Theatre Bay Area Chatterbox

Monday, August 31, 2009

Jobless in Seattle

"You've Cott Mail" posted a hot-topic article this morning from the Seattle Times about how the larger local theatres aren't hiring as many local actors as in even two years ago, or last year. The article, written by ex-Bay Area theatre writer Misha Berson, indicated that Seattle Rep slashed roles for local actors from 40 last year to 20 this year. Ouch.

Of course local actors cost less overall than out-of-town actors, so on the surface you have to wonder where the cost-savings is. Can we say touring productions, coproductions, touring solo shows? (Since this is Seattle, I'm reminded of Mike Daisey's diatribe monologue against big theatre companies who don't support their local artists, while he was touring around the country with his solo show taking up slots in regional theatres' season. Not that I disagreed with him, but irony can be unavoidable no matter your intentions.)

Might be interesting to compare how Seattle's regional theatres are dealing with the recession as opposed to Bay Area theatres. Last week I just finished editing an article for our October issue (that's how far in advance we work), a discussion about the benefits of hiring local artists--and the possibly surprising benefits of having out-of-town artists here. But anecdotally, I've noticed that San Jose Rep's Rick Lombardo, in his first season, is committed to the local actors, and even Magic Theatre hired mostly local actors in Loretta Greco's first season. (Now, if we can get some more local directors and playwrights in there too.... I did hear that Rick was meeting with a lot of local playwrights.)

The out-of-town casting/hiring is always a hot-button topic. The very first issue in 1976 of what is now Theatre Bay Area magazine had an article about it, and it seems we run an article about it every couple of years. I tried to cast (ahem) the October article a bit differently, holistically if you will. I know it's a month off yet, but I'll enjoy hearing your comments when it comes out.

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Friday, August 28, 2009

Social Networking as art? Or the rantings of a 40something and technology...

A NYT article published 8/16/09 details the Twitter success story of Broadway's Next to Normal. Apparently this past spring the show's creator, Brian Yorkey, began sending single tweets that were more than just marketing quips or lines from the show. He adapted the script for a Twitter audience, sending character lines that were intended to happen when that character wasn't speaking on stage. By the Sunday morning of the Tony Awards in June, when the tweets stopped, a complete shadow script was in existence.

It's apparently hard to gauge the success of this technique as a marketing tool. Did the surge in sales happen because of the tweets or because of the show's 11 Tony nominations (and eventual multiple wins)? Who's to say. But it certainly speaks to the creativity possible in the world of social networking. I will let you read the specifics of the article yourself:
Play special attention to the link for the compiled text at

I, for one, historically have doubted the "power" of social networking for the arts. It's not ignorance that says that. I have certainly heard people's marketing successes. But I guess I have always been underwhelmed by what the various sites really offer when push comes to shove. This is probably a reflection more of the fact that I am not necessarily the traditional web 2.0 audience. As least my perception of what that means. And my degree of frustration with the various mechanisms ranges from mild annoyance to rage. I have tried for weeks to figure out how to subscribe to some of my favorite blogs. I have yet to succeed on most of them. More often than not, as a general non-particpant in the blogging world, it mostly seems like an excuse for people to be snarky. And my Facebook inbox is so flooded with invites for shows and events it has reached the level of white noise (and no, that isn't an invitation to un-friend me. I love hearing about everyting, really). None of this stops me from having a FB page and sending out invites for my own theatre company. And yes I have dipped my toe in the world of Twitter (the only tweet I have ever sent was some interesting stats on tweeting (Sysomos report on Twitter. 85% of users post less than once/day , 21% never do, 5% account for 75% of activity).

I guess I have always wondered: How long would it take for someone to take this social networking thing to the next level? Admittedly as you can gather from the ramblings above, I am not the most plugged-in person in the world, but my Mom still calls me from Ohio when her VCR blinks, so compared to some I'm a guru. So maybe this Next to Normal thing isn't entirely new. But it's certainly new for a Broadway show and it does get the brain jumping about the possibilities. Can social networking "create" art as well as market it? I certainly don't know the answer, but I hope we take advantage of the possibilities available on the mechanisms available to us before the next thing comes along and we have to start all over again.

And thanks, Susan (Theatre Bay Area membership associate and fellow N2N fan) for letting me know about the article!

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Thursday, August 27, 2009

Check Out Our Listings

Just a heads up that I just posted two choice listings: one audition and one job (assistant directors) for a high-profile local theatre company. Catch: you have to be a member to login to our audition and job listings!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

August: Osage County at the Curran Theatre

August: Osage County opens with the patriarch of the Weston family drinking with his new hired help, Johnna. When the lights come up, he embarks on a very long rant that tells the audience everything it needs to know about this particular man, Beverly. It is too long, really, and there is almost no movement during the entire scene.

