THE POLITICS OF CULTURAL PRODUCTION IN THEATER (OR, DEVISE THIS!), Part III
[This is Part III of III. Part I is available here. If you’ve been following Culturebot, you may be asking what happened to Part II? The answer is I skipped it for now. Coming out of our discussions at The Public Theater during Under The Radar and Dave Malloy’s subsequent manifesto I felt compelled to focus on Part III that examines the existing structure of cultural production in American theater. Even this is barely sufficient to cover the topic and I’ve had to leave whole sections on the cutting room floor. So more to come on this, and Part II, which will examine the variety of practices of contemporary American theater-makers currently being indiscriminately referred to as “devised”, will follow in due time.]
The night before Culturebot’s Long Table on The Politics of Cultural Production at Under the Radar I sat nursing a drink in The Public’s swanky new restaurant lounge waiting for a show to start in Joe’s Pub. It was a very Manhattan moment – young, shiny, happy, beautiful young(ish) professionals out on the town in a swanky lounge upstairs while downstairs the less shiny and well-off but equally happy, young and beautiful artists and audiences of Under The Radar were having a throw-down dance party in the black box theater with cheap beer and Reggie Watts on the turntables.
Part of me was happy for The Public, that they’d successfully attracted a new generation of upscale young professionals to replenish the audience base. I was happy too because I had just found out that Meiyin Wang is heading up The Public’s new theater initiative to foster the development of devised, ensemble and non-traditional theater. It’s all good: The Public is taking the lead to make necessary changes for a modern world and these new audiences will be exposed to new theater and a rising tide raises all boats, etc.
At the same time I was conflicted because these “non-traditional” processes of theater-making have histories and have ethos. Collective or collaborative creation as we recognize it today originated outside the institution. It arose as an alternative to the institutional structures of mainstream theater, in deliberate opposition to the institution and it’s values. Collaborative work seeks to address essential questions of how we make theater, why we make theater and how, as artists, our work can embrace, embody and convey our values, our vision of the world as we would like to see it. This type of work has never been about trends or marketing or “branding” your theater company to be “the new thing” and I fear that somehow this ethos will get lost as ensemble practice moves from outside the institution to inside buildings like the Public’s shiny, new high-gloss edifice, sexily re-branded and aggressively marketing its new content and image to new audiences.
The next morning at the Long Table, Pig Iron’s Dan Rothenberg shared a story about working as a director-for-hire at a regional theater where the cultural clash between “non-traditional” practice and mainstream theater proved to be a real challenge. It not only impeded the development of the production but revealed a vast chasm between these worlds. By the end of the Long Table pretty much all the gathered participants, from Paul Zimet to Lisa Kron to Clyde Valentin to Oliver Butler to Tina Satter & Jess Barbagallo talked about how they first came to make theater by finding people that they clicked with and started making work that spoke to their shared values, world views and temperaments. The way that they work, their processes, emerged from those relationships, shared values and visions, not exterior production models predicated on institutional priorities.
That’s what I want to address here: the profound differences between the creative and production processes of mainstream institutional theaters and the system that supports them vs. “non-traditional” devised, ensemble and experimental companies. These systemic differences are rooted in values, histories and practices and often manifest in aesthetics. What are these differences and what do they mean? And as mainstream institutions begin to embrace this work as part of a larger strategy to gain new audiences, what are the possibilities and pitfalls when the aesthetics of ensemble and “non-traditional” theater-makers are adopted by institutions?
Of late I have been promulgating the idea that contemporary artistic practice in all disciplines is characterized by adherence to two values: investigation and interrogation. I will go into this more fully later but briefly, contemporary work starts with a question not a statement and by definition interrogates the underlying assumptions of its context, content and processes.
Experimental theater also engages in acts of questioning: What if we make this work in a different way? What if the audience/performer relationship is renegotiated? What if we changed what we think “acting” is? What would Paradise Now look like? What really happened in the Garden of Eden and why does that story still resonate with us? What is the relationship between embodiment and mediation? What is the relationship between narrative, story, text and performance? This process of questioning leads, then, to presentations that resist traditional forms; that embrace formal and aesthetic innovation.
Whether we call it devised or experimental may be more semantic than practical, but in either case I would posit that the flourishing of these ideas and practices in the 1960’s is directly related to the social and political climate of that moment. The interrogations into the assumptions of the status quo and the questioning of the authority of institutions are radical and deeply enmeshed in the proposition of devised theater: These people, this place, this time – what shall we make? It starts from a question with no predetermined outcome and no predetermined process, it starts with a question and also a challenge: what does it really mean to be here now, to be present now, with these people, in this place, knowing what we know and questioning what we think we know? What does this moment in time and space demand from us and we from each other? As people, as artists, as citizens? Take nothing for granted, interrogate everything, begin again, dare to be empty, to be open and receptive, to be the uncarved block, to be transparent, to start from the beginning every time. And that is a hard road.
