05.14.10 | 15 Comments

CATEGORIES conversation starter, ideas, producers, rabble rousing, social media, storefront theatre

I am a ranter.

No surprise I guess that a blogger likes ranting, it would seem to be a blogger’s stock in trade, and I have a reputation as something of a John the Baptist of the CAPS LOCK… but I more specifically mean in real life. I tend to caffeinate and hold forth on something that is bothering me until I run out of steam or people willing to listen. The topic most often these last couple of years has been changes that need to be made in the operation of indie theatre companies and the creation of new work. If you happen to be my wife or my producing director you have heard the topic ground into dust over various meals and commercial breaks.

I want revolution.

Sekou Sundiata warns I wouldn’t use that word if I knew what it meant. It ain’t pretty, It’s messy. It overturns things. But maybe an art form needs overturning when its business model seems to boil down to [(wish + hope)/ask nicely = Profit]. Maybe we can stop asking what color the new memorial lobby should be and DO SOMETHING. Maybe more folks should get honestly angry when we spend another 8 hours in a room talking about a new way to divvy up the day-old doughnuts that the federal government disperses instead of talking about creation.

I keep shouting in the wilderness online because it all feels so possible. It feels like movement is taking place. It feels like the increased access to power brokers and the democratization of publishing means that common sense can be heard all the way up the chain and good ideas can be implemented even if they came from outside the advisory board or the Executive Council. It feels like these connections to other people and other ways of telling stories matters.

Of course it doesn’t.

Not on the macro scale we want it to. We listen to our macro leaders talk and it becomes clear again that we’re just talking about entirely different worlds. The disconnect between someone like Michael Kaiser and the day-to-day conversation happening between the theatre blogs and in the #2amt and #newplay spheres is jaw-grindingly apparent as he talks from his talking points of 2 years ago and proposes solutions for producing paradigms of 40 years ago. Mr. Kaiser and Mr. Landesman have million dollar businesses to buttress and no matter what they feel personally (and I LIKE them both) they are in the business of selling theatre shaped widgets.

But I will tell you that this revolution has mattered very much to me personally. I take this discussion and the ideas that it generates very seriously. I use as many ideas as I can in the production of our work with Cambiare Productions as possible. I think we’re right about a lot of thing and I’m itching to prove it.

So a modest proposal: Forget about them.

I don’t mean the Arena Stages and David Dowers, or the A.C.T. and Portland Center Stages… Every Theatre Bay Area, League of Chicago Theatres, and Austin Creative Alliance that buys in to the conversation is better for us|them|we.  But if the big boys and girls don’t want to play? Forget about them.

We can’t make revolution simply about resources. Most of the folks taking part in the conversation have few. It has to be about ideas. It has to be about creation. We have to eliminate the culture of ownership that drives business and foster a culture of shared ideas.

Let’s have the Stone Soup revolution:

Once upon a time, somewhere in post-war Eastern Europe, there was a great famine in which people jealously hoarded whatever food they could find, hiding it even from their friends and neighbors. One day a wandering soldier came into a village and began asking questions as if he planned to stay for the night.

“There’s not a bite to eat in the whole province,” he was told. “Better keep moving on.”

“Oh, I have everything I need,” he said. “In fact, I was thinking of making some stone soup to share with all of you.” He pulled an iron cauldron from his wagon, filled it with water, and built a fire under it. Then, with great ceremony, he drew an ordinary-looking stone from a velvet bag and dropped it into the water.

By now, hearing the rumor of food, most of the villagers had come to the square or watched from their windows. As the soldier sniffed the “broth” and licked his lips in anticipation, hunger began to overcome their skepticism.

“Ahh,” the soldier said to himself rather loudly, “I do like a tasty stone soup. Of course, stone soup with cabbage — that’s hard to beat.”

Soon a villager approached hesitantly, holding a cabbage he’d retrieved from its hiding place, and added it to the pot. “Capital!” cried the soldier. “You know, I once had stone soup with cabbage and a bit of salt beef as well, and it was fit for a king.”

The village butcher managed to find some salt beef . . . and so it went, through potatoes, onions, carrots, mushrooms, and so on, until there was indeed a delicious meal for all. The villagers offered the soldier a great deal of money for the magic stone, but he refused to sell and traveled on the next day. [Taken from here]

Not to agree with Don Hall publically or anything, but indie theatre spends an awful lot of time dressing up in big brother’s clothes, pretending we’re something more than a bunch of fly-by-night bootstrap  concerns that likely won’t exist in 5 years. We hoard thoughts. We want in first. We want to hit it big on That One Idea. The indies, the storefronts aren’t playing the same game as the Kennedy Center and we need to stop pretending we are.

