The Playgoer: American Theatre's "Conversations in the Field"

Custom Search

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

American Theatre's "Conversations in the Field"

The current summer issue of "American Theatre" magazine features a 10-page Special Report by Ben Pesner culled from multiple (and anonymous) focus groups of theatre professionals around the country on the general state of things in the art, the business, and the profession. Worth reading, but not online, so you'll have to get it at your newsstand.

Or, if you want to save some time, here's a digest of the most standout points:

-A passing reference to the impact on regional theatres of touring Broadway shows, or as Pesner puts it: "a resurgent touring Broadway system that values nationally standardized product." Indeed audiences in smaller theatres might prefer to spend their limited theatre ticket dollars on "the real thing" of a Broadway show than their local Lort B's attempt at a pseudo-Broadway show. The tour producers are even selling mini-subscriptions now, which leads folks to opt for a season of Phantom, Mama Mia, and Hairspray, rather than the nonprofit's more well meaning line-up of 4-character dramas and one-person shows. Not gone into in the article, but I bet this is a big deal in some cities.... The solution, of course, can't be to ban Broadway touring. Because that won't happen. But maybe regional nonprofits need to dare to distinguish themselves from B'way even more. (Instead I fear they'll start hosting the tours.)

One irony some regional theatres don't get, I think, is that local audiences don't see them as any more homegrown than the tours. With their jobbed-in Equity actors and journeymen directors, many are basically transplanted New York nonprofits. When local audiences want to feel proud of their home institutions, they just as likely to go to community theatre.

So I think a bigger challenge all these theatres face is how to really belong to their community. While retaining "professional" standards.

-"Disappearance of arts coverage": Given all the complaining we do on this site about the NY Times et al, you can imagine the state of things in less theatre-driven cities. Worth noting are the laments among the professionals polled for the decline in "serious criticism" even when it's positive. Says one: "The level of criticism in newspapers is really low. We get pretty nice reviews, but I don't always recognize the work we do in those reviews." An insipid 200-word consumer-ized review in the town's one local newspaper, sandwiched between the jumble and the classifieds--even if a "4 stars!--does not help promote an appreciation for theatre as an artform.

-One would think that a benefit of the subscription season model is that not every show needs to be a known quantity. But the "hit mantality" is still tangible at such theatres, leading one panelists to bemoan the "tyranny of the known title."

- On Boards: An encouraging sign of more theatres insisting that their Boards consist of at least some artists. On boards, one insider says: "It's a bit of a bargain with the devil. They love the arts, but their orientation is business, where you cut, you shrink, you consolidate. That has changed the atmosphere dramatically."

- Some quoted remarks on the politics of funding:
"I am struck by how easily things are taken away from us. If we don't think about political advocacy, we're just going to be spinning our wheels."
"In essence we're subsidizing the theatre on the backs of those who are creating it."

- An encouraging model for how one regional company is enabling theatre people to make a living outside of NYC:
"We started a resident company program where we are paying artists a stipend to live and work in our community. They don't have to work with us exclusively but they have to be involved in every single one our productions in some capacity. That could be as an artist , or helping to stick labels on postcards. We're encouraging them to work at other companies to make more money. All of the four residents have been able to quit their day jobs."

- The MFA-glut: Yes, we need to ask: are there too many Theatre MFA's? Both students and programs. Okay, no one seems to be advocating gutting them. (I'll save that for another time.) But it's a problem. Recounts author Pesner: "As they looked to the future, participants warned that the supply-and-demand equation betweeb theatre practitioners and job opportunities is out of whack...[Says one,] 'We are generating so many young people in our various training programs, with no idea where they are going to go.' "
Personally, I think we need to start thinking more on the old "apprenticeship" model, whereby young theatre artists could be "placed" at various theatres. Maybe some subsidizing grant could pay a decent stipend, and some needy small theatres get good labor/talent effectively for free? (or at shared cost, at least)

-Co-Productions: It should be noted that regional theatres are relying more and more on co-productions with colleagues to shoulder costs for one or two shows a season. The plusses (collaboration, pooling resources) and minuses (the "road house" syndrome) are duly reflected here.

-" 'You have so many African-American theatres that are closing,' one artist said, because they cannot surpass the budget threshold necessary for foundational support." Budget threshold??? So foundations will fund you, as long as you already have funding. That helps.

-Young audiences:
"I have heard young people say, 'I don't like theatre, but I like what you do.' I proposed to my company that we take should take the word 'theatre' out of our name." Ouch. I get the point, though. But what do you call it, then? "Def Poetry Jam" didn't work on Broadway either, remember...

Another testimonial:

"There is a young audience, but it's not in the traditional form. They're not into theatre spaces. I'm working with a group of young people that does cabaret work in bars. They are hugely popular, with a following. But the minute they do it inside a theatre, ticket sales plummet. It's not just the barrier of price [!], but some kind of conceptual barrier of what's my space, what's my scene."

All this is very familiar. I don't think we need to gut "theatres" entirely, though. Yes, maybe the plush velvet seats and oldstyle prosceniums have stuffy associations for youngsters. (Especially young guys, let's face it.) But how about just some new sleek black-boxes? More interesting converted spaces? Unlike the older ticketbuyers, new audiences are open to anything being a theatre. That's a good thing.

That's enough to digest for now. More to come. Look for Part 2, soon...

1 comment:

THALATTA! Theatre International said...

Thanks for the synopsis. I canceled my subscription to American Theatre ages ago. Lots of good points made.

As for alternative spaces, I've always held the belief that 'theater' is where it's done and 'theatre' is what is done. People don't want to go to the 'theater', then being the 'theatre' to them.