6.27.2009

What Are We Doing?

You can take this question a couple of ways. Literally: what is the action? Consequentially: what is the result of my action? Purposefully: why am I doing this? None of them addresses the how, and none of them addresses the Law of Unintended Consequences.

What are we doing?

I’m asking this question right now in the wake of the Arts Advocacy Breakfast on Friday morning in Milwaukee, which I missed, being en route to San Francisco (nice city – lots of hills and fog). I’m also in the middle of Anne Basting’s Forget Memory, which is about people with dementia and how using art can reach them in a different way. I’ve just begun reading John Carey’s What Good are the Arts, which is very interesting, and it’s great to have Anne’s thoughts as a counter to his. While I was in Prague I read Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner’s Freakonomics, so these are the books that are informing my language and my ideas at the moment.

Advocacy: here, influencing behavior, making a change. Levitt and Dubner’s point of attack is incentive. We have an incentive – we want to make the world a better place. That’s a nice and innocuous phrasing. More concretely: we want to make the Skylight a better place – that’s no longer nice or innocuous. It’s concrete, and the subtext if not overt phrasing includes (for many people) getting rid of Eric Dillner and the Executive Committee. Okay, past innocuous, right into contentious.

Who can make this decision? Well, Mr. Dillner and the Executive Committee can choose to step down. The other possibility is that the rest of the board bands together to force them to step down. Let me know if I’m missing anyone here, but it seems to me that those two options are all that are on the table. And that brings me back to Levitt and Dubner: what’s their incentive?

They seem to be calculating that “the rancor” will pass. Personally, I think they're making a solid bet. They don’t hold all of the cards, but they’ve got a lot of them. The challenge of the grassroots organization is wielding power. “Grassroots” suggests that we’re all ordinary people, we don’t have special influence – and influence is exactly what advocacy needs if it’s going to be anything but making noise. The board’s job – precisely – is to take care of the institution. They are responsible to no one but themselves (as far as I know). This suggests that the incentive necessary to encourage them to change their collective approach is to threaten the institution. Gather people to pull subscriptions; gather donors to pull money. Make the board see that their continuing actions are so displeasing so as to cause their community to withdraw its support. Do we really want to do this?

See: Pyrrhic Victory; also, “cut off one’s nose to spite one’s face.”

What are we doing?

Another option, suggested to me and a couple of others by Jessica St. John (formerly of Milwaukee, now of New York City) is to go ahead and start another company – this one with Bill Thiesen, Jamie Johns, and for all I know Diane, Kelley, Jason, and Ralph. I have to think that Bill and Jamie have good rolodexes. Isn’t this part of the community’s concern, that these people (good people and good artists) aren’t working anymore?

To the statement, “we shouldn’t have to do this,” I answer: maybe we shouldn’t. So what? Maybe we have to.

One of the other questions that’s embedded in “what are we doing” is “what do we want.” What a lot of people want is for things to Go Back to the Way Things Were – with Bill at the helm, with Jamie at the piano, with the Skylight the way “we’ve always known it.” That’s not going to happen. Even if Eric steps down and Bill steps up, all of this has happened. Nothing is going to be the same. We are never going back to the way things were.

Okay, now someone is going to tell me that all of this was productively covered at the breakfast that I missed. Oops.

And incidentally, while Jamie Johns has been vocal about his position, what about Bill Thiesen? I’ve seen him quoted (or paraphrased) as considering coming back next year, but otherwise he’s keeping a low profile. And that’s his business, of course – I don’t mean to drag him where he doesn’t want to be. I do mean to ask about all of this advocacy on his-and-the-Skylight’s behalf. Does he want to go back – now? With this Board of Directors? Just a thought.

6.25.2009

The Marketplace of Ideas

This doesn’t look like an arts-related post, but it is. This will become more clear with the follow-up later next week.

My sophomore year of university I studied abroad – 1989-1990 in Spain, at the University of Seville. True to age, nineteen, I was fairly convinced of my sophistication and in this case, fairly liberal. I listened to “Dream of the Blue Turtles” and thought, that’s right, Sting, Russians are people, just like us. Don’t get me wrong, I still believe this, but I’ve got a little more nuance to my views. Nineteen years old, I wasn’t so big on nuance. The American administrator who ran the program I was on, CIEE, was conservative – or at least that’s how I placed him. We didn’t talk U.S. politics, so I’ve no idea if he’d been for Bush (41) or Dukakis, but we did talk European politics. Now, not knowing his politics, I’d say he was a pragmatist back then. He was against Communism (when there was still a Communism to be against) because, “Communism doesn’t work because it wants everyone to be equal. No one wants to be equal. We all want to be better than the next guy. I believe in capitalism because its functioning relies on human nature.”