When I was in college there were, and I assume still are, undergraduate theater students of a certain ilk for whom Joseph Chaikin’s The Presence of the Actor, along with Grotowski’s Towards A Poor Theatre and Julian Beck’s The Life Of The Theatre form a kind of foundational literature for experimental theater. But when it comes time to make that first show after graduation, it is likely they will enter naively and idealistically into collaboration with their friends inspired by Chaikin:
I have a notion that what attracts people to the theater is a kind of discomfort with the limitations of life as it is lived, so we try to alter it through a model form. We present what we think is possible in society according to what is possible in the imagination. When the theater is limited to the socially possible, it is confined by the same forces which limit society.
The Presence of The Actor, TCG, 1991 (p. 22)
They may have missed what he writes later as he addresses the actors preparing for The Serpent in the spring of 1968:
The Open Theater is a miniature government as is any group or organization. It’s always difficult because there is nothing harder than actually getting along with other people, except for getting along with yourself.
The Presence of The Actor, TCG, 1991 (p. 102)
At the Culturebot Long Table, Paul Zimet was both funny and forceful when he reminded us that The Open Theater was not a democracy. It may have been collaborative, but Joe Chaikin was the visionary and the actors willingly deferred to him.
Inexperienced artists may well confuse collaborative or collective creation with total equality and fairness and find that first post-college project self-destructing amidst acrimony, enmity and strife or accomplished at the cost of friendships and trust. Innocence lost.
But If the group survives this first outing and learns to negotiate the interpersonal, professional and logistical challenges of making collaborative work in the real world, they may well live to create another show – and another after that and another and another and against all odds build something meaningful, resonant, enduring and true.
Collaboration in theater making, as in life, is the harder road. It takes a long time to learn that the path towards successful collective creation demands acknowledging the unique talents and expertise of each individual, allowing them to do their thing, trusting their competency, recognizing their contributions, knowing when to back off and when to push forward. Knowing the difference between when to listen and submit and when to fight for what you believe. It is not easy; it is a learned skill through which every ensemble develops its own culture and methodology. It is difficult and risky and a far cry from certain, but these processes hold within them the possibility of actual innovation, novelty and surprise that comes from real risk.
Given the political climate of the 60’s that gave rise to many of the ideas informing today’s devised and experimental theater, given that 60’s artists were influenced by Brecht and other radical European theater makers going back to Jarry, it doesn’t seem far fetched to suggest that the notion “These people, this place, this time – what shall we make?” might have been influenced by an idea first proposed by the French Socialist Louis Blanc and later popularized by Karl Marx: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”
Experimental theater that is developed through a collaborative, process-oriented approach intrinsically questions pre-existing hierarchies of labor. It values how we get there as much as where we arrive and involves a just and equitable distribution of labor in which the actors, designers, writer(s) and director negotiate and consent to organizational hierarchies through process, not by default assignations or traditional assumptions. Marx’s quote in context is:
In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly—only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.
The act of making theater is work. If it is work then the people who make it are Labor and cultural production is as much a production process as making cars. The difference is that theater is also a performed art form, which means that it is ephemeral and thus cannot rely on materiality alone, cannot rely on the dependable properties of steel, aluminum, plastic and interchangeable parts. Like making a car, making theater has material costs – sets, costumes, lights, etc. – that can be estimated and managed. But it also requires a lot of skilled human labor – labor that must be compensated. In the auto industry the workers on the assembly line don’t get paid as much as the guys who design the cars, or market the cars or build the business models or design the production and distribution systems. But then again an automobile, once it is built, doesn’t require those assembly line workers to build the same car over and over again, from scratch, 8 shows a week.
In the mainstream system of cultural production of theater actors are assembly line workers, playwrights and directors are freelance automobile designers, artistic directors are top salesmen at regional car dealerships, executive directors are the owners of those dealerships and a coalition of national theater organizations and funders form the executive class – the Lee Iacocca class, if you will.
In this system we can think of regional theaters as akin to the regional car dealerships. With a few exceptions, they get their cars (plays) from New York, their workers (actors) from New York and the product development and distribution system is largely designed in and controlled from New York. At least that’s how it is today. But that is not how the system was meant to be.
