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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.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Building and Dismantling

Although I've been primarily focused on my upcoming production lately (plug!), I've been reading all sorts of semi-related thoughts around the theatre 'sphere. Playgoer takes notice of the salaries of Artistic Directors in New York; Scott Walters at Theatre Ideas seems to think this indicates that the non-profit model is far too corporate. (Don't tell that to commercial Broadway Producers, who think that non-profits are practically subsidized, take on less risk, and shouldn't be eligible for their Tony Awards...)

Related, in my mind, is Jaime Green's endorsement of lower ticket prices in order to perhaps attract a new or younger audience (as I noted here as well) and Scott's call for Decentralization of the American Theater (notice the capital letters!) which can be seen in any number of his blog posts, which are based primarily on the assumption that American Theater is too focused on major markets, that it's biased against regional sensibilities and too, again, structurally corporate.

A lot of this seems to have been inspired, in all honesty, by Mike Daisey's The Empty Spaces which sparked it's very own conversation right there and then.

All in all, a rather dire view of the state of play in America.

So I wanted to take a second to respond and react to the overall discussion. Just for my own gratification, and maybe some food for thought.

We blame ourselves.

It's one thing that Philadelphia Eagles fans have in common with lovers of American Theatre: we hate our team. Our team lets us down. Or team gets to the big game and drops the ball. Our team does ok sometimes, but we know they'll eventually cock it up.

We ask for the press to acknowledge writers who are younger, then they do christen the next big thing, and we think they picked wrong. We want a vibrant economy of regional theaters, but if they do plays that were produced in New York, they're not regional enough. We do not want theater to die (theaters shuttered, audiences gone, no pay for anyone), but they charge too much money for tickets and pay some people too much and other people too little.

Certainly some of the concerns are valid. We should be skeptical and critical. It's a virtue. But the tone tends to be one that gives little room of the realities of the market, and leaps to the terminal failings of theater within the system. There are lots of people toiling away in these big and small institutions for little to no pay for the love of our art, who work to find artistic space and battle with financial constraints and realities every day.

I don't hear a lot of praise for their hard work. Just observations at what they aren't doing.

You have to build, not dismantle.

Listen, I sympathize with people that think the Industrial Revolution was a bad idea and that we should all go back to living in small agrarian communities. I'm not a huge fan of the inherently corrupting nature of an unregulated free market or a culture that views unfettered, ubiquitous advertising as par for the course.

But we can't go backwards. It just doesn't work that way. New technologies are coming at breakneck speed (note: Blogs. Where were they 10 years ago?). Even corporate models that have been foolproof for years are unsure how they will sustain themselves in an economy where media and entertainment can be easily stolen, shared, copied, and bought without a physical product. Television advertisers are worried that no one is watching advertising anymore; video games are encroaching on the ratings of sporting events; the newspaper industry is in dire straights: this is reality.

I hear concern about the salary of the Roundabout's Artistic Director as almost amusing: in a world where television advertisers pay the amount he makes in a year to show a 30 second spot on some television show on ABC... its clear we're focused on the very small picture.

Artists, and people who work in arts organizations, are not all small "c" communists. I don't relish living in a collective where I share my food with a bunch of other actors and playwrights or what-have-you because I no longer believe in the "corporate" theater. I don't believe that my work should be given away for free, and I do, yes, like to have my own apartment and go to the movies and download music and go out to eat at restaurants. I didn't leave my consumer card at the door when I said "I want to write plays and get a BFA."

I bet most of the people who work in subscriber sales, or box office, or marketing or development for NYTW and MTC or the Guthrie (and hey...I don't mean to speak for you...this is just a guess) don't want to stop what they're doing, sell their cars, and hold up a torch next to a field so someone can do Hamlet without having to beg for corporate sponsorship.

