Monday, September 28, 2009

wrestling the fog

[The faculty of using my resources well diminishes when their number grows. --Robert Bresson]

Isaac Butler over at Parabasis had a wide-ranging analysis of the ever-present problems of what he's calling "indie theater." That's thing to define in the first place -- after all, what is "indie"? As he points out along the way, "there is very little institutional memory as there are, essentially, no institutions." Folks aren't going to adhere to a seating chart at the anarchists' convention; nor should we be imposing a collective strategy on no-budget New-York-City-based live theater: it's the chaos that creates its best products.

At the same time, there's no reason why we can't take stock of what's around. The piece can only be appreciated as a whole in its entirety, but some highlights:
Let’s just admit it: Supply vastly outweighs demand. This is why festival glut is a really serious problem. Individual shows have a very difficult time getting attention even when festival season isn’t happening. Now that festivals happen year round, getting visibility is even more difficult. The stereotype of indie theatre is that artists either (a) guilt-trip their non-theatre friends into seeing work they’re not really going to like and subsidizing it with the ticket prices or (b) that theatre artists make up the bulk of the audiences at indie theatre shows. While both stereotypes are based in some kind of reality (people who do theatre care about theatre and want to see theatre etc.), these both arise out of the same supply-demand issue.

Recently, the Collective Arts Think Tank has put some thought into this issue and recommends that we, essentially, cut down on supply. While I agree, the question automatically begged is who is meant to be cutting down on supply? Now, the Collective Arts Think Tank is largely centered around performance companies doing generative work, but it’s still worth asking. Vallejo Gantner is a co-signatory. Is PS122 going to reduce its programming by 50% while still seeking the same level of funding from donors and foundations? My guess is no (nor would I were I he). Who, then, is supposed to take the hit and reduce their supply? Who puts down their gun first in the Mexican Stand-Off of Off-Off Broadway?
This gets to the heart of the matter: Managing Director Leah Bonvissuto and I went to the NYIT awards last week to celebrate Roy Clary's nomination, and time and time again presenters referred to the indie theater "community." Butler's characterization is far more accurate: we're not in an artistic commune: we're direct competitors.
The truth of the matter is that as long as work is largely funded by the artists themselves with a few outside donations and the occasional foundation kicking in some grant money every now and then, there’s no incentive to reduce supply (unless the producers get laid off from the day job funding their theatre company). The market does not in any way influence what gets put on (this is a good and bad thing). What determines it is simply staying power. Who will stick it out the longest, go the extra mile, dump more of their own money into their shows, and who will go with them. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing, but it’s one of the reasons why supply is so high.
I might be accused of missing the forest for the trees, but I will happily mis-read him because I think it's an important point: one of the contradictions theater practitioners continue to wrestle with is the thin line between competition and collaboration. Performers do this all the time, and so do producers, directors, and the rest. Teams and alliances are fleeting and temporary: we are all independent contractors who use each other only in the short term.
This is related to another issue (Which is interrelated with the next point). Success is poorly defined. A show that sells badly can still be an artistic success. A show that no one liked can still be beloved by its creators. If success is poorly defined, failure is also poorly defined, and thus a company ceasing production is largely based on factors that have little to do with the actual work.
Success is poorly defined because everyone is carrying their own yardstick for success.
it’s very difficult to convince first-time audience members to take a risk on indie theatre (Despite the excellent price point) because of their worries about the quality of what they’re about to see.
I think he misses the boat here entirely, though: you don't need to sell good theater to first-time audiences -- you need to sell the act of viewing theater itself.

There's also the point made in rebuttal to this post over at 99seats:
We work in lightning, in alchemy. You put together a group of passionate, energized people of varying levels of talent, organization and sanity, shake vigorously and sometimes, you get brilliance. Sometimes you get a big, fat turd. And that's the life we've chosen. But because of that, you know what: no one with money is going to give it to us, willy-nilly. Whenever I talk to someone on the "inside" about the crappy funding practices and wack funding priorities, pretty soon we get to the real crux of the problem: no one wants to give money to something that sucks. That's why basically every theatre in town, at every level, is exactly one bad show away from failure. Once you stink, it's hard to get that stench out of the seats. We're all dependent on hand-outs to survive, whether they're handouts from rich people or rich foundations or handouts from the government. And none of them want to piss money away.
So why be in a hurry to chase the money? Bresson was on to something.

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