Theatre Thoughts

Diane Ragsdale is researching the impact of economic forces on US nonprofit regional theaters since the 80′s and working towards a PhD in cultural economics at Erasmus University in Rotterdam (for which, she has actually learned the Dutch language!)

Her ArtsJournal blog, “Jumper: what the arts do and why”  is home to the most intelligent and provocative discussions about the current crisis in American non-profit theatre (is there any other kind?) that I know of. I’ve been moved and excited by what I read there many times and joined the discussion myself in July 2012.

Theatre Bay Area asked me to excerpt some of my posts to Diane’s blog which you’ll find below. But I really recommend reading them in context on Jumper.

Most artists in the U.S. not only have to get the work done under straitened circumstance, but in order to receive even the minimal (i.e. “normal”) level of subsidy, they must also articulate why their work has value, what it brings to the culture, why they need to get paid a living wage.  So when people like Diane Ragsdale,  Adam Huttler and other in these parts are able to eloquently give voice to these concerns, I am grateful and inspired.  Simply to be reminded that I am not alone in a country that has always been suspicious of “art,”  is a step toward reframing  the narrative that tells us that art is a luxury and artists are children that need to be controlled.

I have recently become artistically homeless. Traveling Jewish Theatre, the company I co-founded 34 years ago closed last May.

I was among a fortunate minority of artists in this country who was able to build a home, though it was only large enough to accommodate a few artists as well as a few administrators. The sad part is that in the years leading up to our decision to finally close down, it seemed as if we were being punished for our commitment to being a home for artists. Some foundations and consultants implied – and sometimes said straight out – that to attempt to have artists at the center of the company and pay them a living wage was frivolous, unrealistic and irresponsible.

Then, as economic conditions forced us to change that basic aspect of our identity, it became difficult and, eventually, impossible for us to accomplish our mission of creating and presenting original work. We realized that the only way to even have a chance of surviving was to become a theatre that produced existing plays that could be – and were being – done by a host of other companies. At that point, we saw no reason to continue.

On May 14, of this  year, we held a final farewell event. A few hundred people came to bear witness to the meaning and impact of 34 years of artistic creation. They made it clear that the home we had made was larger than it appeared. The intense feelings that evening inspired are still with me. I find myself asking many of the same questions about the future, community, the economy, cultural change that you pose on this blog. But I find that rather than feeling “homeless” at this moment, my sense of home has expanded. In my decades as part of a collaborating ensemble, I learned to become comfortable with not knowing what comes next and recognized it as the vital starting place of creativity. For all this, I am grateful beyond words.

Many have been saddened by TJT’s closing – among other theatres that have recently ended. But I agree with all those who say that we need to recognize when organizations – and not just the big ones – are ready to, er, unmanifest. In our case, sure, economics were the proximate cause of the closing, but other factors existed too. In the end, we could no longer do the work we existed to do within the organizational model of the small-non-profit-theatre. The cultural eco-system that existed in 1978 is now gone. (A big part of our support at one time was the NEA in its pre-culture-wars robustness. Anyone remember their “Advancement” and “Challenge” grants? Or the NEA funding of state arts councils that subsidized touring fees which allowed the larger university and community arts presenters to book at least a couple of less commercial, riskier, newer, groups or individuals every year?) Can we talk about an ecosystem in this context today? Is one emerging? I’m heartened that these questions are being asked here.

I’ve been quoting Harold Clurman a lot these days. It’s actually my paraphrase of his words at the end of my play, In the Maze of Our Own Lives, based on the Group Theatre’s story. It was our second-to-last production:

Someday the accountants are going to look back at what we did and try to come up with a balance sheet for The Group Theatre. Success. Failure.

Screw ‘em.

An impulse moved through us and it changed America.

If it’s finished with us, it might be a relief.

But if that impulse — that passion to tell the forgotten stories — dies out, then it’s a gaping goddamn wound – a fatal wound – in the American soul.

As I understand it, the original impulses that gave rise to TCG and the regional/resident movement were a response to the situation that confined serious theatre work to New York, with few exceptions. That led to new support for professional theatres across the country built on the European model using of permanent ensembles of actors.  As many have pointed out on this blog, almost every American city now has at least one professional, LORT theatre. But almost none have resident acting companies. Oregon Shakespeare may be an exception in that they audition actors, each year, as company members who will play multiple roles, in rep for the full season.

