The Long Tail of the NEA

01.27.11 | 5 Comments

CATEGORIES conversation starter, development, facts + figures, funding and support, ideas, new plays

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It’s easy to get swamped during the Arena Stage Convenings.There is a lot going on and a lot of theoretical conversation. The hardest workin’ folks in show business are trying to fix some part of show business and let me tell you: it’s invigorating. I’ve been on the ground at one of these things, sometimes it can fry a circuit. 

So I’m going to give Mr. Rocco Landesman an unearned benefit of the doubt. I’m going to give him a pass that this time he wasn’t just knocking art in Peoria, and that he let slip a simple binary statement about a very complex situation and in the heat of the moment we all read it wrong. Both in the room and out.

All business is of course a question of supply and demand. But supply and demand isn’t binary. You know that, I know that, and Mr. Landesman knows that. He doesn’t care. He has to make the same life and death argument for the arts that we do every day and he does it in an arena that considers his entire agency budget to be a pretty political football and his budget a rounding error. That his impulse is to choose the Guthrie over the Kitchen makes plenty of sense from 35,000 feet. 

So when he brushed off the idea that small theatres make his dollars go further (and are idealistic) I don’t think he was being callous or naïve. I just think his perspective is so different he missed it.

Kirk Lynn and Scott Walters who rose to ask him questions are on his payroll. Almost everyone in that room is. These aren’t sour grapes swinging birks who aren’t getting milk from momma whining about the unfairness of it all. These are folks who take a penny, leave a penny and contribute to the art that makes this artform great. Kirk Lynn is one of six ADs of a cutting edge theatre group from a red state. Scott Walters is doing primary research on bringing theatre back to small rural towns and evangelizing everyday about the importance of supporting storytelling in our core communities.

But it’s smaller than that. See. My grant money is a blend of City, State, and NEA matched money. I’m on Rocco’s dole too. While I’m mostly a loud mouthed blogger and social media drone, I’m an advocate  and evangelist for Austin theatre where ever there is a venue. Rocco gets livestream R+D out of me, and model analysis on the grassroots business models for sustainable community level theatre growth. He also got two shows. For some incalculable portion of $3000.

But it’s more than the simple return on investment.

It keeps us on the team. When he says things like Ms. Mead quoted at the top of her post:

"We’re all one enterprise. We just file different tax returns." Paul Libin on the state of the American Theater, as quoted by Molly Smith at the introduction to the #newplay convening.

"I would like to start… by calling bullshit."- Rocco Landesman, in response to Paul Libin’s quote, at the beginning of his remarks to the #newplay convening.

He hurts the entire field.

We are playing a different game on the sandlots Mr. Landesman. But even down here in Austin, with no aspirational LORT palace we get 90 feet base to base and 27 outs to do our best… and our best is pretty good. But you know what’s even more important?

The Guthrie?  Berkeley Rep? The Public? They’re not reaching the next generation of storytellers here in Austin. Troublepuppet will. The Rude Mechanicals will. Lord save us all, Rubber Repertory will…

Every dollar you give a committed evangelist like Ron Berry comes back, not in jobs or earned income but as artists determined to DO THAT.

Mr. Landesman, I know it feels like giving NEA pocket change to small communities who aren’t making art you would fly to see (though you should come down for Fusebox – queso’s on me) is throwing it away when development venues are strapped and laying people off.

But I urge you to come back over this weekend and remind yourself that that pocket change is being given to the most resourceful artists your hard-working staff can find. And those artists are turning those resources into stories, and beauty and art, and creating more artists.

You keep fighting the fight to keep us supplied and let us worry about creating demand.

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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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  • Brandon Moore

    I may have thrown this idea out before, but I’m very, very fond of it. Source was David Pay, the Artistic Director of Music on Main in Vancouver.

    Governments (like donors and patrons) are the venture capitalists of what we do. And not to parse what you’re saying too strictly, I think it is entirely about “return on investment.”

    But the “profit” they should be seeking isn’t financial; it’s social. It’s exactly what you’re describing here. Our relationship with government is being shifted far too much into a conversation about a customer (taxpayer) buying services from a supplier (government.) That’s not what governments are about. We need to keep the discussion about one of citizenship, and that’s why I’m quite grateful for this piece.

    • I think you’re dead on, and I think it’s that clarification that’s key. In America we have become SO focused on tangible financial metrics that getting HAPPINESS back isn’t sufficient. Getting art isn’t enough.

      Thanks for commenting.

  • Ok so I don’t know you, but next time I am in in Austin, you and me…lunch. I am kinda new to the blog/twitter world, so I apologize in advance if my comment has mistakes in it.

    I am glad you understand where Rocco comes from, to see the other side of the argument or at least where his argument is coming from, not just the words. I honestly feel if more people could at least see the other persons view for a second the debate would become more discussion and less rebellion. Which for me is important.

    In America we often forget that a long period of great artistic growth in the world came about in the Patron system. Families giving money to an artist to create something beautiful with no hope that there would be a return on their investment other then the creation of something new. Something that might inspire them or entertain them. For me remembering that is important. Trying to discuss with our government and our law makers that financial profit isn’t always the most important thing, that ethical and emotional profit can be a bigger boon then anything…at least that is what I was always taught the WPA was trying to do.

    At least thats my 2 cents.

    • Hey, Lee — glad you’ve found Travis. He’s a good man. I highly recommend him.

      Travis — same deal.