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Don’t Cry Because It’s Over, Smile Because It Happened

HowlRound posted a fantastic article this week by Meg Taintor, the Founding Artistic Director for Whistler in the Dark Theatre, a small Boston theatre that elected to close last year, deciding the end the ensemble while they were strong instead of drawing out a long period of instability and being forced to close eventually. Whistler in the Dark decided to throw a wake for their theatre company, a celebration of the theatrical life lived instead of mourning the loss.

This past week in class, we have spoken a lot about the Regional Theatre; institutions that have been around in some cases for a decade that are clinging to dear life due to lack of funding, declining ticket sales and the overwhelming cost of putting on a show. Every time a theatre company closes, there is a sense of mourning and dread. Everyone thinks about the people now looking for new jobs, or ominous tea leaves that have just been delayed. Inevitable questions are asked by theatre companies all around them. The biggest one being “How much longer do we have?”.

For a while I shared these sentiments, but in recent weeks the feeling has shifted to something new. It is a difficult feeling, a mix of melancholy and excitement. Because there is now a whole new crop of people who can start over.

Starting a theatre company is not a small feat, however, if you have recently been apart of one, there is at least some form of knowledge about what to avoid and what worked well. There is already a foundational idea of what to do and more importantly, what not to do.

Story Time: Once there was a man name James Burbage. James was an actor and theatrical entrepenur in the time of Elizabethan Theatre. He is credited for building a theatre, aptly named The Theatre as a home for his theatre troupe Leicester’s Men. Over the years, the Leicester’s Men dissolved and a new group with James’ son Richard as a leader took residency. The troupe was known as Lord Chamberlain’s Men.  However, the land he was leasing where the theatre was owned by a Puritan named Giles Allen, who did not like the thought of a theatre being on his land, and refused to renew the lease. Finding a loophole in the contract, Burbage, his son ,as well as all of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men snuck in under cover of darkness and dismantled the theatre; using the timbers to build a new theatre where a member of the troupe’s plays would flourish. The young playwright was William Shakespeare, and the new theatre was The Globe Theatre. From the wreckage of the old, something new was formed that changed the course of history.

What if instead of mourning the loss of what was we just started over? What if every theatre celebrated their accomplishments before the doors closed and then possible reorganize under a new idea? Realign their mission and start off on a new adventure with wisdom and a clean slate? The work of the past is still there, as well as the lessons learned. It is all about perspective. Who knows the endless possibilities that could be if we weren’t afraid to let go of the past, and trek fearlessly into the future?

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Self-Advocating and Being Brave

“I get worried when we talk about protecting the playwright… I don’t know what that means. If I’m being protected from Ben Brantley, that’s one thing. If I’m being protected from dramaturgs, that scares me because my entire career is based on the love and care of good dramaturgs. And if I’m being protected from audiences that’s horrifying. … What I want is to write a play and I want you guys to produce it. And actually I don’t really care if you’re mean, or even if you try to steal all my money (because I assume you should try to do that and I should fight back and we should argue”

-Michael Friedman, In the Intersection

This quote started me off on a long journey of thinking. To start it let me think about preconceived notions of who I think is my friend and my enemy in the theatre. It then made me think of what my relationship to my own work needs to be. This string of thoughts went on and on until I was exhausted, but here are a handful of observations I made about myself as an artist.

At the beginning the first thing I noticed was that, as an artist, I don’t have real enemies. There will be plenty of people I won’t agree with in the world, but they are not my enemies. There will be people who are doing theatre that I think is not serving the world, but they are not my enemies. There will even be people that are doing theatre that I think is hurting the world, but they are still not my enemies. They are simply people I disagree with, but I don’t need to work with them. If they are someone I disagree with and I need to work with them, I just need to be brave and advocate for the work I find important.

I also spent a good amount of time thinking about my role as a dramaturg. Sure, this is a fledgling part of me as an artist, but it has quickly become one of the most important. All semester I have been trying to think of an apt definition for what a dramaturg is. While this definition will surely change, I now see my dramaturg self as a friend to the arts. It is my job to support it, be there to give it what it needs, and to care deeply about each project I work on. It is my job to love the art before me, even when it is difficult.

The final thing I realized is that my future will be decided by self-advocating and being brave. I need to approach this career fearlessly… or with a great deal of courage. I need to face the fact that the structures that are in place are not built to help me, they are not always there to help me. If I don’t like the structure, fight to make a new one. The most important thing I can do is stay true to myself as an artist, and do what I can to see that art realized.

So I have a lot to think about… and chances are my ideas today will be completely shifted in the next 6 months. But at this point, I feel good… I mean I feel REAL GOOD. Im ready to tackle to world ahead of me and do what I love.

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Why Do I Villainize Commercial Theater?

