Tuesday, May 23, 2006

walls and bunkers

A comment on the previous post from Jake highlights a problem I'm always running into and a conversation I've had with many people over lo these many years. I'm wrestling with this problem, or choice, as I type these words. I've got two plays I'm working on right now, a very loose Woyzeck adaptation and a big crazy full-length with a gang of clowns invading and over-running a 19th century well-made play. I'm also re-mounting two shows now, Americana Absurdum by Brian Parks and The Complete Lost Works of Samuel Beckett as Found in an Envelope (partially burned) in a Dustbin in Paris Labeled "Never to be performed. Never. Ever. EVER! Or I'll Sue! I'LL SUE FROM THE GRAVE!!! "discovered" by Greg Allen, Ben Schneider and Danny Thompson. But instead of working on any of these four shows, I'm typing on the old blog, trying to stir shit up.

Activism or organizing or agitating or whatever it is I'm doing when I talk out about a new League of Independent Producers, or a new Alternative Touring Circuit, takes time and thought and energy. Most theater artists in New York have a precious small supply of these three things and choose, wisely, to spend them on their work. This is especially true of younger artists still chasing their own voices and visions. So those with the most to gain from a systemic change in the Off-Off or indie world, the younger artists, have the least amount of resources to contribute. And this is where we all begin to climb the wall or build the bunker.

The wall is the status quo, the existing conditions. We climb the wall by accepting them as unchangeable and adapting to them. These are the physical, economic conditions of the American theatre industry and the common, accepted understanding in this country of what theatre looks like, what it does, how it behaves, how you buy it, where you see it and how you judge it.

The bunker is the safe place, physical or psychological, where a committed artist hides and schemes. The Theatorium was my big old tumble-down bunker for a few years. Clancy Productions is my current bunker. Bunkers are vital. They keep you alive. The only big problem with a bunker is that the view is for shit. You're dug in, walls all around you, safe, but essentially blind.

It is extraordinarily difficult to sustain a life or what can laughingly be called a career in the theater in this country in these days. I believe it is our collective responsibility to make it less difficult. It's the logic of collective action. It's enlightened self-interest. It's believing in the future.

This belief was the driving force and the main reason we put together the New York International Fringe Festival nine years ago. The festival didn't solve the problem, obviously, the problem is bigger than that, but for a few years there it felt like we were dealing with each other in a different way, we were climbing out of our bunkers and looking at the wall together and it didn't look that high or that strong, not when you looked around and saw how many of us there were.

Now it's nine years later. The wall is still there and we're still here, by and large. Some new bunkers dot the horizon, some old ones have been abandoned or over-run. And it feels to me like it's time to poke our heads out again.

We built the festival by talking to everyone who would listen to us, pooling all of our collective resources, holding onto each other as tightly as we could, and then jumping off a cliff, screaming all the way down. At least, that's my memory.

And the time and effort it took to talk and pool and hold onto each other and jump off that cliff was time and effort I didn't spend on my art. After five years of it, I had to step away and see if I was still an artist.

It's been almost five years since I resigned from the company and the festival. Built myself a nice, roomy bunker in those years. New bunker, old wall, same story.

I hate this story. I hate the story of the starving artist, the struggling playwright, the tiny houses, the eviction notices, the vast indifference, the institutional disregard.

Yes, Jake, an artist's first responsibility is to her art. But when external conditions make it all but impossible to make the art, some time and effort and thought should be directed to changing those conditions.

How do we do this?

We talk to each other honestly and directly about the conditions.
We identify things we'd like to see changed.
We plan how to change these things.
We put the plan in action.

Sounds simple because, actually, it is. There's no guarantee we'll accomplish anything, but there's nothing stopping us from trying. The trick is to keep talking, stepping slowly out of the bunker and walking towards the wall.

Got to get to rehearsal. More later.


Jamespeak said...

Good post, Mr. Clancy. I, too, hate the story of the starving artist, struggling playwright, the tiny houses, eviction notices, indifference and institutional disregard (since I could argue my company, Nosedive Productions, I and fit the bill there). But at the same time, this unfortunately may be one of those “rules of the game” when it comes to self-producing Off-off Broadway work, since it’s one of the few fields where literally anybody can enter without any track record or “green light.” In other words, when you have somewhere between 400-1,000 Off-off companies (the numbers are in dispute for obvious reasons) competing for a (sadly) finite number of audience members, what other outcome is there besides starving artist, struggling playwright, the tiny houses, eviction notices, indifference and institutional disregard?