So...what would I LOVE to see? Theaters become more successful. Sell more tickets. Receive more government subsidy and support. More patronage and donations. I want audiences to become excited by new writers and exciting new work. Effective marketing and advertising of really fucking great plays (including mine! plug!) that help everyone become more successful, make more money, feel artistically more free, and do the sort of work they want to do.

We can build that. We can excite audiences, we can sell more tickets, we can pay everyone more effectively, we can get better deals with the unions, we can make our case and win our case.

But we can't dismantle the system, and we can't be successful by pulling away from it, simply pointing out its already terribly obvious flaws, or just hiding in a hole of artistic distance.

Everyone has different values.

I am not of the opinion that the truth is of equal distance between two points. That's a weird fallacy of the current American discussions. I think there are some prescriptions being written out there that are true, and some that are false. But I do not think we all have the same goals, or perspectives, or values.

Some people might read my dismissal, above, of full on rebellion against the system as self-serving or, worse, conciliatory towards something broken.

As a writer in New York City, I can only pretend to relate to those who work outside the major cities and how they feel as if their work is not acknowledged, perhaps, as it should be.

Anyone outside of New York City likely doesn't give a hoot about the Showcase Code debates and discussions.

Those who have never worked in the media, written reviews or articles for magazines, likely have a very different point of view on the responsibility of the media to write a certain way, as opposed to those who may read this, as critics and editors themselves, who know the pressures and concerns of simply making it to print.

I say this because I need to remind myself that my direct interests do not necessarily translate into truths about the "American Theatre" as a whole. Which is, of course, perfectly ok.

Everyone is in this together.

On the other hand, there tend to be small efforts in isolated places to do good works or make changes, and the entire community does not seem able to come together (in any way I notice) to put forth major initiatives. For example... some for-profit industries will literally promote their industry. ("Got Milk?") We need a bit of this. We need to say "Theatre... come see it" in some unified way.

And the only way to get initiatives like that to happen is to use this new wonderfully democratizing force, the 'net, bring people together, and look up from the short term concerns, briefly, of individual programming needs and look at each other as partners.

If New York Theater Workshop and Manhattan Theater Club and the Roundabout and the Guthrie and Southcoast Rep and whomever else thrive individually, that's wonderful but localized. If they thrive together, we all thrive.


So.

That's a few thoughts. For you. From me.

Now back to plugging my show. Which is called "When is a Clock." It opens on April 15th.

14 comments:

Joshua James said...

Great post, man. Seriously.

I cannot add anything, you said it all.

Tony Adams said...

How do you build without dismantling or just hiding in a hole of artistic distance?

Not everything in the world is bad. But sometimes you must clear the decayed debris before something can regrow.

mbh said...

AMEN!

Dan said...

Matt,

I was just talking to a friend today about how questions of marketing and branding if done right, help you ask the fundamental questions "What are we trying to do?"," "Why are we doing it?"," and "Who do we hope to reach?" Figuring that out beyond off-the-shelf answers is hard, hard work, and usually only happens at the company level. Of necessity, the question narrows to "How do we keep this company afloat?" - and nearly always quickly breaks down in one of two financial models: do populist/commercial fare or create a value/prestige brand that will attract fewer patrons - but with deeper pockets.

I completely agree - we need to look at this question from and industry level - do a branding exercise wherein we ask the basic questions "What is our market, and who are our competitors?" and "Who are our potential customers, and what do they value?" Because otherwise a lot of creativity and energy is spent fighting amongst ourselves for an increasingly small piece of an increasingly small pie.

I'm trying to immerse myself in marketing and brand theory (as business is not my first language) in an effort to contribute more substantially to this discussion myself. Incidentally, you should check out Nick Keenan's blog, which is all about utilizing the internets for theatre advancement. He and I are collaborating on a project that will hopefully become a great tool for disparate theatres in Chicago to organize themselves better.

Scott Walters said...

