Creating a New National Theatre Conversation

[On Thursday, March 23rd at 2:00 ET, I will be facilitating a Twitter discussion for entitled “How Do We Create a National Discussion of Theatre Again?” This post is related to that discussion.]

It happened on January 26, 2011.

At a “convening” of theatre artists and leaders called “From Scarcity to Abundance” at Arena Stage (hashtag #newplay and #2amt), then-Chair of the National Endowment for the Arts Rocco Landesmann addressed the assembly. We were flush with the excitement of being together, and of being taken seriously by our government artist-in-chief. Landesman, clad in cowboy boots and touting his ownership of a minor-league baseball team, bluntly called for a greater separation between the commercial and NFP theatre and more emphasis on risk as a rubric for NFP success (Houseworth: “Rocco proposes new measures of success: “Is the work taking risks? What is the relationship btwn theatres and their communities?”). Lots of head nodding, spatters of applause.

Speech over, Landesman sat down for an open conversation with Diane Ragsdale (as DC theatre artist and blogger Alli Houseworth tweeted, “This is, like, the hottest commerical/NFP mashup in the history of mashups”) and then…then…things went terribly wrong. At 2:45, thirty minutes into the session, the blogger for TCG tweeted: “RL and DR suggesting that there are too many theatres to support artists properly.” In the theatre, arts leaders shifted uncomfortably in their seats, leaning heads together to whisper variations on the theme “WTF?” Trisha Mead, one of the people brought in by Arena to live tweet the event, wrote at 2:55: “RL is trying to sell the convening on decreasing supply. Don’t think that’s going to be warmly accepted by this crowd.”

It wasn’t. Pushback was almost immediate. In fact, I was one of those pushing. (TCG tweeted at 3:14: “Scott Walters calling to expand theatre into new markets, especially underserved rural communities.”). Two minutes later, in a tweet heard ’round the world, Trish Mead wrote, “Diane’s suggesting an assessment of supply and demand per community. Who get’s to be the decider of THAT?!?” And by 3:34, Mead had coined the best hashtag for the event: “Upshot: If Rocco’s goal was to start a brawl, he has succeeded. .”

The theatre blogging world exploded. #SupplyandDemand became a thing. Trisha Mead, blogging now on the Arena Stage blog:

Here’s a recipe for a hell of a conceptual fist fight. Convene 100 or so people from around the nation, each of whose mission in life is to grow the field of new work for the theater. Each of whom represents an organization that is fighting to generate new audiences, new ideas, new structures for expanding the American theater.

Then place a guy in cowboy boots in front of them (who happens to control the largest pool of public arts funding in the U.S.) and have him baldly state, “Look. You can either increase demand or decrease supply. Demand is not going to increase, so it is time to think about decreasing supply.”

Bam. Knuckles cracked, Conceptual throwing stars were whetted and readied and a whole room was suddenly electrified into response. What does he mean there’s too much supply?!? What does he mean we can’t increase demand?!? Who determines which theater companies are wheat and which are chaff?!? And what are the consequences of this assertion for my own theater company? A pretty great way to start a #newplay convening, even if (particularly if) you wildly disagreed with every syllable of the assertion being made by our nation’s nominal top funding dog.

The next day, Travis Bedard published his assessment at 2amt:

Mr. Landesman, I know it feels like giving NEA pocket change to small communities who aren’t making art you would fly to see (though you should come down for Fusebox – queso’s on me) is throwing it away when development venues are strapped and laying people off.

But I urge you to come back over this weekend and remind yourself that that pocket change is being given to the most resourceful artists your hard-working staff can find. And those artists are turning those resources into stories, and beauty and art, and creating more artists.

You keep fighting the fight to keep us supplied and let us worry about creating demand.

