Sharing The Same Hat

So the head of the drama program started the sow what may either be the seeds of destruction or bountiful harvest today. He decided the show he would produce next Fall will be a world premiere written by a former student. Involving a playwright in the rehearsal process is tricky business. I worked for a theatre that ran a playwright competition and was involved in the process of mounting world premieres. Even if there isn’t tension over a request to cut what the playwright wants to retain, there are generally issues over receiving rewrites in a timely manner.

I was supposed to see a new version March 15 so I had some concerns in this repsect. To be fair, there were rumors that we were entertaining other scripts so perhaps we can’t blame him for being under motivated to do rewrites.

But to add icing to the cake, the director wants to make the playwright co-director on the production. The playwright has had some directorial duties in conjunction with the director, including with shows he has written, so there is history and precedent for this. This former student just has never had a theoretically co-equal role with the director before and the productions were on a much smaller scale.

I say theoretically because the technical director, show director and I discussed the ideal scope of the alumnus’ authority and duties. Ultimately, the director has responsibilities by virtue of his position with the school which he can not cede or shirk regardless of the titles bestowed on anyone. Many of those responsibilities are in relation to me so verification will be sought for even the most minor request the alumnus makes.

So there is the totality of the situation. The playwright is placed in a position where he theoretically exerts equal artistic control over his product but in practice will not. There may come a point where this situation is tested when he is asked to rehearse a segment interpreted in a manner with which he does not agree. What will be his actual ability to insist on his vision of things given his position as playwright and co-interpreter of the work?

Conversely, if the drama director accedes to the playwright’s vision, he could be called on the carpet neglecting his responsibilities. (Though rather unlikely given the current version of the script. Still, a caution for any pondering a similar arrangement.)

Among the reasons why I did not immediately object to this arrangement given all these possibilities is that the playwright is aware of his limitations as a director. He knows he is good at staging certain aspects of a production but weaker at envisioning and executing others. While everyone in theatre tends to have huge egos which emerge at some point during the rehearsal process, I believe that realization will temper the situation overall.

While there is potential for all sorts of anxiety and problems to arise, there also exists great opportunities. A large cast of people will have the experience working with a playwright. The director potentially has another resource with which to accomplish the production goals. The script represents a departure from the type of shows we have done in the past and has the potential of attracting a large, young audience.

In many respects, this is the sort of endeavor we should be undertaking. Setting up the parameters of the relationship now hopefully avoids problems in the future. It isn’t likely I will be writing too much more on this topic in the near term but keep an eye open come Fall to learn how things are progressing.

Artists As The New Entrepreneur

I was reading an interview on Inc.com with Jim Collins, author of Built to Last in which he says being an entrepreneur is less risky, though much more ambiguous, than working for someone else.

Not risk. Ambiguity. People confuse the two. My students used to come to me at Stanford and say, “I’d really like to do something on my own, but I’m just not ready to take that much risk. So I took the job with IBM.” And I would say, “You’re not ready for risk? What’s the first thing you learn about investing? Never put all your eggs in one basket. You’ve just put all your eggs in one basket that is held by somebody else.” As an entrepreneur, you know what the risks are. You see them. You understand them. You manage them. If you join someone else’s company, you may not know those risks, and not because they don’t exist. You just can’t see them, and so you can’t manage them. That’s a much more exposed position than the entrepreneur faces. But there’s lower ambiguity on the paint-by-numbers path: very clear but more risky. The entrepreneurial path: very ambiguous but less risk. Of course, the truth is that it’s all ambiguous, anyway. If you think you can predict the future, you’re crazy.

One of my first thoughts was that if this were true and everyone thought this way, everyone would be an entrepreneur and no one would be around to work. Is it the illusion of security predicated on the belief that a company has a business model and system that will ensure salary and medical insurance payments are made that causes so many to work for another instead of themselves? Who wants to handle all the legal paperwork and accounting associated with running one’s own business when you can work for someone who has lawyers and accountants to do that work already? (Though lately few are investing too much confidence in accountants and lawyers.)

