will be necessary to revitalize them.

I'm a big fan of theatre manifestos, by the way. Many of the great movements in theatre have been sparked by them. And they have helped connect theatre to larger artistic/cultural movements (From Zola's Darwinian Naturalism, to the violent modernism of the Futurists.) We need more. And with the web, the opportunities to publish and disseminate them are more promising than ever.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

hilarious. thanks for this.

i sincerely wonder what the public's response to this proposal was. (were they offended? bemused?)

John Branch said...

It may not be fair of me to challenge the premise of CiNE's manifesto, particularly since I haven't read it (I'm in the middle of a move), but I wonder if their focus is too narrow. Can we learn something from the history of the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago? In 30-something years, it's gone from being a small, struggling, alternative company to a big, institutional nonprofit with a large facility to maintain, but my limited experience tells me it's still a dynamic and vital theater.

And maybe the ACT in San Francisco and the ART in Boston and the Guthrie in Minneapolis (to pick other examples more or less at random) could tell us some things too, negative as well as positive. Each of them serves a community different from New York's, but I'm inclined to think that each of them has, at some time or other, found a way to "make itself essential to the public." At any rate, they've certainly struggled with the same challenge.

I guess my point is this: what it means to be a public theater in the 21st century need not be examined only in terms of New York.

Scott Walters said...

Thanks for drawing my attention to this. I find the ideas interesting, but what I find most revealing is the subject of this manifesto. Whereas manifestoes in the past usually were focused on different artistic styles, or on the subject matter of the plays that should be done -- i.e., the work itself -- this one is focused on the means of production -- i.e., issues about producing and administration. Why I find this interesting is what it says about what CiNE (and others?) finds most in need of change in American theatre -- it's not about the art, it's about the way the art is produced. To me, it is saying that the theatre is in need of systemic change, not aesthetic change. If others believe the same, then I think there might actually be hope for the theatre in the future!