In #SupplyDemand Theater Debate, Rocco Roughs Up the Righteous

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Rocco Landesman is right.

I’ve waited to write that sentence for several weeks now and I appreciate the emails asking if the CFR would opine on the comments of the chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts on the issue now known, in the inevitable glib shorthand, as “supply/demand.” (And spawning the equally inevitable hashtag: #supplydemand.)

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Landesman informed attendees at a much-hyped new play conference at Arena Stage that as “demand is not going to increase” for theater — but really, he meant for all of the arts — it’s time we “think about decreasing supply.” Not so many nonprofit theaters and not so many structures to house them.

Well, you’d have thought he abused a puppy instead of stated the obvious.

And I really do take Landesman’s speech as something broader than a discussion of whether we have too many edifices in which theater is presented, or too many productions of theater in general. So in this post, I’ll regularly refer to both — to the nonprofit theater and it’s problems, and to the arts generally. Which brings me to an observation.

From what I can tell, not too many people who work in the nonprofit theater possess the kind of distance or penchant for introspection that would even imagine Landesman’s speech being applicable beyond them. When I read about it, I immediately thought not only that he’s right, but the same conversation could and should happen in other disciplines — in dance and music, in visual art, and so forth. Variables, being variable, vary widely, but the supply/demand debate is widely applicable. Virtually all the nonprofit theater people who have been chiming in about Landesman’s remarks think only of the theater. Which should tell you something.

Meanwhile, Trisha Mead should be writing a long thank-you letter to the New York Times for picking up on her blog entry on Landesman’s oration; dozens of people have commented on it, and, to my surprise, many think Landesman has a valid, even visionary point. I follow Mead on Twitter and I read her writing and this is going to be one of those cases where I have to fundamentally disagree with someone I respect. On Arena’s new-play blog, she wrote:

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?

With so many theater people in a self-indulgent self-righteous lather over Landesman’s speech, I think it’s time that we “call bullshit” (as Landesman put it) on those who seem so mortally wounded by the NEA chair’s insistence on having an adult conversation about how much theater — how much art — the nation needs. I do understand Mead’s reaction. I do. But I think, with all due respect, it’s indicative of a larger problem.

The conversation begins with a full viewing of Landesman’s remarks and the subsequent dialogue with Diane Ragsdale:

Mind you, in my paragraph above, I didn’t use the phrase “how much theater we want.” We — I — want as much theater as we can create, produce and see. What I wrote was “how much theater we need,” which is a different question. And for heaven’s sake, it isn’t about creating death panels for theater, as Barry Johnson, on his Arts Dispatch blog, would rather hysterically have us believe, even if jocularly. Death panels for nonprofit theater would be too efficient.

Even the writers of comments over at the Times who sympathize with Mead’s pop-eyed outrage seem challenged when offering much substance in response to Landesman — that is, beyond old, tired, rhetorically outmoded bitching that a highly funded NEA would be the panacea of everyone’s dreams. And that’s not going to happen anytime soon.

And it’s not as if anyone — and yes, this does include Landesman, despite his gloomy, undiplomatic remarks — really believes the demand side of the equation is hopeless. Arts marketing gurus know better; my RSS feeds overflow every day with paragraphs galore as such folks promote their audience-development viewpoints with the fervor of a million suns. Unfortunately, I fear the nonprofit theater doesn’t have it together enough politically to affect a radical shift in attendance trends over the long haul. By way of example, let me explain what I mean. Looking back through the CFR archives, I came upon this June 2009 post about a study from the NEA about declining audiences. Instantly I could remember how the sector was all over it. “How do we increase interest among young people?,” asked all of the wags, rightly worried about the butts in the seats of the future. “How do we preserve funding for arts education?” “How do we translate arts-education funding into audiences — loyal audiences?” Good, pertinent, existential questions all.

Well, two-and-a-half years later, the sector is still asking those questions, still debating this theory and that, still here and there devolving into personal attacks (I’m being especially careful in this post not to attack Mead), and jockeying for position like rats on the proverbial Titanic. Who would argue that the nonprofit arts — the nonprofit theater — has at all gained ground over the last two years by any measure? (Even if I didn’t specify “nonprofit theater,” would grosses on Broadway count?) Certainly the NEA chair is interested — devoted — to audience building, to the “demand” side of the equation. His Arena Stage remarks reflect the fact that the sector bears a certain responsibility for its inability to halt the slide. That’s what theater artists and administrators don’t want to hear. They also don’t want to hear that their pet theory or philosophy might be the one that turns out to suck the most.

