Sunday, January 29, 2012

ARTS POLICY: Organic, Non-Patchwork Theater

Kristen Engebretsen (ARTSblog) vents some frustration about the patchwork of arts education funding:
I recently read an article about a school that won a $25,000 contest by HGTV to redesign their arts room, and it actually left me upset. Why, you ask? 
The short answer? I’m tired of the band-aid approach. The stop gap measures. 
It’s the same reason I had to stop watching Oprah’s Favorite Things and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. For every deserving person that is honored on these shows, I know someone who is just as needy and just as deserving.
What would she do with the money?
  • Buy instruments for a school that doesn’t have ANY.
  • Pay part of an itinerant teacher’s salary to visit MANY schools throughout the year.
  • Support a community program that serves thousands of students a year.
  • Award it to a nonprofit that could leverage it by raising matching funds.
  • Start an endowment in a school district for arts education, helping ensure that ALL of the students in that district received arts instruction EVERY year.
Meanwhile, Scott Walters is thinking about where our money comes from and goes as well, looking at the distinctions made between the institutional and organic church:
Just in case the analogy isn't clear, speaking in terms of the theatre, the "institutional theatre" would be represented by the regional theatre system, organizations that are highly structured, building-centered, run by professionals who oversee a staff, a building, and give salaries and administer daily activities. The original regional theatres came into existence thanks to the Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation, and they were structured to look like Ford or Standard Oil -- institutional. 
And for organic:
An "organic theatre" might follow a similar pathway. Instead of "professional artists" who create a "performance" that the "audience" comes to see in a theatre building, an "organic theatre" would be a small community of people who sometimes perform, sometimes listen -- a sort of ensemble who share their talents with each other in informal spaces. Passive consumption would be unacceptable -- each member would contribute in some way and in a variety of ways -- specialism would not fit. An "organic theatre" wouldn't create a "product" to be sold, but rather members would come together to share gifts, alternately giviing an[sic] receiving. There would be no need to spend money on marketing, because the ensemble is both audience and performer -- you would just let the members know about an upcoming event. If there was a desire, performances could be offered outside the group.
The question that both of these thoughts raise is, how do institutional funders fit into a more organic model of theater? I think often we approach this by saying that the funders should change what organizations they're funding -- aim towards supporting a larger number of smaller organizations. Instead of one big grant to the Met, maybe 250 small grants to different schools. 

But I think there's still a problem with that shift; it's the patchwork problem identified by Engebretsen, or by the many critics of funding-by-vote (here's one at random) -- the money doesn't distribute itself easily. 

In a way, it's the same criticism that capitalists level against communism -- a central planner (particularly in a larger nation) can't efficiently distribute resources unless it was omniscient and perfectly agile.

The way that western socialism addressed that was by steering state support from direct subsidies (providing food, clothes, etc.) toward infrastructure investment. The national highway system, reducing barriers for small businesses, providing tax breaks for charitable donations -- government intervention applied most equally when it was given in such a way that people could equally access it. 

(The Solyndra loan guarantee, for instance, was bad partly because it didn't yield results and partly because of the corrupt way it applied unequally to Solyndra)

The National Endowment of the Arts and other institutional funders haven't taken that approach. They pick winners and losers, subsidize individual organizations. Other cultural organizations have found models for lifting all boats. $100 for Fractured Atlas or IndieGoGo make it easier for arts organizations across the country in a way that $100 for the Kennedy Center or the Public Theater doesn't.

Obviously there's still a need to support institutions directly, but for the time being -- when we have small amounts of money -- institutions need to take a more infrastructure-style approach to investment. Otherwise, it's just patchwork and band-aids.

