Monday, December 08, 2008

Theater Artistic Navel Gazing

Writing about my "first" Sam Shepard experience, got me thinking about a time when everything was fresher for me. Now I'm looking back at where I have been. Maybe to get some ideas about where to go.

There was a time when I thought anything was possible. I was in my mid twenties. I had been planning on moving to Chicago, but was instead heading for New York. My collegiate career was coming to a close. All I had to do was finish that last damn foreign language requirement I had been continuously putting off. This was the summer of 1997. To my own judgement, I had about the best pre-graduate experience anyone could have. I had taken my own sweet time getting to State University since I had immense freedom of expression as well as paid work in theatre at my home town. Finally after 4 years of being a big fish, someone had the good sense to finally kick me out of the local comfort zone and get my ass to state school. Being a few years older than all the other kids didn't hurt when it came to being focused on what I wanted and how to get it. And in a sort of Joseph Campbell like way, there always appeared to be knowledge people along the path who were able to guide or assist me.

We had mainstage shows that the school produced that had to be attended for grades, but we had also a thriving student run season in our small annex space that was most weekends filled to capacity. The productions were diverse. Many were flawed. All of them were free. The community's enthusiasm for work, all kinds of work was intense.

I want to get back to that place where I believe that anything is possible, where every night there was a belief that tonight I am going to either see or do something on stage I've never seen before, where people were more interested in intriguing whoever was in the house rather than counting the number of seats filled.

I want to live in a city with
more risk takers,
more variety,
less big houses,
more storefronts
more basement production
more guerrilla tactics
more dissent
less money
more sweat
more mind blowing
less broadway mentality

I don't want to point fingers at artists who aren't doing what I like. I want to find a network of like minded individuals who can point me instead to those whose work makes something reverberate in me.


Tony Adams said...

Do you think you're not seeing the work, not seeing the connections? Or not seeing the interest in intriguing?

If you knew then what you know now, would you have seen if differently then?

Hope the shoot went well, the Manny image looks way cool.

Devilvet said...

The Interest in intriguing....

Say that 3 times fast.

Well, let me sort of echo what has been said at your site by Chuy... that there is alot more focus on the box office receipts and the reviews then on the actual process and journey of making the play.

I see fewer artists fiercely commited to their vision and voice than focused onto pleasing an audience by any means necessary. I see a sort of focus group approach to programming and season subscriptions. Going to the theatre and hearing what people think we want to hear, so that we will come back.

I hear more people talking about how to save theater and no as much about what is on the stage that is worth saving.

And...I am wholly ready to have most people merely tell me that I am jaded, or that I am not in touch.

It is possible that in the long run I am merely saying that I wish I was a younger man.

But, I am totally willing to believe the work is out there. So then the question is how do people connect to it.

I believed that anything was possible because, back then I was looking for a way to make it happen, rather than looking for a way to make money making it happen.

I exercised my constitutional rights to express ideas I had regardless of the profitability.

Was it sustainable as a lifestyle? I guess I wont know till I am dead. What I do know is that more and more folks whether it just be the creep of middle age, kids, exhaustion, too little press, too little money, fear of failure, etc. etc.

Either too few folks are taking the risks... or I just don't know where to find them here and now.

My personal belief is that it is 75-25 ratio. That there are things going on I'd love to see, but the other 75% leave me wondering where they are.

Tony Adams said...

"But, I am totally willing to believe the work is out there. So then the question is how do people connect to it."

Great question from a jaded old man :)

For better or worse, money breeds notice. So one of the challenges is connecting on a budget. For me this is just as true as an audience member as it is an an artist. I can't afford to see a whole lot right now, so it's that much tougher. If you only catch a handful of show it's harder to find.

But part of me does wonder if the bar is just so much higher for me now than it was when I was 21, that less of what I see wows me. What probably would have seemed revolutionary to a 21 year old me is, at times, been there done that to the 31 year old me.

On the other hand when something really grabs me I think I appreciate it much more than I used to.

Paul Rekk said...

If we're talking knock your socks off, renew your faith in the creative process type theatre, I think your 75-25 is about right, dv, but I don't think there's any way around that percentage no matter the number of shows you're seeing. You can try and hand-pick your future favorites all you want (lord knows I do), but surprise and disappointment are part and parcel. Do you find that the ratio is changing through the years?

Maybe it's because I'm seeing more shows and thus numbers-wise more good shows. Maybe it's because I do and will continue to point fingers at the bad and the do not like, because I'd rather converse (even if it's only with myself) than ignore. Maybe it's simply because I'm younger, but I'll take the bad with the good gladly -- it keeps it all in perspective.

devilvet said...

75-25 is a number relating to artistic endeavours that could resonate with me regardless of execution, more or less based on intent. Right now, I'd rather see a very bad production of a Mac Wellman play then an excellent rendition of a Tony Kushner.

