Running a non-profit theatre company in today’s economy, with increasing belief that the “Arts” are a luxury and not a necessity and where the work we create has to compete with the likes of “Jersey Shore” and “The Bachelor”, is unbelievably hard. And those of us who do it, and I mean, really do it – We pay our artists, we cultivate the cultural landscape of our cities and states and we risk, risk, risk in order to serve our audiences – we do this because we love it and we believe we provide a valuable service to our cities, states, country and world. Nothing about what we do here at DCRT is easy and we wouldn’t want it to be. There are no easy fixes. There is no fool proof method to success in the theatre arts or any medium, for that matter. Although, many people seem to feel differently…
A few weeks ago, during the closing weekend of Oedipus, the following article was making it’s way around the DCRT company and cast. We took some time to read the article, entitled “Ten Things Theatres Need to Do Right Now to Save Themselves” and it spurned some lively discussion among our ranks.
I’d like to use this post to discuss Mr. Kiley’s article with some help from Resident Company Member Lauren Myers and Wooden Snowflakes director and Oedipus cast member Katie Becker, point by point. Ready? Off we go!
“Enough with the goddamned Shakespeare already.”
Amelia Ampuero (AA): Oof. The author of this article calls for a five-year moratorium on the Bard’s work. He pleads that theatre artists and producers s t r e t c h ourselves, to find new, weird plays and not play it safe by producing the works of Shakespeare. This is something we at DCRT have heard from a reviewer a few times (during Taming AND Oedipus) and I have this to say to critics of the classics: Stop being so lazy. It’s become fashionable to hate on the classics and to a certain extent, I get it. There is A LOT of bad Shakespeare going on. So how about that instead? As matter of fact, how about we call a moratorium on lazy, self indulgent theatre of all genres?
Lauren Myers (LM): Aside from the fact that Shakespeare is royalty free and so the mere financials of it make it great to produce, I do find it interesting that the author didn’t mention the other classics. It could very well be that there’s a ton of Shakespeare going on in Seattle and he’s sick of it. But overall, I disagree. Shakespeare will always be awesome if it’s done right. That’s why there are certain Shakespeare-only companies that are still going strong all over the US and the world.
Katie Becker (KB): There seems to be an essential question not being asked: Why have these classical plays have been produced for hundreds (or thousands!) of years and how can we do them well? The author states “Teach your audiences to want surprises, not pacifiers.” I agree. Especially when they expect a Classical play to be one thing (bad) and it turns out to be something else entirely (engaging and evocative).
AA: I’d also like to take this opportunity to give a rebuttal to the idea that there is an infinite number of BRILLIANT contemporary plays out there that aren’t being given a fair shot because everyone keeps doing the classics. Let me say this: That’s not true. It’s absolutely not true. It’s my job to read plays and I can tell you without any doubt that there is a bunch of badly written tripe out there. Plays that read like episodes of prime time soap operas, plays that consist of several horrible people being horrible to one another for two hours, plays that are about nothing. To the proponents of forsaking classical work for the contemporary, I ask you this: Should we produce bad work simply for the sake of producing new work? I cannot and will not do that to our audiences.
“Tell us something we don’t know.”
AA: Mr. Kiley suggests that everything theatres produce should be a new work. A World premier, an American premier at the very least a regional premier. He calls out directors, actors, playwrights themselves and even the Actor’s Equity Association as culprits in creating a theater community who is reluctant to produce new work. Sigh… please see my above response to this point.
Oh, and by the way, Duke City Rep did the New Mexico premier of LaBute’s reasons to be pretty, the West Coast premier of Catherine Bush’s Wooden Snowflakes, our adaptation of Oedipus has only been done once before and we will yet again have another West Coast premier with the final show of our season, Phoenix by Scott Organ.
KB: Again, the essential question is missing: Why is it important to do new work? How does new work serve the audience? I’ve seen a lot of bad and underdone plays at theatre, big and small. They turn off an audiences just as quickly as a bad production of Midsummer or Death of a Salesman.
“Produce dirty, fast and often.”
AA: Ok! Does this writer have hundreds of thousands of dollars to give our company so that we can makes that happen? I ask because we don’t make our artists work for free. They all get paid. And once again, I am not interested in doing bad work just for the sake of being prolific. That’s not what this great city needs or deserves. They deserve the best and that’s what we are trying to give them, even if it’s by doing only four shows a year.
“Get Them Young.”
AA: Absolutely! Yes! I truly have no argument to this point. Cultivate young audiences and you cultivate the audiences of tomorrow. Yes! And provide audiences of all ages theatre that is thought-provoking, engaging and bold. Don’t talk down to your young audiences or your old audiences or ANY of your audiences, for that matter.
“Offer Child Care.”
AA: Yeah, no.
This is a great idea, don’t get me wrong. But it requires several things that don’t make it practical. It requires a large space, away from the main performance space in which to wrangle the kiddos. We produce our work in a refurbished service station. Our dressing rooms are an old Airstream Trailer. We simply do not have a location on site (or off, for that matter) in which to hold a bunch of playing children.