But on the flip side of things, I wondered if the relative lack of security associated with working in the arts is one of the reasons so many arts organizations pop up. If the prospects of success are chancy across the board, I suppose it is logical that you cast your lot with the devil you know rather than joining someone else. You figure you can out economize them. If they are putting on good shows eating frozen pizza, you can do a better job while surviving on ramen noodles all the while hoping you will be eating better at some point down the road.

I think people in the non-profit sector embody Collin’s vision of entrepreneurs pretty well in that many do understand the risk and ambiguity involved with working for another or one’s self. I almost wonder if it might not be worthwhile encouraging people in the arts to apply this energy and willingness to endeavors outside of the arts. We have all been told, if you can imagine doing something else, do that rather than pursue a career in the arts. I am sure everyone has envisioned what that something else might be. In some cases, it might involve working for someone else, but that vision might be easily be diverted to working for oneself.

I really suspect that the internal drive an arts person has that sustains them in starving for their art is the exact same drive entrepreneurs employ in starting up their companies. The only difference is that the arts person may see growing their vision to a 500 employee company as selling out. To be fair, the whole process of meeting with venture capitalists, dealing with human resources, accounting and laws can seem intimidating and impregnable barriers. They say the next phase of the economy will emphasize the creatives. What if this might portend the emergence of organizations and processes which take advantage of the drive and vision of the artist and facilitates with the removal of the barriers either through training or performance of those functions in a manner which the artist can easily relate.

Let me be clear, I am not necessarily talking about empowering artists to be more successful artists. Yes, it would be great if solid arts organizations emerged. I am referring instead to arts people bringing their drive to the thing they would do if they weren’t in the arts. I am thinking about directing that drive toward game and software design to restaurants to human resource companies.

Wouldn’t be heartening to have worked in the arts for 10-15 years and realize that your hard work and relentless drive proves you may just have the tenacity to embrace the risks inherent to starting up a new company and there are people who want to help you do it?

Wheels Begin To Turn

I had a really productive meeting today to plan a site specific performance on campus for next Spring. We have never done this sort of thing before so I am starting conversations as far in advance as I can so that I can uncover problems and answer questions early on.

About six weeks ago, I approached a woman about putting a performance together than would involve our students and perhaps people from the community at large. She was excited by the prospect right out of the gate. I think what piqued her interest even more was my vision of having other members of her group conduct workshops starting next fall whose work would feed into the Spring performance. For example, we will probably have workshops in mask making and mask work and stilt work and perhaps revisit the fabric climbing tissue workshops students participated in last fall. My hope was to have these workshops open to the general public as well as our students.

What I felt was most productive about today’s meeting was that I managed to get one of our professors to agree to involve his acting class in this project instead of creating the regular spring drama show for our lab theatre. When I proposed this idea to him, his only concern was that the project didn’t replace his class or displace him as the instructor. My vision was that he would spend his class periods as he usually does, except that he would be working with his students to prepare part of a larger piece.

The academic concerns answered, he was really energized by the whole vision that the lead artist and I laid out. By the end of the meeting, he had actually negotiated another slate of workshops for his students. Not that he is a person who craves control, but I was fairly impressed by how willing he was to cede control of a project he traditionally directs.

There are a few more people I need to bring on board and a million details to resolve in the next year. This is one of the projects I was thinking about when I wrote yesterday that were there special funding or tax breaks for employing 100% local creativity, I was confident at least one of our shows would qualify every year.

Also, even though I would have likely worked on generating this partnership regardless of whether it existed, I have been inspired by the Creative Campus project. I think our program is too small to qualify for participation, (though I just realized upon linking to it, that the program is open for another round of grant applications), but I am encouraged by the efforts of other campuses around the country who are attempting the same sort of things.

Vital To Discuss: Graduate Preparation

In a confluence of good timing, my Inside the Arts compadre, Jason Heath, touched on a subject yesterday aligned with that of two of my favorite bloggers. In an entry with a self-explanatory title, Music School Enrollment Spikes as Economy Tanks, Jason cites a Chicago Tribune article on that subject. Jason discusses the cons of pursuing a degree in music but seems heartened by the article’s assertion that studying music confers skills applicable to other fields. (Given a recent post, that is good news to me too.) My only concern is that in tough economic times, there are so many people with direct experience with jobs, there is no need for those with skills that carry over.

