Jul 2, 2013

On the Purpose of Small Theatres

On a podcast a few years ago I listened as a local critic explained that she thought the purpose of smaller theatre companies in the cultural landscape was simply to be a training ground for the larger stages in town. She was referring specifically to Dallas. In her view, that was the explicit purpose of the small, homeless companies with small budgets... to be a practice field until actors, directors, designers, playwrights and so on could move up to do the real work on much more legitimate, mid-level and larger stages.

I remember being very dismayed at this attitude, especially coming from a critic in town.

Recently, Stephen Foglia over at the Undermain blog posted an excellent essay/follow-up to a recent panel discussion at the 2013 TCG National Conference. TCG13 was held in Dallas at the beginning of June and one of the panels entitled “Living The Margo Jones Legacy: Breaking The Habit Of New Play Development”, aimed to challenge current orthodoxies (including those unacknowledged) in the development and production of new plays.

Foglia traces through one thread of the panel conversation:
Jason Loewith, Artistic Director of the Olney Theatre Center (also former Executive Director of the National New Play Network and a writer/director himself), drew an image of the playwright’s progress through the national theatre landscape.  Theatres, he said, of different sizes, occupy different levels of the environment, and small theatres find young playwrights on the ground floor, pass them up to mid-size theatres in the understory, who then pass the playwrights up to the LORT theatres representing the canopy or emergent layer.  His metaphor approximated the layers of a rain forest and nicely captures the living web of competition new plays must operate in.
Foglia points out that the twist in the metaphor is that unlike animals in a rain forest, playwrights can occupy many strata at the same time. He cites contemporary playwright du jour, Annie Baker as an example:
...to choose a new playwright, Annie Baker is more or less bestriding the world right now, with Obies, and commissions, awards, productions at Soho Rep and Playwrights Horizons casting spores that germinate in mid-size regional theatres all across the country.  But all the same The Aliens will continue to be produced by small companies, ad-hoc collectives of homeless theatre-makers, and many others on the forest floor.
I don't necessarily disagree that, yes, this is how the greater new play system sort of operates in the American Theatre, but I do draw issue to phrases like "small companies, ad-hoc collectives of homeless theatre-makers, and many others on the forest floor."

When is it that the word small must equal lesser?

I recently posted an essay on the ATL blog, Notes From The Lab, entitled "On Assumptions, Plays and Hibernating." In a nutshell I pick apart some common assumptions about what theatres, particularly a small theatre like the one I am a part of, Audacity Theatre Lab, are suppose to do and how they are suppose to do them.

In my gut, I believe small can mean fast, nimble, entrepreneurial. I believe small might be one key to the future of theatre. I believe small might be hugely important.

In another essay I posted on the ATL Blog, entitled "Part of the Cultural Landscape" I flipped the metaphor that Foglia lays out above. In my opinion the diversity of the theatre scene (or rain forest ecosystem, to push the analogy) is that the larger, more institutional theatres in a region actually serve the smaller companies.

Let me quote from myself:
It is with this in mind I run a small garage band-size theatre based in Dallas called Audacity Theatre Lab. Both the size and location are conscious choices. We affectionately call ourselves indie. With no permanent venue to call home we are urban gypsies (instead of the term homeless). We operate with an extremely low overhead. We have no “season,” but instead present work when it is organically created. We do work at festivals and venues around the country as well as locally. We operate as a collective and give the artists involved total control of the projects from idea to finally putting photos in a scrapbook long after the production has ended. We do theatre because we, as artists, have something to say.
This is possible because of the wonderful diversity of the cultural landscape in Dallas. Audacity can operate far down the Long Tail and fill its particular niche because there are companies such as Dallas Theater Center, Undermain, Kitchen Dog and other TCG Theatres doing a lot of the heavy lifting. With these groups acting as the core, groups like Audacity can happen on the fringes. We can explore and experiment and advance the art form in very particular ways. As independent artists and groups we are freer and should take full advantage of that. That is how we are part of the cultural ecosystem.
Foglia goes on to note how theatres choose plays and, more interesting to myself, how smaller groups can clog the growth of new plays and ideas:
The majority of companies do not select plays for their newness.  The majority of companies want to do good work that they love, that fits their style, and that will draw in audiences.  They’re going to grab plays by successful artists.  Successful plays.  The same ones, for the most part, that everyone else loves.  And the more they produce plays that are already successful, the less they operate as a feeding system, passing new playwrights on to the majors. 
There’s a related inverse example as well.  Many small companies produce work internally.  They may have writers in their company, or they may develop work as an ensemble, but they may ultimately be islands unto themselves.  They neither draw successful work in, nor pass their own successes out.
That last paragraph is chilling in its implications. As a theatre creator in a small, bootstrapping organization, the urge often really is to hunker down and be an island, to isolate ones self, to create a small bubble for working and guard against outside interference. In and of itself, I do not have a judgement call on whether that is right or wrong. Ethically speaking, sometimes these companies as "islands unto themselves" only accomplish productive work because of the isolation. And there is not a necessity to share. Sharing is voluntary.  

My personal thoughts differ from the greater ethical ramifications. Though isolationism has validity, I'm interested in serving the art form itself. In order for the field as a whole to profit and grow, these small, internally produced explorations must be disseminated to the wider cultural landscape. It can be a trap, yes, but not one that must be fallen into.

Do I believe smaller, independent companies have something to offer the greater theatre community? Yes. Do I think their role is lesser, say, than larger institutions? No. The field is broad and diverse. That very diversity allows for many players to play many roles. Small theatres merely hold a certain place in the cultural landscape.

Make new, awesome work. Share it. Everything fits together.

No comments:

Post a Comment