There’s also the small matter of liabilty. And no matter what you say, this isn’t an area where I’m willing to ignore the rules. What if one of the kids gets hurt? What if some kid comes in with lice or chicken pox or pink eye?? Seriously. What then? My employees aren’t CPR certified, Mr. Kiley! How can you realistically tell theatre companies to set up a ramshackle day-care?!? That’s just irresponsible, in my humble opinion.
LM: I’ve never heard of this and I think it’s brilliant! HOWEVER – there are so many legal issues to look into. Do the people watching over the kids need licenses? Background checks? Watching kids becomes so much more complicated than people anticipate. BUT the thought of having kids play theatre games while waiting for their parents and thus waiting for the day they get to see the play with Mom and Dad just makes me smile.
“Fight for Real Estate.”
“Push government for cheap artists’ housing and hook up with CODAC, a committee that wants developers on Capitol Hill—and, eventually, everywhere—to build affordable arts spaces into their new condos. (CODAC’s tools of persuasion: tax, zoning, and business incentives.) Development smothers artists, who can’t afford the rising property values that they—by turning cheap neighborhoods into trendy arts districts—helped create.”
KB: Mr. Kiley makes lobbying sound like this easy thing – write a letter, change something. I’m curious – what sort of arts lobbying already exists in New Mexico? How successful are they?
“Alcohol is the only liquid on earth that functions as both lubricant and bonding agent. Exploit it. Treat your plays like parties and your audience like guests. Encourage them to come early, drink lots, and stay late. Tax, zoning, and liquor laws in your way? Change them or ignore them. Do what it takes.”
AA: Hahahaha!! Sure, why not! Liquor liscenses, be damned! I know that there are plenty of companies out in the world who won’t think twice about serving beer, wine, and liquor to their patrons “under the table”. We are not one of those companies. We’ve worked really hard to be taken seriously and no member of our company is willing to throw that all away in order to have a socially lubricated audience. I also don’t believe that a drunk audience = a good audience.
LM: I also think this is awesome, but I can’t help but wonder how zoning and liquor laws in Washington differ from those here. But, dude’s got a point.
“Boors Night Out.”
AA: Again, a nice idea. This is something that would be very easy for DCRT to do because so much of what we do is based in serving our audience and we like hearing, good or bad, how we’re doing. We’re not afraid of hearing constructive criticism. (Constructive being the operative word.) And I, frankly, like the idea of getting immediate feedback from those we serve. Maybe not a “boors” night, necessarily but our Director of Marketing had actually suggested some time ago that we do the whole gladiator “thumbs up, thumbs down” thing. It is absolutely something to think about and let’s the audience know that when we ask how well we’re doing our job, we are truly asking. We want honest opinions, not ego stroking.
KB: I’m also interested in how to encourage audience participation beyond being a boor. Talkbacks? Pre-show discussions? Season selection focus groups?
“Theater might drown without its unions, but it will certainly drown with them. And actors have to jettison the living-wage argument. Nobody deserves a living wage for having talent and a mountain of grad-school debt. Sorry.”
Unacceptable. Sorry. I have made a living wage as an actor before and yes, Mr. Kiley, I can expect to do it again. I also know many people who make their living in the arts: Actors who work at regional theatres and earn enough to have families and buy houses stage managers who are calling shows in major venues around the country, technicians who have gotten to see the world working for years on touring productions of Rent, West Side Story, Wicked. It’s not a pipe dream.
I should expect to be paid because I provide a service to my community. This argument is ridiculous, disrespectful and offensive. This is the equivalent of saying “Pfft! Doctors! You expect to make a living wage because you memorized a bunch of facts and like to cut things?” or “Teachers, you need to stop expecting to earn a living just because you learned your colors and letters in school.” It greatly simplifies what we’ve dedicated our lives to. What theatre artists do need to jettison is the idea that they should work for free. What they need to do away with is the idea of the “starving artist”. It serves no one, the artists included. Ohhhh, I could write an entire post on this topic alone as it really melts my butter.
KB: But a skilled artist DOES deserve to earn a living wage. The only city where I know of where AEA and Non-Eq earn a living as theatre professionals (mostly acting and teaching) is Atlanta. So I’d be curious to see a similar article from the Atlanta comunity.
LM: That union rant makes my head hurt.
“Drop out of grad school.”
LM: This one made me giggle simply because I auditioned for grad schools before I found out I had to come home to have jaw surgery and I couldn’t have been more happy with the way things turned out. MFA programs are a league of their own. I still don’t know what I think of them (and to be perfectly honest, have never ruled them out entirely for the future) BUT what’s funny is that a lot of commenters of the original article reacted to this one in particular. People got ALL defensive!
AA: Well, no one likes to be told they’re wasting their time and money to be taught by a bunch of has-beens or never-weres. Ha! I think the point to remember about grad school is that it doesn’t have to necessarily be the next step. And what you learn in grad school or undergrad or wherever is not gospel, it’s not the final word.
*These are, obviously, only our opinions on these matters and while we disagreed with some of the things Mr. Kiley says in his article, we are grateful for the discussion it spurned and the thoughts it generated. Readers, we would LOVE to hear your thoughts on Mr. Kiley’s article, so if you have the time, please read the original article and tell us your opinions in the comments!*