The article notes that music schools are making sure their graduates have training in addition to performance to make them more capable and prepared for the realities of the industry. Theatre schools are apparently not following suit in the estimation of Theatre Ideas blogger, Scott Walters, and A Poor Player blogger Tom Loughlin who met for the first time this past weekend at the Southeastern Theatre Conference where they presented a session on revamping the way theatre students are prepared.

Both gentlemen reflect on the experience in their respective blogs with some disappointment that the conferences do not really allow serious conversations about the state of the industry and how graduates may be better prepared.

Says Mr. Loughlin:

“At places like SETC, NETC, and ATHE (Association for Theatre in Higher Education) the emphasis is 97% on “how to succeed in the theatre business by trying a little harder.” It’s self-perpetuating, narcissistic, and almost cult-like. Anybody interested in having an adult conversation about what might be wrong, what might need reform, etc., is faced with the reality that everyone else there has drunk the kool-aid of pre-professionalism. You might as well be talking to a wall.”

[….]

“As I walked through the halls of the hotel complex during the afternoon I grew more and more sad watching all these young dressed-up kids with their audition numbers pinned to their chests waiting for their turn to show everyone what they could do and begin their climb up the great Broadway ladder. They know nothing else at all about theatre except this professional business model, and they have no sense of independent thought in terms of thinking about how to push back against it. They’re just buying it hook, line and sinker. And we, the educators, are tossing them the baited hook.”

Both felt the keynote speaker, Beth Leavel, was the worst offender when it came to underplaying the difficulty of making it in theatre and overselling NYC as the sole source and standard for success.

Scott Walters’ observations were most pointed in this respect.

“The crack she peddled was pontent: she had only had to work two weeks in her entire career at anything outside the theatre. I could see young girls texting their parents with this fact, proof that their choice of a major in theatre wasn’t foolhardy in the least.”

[…]

“Not surprisingly, nobody ever asked, and clearly Beth Leavel never considered, the utter insanity of such an arrangement. Nope, it was all about New York, and Beth had made the leap from SETC to Broadway, and you can too. You just have to want it badly enough. Because we are so lucky to do what we do. Why, she burbled, I’ve never worked a day in my life, and I mean that.”

[…]

“It seemed so appallingly irresponsible. To look at all these young, hopeful people with numbers pinned to their chests, I kept thinking of Biff Loman’s pathetic plea at the end of Death of a Salesman: “Will you let me go, for Christ’s sake? Will you take that phony dream and burn it before something happens?” I knew that many, many of these kids were very talented, and that for most of them those talents will go unused and unappreciated in the theatrical Oz to which Ms Leavel had pointed them. And they will limp home thereafter and, like Mr Tanner in Harry Chapin’s heart-breaking ballad of the same name, they’ll never sing again, or dance again, or act again.”

I don’t know if it was intentional or not, but I found it interesting that both men reference the audition numbers pinned to each person’s chest in what is probably not even an attempted veiled allusion to the “hopes pinned” phrase. According to Walters, they did their best to dash what for most will be false hopes in their session citing dismal employment and median income figures of Equity union actors.

We urged teachers to ” take that phony dream and burn it before something happens” and replace it with something important, something rooted, something that would enrich our towns and cities and states. We urged theatre teachers (and had we not presented before she did, Beth Leavel) to get out of the export business, in which our purpose is to ship off “goods” to New York City.

None of the entries are terribly long and bear reading in their entirety. If you aren’t familiar with Loughlin and Walters, they are both professors in performing arts programs who have been reflecting for some time on the education processes with which they are involved–and on the fate of their graduates.

As a person who came out of a theatre background, I have always felt a little superior to the other arts disciplines because theatre tends to be a lot more together in many regards. In graduate preparation theatre seems to be lagging. Not all music training programs offer the type of preparation mentioned in the Tribune piece, but there are enough to serve as examples for theatre training programs.