Oh god, this became long and rambly . . . sorry, had to get it all out . . .
So here I am in Maine, trying to work on the scripts for my three planned shows this year -- Spacemen from Space, The Devils (of Loudon), and, most importantly, The Wedding of Ian W. Hill & Berit Johnson: A Theatrical Study -- and getting far too distracted from my work by something that I'm realizing has less and less application to me and that work: the theatrical blogosphere's ongoing discussion of Outrageous Fortune: The Life and Times of the New American Play, a book from TDF (the Theatre Development Fund), which outlines the sorry state of American Theater . . . or at least, the sorry state at certain levels of American Theater as it exists now. I have not read the book, and as, from what I'm reading, it doesn't apply to my work as it stands, I probably won't.
The most central locale for discussion on this is at Isaac Butler's Parabasis, in both the posts and, maybe more importantly, in the comments. Isaac has organized a blog-thru with 8 bloggers going through the book chapter-by-chapter and discussing it. Other bloggers have joined in and are having their say. Besides the discussion at Isaac's, the most interesting thoughts, in posts and comments, are at J. Holtham's 99 Seats. Several other bloggers have had fewer posts, but been quite enlightening, including Garrett Eisler, August Schulenburg, and Travis Bedard.
A secondary, but connected, discussion regarding some figures from TCG (Theatre Communications Group) on the most produced plays of the past 10 years has also been going on, and is somewhat interesting -- purely theoretical, again, to me, as these plays have little to do with where I work or what I'm interested in; perhaps this discussion is most interesting in having revealed some nauseating attitudes from Mainstream Theater Critics, who say that not enough classical plays are being done, and that this is because Modern American Actors can't handle them. Aw, Jesus fuck a bagpipe, I'm not goin' there.
However, the blogger dealing with all of these discussions who is basically saying everything I would is fellow Indie Traveler Matthew Freeman (also, while not part of this discussion, James Comtois's series of posts, "Little Jimmy's Guide to Self-Producing," dovetails nicely with it; Josh Conkel also has a similar opinion to Matt's and mine, stated briefly, and noting his appropriate concern with some more truly important things in this world). Basically, for some of us theatre artists, the Institutional Theatre World being discussed in these studies is at a level above that connects with us barely at all. This level is, it would seem, IN TROUBLE.
Now, anything that means TROUBLE to Theatre in any way hurts. I've had people who wanted me to snicker with them when a theatre space whose management I despised would go under, but the loss of ANY theatre space is a stab in the heart to me, and I won't celebrate the closing of one. The Troubles being discussed now, however (and go to the other blogs to see what they are in real detail, please), are the same ones we've been hearing about for years -- now with some good organization and data and a nice binding to back up the anecdotes -- and, again, ones that touch my Indie Theatre world barely a whit. Professor Scott Walters, in response to Matthew saying something similar, refers to this as an "I Got Mine" attitude -- I see it as a "We worked for it and continue to work to barely KEEP it, and hell, we SHARE it, gladly, and you could too if you paid attention" attitude. Scott has many many good and useful things to say on the Art, but he continually harps on things that, to his knowledge, don't exist or that theatre artists should be doing that are old hat to many of us who have been doing this for years (and it has been 20 years now for me since my first Indie NYC shows).
I worked at (and lived in the basement of) NADA on Ludlow Street for almost 4 years during a time that went from boom to bust for the space. The boom period was responsible for creating FringeNYC, the bust for the scattering of the Lower East Side theatre scene that had built up from around 1988-2000. Indie Theatre will probably never have as strong a united front in NYC as it did at that period, when there was such a strong geographical center to it, but -- and in a strange way possibly BECAUSE of the splintering of that Indie scene -- the past 10 years have certainly seen a slow regrouping, with stronger spaces, more exciting and diverse new work, and (most importantly for the survival of the spaces and the art) audiences and media more aware and respectful of our existence. Indie Theatre NYC is in a GOOD place right now. Not a GREAT one, no, things could always be better, and while awareness of us is better we are still not as much part of the City's landscape as we deserve to be. It's improving steadily, though, maybe not even so much because we're getting so rapidly better at our work, but because the more institutionalized branch of it isn't.
Apparently, Institutional Theatre is growing more stale, more inbred, more interested in development than production, is losing its audience as the current one dies off and no younger one is replacing it, is a place where being daring is discouraged, no one is doing the kind of work they WANT to be doing, and no one can make a decent living. Apart from the last item in that list, the opposite is true in the Indie Theatre world that I live in along with several hundred people that I know personally, and many thousands I don't.
Sure, many many MANY of the people in this world want and/or expect (and certainly deserve) to be getting by financially from their Theatre work, will never be able to, and won't be (or, to get other things important to them in this world, CAN'T be) satisfied with that. I've seen several dozen exceptionally talented actors, playwrights, and directors realize they were never going to make the living they wanted to in Theatre, and leave it. Yes, it can be heartbreaking.
Basically, in Theatre, as Matt Freeman pretty much says, you can either do what you want to, and almost certainly not make a living at it, or you can try to do something that might make you a living (but probably won't) that you very likely won't be happy with and may not even wind up in front of an audience. If you're lucky, you're able to get a job or series of gigs in the latter category that allows you the time, energy, and freedom to do the former. More and more of my friends have been able to do this (I need to get on the bandwagon myself and be more organized in getting more craft/skill gigs to pay for my Art work).
