Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Stop Me If You've Heard This One

Dear readers,

A challenge has been issued. Well, maybe not a challenge, but a redirection of focus has been…requested. A reader, and dear friend (is it possible I don’t know all 3 of my readers?) asked me why I didn’t write more about what was happening in Boston. While I am loathe to review area productions, I agreed that I could speak more specifically about area trends, etc. Here goes:

About a month ago, StageSource, Boston’s best theatrical resource, held the biannual Boston Theatre Conference. I’ve been to all three (if there have, in fact, been only three) and I found this gathering the most successful, even though will all my hand-raising, I was only able to speak at the Small Theatre break-out session (boo for me, yay for you). What better place to raise my salient points then my own blog?

At one of the earlier group sessions, Paul Daigneault (Producing Artistic Director of SpeakEasy Stage Company) gingerly brought up that he finds his company and several others in town are frequently vying for the same shows. He politely wondered if, perhaps there could be more communication between like-minded companies (Paul, if you are reading this and I am paraphrasing incorrectly, my apologies). I don’t recall any particular answer to his query, but fast-forward about an hour to the Artistic Directors Break-Out session – a veritable who’s-who of everyone who is anybody in town.... and people like me. No one really spoke to Paul’s point earlier to my recollection, but one of Boston’s giants did mentioned last year’s Boston Foundation Study, which he said called smaller arts organizations to merge or close.

A lot of people got all up in arms when this study came out. For the city’s major grant-making institution to say that not every arts organization is sacred is disconcerting at best. I mean, if they don’t think all arts are worthy, does anyone in this country love the arts – all the arts - equally?

Cue awkward kid in the front of the room with her hand up. “But, teacher, that’s a misrepresentation of the study.” It’s like American interpretations of Stanislavski – they didn’t get the most important part. If you are so inclined, you can read the study for yourself, but basically, the Boston Foundation study suggests that struggling non-profits have three options. The first, and arguably most important, is that organizations should clarify or refocus their mission, so they are more specific, more targeted in their work. If the organization is unwilling or able to get clearer about what they want to do, they should merge with like-minded organizations or close and shift their funds and audience to another like-minded organization. This calls to mind Mr. Daigneault’s comment earlier. If several companies are frequently competing for the same material, doesn’t it follow that they are competing for the same audiences and donors? The Boston Foundation seems to think so.

That being said, many of the smallest companies have clear missions, are doing work unlike the mid-and big guys, and are more apt to attract younger audiences. But lots of them fail all the time and it’s because of money.

Recently Chronicle did a profile of several arts organizations, including Snappy Dance – one of the most innovative, fun dance companies Boston has ever seen. Their complaint about the study is that the Boston Foundation treats arts organizations like businesses, and they are not businesses. Unfortunately, this is America, and we don’t believe in government subsidy for anything but corn. Medicine shouldn’t be a business, but it is here. Education shouldn’t be a business, but it is here. And this goes extra-true for the arts. Until the Federal, state and local government starts funding social services; they are forced to behave like businesses. Snappy closed their (metaphorical) doors earlier this year and Boston will be the lesser without it.

The real problem with the Boston Foundation isn’t their study, it is their refusal to fund small organizations. The tiniest amount of money would make a significant difference for any of the companies you might see at Boston Playwright’s Theatre, The Factory Theatre or the rehearsal rooms at the BCA. But, TBF, like most grant organizations, want their names on walls. Then they can prove to their donors that they are giving their money to worthy causes. So if you don’t have a wall (as in, you are a non-resident company) you are likely screwed. Besides, if you can’t afford the black box at the BCA, you probably don’t have a grant writer on staff and wouldn’t make it through the first cut anyway.

I am in thousands of conversations about what Boston needs to do to have a vital arts scene. I’m not about to suggest anything revolutionary – I think we all know the answers. We need to be able to sustain local artists. We need to originate more work than we import. We need to develop audiences. We need an attentive press (this is another post altogether – more anon). Almost all of this requires money.

And money is the problem, right? Well, I would like to offer two counter-suggestions to the Boston Foundation and two to the Theatre Community.

First, Boston Foundation, why not start a grant program aimed specifically at small arts organizations or artists? A handful of $500 grants with a minimal application process and turn-around time that you give to the 5 or 10 projects you find the most interesting. These would not be about investing in the longevity of the institution but supporting artistic innovation and risk where it is most likely to happen – call them innovation grants. Be a hero.

Not worth your time? Well, then, why not subsidize the most important, and most expensive part of a budget for any company – space? The state is already starting this (sort of), but if it cost, say $100 a week to use a room instead of $1000, I bet more companies would be taking advantage of the state-of-the-art facilities cropping up all over the city. This way, you get your name on the wall, and smaller companies have a better chance, and everybody wins.

