Streaming discussion and talkback of Outrageous Fortune tomorrow at #newplay

About 80 theatre folk in DC are getting together to discuss the TDF’s much-discussed study Outrageous Fortune, the Like and Times of the New American Play (that thing that everyone’s been talking about) with the project’s leads; Todd London and Victoria Bailey. This presentation will be followed by a Q & A, which will be open not only to those in attendance but the rest of us too, via twitter.

Check it out here at 11:00 am Vancouver time. You can throw them your questions/comments using the hash tag #newplay on twitter. Should be invigorating, to say the least.

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HIVE 3 and the re-branding of theatre

A crowd of the usual suspects were having a #2amt twitter round table the other day on the general topic of labels and What the Heck is ‘Indie Theatre’ Anyway? Questions being posed were like such: what is it exactly that ‘independent’ means? Independent of what? And where’s the delineation between hobbyist, amateur, semi-professional, pro-am, etc.? Really it’s about “how do we want to peg our company to the audience, to investors, on grant applications?” And are you trying to move up to the next level, whatever that is? It’s a great conversation, and an essential one from a marketing perspective; we need to be able to tell people what it is we’re selling them when we sell it to them. (Great post by Travis here, talking specificity.) This is an issue of public perception. This is an issue of industry branding.

I piped up with this:

Now, colleagues of mine will recognize this as a personal pet chew toy. And the one that usually generates the most amount of consternation. “Theatre”, “Play”, “Sacred Space”; these sort of terms are our darlings, full as we are of pride in the history and uniqueness of our craft. I would wager that a great deal of us toil in the impossibilium of theatre in part because we love the underdog nature of the thing these days. We get it, we love it, we’re unique because of it. Which means that we believe most people – or rather, most of the people out there whose hearts and minds and money we could get at – literally don’t know what they’re missing.

But the hard, cold truth is out there. When you say something to someone like “hey, do you like theatre? You should check out this play that I’m in” to your average uninitiated 19-35 year old, this is what pops right into the forefront of their brain:

…or maybe something like this:

…or maybe even this:

Which is all fine and dandy, but for the kids today whose absence from the stalls we’re forever bemoaning, it just ain’t going to sell. So to get these creaky images out of the minds of the GP, we going to have to re-brand. I know this sounds like heresy for a lot of theatre lovers, but be patient with me for a minute. Besides, if most of the movies at the multiplex for the last 20 years were Merchant Ivory, film would have to re-brand too.

The Red Curtains and Comedy/Tragedy masks imagery of theatre remains pervasive, and that’s a detriment to our appeal. We must at least be aware that it’s the slot we get stuck in out there in the larger community. As Nick says…

Right? So how do we change the context? How many of us even want to change the context? It just might mean the letting go of some imagery and language that we hold very dear. And clearly my theatre isn’t the same as everyone else’s theatre. Yet the question persists: how should we, as an industry, label ourselves to shed the shadow of irrelevancy?

Perhaps we could institute a system of clearer labels for the type of theatre we, as individual companies, offer. If we’re all lumped together in the consciousness of the community under the umbrella term “theatre”, how can we be clearer about the specific live experience that we offer? Video stores compartmentalize the art of film by genre, iTunes sells to us by genre, I suppose we could add some system of content labeling to our marketing, ie: Drama, Comedy, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Classical, Musical, Avante-Garde, Multi-Media, Devised, New York in the 60s, etc, etc…but that’s not really it, is it? Most companies do a pretty good job of conveying which of these categories they sit in through their postering and ad copy anyway, and the non-theatre goer still has no more impetus to give theatre a go than before. It’s an experience that we’re trying to convey, not a style.

Without a doubt the theatrical event here in Vancouver that is doing the best job of sexing up the concept of live experience is HIVE, up right now in its third incarnation. Check out the trailer:

How curious about the thing does that make you? And clearly they’re not shying away from the word ‘theatre’, it’s liberally sprinkled throughout the clip. What they are doing is exploding stereotypes and preconceptions, essentially saying “this ain’t your granddaddy’s theatre!”. Apart from the trusty Fringe (which hosts shows that oscillate between marvelous and off-putting), the HIVE shows have pushed independent theatre further into the untapped audience of Vancouver than anything else in our history. And the brilliance of the thing is that it’s comprised of bite-sized samplers for the real McCoy, the perfect way to entice people into testing the water; the first step in full theatrical conversion. Arts Marketing brilliance. And it’s working, it looks like it’s sold out already.

The next step in our mission to turn Vancouver into a rabid theatre town has to be about this, I think. Establishing a common consciousness about how our art form is thought of by those that aren’t…well, us, and convincing them it’s not that thing that they’re thinking it is. And then blowing their minds wide open.

Update: Travis continues the conversation here. It’s worth a read for the Jai-Alai reference alone.

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Breaking up is hard to do

Local Director/Playwright/Performer Amiel Gladstone (check out his TNS interview here) has made the tough decision to start moving on with his life, and split up with an old benefactor. He would like to share the painful decision with us here.

It’s being posted across the country, on the blogs of Toronto’s Crow Theatre, and Calgary’s Verb Theatre.

Getting Over It: Amiel Gladstone breaks up with the BC government

It’s over. No warning.

I was not in favour of this break up. I knew that things weren’t perfect but I felt like they still could be fixed. We’d worked through some hard times. I thought I had good arguments of why we should stay together. I felt like I was understood and appreciated. My achievements were trumpeted. International visitors were invited from around the world and my art was part of the incentive to come. I thought we would all be able to celebrate together. Now all our international visitors are coming, but it can feel a bit strained to plaster on the smile and pretend I’m happy to be at the party since The Government of British Columbia no longer wants to continue our relationship.