So if working in Theatre is going to be a financially-unrewarding struggle at any level you work in (unless you win the lottery with a real success -- as Arthur Miller said, "You can't make a living in Theatre but you can make a killing"), why not do the work you want to in an area that is uncalcified and, at least where I and my collaborators are, growing? The discussion just makes me feel like I'm in a good place right now.
And I don't just mean a good place in my career, but a very literal good place: The Brick, a home for my work, where, as Technical Director, I can also pursue the calling I found at NADA of making sure as much worthwhile theatre work by other artists is produced at as professional a level as I can. Like all non-profit theatres, we could use more grants, donations, ticket sales -- basically, money -- not so much even to grow or be more secure (though that would be nice) but just to keep the physical space and equipment in good working order. However, we're doing better and better in that regard -- 2009 was our best year yet, financially, by far.
And -- looking at some numbers -- what kind of work gave us this very good year? 51 productions (ranging from multi-week runs to one-night events) of which 44 were brand-new, premiere works. Of the rest, there were 4 adaptations of Classical Texts (Greeks through Chekhov -- three of which were so "adapted" as to be almost brand-new plays) and 3 later 20th-Century revivals (all ones I directed). Besides the four productions I created, I was privileged to work closely on 12 other shows, including doing light design for 10 of them (and as Tech Director, I had to work with ALL of them in some way). In fact, at least one of the "productions" I'm listing was an evening of 7 fully-produced one-acts, so the real number is a bit bigger. And we had audiences. We could have more, of course (my own four shows, which did "very well," still had less than 50% of the possible seats filled in total on all but one), but we definitely seem to be on an upward swing.
And this past year, in our little theatre, I've been lucky enough to work with and see plays premiered from contemporaries I know and admire like Bryan Enk & Matt Gray (Third Lows), Eric Bland (Old Kent Road), Richard Lovejoy (Sneaky Snake), Audrey Crabtree & Lynn Berg (Ten Directions), Matthew Freeman (Blue Coyote), James Comtois & Pete Boisvert (Nosedive), Gyda Arber & Aaron Baker (Fifth Wall), Tim Cusack & Jason Jacobs with Stan Richardson (Theatre Askew), Eddie Kim, David Finkelstein (Lake Ivan), Happy Hour, Horse Trade, Frank Cwiklik & Michele Schlossberg (DMTheatrics), Hope Cartelli & Jeff Lewonczyk (Piper McKenzie), Michael Gardner (The Brick, itself), and fight choreography from Qui Nguyen (Vampire Cowboys).
AND . . . I got to know and admire artists I hadn't known previously, like Anna Q. Jones (Bone Orchard), Nick Jones, Rachel Shukert & Peter J. Cook (Terrible Baby), Leah Winkler & Emily Baines (Everywhere Theatre Group), Marc Bovino & Joe Curnutte (The Mad Ones), Youngblood, Patrick Harrison (Depth Charge), and Cat Fight Productions.
And this is just mentioning the creators who worked this year in our place -- not even mentioning the dozens of terrific actors I've seen or directed in these shows (nor any great Indie Theatre I've seen elsewhere this year -- Tom X. Chao, Stolen Chair, whatever). And I'm sure I'm leaving some out. Oh, right, I directed a fun farce by Trav S.D. at Theatre for the New City as well -- a bit outside the real Indie Theatre community, somewhat, but still part of the style.
So . . . honestly, a theatrical community that includes, in one year, all of the above (and, for that matter, my OWN work), is not one I feel is exactly unhealthy, at least creatively. No, none of the above are making a living from their work -- that may be a crime, it may not; I wish we all were. I don't think very many of these artists, as successful as some shows might be, are exactly going to create work that will cross over to a mass audience and sell the tickets that make the profits (though one can always stumble upon the right show in the right place at the right time and find yourself with a Urinetown, but you can't predict or plan that, despite the many groups that try every year at FringeNYC).
Still, I wouldn't be surprised in the least, actually, if Freeman or Comtois or Bland or Lovejoy or Nguyen, or Mac Rogers for that matter (and I wish we had something of HIS at The Brick!), stumbled upon the play that crossed over and had that kind of success -- but I sure don't think it would happen for Matt or James or Eric or Richard or Qui or Mac by TRYING to play the game and go the Institutional route. If it happens it will be because they are working and pushing things forward in the Indie world, and the "right person" sees it and is able to help it in the other.
In any case, one of my projects for the coming year is to try and find some grant money that can't go towards play production, but could possibly go towards publishing, as I really, really want to create a GCW imprint that could put out a series of anthologies: Plays from The Brick, featuring work by many of the above artists (all shows that premiered at the space). Published texts aren't plays, of course (as a symphony conductor said of a Mahler score -- as opposed to an actual performance -- "It's a theory"), but it would be a Good Thing if we could share some of what we do at The Brick with a world outside NYC Indie Theatre.
Okay -- been working on this too long, and am too tired and rambling. I will be following the discussion of Outrageous Fortune with some interest -- as I'm following the whole Leno/O'Brien thing, despite not watching or having any interest in either of their shows, because the discussion of the conflict is more interesting to me than the business-as-usual. But probably, if I feel like joining in, it will just be a sign to close the browser and re-open Word and go back to getting my own shows written.
Some people may see their "fortune" as cursed, as in the stars, and bemoan it, and some people just choose to ignore the prophets, roll up their sleeves, and go ahead. The work is all.