Market conservatives in the U.S. (by the way, this is not intended to be an overtly political post – when I say “conservative,” I do not necessarily mean “Republican”) support the market because it’s effective at coming up with new and effective ideas. They are against government programs because the “the government gets it wrong.” The nuanced view of this is that government generally has one chance to get it right. There are too many layers of bureaucracy and entrenched interests to allow for easy change. What are the odds of getting something right the first time, even with all of the drafting that goes into it? Maybe especially all of the drafting that’s done by committee.

The “market” has the advantage of creative destruction – which isn’t quite synonymous with a redundancy of approach, but isn’t necessarily that far from it either. If two or three or four people (or groups) have the same idea – say, to form a theater company – maybe not all of them survive. By approaching the idea in parallel, everyone going together at the same time, they’re able to sort out their approaches and their audiences are able to sort out what they way. I’m disregarding for the moment a number of seemingly critical factors, like whether or not the administration of one group is more or less effective, or whether one starts off with money and another doesn’t.

The fact is, hardly anyone conservative – in this regard – wants to be first. Being first at something requires a particular, particularly entrepreneurial spirit. A conservative approach to money (or to capital generally speaking), which is to say a careful approach to money or capital, means that you want to be a close second. Sure, here in the U.S. everyone talks about winning winning winning, second place is only the first loser, and all that other competitive stuff. And most of us believe it, or act like we believe it even when we profess our disdain. What we’re not sure about is whether this particular race is the right one. Who wants to place first in the wrong race?

I work occasionally in commercials, sometimes in the art department, sometimes in grip-electric. When we started a non-profit a couple of years ago, Bad Soviet Habits, we asked an advertising agency we’d done work for, Kohnke-Hanneken (now defunct) to design a logo and a look for us. Agencies like doing free work more than you’d think. The reason is that they have much freer creative rein. They can be daring and inventive, and they submitted our whole look for some award thingy or another. Then these daring looks become part of their portfolio, what they use to shop themselves to clients who might hire them, say Manpower (I'm using them because I’ve never worked on one of their spots, don’t know who’s got their account, and mean them just to be the neutral representative of a Client). Manpower looks at this really daring portfolio, hires K-H (or another agency) to do the work because they’re “edgy,” and promptly asks them to do the safest, most boring, tamest design they can come up with. No one’s going to phrase it that way, they’re going to talk about being Careful. Can’t offend anyone.

When Seth Stevenson of Slate.com asks Larry Bloomenkranz of Progressive Insurance if the two guys in their insurance commercial are supposed to be gay, Bloomenkranz demures. "The ad was not written specifically to be gay. But if people interpret it that way, it's fine with us." I’m telling you: that is a lie. That crew discussed and discussed and figured out every nuance. What clothing will they wear? How close will they stand together? Okay, let me backtrack. Maybe it wasn’t written for them to be gay, but it was directed so that the ambiguity would be there.

Progressive is remarkable because they are at the front of this. No one puts gay characters in commercials. Don’t want to offend anyone, and I know everyone likes how much money gay couples with no kids are reputed to have, but then there’s all of “middle America,” and we can’t offend them either. An ad in a gay-oriented magazine? No problem, because “middle America” probably won’t look at it – targeted marketing. Television is too accessible to everyone.

So think about that – this coy, coy commercial – that’s the vanguard. That’s what counts as daring. Impressive, no?

Entrepreneurs are the ones looking at the box and trying to make it work for them. It’s a mindset more than a personality. Anyone can do it. It’s understandably easier when you’ve got less to lose. Conservators (think about the relationship between conserve, conservative, conservator, conservation) have to be careful. They’re going to look at the entrepreneurs and see who survives, who’s got staying power. They’re not just investing in an idea, or a theater company when it gets to patronage, after all. They’re investing in a person.

6.22.2009

Criticism and Critics: Who’s the audience?

To whom is the reviewer speaking? There are two obvious constituencies, and one not so obvious.

In decreasing degrees of obvious-ness, the first group to which the critic talks is the potential theater audience. This fact highlights the tension inherent between the theater community (or the arts community? Please – someone in another arts field let me know how the facts shake out differently) and critics. They are essentially doing advertising – only some of the times the billboards read: SHOW SUCKS! AVOID AT ALL COSTS! Naturally, the theater community’s inclination is to fire this particular marketing director.

