Category Archives: economy

A bad time for arts…

…a good time for entertainment.

This morning’s New York Times carried a story about a resurgence in moviegoing. With the economy so lackluster, people apparently are looking for the cheapest route to forget their problems for awhile, and a couple hours in a moviehouse eases the mind without inflicting extensive financial pain. (It didn’t break it down to this level, but my guess is there’s also an increase in matinee/discount hour attendance.)

So that’s good for folks who work in the movies (if their production companies can actually get financing with credit in the dumper), nor is it surprising: people have long turned to the movies when the world goes to hell. The Great Depression may not have been the best time for the arts, but it did give us screwball comedies, some of which are now classics. Nor is it surprising that attendance is up for lighter fare and down for serious films (or at least films tackling serious subjects). When everything seems to megasuck, it’s hard to crank yourself up for a couple hours of war, famine, plague, and over varieties of suffering. People don’t want to be reminded that they are mortal in a world rife with injustice; they want to fall in love, laugh, and, if they’re Americans, see things blow up.

But it’s further grim news for those of us who can’t forget war, famine, etc., and hence reflect it in our art. As the author of two very tough-minded plays about war (and another two in progress), it’s sobering to see them bounced on nearly a weekly basis, despite good reviews and strong production histories (re: “Waiting on Sean Flynn” and “Liberation”; “Next of Kin” is still in the rewrite stage and not yet on the market, and “Depth of Field” is mired down in a structural writer’s block, though I trust George Montgomery, my war photographer protagonist and a character I’m intensely fond of, will one day prowl the stage).

Even I’m feeling it. Though I don’t imagine I’ll ever be accused of writing fluff–it’s just not in my nature nor, honestly, my range of talents…it’s dark (but busy) in here, folks–I feel the fabulist side of my work calling. I’ve kind of bounced back and forth between gritty stuff about war and politics, and more surreal, dreamlike work, and of late, the dreamlike stuff has been drawing me. It still tends to be kind of heavy, but there’s usually a good deal of humor (attempted at least), and the goal is less about exploring the depths of human cruelty and more about playing with the underpinnings of psychology, the relationship between perception and the doings of the unconscious psyche, and the strangeness that grows from their intersection. As Hunter S. Thompson famously wrote: “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.” I’ve also been playing with taking “genres”–such as the noir detective world–and twisting it around with magical realism. Less Michael Herr, more Phillip K. Dick.

It’s not going to make a difference for awhile, I suspect. When your subscriber base is shrinking, grants are evaporating, arts budgets are being cut, ticket sales are down, and corporate and private donations are shrinking, theatres tend toward the familiar over the new, relying on plays with established track records or, if they’re doing new plays, choosing playwrights with established names. (I guess I’m an established name at this point, but I have a very short reach.) It’s not just Portland; I’m hearing this everywhere. Right now it’s more important to keep the patient breathing than happy.

But, as recessions don’t last forever, neither do periods of contraction in the arts. Inevitably, people tire of hap-hap-happy formulas or variations on favorite themes and want something that’ll challenge them. And, as we enter–for good or ill–a time of dynamic change, I think audiences will eventually need work that helps them understand a chaotic world rather than merely assures them that the world will continue for another day. For me personally, that probably means a fallow period for productions (or productions on smaller scales), but the relationship between writing and production is cyclical as well. When you’re not getting produced, you write to make up for the bum news; so I’m actually experiencing a creative upsurge, where I have so much stuff written in notebooks that I haven’t even had time to type it up, much less revise, workshop, and submit it. Those kinds of periods don’t last forever, either: you have ride them while you can. In short, I’m doing a lot of writing. And having fun with it because I’m relatively free to write whatever the hell I want. Freedom sometimes really is a word for nothing left to lose.

To my artist friends, especially those who don’t live or die by performance, I say: work, damn it. Survive, have fun, and lose yourself in the creative process; so that when things turn up, you’ll have fresh new plays and photographs and paintings and poems and songs to introduce to a world starved for the new. And for my performer friends, I guess this is a time to work on your chops, cherish and reconnect with your friends, and find solace in small projects. It’s not fun. It’s scary. And it’s going to be hard to keep the faith. But like the good times, the bad ones don’t last forever.