My understanding, given the limited amount of time I have had to research this, is as follows:
Today’s regional theater system is the end result of the Little Theater and Regional Theater Movements of the late 19th and early 20th Century. In the late 1800’s theater owners nationwide colluded on ticket prices and content, essentially stifling innovation and the creation of meaningful, adventurous, artful new staged work while cinema began to offer competition to the grand spectacles of commercial theater. At the same time progressive reform movements wanted to address social issues and engage immigrant and disadvantaged communities.
Thus The Little Theater Movement started as an attempt to break free from the financial and aesthetic tyranny of theatrical creation, production and presentation dictated by the NYC-based theatrical syndicate. Little Theater sought to create and present local work using local artists that resonated with local audiences. The Theater at Hull House in Chicago is noted as being one of the first, if not the first, of the Little Theaters.
As Little Theaters – some community-based, some affiliated with universities – grew and professionalized, The Little Theater Movement evolved into a Regional Theater movement that employed more professional actors and sought subsidy through donors and subscribers, moving away from the traditional commercial model of “professional” theater.
From what I understand, the progressivism of the early 20th Century gave way to further cultural shifts brought about by the Depression and programs like the WPA. As WWII came to an end and the nation engaged in building infrastructure, the prosperity of the post-war boom saw unprecedented growth of the middle class and, one assumes, a demand for arts and culture fueled by the aspirations of this emerging segment of newly educated, newly prosperous pursuers of the American Dream.
Regional Theaters coming of age in the post-WWII industrial boom adopted the predominant industrial production model of the day. Over the past 30 years we’ve seen the “gift economy” grow to rival the corporate economy in size, sophistication and complexity. The sophistication required to manage large regional theaters grew along with the increasing corporatization of the philanthropic sector until the Regional Theater “movement” became an industry; one that is now over-professionalized, creatively stagnant, bloated, inefficient, and spectacularly off-mission.
One of the great ironies life holds for all of us is the ever-increasing likelihood that as we age we will become that which we rebelled against in our youth. Or as Perry Farrell once sang so poetically in Jane’s Addiction “Idiots Rule”, “You know the man you hate, you look more like him everyday…” And so today’s regional theaters embody the very conditions they were created to confront. Over time these institutions have developed, if nothing else, elaborate mechanisms for their own self-preservation, to the point where their primary mission is to continue existing and not much else. They have become today’s syndicate, ruled from NYC and stifling innovation, creativity and local talent. They are losing audience and prioritizing business over art.
I’m not an economist, but I’m guessing that in a normal marketplace a business that loses touch with its consumers and doesn’t improve its product in response to the times would go under. In the non-profit world one could even look at funders as consumers who choose to invest their resources in arts organizations based on their missions. They acknowledge that mission-driven enterprises may not generate revenue, but they see other value in the institution’s work and thus subsidize them.
But if an institution satisfies neither consumer group – audience or funder – one would think that they would certainly close up shop. We should be so lucky. There’s too much at stake.
For an example, let’s return to the automotive industry idea for a moment and look at division of labor in the regional theater system from C-Level management on down.
Large regional theaters require large budgets, and since it takes money to raise money the highest paid person is always the Executive Director, usually followed by the Development Director. You’re not just paying for his or her skills – anybody can write a grant. You’re paying for their connections, their access to people with significant income to divert to philanthropic endeavors. A good Executive Director is being compensated for cultivating a sense of trust in donors. People who have a lot of money – just like people who have less money – don’t like to waste it and don’t like to be taken advantage of, they expect their philanthropic investments to be as carefully tended as their profit-driven investments. If they know an Executive Director personally that’s one kind of trust. But trust can also be gained through accreditation – an MBA or Master’s in Arts Administration.
Here the trickle-down effect is in play. Each person down the ladder from the Executive Director is required to have accreditation and as the cost of acquiring credentials rises, salaries rise – though rarely at the same rate. Executive compensation tends to rise disproportionately to other administrative functions, and if the cost of acquiring credentials rises at a rate significantly higher than an entry level wage we end up where we are now: an industry where people acquire enormous student debt only to enter a labor market where starting salaries cannot support them. So the barrier to entry to a career in the arts is raised, limiting access to these positions to only those who can afford to intern or work for very low salaries because of some form of independent subsidy. The professionalization of cultural production demands accreditation at all levels, presenting itself as a meritocracy when in fact it is often only a thin veil obscuring a lack of accessibility determined by the inherent cultural biases of privilege. This has a lot to do with the lack of diversity in the arts, but that’s a much larger essay for another time.
