Thursday, February 24, 2011
Well, hello. It’s been a while, you look good. But we’ve no time for sweet reunion. There are matters discuss. The theater world has been popping with a couple “controversies” lately and I’ve been dying to talk to you about them. Diving into the fray like this will no doubt cause me to speak out of turn, but that has never stopped a Moore before and I don’t mess with family tradition.
First up? You guessed it. Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark. I’ll try to keep this brief as I haven’t seen the show. (See? Speaking out of turn already.) But like so many people, I’ve been fascinated by the media spectacle surrounding this mega-sized musical. A veritable feeding frenzy, I’d say. Granted, the show did leak some blood in the water. Whether it’s the record-breaking $65 million budget, the delayed (and delayed and delayed) opening, or actors falling from the sky, journalists and late-night entertainers have not been lacking for fresh meat. Even the less carnivorous content-producers have made a meal of the show’s creative ambition, the challenges of cross-genre adaptation, and the career trajectory of director Julie Taymor. With so many voracious appetites in play, it’s been pretty nigh impossible to tell what’s really been going on in Spiderman-land.
Yet that’s the very question that keeps reverberating in my head as I watch all this go down – what the hell is going on here? What is happening? How has all this come about? What’s the collaboration been like? What have the conversations been about? How did so many pieces of the show – the safety, the storyline, the music – fall through the cracks enough, and for long enough, as to require OSHA inspectors, script doctors, and record producers to be called in months after the first public performance? Is it just because the scope of the show prevented an out of town try-out during which they could have ironed out the kinks? Or is there something more?
From where I sit (which is usually on a couch or in a cubicle, just to calibrate my place of authority), I have to believe that something fell apart here. Some part or parts of the process did not function properly, and I really wish I could find out what it was and why it happened. Not because it would be juicy, but because it would be useful. There is a really great, authentic, and useful story here that we in theater could really benefit from hearing. There are lessons beneath the hoopla. Lessons about process, about collaboration, about mapping vision to execution, about budgeting, about just about everything, I’d imagine. But we can’t get to those lessons from reading the press. The story has to come willingly from the collaborators themselves, and that’s not likely to happen. Which I get. It’s hard to talk honestly about vulnerabilities and still maintain the perception of power. It’s not impossible, mind you – Barack Obama’s speech on race, to pull from elsewhere, comes to mind – but it’s not easy.
Hoopla number two is the uproar over NEA chairman Rocco Landesman’s comments at a January conference on the future of American theater. Asked to provide insight on the decline in attendance for the arts in this country, Landesman responded, “There are too many theaters… Look, you can either increase demand or decrease supply. Demand is not going to increase. So it is time to think about decreasing supply.” In other words, a figure most artists expect to be their advocate in this country said we might need to get rid of some theaters because our audiences aren’t gonna grow. Ouch. Needless to say, many folks were hurt, offended, and frightened by these remarks. But there were just as many folks – including me – who felt Landedman’s observation was valid and were glad he deftly stoked a conversation that really needed a kick in the pants. I call that conversation, “Theater Economics are Broke, So How We gonna Fix It?”
One way to fix it – a way Landesman surely does not discount – is to get our government to fund us better. The NEA has a budget of about $160 million. This pales in comparison to England, which is the worst funder of the arts in Europe with a $900 million budget, which in turn pales in comparison to France. They give $2.3 billion. Excusez-moi? So yes, we must fight like the devil to get our government to better understand and reflect art’s importance in this country.
However. You live in this country. Do you really think that’s happening any time soon? Me neither. So like it or not, faced with such restricted resources, Darwinian forces do apply. I don’t think this means we need to go winnowing out the field with a giant machete (nor was Landesman suggesting that), but it does mean we need to give ourselves a good, long, hard look in the eye. We need to ask ourselves all sorts of tough questions. Questions like, what is it that we do that is truly special, truly unique? Can we focus only on that and let go of everything else? Do we do anything truly special and unique? Anything we truly think is valuable and needed in this world? If we’re not sure, can we hold off on our ventures until we figure it out? Do we need to strive for more audience, or is it okay to give our existing audience a better experience or a greater connection to our organization? Do we need to take on ambitious projects that require large amounts of resources, or is it okay to scale down and redirect that ambition toward community outreach or developing new talent? What can we do to shake up our business model and make ourselves less dependent on donations and public funding? Do we need to be non-profit? Can we have a for-profit model and still make valuable art? What can we learn from other fields – from tech entrepreneurs or cupcake stores or that really great dog-walking service that all your neighbors use? What else should we be asking ourselves?
Clearly, the answers will be different for every organization, and I don’t mean to say no one out there is thinking this way. But the negative and fearful response to Landesman’s comments suggests that many of us are reacting from a place of perceived powerlessness, a mindset in which all the operating forces exist outside of oneself. It’s understandable that artists in this country often feel this way. But it’s also convenient. It lets us off the hook. If all the forces are outside of ourselves then we never have to have look at ourselves to solve a problem. And that’s just silly. Not to mention a waste of your beautiful, powerful, creative mind. So wake up, wake up your friend, and take arms against that sea of troubles. It’s survival of the fittest out there, and you owe it to yourself to make sure you’re fit.