Saturday, March 14, 2009

From the Blogroll XI

Starting today, all posts are being cross-posted to the beta version of the new Clyde Fitch Report. I'd love any thoughts on the new site -- bearing in mind we're still in beta, resolving kinks, bugs, design, functionality, etc.

At Adam Szymkowicz's blog, Adam Szymkowicz takes the Dentyne playwriting contest idea and smacks it around. And I have to say, I've been surprised by the amount of hostility in the theatrosphere toward this effort. When I first reported it, I thought, Gee, you know, that's weird, but the more I read about the upset in the playwriting community about it, the more I wonder whether the whole thing is just a terrible idea -- or if Manhattan Theatre Club has really shown its true, anti-indie theater colors by partnering with Dentyne on it.

At Adaumbelle's Quest, Adam Rothenberg asks Broadway actor Mark Price everything you've always wanted to know (about Mark Price and otherwise) but were far too terrified to even begin to contemplate.

At the Arts Marketing blog, Chad M. Bowman tackles the question of theaters that advertise and the problem of what to do as fewer and fewer traditional media publications allocate space and time and resources toward covering the work that major theaters -- such as LORT theaters in particular -- do. What he writes is interesting:

This past Friday, I was on a conference call with several marketing and PR directors from various LORT (League of Resident Theaters) theaters. The purpose of the call was to plan discussion topics for the upcoming LORT conference in Los Angeles. We all agreed that the disappearing arts coverage in local and national press is one of the top issues currently facing non-profit arts organizations, and we recognize that the shrinking coverage has forced arts organizations into becoming content providers themselves. As we make the shift from pitching interesting stories for reporters to cover to covering them ourselves through various media channels (YouTube, Facebook, Blogs, Twitter, Flickr, BlipTv, etc), I believe it is also important to fight for the remaining arts reporters and critics.

We all know that the newspaper industry is in a world of hurt right now. The Rocky Mountain News, one of Denver's largest newspapers, has already bit the dust, and it looks very likely that the Seattle Post-Intelligencer will do the same. The Chicago-based Tribune Company has filed for bankruptcy, and the New York Times doesn't look so hot either. Locally in DC metro area, we have seen the Baltimore Examiner go out of business and rumor on the street is that the Washington Post lost $40 million last year, however it owns Kaplan which made $50 million so they can continue to operate in the red, at least for awhile.

With all of this, you can imagine that the pressure is high to cut costs, and why not cut arts coverage? We are perceived by most not to be as valuable as other industries (I am thinking of the huge debate over the $50 million stimulus money for the NEA in the $800+ billion stimulus package, and how much controversy there was over that). So that is where we must step in. We need to make it clear that if a media source cuts arts coverage it will do so at the cost of advertising dollars.

But here's my concern: beyond vowing to "fight for the remaining arts reporters and critics" by threatening to withhold advertising dollars," Bauman doesn't articulate how theaters ought to pressure traditional media to halt "shrinking coverage." True, Bauman writes, "The arts are an economic engine....a source of revenue, and it is about time that we are taken seriously." But it seems to me that if arts-driven advertising dollars were so life-sustaining for print publications, they wouldn't be in the dire position they're in. It has been a fact in New York for as long as I can remember that theater advertising in the New York Times, for example, is the most expensive in that paper. Clearly, since the Times is scrambling to not go under, arts-driven advertising dollars will not be enough to make the difference -- to stop declining coverage.

That said -- and in the interest of being balanced about this -- here's what Bauman writes about the scene in DC and how Arena, and Bauman in particular, have put some teeth in the threat:

[Fighting for the remaining arts reporters and critics] has been successful in the Washington metropolitan area. Just recently, a media source was going to cut a major source of arts coverage, going so far as to tell the writer that within weeks, she would be released. The League of Washington Theatres along with the management of several of the area's largest arts organizations sent a letter to the company outlining the likely economic consequences of the decision. Soon thereafter, the decision was reversed. Since the company changed its mind, and continued to support arts coverage, I have vowed to increase the amount of advertising I am spending with them this year, and am proud that they continue to be a great source of information on the local arts scene.

As I advocate to reduce advertising expenditures with companies that eliminate arts coverage, I would encourage you to consider increasing your advertising buys for companies that show an increased dedication to the arts. Locally, Arena Stage hasn't traditionally supported the DC Examiner (a local print publication) or (a local theater website). However, both have recently made efforts to increase their arts coverage, the former by printing a theater and museum guide and the latter by doing significant website improvements. Arena Stage now supports them both, and I plan to continue to do so.