Now you, Boston. To make a blanket statement: theatre people are not very generous in this town. We don’t like to see each other’s work. We don’t like to share our actors. We don’t even seem like to talk to each other about Art very much. Sharing was good for you in Kindergarten, its even better for you now. Share resources. All the time. A common storage for props and costumes (like in New York?) would be a good goal.

Finally, vote, artists, vote! Subsidy works. Massachusetts is 25th (or at least we were the last time I looked) in state arts funding and the NEA isn’t likely to pick up the slack anytime soon. Lobby your local representatives. Vote for candidates who have an arts platform and don’t be embarrassed about it. Arts subsidy is important, damn it. This is obviously not an immediate fix, but if art is important to the public, it will be important in the government too.

I mean, I could be wrong, but that all sounds pretty good, right?

PS. I'm taking requests for topics. I can rant about just about anything.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Give me a P

Hello dear readers,
Insert the usual axioms here about being a delinquent blogger. I’m a little riled up. No, not about another musty production of a once great play bungling the Boston’s boards into oblivion and mediocrity. It’s politics, with some theatre thrown in for good measure.

I don’t want to bring another tuna casserole to the church supper, but I cannot keep still about Ms. Palin. To make a categorically blanket and unfair statement, she is everything that is wrong…well, I was going to say with America, or with politics, or Seventeen Magazine, but I think I will just end there. She is everything that is wrong.

Before I go any further, I have to aside. Why does every person who gives his or her opinion about politics have to qualify his or her identity? “As a veteran…” “As an Alaskan woman…” “As the brother of a man in Iraq…” “As an African-American…” It seems to me you are saying either a. Let me speak for my people or b. What I’m about to say would be otherwise ridiculous, unsound, offensive or just plain irrelevant, but since I’m a fill-in-the-blank that makes my point valid and you must - MUST - give credence to it. I mention this because I was tempted to begin my manifesto with a similar apologetic preamble. Cut that daisy train off before it’s been picked.

Now back to our regular tirade: Here are just some of the reasons Sarah Palin really tweaks my spleen. I’m not going to talk about her policies (even though she banned books from public libraries and fired the librarian who refused to remove them) or her politics (even though she believes the war in Iraq is a holy war to crusade against infidels in the name of a Christian god) or her daughter (even though she proves that her stance on abstinence-only education isn’t effective for parents and teens who don’t want babies before they can vote) or her ignorance (even though “her brilliant speech” didn’t actually say anything and she is CRAZY racist, sexist, crusadist – I’m coining that term right now – formal definition below). No, I’d like to explore what Sarah Palin means to me.

A lot of the “Passion for Palin” is the same malarkey that gets me all frothy about the current administration and Republican maneuvering in general. Republicans have strategically aligned themselves with core American ideology and their rhetoric reinforces the belief in the American Myth. Who doesn’t want to believe in the American Dream? Maybe, I should ask who doesn’t like puppies, rainbows and dewdrops? It makes sense, logically, that if you work hard it will pay off for you and your children. If you work a full-time job, or two, or three, you should be able to afford a roof over your head, food, health care and education for you and your family. But, it is categorically untrue. If it were even a little bit true, why would 23 million children have no or little access to healthcare?

The 1% of the population that pulls themselves up from nothing under a fortuitous coincidence of circumstances is exceptional – as in they are the exception. I don’t mean to downplay the achievements of people like, well Mr. Obama. What he and some others like him have been able to do is extraordinary. But that doesn’t mean that Democracy and specifically Capitalism works. In fact, by focusing on these individual achievements, or more appropriately, the idea of them, we set up unrealistic expectations for everyone else in the country. It’s like absurdly thin models in magazines. Just because they exist out there in the world, doesn’t mean that it’s realistic for everyone to look like them.

And just like magazine phenomena, the millions of Americans who aren’t making it, are judged by themselves and others because they don’t fit the model. But this isn’t the only aspect of Americana that our elephant pals encourage. They perpetuate the falsehood that they are “just folks.” They are just like you. The fact that nothing in their personal actions or policy decisions supports the idea that they give two muffin crumbs about you is apparently irrelevant. The fact that they are millionaires, and have the support of billionaires and do not live anything like you (assuming here that “you” is your average middleclass American citizen), is also irrelevant. The fact that they are willing to prostitute their religious beliefs to exploit yours is not disturbing and offensive, but just another part of the charm. If W. wasn’t the heir to one of the most powerful political families of the 20th century, I doubt he would have gone to Yale or successfully dodged the draft let alone survived past his 40’s and run for office (drug & alcohol abuse + repeated on-the-job failure is not an equation for success unless LOTS of money and influence are involved). But you feel like you could have a beer with the guy, even though you never, ever will and therefore he is the right choice to be the leader of one of the most powerful nations on earth? I’m sorry, I don’t understand, but that’s a post for another day.

