Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Deadly Assumptions:
A Response to "Why Theatre Matters"
part two

This is part two of my response to Steven Leigh Morris' LA Weekly cover story, "Why Theatre Matters."  Part one may be found here.

 "The city of Berlin spends more on the arts than the entire federal government of the United States," writes Steven Leigh Morris, ramping into yet another canard:  The reason theatre in America suffers is because the government doesn't fund it.  We need a national theatre, we need more taxpayer dollars to support new works, etc. etc.  The problem with this belief in the benevolence of government is simply put:  He who pays the piper calls the tune.  Or as Thomas Jefferson is believed to have said, "A government big enough to give you everything you want, is strong enough to take everything you have."  It was probably Gerald Ford who said that.  Regardless, the truth of the statement is evident.  Just ask the NEA Four.  Sure, they got their grant money -- three years and a court case later.

I know JFK said the following, as quoted in my blog entry of February 5th, 2009, "A Secretary of the Arts?"
Art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstones of our judgment. The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state.
-- JFK (emphasis added)
Keep in mind, just a few paragraphs above Morris was writing about the role the arts have played in goring "tyrannies of the past."  Is he serious in suggesting that the theatre can serve that role while cashing checks from Uncle Sam?  I'm not against government grants.  As soon as Theatre Unleashed receives its 501(c)(3) status, it's "game on" for any and all funding sources available.  The "lackaday" over an absence of massive government sponsorship of the arts is tiresome.  If in Los Angeles, "the incentives, the economics and the culture couldn't be more different" than New York, as Morris states a little later, surely he would concede that comparing Germany and America is an apples and oranges equation.
It's now been documented -- here I refer to the study called Outrageous Fortune, by Todd London, Ben Pesner and Zannie Giraud Voss, published by the Theater Development Fund -- that the network of midsize regional theaters across our nation has become too paralyzed by fear and the imperatives of institutional survival to move the art form forward, thereby consigning those theaters to a kind of creeping irrelevance.  The evidence for that lies in the aging demographics of their patrons, in a now-staggering system established 60 years ago to provide a viable alternative to the commercial fare of Broadway.
(He is wrong about why the regional theatre system was started -- really, Broadway?  But we'll let it pass for now.  Charles McNulty succinctly sums up the reason for regional theatres in his excellent piece, "Southern California's big theaters need fresh, dramatic thinking."  Read it.)

I would argue that those theatres are "paralyzed by fear" because of the aging demographics.  I submit that the evidence for the aging demographics is the creeping irrelevence.  At the very least, it's a dwindling spiral with each factor exacerbating the situation for the other.  It would be awesome if all our problems could be solved by:
  1. Eliminating the need for ticket sales,
  2. Which would free us from the need to please a particular audience,
  3. Which would embolden us to put some fire back into the theatre's belly.
What's missing from this scenario?  I'll cover that in the next installment.

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