Recently, NET (the Network of Ensemble Theatres) was born out of the difficulties many ensembles — usually smaller, artist-run companies creating as well as producing theatre — were having in feeling heard within TCG.  NET began with a handful of groups and has grown to over a hundred last time I checked, (I haven’t been keeping up as well as I’d like to.)  Making theatre, forming alliances, inventing ways to get it done rather than waiting for some imprimatur from on high that we’ve been told we must have is a long and honorable tradition.

Michael Navarra, CF and Jeri Lynn Cohen in Death of a Salesman, 2007

When I look back on TJT’s 34 years, I find that those works I’m most proud of were, in many cases, ones that made the least sense financially. I’m thinking of the collaboration between co-founder Naomi Newman, John O’Neal of Junebug, and director Steve Kent, Crossing the Broken Bridge that took a couple of years to create and required a lot of travel  since the three lived in different cities. But the play, when it eventually toured, brought African-American and Jewish Communities together as co-producers, ending, in some cases, years of estrangement. Or See Under: Love, my adaptation of Israeli author David Grossman’s novel, which called for a much larger cast and — again — more development time than would have been financially prudent. We felt that Grossman’s voice so needed to be heard — particularly by the American Jewish community – that prudence held little sway. Because TJT’s artists were in leadership positions, and our administrators shared the company’s vision, we took on many projects that didn’t make a lot of financial sense. Please understand that for us, the “imprudence” consisted of supporting writers, directors, musicians and actors to work collaboratively for as long as it took. Very little was spent on “production value” or technology. After 2008, what had been difficult became impossible. Our offerings in the seasons that followed were limited to existing plays that could be rehearsed in the standard four weeks (which seems to be shrinking to three in some LORT houses)

It seemed miraculous that in our last season a particular combination of commissioning grants allowed us one more opportunity to do “slow theatre” (a phrase coined by former TJT member Helen Stoltzfus) and take two years and multiple workshops to develop In the Maze of Our Own Lives. By then, we had decided the season it launched would be our last.

Cassidy Brown as Kurt Weill with Nancy Carlin as Cheryl Crawford, David Mendelsohn as Lee Strasberg and Michael Navarra as Clurman

from l. Nancy Carlin, Michael Navarra, David Mendelsohn, Cassidy Brown, “In the Maze of Our Own Lives” 2011

2 thoughts on “Theatre Thoughts

  1. Thanks for this philosophical, historical overview. I am sorry never to have seen TJT though I’ve enjoyed Junebug Jabbo Jones innumerable times. I’m not sure I see the late 70s and 80 s through such a rosy lens though. I think we were just younger and less battle-scarred then What’s more curious to me is how strikingly similar the challenges and arguments are year after year. I found a letter I wrote to the Washington Post about arts education in 1978. I could have written it yesterday.
    I DO remember NEA’s challenge grants though. The year they announced them, with great pride and fanfare, I had specialty matchbooks made and sprinkled them around the lobby of the hotel where the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies annual confab was held. They said Challenge Matches on the front. And on the back? “Strike 3 Times”. I loved watching people pick them up and watched as the joke revealed itself. Good times.

    • Thanks for dropping by, Margot. While rosy lenses are easy to slip on when looking back, I have a hunch that there were more touring opportunities and, thus, more small-medium size touring ensembles playing university and community performing arts centers across the land.

      I wonder if there are any theatre groups that survive via touring these days? Bands, certainly. But theatres? Maybe the various fringe festivals are filling a similar cultural niche. And NET has been trying to create touring activity among its members.

      In 1976 I went on an eight-week, 30 city tour with the ProVisional Theater from L.A. Hosts included fine arts presenters, grass-roots political groups and other “alternate” theatres, like Megan Terry and Joanne Schmidman’s Omaha Magic Theatre, Knoxville’s PlayGroup, the Baltimore Theater Project..The tour culminated at TNT which was an annual, international, experimental theatre festival with two or three co-sponsors, including the U of Maryland, that took place in Baltimore. It ended in 1979 and was TJT’s first out-of-town gig. That’s where I first met John O’Neal, Luis Valdez and about a dozen other great souls, some of whom I’m still in touch with. Whoops, things are looking rosy again!

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