Recently my class and I were introduced to the book In the Intersection by Diane Ragsdale.  The book was about the intersection between Commercial theater and not-for-profit theater.  The book discussed the  benefits of the collaboration, but also the pitfalls that can occur.

When the idea is first introduced in the book, my initial reaction was sour.  They sounded a bit like: “Join up with commercial theater?”,  “Are you kidding me?”, Don’t take money from the bad guys!”.  My young artist mind felt strong with the pride behind not-for-profit theaters with goals revolved around community, education, and artistry.  Of course, that still sounds great.  However, is that any reason for me to have a revulsion to commercial theater?  Do I really need to chose one team to play for and call it a day?  I don’t think so anymore.

After reading the book, I realized that difference between commercial theater and not-for-profit is, well, the relationship to profits.  Commercial is dedicated to it.  Profit is the reason the doors stay open.  This doesn’t mean evil.  This doesn’t imply a hatred of not-for-profit.  This does not mean that commercial theaters goal is to squash out the little guys.

I do wonder where my perceptions come from.  Commercial producers are artists themselves.  As is everyone involved.  There is theater that is made for everyone (or, the typical broadway audience) and there is theater made more specific and intentional.  One does not mean better than the other.  Artists need to understand the two different worlds to see where their aesthetic and career goals would flourish.  There is no good and bad.  Good and evil.  There is preference.

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An Ideal Theatre

This week I read two crazy books: Outrageous Fortune by Todd London, Ben Pesner, and Zannie Giraud Voss and At the Intersection by Diane Ragsdale, both cool books dealing the state of the theatre industry today (or rather, at the time of publication). Outrageous Fortune dealt with the state of new play development in America (dire), and At the Intersection dealt with the overlap between commercial and non-profit theatre (fraught).

After spending a week thinking all about dysfunction, I thought it might be fun — and useful — to think about solutions. What would an ideal theatre company look like? What values would it espouse? I don’t think this is a question with one answer — we are all unique little butterflies, and each of us will have our own biases and world-views — but I’m me, so I think I’m pretty qualified to design a theatre that I would like to work for.

So here it is: Dan’s Ideal Theatre (again, at the time of publication):

1) What does it do?

I think new plays are important. Frankly I think it’s kind of weird not to think so. Do we just stop making new paintings? New novels? New movies? New is at the crest of the wave of time — new is NOW. How are we to speak to our own moment if not by making new work? Revivals can also be resonant, but it seems to me that at least half of any season at the Dan Ideal Theatre (DIT) should be new work.

2) What kind of people will work there?

My big belief about theatre is that it builds community, not just in the shared ritual within an audience, but also communion between the actors and the audience. And furthermore, the rehearsal process is community-building! These can all be integrated to create maximum community creation: let the rehearsal group blend into the audience and the audience move into the rehearsal room. Community members should feel free to join in on the work if the spirit moves them; we’re all a part of the same crazy endeavor! Community in America is deteriorating, and we can be a part of the solution.

A repertory ensemble would also make for easy community: the company really is of the community, and is a family unto itself: worlds within worlds of integration!

3) How are we going to pay for all this?

I think theatre should be cheap. I think productions should be theatrical (by which I mean: non-realistic). Let them be rough. Let them be challenging and imaginative. Let little mean much.

But we’ve got to pay people. Because for artists to do art, they must first subsist, and more, they must garner wages which bespeak their skill and commitment. But perhaps we can offer other things to help them out: room and board, for example. The company can live on the grounds, run the theatre, even work the land. Make DIT a big self-sustaining collective (okay, so I’m an idealist). And we can charge for cheap tickets, and even barter for skills: teaching ushering, crew in return for tickets, etc. Maybe we can tour, too! If the plays are accessible, we may have a shot!

I don’t have all the details hammered out yet. But even as I write this, pipe-dream though it may be, I can’t help but think: “Yeah, that sounds pretty great…”

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Coined “Czar” and it’s negative implications in our battle for The Arts

I understand that the term “Czar” for positions specific to tackle certain issues in all levels of government has become a coined term in the U.S….but can we just take a moment to notice that we are actually calling people czars?

Russian Czar/Tsar Nicholas II

I guess once you’ve said it enough you forget what it feels like to say it the first time and what kind of natural implications come with that term. It comes from the Russian “Tsar” but also spelled “Czar” meaning the emperor or king of Russia. Originally, even from the Latin “Caesar”. Also implies a tyrant or autocrat, a ruler with absolute power, ruling in absolute monarchy and now expanded to any person with great authority or power in a particular field. And all of that kind of flashes through our brains from knowing the history of the term, now using it in Boston to describe our new “Cabinet-level Chief of Arts and Culture”.

We have a tricky relationship with our American government and its relation to the arts. And by having more official positions in the government that do focus on the arts, we are invoking change and attention to the importance of the arts in our society. Ideally, this will eventually fuel a larger budget in government funding for the arts. I do wonder, however, that the negative connotations with calling all our cabinet positions/chairpersons, and specifically our chief of arts and culture, a “czar” it can bring negative implications of tyrannical power to a beloved position.