ORANGE HATS: Active Interpretation and Conversation of Culture

Inviting audiences to interpret the art works we present (make, produce, critique) is not pandering. I wish we would stop this disingenuous habit of conflating an audience member’s inherent desire and cultural right to interpret the meaning or value of a work of art with choosing the agenda for artists or arts organizations. Sports fans engage in some of the most active interpretation in our culture (and as a result experience real satisfaction and pleasure), but that doesn’t mean they choose the plays or create the roster. I mean, come on. 
That leads Joe Patti (Butts In Seats) to some questions about our theater-going audience culture
But have you ever been afraid to express your opinion about an artist or arts experience you have had for fear of either appearing elitist to the people around you, even close friends? Or on the other side of the coin, been afraid of appearing insufficiently knowledgeable? Why is that? Feeling unable to discuss these topics, of course, creates a vicious cycle where people continue to feel they can’t discuss these things.
Separately, Eric Ziegenhagen (2AMT) is wondering about the practical barriers to conversation:
When a theater is only open to the public for 15 minutes before and after a performance—and is otherwise closed and locked, with the public let in and, if necessary, kicked out—the question arises of how to make the performing arts a conversation, a participatory activity more articulated than active listening.
A lot of ink has been spilled about how the structure of our theater culture was designed in a producer/consumer model. There's a lot of examples: the practical aspects, like those Ziegenhagen points out about access to the physical space of theater, the aesthetic aspects, like the "fourth wall" realism that Brecht railed against, or the social aspects, like resistance to online critique.

I just wanted to draw attention to the question at the end of Joe Patti's post:
I am going to stop short of suggesting what we must do because I don’t think it is as simple as more arts coverage in the media, more arts in schools, more arts bloggers, more outreaches, more free performances. These may all help, but there are a lot chicken and egg factors to the arts environment in the United States. These things are useless of themselves if no one is receptive to them. How do you create that receptive environment?
My colleague Ben and I have been working on one model for a while.

The theatermakers themselves have an uneasy relationship to eliciting audience interaction or response, because especially at the moment the work is created and presented, they're trying to shepherd their intentions. It's a terrifying time, and they're still locked in a "promotion" mindset that makes them hard to interact with.

The critical community doesn't fill in because, as critics, their job is to channel their own opinions, not become a mouthpiece for the people.

In a way, what the audience needs is an outside force that demonstrates interest in their opinions. We're all used to the answers we get when we ask an audience what they thought of our work -- they certainly don't want to step on our toes. But what happens if someone else comes along and just asks them what they thought, and doesn't judge them on their response?

Well, something like this:

 Or this:

This is The Orange Hats, an audience response archive. All it takes is a camera, an orange hat, and the bravery to walk up to strangers and ask them what they thought about the show they just saw was.

I've learned a lot about people's reluctance to state their opinions. People are afraid to sound stupid. People are afraid to insult the artist. People are afraid that they look silly. Some of my favorite responses are the ones that, on the face of them, "sound stupid" -- but because they're not presented through cliche or academic language, actually get at people's genuine response to the work.

This isn't a model that we have some sort of monopoly over -- if you want to give it a shot, by all means do, and let us know how it goes. But it's up to the theater community to engage itself in conversation.

PRODUCING: Things We Learned, Bibliography

I saw that the previous "Things We Learned" post generated some interest, particularly around the piece of advice to let every employee stop the line.

If you're interested in hearing that more in depth, there's a fantastic This American Life about the partnership between Toyota and GM where Toyota revealed their manufacturing secrets to GM in return for co-running a plant in America called NUMMI.

That podcast is also a stark contrast to the more recent This American Life featuring Mike Daisey's Agony and the Ecstacy of Steve Jobs -- where Foxconn makes its manufacturing success through mass, hand-made labor, Toyota makes its manufacturing success through efficient machine processes and intelligent labor.

Also, if you're interested in more secrets of Toyota management (in a much shorter form!) I suggest you pick up the podcast 99% Invisible, and their look at how a Toyota consultant helped a cancer clinic hugely increase their quality of patient care, with nothing more at hand than some big blue yarn.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

QUOTE OF THE DAY: Know Your Own Worth

"I don't want to be embarrassing but I do have a tendency to be a best-selling author."
      -- Douglas Adams, declining a standard £600 advance to write a Dr. Who novelization.