That's excellent, and I'm glad Bauman is willing, as I say, to put some muscle in his threat. It's essential that companies like Arena set an example and understand their economic impact and continue, whenever and wherever possible, to make the case. Many theaters are too terrified to go and sit in a publisher's office or call an editor, fearing they'll damage the coverage they'll get for their shows. So doing all this is brave.

But why is Bauman, who is communications director for Arena Stage, seemingly blithe about the fact that most theaters do not have Arena's fiscal resources -- they can't afford to advertise even if they wanted to. (Remember, Arena will likely get some piece of $50 million NEA boost as part of the stimulus package, but non-NEA-vetted venues will get zip.) Doesn't he realize that if the rates for advertising were more reasonable for more theaters, more of them might advertise?

Bauman may think Arena is pioneering alternative ways of promoting the message through the aforementioned media channels, but the fact is that smaller theaters have long been doing this because they haven't the luxury Arena has of even thinking about advertising. So while I respect Bauman's willingness to get all George Foreman on behalf of arts journalists, he might want to be fair and acknowledge the extraordinary economic advantages Arena has in the first place.

Now back to From the Blogroll...

At the Critical Condition, Mark Blankenship finally fesses up to his true feelings about Kelly Clarkson. Little does he know how very conflicted she is about him. Later, Mark does off about this week's American Idol adventure, leading the reader to imagine that Mr. and Mrs. Thurston Howell are much happier with their own.

At CultureBot, Ian Belton confirms that Mark Russell, the founding and now former artistic director of P.S. 122, is not, to his Ian's word, a wang. (But is he a chung?) And Andy Horwitz has five questions for Sheila Callaghan. Andy also offers a modest proposal for arts in America. Read it!

At Everything I Know I Learned From Musicals, Chris Caggiano wonders if the Broadway revival of Guys and Dolls will have legs. Or if they'll be whacked.

At Extra Criticum, Jeremy Dobrish writes about writing with another writer...right?

At the Hub Review, Thomas Garvey joins the is-it-really-Shakespeare? portrait scrum.

At In the Wings, Jonathan Jovel reports on Scott Walters' argument that "80% of the theatre-going population is made up of the top 15% of America’s economic class." Of course, it would be even more powerful to realize that you could say that about all the arts in the United States, but that's another story.

At Interchanging Idioms, Chip Michael talks about all the different ways various arts leaders and journalists are suggesting that classical music can be saved. Worth reading because the ideas are applicable to more than just that genre.

At the Producer's Perspective, Ken Davenport compares the recession in Hollywood to the recession on Broadway. Bottom line: spin.

At Lou Harry's A&E, Lou Harry offers coverage of the Indiana Coalition for the Arts' efforts in the capital of the Hoosier state.

At Moxie the Maven, Moxie continues her rampage against the Broadway revival of Guys and Dolls, or so it sort of seems. Frankly, girlfriend needs to just chill and start instituting awful puns like "Children of a Loesser God." More to the point, the post is about how the marketing folks for G&D invited Moxie to see the show, then said there wasn't availability, and back and forth and back and forth, and yet, Moxie reports, empty seats are simply epidemic in the mezzanine of the Nederlander Theatre. Hmmm...

At Off-Off-Blogway, Ludlow Lad asks nine questions of Caden Manson of Big Art Group. Some great answers, including the perennial number 7.

At On Chicago Theatre, Zev N. Valancy writes about the Neo-Futurists Strange Interlude. My favorite quote: "The play is, to put it simply, insane. The nine acts of the wildly over the top plot covers 25 years in the life on Nina Leeds and the three men who love her. There's abortion, atheism, and adultery, and that's just the letter a. That's not even taking into account the lengthy asides to the audience, the huge swaths of intensely purple prose, the lengthy, prescriptive stage directions, and the general air of Freudian weirdness. It is almost never produced anymore, and not just because of length--I honestly think that modern audiences would not accept it produced straighforwardly onstage." Good thing he didn't see Mourning Becomes Electra here in Gotham.

At Parabasis, Isaac Butler declares himself a "Democratic Socialist." Glad he has the means to feel that way. He also liberally goes off about comment craziness on his blog.

At the Stage blog of the Guardian, the question of whether video games will be the salvation of the theater comes up yet again. A little cross-posting with Ken Davenport, hm?

