Theatre Bay Area Chatterbox

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

OF Video Posted

The video from our convening around Outrageous Fortune is now on our site.


Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Outrageous Fortune Photos Published

Visit In this photo: Outrageous Fortune authors Todd London (center) and Ben Pesner, with Theatre Development Fund's Victoria Bailey. Photo by Claire Rice for Theatre Bay Area.


Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Outrageous Fortune Afterthought

The authors of Outrageous Fortune offered up an extraordinary presentation today, and also headed up a very intelligent question and answer session. I was really quite energized by the depth of the discussion.

After the event I was exhausted, mostly from liveblogging, but also from a sense that I usually get after such convenings: I get so overloaded with thoughts and ideas that I get a little discouraged that we can ever solve these big questions. When we start with the economics of being a playwright and end up with conversations about audiences, audience attendance, funding and all these other huge things, where do we start?

On the BART ride home I suddenly remembered an article from a recent issue of Fast Company magazine. If you're like me and get a little discouraged, you may find a bit of hope in the article. Actually, nearly everyone can find some hope in the article.

Here's the article, but I'll summarize. It's about poverty in Vietnam, how so many people and companies have been working on the problem of poverty in rural areas, and how unsolvable the problem seemed to be. When you think of poverty, you think of the lack of clean water, the lack of medical supplies--all these big huge things that seem (and maybe are) unsolvable. But one guy went in and instead of enumerating problems, he looked at success. He found that while many children of impoverished families were malnourished, not all of them were malnourished. So he studied what the successful mothers were doing, what they were feeding their children, and how often. Then he brought all of the mothers in the village together so the mothers of the healthy children could teach the other mothers what kinds of food to prepare and how often to feed the children. Not only did this solve the problem of malnourished children in the village, it solved it for the next several generations because the mothers passed on what they learned to the next generation, who passed it on and on....

I love this example for a couple of reasons: It shows how big problems can be solved if you start small and locally and, even better, the people in the village were empowered to solve the problem themselves--with a little guidance from someone on the outside, but still, the guy didn't prescribe solutions for the mothers. Some of the mothers already had the solutions at their disposal, and they taught the others.

As the authors of Outrageous Fortune pointed out, many things that we're doing in the Bay Area are working. Many theatre people and companies in the Bay Area have the solutions at their fingertips, and those solutions may just be impacting one "family" (company, or group of artists), but if the rest of us could learn what they are, we can adapt them. And maybe the success will spread. And maybe the success will stay with us for the next generation, and the next.


OF: 11 Finale

Opportunities to do self-productions in empty spaces.

Playwright: It's an AD prerogative to accept or reject a play, but sometimes they don't have a good answer for why they do. Which leads me to question of how plays are really selected?

AD: I don't have the time or staff to read plays. I pick people. It's about people. I invest deeply in artists.

It's 2 p.m., have to stop.

Please keep checking our site within the next few days for video and audio. And, I'll post some updates on video/audio progress.

And, I'd love to hear your comments on the liveblogging and what you've read here. Again, this isn't the most accurate snapshot--this subject has a ton of nuances, so if something written here seems totally off base, it may be because typed words can't capture tone of voice, body language, and I couldn't capture every single word.

That said, Theatre Bay Area plans to continue this conversation at our Annual Conference in May, and I'm hoping to publish more in-depth articles in the magazine.

Thanks for reading.....


OF: 10

Convo with audience; authors had to catch a plane.

Books ends with "what shall we do?" What are some things that may help?

I was struck by call for authentic conversation. Can TBA and TDF start these conversations?
[TBA's Rebecca Novick asks audience to finish sentence, "I wish..."]
I wish theatres would share audiences more.
I wish that plays didn't have to run for only 6 weeks.
I wish theatre companies would have more robust websites, at least so they have last three years production history with title, playwright and short synopsis.
I wish theatres wouldn't make assumptions about their audience.
I wish theatres would do more audience surveys.
I wish I could find plays by new playwrights in anthologies.
Bigger companies spend a lot of money on productions (carpenters get more money than actors).
I wish big companies would help small companies financially.
I wish we'd go back to when regional theatre was regional theatre. We are too starstruck.
I wish the work I've seen doesn't wither on the vine. (He reads plays that aren't done.)
I wish for a venue to create authentic dialogue.
I wish playwrights wouldn't assume that every play they wrote was worthy of production.
I wish playwrights wouldn't take it personally if companies don't offer feedback on their submission.
[Discussion in room about whether a theatre should acknowledge submission.]
I wish there were more artistic directors who matched playwrights with directors well (many do).
I wish there was a paid position called playwright-in-residence.