I don’t mean to sound like Mr. Gloom and Doom, and I’m not even dismissing your efforts to establish a League of Independent Producers or a new Alternative Touring Circuit. Actually, far from it: I applaud your efforts and would like to do what I can to help (amidst my time writing and producing plays). However, I think we (sadly) have to acknowledge on at least some level that the proverbial wall is always going to be there in some form or another, and this may be due to an excess of supply (400-1,000 Off-off groups) versus a lack of demand.

(This lack of demand and that this country dismisses its artists is made clearer when you go to other nations and see that they actually do take their native creators more seriously to the point where they actually have authors and painters on their currency.)

I do hope that this sort of conversing in the theatre blogosphere can create a larger interest in the theatre world, and invigorate the many theatre artists who feel like Sisyphus having chosen this “career” path.

Now if only we didn't have to spend five grand to rent out a dingy 40-seat theatre for nine nights...


James Comtois

JR Hooker said...

Thanks, John. I think you elucidate the problems nicely. I, of course, am one of these young artists chasing my tail (voice) but I understand the need to band together and really look at what needs to change...the foundation of that wall, so to speak. So often when groups of theater people get together it is, as Mr. Comtois mentions, a lot of Gloom and Doom...which I actually like a lot more than sitting around discussing marketing strategies. Although, neither is very helpful in the long run.

I think when I talk about focusing on the work, I include focusing on ideas. And to me the main idea worth focusing on is -- why are we doing this?

But you bring up something crucial, I think, that really might open up some possibilities. You point out not only the various camps, but the seperate histories that divide the downtown theater artists of New York City. Not to get all Les Mis or anything, but we NEED you John. You can help us know what has been tried before, what failed, what started to work but was abandoned. You can help us look -- the younger generation -- at our culture, our climate and compare it to what's gone on before. Otherwise we are collectively running around in a lot of different circles chasing what may prove to be non-existent tails. If you know what I mean.

I think a multi-generational approach is what we need, and I would say a multi-disciplinary one as well. What can we learn from dancers (no union, by the by), musicians, visual artists, literary types, about how they are approaching the struggle. It IS the same struggle.

Also, I'd like to point to Jeff Jones article -- first in the Brooklyn Rail and republished in a recent issued of American Theater -- about ways in which to educate the theater audience about what they're seeing very much as the visual art world did during the modern art boom. Anybody read it?

Sorry to be so verbose. I know I should just start my own blog, but who would read THAT? This way I have a built in audience!



JR Hooker said...

p.s. For instance, an Alternative Theater Circuit reminds me of the whole Rat List thing that I was too young to really know about or get in on. It was breaking up, more or less, as I was logging on. What happened there? Seemed like a perfect idea and a very similar one to John's. Did it work? If so, for how long? If not, why not? I think knowing this history -- our collective AND personal history -- is really important.

Ann said...

I think part of the reason for the deplorable state of the arts in this country is that we, the audience, expect the artist to do all the heavy lifting. Audiences expect to be spoon-fed easily digestible bits of truth & reality, and they seem to feel as though the audience-artist relationship is soley a transactional one: I give you my money, you give me your play - one with no sharp ideas that might cut into my brain - I applaud in the right places, leave at the end and recycle my playbill. Nice and easy, no one gets hurt.

You need a League of Independent Producers, and I'm thrilled that you're exploring this. My contribution is that you and the rest of the artistic community cannot do all the heavy lifting alone - in order for this to work, we're going to have to get the audience involved. We're going to have to find some people with a more administrative bent who will champion this cause with you, because John - if you're running this League and talking about marketing strategies, who's writing the plays that I want to go see?

Sidebar: Andrew Lloyd Webber needs to be forced to spend huge chunks of his time organizing and creating change, because that's less time he'd have in front of the piano. I'm just sayin'.

So here's what we need to do: talk to some universities with theater administration programs, see if there's some help to be found there. You know what's nice? Interns!

We need to brainstorm how to attract not only the producers and artists to the League, but also the people - like me - whose responsibility it is to do whatever we can to ensure that those of you who create can do so as easily and painlessly as possible. My advice? Every artist who is supporting creating this League should try to recruit someone from Outside to help as well. I'm in.

John said...

Well, halleluja and welcome Ann. A couple of quick reactions from the comments above:

Yes, James, there will always be a wall of some kind. I'm just tired of staring at the same damned one. And I'm all for struggle and competition and things being hard, that environment can make for hardier artists and more extreme art, what I can't stand watching anymore is the waste of time and energy and money.