We need to stop holding back the cabbage, the salt beef, and the potatoes. Give it away. Publish your thoughts. Your ideas. Hell, even your scripts if you don’t intend to publish them traditionally. Look into Creative Commons and what it means (Lucas Krech has a great post here to get you started).

We’re never going to move the monolith. It’s doesn’t mean I’m going to stop yelling at it, or getting infuriated when it notes glibly that regional theatre audiences seem to be getting older (REALLY!? I hadn’t heard!), but rationally I know that it’s going to stand there until the Chapter 11 judge gives it away.

Let’s not waste the energy and momentum that we have in this moment.

I have this stone.
What have you got?


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Travis Bedard

Travis Bedard

A long time theatre blogger, Travis is the Artistic Director of Cambiare Productions and a contributing writer to 2amTheatre.com. Travis holds a degree in Theatre (Secondary Education) from the University of New Hampshire and is currently posted in scenic St. Paul Minnesota..
Travis Bedard

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  • monicareida

    Word. If we try to keep up with the big boys and act like them, we end up harming our own progress.

  • in terms of publishing your scripts in a non-traditional manner. I love what Charles Mee does with his work. Check it out at http://www.charlesmee.org/html/about.html

  • Jordan Mechano

    I'm nitpicking, but this sentiment bugs me. The word revolution literally means to turn around. In circles. That's hardly inspiring.

    And what happens with revolutions, or uprisings, in real life? We see an institution, generally the state, bogged down with complexities and controls, too ossified to do anything but take up space. We get angry, shout a lot, run around lighting fires, behead the king, take power for ourselves. And the whole goddam cycle begins again.

    Buckminster Fuller said: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

    We should be like grass growing through the cracks in pavement. And we should be spreading seeds wherever we go.

  • YES. I think what we're saying is fundamentally aligned. I think I'm saying it in words that matter in an old paradigm rather than firmly stating that we need to stop trying to exist inside the old paradigm.

  • A great example.

    The “story” about Mr. Mee is that he can “afford to”. I want to get away from that thinking. If you're going to make no money off your work (and Outrageous Fortunes shows pretty clearly that you're probably not) why not make it available? Get it out there and read, and maybe done.

    Let's see if all of the ADs in Outrageous Fortune who said that no good new plays were being written are right!

  • Trisha Mead


    I also found Michael Kaiser's assertion that we should essentially stop aiming at the 20 to 30 something audience because they'll naturally return in their 40s to be alarming.

    Especially because I've worked with organizations that have so amply proved that “if you make it relevant, they will come.”

    And I couldn't agree more that the path to the future lies in upstart companies making old models obsolete by having big, hairy better ideas.

    You're a huge proponent of the big, hairy, better idea. KEEP ON SPREADING THE WORD!

  • Well, now… I love this, you see. I love it.

    What I have found (and been saying lately) is that too much of the work I see is too polished, too carefully honed and crafted, too fine. It's like a dry-aged, grass-fed, three-inch thick filet mignon: ready-prepared for the 40-something middle class audience members who are buying theater tickets (and paying through the nose, relatively speaking, for them).

    Now, 20- and 30- somethings like filet mignon, too… but they usually can't afford it. And even if they can, they often haven't really developed a palate necessary to appreciate it. But they still need to eat, and we need to feed them, and stone soup sounds just right to me.

    I hope I haven't butchered (pardon the pun) the metaphor too badly.

    My point is this — if we want to make theater more appealing to 20- and 30-somethings, we already know how:

    Make it more interactive, like the virtual social media spaces they occupy.

    Endow it with multiple narratives, also like those spaces, rather than the conventional one-narrative stories we see on our primary stages.

    Test the limits of multimedia.

    Above all else do *not* worry about “production values,” whatever that means. Just tell the stories you tell honestly and genuinely and without much pretension and bullshit.

    Oh, and don't charge more than a movie theater would charge for a ticket.

    Young people will come. Hell, lots of people will come.

    I've seen it start to work in DC with the Taffety Punk Theatre Company. I know it can work elsewhere, too.

