Gauntlet. Thrown.

I have been following @lostnotebook‘s twitter stream from the TCG conference and am so glad I’m not there. I would probably be dragged out, foaming at the mouth in a frothing rage after being continuously subjected to the endless arts manager circle jerk blaming everything on somebody or something else. the endless confusion and consternation over why audiences are dwindling and blah blah blah blah blah because its always somebody else’s fault and only if we were better at marketing or fundraising or this or that. Yeah that’s right, its always the audience or the funders or the government or even the artists….

But you know what? If you’re ever sitting at a poker table and you look around and don’t know who the sucker is? It’s probably you. Back when I was a spoken word artist I used to do a piece where I said, “And if you sometimes feel as if all you’re ever having is bad sex or the same sex over and over and over again, remember that what makes all the sex you’ve ever had exactly the same is that you are always there.” All I’m saying, Mainstream Theater Establishment, is that maybe the problem is YOU !?!?

Its your MFA programs churning out ActorTronic Meat Puppets and Sitcom Writers, your Arts Admin programs churning out status quo bureaucrats. Its your stultifying fear of possibly offending anybody or, god forbid, actually having something happen, live onstage, that is unexpected, challenging, frightening, delightful or surprising. Never before have so many worked so hard to achieve so little.

Am I overstating the case? Yes, of course. I know I’m exaggerating and tarring many good people with one broad brush. But really people, come on! Get out of your box and get into the actual real world. Accept some responsibility for your own irrelevance! Quit pretending like you actually enjoy that third rate rehashed “concept” staging of Moliere that nobody actually thinks is funny. Try to remember what it felt like to actually be alive!

Do you really want to exist as no more than a luxurious distraction for the middlebrow and mediocre? Or do you want to aim higher and risk failure? Now is the time for vision! Now is the time for hope! Now is the time to grab history by the balls and squeeze hard. These are such momentous times – don’t you want to be a part of it? Or do you want to sit on the sidelines and watch it go by?

I have written a hastily assembled and deeply flawed three part manifesto that you can download here. (yeah, its the big three I posted before). But I offer it to you as a starting point, a spark for discussion, a provocation and incitement to rebellion. Indifference is not an option, nor is hiding your head in the sand. Big change is required, with big vision, to completely reimagine the whole darned thing. Dare to not suck! CAST OFF YOUR SHACKLES AND RISE TO THE OCCASION!! DREAM! DARE! HOPE! FLY! SOAR!

The gauntlet is thrown. What are you going to do about it?

4 Responses to “Gauntlet. Thrown.”
  1. Jaime says:

    Okay, yes, I agree with that. It’s the fear of risk-taking that’s preventing awesome theatre from being made, no doubt. But what do we do (we being individuals and institutions, individuals at institutions) about the fact that institutions (and I use the world vaguely, just meaning any company or establishment that’s not a volunteer collective) are weighing their survival against risk-taking? They are concerned with selling tickets because they are living on the financial brink. If they take glorious risks, maybe 1 in 5, 1 in 10 will survive. There are people’s jobs and lives in the balance and, as they see it, histories and legacies of… existence, at least. Are you saying we should let them (ourselves) crash and burn so that something more glorious can rise from the ashes? And if so, can I have a new job before the carnage starts?

  2. Andy says:

    I don’t think that the equation is “survival vs. risk-taking” – the thing is that they are NOT going to survive the way they are going. Audiences are shrinking because the work is not relevant to people’s lives, it’s not compelling and it’s not interesting. Taking more risks – curatorially, as producers and cultivators of new voices in theater – will probably be more effective than persisting with the current way of doing things.

    Also, a lot of these theaters are going to die. That’s just the way of the world. If GM can go into bankruptcy, if the New York Times is struggling to stay afloat, then we can see that even the mainstays of business are having to radically reinvent themselves. Organizations are living organisms that need to grow (not necessarily in size or with more buildings) and evolve and change. Inevitably many institutions will go by the wayside. But those that are willing to reinvent themselves will not only survive but very possibly thrive. Is it truly easier “to bear those ills we have than fly to others we know not of?” or as poet Pamela Sneed said, “Imagine being more afraid of freedom than of slavery?”

    I”m not suggesting that they ALL crash and burn. I’m suggesting – nay, imploring – that mainstream theaters embark on a process of reinvention. Part of that process is unleashing the creativity that already exists within organizations – listen to that 25 year old entry level person. Listen to the intern. Listen to the new generation – don’t just “market” to them the same old crap. Really listen and be open to change.

    This existential hysteria has people paralyzed – but its not an existential crisis. Its an identity crisis that can be solved through vision, imagination and perseverance.

    I have always been delighted and inspired by how adventurous and forgiving audiences can be if you give them a chance. Invite them into the process of transformation. Become more transparent. Create dialogue. Engage. Don’t think of them as audience members but as participants. Live performance is special because it only exists when people are watching, listening, being present.

    The Establishment needs to radically renegotiate their relationship to their constituents and re-imagine themselves not as “live entertainment providers” but as facilitators in the great discussions of our times, cultivators of compassion, insight and wisdom, participants in cultural conversations.

    With so much boundless possibility at hand, why allow yourself to be paralyzed by fear?