At blog after blog, people chimed in. Barry Johnson wrote, “Dear Rocco Landesman, We don’t want your Theater Death Panels,” (wrote Johnson, “I instantly reached for most inflammatory term I could think of for this concerted action — Theater Death Panel. Hey, when Rocco’s fireballs fill the sky, I reach for my own Molotov cocktail. Fair is fair) asking “why does Landesman even care how many theaters exist out there, producing the over-supply? He does practically nothing to keep them alive, after all. He’s the king of a paltry kingdom, the keeper of a poor-man’s purse. But, let’s assume he’s eager to spend his money as wisely as possible, as opposed to just creating a bit of a stir for self-promotional purposes, and that he has the overall health of theater in America at heart.” The  New York Tmes, noting the dustup, followed up with an interview with Landesman, who doubled down on his statements. Philanthropy News Digest chimed in, “With Friends Like This…” I wrote “More Thoughts on Rocco Landesman at the Arena.” The conversation set fire to the theatrosphere, and when all was said an done and I printed out all the thoughts I could find on the subject, it took 266 pages.

A month later, the heat had grown great enough that Landesman called a meeting with 16 arts “service organizations” (I was there representing the Center for Rural Arts Development and Leadership Education) to discuss the whole thing. (I wrote about the meeting here.) And a month later, I was interviewed for NPR’s Studio 360 in an episode called (and you can sense the incredulity), “Too Much Theater?

Anyway, the point is this: there was a national conversation. People all over the US were engaged in something that, without the theatrosphere, would have been confined to some beer-soaked grumbling at a DC pub that evening. We all read each other’s thoughts, contributed fiery comments, responded to each other on our own blogs — and our thoughts changed the conversation. In a tweet during the Landesman talkback, blogger David J. Loehr tweeted “Kirk Lynn speaks truth to power.,” but the fact is that we ALL were speaking truth to power — and we were speaking truth to each other, and speaking truth to anyone who would listen.

And the arts leaders at the NEA meeting in February didn’t like it much. In my report on the meeting, I noted:

The one thing I heard that did make me cock my head to the side, however, was the way that bloggers and tweeters were talked about by the assembled leaders. It wasn’t good. Many of them seemed to see the whole on-line conversation as airing dirty laundry and working against the field, as people just speaking off the top of their heads and engaging in crazy talk. This came up again and again. And that’s when I became a more confirmed blogger and tweeter.

These leaders are used to controlling the conversation from their privileged positions. If they think it ought to be talked about, it will be; if not, it will be silenced. Things should be decided behind closed doors, away from the prying eyes of the public and preferably not within earshot of artists. All this on-line democratization of conversation just works against creating a unified message to the general public.

Oh well…

It was the high point, in my opinion, of the theatrosphere. Artists and thinkers across the country were all in, all defending each other, all proposing alternatives and offering criticisms. In many ways, we had created a national theatre community.

And then… well, something happened. The Arena Stage convenings money ended. Bloggers started to get tired, blogs went dormant, Google Reader went away and suddenly it was harder to keep track of who was writing something new. Long form blog posts started to be replaced by 140-character tweets, new bloggers came on the scene and many didn’t seem to read the work of others, much less link to them. Pretty soon, what had been a dynamic dialogue became a few voices cranking in the wilderness.

And now Donald Trump is threatening to defund the NEA and hardly anybody has anything to say… except old-school blogger Leonard Jacobs, whose long-form post “56 State Arts Agencies Face the Death of the NEA” is angrily passionate, rich with highly informative links, and followed by an excellent discussion in the comments.So h

How can we reinvigorate the conversation? How can create a new dialogue discussing every aspect of theatre, one that is not one-off articles but part of a broader give-and-take between specific writers with a consistent voice and values? I’m not talking about once-a-month articles published hither and yon, but a real ongoing conversation between individuals? How can we get foundations and agencies to recognize the value of such a dialogue, and encourage and support it in some way?

This will be the topic of our conversation on Thursday, March 23rd at 2:00pm ET. Join us — use the hashtag #HowlRound.


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