They just feel like they do.


See what happens…


…when you bounce one of my plays? I’m just sayin’. And I still got a case full of black candles and a mayonnaise jar full of goofer dust sitting on the shelf. So, you know…think about it.

Maybe that’s why Dr. John calls it “trajic majic.”

Seriously: good theatre, bad times.

S

————–

Magic Theatre Must Raise $110,000 By Friday:
Please Help Magic Reach Its $350,000 Goal
Please donate now to save this treasure of American Theatre
https://server15.lfchosting.com/pursued/magic/pages/donate_form.shtml

San Francisco’s nationally acclaimed new plays theatre, MAGIC THEATRE, has raised $240,000 since its initial appeal seven days ago. With the funds raised, we began rehearsals for our next production—Tough Titty by Oni Faida Lampley—slated for previews beginning January 24th. Our staff, furloughed for two weeks, is back at work with pay. In order to continue the 43rd season beyond Tough Titty and stay open, MAGIC must raise a total of $350,000 by January 9, 2009. The funds will allow us to retain staff, continue the season, and remain responsible to our creditors.

In a world where more and more theaters are eliminating the challenging and risky work of mounting new plays altogether, please help us fulfill our commitment to new work. We’re $110,000 short of our goal. You can make a difference. Please donate now.

Our core value of risk over commercial gain makes MAGIC a challenging endeavor in any economy, and going forward, MAGIC is committed to a new model of financial stability for a new world—without compromising our mission. Today however, MAGIC’s accumulated debt of $600,000, combined with sharp declines in earned and contributed revenue due to the global economy, place us in imminent peril of shutting our doors in March.

Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Paula Vogel explains the importance of Magic’s mission in this letter of support. Please click here to read A Message from Paula Vogel.

For 42 years, San Francisco ‘s MAGIC THEATRE has been central to the cultural life of the Bay Area and beyond, giving life to some of the most important, diverse, and powerful voices of contemporary American artists, including four Pulitzer Prize winners. From its humble beginnings in a Berkeley bar, MAGIC has emerged as one of the crown jewels of American Theatre. For those of you who have sent us money, large amounts and small, we are grateful. If you have waited, please donate now.

In an attempt to close the gap between MAGIC’s expenses and revenue lost as a result of the recession, the Board, in concert with the staff, raised additional funds and cut the $2 million budget by over $300,000. The closing of MAGIC THEATRE would be a great loss for artists and audiences here and across the country. The second largest theatre in San Francisco , MAGIC employs 200 artists annually and touches the lives of tens of thousands of people. We need to keep our artists and our work on the stage!

Artistically, MAGIC is thriving, building upon its rich legacy under the artistic direction of Loretta Greco, who joined the theatre last spring. The critical success of the first two productions of this season demonstrate the rigor to which MAGIC adheres in each aspect of new play production—and the hoped for excitement, awe, and wonder that come from watching great art play out for audiences.

Save the Magic video

We need your help to raise $110,000 by January 9, 2009. Please help us keep our doors open by making a donation today of $15.00 or more. Please give whatever you can to save MAGIC THEATRE. No amount is too small or too large. Each of you can make a difference.

Please share this message widely with your friends and colleagues.

DONATE NOW ONLINE
https://server15.lfchosting.com/pursued/magic/pages/donate_form.shtml

OR MAIL US A CHECK:

MAGIC THEATRE
Development Department
Building D, Fort Mason Center
San Francisco , CA 94123

Thank you for your support. Your contribution is fully tax-deductible as allowed by law. Magic Theatre’s Federal Tax ID number is 94-1733420.
magictheatre.org


What’s In It For Me Dept.

Amid the lightning and thunder of the Wall Street and Big Three bailouts, there hasn’t been much talk about Obama’s possible impact on the arts. I have heard Caroline Kennedy’s name bandied about as a possible NEA chairmain, but, by God, she’s getting some kind of job since just about everybody wants her for something.