HERO: Do Your Job How You Want To

First nomination for hero of the year:

Just because you have a job to do, doesn't mean you can't do it with your own flourish.

PRODUCING: Things We Learned

Organs of State had our (quarterly?) summit, where we get together for way too many hours and talk about what we've done, what we're doing, what we're going to do, and how and why we do it.

I think it's incredibly important that every organization constantly revisit their mission statement (ours, here, from our first summit) and revisit each other.

Here's what we learned last night from our third summit, which focused on the nature of our collaboration:

  1. Know what everyone's up to. If you're building a group of collaborators, it's very important to know what they're up to outside the collaboration. You never know when your collaborators' other parts of their lives will be fuel for what you're doing in the room together.

  2. Bring your politics into the room. If you're building a group of collaborators, it's very important to know where they stand. Their principles are going to be their guiding compass for how they build work, so you'd better air it out.

  3. You're never so far into a mistake that you can't back out. It's a tough lesson to learn, I know, but you're never better off throwing good money after bad. There's no set of deadlines, no pride, no obligation so large that you can't back out of it if you think it's a massively disastrous mistake.

  4. Always let your employees stop the line. Related to the previous point, one of the things Toyota makes a big point of is "automation with a human touch;" -- specifically, all the employees have the ability to stop the line if a defect is found, rather than forging on and fixing errors afterwards. Employees are encouraged to pull the rip-cord and demonstrate errors. That's how your collaborators need to feel about the artistic process.

  5. Be as curious about one another as you are about yourself.

PERSONAL: A Quick Apology

A reader of my blog caught me in the real world asked me why I haven't posted in quite some time, and there have been a lot of good reasons.

I went to New Zealand, where I got to see this (I promise you this is a real thing):

I got a major promotion at my job, and it ramped up the amount of mental focus I was spending on non-theater things.

I launched a new website for my theater company.

I launched the web presence of our theater company's next project.

I found out I was going to be an uncle.

etc. etc. etc.

But now it's 2012 and it's time to get a move on, so starting today I'm going to get back on the posting horse.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

POLITICS: My 15 Minutes of Fame ctd.

On the heels of my last citation by Andrew Sullivan, another one (I'm the one who took screenshots of

Carve it on my mausoleum.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012


I'm still coming back from my two week vacation (and I've commited myself to reading everything from while I was gone -- for theater, that is) but here's two quotes that look great together:

6.  Did you even know it was up for negotiation? 
The Actors' Equity - Broadway League contract was negotiated and ratified with such little fanfare that a lot of folks didn't even know it was happening.  My contacts who lined the walls of these proceedings told me it was mostly smooth sailing through the proceedings, and they credited both sides for understanding the challenges that both were facing in the coming years and remembering that we all needed to win in order for the industry to prosper.  A peaceful negotiation with positive results for all definitely gets on my 10 Best list.

AEA is in most aspects a vanity union, and is more about perception than purpose. Being able to say “I belong to Equity” conjures up dreams of getting on Broadway and every myth that goes along with those dreams. It offers the promise of access, but cannot truly deliver on that promise for all its members. AEA has done a great job of publicly spinning itself as a great union achieving great things for its members and as portraying itself as having “the best of the best” as its members (exclusivity), and to some extent that is true and cannot be denied. But on the whole, neither the numbers nor the general quality of American Theatre taken as a whole bears this out. Generally speaking, its members are vastly underpaid when compared to total theatrical gross revenues, and there is plenty of high-quality non-union theatre to be seen in this country.
-- Tom Loughlin, who backs up those fighting words with a lot of data.

To understand his conclusion, take a look at this:
As an interesting comparison, my son had made two regional commercials for a restaurant chain called On The Border. He is now a member of SAG because of it. In total, the work in those two commercials earned him enough money to hit his goal of having $10K savings in the bank in one year. AEA has absolutely no ability to do that for any stage actor who isn’t already a major star and can negotiate a salary far above AEA minimums. So which union would you rather get into first?

Tuesday, January 10, 2012