  3. Dear Culturebot,

    Okay so I just have to make a little response here, as it was my twitter feed that led to this culturebot blog posting.

    First, while I don’t disagree with much of what you are saying in the below, I do however want to pause for a moment and in fact explain why I was THRILLED to be there, and am very very grateful to TCG for the scholarship they gave me to go (full disclosure).

    The most fascinating thing I learned was a kind of paradox:

    On the one hand:
    It seemed to me like the main programming that TCG put together – the Sudanese group, the conversation between Anne Bogart & Bill T Jones, the future trends talk by a Board Member of BAM, the huge discussion about working with and through international context, the emphasis on including Millenials/Gen-Yers, hell JOHN WATERS as opening speaker, or – was very familiar to me, to where I come from in our little world of Contemporary Performance and Aesthetic risk taking, (so familiar in fact as I was listening to Mei Yin from Under the Radar talking about what she would do if she ran the Theater Project in Baltimore I became a little paranoid that she had been secretly having me wire-tapped!)

    On the other hand:
    Sitting in my Budget Affinity discussion groups (Group 3 : $1-2.9 Million) I felt like those of us from New York were speaking a completely foreign language and that became most apparent to me when Kristin Marting from HERE asked how other groups were finding ways of financially sustaining their development of “New Works”. She defined it along the lines of how we all understand it – process-based work that has the full team with sets, lights, materials, media etc in the room for what some might consider extensive periods of time. As people were answering her though, they all kept talking about playwrights. Playwrights. Playwrights.
    Playwright writes.
    They do a table reading.
    Playwright does rewrites.
    They stage the piece of literature the playwright wrote in a couple of weeks.
    They open it.
    In other words, it seemed to me that “new work”, heck, even “theater” for what seemed like 99% of the conference is still staging a literary artifact – something that so far as I see the world we as an aesthetic field moved beyond back in the 1910s. And this seemed to be the case when discussions about the artistic programming and development came up in all the other lunches, break out groups and discussion sessions.

    I’m not sure what to make of it, but what I am left wishing TCG had had was a Plenary discussion about precisely this issue.
    Why aren’t the Regional Theaters and other spaces out there making room in their programming and development work for Contemporary Performance?
    – What are the barriers?
    – What are the strategies to overcome the barriers?
    – How can we have Contemporary Performance in EVERY venue in 3 years? (At least for a couple of weeks of programming, or a festival, or something.)

    Second, the wonderful thing about Twitter as my TIME magazine is telling me this week is that the 140 character limit requires us to be concise. However, that very character limit also limits in many ways the possibilities for deep discourse (hence perhaps the fact that we all also have blogs). I was only able to be in one place at one time and as I decided to set aside my Artistic, Curatorial, and Dramaturgical interests within this broad National context which does not as I said above seem to share much in common with us folks in NY, I focused on my Development and Strategic Planning sides and chose to attend those Break Out Sessions. I say this to preface the following: I have been posting all the notes I took at the conference on line at my blog Those notes are Development/Admin heavy because those were the sessions I went to. There were many discussions about Theater in Conflict Zones, about Art in the 21st Century, about Programming and Artist Development models I could not attend. And from what I heard from folks who did, there are many folks out there in the National context who are beginning to catch on, and think about the content they produce and the ways they produce it.

    What I left the conference with was a sense that all of these people care deeply and passionately about what they are doing in their various communities, in their various ways, and with their various flaws. I also left with a sense that these people want desperately to be better, better at making “theater”, better at supporting artists, better at sharing with their communities. Do they get it wrong much of the time, sure, (lets be honest though, so do we) but I wonder if an outreach campaign ala Howard Dean and the Democrats of going into their houses and politely talking to them and helping them along into the 21st century, might not be the best strategy to winning their hearts and minds over to Contemporary Performance and Best Practices in the Arts.

    Mostly they are scared. They are scared of being forced to create new financial models, they are scared of this new Social Media thing, they are scared of new art forms, they are scared of risk and of failure. And that fear does not stem from stupidity or irrationality or arrogance. It stems from not understanding, feeling overwhelmed, and perhaps a healthy suspicion of the flashy latest trendy new thing. We have to help them develop a vocabulary for talking about all of these things, we have to help them develop ways of evaluating the quality of this work, and we have to help them and our selves figure out how to get audiences who share these same fears on board as well. And we have to let them help us understand where they are coming from, what their successes have been, and what their strengths are. I think there are many things we can in fact learn from them.

    All this said over the next couple of days I will be posting to FatKidDancing a kind of over-view TCG Conference Just the Highlights as well as some suggestions to all of us about how to move forward. TCG will also be posting their own overview and notes I believe. Sadly they did not record and podcast the sessions – they said this was to protect the innocent and ensure open, honest dialog, without fear of it being public. TCG hasn’t quite gotten the fact that with twitter and blogs, everything is public now, but I applaud the effort to make us feel safe to discuss our dirty laundry as well as our secret new ideas.

  4. Andy says:

    Thank you for the explanation! Maybe we should open up some kind of public NYC dialogue as follow-up – or maybe a regional task force to export what we’ve been working on for so long in NYC to other places. We can help alleviate the fear of change by demonstrating how new ways actually work and frequently succeed.

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