Anyway, I ran across this bit on a piece about Obama’s economic sitmulus package that I thought was interesting:

Among the worst vestiges of the Clinton years was the linking of education spending to the nation’s technological advancement, downplaying the life-affirming, intrinsic value of culture. Since the Reagan Administration bulldozed federal arts and humanities funding, the nation’s entire cultural apparatus has become increasingly privatized.

Why shouldn’t the stimulus package fund arts groups and schools to hire at least 100,000 cultural workers? These workers can paint murals, teach art, dance, music, and theater, and provide the level of art support that existed in the United States from the New Deal through the Carter Administration.

The Obama transition team has already endorsed an ArtistCorp, though this appears separate from the stimulus package. But a Musicians National Service Initiative already exists, and could hire people with stimulus funds through its recently created MusicianCorp.

Hiring cultural workers would not only boost consumer purchasing power, but in doing so the Obama Administration would send a powerful message about the nation’s values. The United States should not be only about high-tech, infrastructure, and finance, and our cultural infrastructure deserves more than having its leaders honored annually at a Kennedy Center gala.


a modest proposal


Today’s blog is predicated on the assumption that the polls are largely accurate, a major American city won’t be hit by terrorists this week, and Barack Obama will become the next president of the United States. Or as we stand now, the Untied States of America.

In J-school, we aspiring reporters were required to take three terms of economics, fitting with the profession’s general creed that journalists should know a little bit about everything but don’t need a lot to know about anything. Which pretty much works, because it makes you just informed enough to ask the questions to fill in the gaps, with the idea that your readers, who may know a lot about something but not a lot about many other things, can get a general grasp of what’s going on. In practical terms, this means you can, if need be, cover a city council meeting dealing with sewer system annexation without going, “What’s annexation? Or a sewer system?”

At the U of O, the general gig was take an term of microeconomics, another of macroeconomics, and then an elective of your choice. Since these were the 80s and Reagan had just been elected, I took a class on Milton Freedman and supply-side economics, which convinced me, largely, that the whole idea was a highly rationalized ponzi scheme and would make the rich richer and the poor poorer and could be sold to the eternal optimism of an upwardly mobile middle class. Even at 20, you get one right once in while.

Fast forward, the ponzi scheme has collapsed, and it looks like we’re on the brink of a return to the saner policies, which helped us recover from the Great Depression under Roosevelt (though WWII helped as well) and led to the booms of John F. Kennedy (which, sadly, he didn’t really live to see), and, in a more moderate form, the good times that were the 90s. This time will be different because the damage wrought by the Friedman types and the Chicago School is deeper and more systemic, but the funny part is that, just as in ’92, when Bush Sr. saw the writing on the wall and adjusted the tax bracket, Obama will benefit from the actions grudgingly taken by the this Bush administration, just as Clinton benefitted from George Sr’s moment of lucidity.

But economics is a lot like philosophy, of which Steve Martin pointed out, one learns just enough to fuck oneself up for the rest of one’s life. To wit, a take on the current economics crisis, from someone who slept through microecnomics, rather enjoyed macroeconomics because it was taught by…wait for it…a brilliant and funny Iraqi, and laughed through Uncle Milton’s bedtime stories.

Simply, if homeowners are going into default because they stupidly bought ARMs (adjustable-rate mortgages) with the idea that the sun would always shine, the stock market would always rise, and interest rates would always stay low, then got smacked by market adjustments and balloon payments, perhaps a solution would be to use a program with regulatory oversight to refinance ARMs into boring old fixed-rate mortgages and prop up undercapitalized banks that will take a hit when they don’t realize the balloons. Because if homeowners have to surrender their homes, the banks won’t receive any more money anyway, much less balloon payments. If homeowners could stay in their homes before the balloons, they might be able to continue to make payments over a 20- or 30-year horizon. Some lenders and real-estate developers are going to take it in the shorts, but, well, fuck ’em. They helped get us into this mess.

Besides. They can retrain for the green and infrastructure jobs that would be the second part of a economic recovery plan. It won’t work right away–it takes time to change direction on a ship this big (especially when it’s listing to the right), but, in time, saner policies will lead to a more secure future.