Rebecca: What could change? SF is called out in the book as a place where some stuff works.

I would love to hear more about partnerships between small and large theatres (in context of playwrights holding world premieres for large theatres)?
One example: Cal Shakes and Word for Word with Octavio Solis's work. Cal Shakes and Intersection with Naomi Iizuka. Cal Shakes could be fiscal agent. Cal Shakes notes that it's a successful program for them.
Chicago: When Steppenwolf expanded space they created a space called The Garage where smaller companies produced work in Steppenwolf space with Steppenwolf resources.

Can we get funders in the room and talk about their assumptions and the resources we need?

Rebecca: I'm hearing that funders do understand the damage of premiere-itis, and now they are moving their money toward audience.

Funder: It's moving away from creation and toward bringing it to a larger audience. We as funders can fill in gaps between points of view.

Audience suggestion: Funding should start to look beyond nonprofits and should hook up with individual theatre producers because if you look at the golden age of American playwriting, it was the individual producer that championed the playwright (Albee example).

I wish there were a way to make live performance accessible to a wider audience, to people who work all the time, etc., who can't physically get to plays.

More coming...


OF: 9

"Audiences have a different assumption of participation in larger theatres. Can anyone talk about how that happens"
A [from audience, a playwright]: I'm working with a theatre on a new play and we involved the audiences and communities from the beginning over a period of 2 years and 5 workshops. That's a way I felt directly connected to a community that will feel pumped up about seeing this work. It has to start early on, it has to be part of the theatre's mission statement. It has to be laid into the foundation of the theatre. Also developed a work with a smaller theatre that invites audiences very early on in the process. They have suggestions and I took a few notes. It's a way for those theatres to keep a constant dialogue with those audiences. We could learn from the direct participation of American Idol.

"What would it be for a playwright to write to an audience?"
A: Everyone means different things by this. Some ADs say that my job is to learn how to understand my audience. I have a dialogue with them we push each other. Sometimes it's that I live in a working class neighborhood so upper West Side plays don't work. The playwrights say that no one knows their audience unless they try it. If you do know your audience you'd have a hit every time. There's no way to answer this completely. [Different definitions of audiences.]

"When a movie is produced, they market it to *an* audience, not *the* audience. It seems if you did the former, you'd expand audiences."
A: On the subject of marketing & aud devo, it describes a feeling form playwrights that theatres aren't doing it successfully. The theatres know this, have fallen into a bind of subscription season. But playwrights also say that marketing departments doesn't want to hear from them about how to market their play, unless they're a playwright of color. Playwrights haven't been part of the larger conversation about audience development.

Break time, our authors are leaving. Convo continues after break with audience.


OF: 8

Q&A continued

[A comment about the fact that we're talking from a condition of scarcity. Todd says that the scarcity is coming out of years of abundance. Now people are feeling a pinch.]

"Can you talk more about the shrinking of venues for new work versus the importance playwrights place on small theatres."
A: Playwrights talk about small theatres that have impassioned leaders. Playwrights value these companies. Playwrights who are trying to make a living are in the position that they have to work against their interests of leaving these theatres behind. Also, it takes so long for a play to be produced in larger theatre that often the moment is gone. And yet ADs tell them they aren't writing for today's issues. But how can a playwright cast their lot with a smaller theatre that may close, that doesn't pay them? It's very complicated. Maybe partnerships across size will work.
[Blogger note: this is a very nuanced subject. Please listen to audio for full answer as I can't capture every word here, so full meaning may not come through.]