I hear any number of the counterargument(s) loud and clear. “We’re busy being artists, we’re busy being underpaid, we’re busy doing our work for free, we’re busy being victimized by culture wars hot and cold, we’re busy just being.” I hear it all the time. Poor me, poor us. I, too, am poor. But not so poor that I think my nation can afford not to ensure that culture sits unwaveringly on the social palette of the American people. That’s why I write this blog. That’s why I go through life realizing that sometimes it is personal — it’s very personal — and why, therefore, I’ll be invited to an event over here while finding out that someone has banned me, by name, from some event over there. Landesman decided to point every to the elephant in the room. Elephants, let’s remember, have long memories. So do I.

What I get from Mead’s reaction — from all of the righteous indignation oozing out of the American theater — is that defensive posturing, while understandable, still doesn’t solve our intractable problems: the inability of creative artists to earn a living wage or find affordable housing; the inability to financially sustain all the art that artists think we want; the inability to convince great swaths of the American people — 90 percent of whom are only marginally better off than they were in 1917 — that any of this means anything to their daily lives. Puffing up our feathers, while soothing all our sour feelings, doesn’t slay these dragons.

Unless, of course, we are unworthy of our highest aspirations.

What we’ve learned by the upset caused by Landesman is that, among theater artists, adult conversations are largely impossible — or at least not welcome, or, if they are welcome, then only grudgingly so. We do not like when Daddy has to discipline us.

Let me here, too, explain what I mean by way of example. I can name at least one head of one arts-service organization who thought it was better to authorize personnel to keep a dossier on me because I dissented loudly and brusquely on this blog on a particular issue than to engage me, publicly or privately, on or off the record, in a meaningful dialogue. And yes, it is someone who knows me.

So what, you say? So now I’m making this personal too and attacking? Well, it’s personal for Mead, it’s personal for all of us, so I wanted to bring this up to make a point. My own experience with this individual taught me something I should have known — I mean truly, truly known — years ago: the American theater is not about the artists, and the only folks who don’t understand that are, well, the artists. For those in power, making decisions, funding, gate-keeping, leading and programming, perpetuating the status quo is the opening gambit as well as the endgame. He didn’t state as much directly, but read between the lines and you’ll sense that Landesman is calling “bullshit” on that system, that tendency, that reflex, too.

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Merely by writing all of this, I expect an onslaught of arrogant challenges, sarcasm and additional indignation. They’ll attack, however nicely: I don’t know what it’s like to be a playwright (yes, I do), director (yes, I do), actor (yes, I do), fundraiser (I’m horrible at it), and on and on. To which I ask: On which tablet brought down by Moses is it written that nonprofit theaters live eternally? The righteous indignation coming from the field is borne out of pure self-interest: If anybody’s theater has to go under, please don’t let it be mine. Someone — and thankfully it was Landesman — has to offer a broader, longer, more realistic view.

I’ll say it again: the conferring of tax-exempt 501(c)(3) status is not — and to my knowledge was never intended to be — tantamount to eternal life. So when Mead and others object to Landesman’s raising the “supply” question, she does so not out of a belief that there isn’t enough theater, which is a subjective, emotion-driven opinion and not one that can or should be imposed by anyone upon anyone else, and not a prescription for some methodology by which we can revive the sector. Rather, Mead and others object out of self-interest — their jobs, many jobs are on the line. I don’t blame her. Does that mean we keep patients on life support without acknowledging their tenuous, artificial, superficial clinging to life?

(I’ve just reread the preceding two graphs. They state the same thing about four times. I could go back and do a tight rewrite — and the editor in me tells me that I should. But I’ll resist in this case because I want to illustrate that this is all very hard; these conversations cut to the core of who we are and how we define ourselves and thereby threaten the very boundaries of our comfort zones. I’ve written plays and wanted them produced and seen those hopes both dashed and fulfilled. I’ve directed plays and wanted them to transfer hither and yon. I’ve wanted donors to add zeroes to their checks. I’ve wanted the great big power-brokers and taste-makers and decision-makers to notice me. I’ve wanted that trust fund that genealogy denied me. I’ve wanted to join the party, to drive change, to sit somewhere other than off to the sidelines, to not have to always be the kid who is liked the least. I’m just used to it.)

As Brian Newman’s chapter in the excellent anthology 20Under40: Re-Inventing the Arts and Arts Education for the 21st Century makes clear, nonprofit theater administrators, and more broadly nonprofit arts workers, labor under a set of assumptions about their business model, their very purpose, that are misleading and, as we’re seeing, disastrous for the arts. Not all nonprofits should last forever. As Adam Huttler suggests, the longer we place worship stones at the cornerstone of behemoth institutions — legacy arts organizations that vacuum up most public and private dollars — the worse the field’s ecology will be. I think, subtly, Landesman may be calling “bullshit” on that as well. As for whether the entrenched interests can be taken down, that remains to be seen. Again, we’re not organized for egalitarianism.