In a mission-driven sector committed to the development and presentation of content, I’d be willing to bet that some big institutions eat up $.80 of every dollar for administration and facilities expenses with $.10 going to new project development and $.10 going to presentation. It is a real disaster that top-heavy institutions accumulate a disproportionate share of resources and thus determine its allocation, with content creators at or near the bottom of the resource allocation pyramid. It is a hopeless scenario. Big institutions, by their very nature, stifle opportunities for content creators to acquire resources independently. At the same time they enforce a production model where content creators are at the mercy of the institution to be compensated for their work.
Admittedly market forces are at play and the supply of talent seeking work – writers, actors, directors and designers – greatly exceeds demand. But even that is more complicated than it seems, because the creative worker must go into debt to acquire accreditation to facilitate access to the institution’s resources.
Risk-averse Artistic Directors who control resource allocation require creative workers who can reliably deliver content that adheres to accepted levels of product safety – a steady supply of preapproved, no-fail content vetted to insure quality control. And how does a content provider demonstrate quality? Through the accreditation conveyed by an MFA or related degree from an approved institution of higher learning. (But not a PhD, because then you’re an academic who no longer knows how to actually make theater, just write about it.) But let’s face it – nobody needs an MFA to learn how to act. I’m sorry. You really, really don’t. I’m not sure you need an MFA to write plays, frankly, or direct them. Unfortunately, you do need an MFA to get taken seriously to gain access to the regional theater system.
So here we are, in a sector devoted to the arts, down at the very bottom of the rung below executive leadership, below administrators: the content creators and “creative” labor – the playwrights, directors, designers and actors. No job security, no guaranteed income and when they are paid, it is a pittance. Playwrights have told me they have gotten as little as $1800 for the rights to have a play produced at a regional theater.
If you think it’s tough to be a playwright, don’t even think about being an actor. Conservatories turn out thousands of actors every year who have no hope of finding gainful employment or employing themselves in their chosen profession.
There are 74 LORT theaters in the U.S. While there are many more self-designated regional theaters and even more independent theaters, the LORT tier is where a good chunk of the money is and where many Equity actors are going to seek employment. LORT’s essential function is collective bargaining with Equity and other unions. So let’s say each LORT member does twelve shows a year and each show averages five actors. That’s 4,440 decently paid acting gigs in the US; but let’s account for variation based on the big cast Christmas shows and the budget-crunch solo shows and call it 6,000. 6,000 jobs a year and the undergraduate drama program at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts has about 1500 students enrolled at any given time. So let’s say they graduate 300 per year and then let’s speculate that there are ten other top tier drama schools of similar size. That’s 3000 new actors flooding the market every year. Not to mention the other 300 MFA actors from the top ten leading national institutions. It is not only stupid and impractical, it is cruel, really, to have a conservatory system that cranks out thousands and thousands of young people who have gone deeply in debt to train for jobs that don’t exist and are rapidly disappearing and whose skills are not transferable to pretty much any other sector.
Given the vast number of content creators and actor/laborers vying for resources, how could a poor, overwhelmed artistic director ever manage to select the most reliable, quality workers? Someone has to provide additional vetting – thus writers, actors, directors and designers are all represented by agents; trusted brokers who can insure the delivery of safe, reliable, familiar content that appears new enough and novel enough to display in the showroom as this year’s model without questioning the underlying assumptions of the system.
The reliable content pipeline demands a spectacularly labyrinthine system of new play development where product is tested and revised and altered and edited until everyone involved feels comfortable that the product is sufficiently bland, familiar and inoffensive that it can’t possibly create any problems anywhere in the United States. Even the so-called “controversial” shows are market-tested and approved, sold to audiences as “edgy” or “new” or “political”, insuring that the audience’s preconceived cultural values are reinforced, their moral position affirmed, their comfort unperturbed and their experience in the theater innocuous and instantly forgettable.
Pity the naïve, idealistic writer, director, actor or designer who actually has an uncompromising vision of theater as art that might upset the apple cart, that might be difficult to watch or challenging to understand, that might be somewhat unfamiliar or new or unconventional.
But here’s the thing: from time immemorial those naïve idealists have been responsible for changing the world. All the artists I most admire started outside the system; most of the best ones do. So I was surprised at the Long Table on The Politics of Cultural Production at Under the Radar when Lisa Kron said something about how artists were beholden to institutions for work. I didn’t realize that even established artists who originally built their careers and reputations outside the system still felt that way.
