Regionalitis

A very interesting discussion is transpiring across three theatre blogs in the last two weeks that really starts to give a peek at the potential blogs have for people in the arts to participate in an exchange and development of great ideas outside of a collegiate setting. There has been a lot of theoretic talk about the potential, but this is a good illustration.

Actually, I should qualify this further by saying an exchange on original topics. A couple of these blogs have a raging debate over whether Shakespeare really wrote his stuff, but that debate predates the internet.

Anyhow, the postings are on the topic of “Regionalitis,” a term coined by YS at Mirror Up To Nature in a recent entry referring to:

Regionalitis is the peculiar malady suffered by mediocre efforts of excellent playwrights. Usually regionalitis is caused by the continued and incessant performing of a play by regional and smaller theatres, having the interesting effect of perpetuating a undeserved reputation of greatness while at the same time building up an incredible expectation of the casts and directors

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He makes this comment after seeing Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing, in Boston essentially saying it was good, but not great enough to deserve all the performances it is getting across the country accompanied by the hype that surrounds a show that gets produced so much.

Spearbearer Down Left comments on his blog that when he saw The Real Thing at A.C.T. in San Francisco, it was “pitch perfect.” He does conceed that there may be a lot of “me-too-ism” in theatre’s and expand upon it further in a later entry saying:

…but sometimes I get the sneaking suspicion that some plays are done because they’re terrific, but sometimes they’re done because all the cool kids are doing them. I noticed a long time ago that no one really wants to discover new voices. Some do, but to truly discover one involves too big a risk. Better to almost, sort-of discover someone who’s a really hot property but not quite a theatrical household name yet.

A third blogger, Scott Walters, on Theatre Ideas throws his own hat in the ring but expands on the idea a bit himself. He feels that the repeated performances of the same plays across the country deprives people of the opportunity to see shows that speak to their place in the world.

He says that mass media has created the illusion that we are a homogeneous culture watching the same TV show and movies and reading the same books. However, he offers some observations that this might not be the case. He notes that while he lives in Asheville, NC and knows he is the same person who once lived in the middle of NYC,

I have appreciated totally different things depending on where I have lived. For instance, in NYC, rap music “made sense,” it reflected my surroundings; here in Asheville, a small city of 100,000 surrounded by the incredible natural beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains, it seems jarring and incongruous. It seems to me that NYC people are focused much more on their inner life — their aesthetic responses, their intellectual and emotional lives; Asheville people are more tuned into the environment that surrounds them, and their souls resonate to the things they see and hear around them. A novel like The Hours drove me crazy when I read it a few months ago; in NYC, I may have thought it absolutely brilliant.

Regionalitis treats every part of the country the same ignoring this differences in life focus. (Perhaps this is why the guy in San Francisco thought the Stoppard play was great but it didn’t resonate with the guy in Boston.) He points out as another example that The Kentucky Cycle was well received regionally all over the country and won a Pultizer Prize, but did poorly in NYC. He posits that it was due to the pacing and subject did not synch with the urban vibe.

He expounds upon this idea in a later entry and later clarifies his ideas after some criticism of them.

The whole process this went through really fires up my idealism gene. One guy coins a phrase, another expands upon his idea looking at it from the vantage of artistic integrity and choices, a third guy looks at it with an eye toward tuning works to regional nuances and I summarize and regurgitate it all.

I didn’t just pull this all together simply because actually watching an idea develop over blogs excited me. It was the whole discussion that got me thinking.

It is no surprise to me that different genres of performances appeal to regions and locales in varying degrees. The idea that mass media is shaping what we do and don’t watch and listen to is nothing new to me either, especially in these days of media consolidation into the hands of a few corporations.

It never occurred to me though that what they were promoting might not, as Scott Walters puts it, make sense for all regions of the country. I always just accepted, (probably due to the media) that the new stuff was just a logical evolution from what came before. New Wave of the 80s gave way to grunge of the 90s gave way to hiphop of the 00s.

Even though I should have known better, it always seemed like popular entertainment companies were reacting to trends rather than shaping them. To a greater degree pop entertainment does. However, once a trend reaches a certain saturation point, companies jump on it and promote it to everyone. They count on a desire to be part of the in crowd to overwhelm any sense that it was incongruous to one’s lifestyle.

That is what this whole regionalitis thread is all about. Arts organizations jumping on a bandwagon and urging audiences to join all the rest of the smart people across the country in enjoying the show.

