Tuesday, April 18, 2006

towards a definition of indie theater

Last fall when Bromley started this discussion, I wrote on Martin Denton's blog that trying to re-define Off-Off was a waste of time- time better spent improving the conditions of Off-Off.

After attending the convocation organized and hosted by the indefatigable Dentons last week and listening to some of the arguments, I'm coming around to Bromley's side. The clearest argument for me was economic. New audience members look at the listings and see Broadway, then Off-Broadway and then Off-Off. We're on the bottom of the menu, most people don't read that far down. But a cool name doesn't create a community or help focus energies. And if we're not able to explain what we mean when we say "independent theater" then it's just a new name for the same old chaos. Clearly, something is happening again in the Off-Off or indie or poor-ass crazy theater world of New York. I can't tell you how gratifying and exciting that is, as someone who rode the last great tidal wave of the 90s and has been crawling through the same desolate desert as the rest of you have during the last four or five years. I've been doing some of my crawling in the UK and Australia, so, personally it hasn't been all bad, but to come back to New York and feel things just drifting and bumping along like a dying hot-air balloon has been brutal. I feel a second wave, brethren and sistern, so let's start paddling.

I don't think it's wise, healthy or even possible to describe a common aesthetic to the work created by the independent community. The diversity, idiosyncracies and individual voices and expressions are the exact things that give the community strength. Mark Lonergan and I are not trying to do the same thing and neither of us are tilling Bromley's field. Also, we lose the game before we begin if we define ourselves opposed to anything, especially if that anything is Broadway or commercial theater. So if we take aesthetics and "not being Broadway" off the table, what are we left with in common?

Our shared experience of continuing to produce work despite financial hardship and scant press and audience attention.
Our budgets.
The places we perform.
Our tenacity.

Like it or not, our broadest and most basic commonality is economic and geographical. We spend and earn roughly the same amount of money and we perform in mostly the same places. I would like to champion the adventurousness and the spirit and the genius and brilliance of the community, but let me lay down two uncomfortable truths:

1. Adventure and risk and spirit and genius and brilliance can be found in all levels of theater. Even Broadway, kids. Liz McCann put Well on the Great White Way. Leigh Silverman, the director of Well is one of us from way back. They put Festen up there, which I haven't seen, saw the London production, straight-out brilliant. I know it feels good to say "This is where the art happens, man, not all that commercial bullshit", but it's naive and inaccurate to say it.

2. Some of the work in the indie community absolutely sucks. I don't have to go into detail here or call anyone out, just, come on. If we can't be honest with each other, we're not going to build anything that lasts. And if we claim brilliance and some stranger comes down and sees crap, we look like liars and idiots.

So if we start with economic and geographical, we have a clear, simple definition. We are artists who work in theaters with 99 seats or fewer. We can all name ten to twenty of those theaters. They are physical sites we can point to and direct audiences, politicians and other artists towards. The advantage of an economic and geographical definition is that it is a concrete definition.

If we define the indie community as those artists working in these spaces, we can move immediately to the next step, which is turning the indie theater community into an indie theater movement. A community has common interests, a movement has common goals. So what are some goals? Top of my head:

All the venue operators of 99 seat or smaller theaters and all the companies that work in them and all of the union actors who have spent years and years doing these goddamned showcase code productions get together and in an organized, patient, friendly and public way negotiate the deal that L.A. has with the 99 seat theater plan. Paul Bargetto from East River Commedia turned me on to this. He is fired-up to make this happen. It's not as complicated as creating a new contract, the contract already exists, it's just a matter of getting it approved in a different territory. This alone would transform downtown or indie theater entirely.

Begin a comprehensive survey of our collective audience. In a year we could demonstrate precisley our economic impact and we use this to get respect, money and access to the city and state politicians.

Begin to advertise together. Obvious one.

Begin to create a National Alternative Touring Circuit by exchanging shows with like-minded, young, poor artists outside of New York who run or have access to similar venues.

So here's my big idea:

To do all of this in an organized fashion, I propose we create the League of Independent Producers. Anyone who produces in a 99 seat theater or smaller in New York is eligible to join as a full member, anyone who produces or is interested in what we're doing can join as an associate member. The League is dedicated to increasing the awareness, health and security of companies and artists who work in 99 seat theatres and facilitating communication and collaboration between 99 seat venues. The League has a chairman and a secretary, all full members get a full vote and all decisions are made by a majority vote. We meet four times a year for a big brawl. Now I'm starting to make this up off the top of my head, but you get the idea. It's the Joe Hill mantra, "don't mourn, organize".

That's why we lost the last Cultural War and don't kid yourselves, that war is over and we lost badly. We're not organized. We're not thinking long-term. How many more small theaters have to flare up, fight for five years and close? How many more bright young artists have to stand backstage and be told that there are only three people in the house? How many more checking accounts will be drained with nothing to show for it? Off-Off, to use the old term, is over 45 years old. It has a legacy. Does it have a future? What are we doing, concretely, to assure that future?

Let me know what you think.


Nate said...

Yes. Yes. It must have a charter and bylaws and all of that official shit which will serve as the foundation for building a real community that is today only unified by the name, off-off. Think of the leverage, the bargaining power, the benefits to owners, producers, actors. This could be big. Have you got a petition or something? ;)

operator of scrappy jack's home for wayward girls said...

Hi this is Nancy I agree with you.

operator of scrappy jack's home for wayward girls said...

I don't know what I am doing, but it is really fun.

John said...


A petition is a good idea. First, immediate step is getting the idea out to as many invested people as possible. This is the kind of thing that has to come out of a community, not be placed upon it, if its going to be worth anything.

Philucifer [aka Charlie Willis] said...

I'm figuring you may already know about this, but it's best to just make sure. If it's a redundancy, I apologize.

Take a look at: http://www.communitydish.org

The Dish was originated by Zach Mannheimer, and is now run by Tim Errickson of the Boomerang Theatre Co. They've been around for . . . oh, about three years now, I guess and meet once a month.

It's a piece of the larger puzzle, and a good place to start.

John said...


Yes, an excellent place to start. The Dish has been keeping the fire burning for awhile now.

Tim Errickson said...

John-I'm very sorry this post of your, and your blog, haven't gotten thousands of reads by now. I'm going to send the link to Martin, and I'm going to post it in the listserv for the Community Dish and for EGAD, the Eclectic Group of Artistic Directors.

There's tons of people who will be interested, including Melody Brooks who's meeting with Ginny Louloudes(sp?), trying to get ART/NY to better service the Off-Off/indie community. I'm gonna get the word out as hardcore as I can. Lets see what happens.

John said...

Thanks, Tim. Rock and roll and spread the word. Does the Dish still meet monthly? Would be great to sit and talk to people. And why haven't I heard of EGAD and how do I join?

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needBlogger said...

I am all for this idea. As John knows, I run an indie theater in LA called needtheater. Check us out at www.needtheater.com.

In exchange for the ability to tour and do a guest
production somewhere else, we would be willing to host/produce a
visiting production of an indie show at a 99 seat or less LA theater venue. Any takers???

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