Friday, May 07, 2010

What Are We Shooting For?

I have spent a fair amount of time catching up on the Los Angeles Theatre Community, of late.  In my second term as president of "L.A.'s Most Ambitious Theatre Company," it seems about time to exercise a bit of curiosity about the landscape.  I've discovered Bitter Lemons, a community-based blog and critical aggregator; I've become more active in my appreciation for the LA Stage Alliance; and I've started reading Rick Culbertson's blog, "Thoughts from a Los Angeles Theater Producer."

A post from Culbertson on March 16th of this year, entitled "Good is Not the Same as Quality" has really got me thinking.  There is much food for thought in this post, and if I get the time I'd like to explore some of the issues he raises from the viewpoint of the shoestringiest of shoestring producers (i.e. Theatre Unleashed.)  But for now I'd like to diverge off onto a glancing subject.  Culbertson writes:
The first step is for producers to accept the distinction between quality and good.  It’s hard for us producers to look in the mirror, but we have to.  And we have to do it as businesspeople, not just as artists.

Once we accept this distinction, we then need to come together as producers.  We need to define the parameters of our work, and the goals of our community.  With those definitions in place, we can begin to control our brand, instead of having our brand control us.
Hear, hear.  I had just this argument earlier this year, regarding our production of The Unserious Chekhov (which closes this weekend!  Don't miss it!)  From an email to our Artistic Director:
The lack of money should be viewed as a challenge rather than a full stop.  The moment you decide to look at a problem from the point of view of, "How do I solve this?" it ceases to be a problem.

A few thoughts:

We may be broke, but we're resource rich.  We have an incredible, talented company.  We have an aggressive and effective publicity team.  We have a building.  The creative staff of Chekhov needs to find a way of using what assets we have to their fullest extent before bringing in new, costly assets.

It is possible to "play the obstacles," to take the hindrances and turn them into helps.  Think about this:  How can you use the fact that we're broke to sell Chekhov, to create an overall aesthetic that is exciting and engaging?  I don't know the answer right now.  Maybe it lies in striking a contrast between our scrappy production of Chekhov comedies and a "SERIOUS" production of one of his plays.

We've been toying with a certain aesthetic, a 99-Seat aesthetic that makes the most of what we have and narrows the focus on performance.  This is an excellent opportunity to crystallize some of the techniques we've used thus far into a manifesto of sorts, a 99-Seat Theatre "Vow of Chastity" similar to the Dogme '95 movement.  [...] The point is, the austerity of our productions can be a selling point.
(I'm really pulling back the curtain in this blog. Good thing nobody reads it!)

I am all too aware of the fact that Broadway quality is out of our reach.  Hell, West Valley Playhouse quality is out of our reach.  I drooled over the set for Broadway Bound at the ADA awards last December.  I sent a text to the set designer (an old college buddy), asking him if he'd be interested in joining TU as our Tech Director.  Heh.  His asking price is more than we spent on all of our sets last year (and he deserves every penny).

Production values, schmoduction values.  We concentrate on what we can do:  Write and perform good theatre.  We hit more than we miss, and that's good enough for me.

But -- and here's that glancing topic -- what the hell are we doing?  What exactly are we shooting for in our Under-99's?  What is our brand?

One of the comments on Culbertson's blog struck me:
A better analogy would be between Off-off-Broadway and L.A., in which case the two are comparative because of the variables. Indeed, off-off-Broadway (SMALL 99 seat theaters) provide a starting point. As shows move up the theatrical chain, and money is applied, they can transfer to off-Broadway or Broadway.
I hadn't considered what we do in relation to Off-off-Broadway.  It's a logical step.  From The Back Stage Guide to Broadway by Robert Viagas:
Off-Broadway evolved in the 1950s as a reaction against the rising costs and perceived lack of experimentation on Broadway.  The Off-Broadway theatre movement began in the bohemian section of New York called Greenwich Village (between Houston St. and 14th St.) and spread throughout the city.

In the 1960s, an even cheaper, smaller and more experimental movement called Off-Off-Broadway emerged as complete rejection of commercial theatre.
I hearken back to a conversation I had with one of our company members, a conversation I touched on in the third part of my melodramatically titled "Deadly Assumptions" series.  It's ridiculous for theatre to try to be film.  Perhaps, then, it's ridiculous for an under-99 theatre to try to be the Ahmanson.

Here's a well-worn passage from Peter Brook's The Empty Space.  I'm going to keep quoting this until someone tells me to knock it off:
It is always the popular theatre that saves the day. Through the ages it has taken many forms, and there is only one factor that they all have in common -- a roughness. Salt, sweat, noise, smell: the theatre that's not in a theatre, the theatre on carts, on wagons, on trestles, audiences standing, drinking, sitting round tables, audiences joining in, answering back: theatre in back rooms, upstairs rooms, barns; the one-night stands, the torn sheet pinned up across the hall, the battered screen to conceal the quick changes -- that one generic term, theatre, covers all this and the sparkling chandeliers too.
Maybe it's not enough to merely embrace what under-99 theatre is.  Maybe it's necessary to reject what it isn't.  Find strength in the Off-off-Broadway tradition and see where it takes us half a century later.  Say, "To Hell!" with sparkling chandeliers -- with even the remote hope that one of our under-99 productions could ever cross over into a mighty Equity-LORT production.  Buckminster Fuller wrote, "You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete."  Also, "lort" is Danish for "shit."

I need to let these thoughts stew for a bit.

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