"Did you get a sense of why funders and everyone else cares about world premieres?"
A: Institutional ego, the fetishizing of the new. Being part of the creation of art. Perception that media cares. If you do a production of a new play and it's not successful, you can tell your board that it's because it was a new play. You can't cover up an unsuccessful production of an established play (internal defense mechanism).
Audience member noted that theatres like world premieres because they get a percentage of money/rights from future productions. Panel noted that many theatres stopped doing this. [Convo continues, lively audience convo on subrights, listen to audio.]

More coming....


OF: 7

The conversation will be audiotaped instead of videotaped. Will still be on our site.

Keep in mind: Theatres see themselves as exceptions to what the playwrights say. All theatres have good practices. If you're from a theatre [here], think for the field. Playwrights have rallied around the book, but playwrights shouldn't "shroud themselves in self-righteousness. There's lots of info from theatres about how they see your work." "There are gaps here; it's important to listen to what's being said on the other side." --Todd London

Tory Bailey (TDF): These conversations are useful. Out of this we will do a distillation process. We will give info to other funders.

"In your final part, you said what's working. What do you mean by 'working'?"
A: What's a successful journey. They're from different perspectives.

"Age breakdowns?"
A: No age spread that would have been surprising. Nothing glaring. Age only came up in context of professional track, that is, MFA is a recent phenomenon.

"How does the track of self-production fit in to conversation?"
A: While it comes up in the book, it's small note because we studied established theatres. Playwrights will talk about creating their own opportunities, but they seem to really want to be in the other theatres.

"What are theatre's defense of seasons and large staffs?"
A: There's been a shift in how theatre is produced from the individual producer to the regional theatre movement. Our study asks what are the unintended consequences of that movement. The defense of that is the fact that these institutions exist and are bringing plays to a larger audience. It's a damned if you do, damned if you don't [about seasons]. It's a problem and we have to figure out what that means.

"What is pay range among artistic directors?"
A: We didn't study it but it's available online. But it does have a wide range, depending on size of theatre. There are many people employed in arts institutions with health insurance and stability. We heard more about the stabbility, security and health insurance.

"I was interested in how few plays get second or third productions. I think we should abolish the term 'world premiere'. It puts so much pressure on the poor playwright. I've had so much fun directing second or third productions because the playwright is ready to see it in a new way and find new things. I think that's better way for a play to grow rather than through development."
A: The funder emphasis on premieres. The slippage of language (claiming and reclaiming premiere status), audiences don't care about premiere status but everyone else does. Some of the world premieres in our findings have to be second productions. How do you define premiere, a new play? Playwrights are denying world premiere credit so they can get play produced again. Theatres get cred on world premieres.

To be continued....


OF: Blogger's Disclaimer

Since it's break time, I wanted to offer a disclaimer of sorts about the posts so far. Basically they were my attempts to capture in real time *a lot* of information that Todd London provided. I may--probably did--miss lots of information, change many words, and many things may seem out of context. Todd's presentation, as he says, is the "executive summary I refused to print." All of the data of his presentation is in the book, so I must encourage you all to refer to the book for the precise details, rather than rely on my on-the-fly translation, which is really just a snapshot of the presentation.

This blog may be useful as we enter the Q&A portion of the day, though again, I may not get all of the words precisely right. Anyone feel free to comment to correct anything, offer other insights, etc. I'm doing my best!

And, most importantly, thank you for reading/following along. I would love to hear from you about this format, whether it's useful for you if you couldn't be at the event, etc.

A note on videotaping: Again, due to broadband issues we couldn't live stream, and due to other tech issues we are know recoding to tape. We hope still to have the video on our site within a few days--we just need to go through an extra editing step now.

Back soon....


OF: 6

What's working (discrete ideas):
Theatres that forge strong relationships with playwrights over time.
Playwright residencies work, in communities, in theatres.
Community support for playwrights (the book talks about SF here in particular, Adam Bock, Peter Nachtrieb, Liz Duffy Adams, etc). The power of multiple productions. (Case study of Amy Freed's Beard of Avon.) (Amy Freed is based in SF.)
Theatres band together to combat premiere-itis: National New Play Network. Rolling world premiere credit for three theatres.
Successful audience education around new work. How does this differ from marketing?