At Steve On Broadway, Steve really bums me: he's not going to post daily or regularly anymore. I frankly wish he'd reconsider. His explanation is simple and moving and admirable and, wish his permission, I wish to reprint part of it here:

Alongside travel, history, politics and music, live theatre has been one my greatest passions since my formative years. I've been extremely fortunate to have seen some of the greatest shows of our time, along with some of the biggest and brightest stars of the stage.

Even more fortunate was my opportunity to share this most unique and entertaining of communal experience withsoverymanyofyou, myfellowenthusiasts (and truly dear friends). For that, I'm all the richer.

While I've been indisposed over the past week, I've had a chance to reflect on how blogging about live theatre has substantially detracted from my passion for this beloved art form. In my mad dash in trying to see everything (spending my own hard-earned dollars to boot), all the while reviewing each and every show, I've become much more critical of the form. I have sacrificed the opportunity to judiciously select what I'd most like to see. A consequence has been that I no longer just sit back, relax and enjoy each production for the entertainment that it is.

On top of that, I write all day in my professional life, which is squarely outside of the realm of theatre. When you write for a living, oftentimes the last thing you want to do is write on your own time, particularly when your inherent instinct is to live life to its fullest. As a good friend once told me, "If you're baking pies all day, who wants to come home and bake one?"

Unlike all too many others, including a disturbing number of family and friends, I'm extremely fortunate and blessed to have the opportunity to continue working in this most difficult of economies. I'm resolved to be better than ever, not only professionally, but especially in my relationships with my loved ones. They're what matter more than anything else to me.

The death this past week of Horton Foote -- one of America's great playwrights, whose tender works not only centered on family, but quite often featured his own talented daughter Hallie -- had me further pondering the vital role my loved ones play in my life, as well as the cost of writing Steve On Broadway (SOB) at their expense.

So it's after much contemplation that I suspend regular, let alone daily, postings here. Having said that, if there's a theatre headline or personal experience worth writing about, rest assured I'll still be posting them. As far as the shows I see, I may attempt to write one or two lines about my overall experience in an easy-to-read nutshell, along with whether or not I actually enjoyed the performances. But that my friends will be about all.

Godspeed, Steve. Let's go on...

At Theatre Ideas, Scott Walters explodes with, well, Ideas. For example, he talks down, and perhaps with good reason, the "Wal-Marting of the American Theatre," though after reading his post I must confess I don't entirely understand quite what he means. He begins the post with a long excerpt from Thomas Friedman's book The World Is Flat, and then he burrows in:

I was reminded of Friedman's chillingly gee-whiz paragraph when I was listening to Beth Leavel's keynote speech (or, as Tom Loughlin calls it, "performance") at the Southeastern Theatre Conference (SETC) last Friday, specifically when she responded to a question about Chicago with the following corrective: "All I know is that if I want to work in Chicago, I have to be in New York; if I want to work in Seattle, which is a great theatre town, I have to be in New York; if I want to work in my home town of Raleigh, I have to be in New York."

It occurred to me, as I watched a sea of youthful heads register her implicit advice about what their career destination should be, that New York City is the Bentonville of the theatre world. As in Friedman's description above [see Walters' post for this], theatre educators across America, from high school teachers to undergraduate departments to grad schools, represent the "thousands of different suppliers" who ship their "products" (i.e., their students) from all parts of the nation to New York where they feed the theatrical conveyor belt "like streams into a powerful river." The business of theatre educators is to export a "quality product" that will be accepted by New York headquarters. Once there, if the product is "lucky," it is plucked from the big conveyor belt and shipped to the specific theatre that needs that particular product, wherever those theatres are. Once that product is plucked and successfully consumed at its final destination, the call is communicated back to the student's originating theatre department to create another one like him or her, and as Friedman says "the whole cycle will start anew." Advertisements will appear in American Theatre Magazine crowing "our graduates work," with a picture of the successful product prominently displayed as proof. If we did it once, the ad implies, we can do it again.

The effect of the Wal-Mart supply chain on commerce is well-documented: local businesses are destroyed, money is taken out of the local economy to flow back to headquarters, wages are depressed, and unique cultural products are replaced by homogeneous national brands. Go to any Wal-Mart in America and you will find basically the same products displayed in the same way and at the same low price. The Wal-Marted theatre scene is no different.

Instead of local arts organizations run by and staffed by artists whose lives are made within a specific community and whose artistic vision is informed by that community, Wal-Mart Regional Theatre and Touring House imports generic artists from NYC to do generic plays for a short run after which they depart never to be seen again, taking the community's money with them. This is the system being celebrated by Beth Leavel and every theatre instructor who dazzles their young charges with visions of Tony Awards.