From the theater community’s perspective, the critic has one particular incentive that is all too-often ignored: to advance the community – in this case, the community of theater audiences. After all, doesn’t the critic’s very job depend on this community? If there is no audience, so the logic goes, then there is no theater. No theater means no reviews, which is to say, no critics. From a purely self-interested perspective, shouldn’t critics be doing more to shore up, to develop this community? Shouldn’t they be as much of a development director as a marketing director? Why don't you say better things?

There is not exactly a consensus on how to approach the idea of “development.” One reviewer I knew in Indiana took the cheerleader approach, and was very forthright about trying to get people out to see theater, any theater. He wouldn’t lie in his reviews, but he would (to my mind) misrepresent the whole experience of any show he saw by writing only about its positive aspects. Does the “analytically critical cheerleader” exist? Clearly, cheerleading will only go so far – and if the critic only supports shows, their judgment will be called into question. This person has to be an honest broker, as the saying goes. Presumably, this is what we mean when we talk about journalism – it’s not necessarily objective, but it is intellectually and emotionally honest.

There is a second group to whom the critic is speaking in this regard, however, and one that the theater community tends to ignore – not because we’re dumb, but either because it’s not our audience, or because it should be our audience, and we’re that solipsistic. That second group comprises the potential readers – of the newspaper, the online journal, the blog. Damien Jaques at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is quite articulate about his audience: they are the readers of the paper. Although I haven’t spoken to him about this since he instituted his blog, I expect that his limitation of space (expressed in column inches) doesn’t impact what he can write about on the virtual geography of his blogspace.

In other words, the electronic form of the medium allows for both greater depth and greater breadth. The question is, and I don’t know the answer, how many people read him in the print edition, how many the online, and how many easily access both? How overlapping are these two reading populations?

When speaking to the Potential Theater Audience, the critic is of course commenting on the show, and also recommending to go or not to go (items 1 and 2 from last week's Criticism post). If acting in the “development” capacity, she might also choose to add advancing the community (potentially item 4, certainly item 5).

Keep in mind, I’ve only been talking so far about the Most Obvious Audience for reviewers. Two to go.

The second audience with whom the critic can interact is the theater community (item 3 from the list). Suddenly she is no longer presuming to act as a filter, but is speaking directly to the artists, typically in a critical capacity more than in a praising one. While this is an entirely reasonable perspective for a critic to write from, for theater artists it is nothing but problematic.

In the first place, the critic still has same more-or-less stable body of audiences (viewing population, reading population, artists). In other words, this more personal critique still functions as a negative filter, and a more personal one at that. It’s not that we don’t want constructive criticism – we do – but this kind of communiqué comes at our expense, we suspect.

Secondly, this personal communication is inconsistent. It is difficult to frame a response when it seems to come at the critics’ whims. I hasten to add that this is not always the case. When I directed John Leicht and Michael Neville’s script CAFÉ DES BON TEMPS several years ago, Shepherd Express then-critic Jason Powell wrote me privately in advance to give warning that he wouldn’t be giving us a good review (apparently no longer available online). Based on conversations I’d had with Jaques, I knew that space would be an issue, probably more so in the free weekly that is the Shepherd, so I asked him if he would consider sending me a more detailed criticism personally. He did, which was above and beyond the letter of his job. It took some of the sting out of his review, which is really just a perk, and gave us something more concrete to think about.

There is an obvious reason why Jason emailed me ahead of time. I was about to direct him in my next show, ROUNDING THIRD at the Boulevard. Which is to say two things: Jason regularly writes and acts, and he had a stake in not creating a bad working relationship before we started having a working relationship. This is, of course, pure self-interest – but it led to the most productive, professional exchange I’ve ever had with a critic.

The third, and least obvious, population that the critic has to speak to is her journalistic peers – people at the same paper, or other critics generally speaking. I can’t address this very clearly, not being a critic and not having this issue, but I can imagine it from an artist’s perspective. If I were to program and direct a season that consisted of Edward Albee’s The American Dream, Caryl Churchill’s Far Away, Nicky Silver’s Fat Men in Skirts, and Sarah Kane’s Blasted, and they were all done well, I could reasonably assume that everyone would think I had mastered elements of absurdism, expressionism, and grotesque. Why would I follow this season up with a freelance job directing Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream? Rightly or wrongly, Shakespeare is one of theater’s gold standards, just as many canonical 20th century plays are. Great, you can do stylized theater – but can you handle heightened, poetic language? Can you handle American Realism?

I imagine that theater journalists have similar issues – what they see, what they like, how they write. Just because they’re in print doesn’t mean that self-presentation doesn’t matter. What’s the written equivalent to ripped jeans versus pressed, pleated pants?

Next week: Credentials and Platform (or, why we listen to “one person’s opinion”)

6.20.2009

Das (Kultural) Kapital

Or: Why the non-profit model is ancient but not obsolete (part I).