Shared principles: Favor clear & authentic communication. Flexible about the process to the work itself, alter scale, redraw maps (NNPN allows playwrights look at more theatres, instead a fewer larger ones). Rethink assumptions of how money is made, paid and granted. Audiences come in to process. Context alters perception. Embrace risk, ambition & the untried (and serve as inspireres).

Todd: "This [presentation] is the executive summary we refused to print." Read the book!

Break time....


OF: 5

More findings:
Emphasis on world premieres: a third of theatres' seasons are reportedly world premieres.
Fewer than 2 of these new works (less than 1 per season) are second productions.
Half of theatres seldom request a script that has already had a world premiere.
Second productions are greatly valued by playwrights: income stream but more, playwrights rarely feel that their plays are done after world premiere.(Can't learn and apply to rewrites.)
Playwrights withhold their plays from small theatres (which helps them develop the play, the theatres they care about) because they know a world premiere at a bigger theatre helps the play and their career more. (One reports withholding her own play from her own theatre.)
Managing the one shot stratifies theatres.
AD: "Everyone wants the same 10 playwrights."
Why?: Sincere belief in vision of writer; access to other important writers; generate press; institutional ego; group think of what's good.

Downsizing of American play:
ADs believe that smaller venues are better venues for new work, so they build smaller spaces for new work, "to sustain new work".
Cast size. ADs wonder why playwrights write small plays (ambition) and playwrights wonder if they can add fifth character and still get produced.

Dwindling audience:
We're losing audiences. They are dying, growing more conservative, younger & more diverse audiences are not being cultivated.
Playwrights believe theatres don't know how to develop nontraditional theatre audiences. they feel they don't market individual plays, but brand or whole season. Rely too much on subscriptions.
Theatres: playwrights write for a small group of their friends, they don't write for broad audiences.
[Reference NEA reports on audience falling for non-musical plays.]
Agree on: the current system of new play development doesn't allow playwrights to get to know audiences over time. How do you get to know a community if you don't get multiple productions there?

Under all of these findings in fear: The theatre has lost its impact; that it's moved to the margins; it's been supplanted by other media that handles conversation better. Where do we fit as theatre people in this world today?


OF: 4

Economics of playwriting:
A study of professional playwriting at top of field.
Financially, playwriting is a losing proposition. The economics of playwriting are impossible. 62% earn under $40K. Playwrights make half or more of their living through day jobs, non-theatre related stuff.
[Again, most all of this is in book.]
3% of income comes from royalties, which is at the heart of how we pay playwrights. Playwrights lose money on production. Average playwright in study is 35-45 years old (they aren't youthful bohemians).
Commissions: A mixed bag. Getting money is good, but some playwrights feel theatres give commissions so they "don't have to produce you". Plays take 6 months to 2 years to write, so commissions don't buy much time. Playwrights prefer commitment over commission. Grants are a better deal--they are usually "free money". They account of 13% of playwright's income, and are larger than commissions.

Gender: Income of those at same career stage is the same, the average career stage as self-described for men is higher than women, so men average more income. Things that indicate career growth are things that women aren't getting.

Race: Size of response was too small. Playwrights report getting same number of productions, get same average income, and they don't self-identify as in a lower career stage. So this seems to all look good. But response rate to study is so low that these numbers are skewed. [This is really outlined in the book; I suggest referring to the book.] There's a lack of diversity in the theatres themselves. "Theatres are often unaware of their own racism"--a playwright

Other: There is a career track for playwrights and it runs through 7 MFA programs. Playwrights from these schools have better access to field. It's time to retire the term "emerging playwright". Mid-career is crisis time for playwrights. They leave the field, or work on TV, in a time when they could be writing their best work. Some playwrights TV writing as lucrative, artistically fulfilling and powerful. Plays are rarely produced by theatres that develop them.


OF: 3

Theatres point of view:
ADs are worried about losing audiences to other media, the critical climate. Ads also agree with playwrights in new play process is not working. 2/3 of theatres believe it's harder to develop new plays in past decade (this was before financial downturn of 2008). Biggest problems: Expenses, not enough funding, audiences aren't interested, ADs don't agree (even wih one another) whether the boom in new plays means a increase in quality of writing. Obstacles: Cast size, cost, tech demands, hard to find work that makes an important contribution, audience reception.