I would rather see more companies like Elevator Repair Service and Wooster Group and Richard Foreman and Robert Wilson and Julie Taymor.

I want to see more shows in smaller spaces for less money rather than stronger shows.

I don't just want more storefront. I want something even more across the frontier.

I used to believe that theatre could be like travel, and that every show could be a new world, a new street corner, a new environment....

And I think it used to be a little easier to find... maybe that is it. Where is the Chicago Reader I used to know? I am sure that beast is dead... Where then can one go if they want to find a synopsis other than 20 words of all the different theater out there?

And I want to put emphasis on the word "different" here. Different as in weird, outliers, misplaced, disenfranchised, psychotic, minimal,

I want more stuff that is "off the grid"


Tony Adams said...

"I would rather see more companies like Elevator Repair Service and Wooster Group and Richard Foreman and Robert Wilson and Julie Taymor.

I want to see more shows in smaller spaces for less money rather than stronger shows."

I dunno, all those examples have a lot more cash than any storefront I know of. How do they match up with less money?

I'd rather have stronger shows, regardless of style or budget.

"Where then can one go if they want to find a synopsis other than 20 words of all the different theater out there? "

That is a very real concern. I don't know. I think may have the most comprehensive listings right now, but it doesn't make it any easier to find the outliers.

Maybe that's a niche that could be filled better by the community than it currently is? At least getting the word out about what's already out there?

As far as creating more

Paul Rekk said...

Ah, I see... completely different train of thought. My bad.

Internet. Internet. Internet. And the resulting world wide (human) web.

It's about knowing people who are into this who know other people who are into that who once hooked up with this dude who's got a great loft that he performs in from time to time. Print, especially as a one-stop shop, is dying quicker each day. If you want to keep playing with the underground, you gotta play in the manner of the underground. And that is starting to mean direct contact more and more often.

Not that I'm an expert by any means. But I am of much the same off the grid bent as you and I happen to be just young enough to have come of age in this set-up.

Places/People that I'd throw out as intriguing to me? In no particular order: Links Hall; Northwestern has some great music and film programming that I haven't taken advantage of; Cupola Bobber; the MCA has some hella programming; Pavement Group blew me away with the total indie-feeling Lipstick Traces though I was disappointed with their latest more standard fare; the U. of Chicago has excellent film programming (and not just Doc Films) that is sometimes even worth the trip; Nicole LeGette; I don't care who cries hipster, Wicker Park's got some creative fucking minds hanging out down on Milwaukee -- I've been meaning to explore that scene more myself; Logan Square's a little less evident, but also some good things there; I know there's probably a ton of cool shit in Pilsen, I just haven't been more than twice; and I'm already kicking myself for all the things I've been meaning to recommend but am forgetting.

Plus, I know full well that there is ten times that list worth that I have no idea about. I'm slowly fixing that, but there's a reason it's called off the grid.

And let's not forget the big names who are still doing it and doing it well -- Graney and the Hypocrites have done a somewhat astounding job of not running dry, even more so than the Neo-Futurists, I would say; Chicago Shakes' World's Stage series is getting more exciting by the year (and they just got major funding to keep it up), plus they've done a great job of keeping it cheap for those in the know; and I maintain that the Goodman gets major major props for the O'Neill Festival programming.

But you have to go. The biggest hindrance in keeping up with the off the grid isn't money, it's time and energy. Because this shit's not gonna find you -- it doesn't even care that you exist until you show up.

Devilvet said...


Are you putting forth the suggestion that without the money that these groups have something less valuable to offer and that I would therefore be less drawn to them?

I am talking their content and artistic approach over the decades (some of which for some of these artists were leaner that most storefronts I know).

or if you are trying to tell me content was driven by money, that their type or niche of outsider avant voice is a product of funding ... I think that isn't entirely correct. Taymor has lots of money behind her broadway efforts now... but in the beginning through the 90s that wasn't always the case with her, we're talking pre broadway days. Wooster has money to buy alot of toys, but even when they dont use the toys, the content and form are significantly different.

All of these artists I selected are no doubt at the apogee of the niche, but am I talking about the niche, not the apogee they have reached... money helped them get the notority, but it doesnt define the niche I'm longer for more of.

Someone might say... 'hey hey what you barking at Tony for?'

All he is doing is telling you a truism... Money helps... money is essential to success... money makes something good better... not matter what you like, take away the money and you have something less than...

(OK I just put alot of words in Tony's mouth he might not want...but I only did it to further the conversation...please forgive me Tony)

In the end Tony, I think maybe you and I are plotting out two very different conversations about the same thing. I am talking about what I want to see and say. What I'm hearing you rebute with (maybe not your point, you'll have to help me out) is more about what can be bought and sold.


please tell me more about this thing called the internet (just kidding). I guess I want something more focused on the net. Or even more covert. Right now though, what is out there is more highlighted by its scarcity than its presence when it comes to tiny theatre company presense and coverage. Every fuggin band with a CD gets some sort of reviews plural, I wish for more and better sort of similar coverage for the smallest and riskest of the theatre folk.