It’s conventional wisdom that there’s two sides to a story and that there’s more than one way to skin a cat. Fine and good. But how many ways are there to count? One, two, three, four… Okay, them’s the “integers,” if we want to use a fancy word. Pi is a number, too, though. So is the imaginary number (I kid you not, that’s what it’s called), which is the square root of -1. There are a lot of ways to count. Just ask an accountant.

Counting matters because how you count determines how much you keep – particularly when we’re talking about the tax code, withholdings, and what we pay to federal, state, and local governments. Two big ways of counting are “for profit” and “not for profit.” In the for-profit case, the owners get to walk away with extra money, though this is for small business owners typically not as impressive as it sounds. In the not for profit case, there are no owners; instead there is the responsible authority, the Board. In both cases, employees can do very well. Joe Dowling, artistic director at the Guthrie Theatre, reputedly makes just shy of $700,000, not unlike the disparity between pay at a for-profit corporation between a CEO and an assembly line worker.

Not for profit doesn’t mean “don’t make a lot of money.” It just means the owners, the responsible party, the Board, doesn’t take any money home. In fact, at some bigger institutions, the Board is required to pony up. That’s right – for the privilege of giving us your time, sitting on committees, maybe even going to see plays you don’t like or music you don’t care for, or charities you could give a rat’s ass about, you are asked to contribute to the bottom line. Maybe it’s only $1,000 a year. Maybe it’s more. Maybe you’re cajoled into a pyramid-like scheme in which every year you’re to bring in more subscribers, or more donors. Only it’s not really a pyramid scheme because you’re not promising any money back.

Why the hell would you give your time and money away like that? I work freelance freelance freelance and occasionally teach at the university level, and as much as we struggle to balance books, my time is much more valuable to me, because I have so much less of it. This seems to me to be a crazy calculus.

Why indeed. How many ways can you count?

Maybe your law firm does pro bono work – because it’s good “corporate citizenship,” and they want to raise their profile in the community. As an associate or a partner, you might be required to serve so many hours on so many boards. There’s the time part of the equation. And the money? Well, it’s tax deductible on your federal 1040, so it’s not a total wash. This part of the tax code allows us as citizens to direct where our “tax” dollars go, to some degree, if we have enough money that we beat the standard deduction. In other words, if you’ve got a lot of money coming in, you can direct it toward books-not-bombs, if that’s how you feel.

This doesn’t apply to most of us, but honestly, who thinks that the tax code was written for most of us? Back to counting.

Let’s say you’re an up and coming doctor. One way of getting people to know you, to trust you, and thereby to believe in you and ultimately to give you their business, is to join a board. Okay, you’ve got some interests. You like music, contemporary music. Choices! You could join the board for WMSE or for Radio Milwaukee – they’re both non-profit! A wealth of opportunities at your hands. Are the listeners of either station ever going to meet you, and thereby trust you, et cetera et cetera? No. But you’ll meet other people on the board, who are up and coming like you. Or maybe they’re established. You think just any lawyer or accountant can get a seat on the board of the Symphony, or the Ballet, or the Art Museum?

I’m making it sound like there are no altruistic people out there, and that’s simply not the case. There are, and a lot of people serve on boards selflessly. Not only that, a lot of non-profits take advantage of their board members and chew them up. It’s a relationship, and abuse can run both ways.

All I mean to say with these examples is that there are financial incentives for boards to exist. There are financial incentives for people to join them, and as I implied with the Symphony and company (and I don’t mean to single them out – they’re just big), there are different payoffs at different levels.

But not for profit versus for profit are just two different ways of counting, and there are a lot more than two sides to any given story.

Let me hit a couple of stereotypes about artists right away. We’re divas. We’re babies. We don’t know how to manage money. We’re selfish, self-centered, self-important. I’m sure I’ve missed a couple of hundred, but you get the point. The other thing about artists, the thing that trumps all of our bad features? We’re cool. Not all of us (me, for instance: dork central), but enough of us. Cool diva: Tom Cruise. Cool baby: anyone who asks to have the green M&Ms taken out. Cool bigot: Mel Gibson. Cool guy who mismanages money: Donald Trump (really? You’re still going bankrupt?). Cool self-important: Madonna. And yes, I consider Trump to be more of an artistic personality than I do a financier, so there. Another post for another day.

Now “cool” is relative. You might not think any of them are cool. Maybe you think Britney Spears is cool, or Bono, or Jeff Koonz, or Mary Zimmerman. What I’m saying is this: whomever you think is cool, someone is already sick of their shit. But you – or me – we’d hang with Franka Potente, or Frances McDormand, or Joel and Ethan Coen (heck, I’m not greedy, either one will do). Why would we do this? Because we relish the awkward conversation?

