Fascinating post from the Parabasis blog. My first read of it left me cross-eyed and despairing (especially since I’m trained as a journalist), but another part of me feels defiant: fuck that shit. Let ’em get their MFAs…I got plays to write.
Life is short, baby.
The Delusion Driving Much of American Theater
The Artful Manager has athought-provoking post up about The Amateur Vs. Professional divide in the arts in the age of the internet. He also quotes Clay Shriky’s Here Comes Everybody, which I happen to be reading right now (and really, if you care about blogging or want to understand the internet’s impact on society, is a must read). He ends it by asking this question:
what is the role of the expert and the excellent in a distributed world? How do we preserve space and return value to those who are extraordinary (by whatever measure you pick)?
I don’t think that’s a professional/amateur question — although that’s the frame we tend to use. In fact, I think the professional/amateur debate in the arts is clouding the deeper conversation.
This is worth thinking about in theatre, because our current system largely rewards club-house membership, not excellence, and it’s because we have increasingly established and codified paths to being deemed a professional that have to do with attendance of the correct schools, interning at the correct summer festivals, (and having the money to be able to do so) etc. and only somewhat to do with doing good work. This is only growing more problematic as many cities have LORT “professional” theaters that are outnumbered by “pro-am” theater companies (and by Pro-Am I mean theaters and artists doing professional quality work for amateur wages and largely in an amateur environment). Portland, Oregon has two LORT theaters and over a hundred Pro-Am companies. LA’s theatre scene is almost entirely ProO-Am, as is San Francisco’s. A large percentage of DC theatre is Pro-Am, as is Chicago’s and New York’s. In fact, I’m pretty sure in terms of number of productions, the majority (or at least plurality) of theatre produced in this country is probably Pro-Am (and i use this term to distinguish it from truly amateur productions such as community theatre).
And here’s the thing: most of the artists working in the Pro-Am circuit have very very little chance of crossing over. They are, essentially, pursuing a delusion as a result of a category erorr, namely that the Pro-Am circuit and the LORT/Institutional circuit are part of the same system. They are not, or at least, it’s more helpful to think of them as two sepearate systems. The path to working at LORT/Institutional theaters lies not in the Pro-Am circuit. it lies (largely, i know there are exceptions) in the institutional circuit, in interning at Humana, Apprenticing at Williamstown and going to UCSD or Yale (there are other paths out there, but this one is the clearest). Why is this? Because as theater has professionalized over the last fifty years, it has also adopted a Shadow Professional Certification System. It’s a shadow system because it’s largely social in nature; you don’t have to pass a writing bar exam to be a playwright, but if you want to make a living doing it, you probably need to have gone to one of seven graduate programs. And I’m not going to say there’s no relationship between Shadow Certification and Quality… there is, it’s just not 1:1. There’s plenty of terrible artists out there with MFAs from Yale (and awesome ones too, don’t get me wrong).
If we want to understand what’s going on in theatre in this country, we have to start looking at the Pro-Am circuit as its own beast that interrelates but is separate from the LORT-Institutional system. For one thing, we need to start studying it. There are very few studies out there of this world. The NYTIF is doing yeoman’s (or, I suppose yeowoman’s) work in documenting the scene here in New York, and I know David Dower will be presenting findings on this at the NEA NPDBlog over at Areana’s website.
I also think (and I’m trying to develop this into a larger and longer piece to be published elsewhere) it’s in the LORT systems’ best interests to try to find ways to learn about, be more involved with and collaborate with the Pro-Am system and start to break down the walls a bit. Why? Because, well… we have the audiences they want, the creative energy they need and the next generation of artsits likes working with us. I don’t recall The Vampire Cowboys ever complaining about their audiences being too old, or too white, or not passionate about the work they do. And Youngblood doesn’t have any problem getting people of all ages and races to come watch ten minute play festivals on Sunday mornings in the middle of winter and their space is a brutal, windy walk from the C/E train and roughly an hour away from where most of their spectators lives. In discussions with playwrights, they indicated a strong preference for working with theatre companies like Crowded Fire in San Francisco, who perform their shows in a space with less than fifty seats for fewer than twenty performances.
… adding I should also say that on some subconscious level artists working in ProAm know this already. When you talk to your friends in New York who want to quit New York and move to a smaller city, it is generally NOT to work at a LORT theatre there but rather to found their own theatre in the hopes that it will become a sustainable endeavor someday.