Anonymous said...

p.s. prekk

thanks for those suggestions though... gives me something to google!


Tony Adams said...

" . . . if you are trying to tell me content was driven by money, that their type or niche of outsider avant voice is a product of funding ... I think that isn't entirely correct."

Doesn't Wilson work outside of the US primarily because his work is so expensive to mount.

I'm not saying their vision is driven by money. But without the money, eye popping visuals and decadse spanning careers you might not be able to name them.

Money doesn't automatically breed quality, but it does tend to breed coverage and longevity.

I also do wonder if some of the outsider niche has been absorbed by the mainstream and it is no longer seen as outsider? So the MCA, Chicago Shakes, Goodman et al are presenting that work with their requisite ticket hikes.

Or a lot of time and energy is spent trying to recreate the work of an era instead of building form the past? (This is a huge problem in some music/film genres.)

If you want to see more, why not make more? For me space, time and money are the three continual speed bumps I face. They don't stop me, but they do slow me down.

Devilvet said...

I will grant you that Wilson has a lot of money... now. And if all I were asking for was a return to the Theatre of Images as curated by PAJ...well then... vast amounts of cash would be necessary, perhaps I should be citing other less moneyed artists like Jack Smith or Ludlam or Basil Twist 10 years ago, Ralph Lee, and Bread and Puppet, La Mama, Split Britches, Peculiar Works (NYC).

I do make more, Tony... But my making more isn't the only avenue to find and hopefully galvanize a community of like minded artists I am seeking.

In a way I don't see how what your saying is different than "Well, if they were worth seeing...they'd have money...and you'd know I guess you're looking for something that aint there"...

is that what you're saying?

"Money does breed quality" I guess I am not even talking about quality or quality as I think you're defining it.

The affinities I am looking for I value but not specifically due to quality.

How are you defining quality here?


Tony Adams said...

I said "Money doesn't automatically breed quality." I think that's true regardless of how one defines quality. I've seen great work and shite at all budgetary levels. The difference being you hear more about the more moneyed efforts.

Doesn't mean you're looking for something that ain't there. It's just harder to find if they don't have a marketing budget.

And like I said before maybe that's a niche that could be filled better by the community than it currently is. At least getting the word out about what's already out there.

I thought you were talking more about recreating akin to theatre of images from your initial examples, I must have misunderstood.

Maybe we should start a site focused on finding it and letting folks know about them? Or go the la mama route from back in the day and figure out a way to subsidize a place to house it, whether curated or free-for-all.

I'd bet that if one could figure out a way to free up space costs for performance groups they'd flock to it.

ps--never heard back from you about directing for the festival this summer. Are you interested?

Paul Rekk said...

I do want to pipe in and say that the MCA, Shakes, and Goodman are not hiking prices for the hosted work, or at least not unilaterally.

Goodman's O'Neill festival tickets are, with one notable big name (*ahem* Wooster) exception sitting at a Storefront level $15-$25, including the 5 hour Neo-Futurist Strange Interlude.

Shakes' tickets are inflated, but they use the online promo code better than almost any company in town -- the Under 35 promotion offers $20 tickets to any performance (good seats, too), and they have special deals that bring ticket prices down to as little as $5 for particular shows.

The MCA is the worst offender, but even they average $25 a ticket, down to $20 for members and the biggest offender is Court's show, which I guarantee is Court's doing and not the MCA.

The rough and tumble outsider niche survives and always will, but I really don't see a downside to the embrace of more, um, ambitious works by these three. Not yet, anyway.

Paul Rekk said...

Also, because I apparently can't include all of my points in one comment, I don't necessarily think we can rely on or should even expect the underground community to fill that void that is marketing. It fits in with the storefront vs. big house convo that was going on earlier. The underground is a third (or the first) rung on that ladder with different goals and intentions entirely.

Marketing is not a concern for the type of things that dv is looking to uncover because butts in seats isn't a problem. When house capacity averages in the teens and there's already a healthy underground community in the know, why would the artists feel the need to worry about getting the word out.

The difference between BiC and storefronts in terms of commercialism and focus on work vs. sales and all that jazz is almost across the board comparable to the difference between the storefronts and the underground. These are the places where it really is all about the art. Where shows don't get canceled for small turnout and artists don't worry about finding a proper Performance Space -- in this community the work is king; it would be happening even if no one was paying and I'm certain at times when no one is. It's a whole different beast, and it doesn't need people who are outside the loop. It will welcome them, but it won't waste its time and money convincing them to come in and stay a while.

That said, a focused online resource would be nice. But if anyone is going to create that, its going to be the devotees, not the artists.

Tony Adams said...

came across this today