ME: (gushing) I’m a big fan of your work.
FRANCES MCDORMAND: You know I’m married, right?

No, with any luck and a lot of self-control, we will have an only-reasonably awkward conversation, the kind that happens between two people who have nothing in common at all, and maybe we exchange some real information. Maybe we even have a Real Connection.

But no matter what, I have a story. I met someone important. Cool brushes off, and now I can tell my friends about the cool person I met. Yes, it’s shallow, but we all do it. My wife – an excellent film producer, but hardly anyone who’s name will ever grace a marquee – was doing an apartment sublet in Chicago a few years ago while working on a film. Said apartment’s owner was a dentist. A very good dentist. And she reveled in having someone who had an exciting career IN HER HOUSE!!! It didn’t matter that my wife came back at 11pm on a good night, and got up between 5 and 6am. She was working on a MOVIE! And it’s not like my wife and I are any better. We talk about the people we’ve run into, or worked with (Bernie Mac, of course, and a peach of a man he was, too), or know through someone else (I have it on good authority that George Clooney has back problems – thanks for the story, Sarah Price!). Or we exchange war stories. Remember the time we had to work all night? Remember when the personnel lift fell over and no one got hurt? Remember when the super-conscientious technical director broke his own nose while de-burring a steel pipe?

This is called “cultural capital,” and it’s a different kind of money. Unlike regular money, you can spread it around easily through experience – it’s contagious. But just the same as regular money, there’s inflation. How cool can you be? I only talked with Bernie Mac, I wasn’t the person he flirted with, but I was part of the (very, very, very) brief conversation. But that’s her story, not mine.

At least five reasons to be on a board, not in the order I’ve presented them. Altruism – you really believe in what you’re doing. Financial incentives that help you re-direct your wealth. Civic mindedness towards the community generally speaking. You get to hang out with cool people. Lastly – you get to meet other people in your sphere, or in a sphere just above you, you make connections with people who share your cultural capital.

The big question: is it worth it?

That’s an individual question. I’ve had friends who’ve served on boards simply as a favor. They do everything that’s asked, but they don’t relish it. They view it as a responsibility. I’ve had friends who throw themselves heart and soul into projects. And then there are the stories about boards that take over (thanks to Megan Powell for this recent story). Maybe they decided they’re cooler than the people they boss around.

There aren’t hard and fast rules, and these five reasons aren’t the end of the list – they’re just the ones that are easy to observe. Climb aboard.

6.18.2009

Institutionalized

About 15 years ago – maybe more – I worked at the Theatre de la Jeune Lune in Minneapolis, at first as a board op, eventually as their master electrician. The going joke amongst the staff was that everyone in the Twin Cities who hadn’t worked at the Jeune Lune wanted to; everyone who had worked there never wanted to again; as staff, we were just in the cocoon phase between times.

Their producing director, a very smart guy named Steve Richardson, was working on a pamphlet for audience development. It showed a picture of their new (new-ish by then) building, a converted, beautifully flexible space in the Warehouse District, with a caption that read: This is not the Jeune Lune. There was a picture of audience seating: This is not the Jeune Lune. There was a picture of the company: We are the Jeune Lune. I might have some of the details wrong here, but what he was focusing on was the non-institutional nature of the company. The artistic vision that we the artists put forward, that is what makes this company what it is. We were a company before our building, after all.

Contrast that with the Guthrie Theater, which was about to lose abstract visionary Garland Wright for populist Joe Dowling. Garland was all about formal experimentation. Joe produced Blithe Spirit. Some of the artistically inclined and satisfied staff under Garland were bored at best, outraged at worst, by the new direction. Some of them left. And Joe has succeeded in many places where Garland failed, not least of which was turning around a steady decline in ticket sales that had begun long before Garland had even taken over. Under Joe, there is a new building, a huge public building that is at least partly owned by the Minnesota taxpayer – and therefore, parts of it are open all hours.

Here’s the thing: Joe is replaceable. Garland was replaceable. Garland was the face of the institution, just as Joe is the face now. Institutions are susceptible to personalities, but they are designed to be resistant to them at the same time. An institution should outlast its leaders – how else would governments survive? The best these leaders can do is point new directions.

The trick is that the leaders are not the bosses. The boards are the bosses.

