Following up on my burblings on Art and Competition, I have to say, the flood of affirmation has been lovely. Evidently I hit a rich vein.
Naturally there have been naysayers (surprisingly few, actually). I've chosen not to engage them, because it's like working the refs. I know directors who respond publicly to negative reviews, when they'd be better off letting their work speak for itself. And God help the author who dares to comment on a negative review. No, better to simply appreciate everyone's participation and then move on.
However, mine was a persuasion piece, which invites dialogue. And there was one fellow who had something concrete to say. On the American Theatre Facebook page, he referred to my piece as "high minded and noble, yet in the end quite naive", informing me that Theatre is a BUSINESS (emphasis his).
As if I needed to be told.
I happen to be married to the Artistic Director of two successful theatre companies, one union, one not, located in two different communities. So I am intimately aware of what it feels like to not get a grant, or to create budgets, or to forgo a paycheck so those in your employ can get paid, or even see other theatres counter-programming your same shows a few months earlier to try and hurt your audience.
Yes, theatre is a business. But it's NOT a competition. It's not like selling paper towel, where if I make Bounty, I want people to buy mine, not Scott or Brawny, and especially not those bastards at Viva (kidding, love Viva). That's a business where if they win, I lose.
Theatre artists are not selling a physical product. We're selling art. It's harder to quantify, so let's look at it another way. Let's play numbers.
Say you run a successful theatre company. You have an 8 show season. Let's say your shows are so awesomely awesome that all of your patrons see each show twice. Well done!
Now, what are those patrons going to do for the other 349 days in the year?
Let's go further. Let's say those patrons only go to theatre on weekends. That's 140 days without shows to see. Or maybe they just go on Saturday nights. There are 52 Saturdays in a year. Assuming they're still seeing all your shows twice, what are they going to do the other 36 Saturday nights a year?
Taking it even further, we can agree that times are tough lately. Theatre can be expensive. So they only go out every other Saturday night in the year. If they see all of your shows twice (because they are full of delicious awesomesauce), they still have 10 nights a year in which to see theatre other than yours.
Life is not a zero sum game. And neither is theatre. Not unless you make it that way.
And here's a secret - it's good BUSINESS to support other theatres in your area. If you foster an appreciation of theatre, you create more theatre-goers. More theatre-goers, more profit for theatres. More profit, more shows. More shows, more employment for artists. More employment for artists, the larger the talent pool. Which leads to more choices for theatres, who can then produce better shows. And the cycle begins again.
To be absolutely clear, a thriving theatre community is good for BUSINESS. Not just the theatres themselves, but for restaurants and bars and hotels and everyone else in the area. We should all be working to build an appreciation for what theatre brings to a community.
The flip side of this is artists whose goal is to "take-down" the competition, to make themselves look good by comparison. I once worked with an actress who literally upstaged me in all of our scenes. As in, contrary to our blocking, she took a step upstage in performance so I would have to turn my back on the audience to address her. Rather than play her game, I turned and played my scenes out to the audience. I don't engage in that noise. And she ended up having to come downstage to play the scene.
Whatever you expect, you tend to get more of. If you expect courtesy, you will get more of it. If you offer respect, you'll get respect in return. If you offer betrayal, you will get more of that too.
This is true for more than just performers. There are theatres I've worked at that pay well, but I don't like being there. I can feel the bad vibes in the walls the moment I step inside. The environment is toxic, rife with grudges, envy, and insecurity. Especially insecurity, which is the hobgoblin of the artistic life - it poisons everything.
We're all insecure. When we're all doing jobs that last at most three months at a time, our lives are the very definition of insecure. We lack security.
There are some people who hate seeming insecure, lest people find out they are in fact insecure and accuse them of not knowing what they're doing (Fraud! Charlatan! Mountebank!). This insecurity builds up in their minds, vibrating through their very beings, until they resort to projecting certainty. More than that, Absolute Certainty.
Absolute Certainty is murderous.
Now, I'm not talking about confidence. Confidence is great, it's quiet, almost serene. Confidence is someone with a clear vision. There might be stumbles or slight alterations, but if the vision is clear, things tend to be relaxed.
Absolute Certainty is desperate, it claws at your nerves. And it's infectious. If you model rigid Absolute Certainty, you stop everyone around you from asking questions. And, dear lord, is there nothing more important in the creative process than asking questions? Even worse, you stop others from having ideas, because they know their contributions will not be welcome.
This is as true of directors as actors. I've honestly never understood directors who do not like ideas from the actors. If it's a bad idea, don't use it. If it's a good idea, who gets the credit? The director. It's a no-lose situation. Yet there are so many directors who are threatened by actors voicing opinions (as an opinionated actor, I've stepped in it more than once. But as a director, I adore actor ideas. It only makes me look better).
On the other hand, there are performers and theatres that freely admit their insecurity. They just acknowledge it and move on with what they're doing. If we're good at what we do, and we all bring our best, we'll figure it out. These are the places I most enjoy working - where it's not about the people, but the work. Because, yes, theatre is a BUSINESS. And in the BUSINESS of theatre, what matters isn't egos, or turf. It's the work. The product. The actual show.
Which brings us to another trend today - running a theatre like a business (sorry, I'm getting tired of all-caps). This trend is getting a lot of lip-service, it's a buzzy phrase. All over the place we're seeing the elimination of the Artistic Director and Managing Director positions in favor of Executive Directors, whose mandate is to run the theatre like a business.
It hasn't gone well.
Good business sense is important. Budgets and taxes and publicity and payroll and grants and donors and rentals and everything else. There is nothing so valuable as a good Managing Director, as well as Development Directors, Marketing Directors, and everyone else that makes a theatre run.
A business, however, needs to have a quality product. If I'm selling paper-towel, I want to make sure my paper-towels are the best I can produce. If I'm selling widgets, I should listen to the widget-designer.
And if I'm in the business of selling theatre, I should be listening to the people who make it.
Yes, stay within budget. Yes, manage the business side well. But if your product is Art, you should probably be listening to the artists.
And stop thinking about other theatres as the competition. They're not the enemy. Poor quality is the enemy. Lack of interest is the enemy. Apathy is the enemy.
Good art begets more art. And that's good for business.
(Photos from the Michigan Shakespeare Festival's 2014 production of Hamlet, directed by Janice L Blixt.Visit www.michiganshakespearefestival.com for more information)
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