DPDATE: Read John Clancy's view from the panel. Good, honest stuff. I think there is a sobering message here: talk is talk. We need a plan and to take action. John's ideas at the bottom of the post are good ones to start with. So is his evident frustration. To which I say: sober is a good way to view this problem. Sober but undaunted.
Last night, I stopped by the Community Board Meeting for Small to Mid-Sized Theaters, hosted by Community Boards 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 at the Player's Club. I was only able to stick around for the figurative cup of coffee; I left around 7:30pm, just as the actual panel discussion was beginning. I did get a chance to hear the opening speakers, and hear a bit of the tone of what was forthcoming. Take, though, my impressions as they are: there was an hour of panel discussion and then, I'm sure, several hours of conversation afterward that I missed. (Where did I have to run off to last night? To see a small-to-midsized theater in action; the Vampire Cowboys production of Soul Samurai. Awesome. More on that later.)
It was, without a doubt, amazing to sit in the Player's Club and have it packed wall to wall with members of the theatrical community. It was a diverse room, by both age and income, and it was genuinely encouraging to see so much passion and interest for engagement with the political and planning process.
The various speaks who began, including Judith Malina from the Living Theater and the Borough President of Manhattan Scott Stringer, all said everything right. Ben Cameron, from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, spoke passionately about 'arts ecology.' Everyone seemed to be channeling a bit of Barack Obama. You could tell that some of them were positively thrilled to be in a room of artists and talk about the arts; as opposed to, I'm sure, some of less pulse pounding meetings they're obligated to attend. We were spoken to about the urgency of the moment, thinking about our problems in a new way, the shifting culture, the challenges that existed before the economy went into full blown crisis mode, and were encouraged to think in terms of city planning.
All of this is vital. The action that's being taken is exciting, and that sense of excitement is necessary, because the actions to come, the challenges to come, are absolutely daunting. I applaud organizations like ART/NY, The League of Independent Theater, Paul Nagle, 3LD, everyone. I applaud the community boards. We need, without a doubt, to get ourselves into the habit of lobbying on our own behalf.
Just before I left, I did hear a theme that gives me pause. I hope we'll quickly cure ourselves of it, or that it was discussed last night.
The idea presented (and I've heard this) is that smaller theatre companies, those without spaces of their own or large budgets, are in less peril than their larger peers who have troubles with endowments, missing grants, paying rent and keeping the lights on. The logic is flawless of course: if you've always been on a shoestring budget, you're still on a shoestring budget.
The problem I have with this is that it encourages an already bent and bowed band of undernourished artists to think small to avoid the risk of success. We need to think in terms of new strategies for success, as opposed to thinking of being bare-bones as a blessing. The grass is always greener of course: I'm sure a larger company who are battling their landlord imagine going back to the days when they just rented space and rehearsed in the evenings and life was simpler. I'm sure smaller companies want the opposite: a home, a sense of permanence, the idea that they have a future beyond their next Showcase Code (or non-Union) production.
One other very telling distinction heard last night was from Kevin Cunningham, Executive Artistic Director at 3LD. He said that in the last few months, very quickly, companies attitudes have moved from "strategic to tactical." I think that resonated strongly with me.
If anyone reading this was there, I'd love it if you'd share your thoughts in the comments section. I was only there for a short while, so my response is limited. I would say, though, that those who are excited by these types of events and actions should go here and sign up for the mailing list.
One of the questions put to the audience last night was an important one, and I'd love you to consider it yourself. (Or comment on it below.) What is it that a theater company brings to its neighborhood or community that cannot be replicated or done better by another organization?
- 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.