Wednesday, February 18, 2009

about last night

So we had the joint Community Board Theater Task Force Public Forum on Saving Small Theaters last night at the Players Club.

The place was packed. Capacity was 250 and if we didn't reach that, we were close.

Borough President Scott Stringer spoke. Besides the ususal rah rah, he said a very interesting thing:

Liberal Democratic elected officials often get a "pass" when it comes to the arts and we should demand more from them.

Then Ben Cameron whipped up the crowd, something he's very good at doing. I've heard Ben speak a lot and he's always got the passion and the great quotes from Lincoln and Gertrude Stein and Che Guevera on tap.

And Judith Malina got up and spoke, which is always like some Magical Visitation from an alternate reality where theater actually changes and challenges the world.

The place was humming at this point. We all leaned forward into our microphones, elbows on the table, ready to figure out how we were going to Save Small Theaters, goddamnit, and save them tonight.

I talked a little bit about the primacy of space, space being more important than money at this point, and about the dream of sustainability, the dream of rehearsing and performing in the same space, the dream of an artistic home.

And others talked about other things.

And the whole thing started to drift away.

We went from talking about "historic moments" and "crisis creating opportunities" to discussing the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure and suggesting that if a company can't afford a space, they should perform outside.

Which is a little like saying if you're homeless, why don't you go camping?

It was no one's fault, or everyone's fault, we just slipped into the paralysis of panelitis.

Here's what I wish I had said:

Theaters need space. Space exists. Space doesn't disappear like money or have to be wooed like an audience. Space is just sitting there. Let's focus simply on getting artists space. Any and all ways we can. There are three initial approaches I see:

1. Existing cultural institutions can share their space. Give us your lobbies. Adopt a homeless theater company. Make a commitment that your stage will never have a dark night and appoint an auxiliary programmer, someone you trust who will bring new artists and work into your theater.

2. Identify empty city-owned property. Turn that property over to artists.

3. Work the Chashama model all over the city. The empty big box stores, the vacant commercial real estate, we can use that to rehearse in and maybe for performance.

Now, that's simple and wildly over-simplified, I know. But if we focus on the concrete, physical task of putting artists in affordable, sustainable spaces, then we have a focused and objectively verifiable goal.

In other words, a year from now we'll know if we got anything done.


RLewis said...

Well put, John. Drift in these things is hard to avoid. Hopefully, next time you or someone will say what's in your post here.

One thing I do wonder is: everyone keeps mentioning the "Chashama model". Are they even still practicing it? When's the last time they came up with a new space. Heck, I can't even get someone there to return my calls and emails. I'm not sure if even their model is still working, but maybe you know more than I. I hope.

Freeman said...

A question I'd have for you, John, is about the Fringe. Obviously, your name will be forever attached to it. What, from your experience building the Fringe, its model, what it is now...what did you learn from that that can apply to our current problems?

John said...

I heard from Ginny at ART/NY that Chashama had just gotten a hold of an enormous space in Brooklyn. I'm going to do some follow-up on that, unless anyone knows off the top of their heads.

I'll tell you, the three big lessons from the Fringe are:

Dream Big. Believe that the impossible can be achieved. I go back to Blau and his warning against "the cocksure, weary realism of medicocrity" that any new initiative or movement faces in this country. Because something has never happened is not an argument against it happening. It's just a measurement of the challenge.

Get Everyone Involved. If the community and all of the stake-holders aren't involved or at least aware and supportive, it's not going to happen.

Keep Showing Up. Meeting after meeting. Day after day, week after week. Great ideas mean nothing if someone isn't there to implement them.