Personally, I think there’s more integrity in having a day job and only making the art you want rather than being a “professional” and having to compromise your vision for popularity’s sake or box office revenue. But I very much understand the desire to get paid to do what you love.
Here’s the truth: institutions need artists more than artists need institutions. Artistic Directors, Curators and Producers rarely admit this but many of them, when considering an artist, think about how much audience the artist already has. Some are different and go to bat for an artist because they truly believe in the artist’s vision, some will split the difference, but many of them think quite a bit about how many people that artist is going to bring in the door, or is the artist in question “hot” and “marketable”.
But in in the Internet age artists can get their work out to a vast audience cheaper, faster and easier than ever before. If you, as an artist, focus on getting your unadulterated vision into the world and find the audience for your work outside the system, you will be happier and more successful as an artist. Sometimes work will have wide appeal, sometimes it won’t, times and tastes change. Regardless, you just have to keep doing what you’re doing.
When artists start taking control of the development and dissemination of their creative output, the system will inevitably change. Ensemble work, collaborative creation, “devised” or “experimental” theater in the 21st Century creates change in two essential ways. First, it allows the group to take control of their life and art, to be the change you want to see in the world. If you want a collaborative, co-operative world, practice collaboration. If you want diversity and inclusion in the wider world, be diverse and inclusive in your practice and engagement. Use your art practice to model the world you would like to see and the art you create will reflect that. The time of waiting for the system to embrace or create change is over, the old top-down model doesn’t work, so take the responsibility into your own hands.
This imperative for self-determination feeds into a wider conceptual shift in the way we think about cultural production as a whole. As I’ve said, the regional theater model – the dominant theatrical production model in the U.S. – is based on mechanical, industrial models. We live in the information age and as such should embrace 21st century models.
If art – particularly ephemeral art such as dance and theater – is meant to engage with our experience of the world as we live in it, and if the methods of production affect the received and perceived meanings of the art, then our production processes should reflect the dominant model of our times.
Earlier I proposed that contemporary artistic practice is characterized by adherence to two values: investigation and interrogation and that these values are inherent in “devised” or “experimental” theater. I would further suggest that these characteristics are central to the knowledge production industries that define the Information Age. Thus we can look to the knowledge production industries for relevant models and frameworks to adapt to cultural production.
While this would consist of an entire treatise unto itself, I would like to suggest the following frameworks as a starting point:
Iterative Processes: We have come to accept software development as an iterative process. Software is released in beta and is revised and updated over time. Every so often a new version comes out that is so significantly improved that it might require a new number or name, but the product itself is never really done. This is a useful framework for looking at the developmental process of theater – either a single show or the work of an artist over time. Rarely is a show every really done. Anyone who has worked in the theater knows how much a show changes from opening night to closing. With some shows that change can be astonishing as actors discover new moments and generate new material; as writers, directors and designers discover what works and what doesn’t. So too with artists – we should look at them as engaged in a long investigative arc and try and see each work both on its own and in the context of what came before.
Open Source: Open Source software development means that one person develops some code and gets it as far as they can on their own, then turns it over to a community of practice to revise, refine and improve the software. This framework is valuable both as a values system for collaborative creation on a single project and for the field at large. How can we look at what we do, as a field, as a collaborative process of imaginative investigation, of creating and re-mixing, sampling, revising and re-envisioning? How can we re-imagine our relationship to intellectual property and copyright?
Peer Review: Scientists regularly publish their research that is subject to peer review. The current theater ecology places the responsibility for reviewing productions with a third party, journalists, who are meant primarily to serve as advocates and advisors to the ticket-buying audience. The arts sector – particularly theater – would be well served by vigorous, challenging, public review and critical discourse by peers. Audiences should be thought of not as mere consumers, but participants in a public conversation.
Here’s the thing: The spark of an idea that we call inspiration, the thing that calls the artist forth to create regardless of seemingly insurmountable obstacles will forever remain unchanged. I believe that creativity and the individual creative process are at the very center of what makes us human. We live in existential isolation, trapped in our own experience, and the creative impulse is how we attempt to bridge the gap, to share what we think we see, hear, smell, feel and think with others.
But the processes through which these ideas are brought to life in the world, the value that is placed on them and the way the public at large engages with them change over time. The world is going through a period of extraordinary change; we are called upon to re-make it with new facts, new conditions, new economies and new realities. For those of us who are passionate about theater – or the performing arts generally – we need to jettison our old, inherited unsustainable habits and envision new structures for making, disseminating and evaluating work. The time is now to build new systems in support of the world we want to inhabit.