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Matthew Freeman is a Brooklyn based playwright with a BFA from Emerson College. His plays include THE DEATH OF KING ARTHUR, REASONS FOR MOVING, THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE AMERICANS, THE WHITE SWALLOW, AN INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR, THE MOST WONDERFUL LOVE, WHEN IS A CLOCK, GLEE CLUB, THAT OLD SOFT SHOE and BRANDYWINE DISTILLERY FIRE. He served as Assistant Producer and Senior Writer for the live webcast from Times Square on New Year's Eve 2010-2012. As a freelance writer, he has contributed to Gamespy, Premiere, Complex Magazine, Maxim Online, and MTV Magazine. His plays have been published by Playscripts, Inc., New York Theatre Experience, and Samuel French.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

"Indie" Theater - A Few Questions

Last Night, I was sitting in a room with several other reviewers from nytheatre.com.

Got a chance to meet Ross Peabody, who is a nice guy and reader of the blog and waved a cigarette in front of me as if to say "You cannot smoke this." Thanks Ross! (Honestly, pleased to meet you.)

There was quite a bit said that I found interesting and worthy of a little mention here. Not the least of which was that Martin continued to disseminate the term "Indie" Theatre as a replacement for Off-Off Broadway. It's a concerted effort to rebrand a certain sect of this tiny religion, but it's also got the benefits of being a One-Size Fits All Term. Off-Off Broadway and Off-Loop Theatre are New York and Chicago specific terms, respectively. Indie Theatre has no such limitations.

That being said, I'm curious what readers may consider accurately "indie" theater now that the term has been out there for a while. Kirk Bromley, I believe, coined the term. There was a great deal of discussion regarding it in the Fall on the ny theatre i. (Take a look and catch up here.)

I always find these discussions are best when I get off my soapbox (at least to start with) and ask questions. So here are a few I think might guide us to the era of "Indie Theatre."

1. What should be excluded and included from "Indie" Theatre? Is that simply a label that can be handed out for Street Cred, or is their some economic limit on it? *(Examples: Robert Wilson works in Lincoln Center and BAM. Richard Foreman works out of tiny spaces in the East Village? Are one of these more "Indie" than the other? Is Scott Eliott (who is directing the new Threepenny Opera) a part of the Independent Theater scene, or is he "too successful?")
2. Is "Indie Theatre" a term that applies primarily to what used to be called Off-Off Broadway, or is it a nationally applicable label?
3. What is the difference between community theatre and independent theatre?
4. What will changing this name do for the theater community?
5. What won't changing this name do for the theater community?


Devilvet said...

I'm not sure because so many people have posted back and forth on different posts and commments, but has anyone mentioned that since the term "indie" film doesn't really mean what it once did, it confuses the term "indie" Theatre? What is it that this theatre is independent of?

1) Actors equity, broadway budget expenses?
2) The Western Canon?
3) Aristoliean (sp?) critism?

I just don't understand how this branding helps.Maybe thee's a post someone can direct me to which lays it out more clearly?

It doesn't communicate content, quality, or really truly any sort of definable concrete position within any market. Aside from saying it's not broadway, the term doesn't feel like anything more to me than another off added to off-off-off broadway.

"Independent" is a reaction to something established but not clearly enough defined, I think for a successful branding you need a term which goes a step further, like Country versus Insurgent Country. "Insurgent" gives me a more clear definition of what I'm getting.

You don't have to call it "insurgent theatre" or "divergent theater" but independent is a brand that has not only been already claimed by a alternate media, it has been rendered mote (sp) by that same media.

I dont know if this is the sort of response you were looking for, but I dont know how to answer questions 1-5 because "Independent" doesn't give me enough to feel confident in my catagorizing.

Freeman said...

There's actually a great deal of discussion regarding the term here:


Devilvet said...


thanks for the link. I read the article.

The only real concrete thing I can get out of it as Clancy's idea of indie theatre would be the following...

"when we were down on Ludlow Street and when anyone reading this now is out there doing it themselves, by themselves, for their friends, they are in charge. The artist is always in charge when there is no buyer or producer around."

Artist driven work produced by the artist themselves?

If we go into the idea that "indie" theatre can be at any level and some producers know how to get out of the artist's way then we are moving more towards "produced with all good intents" theatre.

So, the thing I'm pulling out of this is "indie theatre" is a theatre where the artist maintains his or her own control and produces their own work?

Quality and Risk are subjective (I don't know if you agree with this, but I saw some of those ludlow shows years ago and while some were great... quality and risk were not everywhere, in fact they weren't even in the majority.)

So, Indie theatre is art produced by the artist themselves independent of an outside producer or producing agency?

Do I have it? I want to make sure you and I are talking the same thing before I go on any further about "indie" theatre as a potential brand and it's results/consequences or who's in the 'indie' club if there coudl even be such a thing (wink wink).

Freeman said...

Well, I ask these questions precisely because I'm not looking to define the term for anyone. I'm looking to facilitate a discussion on how it might be defined, or even if it's valuable.

