Let’s Get Vertical (Vertical)

01.23.12 | 4 Comments

CATEGORIES #2amt, #stealthisidea, cities, community, conversation starter, neverbedark, new play development, new plays

On my own blog some time ago I wrote about smaller and regional theatres being considered “minor league” in the pejorative sense and the broken ideas around that vocabulary in a post called “Is this Heaven, No It’s Iowa”.

The happy upbeat ending for those of you too good to click through is the idea that rather than everyone trying to cram themselves into the most expensive cities on the continent to learn how to create professionally in the most expensive, least hospitable creation conditions we can muster, they find a comfortable place they like living with people they like creating with and get really good at being on stage rather than auditioning. Then rather than shipping all of our raw materials to population dense urban areas we can ship product.

A few generalities:

  1. Our larger, resource rich institutions cannot afford the risks of raw development and our smaller nimble indie and mayfly companies don’t have the resources to pay a living wage
  2. There is a general feeling that the theatres more on the ‘product level’ end of the scale below lack artistic ambition.
  3. There is a general feeling that theatres / companies on the ‘raw research’ end of the spectrum lack aesthetic polish and have an uneven talent pool.
  4. There is an audience perception that theatre outside of New York is ‘less than’ (else the question “Why don’t you move to New York?” wouldn’t be the frustrating runner-up to How did you learn all those lines in the cliché’-a-thon.
  5. Universities have been removed entirely from this spectrum as players at all in the development or production of new plays.
  6. Resources are disproportionately deployed in dense urban areas.

This is the spectrum I’m working off off when I say ‘spectrum’. What it lacks in nuance it makes up for by existing.

Theatre Integration Pic

You have a thousand complaints about my generalities and the spectrum (and they’re mostly fair) but they’re a working set of assumptions so let’s talk about the ideas first and you can fix the specifics later.

There is no system in the theatre ecosystem. Every branch of this ungainly beast is trying to perform every function. Without enough resources to go around we need to improve communication and eliminate redundancies. This is actually why I remained supportive during the (over)heated discussion around Arena Stage’s submission policy. I think that finding a pod of like-minded, vetted partners to funnel texts and writers to development-minded venues who then pass off other texts and writers to producers is the dream not a betrayal.

But development folks talk to development folks, producers talk to producers, presenters talk to presenters, and the universities talk to almost no one. We need to at least smudge the lines. Let me spin a tale. It is, as most of my theatre pipe dreams are, a tale of relationship and communication.

My platonic ideal of this system rests on a foundation of dynamic local creation.The larger theatres in a given town, having a relationship with the local creators, curate their second spaces (oh hello #neverbedark) with shows that they love. The indie and fringe companies get a longer run to bash out problems in the text or production, broader exposure and they get to build a following of their own. The audience gets a chance to see more locally created theatre. The larger theatre get a low cost production in their second space that didn’t eat up all the available man hours of their staff.

And the world gets a play with a history ready for bigger things.

A forward thinking university could easily step into this sort of system and ask a new / fresh play to be brought in under their auspices for a semester of development (with the artists being paid as guest lecturers) with a production at the end of term.The students get hands on experience with development.

This sort of system eliminates the world premiere on Broadway. I have no solution for that. There is no cure for premier-itis. But the topical cream has to be narrative right? “This is a show that was born in the basement of a church in Austin into FronteraFest. After two and half weeks of buzz it got picked up and played for 5 sold out weeks on the second stage at [larger local theatre] and now it’s at a regional with some of the original cast and some actors local to the regional theatre. Regionals talk to other regionals and to the NY NFP’s…. and there may be life after closing for more new plays.

What do we get?

  1. Relationship between resource strata.
  2. Vetted plays we know have an audience.
  3. Spotlights on smaller local companies and local performers.
  4. Discussion on the order of prospect discussions in sports whether or not X theatre will have the space to call up that show from Austin we loved.
  5. More full productions of new local work

Is this how we’re going to populate a Broadway of the future? No. I don’t think so. But the product end of the spectrum needs vetted productions, they need sure things. So let’s make them. When Broadway says there aren’t sure things to fill those spaces for even limited runs let’s hold their feet to the fire with specifics. Let’s have a breadcrumb trail of audiences and artists banging the drum for the next Ruined that doesn’t even make the transfer. Let’s ease some resources down the development chain and let’s slide the overpopulation of talent in New York back to regional and micro regional hubs and keep creating truly great art on a community level that can be elevated to greater attention when it’s ready.

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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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  • Anonymous

    I think you’ve figured out exactly how it should work. Having multiple productions of a play in increasingly larger theatres with some thread of people staying involved all the way to the top is much better play development than some big theatre commissioning a writer and endlessly giving readings and notes but never a full production. If you want great theatre you’ve got to put some life into. It’s got to be produced, improved, and grown from a simple, core idea.

    • So how do we beginning facilitating those relationships, and how do we drive from competitive to complimentary best practices to make all these moving parts fit together…. rhetorical questions all – but that’s the next step.

      • Anonymous

        Ha! I wish I knew.  I guess producing theatres need to recognize they are a step in an important process and the goal isn’t to compete with each other but to improve the overall cultural landscape. Those are big ideas that probably don’t fit well with the day-to-day goals of most theatres. They need to be looking below them for new ideas, and then pushing those ideas up the ladder as they develop. The only competition should be between the ideas, not egos or budgets or status or location.

  • Here in Vancouver there is a system starting to fall into place.  The Vancouver Fringe has partnered with both the Cultch and The Vancouver Playhouse for awards. The “Cultchivating the Fringe” Award gives a Fringe festival show a second production in the studio space at the Cultch as well as development time.  The Vancouver Playhouse Award gives a run in the Playhouse’s “Recital Hall series”.  For a bit more info on the Fringe’s awards you can check their link here: http://www.vancouverfringe.com/2011-fringe-awards/

    As well, the Arts Club theatre (the largest organization in Vancouver) has been known to pick up shows that do successful runs at indie companies either for spots in their main season or as touring shows. 

    I have no idea what the future for any of those shows are outside of Greater Vancouver, but I’m glad to see them getting development and larger audiences within Vancouver