Some nights it’s hard to leave the house. Everywhere I go I am reminded of how things were. Just around the corner from me, the Vancouver East Cultural Centre has a brand new huge renovation. Downtown the Queen Elizabeth Theatre received a facelift. There are openings all over town filled with people. Memories of how we were in synch. And now? I feel like a failure because I couldn’t make this work.

I think about moving away. The Globe and Mail has an article about how Chicago must be the third largest theatre town in North America and not Toronto. I don’t know anyone in Chicago. Perhaps this is a good thing. So much of being a theatre artist is making relationships with like-minded artists. This takes time. I’m 37 years old. Do I want to go out there and start all over again in another community?

Fellow director Kim and I talk about doing other things. All of these really, really smart people, are we wasting our time? We talk about other business ventures. We talk about opening a great restaurant.

I do my best to survive. I don’t always know exactly what I’m doing. But am I not worthy of support? Of love? Why have I been left? What did I do that has caused me to be treated so coldly? With what feels an awful lot like contempt.

The provincial minister who has been assigned arts as his portfolio, Kevin Krueger, is the type of man who, when in public, talks about how he loves culture so much because he saw a great Rita MacNeil concert however many years ago. Our premier Gordon Campbell seems like he shares the same love for reading and playing the piano as Stephen Harper. But this is just my anger bubbling over. It happens sometimes. I need these guys.

I want to go over to Krueger’s front lawn with a boom box playing Rita MacNeil songs.

I realize I’m not to be trusted. I’m going through a bit of mental illness. My thought processes aren’t right. My filter is wrong. I think about going back into therapy.

I take my friend Matt to a Canucks game at GM Place. Matt’s feeling down too, broken hearted, so I’m splurging to try and cheer us up. We drink a lot of $9 beers at the game. Henrik Sedin is having an excellent season. It’s an exciting game, but the home team loses by one.

The government announces a $458 million dollar project – building a new roof for BC Place: our other downtown stadium. I wonder how the government can start seeing other people so soon. I wonder why the government likes stadiums more than theatre. Then I think about Henrik Sedin. Even I paid a lot of money to see him.

I think about how I work so much from the unknown. Often grant applications are made up or some sort of weird guess, when really they are attempts to get into the place of the unknown. What happens when there is even less money for funding? Will the unknown be even less likely to get funding? How do I shift my process so I know more, earlier?

I am directing a play at a college that trains actors. I am enjoying the work. I allow myself to fall in love with them a little bit, but my heart feels vulnerable. I feel afraid for what will happen to these young actors, as they attempt to follow a career path – especially when our political leaders are suggesting that what they are doing is worthless. I think of how we are teaching and learning to tell stories, but not teaching and learning the real skills they need. They need to be able to survive financially and be able to drop everything to take gigs. The ones that figure it out will survive.

Amiel is an award-winning playwright, director and performer based out of Vancouver. You can find his blog – theatre for people who don’t like theatre – on his website.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user JavaJan1

It’s all happening

Boy, do we have a lot to talk about.

Or rather, a there’s a lot of talk going on to jump in the middle of. While the Olympic maelstrom has been monopolizing the hearts and minds and commute times of the city for the past few weeks, some of the best discourse on indie theatre in quite some time has been competing for attention out here in the digital arena. Well deserved attention.

Most of it came on the heels of the recent publication of a study by New York’s Theatre Development Fund titled Outrageous Fortune: The Life and Times of the New American Play, which quickly became the Book That Launched a Thousand Blog Posts. Essentially an autopsy of the American Institutional Theatre System, it revealed in no uncertain terms that at this point in history the dream of making a living – comfortable or otherwise – writing for the professional not-for-profit theatre is one of those ‘pipe’ type ones. It paints a bleak picture of a system in entropy, spinning the wheels of an busted-down model and creaking wretchedly under the weight of its very function as an art form; outdated, marginalized and impotent.

The American theatre blogs roared to life over this study, a call to arms – well, keyboards – and for weeks the theatrosphere raged against the dying of the light that is the thing they love so well. I have no idea how comparable the gleanings of Outrageous Fortunes are to our Institutional Theatre system here in Canada, but I have a sneaking suspicion that we’re not too far off. At any rate, surfing the aftershocks of the TDF’s bad news grenade will certainly give you something to chew over before the next meeting with the board.

But then a funny thing happened. Through the smoke and rubble small shafts of light started to emerge, blogs started to stir with hope and ambition, positive, progressive conversations began to open up. The tone of the theatre folder of my feed reader changed from dark to light. Theatre practitioners started making change happen. There seems to be a catharsis underway, and it’s heading away from institutionalized theatre and towards small house, self-produced work. And this, my beloved independent theatre, is where we eat.

When you get some time, have a trip through the following links to get a feel for what I’m talking about. This is a pivotal time for our industry, and for our community.

And here’s where things start to get exciting…

  • The American Voices New Play Institute at Arena Stage in Washington, DC, has been having big, important conversations about the future of devised work on their New Play Blog, with a little help from Travis Bedard and David Loehr. Read about the talks here, and follow the conversation on twitter at #newplay. Great stuff.
  • And then there’s this. Sprung from the dead-of-night intensity of twitter theatrists, 2am Theatre is both a new blog and a hash tag that focuses on the positivity of where we’re at and where we’re going. New essential.

So that’s the overview. And an awful lot of reading, hopefully not too overwhelming, but there’s change in the air. And frank, honest conversation. It feels like theatre is finally taking that good, hard look at itself, and readying itself for change. A change that’s frankly long overdue.

Update: Serendipitously, the Great Nick Keenan has a post up today about structuring store front level theatre in Chicago, and the usefulness of #2amt. These are the leaders of the new movement, and they’re showing their work…