A HUGE up to the brains behind Left Right Minds and Upintheair Theatre for taking the mammoth by the horns and kick-starting a brand new indie theatre festival in Vancouver. Taking its cues from Toronto’s Summerworks, Neanderthal is a juried fest that includes both local and national works, 6 in total. I’ll admit I wasn’t sure about the name when I first heard it, but their smart marketing and terrific branding won me over, and the festivals tag line revealed its brilliance:
More inspirational sloganeering here…
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the wheels of an busted-down model and creaking wretchedly under the weight of its very function as an art form; outdated, marginalized and impotent.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.
- A good overview of OF by George Hunka of Superfluities Redux
- The essential J. Holtham of 99 Seats drops some chewable pull quotes here
- The Prof weighs into it, of course, and this post will point you to pretty much the rest of the dissection, if you care to follow the rabbit hole.
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…
It’s an inevitability, I suppose. When we’re all talking about how to save theatre, how to adapt theatre to the persistent technological climate change that all the kids are gettin’ down with, about how to reach new audiences and turn them on to that old thing we love…it comes up. Invariably.
“We could film it and put it on the internet.”
The crew over at the promising new Verb Theatre blog recently posted about a new British site called “Digital Theatre” (a term already in use in progressive theatre practices, btw), which offers access to high-quality filmed versions of plays (that have already closed) for about 15 buck a pop, promising: “…multiple camera angles and high-definition technology to bring you closer to the drama and emotion of each production.” There it is. So the question becomes: for theatre, is closer close enough?
I jumped into the comments section pretty readily, I always have a strong emotional reaction to this topic for some reason. It makes me feel a bit fuddy-duddy actually, and perhaps it is some puritanical, romantic notion that I can’t shake. But it would probably be the only regressive opinion I hold on new theatre. I feel – have always felt – that theatre only works when you and your audience share the same physical space, I believe that’s what makes it unique and a thing of wonder, and where theatre’s unique ability to pierce right into the centre of you comes from. And I believe in film as an artistic medium too, it has a beauty and a power and a language all its own that should be respected, what do we really gain from a hybrid of the two? Is it a new art form unto itself? And if it is, where does its power lie?
A caveat: I look at this question – as I always do – from an audience-building perspective. Does this help get the uninitiated into the stalls? Is this solely an insiders endeavor? The theatre nerd in me gets giddy at the prospect of seeing theatre that I otherwise wouldn’t be able to because of geography. I had the honour and delight of watching the performance and production of a great friend I’ve never met face-to-face (because of geography) when his company tried an experiment in live-streaming theatre. I was rapt and over the moon, but I still felt in the end that it was a beggar’s banquet, and that I didn’t get the full impact of the artists and the art form. That I was watching something other than the audience members who got to be in the room. Is that the marketing pitch for it right there? I honestly don’t know.
This is the crux of the thing here, from my rant on Verb:
The big challenge, the really big challenge faced by theatre as an art form right now is that while all the other disciplines are rapidly becoming cheaper and easier to work in, live performance remains untouched by technology. Writers blog and self-publish, musicians can cut CDs on a mac, digital painting is indiscernible from oils. But venue and performer fees remain the same, there’s no download (outside of the tech booth, but that’s a component, not the art) that’s going to help us memorize lines and discover intention and project. I think we should use this one great uniqueness in the wide and wonderful world of art to our advantage and press it as a selling point, instead of offering watered-down versions of our art to the rest of the world.
But is this way off base? Seriously, am I being a fuddy-duddy? Is this the way we’re going to co-opt the internet to move us forward? Or to put it another way: just because we can, does that mean we should? Thoughts?
The NOW! Organization was founded in 2006, and it “…bridges people from diverse backgrounds to sculpt innovative, holistic solutions toward social, environmental, and economic sustainability”. And further: “We implement interdisciplinary grassroots programs to creatively inspire, engage, and empower youth, pique ideas and discussions, promote interdisciplinary, holistic thinking and problem solving, and spark action.”
So essentially it’s a youth organization on sustainability run entirely by youth volunteers, who last year established a playwriting competition for aspiring theatreists between the ages of 14 – 26 (split into 2 categories: 14 – 18 and 19 – 26). The winning playwrights receive:
- their plays performed across Canada to an estimated audience of 10,000 people
- their plays broadcast on Sustainability Television
This is the second annual competition, information on the two winners from last year’s inaugural competition is available here.
On-line submissions will begin in December, giving aspiring writers lots of time to prepare.
Best of luck to all entrants, I sincerely hope the craft sticks with you, and we’ll be hearing much more from you in the future.
A comment just popped up from Jon Stancato, Co-Artistic Director of NYC’s The Stolen Chair Theatre Company, on this recent post about the Open Up and Let Them In concept of Indie Stage, that discusses a recent initiative towards a new funding model that bears examination. I think I love it.
There’s an essential point to be made about fixing the busted down model of theatre by looking to functioning models outside of the theatre industry; adapting methods and practices that are actually working instead of spinning the same old wheels. Stolen Chair is adapting a workable model of community-supported agriculture (similar to the Vancouver Farmers Markets here) to independent theatre. In Jon’s own words, from the comments section:
Glad to read this post and wanted to share something that my company, Stolen Chair, is doing in NYC. We’ve been given a sizable grant from a program called Economic Revitalization for Performing Artists (from The Field) to adapt the business model of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) to the theatre (our CST). A small community of members will be following the development of our newest original work, QUANTUM POETICS, from its earliest zygotic stages until its first public presentation. Along the way, we’ll be curating a variety of thematically related cultural and educational activities to bring the audience even further into the world of the play. The community will also have its own private online social network, with exclusive rehearsal footage streamed right from the studio, podcasts, excerpts from the developing script, and, most importantly, a feedback forum where we can dialogue about the work-in-progress even when we can’t do so in person!
The reasons behind the initiative speak to a lot of what you say above about creating a community of informed, invested stakeholders. We’ve just opened up signups over at http://communitysupportedtheatre.org (where the whole concept is explained in detail). NYtheatre.com will be “embedding” a writer in the CST for the next 9 months and she’ll be chronicling the progress of the show and the community we’re trying to build.
Here’s to more models!
Jon, thank you so much for sharing. In the clip below you can check out Jon explaining the concept at an “Economic Revitalization for Performing Arts” presentation in New York…
The part that’s got me really excited?
The community will also have its own private online social network, with exclusive rehearsal footage streamed right from the studio, podcasts, excerpts from the developing script, and, most importantly, a feedback forum where we can dialogue about the work-in-progress even when we can’t do so in person!
Love. Love it. Theatre as community building. Isn’t that supposed to be the point? What do you guys think, does the CST model concept have eggs? Er…legs?
Photo courtesy of Jackie Connelly Photography