John Clancy and Kirk Wood Bromley define Indie Theatre a particular way. Kirk, in fact, "coined" the phrase, or will probably be credited as doing so. He defines it as "artist-driven" as opposed to "commerce driven."

He also says (and I may be wrong here) that Indie Theatre is just a better term for Off-Off Broadway. It doesn't mean, for example, "Not-Not Broadway." It's not a "negative of a negative."

Alternative Music once meant something, but became just a genre label. So did Punk. (If "Good Charlotte" is Punk then Johnny Rotten is my Aunt Tilly.)Maybe that will happen to Indie Theatre. But it hasn't yet. It might, but hey, I'm willing to repeat successful history.

Devilvet said...

Yes but you need something more unique, more defined. I'm removed from the scene haven't been back to NY for 3 or 4 years though I still follow on nytimes and villagevoice as well as various other sources.

Aside from Clancy and Kirk writing the thAt article/email you mention, what more is there?

I.E. is the "indie theatre" brand already established?

I've sat through quite a few brand sessions both corporate and arts admin, and Don Hall can tell you that while in Chicago (I just moved to Atlanta) My theatre Company had a very specific brand. So, I feel qualified to sound off here (even if others are more so)

If we could create a successful brand that either solidifies our audience base or grows it, of course that would be a good thing.

However, branding or rebranding has more to do that attaching a catchy coined term. What makes "indie theater" more?

See, I believe that you can brand an artist, brand a performance venue, brand a playwright and then those sorts of smaller brands by association can lead to a larger brand, but "indie theatre" without more specifics casts too wide a net to be a successful brand.

Maybe, this isn't really a brand so much as a coined term for a manifesto. Maybe this just leads to more like minded artists get together in same cafes and bars?

Who, What, Where... without these specifics communicated within the brand, the brand has no power. As it stands it means nothing to the national market and I dont see it's value to the NY market. Again, it needs more specificity.

Improv is brand, but the brand was created due to very specific groups (second city) in a specific place (Chicago)...everybody who cashes in on the improv brand can do so becuase the brand has expanded into much more than one building in c-town, but the brand's point of origin was that specific.

So, is indie theatre everything below 15th street. I remember people used to say "Lower East Side" and that ment something to people. It meant I was going to see something very low budget, very raw, very visionary, very auteur...

I think "Ludlow theatre" is a better starting place for the brand than "indie"

The same way "Broadway" means big budget, musical number, famous stars.

Hell "Ludlow Street" is even a better national brand than "indie"

Give me something specific to visualize. Walking down the ludlow during the days of surfreality and todo con nada and house of candles that first year or two of the fringe when it was a little dangerous at least in feel and people we doing shows in spaces with 20 seats 2 different shows a night. Now we are talking specific. Hell, I'd buy a t-shirt that says "Ludlow was better than broadway" rather than "I love indie theatre"

Then you need a catchy George M Cohan song celebrating the virues of ludlow street! OK I'm goign to bed.

Matt, let me know if my rant has any value to you

Thanks for making me think tonight.

Freeman said...

I'd like to see if other posters find the aforementioned comments useful.

I think that the term Indie Theater by itself doesn't do much except start people thinking about what it is that it means, and maybe putting something between smaller theatre in NYC and the sometimes negative term "Off-Off Broadway." Otherwise, it's not Deus Ex Label. There are a large number of broader problems that face theater as a whole, and the term Indie won't solve them.

It's not actually a brand, per se. It's a new name. Even if Indie isn't exactly perfectly accurate, it can't be worse than "Off-Off Broadway" which means... what exactly?

I fully support the move towards Off-Off calling itself something else. I think it can only be a positive.

As for smaller companies or communities doing more specific "branding"... that's a good thing too.

As for "below 15th" or "Ludlow" or "Lower East Side"... I'm sorry to say those labels don't mean remotely what they used to. The Fringe Festival is now working with publicists and is viewed as a backer's audition for most companies; Collective Unconscious left Ludlow Street, some of the most "Lower East Side" Theatre to be found is at The Brick Theater in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Chicago, suffice to say, doesn't have the same character of audience or issues of scale that New York's smaller theatre does.

Devilvet said...

Chicago, suffice to say, doesn't have the same character of audience or issues of scale that New York's smaller theatre does.

I'm not sure I understand your meaning here.

As for "below 15th" or "Ludlow" or "Lower East Side"... I'm sorry to say those labels don't mean remotely what they used to. The Fringe Festival is now working with publicists and is viewed as a backer's audition for most companies; Collective Unconscious left Ludlow Street, some of the most "Lower East Side" Theatre to be found is at The Brick Theater in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

That's what I feared but I didn't want to tell you about your own backyard.

Wow even the Fringe aint the Fringe.

We have to keep going down the food chain...

Soon there'll be "Coin Purse Theatre" or "Invertabrate Theatre" or "Squatter's Theatre" or "No-Frills Theatre" or "Brown Paper Bag Theatre" or "Table Scraps Theatre"