Jake talks of a multi-generational approach which I echo fully. Can't just be my old ass and my old-ass crew.

As far as the Rats are concerned, I had some dealings with that back in the day. The largest (and not the only) difficulty I had with them was a proclaimed and central philosophy of non-organization. Not that they were disorganized, far from it, but the idea was anarchic. Cool, but not really in my DNA.

Lucas said...

that this country dismisses its artists is made clearer when you go to other nations and see that they actually do take their native creators more seriously to the point where they actually have authors and painters on their currency.

This gets to a serious aspect of the problem. There will always be competition and struggle and so forth. But with this countries total lack of support for young or 'emerging' artists the only people who canmake it are the independently wealthy or the ridiculously wealthy.

Having an organization that could address and respond to the needs of the small off-B'Way and below scale would be radically helpful and a true service to the theatre community. In the end it takes talent and skill to win the race, but I know plenty of people who have enough trouble even making it to the starting gate.

JR Hooker said...

Actually, I'm confused by this...which nations are we speaking of? I'm always depressed by the knee-jerkism of "other countries are better than our own fascistic, ignorant regime". I've spent some time abroad and found a lot of the same sentiment amongst younger artists in most places I've been.

Jamespeak said...

The immediate examples I was coming up with was in the U.K. Charles Dickens is on their currency (the five or ten poind note, I can't remember) and Joyce is on one of the notes in Ireland.

JR Hooker said...

well, that is interesting and i get your point. sort of. but both dickens and joyce are long dead and having spent a little time over there recently i just find a lot of the same walls and bunkers. the grass is not always greener. we'd still be having this conversation if Twain was on the twenty, and Whitman on the one. You know? (Sorry if this was tangential, but I don't think it is...Can I add multi-national to multi-generational and multi-disciplinary?)

Jesica Avellone said...

To comment on your last several posts (catching up, sorry), you have a lot of really exciting ideas here. A League of Independent Producers is long overdue.

Since you wanted to hear from us, I'm both an AEA member and a co-founder of an Indie Theatre company (CollaborationTown). I'm also of that promise-filled younger generation. Every AEA member I talk to about the Showcase Code vehemently hates it. I agree that the union won't be interested in negotiating any sort of change to/abolition of the code without a call for that change coming from its own members. Done.

Trying to get folks together to talk about this issue and take the next step (whatever that turns out to be) is a good idea. We're ALL busy. We're ALL doing the Fringe. Maybe we could meet in September?

And at the risk of sounding catty and impatient, may I offer up the observation that the people who rail against the wall but never climb it are often weighed down by discussions about "what it means to be an artist" and "I am unappreciated and my life is hard" and "the time I spend as an activist is time I don't spend on my art"? No one's gonna make it better for us.

We can't change the world, not right now. We can change the Showcase Code, and we can get a League of Independent Producers started. I'd like to help. In fact, I bet we all know a lot of people who would like to help.

Sorry for the rambling...


P.S. I manage the theater at the Drama Book Shop. Do you still need rehearsal space?

John said...

Found space, thanks Jesica.

JR Hooker said...

Hm. Well, as Jesica's last comment seemed pointed at...um...me, I guess I'll answer. Listen -- I'm not for ignoring any wall, and I'm not for empty theorizing, and I'm not really for pissing equity or its members off. And I don't feel remotely unappreciated (in fact, I'm one of the lucky ones)...what I would like to see happen is for people to answer what I was ACTUALLY talking about which is that theater people tend to get on their high-horses and act really self-important but the only people that are listening to them are other theater people. We're all saying the same things, I'm just saying that we need to find ways to make the work we make actually viable in an over-saturated New York art market. As James and others often point out there's 'too many' off-off companies, yet more spring up all the time not to mention dance companies, art collectives, individual artist, orchestras, etc. I think it's time to stop singling ourselves out as being the only underappreciated artform out there (I mean -- good god -- when was the last time you read a poem! Now there's a maginalized form) and band together. If we could just attract OTHER ARTISTS to our shows, we'd be making major progress on the new audience front. And lastly -- I should clarify -- that I'm all for activism (especially if there's nothing about marketing strategies involved) and I will most certainly be at any meeting where these ideas are being so vehemently discussed. And scene.

P'tit Boo said...

I am only now getting to this post, and I gotta say that it thrills me !
What a fantastic idea and yes yes yes... dialogue !

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