The timing of Bill Thiesen’s firing is – besides being rude and ham-handed – anthropologically interesting. As a country, we are outraged, outraged at the sums of money paid to CEOs of major corporations while their boards do nothing. Now we are outraged, outraged when the board of a major arts organization does something. It could be that Thiesen was terrible at his job of Artistic Director while being brilliant as his job as stage director, and it could be that it was the only responsible thing for the board to do was to fire him. It could be that Erik Dillner did not stage a coup, but that the board brought him in a year ago with the intention of making this transition. It could be that they are acting completely appropriately, even while being total and complete boneheads about implementing their completely appropriate actions.

It is the board’s responsibility to ensure the life of the institution. It is not their responsibility to care for the individuals. We are, after all, replaceable – components in Henry Ford’s system of interchangeable parts.

I disagree that this system is “increasingly obsolete,” as Ben Turk writes. I do agree that it is dangerous, that it divorces us from the meanings of our actions, that it makes decisions that are “not personal.” What is more personal than disregarding each other as persons? I may work an interchangeable job, but I am the only me, just as all of Bill’s friends know that he is the only Bill – or the only Jason, Kelley, Ralph, Diana.

Here is the quandary. We want our friends to succeed, all those named above. We want the Skylight to succeed. The board has said that these can’t both happen at the same time. We are okay when a person leaves the institution: when Christopher Libby left the Skylight, he was moving on. We understand on that level. When the institution leaves the person, we don’t. It’s an insult.

No one in the local debate seems to understand this as clearly as Jonathan West – I suspect this is due to his former position as the artistic director of a now-gone theater company, Bialystock & Bloom, and to his current position as the managing director of a community theater, the Sunset Playhouse. He understands what boards do and what boards have to do, and the underlying tone of his posts recognize this.

The system is partly to blame: interchangeable parts. But the board made its own choices that have exacerbated the problem. We are not interchangeable people. Was it too much to ask that you treat us as neighbors, as partners, friends?

It is ironic that “to institutionalize” means both “to make or to turn into an institution” and “to place or confine in an institution, esp. one for the care of mental illness, alcoholism, etc.”

Welcome to the nuthouse that is the corporation.

Citation:
http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/institutionalize

The Grim Reality

I should start off by saying that I don't know Bill Thiesen and that I've never worked at the Skylight. I've never even been considered by the Skylight for work, not even as a scenic carpenter, so I don't have a dog in this fight.

When I lived in Bloomington, Indiana, the director of performance operations, a wholly genuine and generous man named Ron Dye was unceremoniously ousted from his position. He returned from a hernia repair operation - hernias he received given some of the necessarily physical work that he had to do - to orders to clean out his desk in less than a day. I don't know if Ron was a good man for the organization, but he supported me personally, he supported the community personally. He wasn't just the general face of the organization, the John Waldron Arts Center, for many people he WAS the place. Rightly or wrongly, many of us saw JWAC and thought of Ron. I imagine, given these letters about Bill, that the experience for many people in Milwaukee is similar.

After Ron was forced out, the community came forward in huge numbers, but when we tried to oust the board president at the following board election - Maureen someone, I no longer remember her last name - we discovered that you don't get to vote "no" to someone - you only get to vote "yes" for alternates. This should not have been terribly surprising, but we wanted something, we couldn't get it, we were shocked.

And the result was... that many of us, many many of us, continued to work at JWAC. Ron and I have fallen out of touch, and I have little doubt that part of that lack of connection is lingering anger or bitterness on his part at my betrayal - because I certainly kept working there. I did so in part for selfish reasons, I wanted to direct. I took a position on a volunteer committee to be one of the people who might make a difference from the inside. I didn't make much of a difference.

What I suspect is going to happen at the Skylight is that many of the artists whose sincere anger, fear, and outrage I do not at all question are going to work at the Skylight next year. Eric Dillner, or Bill Thiesen if he ends up directing, or another director, is going to offer an actor a part. And he's going to take it. And there will be grumbling and rationalizations. And in all likelihood, this will be a slump in the organization's revenue. But I suspect that the board is calculating that that this too shall pass.

The thing is, they're probably right. The Skylight is an institution - it IS bigger than any one person. Probably.

If the artistic community wants to punish the board, the can opt to not work there. But most people aren't going to do that. In the comments to Tom Strini's blog posting at the Journal Sentinel, many (most?) of the posts are anonymous, and some self-naming commenters are calling out the anonymous people on their perceived cowardice. I believe that they are anonymous for two reasons - to be able to say what's in their hearts now, and to be able to distance themselves from their now-hearts when their later-career calls on them to take a job. It is the dissidents like Jamie Johns who bravely put their name to their face publicly while continuing to work there that deserve our praise and support, regardless of your position on the issue. He is acting with openness and integrity. Even if the Board is acting with integrity, their lack of openness smacks of arrogance and rudeness. We love the Skylight - we thought we was pals. Why are you treating us like this?