It is at this point you could feel the whole audience beginning to worry. They knew this play lasts three hours and twenty minutes. If this was what those three hours were going to be like, they wouldn't make it past first intermission.

But we all did. And past second intermission, too. Why? Because this is family drama at its most extreme. Melodrama, really, but still living in a thoroughly realist environment. The notion that all of this misfortune and shock and surprise could befall a single family on the Plains in three weeks is preposterous, but we buy it, because it's engrossing. We buy it because it's gutsy, daring and makes interesting choices.

That man from the first scene is never seen after it, hence his longwinded monologue. He disappears into the night, never to be heard from again. The whole family convenes at their Oklahoma house to deal with the fallout. There's Violet, his pill-popping wife with a mean streak; her sister Mattie Fae and her husband Charlie, as well as their son, who at 37 is still demeaned with the nickname "Little Charles"; and Bev and Vi's three daughters (and significant others), Barb, Karen and Ivy. Throw in a pot-smoking, maladjusted 14-year-old, a little sexual harassment, a lot of gasp-inducing surprises and the funniest pre-dinner prayers you've ever heard, and you've got August: Osage County.

For all the surprises, only the last one was really unpredictable. But the knowledge that these catastrophic revelations were coming only built up tension and suspense. The action is fast-paced, yet the play feels like an intrusion into the everyday lives of this supremely screwed-up family.

I know a lot of people left Steppenwolf in Chicago and the Imperial Theater in New York--and will leave the Curran--saying that they saw their own family on that stage. Really? What does it say about this country that everyone can leave that theatre feeling connected to these hopeless and truly demented characters? Maybe that was the point. I didn't see my family on that stage. And I'm glad for it. What I saw was something like the Ghost of Christmas Future--a portentous omen of what could happen if we're not careful and not nice to those whose blood we share. But whether the story strikes you as a warning or as a reflection of reality, it shows all of us something that, for all its extremity, could become real. Which means it is a great piece of art.

The set's a marvel, and it gives the actors a lot of room to play. And play they do. This is high caliber, high-stakes acting. It is visceral and switches from the comedic to the tragic on a dime, with the masterful strokes of Tracy Letts. The pendulum swing he has created is not easy to make realistic, and he does. It is also not easy to act, and the actors do. There were moments of disjointedness--reactions that came too quickly to be real, where transitions didn't exist and the audience was left questioning where this particular outburst was coming from. This is only the second stop on the tour, and the performance I saw was only the second night in the Curran. A new space, a new location, and not enough time to figure out each other's timing probably account for the lack of fluidity. Give them a couple weeks here, and I'm sure those issues will be hammered out.

When those actors are on, though, there are definitely on. Highlights are Estelle Parsons as Violet, Shannon Cochran as Barb, Paul Vincent O'Connor as the elder Charlie, Jeff Still as Bill and Amy Warren as Karen. They make the three hours and twenty minutes enjoyable.

August: Osage County plays at the Curran Theatre through Sept. 6th.
Photo of Shannon Cochran, Jeff Still & Estelle Parsons by Robert J. Saferstein.

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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Facts Are These

I've never paid attention to Theatre Facts, the 35-page audit of American theatre as a whole published each year by TCG. Before I started here at Theatre Bay Area, I worked at Z Space, which wasn't a TCG member theatre, and as such the national service organization barely touched my radar. And last year I was swallowed whole by Free Night and the run-up to the intrinsic impact study. So I'm a Theatre Facts virgin, and I've got to say, it's quite the piece of work.

For those of you who don't want to take a wander through all 35 pages, I'd at least recommend reading the first page, which includes a very helpful "Inside this Article" summary. But if you want to delve deeper, there are a lot of numbers and some potentially disturbing trends.

One thing to point out first--while Theatre Facts was just published, it actually only looks at the period between October 1, 2007 and September 30, 2008. This is because it takes almost a year for TCG to do what it does in terms of verifying numbers, pouring over audits and 990s, and crafting the article. As such, it cuts off just before things got interesting with the economy. As you can imagine, I can't wait to see what it shows happened in the year they're auditing now--but alas, we'll have to wait until next August, by which time (one can dream) this whole financial downturn might have flipped back to an upswing. (An aside: this long timeline has inspired the currently-running Pulse survey, which we encourage all arts organizations, TCG and non-TCG alike, to take. The Pulse takes a much more cursory, but also much quicker-to-process, look at the state of the field.)