Wal-Mart isn't good for America, nor is Wal-Mart Theatre. And like the business leaders and legislators who promote Wal-Mart as an economic engine bringing jobs to depressed areas despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, theatre artists and educators who continue to promote this system are promoting a lie.

Whoa! OK, I bought into a great deal of that until the end -- the sucker punch. The primacy, or supposed primacy, of New York theater isn't a lie. That's facile anti-New York hogwash -- and I say that not as a native New Yorker but because one can't glibly blame New York for branding itself successfully as the nation's theater capital since the time of Thomas Jefferson. (For a great book on this, read Heather Nathans' Early American Theatre from the Revolution to Thomas Jefferson: Into the Hands of the People.) When there was little or no theater outside of the East Coast's major cities, dozens and dozens of stock companies went to the provinces, as it were, to bring theater to those who had none. The whole story of the Syndicate, which finally organized "the road" -- or the story of David Belasco's journey to New York from San Francisco, or Mrs. Fiske's or the Lunts' endless, tireless trooping across the nation -- is a testament to how much theater in non-New York areas once meant to the popularization of the theater during the early parts of our cultural history.

What we have now, however, is a historic turning point. The maturation of the nonprofit theater movement now allows for the worthy idea that non-New York communities can have significant, flourishing arts communities -- actually, let's not limit our subject to theater -- of their own. Can you have a strong, powerful League of Chicago Theatres if the Wal-Marting of the American theater really exists -- if it's all solely about perpetuating New York's dominance? Could you have theater awards in Boston, DC, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Atlanta, Minneapolis and Denver if those awards, year by year, however incrementally, did not bring value to the work being done in those communities and, indeed, to those communities themselves? Isn't the issue really one of the old inferiority complex -- the "Oh, we're Denver -- we're not New York." Well, who, precisely, is to blame for that? New York? Isn't it more appropriate to blame teachers in non-New York communities who wish they had made it big in New York? Or who didn't have the nuts in the first place to make it in New York? So what if New York actively perpetuates the allure of making it big in the Big Apple? That's good marketing. If you resent it, and if you want local arts organizations to be "run by and staffed by artists whose lives are made within a specific community and whose artistic vision is informed by that community," then for God's sake, start working on how to brand those communities to compete with the ever-deified New York!

It seems to me that those people who romanticize New York, worship New York, make beatific our dear Broadway, need some education. That's true. But you can't blame New York for the way non-New York theatre people see New York. The Wal-Marting of the American theater, to the degree it exists, is enabled and celebrated at home.

And look -- one can argue that when an Atlanta theater mounts a play and the play is picked up for New York, that's the Wal-Martization of the American theater, too. Ditto if you have an actor trained outside of New York who then comes to New York and makes it big, Beth Leavel-style. But when a play is mounted successfully in New York and regional houses pick it up, that brings income -- tangible, substantive success -- to playwrights. If you take someone like Steven Dietz, whose plays are always done in Seattle and who lives in Seattle and Austin, I believe -- well, his situation really gives the lie to what Walters calls a lie, for Dietz proves that New York need not always be the center of the Dionysian universe. This lends credence to Mike Daisey's argument that there needs to be far more encouraging of non-New York arts communities to celebrate their own within their own, if you will, and that the temptation to indulge in the hagiography of New York must be resisted -- again, at home. New York isn't to blame for great branding -- non-New York communities are responsible for uncompetitive branding.

One of my last Back Stage stories was an in-depth look at the theater scene in DC. Scores and scores of actors work there -- making a living! -- and for them, it's not all about getting to New York, though they wouldn't turn down the opportunity. I wonder how Walters' argument plays out in terms of film: Is the idea that you'd just make films in and about your local community and never aspire to Hollywood?

So, Beth Leavel wanted to be in New York, on Broadway -- bravo for her! Maybe the issue is the SETC folks didn't ask Naomi Jacobson of the DC theatre scene to give a speech. Maybe they will.

And now, the final entry in this week's From the Blogroll...

At Good/What Blows in New York Theatre, Rocco also weighs in on the William Shakespeare portrait controversy, addressing the nonsensical idea that a single portrait can tell us whether the Bard was a butt-loving gay bard.

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1 comment:

Mark Blankenship said...

Hey Leonard -- Thanks for encouraging me to learn more about Gilligan's Island!