Landesman delivering such a message, at such a gathering, was perhaps not the finest example of diplomacy. But he is to be given credit for being courageous enough to touch what is clearly the third rail of American arts and culture. He’s braver than our representatives in Congress, particularly the hypocrites on the radical right, who mouth off about the deficit but haven’t the guts to examine our economically stratified entitlement systems and propose solutions for how to fix them. (This idea that anyone making over $106,800 a year doesn’t pay more FICA, to say nothing of employers, makes me livid. No wonder the nation is broke. We fetishize — and orgasm to — unfairness.)

To be sure, some areas of Landesman’s speech are less inflammatory than some would have it seem. He talked at length about the corrupting influence of “enhancement money,” in which commercial producers assist nonprofit theaters by purchasing rights in exchange for financing work with commercial potential. This, he warned, will disrupt the creation of more adventurous, experimental, less consumer-friendly work. I’m not sure this is so, but more important, I wasn’t at Arena Stage to watch all the nodding heads — from theaters who crave such capital investments whenever they can get it. “Enhancement money” has been rampant in the American theater for years. It’s not new. I know of at least one, and probably a few, Off-Broadway nonprofit theaters where programming is basically predicated on which commercial producer is pishing into which bucket. And as Todd London and Ben Pesner’s Outrageous Fortune: The Life and Times of the New American Play persistently points out, the whole system by which new American plays are developed and created in this country is rigged anyhow — it’s all about having gone to the right graduate schools and having made the right professional connections and then, with luck, about the quality of the piece. So why should other aspects of the nonprofit theater world operate any differently?

No, it was really Landesman’s supply/demand point that set folks into boil mode. On Arena’s new-play blog, I was very sad that Mead wanted, perhaps most of all, to change the topic:

Shouldn’t we focus on growing demand and creating new markets (and don’t we have proven techniques to share to do this?)

Yes, of course we should. And we are. I see a seemingly endless stream of blog posts and books and advertising ideas and marketing schemes and promotional materials and audience-development theories bursting all over my laptop every day — far more of them than I have to time to absorb, understand or read. We are currently witnessing wave after wave of revolutionary ideas and practices for building, nurturing and sustaining audiences, yet the numbers, and the general zeitgeist, shows we’re slipping. That upsets me. It upsets me more than Mead and others resist the very idea of such a conversation. It’s an opportunity.

Was Landesman impertinent and reductive when he said demand wouldn’t “increase”? Sure. But how does one area of discussion negate another? We need a conversation about capital, too, don’t we? Shouldn’t we? Why not?

As if a discussion — as opposed to volcanic temper-tantrums — is even possible. Landesman was not — I have to write this one more time — advocating death panels for the arts. Frankly, I’m amazed how those of us on the left accuse the radical right of fear-mongering and then, stupidly, we do it ourselves. No wonder the radical-right has the arts on the ropes again and again, with their resurgent culture war and the NEA’s very existence on death row.

The nonprofit theater will be a basket case until it is “we”-centric beyond conferences and Twitter feeds and blog posts, eminently valuable as those things certainly are. At base, at our core, I fear we’re really all about “me” — a kind of “me” that talks the talk about “we” without actually walking the walk. Hence what I wrote the other day about being the field being satisfied with lame-ass email campaigns to save the NEA. If that’s all we can do — and I’m sorry, it’s lame — then I suspect we get what we deserve: less demand, and then, less supply.

And as for the observation that I, in this post, have been self-righteous myself, you’re right. Professional hazard.

Finally, here are links to many of the great posts on this still-evolving story. Including:

Andrew Taylor Artful Manager blog (thoughtful and spurring a great discussion there)

Adam Huttler’s blog post (an excoriation of the status quo and worth the read)

Sarah Lutman’s Speaker blog (slightly hysterical headline but rich substance beneath it)

The Nonprofit Finance Fund’s blog (excellent detail, including this nugget: “The conversation about supply and demand in the sector would greatly benefit from an equally passionate debate about the breadth and amounts of capital required to support change on such an environmental scale. Far too often, the discussion about capital centers on buildings and endowments, which are often associated with long-term stability, even though the relative fixity of these assets frequently contributes to organizational destabilization (particularly, when other more liquid forms of capital aren’t built alongside). Increasingly, these institutional models are in oversupply given today’s demand, whereas more nimble cultural organizations lack the capital required to change, grow, innovate, take risk and ultimately, contribute to tomorrow’s creative economy.”)

The Mission Paradox blog (which is so smart but shouldn’t reduce Landesman’s point to easily swallowed sound bites)

Scott Walters’ Theater Ideas blog (which raises the idea of micro-credit for the arts)

The 2am Theater blog (where Rocco responds directly to Mead politely)

Diane Ragdale’s blog (where she neatly places a pink elephant for effect and discusses the fallout)

Richard Kessler’s Dewey 21C blog (where he heeds Landesman’s call to rope arts education into the frame)

The LA Times’ blog (where Christopher Knight examines the NEA on the occasion of Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday)

Devon Smith’s blog (which analyzes the situation macro-economically)