Friday, April 30, 2010

May We Live In Interesting Times

Last night, I saw a performance of Mike Daisey's provocatively titled one-man show How Theatre Failed America. If you've heard the hype, then believe it. Daisey weaves together rants and observations of the business of American theatre with thematically resonant personal stories from his own theatrical past. The man held the entire theatre enthralled for two full hours just by sitting behind a desk and speaking.

But this was merely the first act. I was fortunate enough to attend on one of the two nights which also featured a round-table discussion with members of the Chicago theatre community, including Roche Schulfer, executive director of the Goodman; Amy Morton from Steppenwolf; Michael Halberstam, artistic director of Writers’ Theater; and Ann Joseph, Artistic Director of Congo Square. This hour-long back-and-forth exchange between the panelists and eventually the audience became at times passionate and heated, but it was never dull. In all, the evening was an almost three-and-a-half hour celebration of and exchange of ideas about art. In short, it was what I'm looking for every time I go to the theatre.

I bring up this Mike Daisey experience for two reasons. The first concerns community and art spaces. There was much debate over Daisey's claim that the decline of much regional theatre in this country is due to the exultation of decadent theatrical spaces rather than of the art form itself. The panelists pushed back against this idea, citing Chicago as being different because Chicago theatre is very community-centered. Now, as the new Media Director for BoHo Theatre, I am very excited about our upcoming residency in the new Theatre Wit space (formerly the old Baliwick space). This new venue will include three working theatres as well as a coffee and wine bar. I find these kinds of arts spaces very exciting and the antithesis of the problem Daisey is talking about. I find having several theatre companies working side-by-side under one roof to be an inspiring experience and a fantastic opportunity for cross-germination among different types of audiences. These are the spaces where you can be exposed to something you might never have sought out. I have worked at the Greenhouse Theater Center and the Center on Halsted (which is especially cool for having the Whole Foods ajacent and the community area on the ground floor). With this in mind, I can see nothing but good things and opportunity on the horizon for BoHo in the coming season.

My second point coming away from the show last night was one of funding, and this is where I'd like to hear anyone else's ideas. Most of the panelists and audience at How Theatre Failed America lamented the paltry wages that actors in general receive (if they are paid at all). Full-time actors who work exclusively in acting and artistic pusuits are refered to as "the lucky few," and even the most talented and successful artists still live a life of day-jobs, temping, and cobbling together a mosaic of different odd jobs.

At the same time, there was grumbling over ticket prices to the theatre. Roch Schulfer admitted that no non-profit theatre can survive competely on ticket sales, which for the big theatres can run $30-60 per performance easy. Other cultural institutions, such as museums, are not expected to do so, he pointed out. One audience member later commented that even though we may seek to inspire children to love the theatre and thereby cultivate a renewable patron base, it won't matter if they can't afford to attend! So the question becomes: if artists deserve fair pay and stability for their hard work, and a theatre cannot sustain itself on its tickets sales alone, no matter how popular they are, then where does the money come from? Must American non-profit theatre always be on the look-out for wealthy donors and benefactors, always applying for endless grants, and always cutting corners? Is it a fact of life that there will just never be enough money to go around when it comes to the arts, especially in Chicago, which is packed with more theatre per square inch than another other American city?

These are my thoughts. Do you have answers, or questions of your own? Have you seen Mike Daisey's show and want to comment on it? (And if you haven't, why not? All self-respecting theatre artists owe it to themselves to do so.) Drop us a comments below and let us know what's on your mind!
-Charles Riffenburg
BoHo Theatre Media Director

1 comment :

  1. Chuck,

    I am so jealous that you attended something like this - I love these discussions!

    Here are my thoughts about the decline of regional theatre... I do think Chicago may be different (thank God!) but it's true that people get excited about glamorous things, eye candy, bright colors, and - as you put it - decadent theatre spaces.... I find myself both excited and slightly sad about the move to Theatre Wit because although I think the location of the venue will bring more audience members and help to get our name out (both important things) I have also grown attached to our little space and the fond memories of intimate shows... Sigh...
    Ultimately, I'm excited and yes I think it will be both productive and fun to cross-germinate!

    As far as money is concerned, there SHOULD be an easy solution: more government funding. I don't know if I can speak for all of Europe but I know that in France (because my family lives there) you make minimum wage, funded by the government, regardless of whether or not you are actively working on something. Now, I don't know all of the details behind this and I'm sure there is some kind of regulation involved or EVERYONE would claim to be an artist but haven't we been fighting for arts funding forever?? Why can't people just realize the importance of art in life as a whole? ARGH - the topic sometimes infuriates me...

    But for now, yes, I think we are definitely at the mercy of grants, donors, and season subscribers...
    -Stephanie Sullivan
    BoHo Theatre Casting Coordinator