The myth that anyone can be President goes to the founding of the nation and the establishment of the American identity. Almost across the board, the Founding Fathers had little faith in the common man to govern themselves – a notion that persists in the Electoral College. We have only been able to directly elect our senators for about the last 100 years. But it was important in the branding of this new nation to differentiate itself from the old one. Whatever was British could not be American. Therefore it became patriotic to reject political as well as cultural imports of Mother England. No tea, no king, no theatre (I told you I would work that in there).

The few early American plays that survived the anti-theatrical tracts of both the religious and patriotic agendas consistently contrast two archetypes. The first is the smart, sophisticated, European noble who is tricky and generally no-good, if not explicitly evil. The second is the dull but hard-working American, usually a farmer. He might get outfoxed by his European counterpart, but his goodness (and occasionally brawn) will eventually triumph. The reverberation of this fundamental contrast can be felt over and again as with McCain’s “Straight Talk Express” and the (albeit shockingly racist) recent assertions from Republicans that Obama is “uppity.” Of course one of the many problems with this dichotomy is that it requires or at least encourages Americans to think of themselves as stupid – to value simpleness – or the inability to understand or articulate complex thought. And, if you are capable of complex thought, you better keep it to yourself. Debate may have been the foundation of Athenian democracy but buzz words, jingles and catchphrases, well, ain’t that America?

Palin plays right into the role. But now, in addition to being a good Republican / American, she’s just like the majority of voters – female. I’ll admit that six months ago the notion that a woman was a viable candidate for the presidency was exciting for many people, including me. But, I also have more in common politically and ideologically with Ms. Clinton than with a breadbox, for example, and therefore my ability to be excited about the prior notion was based wholly on the later. I don’t know where the breadbox stands on a lot of issues, but I know it holds bread, and I’m ok with that. I can not say the same about Mc-Pal. This leads me to my deep-seated Sarah-loathing.

Her appointment is not a shallow attempt to lure wayward female voters in search of va-jay-jay in the Oval. It is indicative of at least 100 years of blindly sexist rhetoric and policy. You would think Republicans would be more adept at identifying sexism appropriately since they have been so good at gift-wrapping it but it seems they need a refresher course. Women were denied the right to vote till 1920 because it was believed they did not have the capacity for rational thought (among other reasons) and Palin is leading the charge to resurrect that rationale. Even though her platform and her actions in her (brief) time in public office have kicked women’s rights and needs in the guts, she’s good for women? Even though, she fundamentally undercuts all women’s advancements throughout time by intentionally countering legitimate criticism with cries of sexism, she’s good for women? She demands the choice she would deny all other women and is good for women? She thinks women are stupid enough to buy that and she’s good for women? Oh, I forgot, she is a woman. By that logic, Bush should have a rocking human rights’ record – he is human afterall. What’s that Amnesty International? I can’t hear you over the deafening cries of Guatanamo Bay.

Even if I put the hypocrisy and the bad policies in a corner for a well-deserved timeout, I can not get away from the damaging example to women Palin is. If you are pretty, and carefully manipulate people to think you are dumber than you are, you can get what you want. This is literally advice you can read in Teen Magazines if you are looking for the attentions of 16 year-old boy. Sarah deliberately plays against the public portrayal of women like Hillary Clinton. Hillary is smart, successful and ambitious and not afraid who knows that about her and is therefore a bitch. Sarah is a member of the NRA, a former beauty queen and a vicious sports competitor, but none of these things apparently make her a bitch (I’ll leave the wrongful terminations aside for now). Her basketball nickname is cute because of its perceived hyperbole (That pretty, little girl is a terrifying fish? – How sweet!) The pageant life not only prepared her to look pretty and polished in challenging circumstances but trained her to speak persuasively without actually saying anything of substance. And when she holds a semi-assault rifle for a photo shoot, she could just as easily be posing for a male fantasy magazine, thereby further undercutting the idea of a strong woman as only existing for male gratification. In short, she presents herself as non-threatening, the traditional hallmark of the good American woman. Be pretty and not too smart and the boys will like you. Thanks, Sarah.

Does this mean we have to give the 19th Amendment back?

cru-sadist: n. one who admires, encourages or wishes to pursue a war in emulation of the European Christians in the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries to recover the Holy Land from the Muslims and exterminate any opposition to Christianity, demonstrating a desire to cause great pain in strangers and a questionable grasp of reality.
[from Latin crux, cruc-, cross. And the French sadisme; see Sade, -ist]