First, some of the quick takeaways from the study, and then some futher thoughts on meaning:

  • Theatres presented the creative work of 83,000 artists to 32 million audience members.

  • More than half of theatres ended 2008 in the red.

  • Subscription income rose 2.6%, but 8% fewer subscription tickets were purchased and the number of subscribers fell by 10%.

  • Overall attendance was up 1.9% and the number of performances offered was up 5.2%.

  • Earned income dropped over 7% from 2007 to 2008, and supported fewer expenses per dollar than in any previous year.

  • Of all earned income, ticket sales represented 76% of money earned in 2008, but covered 3% fewer expenses.

The main thing that caught my eye is this ever-rising discrepancy between income and expense--even with earned income on the rise, which it surely won't be in the next edition of this report, growth in expenses (19.1%) outstripped growth in earned income (6%) by a large margin over five years. Essentially, even as we continue to raise our prices, the cost of producing theatre continues to be a losing game financially.

I don't know where this leaves us, especially since of those five years referenced above, five were in a positive economy. And I'll be honest, I'm not really a numbers guy, so my eyes kind of glazed over around page 15, so I've got a lot more to process. But this is a start--and it leads me to ask, how can we as a community generate new models that allow our income to balance, if not exceed, our expenses? Admittedly, my numbers don't cover the development income/expense lines, which are a bit more positive, but still don't really even out.

I find this especially interesting in light of the discussion occuring in the comments on Rebecca's post "Growing versus Thriving" and an earlier post by Sabrina about the NEA funding coming under attack. TCG's survey looks almost exclusively at budgets over a million dollars (in many cases, far over a million dollars) because that's who TCG primarily serves. What would happen, I wonder, if we were to look at this same level of detail for companies like Crowded Fire or Shotgun Players? Is theatre morphing into a situation in which smaller is better, more sustainable? Additionally, some of the comments in those earlier entries have been discussing the assertion by certain Republican Congress members that the government shouldn't have the onus for supporting work that hasn't succeeded in the public sphere (i.e., hasn't made money on ticket sales). With this new data--that almost no one succeeds to that level, at least in the aggregate--where does that leave us as a field, especially as government and foundational funding wane with the descending good fortunes of the people whose money they redistribute?

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Monday, August 10, 2009

Growing Versus Thriving

A few years after I started Crowded Fire, I remember the mother of a company member coming up after a show and saying enthusiastically, “You guys are going to be the next Berkeley Rep. I remember when they were just a small group starting out and look where they are now!” That sounded exciting to me--I thought it would be great to have our story look like the classic '70s/'80s story of the group of actors who got together to put on a show, attracted an audience and funding, built a building, and grew their company into one of the leading regional theatres in the country.

So we started to work on it. In between finding cheap lumber, tracking down rehearsal space and meeting playwrights, we started trying to look like a mini regional theatre. We put together an advisory board, we created an employee manual (I laugh when I think about that--I mean, we didn’t really have any employees), and we tried to seem as much like an institution as we could. This started to pay off fast: artists took us seriously, I got invited to speak on panels, and most importantly, it was easier to answer all those questions on grants that are oriented towards larger companies. Did we have a strategic plan? Of course! Did we know the ratio of earned to contributed income? You bet! Did we have a plan to become a nonprofit within three years? In progress.

But then I started to question this approach. Was growing into a multi-million dollar theatre really what we were aiming to do? For one thing, it didn’t look likely. The landscape has changed a lot since the early days of the regional theatre movement and there isn’t necessarily room for too many more institutions on that scale. For another thing, the kind of artist-driven, experimental work we were attracted to didn’t match well with the kind of revenue you need to grow exponentially like that. And honestly, all that time spent on the business of creating and maintaining a nonprofit structure was time not spent making art, or improving the art we were creating.

Fast forward some years, and here at Theatre Bay Area I often talk to small companies who want to know how to grow into midsize ones, or to other members of the community who want to know what TBA is doing to “help companies grow.” What I think now is that we’re not asking the right question. What can we all do to help companies thrive? Not everyone needs to grow, or especially to keep on growing year after year. Sure, it’s great to get big enough to have a paid staff member, to pay artists a semi-respectable wage, and to get the Chronicle to come review your plays. But maybe the question should be about achieving a sustainable size and then deepening the creative achievement, not just the size of your audience or the size of your budget. Especially in the midst of this recession, we need to find other ways to measure success. Year-over-year growth is not always possible, and perhaps not even desirable.