The question that we will be faced with, that is bubbling under the surface but that I haven't seen in print yet:

Would we rather live without a JWAC we love, or with a JWAC we don't? Can art happen at an institution that no longer exists? Of course not, so the answer was, we will compromise.

I'm sorry - that's what happened in Indiana. Substitute "Skylight" for JWAC.

We made a deal with the devil - counting on the fact that what got rid of Ron would eventually get rid of his persecutors. The people we loathe will someday be gone, and a person we love, maybe not the same one, will someday come back to lead. It is an institution, and this too shall pass.

Right?

6.15.2009

Criticism and Critics: The problem (or not)

The problem is the reviewer. He can’t write. She’s got no credentials. He’s a failed artist. She didn’t even want the job in the first place, just slumming.

These aren’t abstract statements. Related to Chicago’s Christopher Piatt: “Time Out is filled with snarkiness and factual inaccuracies.” Regarding Prague’s Steffen Silvis: “Throughout this pessimistic, spiteful, know-it-all, opinionated, and exceedingly dull review, Steffen Silvis makes one thing clear- he's worse at his craft as a critic then any actor, director, or technician involved in Katatonica.” And from the same comment, “Apparently he has neither the creative talent to write theater, nor the practical skills to produce it, so he turns to criticism.” In Milwaukee, conventional wisdom has it that the Journal Sentinel’s Damien Jaques never wanted to review theater, and has somehow managed to suffer through his job like a career IRS agent who had failed the CPA exam.

Swap reviewers and you get the same issues. Silvis has had three plays produced in London and is the recipient of an NEA Fellowship in theater journalism. Neither a failed artist nor lacking credentials. I don’t know enough about Piatt or Jaques to speak to their history, but having worked in four markets and five cities, I’m comfortable generalizing. It’s not just the reviewer – many theater artists will speak poorly of most reviewers.

What is the reviewer’s job? What is it that they’re so uniformly bad at?

1. To comment on the show (or to the art generally speaking).
2. To speak and/or recommend to a potential audience
3. To speak to the artists.

These are the obvious ones, but there are others that occasionally arise.

4. To advance the art form.
5. To advance the community.
6. To educate the audience regarding the play and the art alike.

To this end, there are three obvious roles that the reviewer can hold (there might be others, of course).
1. The “professional” audience member
2. The filter
3. The artistic peer.

The problem, then, isn’t just the reviewer. It’s identifying what the reviewer’s job is.

Next week: who are Reviewers talking to?

Citations:

http://leisureblogs.chicagotribune.com/the_theater_loop/2009/04/theater-critic-christopher-piatt-leaving-time-out-chicago.html

http://praguepost.com/night-and-day/comments/1360-the-prague-fringe-festival-day-1-may-22.html

6.13.2009

What good is art?

This is a lecture by a British critic, John Carey, which would seem to summarize his book WHAT GOOD ARE THE ARTS, or perhaps only address the criticism of said book.

http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/files/20060616_John_CareygEaUDg.mp3

6.08.2009

Honesty and Truth

I was going to post on Criticism, but that writing is taking a bit longer than I'd anticipated, so on to a stream-of-consciousness I've been mulling.

Mia and Sean flew over from Dublin to catch me in Prague (yay! yay for friends!). When Mia'd read the early draft of DECAF back in Dec or Jan, she liked it for how "honest" it was. And that got me thinking about the difference between Honesty and Truth.

It's a gut feeling that sent me off on this thought, but I think there are actual differences in the way we use these words in relation to art (or at least in relation to theater). Truth is what it is: there is an implication of objectivity, in other words, a distance. Honesty has an emotional, a personal connotation. "Honesty" is a word people use for texts they like and admire. Rarely do you hear, "that was so truthful."

I'm inclined to think that more intellectual or more abstract works strive for Truth, and that realistic works tend to strive for Honesty. They're both difficult to write, and they're both easy to abuse. Overly "honest" becomes cheaply emotional, or manipulatively emotional. Overly "truthful" is boring or pedantic. Time for a lecture.

It's not so much splitting the difference as it is blending the two. Personal, connected, accessible: "honest" ; uncompromising, objective, exploratory: "true."

IN A THOUSAND PIECES was a great union of these for me. And while she liked the show a lot, Mia's reaction was much more measured than mine. I'm paraphrasing here, but she didn't feel like they needed to hit the pathos quite so hard. "We're on your side already, we're with you. Give us something different."

Are outside eyes the difference?