Arts organizations aren’t as successful as the major media because they don’t have as much money to throw around to convince people to join their fellow citizens. They also can’t guarantee the same experience as everyone else in the country. The AMC movie theatres in Philadelphia offer screen sizes and surround sound systems pretty comparable to those in other cities around the country.

However, the talents of actors and musicians at the theatres and symphonies in Philly aren’t the same as those in theatres elsewhere, nor are the spaces they perform in. Seeing Dali in the Philadelphia Museum of Art isn’t the same as seeing the same works in the Dali Museum in St. Petersburgh, FL.

Nor is there the sense of a collective experience when a book, CD, movie is released on the same day for everyone present when performances transpire in different seasons, months or even years.

And then there are differences in ticket prices, economic conditions, education level and a half dozen other demographic elements.

This makes something of an argument for resisting regionalitis and taking an honest look at what programming and vibe is right for your community instead of trying to ride the coattails of the successes experienced by other people in other places at other times.

Heck with a man not being able to jump into the same river twice. Regionalitis can be like trying to jump into the same river from 1,500 miles away while in the middle of a drought.

Cost of Cancellations

So I had a bit of a problem while I was at the WAA conference last week–or as some might say, an “opportunity to learn.”

An agent pulls me aside and tells me–“You know that show you booked? The one you were smart enough to recognize the talent in while your compatriots on the other islands spurned it?”

“Well, to further validate your good taste–the show was a smash at the Edinburgh Fringe and a bunch of big name producers want to have the show on the West End.”

At the same time it is supposed to be in my theatre.

Well honestly, I have to say I am thrilled for the show. But at the same time, my brochures just went out and people are buying tickets at a nice clip right now. But the show isn’t until the Spring so it is good to find out now when I have the time to announce the change. It will be good PR to have to announce the show will have to be rescheduled because it burned up Edinburgh and is going to the West End.

But my theatre is also pretty much booked up until next August at the moment between my shows and rentals so I don’t know when I will reschedule. And before the college will send out a deposit check to an artist, I have to sign a statement saying I will personally reimburse them if a group doesn’t perform.

Guess what got mailed out the day I flew to Alburquerque.

So while the agent is trying to find out if this is a sure thing, I attend round table discussions. One I want to attend is being delayed so I stick my nose in on an session about ethics. I wasn’t going to attend because the same topic was covered last year, but it ended up the panel on this one did a better job.

One of the first questions was if anyone had ever faced an artist cancelling.

I raise my hand and say funny you should mention it and tell my story.

One of the panel members says that he takes that in stride because it happens often when performers in his cabaret series end up getting a contract for a Broadway show. He knows where he stands in the pecking order. He prints up an alteration, explains why the switch is occuring and offers refunds to those who might want it.

Be that as it may, my problem is that: 1- He is talking about a secondary series being affected, not his primary audience attracter. 2- His facility has enough prestige he can easily attract an equally talented performer who is eager to appear.

In many theatres in the region, the person appearing in his secondary series is often the primary attraction for that organization and are difficult to replace.

The roundtable discussion covered the fact that artists/agents/presenters who are new to the process (and some old hands who are just clueless) need to realize the reprecussions of cancellations.

For the presenter, a cancellation can mean upset ticket buyers, an upset board who mandated certain numbers and certain types of performances, loss of revenue and a loss of prestige and credibility with the community.

For the artists, a cancellation can mean loss of income; depending on the timing, mean they are stranded between points A & B with nowhere to sleep; result in a loss of credibility with the public and perhaps with the presenters before and after the cancelling venue because they need to ask those venues for more money in order to meet expenses that week.

For agents, it means a loss of credibility with the artists and/or presenters.

Since the arts community, even nationwide, is fairly small and members tend to meet each other often, an agent/presenter/artist can find themselves increasingly ostracized for problematic behavior.

But of course, this depends on the power and influence of any of these players. Sometimes you have to bite your tongue and do business with these folks in order to please your clients/patrons and just hope they don’t decide to screw you this time around.

The end of my story, fortunately, turned out well. A day after getting the potential bad news, I am told that the West End theatres the London producers wanted weren’t available during that time so they are looking for other dates.

So I get to have my performance AND claim it burned up Edinburgh and perhaps mention it will be going to London shortly after it appears here.

Getting A Rise Out of the Catholic League

“In the guidelines you wrote up for the Lab Theatre this summer, did you list sex acts as prohibited?” asked the head of the drama department in a phone call to me this morning.