The thing is, though, this kind of thinking has to come from funders and other key players as well. If the art’s not real unless you own your space, if you can’t call it a “professional” production without an Equity contract, if you can’t get in the door of a major funder without a minimum budget size, then there are real reasons that we keep focusing on growth. This feels like such an American preoccupation to me. The stock market needs to keep rising and rising, we need to keep settling more and more land, we have to build bigger and bigger houses. Let’s not make that mistake in the arts.

What could we all do to change the conversation so that we have others ways to measure importance, achievement and value to the community? What if we asked how significant the work you’re making is instead of what budget category your company fits in or how many audience members attended last year? There’s no question that the institutional model is a problematic one for new companies to emulate. Let’s start thinking about new structures to help emerging artists attract the resources they need to make extraordinary work, and let’s work with our funders to figure out how to evaluate that work without always asking everyone to demonstrate growth.

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Thursday, August 6, 2009

San Francisco's Art Is Ruining it for the Rest of America, Apparently

The NEA is currently under fire from such media organizations as Fox News and the Wall Street Journal for providing what some call "indecent" art projects. All of those perverted NEA grantees are--you guessed it--right here in the Bay Area. Because this is clearly a haven of debauchery and moral degeneration, out here in the West, far from the puritanical, straight-laced East Coast.

The indecent grantees: CounterPulse, because they host a cabaret titled "Perverts Put Out!"; Frameline, the host of the San Francisco International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, which recently screened a movie called Thundercrack, which mixes hardcore sex with a campy plot; and Jess Curtis/Gravity for producing "Symmetry Project," featuring two naked people "writhing on the floor."

To begin, "Perverts Put Out!" claims not to receive any of that NEA funding; in other words, CounterPulse uses the federal money for other, more noble and universally accepted pursuits. So why this is even a part of the debate, I'm not sure. Second, Frameline screened hundreds of movies, of which Thundercrack was but one. It is possible--likely even--that NEA money, once again, did not go toward this particular objectionable screening.

But whether or not this funding went to these sex-related artistic pursuits, a nasty whiff of censorship lingers in the air. Why are two naked bodies "writhing" (some call it--*gasp*--"dancing") not artistically valid? We accept nudity in the theatre, because it can signify something potent. A nude character is a vulnerable one, for example, or an objectified one. Like any costume, it is part of telling the story. So why should it be objectionable and distasteful in a dance piece? Why the government can't bring itself to allow nudity in the name of art is beyond me. Anything sex-related in art and gubernatorial panic ensues, because obviously being exposed to any kind of sex outside the closed doors of your own bedroom will corrupt you beyond salvation. Just look at those promiscuous French people.

Sarcasm aside, art does--and should--live by its own laws. This is about freedom of expression. In two out of these three cases, it is at least questionable whether federal funding actually went to anything objectionable. In the other, nudity in a dance piece, in my opinion, should not be cause for alarm.

And, in the case of Thundercrack, sure, it sounds like a porno. (I've never seen it, so I am not equipped to make that judgment call.) But according to the description on Frameline's website, it is "the world's only underground kinky art porno horror movie." That's historical significance, right? Worthy of federal funding?

That might be a stretch. But the government does need to relax. Freedom of expression is a good thing, particularly in art. Sex is also generally considered a good thing. The marriage of the two is only natural. Isn't all art really about sex, somewhere in there? Sex and nudity doesn't make art indecent, it makes it interesting and natural.

We all know federal funding for the arts is important. Let's not allow a silly little porn flick to get in the way of that. This needn't be Mapplethorpe 2.0. If you need to restore your faith in the nobility and decency of art, go see CounterPulse's labor history bicycle tour, or take in a different LGBT-themed film from Frameline, one with a brilliant message about acceptance and very light on the sexual innuendo. Or go see one of the other recipients of the more than $79 million of NEA money that went to uncontroversial art projects.

Leave us crazy San Franciscans to our porn, nudity and general perviness. Our counterculture isn't bothering your mainstream, so don't bother us.

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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Why I'm Glad We Don't Live in Shakespearean England (Or Modern-Day England, For That Matter)

The Times Online has a feature out today about the decline of good manners at West End theatres. Apparently, people are urinating onstage, fondling each other in bathroom stalls, texting, calling and being generally rowdy. What is everyone blaming? Low ticket prices and alcohol in the theatre.