6.01.2009

Day 10, part II of II, The Crying Cherry

This is a tricky show for me, very mixed feelings. First, a summary of the action.

A woman is raped by her husband or an itinerant-yet-handsome soldier. She has twins, one dark and one light. The dark one is kicked out, perhaps, and grows up to be a mighty samurai. He is told that the white samurai killed his brother. He encounters the white samurai who IS is brother, they fight, the black samurai triumphs. He realizes he's killed his own brother as the white samurai lays dying, and commits seppuku, and they are happy in heaven together.

That is, that is roughly what happens.

Second, a description of the style.

It's a mix of a Zatoichi film (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0363226/) and a Chinese kung fu film. Lots of physicality, barely any language. They've created what I expect someone will "Sino-ese" or maybe "Chin-esper-apanese". It's just a soundscape of noises that approximate what someone who doesn't speak the language might think it sounds like. They make a point of using specific words that are identifiable: sake, samurai, katana. They break into English only for two plot points, and for two jokes, when the samurai finally begin their epic battle. Having fought to a mutually injured standstill, they abandon their swords and engage first in "pinkie style" kung fu (the white samurai), countered eventually by the black samurai's "gay man style" (imagine Jackie Chan doing Drunken Fist but with limp wrists and you get the idea).

Here's their blurb from the program:
Genre: Theatre, Comedy, Physical Theatre / Non verbal

Since the fifth dynasty of the Fuonghua family, the legend of the Crying Cherry has been performed by the Tukurimastas; an artistic guild of thieves who engaged in the martial arts, circus skills, theatre and robbing. Maarten and Ian take the roles of these ancient performers and will tell you a legend so beautiful you'll turn into a Crying Cherry yourself.

International Theatreschool Award 2007
Dioraphte Amsteram Fringe Award 2008


Language: Non verbal (gibberish Japanese / Chinese)

Age accessibility: Suitable for all ages

Visual language, fantastic. Not as plastic as Jonno Katz, but that's I think a product of their respective physical bodies. In terms of execution, their miming is second to none and their various triumphs, defeats, and particularly their progressively grotesque wounds are all immaculately clean.

I'm doing my best to make this sound amazing, because it was, but the thing is I didn't really care for it. It was an hourlong joke that could have been wrapped up in a much shorter time. Not that it felt drawn out - the narrative took care of that, and it was very well put together. It looks from their 2007 like it was a student developed show, and that's how it felt, content-wise. Empty, an exercise. An incredibly well-executed exercise. There's a reason they went beyond sold-out at this final show (I was one of several people relegated to sitting in the aisles, and, had there been a fire, I would have been one of the people preventing us from fleeing to safety).

It was more imaginative than Backward Glance, it was more physically challenging than Cactus, it was more clearly virtuosic than Canarsie Suite, it was (for most of the audience) funnier than Dr. Brown.

It's a matter of taste, I can't think of anything else. I want content and form, these guys just had content. This is clearly the show to "let it be what it is," and I can recognize that, but I can't feel it. The performers were nothing short of brilliant. I want to see them do something that'll hit me, not just wow me. It doesn't have to be as heavy as In a Thousand Pieces - you can only take so much of that. But something. Give me something.

But that's my issue. More on reviews another day.

Day 10, I of II, Decaf

okay, so this is a little late.

I think this was the best show - finally had a couple of Michelle's notes really make sense in the context of performance, lightened up a lot, overall a great note on which to end the Fringe.

Things that helped: good house numbers, friends in the audience (Silvie and Jirka made it, as did Mia and Sean from Dublin).

Things that didn't matter: oddly enough, having Vilem accidentally turn the lights off of me during the show wasn't a problem. The singular advantage of the conversational performance personality is that it feels like a (scripted) conversation. The lights came back on, and no problem.

Things that didn't help: the guy at the end who kindly offered me some constructive feedback, "for an international audience, you might want to slow down a bit." My mental note back to him: for any audience, you might not want to talk to your friend, and all three of you can put away your cellphones and stop texting. However, I'm not nearly clever, funny, or confrontational enough to think of that on the spur of the moment.

Oh, well, no big deal, show's over. Clean up, send M&S to see WAITING FOR ANDRE, get stuff packed in bags so I can get everything out (except the trunk and the hotplate), talk with Giles (TD and master of the Hong Kong Microfest at http://www.microfest.hk/), make my way through the rain to see CRYING CHERRY.

I didn't see ANDRE, but Mia and Sean really liked it, and Silvis' review does a fair bit of comparison to mine.`

http://praguepost.com/night-and-day/stage/1414-the-prague-fringe-festival-day-7-may-28.html

House count: 21.