The form he was referring to was one my staff and I made up after students took advantage of the informal agreement we made with them about the lab theatre’s use this summer. After their disappointing behavior, we published an official policy with the usual prohibitions against smoking and drinking in university buildings.

The reason he was asking about sex acts is something else altogether. The drama director had asked to use the lab space for a production of edgy plays by former students and other noted up and comers in the local community.

We had already issued warnings about language and adult situations in our press about the shows but things went a little farther than expected last night. Apparently while the professor was watching the rehearsal that was going pretty well and showing promise up to the point the actors stripped down, got under a sheet and apparently left both little to the imagination and a sneaking suspicion that they weren’t acting.

I don’t mention this so much to titillate and air dirty laundry. It is quite a serious subject and one that will be monitored closely. The drama professor was previously requiring students to see the production and now, even with the changes he is insisting on, has made it completely voluntary lest students accuse him of forcing them to watch obscene material.

I thought the incident was quite apropos and timely in reference to the Camille Pagila interview I cited yesterday in which she says:

The art world has actually prided itself on getting a rise out of the people on the far right. Thinking, “We’re avant-garde.” The avante-garde is dead. It has been dead since Andy Warhol appropriated Campbell’s Soup labels and Liz Taylor and Marilyn Monroe into his art. The avante-garde is dead. Thirty years later, 40 years later, people will think they are avante-garde every time some nudnik has a thing about Madonna with elephant dung, “Oh yeah, we are getting a rise out of the Catholic League.”

She goes on to blame this approach as a strong factor in the loss of funding for arts programs across the country. I don’t necessarily agree. Serrano and Mapplethorpe were an excuse to rally support, but not the initial reason.

I do think that there are a lot of performers who go to nudity as a way to prove they are hip and avant garde because it is the easiest thing to do to provoke shock in people. It is actually quite similar to how beginning acting students often choose to employ shouting and violent gestures in their scenes because anger is easy and doesn’t require vulnerability.

As the drama professor said to me, art is more powerful when it leaves something unsaid and allows the imagination to run wild with its own projected assumptions. The acting space is barely 20×20 with only two-three rows of chairs around. The physical proximity of the audience and the circumstances that lead up to the actors getting into bed together are going to make people uncomfortable enough as it is.

Choosing not to bring the lights down at the end and instead graphically playing it out crosses the line for people and the fidelity of the play. Instead of being memorable for examining the forces that drew these people into bed together, (and believe me, they are controversial in their own right), the scene becomes all about the sex at the end. Instead of leaving thinking about the awful and repellent choices the characters made, people leave thinking about the nudity and whether what happened at the end was real.

Of course, nudity sells tickets. This has been discussed in many articles for the last twenty some odd years debating whether all the nudity that seemed to be creeping into every show on Broadway was a necessary part of the story or whether it was there for sensationalism to draw a crowd. And everyone is an artistic devotee and offended at the suggestion they are pandering just to sell some tickets.

Especially if the ticket sales are doing well.

Giving The Arts a Bad Name

The Washington National Opera is advertising for a Priority Services Coordinator. This is bad, oh so very bad.

There has been a lot of discussion about the arts being elitist for many years and lately people have been talking in specifics. This week there was a lot of commentary on Camille Pagila’s interview in The Morning News. (There is a portion quoted on Spearbearer Down Left that sums up her theme.) In the interview, she essentially says the says arts and literature has to examine what they are presenting and the context within which they are presenting it.

Elsewhere, The Playgoer lifts a quote of the day from a Guardian article on the backlash against classical music in the UK.

So amidst this environment, imagine how I cringed when I saw the Washington National Opera advertising for a Priority Services Coordinator who “is accountable for the ticketing, fulfillment, and tactics targeted toward specific segments including high-level individual and corporate donors, artists, and other VIPs.”

I don’t have a problem with the job per se. I mean, the opera is located in DC where you have congressman, lobbyists, ambassadors, etc., running around needing cultural experiences. From the size and titles of their development staff, they look to be dealing with a large number of donors too. Having a person dedicated to their needs makes good sense.

What I object to is the title of the position. Even if you are giving people preferential treatment, you aren’t dispelling the perception of elistism by announcing to the public that you if you aren’t dealing with this person, serving you is not a priority for the opera.

It is just an ill considered choice of titles I think. However, they are in DC, performing in the Kennedy Center and despite the claim of being “Your National Opera,” they are probably a little too insulated from the reality of operating an arts organization in the rest of the country to realize how poorly this reflects on the rest of us.