  • I think the only problem about “talking about entirely different worlds” is that each of us is prone to make the mistake of generalizing our own small little community as if it is the whole world. There is absolutely NOTHING wrong with all these different types of arts organizations, for profit or nonprofit, finding their own market segments and making art that communicates with those market segments. If we smaller theaters could do a better job of finding our own ideal market segments, maybe we wouldn't be so anxious about this all the time.

    Kaiser's prescription probably makes a lot of sense for big (by storefront standards) art institutions. Gwydion has it exactly right in his comment. They're serving filet mignon. And frankly, why shouldn't they? Denzel Washington on stage is fancier than filet mignon, and is expensive. Do we not want Denzel Washington to act on stage? I'm glad he's there, even if I can't afford it, because it will draw some people into the theater.

    That model doesn't really do much for us in storefront theater, because we can't afford to produce filet mignon. But it doesn't hurt us, either, unless we try to feebly imitate that model. The fact that big, institutional theaters put on such expensive, ritzy fare just means that there are lots of other audiences out there that can't afford it, but CAN afford us.

    This is nothing to get upset about.

  • Trisha Mead

    I have to say that I found most of Kaiser's ideas completely applicable at the storefront level.

    Have a longer planning cycle and a 5 year menu of projects in mind so you can match the right project to the right supporter. You could do this whether the avg. project budget was $500 or $5million.

    Collaborate with other like minded organizations to create events that are truly tranformational (and too big/important to be ignored by the media). We've done this with the Fertile Ground festival in Portland and the total budget for that project was $5,000 – and most of of the collaborators were storefront companies well below the $50,000 annual operating level.

    Have one leader speak for your organization. This is particularly tricky with ensemble based companies, but still critical- people tend to think of your company as a person, with a distinct voice and personality. Give them a person to attach to that voice and personality- it simplifies everything.

    If you are not operating as a non-profit, then the parts of his talk about the board may not apply, but if you are operating as a non-profit, and your board consists of your mom, and your lawyer friend, and three of the five actors in your ensemble, then his advice about the “life cycles” of boards (and letting your board members know when it is time to retire and make room for new blood that's positioned to take your org to the next level) is even MORE true at the micro than at the macro level.

    You don't have to be producing “legacy” theater to benefit from a 5 year planning cycle. New work in particular benefits hugely from taking additional time to educate your audience, develop strong artistic partnerships and identify potential financial partners. Even if your “financial partner” is the pizzaria who will give over their haunted basement for your site specific work.

    Kaiser may use examples from the giant leagues (because that's the work he knows) but the sparkpoints he throws are useable. Not complete, by any means. But useable.

  • I've been thinking about my own metaphor here and I've been troubled by it — specifically, by the suggestion that smaller companies don't in fact produce “filet mignon work” with regard to quality, whatever that means. It's not the case. Quality work happens everywhere.

  • That all makes sense (as long as the 5 year planning is not set in stone and does not kill flexibility and responsiveness to audiences and communities). I'm specifically referring to Kaiser's advice to let the younger audiences go, and get them back when they hit mid-life or send their kids to college… when they have money to go to expensive theater. That's all I'm referring to. That might work fine for the large institutional theaters, museums, and orchestras. And, it is not a threat to small theater.

  • I'm with you on this. But rather than one revolution, my belief is there needs to be a bunch of mini ones.

    I believe we're attacking the problem from the wrong angle. To quote a small man with big ideas, “I can't change the world, but I can change the world in me.” – Bono

    If we focus on helping each other and ourselves on individual levels, then we build a foundation that supports the bigger goal. But without a solid foundation it's like trying to fire a cannon off a canoe. How can we ever expect to sustain ourselves?

    The first step is to stop statements like this, “If you're going to make no money off your work…” Guess what? Then you never will. AND YOU DESERVE TO.

    So let's talk in this space, share and then put things into action in our respective home bases.

    I'm not worried about how it's supposed to be done. Nor am I concerned with those who continue to talk about how bleak the situation is.

    What ifs only take you so far. Try something. Find out for yourself, what works for you.

    Make the rules. You can.

  • “There is absolutely NOTHING wrong with all these different types of arts organizations, for profit or nonprofit, finding their own market segments and making art that communicates with those market segments. If we smaller theaters could do a better job of finding our own ideal market segments, maybe we wouldn't be so anxious about this all the time.”

    YES.There is an audience for everyone. And we should be happy for those who find theirs.

  • “Give them a person to attach to that voice and personality- it simplifies everything.”

    Well said.

  • How is this post a month old? Nice Bedard.