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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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Immersive Theater: How Far Do We Go?

The Guardian posted an article about questions risen by a man experiencing immersive theater.  How far should the audience take it?  How responsive are we really allowed to be?   All very valid questions that don’t have clear answers…yet.

Plays are now playing with audiences, provoking them, forcing them to do more than just sit in a chair and watch.  Plays such as Bordergame, an experiential piece where you go through the process of trying to illegally cross a border, have the audiences playing alongside the actors.   But, exactly how much freedom is given to the audience?  How prepared are the actors for energetic audience members who want to create their own path in the storyline?  What is the language that we the audience speak with the cast?  With this new theater, the distant relationship of audience members in their seat separated from the fourth wall and plays where the cast picks you up and moves you around.

Bordergame

                             Bordergame

There is no way to know how to navigate these plays unless the audiences completely gives in and break some rules.  We need a few disaster audience engagement moments to form an new set of rules.  Or maybe, there is merit and surprise in shows that are taken over by an audience.  Theaters will have to master the art of manipulating a free thinking audience into the storyline they choose.  This will make it harder for the theaters, but will allows some inspiring new discoveries.

The problem with reaching this point is the fear of ruining the show.  Audience members fear stepping out of line or harming the production.  As a people, we fearing doing the wrong thing or being too noticeable for the wrong reasons.  Other productions make being an audience members easy.  As soon as the lights in the theater go down, we disappear with it.  Now, the audience has a bigger responsibility to fuel the show.  Audience become theater makers.  But, they need help for the theaters.  They need the encouragement and the freedom.  Let us ruin a few shows with too much or too little participation, so we can set the tone for what is expected.  We find the rules by breaking them

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Gluttony in the Age of Technology

I just heard a new word that sums up the entire sordid state of affairs that is my generation: infoglut.

An image used on “CCTP748: Media Theory and Digital Culture” a Georgetown student blog.

Meaning information overload and a scarcity of context or meaning. As a privileged member of American society, I have the world at my fingertips. I’m literally receiving shots of dopamine every time I use the touch screen of my iPhone to google LITERALLY ANYTHING I WANT TO KNOW ABOUT ANYTHING ON PLANET EARTH and beyond. However, the crucial distinction is that, while I have access to infinite knowledge, something that generations before me longed for, what the hell am I doing with it? How am I taking advantage of this accessibility? How do I plan on applying it to my artistic life and how do I give it context? It’s the difference between just posting links about whatever’s trending and actually having an informed opinion on the content and proceeding to make that a part of the conversation. It’s being a robot vs. being a human being.

Is this why theatre artists are constantly battling small attention spans and television? Because we’re breeding a society filled with infoglutters instead of meaning-seekers? How do I incite meaning-seeking? How can I make people care about answering the same probing, meaningful questions instead of streaming the latest “Keeping Up With the Kardashians?” It’s easier to watch reality television than to absorb and listen to a production of “Waiting for Godot.” I can’t fault the people that choose the former because I understand that impulse. I understand it because I still fall asleep checking Facebook and Instagram instead of researching the problems of our world today. And I am supposedly a well-educated, privileged artist. How do I attend to an audience of people who are fundamentally different than the people who attended the theater 50 years ago? How do I, an infoglutter myself, steer the social consciousness away from information for information’s sake, and towards the opportunity to apply our vast knowledge to a meaning-seeking, artistic conversation? I guess I have to ride the wave instead of fighting it. Here’s to my generation. God help us all.

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New Generation Latinos

The Latino Theatre Company who operates the LATC that housed “Encuentro 2014″ produced Premeditation by Evelina Fernandez as their contribution to the festival. The plays seems like a good choice to present in order to appeal to all the different Latin American theatre artists at this festival, generation wise I mean. Since the inception of El Teatro Campesino the U.S. has placed a stronger look at what Latin Americans have to offer in the theatre world. However, half a century later, there are a lot more stories of Hispanic Americans to tell apart from those of Chicano farm workers. Of course, the stories they were telling were not specifically about their work but about their community.

I’ve noticed “machismo” is a huge theme in plays from, what I will call, the older generation Hispanic theatre artists. I also notice this, especially, as a young Latina woman reading back on these plays. And I understand this is a huge issue traditional Hispanic families deal with. What excited me to read female Latina playwrights was that maybe it wouldn’t be about Hispanic women as mothers and wives in fear of their husbands running rampant and causing destruction in their own problems. But it still appears inevitably in some male characters in plays even when the play is about the female Latina. And I think it’s because machismo was still a big part of female Latina playwrights’ experiences.

With new generation Hispanic theatre artists, however, I think of myself and I think of women like those from Teatro Luna, for example, and strong independent Latina women who encounter problems and tell stories about other issues than that of dealing with men. Now we get the stories of the kids of the older generation Hispanic artists. Maybe they grew up in a similar community that their parents did, all Spanish speaking and from the same Latin American country, perhaps even immigrants themselves. Or maybe they grew up Mexican in a Puerto Rican community. Or maybe they are mixed race or maybe they grew up in a non-hispanic community. Whatever the case is– the next generation of Hispanic writers, actors, directors, producers, designers are coming and are emerging. They also have to interact with the older generation and just like with any age disparity comes a change in ideas, beliefs- politically, socially, morally. It’s exciting and dangerous. I’m ready.

I will soon emerge from a collegian artist into having to make my own living as a theatre artist, a Hispanic theatre artist. And I will never be able to remove myself from being a part of that grouping, that ticking of the box on forms, interviews and data collection, which is fine with me as long as I embrace it. A lot of artists feel that they aren’t (insert race/culture/nationality)_____ enough. At the same time they are other-ed in the white community so where do they belong? I say you can’t tell me I’m not Hispanic enough. I’m Hispanic American and I don’t need to be anything else but myself. The problem isn’t that the artists work doesn’t seem _________ enough, it’s that producers, directors, theatre deciders are looking for something, looking for diversity, through the wrong pathway.

I see casting multi-cultural actors in lead roles that don’t specify a certain race as the pathway towards being more diverse in the theatre, not the production of plays with very specific race qualifications.

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Too Much Theater

When I stumbled across an article about a city having too much theater, my first reaction was probably along the lines of this

Which is probably why I stayed on board to read the entire article… and by golly if it didn’t put forward a rational point. While I love theatre and want it to be everywhere there is a very practical problem with that. If the market has more goods than customers it is bound to fail. This is the case in Kansas city, that has many theatre companies and is now suffering from each company losing ticket sales.

The fact is, when there are too many shows to attend, not everyone can be attended. The market of who can buy tickets just is not large enough for all of the theatres that are opening up in the area. Companies no longer can sell season passes, because people don’t want to commit to seeing every show, and companies must fight to fill seats.

I personally like to think, “Every town could use another theatre venue or three!” but sometimes a healthy dose of reality kicks in and reminds me that not every town wants a theatre.

Let’s take my hometown in rural Massachusetts. Surrounding towns well within driving distance have theatres. There are a few theatres with larger seasons that people subscribe to and a handful of smaller ones that put on productions throughout the year. Many productions are put on through highschools and get a chance to perform in larger venues.

My hometown itself has no dedicated theatre, though the highschool and town hall have stages and one of the local churches has a theatre company in residence that performs in its sanctuary. None of these locations ever sell out for an event, and there are few events that happen. While I love the idea of having a dedicated theatre in my hometown, it would not have an audience. It would be a location with too much theatre.

So today I received a healthy reminder, even the things I love most need to come in moderation. Too much theatre can end up hurting the industry I love most.

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