Plays of quality & merit: ADs are split. Some feel there's a surfeit of new plays. Those who lead new play theatres feel we're in a period of dearth--the plays lack exciting choices, they aren't finished, they seem too much like TV. Writers of talent are writing plays to a set of rarified concerns. Those tackling big issues aren't the most talented. Form over content is a stumbling block for new plays. Playwrights are not writing for theatre's audiences.

System of new play production: Inadvertently drives a wedge between producer and playwright. Lack of access to AD is seen by playwrights as greatest obstacle to getting their plays produced. (ADs don't read the plays, but make the decisions.) A play needs support to rise to top. Agent submissions account for 0-1% of actually getting plays produced. The relationship with the AD is better for getting plays produced.

Wedge in relationship: Growth of institutions drive wedge. Lit departments were created to help playwrights gain access, but instead disconnects playwright from AD. AD should direct play for it to get good productions. Artistic curators don't control the purse strings.


OF: 2

Todd London:
We're looking at the nonprofit theatres.... At the heart of the problems is a kind of inauthenticity in conversation between artists and theatres. Our greatest hope is to spur more authentic conversations.... It's important for people to talk together now....

Themes for today: Division between how ADs see the field and how playwrights see the field. Economics of playwriting. Field's emphasis on premieres. Downsizing of new American plays. Dwindling audience for new plays. And what's working (best practices [positive practices], but look at kinds of things that are working in some places).

(Todd reviews chapter topics.)

Division: A system of theatrical production has become alienating for artists despite the energy and best intentions of everyone. Divide between playwrights and theatres is the most profound and troubling.

World according to playwright (unanimous): Partnership with AD is now mechanistic and now driven by marketing & box office concerns. Theatres are risk-averse and not as loyal to playwrights. Theatre today is corporate (they are talking about large institutional theatres; small theatres still give them a profound relationship). The deciison-making is top heavy and passionless. Theatres have a lack of leadership and vision--they are instead cautious. Corporate nature due to board of directors.

[My note: this is outlined in book.]

World according to playwright (con't): Theatres still sell themselves as artist-centered but playwrights say the focus is audience. 82% of playwrights believe that whether audiences will like the play is the determing factor for production. Unconventional style blocks the way to production.



OF: 1

Playwrights in the audience: Peter Sinn Nachtrieb, Eugenie Chan, Marisela Orta, Paul Heller, Mark Jackson, Tim Bauer, Naomi Newman, William Bivins, Roberta D'Alois, Liz Duffy Adams, Anne Galjour....

Show of hands showed about 90% of audience is playwrights.... Apologies for missing some names!

The Bay Area was one of the areas around the country where the authors collected data for the book, and they are traveling back to all those areas to do these presentations.

Tory Bailey (from TDF): 340 surveys for playwrights, got back 270 within 48 hours. A cross-section of playwrights across all stages of career. Tony winners to new, emerging playwrights. Theatre in study selected at random. Some selected because known for work with new plays. Got 100 theatres. "This is not an end this is a beginning." "This is the largest group we've presented too." (Yay, Bay Area!)

Ben Pesner: We've tapped into a national conversation that's been going on, that's important to be part of. (Referenced David Dower's Gates of Opportunity, available on Mellon website, the study on women playwrights and the blogosphere, particularly blogging playwrights.) This (the book) is a process, not a product.

Todd London: Noted that airline moved red eye flight to this afternoon so they can get back to NY ahead of the storm. So they're leaving around 1, but the conversation will continue until 2.

Todd will talk for an hour....


OF: Preshow

The authors of Outrageous Fortune are here, and we're setting up a projector, a video camera, and I've got my clunky laptop set up. Our audience is showing up, mingling in the lobby with coffee.

Confession: This is my first time live blogging, so I'll do my best to process and edit info quickly. Apologies in advance for typos, etc.

Marketing director Clayton Lord will also be live tweeting at

10 minutes to go....