After the Federal Theatre Project and other New Deal programs were deemed to be no longer necessary, we’ve started to get more involved in the commercial side of the arts inevitably intermingling with the ideals of capitalism. An example is accepting the commercial theatre to help fun nonprofit theatre. But I think, by gaining a stronger standing with the American government, an institution that has historically been at times admired for trying to avoid negatives of capitalism i.e. monopolies and corruption in our social structure, will help the arts in the long run in dealing with being “in the intersection” of commerical and non proft.

Furthermore, there is an argument that the government shouldn’t get involved in the arts and vice versa with an example being that religion is kept separate from the state. As an opponent to this argument, I don’t think adding in the term “czar” helps to emphasize that the position isn’t about politics and getting “entangled in the government”.

Shouldn’t we, arts advocates who want our representatives that finally get a place in the government to succeed, refer to them through supporting, (non-tyrannical ruler invoking) language?

President Obama and the White House Administration have been noted to not endorse the term. A recent example is when Jake Tapper wrote about the “Ebola Czar” quoting press secretary Josh Earnest in a CNN article:

And as for the term “Ebola czar,” it is not officially endorsed by the White House. “As far as I’m concerned, you can call him anything you want,” Earnest told reporters. “We call him the Ebola Response Coordinator.”

I also know President Obama is wary of these terms for old rulers and what they can mean when used maliciously, i.e. “Emperor Obama”. Obviously, many Presidents throughout history have been victims of being called dictators, kings, emperors but this implication of a tyrannical ruler should not be ignored in our usage of “Czar” as well.

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Sanctuary for the Little Guy

An article from the Boston Globe opinion section drew my attention this week. In it Peter DuBois, Artistic Director of the Huntington Theatre Company, addressed one of the saddest news to impact the Boston Theatre Scene, the close of the Factory Theatre.

I am proud to be a theatre artist. I enjoy the work that I create through collaboration with different minds looking toward one goal. Every year I am reminded of a simple fact that I try to fix but never succeed at doing. I am a terrible theatre citizen.

In a market as beautiful full as Boston is, with so many different theatre companies, performing so many different types and styles of theatre, moving along the dialogue in one of the most progressive cities in the country, I see far too little of what is going on in the world around me. Every year I realign myself to try and see more and more shows, both inside and outside the walls of the CFA. Inevitably at the end of each semester, I look back and realize how much I have missed.

It is true, that is almost impossible to see everything while being a full time student and working at the scope that we do, but it does feel kind of crappy.

I never got to see anything at the Factory Theatre. I had heard of it, never however made the journey down to see one of the many shows that performed in that space in over the two years that I have lived and embarked on my theatrical career in Boston. Only when I heard it was closing that a somber realization occurred to me. This space would have been the space where my friends and colleagues would have begun working after graduation. The scope of how many productions and theatre companies that would never materialize became a somber notion. I haven’t seen much fringe theatre, nor do I have an overwhelming desire to work in it; but damn it if it isn’t a beautiful counterpoint to mellow the artistic pallet of a city.

With the new “Arts Czar” arriving in the city and a City Hall with enough of a focus on arts to appoint an “Arts Czar”, the first question that needs to be asked and answered is “How do we provide a fertile environment for small, independent artistic endeavors to thrive without being dependent on their own success?” In short, “How do we keep the little guy in the fight?”

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Does that $400k really matter?

$400,000 is a lot of money, right? That’s about a tenth of what it costs to make a Broadway show according to this article from The New York Times. We can all agree that it’s a hefty sum of money, but does it really matter now? The Audience, starring Helen Mirren, is hitting up Broadway next season. Actually it’s taking over Broadway… well the Schoenfeld Theatre, at least. The article discuss the difficulty of moving It’s Only a Play to the Jacob’s next door and how much it would cost the producers. It wonders if they should have just taken the Jacobs and the $400k.

The Schoenfeld Theatre on Broadway

Here’re my thoughts: If The Audience wasn’t already going to do well, they (as well as It’s Only a Play) probably just raked in a few hundred thousand on ticket sales from the article alone. I can honestly say that I wasn’t invested in either, and I didn’t know about one at all. Now that I’ve read the article, I’m wondering what all the hullabaloo is about. Why is this theatre important? Why are they choosing to have the producers for It’s Only a Play pay $800k to move instead of accepting $400k for a different – same sized- theatre?

We could argue that it’s the interior, which does does affect the experience. Or we could look at the overall picture on the affect that PR has on the theatre world. How many families saw this article and decided they would see it? How many people are going to want to see It’s Only a Play in its original theatre? So yeah, maybe it’s a lot of money, but it’ll probably be made back and the awareness has increased. Isn’t that what we’re fighting for?

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