First of all, we've talked about alcohol in the theatre before on this blog--twice. Personally, I don't think it makes any sense to allow alcohol into a theatre. I don't see people chugging beers at the movies. I'm all for banning alcohol in auditoriums. Once upon a time it was the norm for all food and drink to be banned during performance, and to me that makes sense. You can eat at the movies, but only because the sound is cranked up to a level where chewing isn't going to bother anyone too much. In live theatre, ear-splitting sound would be distracting and take away from the show.

Low ticket prices, though? How elitist can you be? I'm sure it's not just the poor folk being disrespectful. And I'm sure there are many who can't afford high ticket prices who are sitting completely respectfully, enjoying performances in a more mature way.

Of course, the article points out that back in Shakespeare's time, the groundlings used to jeer and throw things at really, we've come a long way, say the writers. That was also the time when being an actor was no better than being a prostitute, though, so rude behavior in the theatre made just a bit more sense. Also, back in Shakespeare's time, there was little in the way of sets and props. With the considerably more expensive and advanced production design of today, a return to rowdiness and boisterousness is also a major financial liability. Today, we are a more civilized society, people want to be able to hear what they paid to watch, and actor safety actually matters now. (For a counterargument from Carl Benson of the PianoFight blog, check out this past Chatterbox post.)

Events like the ones this Times article describes are a giant step backwards in theatre. Measures like installing bouncers are alarming (and maybe a little funny) because theatre is not a bar. There shouldn't need to be a police presence in a theatre. And asking that we leave the groundlings back in Elizabethan England isn't sanctimonious, it's common courtesy. I think we'd have far fewer aspiring theatre artists if having dinner scraps hurled at you were still a legitimate concern.

But blaming lower ticket prices is missing the point. Alcohol makes more sense as a cause for this rudeness, and perhaps the theatres are just too close to the pub district on the West End (I wouldn't know). So, London, take out the liquor inside the theatre and make sure the ticket takers look out for drunk patrons. And please, America, don't follow Britain's example. Theatre--and anything people have put work into, really--deserves more respect than that.

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The Best Theatre of the Year? Not Really, But Still Worth Your While.

New York Magazine is fueling the fire behind the Minnesota Wedding Video recently featured on The Today Show. David Kois calls it the "best theater he's seen all year." Sure, the video is heartwarming. It's always good to see people having fun on what should be one of the best days of their lives. But is it the "best theater of the year"? It's great, but it is no longer theatre.

On this blog, we have been discussing how theatre relies on the possibility of interactivity (see Rebecca Novick's post from June), and the debate we've been having about the behavioral mores of the theatre is a moot point when you can watch this video sitting at home in your underwear. Clay pointed out that movies and theatre are vastly different media. I think that's apparent here. What makes theatre theatre is that it's live. You don't watch the video recording of Cats and say that it was the best (or worst) theatre; you need to qualify it with "recording of theatre," or "filmed theatre," or even just plain "movie."

Yes, this may have been "theatre" for those who attended this Minnesota wedding. It was fun, tried for a spontaneous look, and got people excited. That's theatre at its best, of course. But it has now passed into a new medium. To the more than 16 million who have seen this video so far, this ain't theatre, it's film, it's documentary. Those 16 million people are watching it at a remove, on the same website that brings us Salad Fingers and Charlie the Unicorn. They are at a remove of time, space and distance, watching something that happened in the past, like a memory. That makes this cinema.

Furthermore, it is the fact that this happened at a real-life wedding -- not one created merely for your personal viewing enjoyment--that makes this so endearing on video. We are in the reality television age, where fiction doesn't cut it, and where joke videos on YouTube are the new topics of water cooler conversation. The difference for this video is that, among all the scripted phoniness of reality television and the insincerity of those joke videos, this refreshing, genuine, sincere bit of cinema. It is surprising and quirky--but on a stage it simply wouldn't be. I think that if we saw this type of a choreographed routine in a wedding on a stage, it would quickly become something cheesy that belongs in a Disney musical. On a proper stage, this would lose all its charm. With a script, a plot, and outside of a real church during a real ceremony, it becomes ridiculous.

So is this theatre? No, not anymore. Not to David Kois, who did not attend this wedding. This is cinema at its best--real, heartfelt, and entirely secondhand viewing.

And theatre is firsthand. It's right there next to you, making you wan to get up and join in. So the people who were at the Minnesota wedding where this took place should feel very lucky. They got the theatrical experience. All we 16 million got was a record of it. Still great, but definitely not the same. So go check it out, if not to restore your faith in the theatre then to restore your faith in vitality and humanity.

Do you think it's theatre? Or are you into semantics like me and think this is an altogether different experience? What makes theatre to you? Let us know in the comments section.

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