Giving Up on Theatrical Stockholm Syndrome
I have been blogging for ten years now, first on my Theatre Ideas blog, then on my Center for Rural Arts Development and Leadership Education site (now defunct), then for Huffington Post, and lately here at The Clyde Fitch Report and over at ArtsJournal. During those years, I engaged a great number of issues, but my writing mostly revolved around one primary theme: how a dysfunctional business model served to undermine the decentralization and democratization of the American theater scene, and what we could do to fix it.
I wrote about this theme in terms of:
- Education: how class bias in higher education admission processes limited opportunities for working- and middle-class young adults to attend so-called “prestigious” arts programs;
- Funding: how foundations and government agencies tended to concentrate grants in a few wealthy, urban arts organizations that promoted the traditional classical canon;
- Diversity: how the pattern of funding mentioned above actively undermined attempts to diversify the plays that were produced and the artists who created the productions;
- Hiring: how the birth of the Theatrical Syndicate monopoly at the end of the 19th century forcibly centralized the theater labor pool in New York City and disconnected the artists from their communities;
- Media: how magazines such as American Theatre focus a great deal of their writing on plays in New York;
- Regional Theater Movement: how the regional theater movement abandoned its original commitments to permanent companies, geographic diversity and new plays; and
- Economic Viability: how our ideas of specialization, excessive production values and reliance on unearned income was making a life in the theater less and less economically viable.
At every turn, I encountered people who strongly defended the status quo as being inevitable, benign, meritocratic and just generally yummy. Over the years, I have come to expect that, and I have continued to try to make my points over and over in ways that might pierce the mythological armor of the theater’s Cinderella Complex.
But this year is different. This year, those defenses seem more and more like artistic Stockholm Syndrome, in which the abused falls in love with their abusers. The response to two of my recent articles really gave me pause. The discussion of last month’s CFR post, Why TV Is Poaching Playwrights and How to Get Them Back by members of the Official Playwrights of Facebook Group really took me aback. In my article, I bemoaned the fact that, unlike Shakespeare who wrote and saw staged Macbeth, King Lear and Antony and Cleopatra in a single year, so many of our more experienced playwrights (Kushner, Mamet, Shepard, Vogel) have to wait three years or more between productions. I argued that this robs the theater of the work of mature playwrights who had focused their careers solely on theater and thus knew how to best take advantage of the unique characteristics offered by the live stage. I posited that TV was offering the conditions that Shakespeare had — constant demand for new material, a stable acting company to write for and economic reward — and that if we wanted to keep these playwrights working in the theater, we needed a production process that made it possible to make a living and see your work done in a timely manner.
Leonard Jacobs posted a link to this article in the aforementioned Facebook group, of which I am a member, and the first comment if found there from Donna Hoke read: “TV can poach me anytime… not feeling this dilemma. Playwrights are making television better.” And who loses when a playwright decamps for Hollywood? The theater, of course. “This presumes that there are no playwrights waiting to take their places once they begin writing fewer plays, which is ridiculous. If there’s anything we have a lot of, it’s playwrights.” Mike Steele concurred: “I think most of us would love to write for television. If HBO calls, adios theater!” This really disturbed me. Here I was saying that we needed a system that would allow playwrights to make a living and see their work produced, and I was getting pushback from the very people who would benefit. I was speechless. What pained me most was the lack of commitment displayed toward the theater — clearly, it was just another art form, and an old-fashioned one at best.
Aound the same time, I also published an article about Zachary Mannheimer and the Des Moines Social Club on the American Theatre website. In it, I outlined how Mannheimer left Brooklyn and went to Des Moines with $100 in his pocket, and over the course of a handful of years created a dynamic arts organization that brought together audience members with diverse backgrounds and just recently opened an $8M building. The comments, both on the site and on Facebook, ran the gamut from snarky to ugly, and I ended up getting into a heated exchange with someone who had regularly argued with me during my Theatre Ideas days all those years ago. Unfortunately, the nature of the argument hadn’t changed.
And then I realized: I haven’t moved the needle one iota.
We still have a centralized, elitist, homogeneous, dysfunctional theater system; nobody is really doing anything to change it; and attitudes really haven’t changed. Oh, sure, my articles are being passed around — my article on Patti LuPone, for instance, has been shared nearly 4000 times because everybody loves people talking smack about celebrities — but after a week, they disappear along with the central issues. Nothing changes. Nobody picks up the ball and runs with it.
What had changed was my willingness to keep wasting my time. I’m no longer getting much of a buzz from provoking discussion, because for the most part the discussions just aren’t very interesting or informed. Many of my ideas, for instance, are built on a knowledge of theater history, about which many in the profession seem to be unaware. My ideas are built on those of past thinkers, from Aristotle to Shakespeare to Frederick Koch and Robert Gard and Herbert Blau. Back in 2005, my very first blog post asked “Where are our ideas?” Today, I still don’t know the answer to that question.
I’m not angry, not taking my ball and going home. I’ll keep writing this column. But as I head into 2016, I’ve decided to shift my focus to the things other than changing the theatrical world, because my success relies on others taking action. I just don’t have the time to devote to following up on the issues or the access to the powerful necessary to keep pushing them forward. Perhaps there are others who will have more success — I truly hope so. But I’ve spent ten years buzzing against the window of the inert American theater to no avail. Time to move on.
Time to write about things that give me joy, that inspire me, that touch me. Time to stop trying to persuade people to change. Time to go back to what made me fall in love with theater in the first place, and what made me spend 40 years doing it and teaching it and writing about it. I believe in the power of the theater, and while our dysfunctional system is severely diminishing opportunities for that power to be exercised, I need to celebrate what is happening that is worthwhile, because focusing on the dysfunction is corroding my soul and failing to have an impact.
We’ll see what happens.