Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Responsibility of Art Is Not Just External

Reading Michael Feingold's latest essay in Village Voice reminded me of the ongoing conversation prompted by Clay Lord's post on whether art needs to justify itself.

Actually, Feingold's essay is slightly askew of Clay's topic, but some comments to Clay's post talked about how some artists and shows don't seem to consider the audience. Feingold's essay swings the conversation to the other extreme: what happens when "art" listens to its audience too much.

Consider this quote, but I encourage you to read Feingold's entire essay before responding:

"The big question is what our theater can do in the face of such intense mass-market pressure. Corporations run the world; we can't pretend they don't. Through the mass media, they also run the popular mind, to the ongoing consternation of individualists like you and me. Ours is a small, embattled group, with few allies, and it, too, feels mass-marketing's tug: As Facebook has taught me, a disheartening number of theater folk share the tourist audience's preoccupation with mass culture, to the point where I sometimes feel like the hero of Ionesco's Rhinoceros, watching his friends turn into stampeding animals."

105 comments:

  1. I agree wholeheartedly that the co-opting of theatre by giant corporations would be a bad thing, not the least reason being that giant corporations are rarely about the betterment of the people who buy their products. At the same time, Feingold's essay comes off as whiny to me, particularly talking about LCT and Roundabout (which both have their faults, but which don't deserve to be ridiculed simply for putting on fare that tourists want to see--I didn't like LCT's South Pacific either, but my husband's parents sure did, and they don't do much in the way of going to theatre). While he doesn't say it outright, Feingold does seem to make the argument that part of the problem is that too much of theatre produced is too facile -- or as he puts in, "Practitioners demand challenge." This, to me, conflates two issues and tries to make them a cause and effect, essentially saying that theatre that appeals to tourists = theatre that isn't challenging for the pracitioner. That seems like something of a leap to me, but who knows.

    Where I think more of the true conflict sits is between allowing and encouraging artists of all types to challenge and engage themselves creatively, and continuing to pay attention to the fact that audiences, and their comprehension, enjoyment and engagement with the work, are crucial to the success (financial and, i would argue, artistic) of the theatrical enterprise. Does this mean only South Pacific from now until forever? I don't think so -- I think it means a middle way.

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  2. The linked article seems to set up some kind of alarmist false dichotomy. I don't think we face a binary choice between "Starbucks Theatre Corp. Proudly Presents 'Hello, Dolly'" and envelope-pushing work that disregards (or pretends to disregard) the audience and the concept of financial viability. Nor do I agree with his apparent presumption that artistic challenge and audience appeal are mutually exclusive.

    I don't know, he's obviously a smart guy who cares very deeply about these issues, but I don't find this article to be compelling or productive. If, as he believes, there's some new (or revived? He can't seem to decide), Utopian theatre model on the horizon for which there are artists and audiences hungry and at the ready, then that will surely come about. If it doesn't, I'm sure we'll see more articles from him that blame everything but the quality of the work or interest of the audience.

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  3. With all due respect, these seem like kind of weird reactions to an article I thought was pretty on the nose. Big commercial theater wants safe investments, proven products that offer a good chance of a return. Non-profits, especially larger non-profits, want the same thing. What I got out of the article was that he'd love it if some riskier (read: untested, or new, or extremely difficult to do well) fare was produced on the same level as these big companies.

    Really, I'm not sure he even really understands what he wants, but this sentence gives us a big clue:

    "[The Roundabout] hardly seems aware of a nonprofit institution's obligation to the public—or to the community of artists in which it resides."

    This is really the meat of the problem. As arts organizations depend more and more on funding and grants and less on earned income (the trend of the last 40 years), they slowly but surely move away from being culpable to their audience and artists, and towards being responsible to a select group of people who write checks. This is a huge problem.

    And it's a double edged sword. A $20 ticket buyer is incredibly important to a tiny shoe-string budget company, but not so important to a giant regional theater - that giant regional theater places that weight on an investor, funder or grant panel. The higher the budget of a company, the less likely that company is to produce work which is untested and perceived as risky. Essentially, the more money it costs to operate the company, the less likely it is that the company will stay closely connected to its community because it simply cannot afford to put tons of time and energy into something that doesn't pay its bills ($20 ticket buyers, young playwrights etc).

    One way to start addressing this is for larger companies/venues to work more frequently and openly with smaller companies. For example, the National New Play Network is a great idea, but getting a 50-seat theater into that network is nearly impossible (pretty sure there is nothing under 100 seats in that network, but I could be wrong). And 50-seat theaters are where all the cool new shit is developed. So one way to address the issue of bringing larger commercial and non-profit theater closer to their communities is to bring in companies that are, by necessity, incredibly close with their audiences and artists.

    One program which I am a big fan of and which I believe starts to address this issue, is Steppenwolf's program of selecting an up and coming company each year to perform their season of plays at Steppenwolf. It gives the up and coming company a big spotlight and clues Steppenwolf in to a while new slate of writers/directors/actors/audience. I would love to see Berkeley Rep or ACT adopt a program like this. I'd love to see TBA push the larger companies to adopt a program like this.

    I'd love to see a lot of things really, but I thought Mr. Feingold's article was fairly correct in his assessment of the industry at large. What are some other ways that larger, big budget affairs can connect with audiences? To be honest, I'm not sure. But I think this is definitely an issue that needs addressing.

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  5. I will, of course, step back from the conversation and regard it with a skeptical eye that most will ignore--because apparently thinking about what they're doing and doing it seem mutually exclusive to them.

    I would first like to point out that Micheal Feingold's article is not an essay but an editorial, an opinion piece, and should be considered with as much weight. I call it an editorial because Feingold appears to offer no evidence for his conclusions. If Feingold mapped out the history of productions by the theatres he condemns, and pointed out the change in the type of playwrights, or the price of their tickets, or the demographics of their audience, or even the stated agenda of their artistic directors, then maybe I would be inclined to agree with him. However, he essentially leaves things at 'broadway is too expensive for new yorkers, and theatres dont take risks because they're afraid of loosing money' and that's the foundation for this entire diatribe. The problem with this rhetoric is it leaves out an important stage in the development of healthy, progressive, thought evolution: research and evidence.

    All solid articles, theories, and even opinions are founded on comprehensive research. Now, I'm sure that several people will attack my comment by throwing statistics and studies at me, but they will miss my point: Feingold didn't think it was important to mention these statistics and studies. Feingold didn't think it was important to back up his opinion.

    And I think that such is a pandemic disease of our media, and even the artistic profession. We seem more interested in people's opinions than in the truth, even when the two align.

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