Theatre Bay Area Chatterbox

Friday, January 15, 2010

Outrageous Fortune - Let's Talk About New Plays

The blogosphere is abuzz with discussion of TDF's new book Outrageous Fortune a serious, important, and fairly damning study about the state of new play development and the experience of being a playwright in America today. The study's authors are Todd London (of New Dramatists) and Ben Pesner, and they take a careful and complicated look at the new plays sector, basing his findings on surveys conducted with playwrights, producers and other "new play mavens" and conversations in many cities around the country (including San Francisco). I'm very excited that Todd, Ben, and others from TDF are coming to the Bay Area to lead a community conversation exploring the book's conclusions and discussing potential solutions. If you're a playwright, a director, or care about new plays, you should be there (save the date -- February 9 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., more details coming soon).

As many people have commented, if you've ever talked to a playwright in the last decade (and especially if you've worked closely with many of them) this book feels both unsurprising and very unsettling. It's unsurprising (to me anyway) to hear that it's incredibly difficult to make a living as a playwright, that playwrights feel deeply dissatisfied with the current system of new play development, that they feel excluded from institutions, and that it doesn't get much better even when you start to have more success. What I did find shocking, in addition to just the starkness of it all written down like that, was the degree of disconnect between the views of the playwrights and the views of the artistic directors, especially those from the larger theatres. The book itself calls this out as the most surprising and the most disturbing finding, and I agree. It seems that playwrights are profoundly (and often justifiably) suspicious of theatres and their staff, and that theatres suspect playwrights of incompetence, whining and refusal to write for the audiences that the theatre is trying to serve. In fact, I was most fascinated by the chapter on audience and the way in which both sides cited issues with finding the right audience as a key part of the problem. I'll hope to come back next week and post more about that chapter.

In the meantime, buy the book, I mean it. And read about it here on this blog where there is a round-up of many different bloggers' responses or this one. Or even here in the NY Times. And come to our event on February 9.

As saddened as I am by the conclusions in this book, and as much as it lends weight to my often recurring desire to ditch this broken, limping, crazy field of ours, I'm heartened by the possibility of a more open conversation, and the increase in the collective will to change the way we make new plays and the way we support artists in this country.

I hope you'll join the conversation here on this blog, elsewhere online, or in person at our event.

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Monday, January 4, 2010

Start Making Art

Today's "You've Cott Mail" included an item from David Byrne's (Talking Heads) blog that should twist operas,' symphonies' and museums' panties in a bunch. In response to the LA Opera's staggering $32 million price tag for The Ring Cycle, and its $14 million bailout from the county (according to his post), Byrne suggests that state funding for opera, symphonies and museums should cease, or at least be drastically curtailed, in favor of arts education.


The part that Cott distributed was certainly controversial, but Byrne's post is actually about much more than that. It's about making the arts accessible. That is, it's about making arts-making accessible, rather than throwing money after "dead guys." Now, when I read Cott's outtake, I was at first annoyed at what seemed to be yet another example of either/or. Either we fund large institutions or we fund arts education. Either/or arguments really annoy me--maybe I'm an idealist, but I tend to reject these--what do you call them?--false dichotomies?

So I'm glad I went back to read the whole post. I would excerpted a later paragraph, specifically this one:

"I sense that in the long run there is a greater value for humanity in empowering folks to make and create than there is in teaching them the canon, the great works and the masterpieces. In my opinion, it’s more important that someone learn to make music, to draw, photograph, write or create in any form than it is for them to understand and appreciate Picasso, Warhol or Bill Shakespeare — to say nothing of opry. In the long term it doesn’t matter if students become writers, artists or musicians — though a few might. It's more important that they are able to understand the process of creation, experimentation and discovery — which can then be applied to anything they do, as those processes, deep down, are all similar. It’s an investment in fluorescence."

Theatre Bay Area has always--naturally--supported theatremaking. But we've also been following the trend--which has mostly been in the realm of audience development--of artmaking. That is, to get your audiences more engaged, they need to be part of the theatremaking process.

And now more than ever, people seem to be engaged in some mode of creation. Technology has helped: blogs, the relative cheapness of video equipment and editing software, etc. We have a huge DIY movement, and that's got to spill over into artmaking, which has got to spill over into the classroom--that's my hope, at least.

I can certainly see how teenagers, for example, could get a better grasp on Shakespeare and other "dead guys" but engaging in theatremaking to begin with. After all, Shakespeare didn't write for libraries and classrooms, he wrote for the stage.