Actually, Matt, we can simply walk away and start do something different. We can't go backwards in time, true, but we can go forwards in a different direction. The status quo is not necessarily permanent, or else we'd still be a British colony. Some may not want to walk away, and that's a personal choice. But to deny the possibility for those who do want to try something differemt, or perhaps just as bad to accuse them of somehow being disloyal to The Team, seems sort of mean-spirited on your part.

Freeman said...

Scott -

I don't have the power to deny anything, honestly. I can only state my personal opinion. I think people have the choice to do what they feel they should, and if that means walking away and doing something new, then they should absolutely follow that impulse. It's up to them.

Certainly no intended mean-spiritedness. On the country, I'd love to inspire a little togetherness.

And, while I agree that the status quo isn't permanent, I don't think it's likely to be overturned wholesale either. We might not be a British colony anymore, but we did keep a lot of the basic structure of British law, for example. We made changes, but we didn't throw out what WAS working in order to reject what wasn't.

That's what we invite when we traffic in analogies! My semi-educated read on the Founding of the United States.

travsd said...

Well said, mate. Theatre is nearly as old as man. I recall a few years ago that Steve Martin and Robin Williams acted in a very brief production of Godot at Lincoln Center. A sort of spree, a lark, an aberration. Martin is a highly cultivated guy--a philospher by training. Williams studied at Julliard. In Hollywood these credentials must be embarrassments because they are nowhere part of the workaday message they put out to the world. Theatre is apparently something kids do on their way to success. This really has to change. It's got to be acknowledged and supported at all levels and one way to do that, as you say, is joint effort. Nationwide there should be the equivalent to those agricultural groups, i.e. "The National Dairy Council", simply encouraging people to see theatre. I happen to think it is literally good for you -- psychologically and physically -- to go see theatre. As a way to spend your time. it makes watching football for six hours eating potato chips seem like wasting away in an opium den.

Tony Adams said...

Wait isn't that supposed to be the exact purpose TCG exists?

Freeman said...

Good point Tony. But I think that TCG tends to offer services that are inward looking (grants of artists, Dramatist Sourcebook for playwrights etc) as opposed to outward looking...speaking to people who aren't involved in theater.

That's another interesting issue, of course... that we spend a lot of time talking to another, about one another. Like, well, right now. We need to talk to people who aren't ... in the theater.

Not everyone who listens to music plays in a band.

Anonymous said...

Another comparison between theatre and milk?

"Since 1945 ... milk consumption has fallen steadily, reaching a record low of just under 23 gallons per person in 2001 (the latest year for which data are available). Steep declines in consumption of whole milk and buttermilk far outpaced an increase in other lower fat milks. By 2001, Americans were consuming less than 8 gallons per person of whole milk, compared with nearly 41 gallons in 1945 and 25 gallons in 1970. ... These changes are consistent with increased public concern about cholesterol, saturated fat, and calories. However, the decline in per capita consumption of fluid milk also may be attributed to competition from other beverages, especially carbonated soft drinks and bottled water, a smaller percentage of children and adolescents in the U.S., and a more ethnically diverse population whose diet does not normally include milk."

From the US Department of Agriculture.

Freeman said...

No wonder the Milk Industry came to its own defense!

"Theater: Not as fattening as whole milk, but JUST as delicious!"

T said...

Ben Cameron, formerly of TCG, had a great statement about trying to re-create the "Got Milk" campaign for theater.
he said he'd be happy to do it if we had the $80 million dollars that campaign cost. (the number might be off, but you understand the point.) I'll be curious to see how NYC reacts to participating in TCG's Free Night of Theater.
Thrilled to see other folks involved in these questions as we are in LA.

Freeman said...

Hey there -

I'm no expert on budgets, of course, and I'm certainly not saying TCG doesn't work hard. I'd say that one doesn't need to raise the same amount of capital these days to do effective advertisement as one did back then... the internet wasn't a tool people used to get "Got Milk?" into the market.

I'll have to do a posting on why my instinct is that free tickets don't change behavior. But, personally, I can't wait for some free tickets.

holzbau w├╝rzburg said...

Good JoB! :)