I dunno. It’s an idea. And I’m not going address derivatives because the only way you can get ahold of those concepts is to drop acid and lock yourself in a room with a stockbroker, and, frankly, I’m not that dedicated.


Tomorrow and the Day After

There’s a crack in everything….

We’re just about a week out from the first debate, a little over a month away from the election. I’m puzzled. I don’t have any certainty over this election, which is probably good because I’m frequently wrong right when it comes down to the wire. Over the years, my gut was right about predicting Carter (’76), Reagan (’80 & ’84), Bush (’88), Clinton (’92 and ’96), then wrong with Gore (2000) and Kerry (2004). In other words, George W. Bush fucked up my average, along with everything else in America.

This year, my gut says Obama. But, as I said, I’m not certain. I am, however, feeling better because McCain’s bounce evaporated after just a week, and the celebrity/puppy love over Palin seems to have faded, as crushes often will once you get to know the person, which leaves McCain with basically nothing.

And it’s weird about history, but I’d forgotten the absolute nihilism I felt in ’92 at the prospect of another four years of a Bush. As apocalyptic as it turned out, I didn’t feel that bad in 2004 about W., much as I despised him, because, shit, who could have imagined Katrina? That was when I knew, indeed, that we were living in one of the worst times in American history. You…are…there.

But, back to this year’s politics. Here’s why I think Obama has a chance. He’s basically been steadily leading McCain in both the popular vote and the electoral college (where it counts) since he clinched the nomination. Last week, directly after McCain’s Hail Mary pass (which no one seems to acknowledge was as much a desperate attempt to keep his party from splintering as it was to change the overall game), McCain edged ahead, but not by much, and, in fact, more or less pulled to a statistical tie. The debates will tell the tale, certainly, and neither guy is the most briliant debater in history. (Though Biden’s very good, and the VP debate ought to be…fascinating. It’ll either be a slaughter or it’ll look like the first Kerry/Bush debate, where Kerry clearly won but Bush didn’t screw up so badly that he didn’t croak his incumbent advantage.) Brass tacks, though: 2004 was very, very close, really coming down to Ohio. Obama’s a stronger candidate than Kerry, is running a smarter campaign, and, despite the fact that he automatically loses a few points due to race (there are just some white people who will never vote for a black guy), he holds a very strong hand in at least winning every state Kerry did. That won’t be enough, of course, but he’s also putting other states in play sufficiently that both campaigns are contesting states that McCain shouldn’t be worrying about. His ground game is also reputed to be extremely good, his grassroots organizing, and McCain’s is rumored to be a mess. It was Bush’s ground game, particularly among evangelicals, that carried his ass in 2004. Sometimes, it helps to be a community organizer. Obama’s fundraising and use of the Net is clearly superior to McCain’s.

And this is where I think Palin screws McCain rather than helps him: he’s 72 years old, he’s had melanoma four times, and he’s going to look like 26 years of rough road by the time we get to the final stretch, when even youthful, vigorous candidates begin to look like papery husks. All that puts an emphasis on Palin possibly becoming president, and, I think, with people so worried about their checkbooks, jobs, homes, and retirements, the thought of putting a clear lightweight in charge of a listing ship will give them serious pause. She needs to either game up in a big way or Obama needs to make a serious misstep, else McCain has a steep hill ahead of him. Not a good place to be when the Republican brand is so bad their presidential candidate can only get traction by running away from it. Plus there’s simply the war: McCain won’t end it, and people–especially those with military ties who have borne the burden and traditionally vote Republican–are done with it.

So that’s what my gut tells me. It’s pretty clear that people can choose 1960…or 1929. But, as The Clash (and many others) noted: the future is unwritten. There is, literally, no telling what could happen between now and November 4th and how absolutely mindbending this all could become. The entire economy melting down, a terrorist attack, a gigantic skeleton falling out of a closet, and the stars could realign. And if that happens and McCain wins, all those folks who muttered about leaving the country in 2000 and 2004 might actually start dusting off their passports. Not that it’ll do them a lot of good, because by that time the whole damn planet will be swirling ’round the drain.

…that’s how the light gets in.
-Leonard Cohen–