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Ghetto Effect

August 23, 2007

A couple of days ago, local NPR affiliate KQED FM devoted an hour of programing to issues surrounding small theaters in the Bay Area. Forum, hosted by Michael Krasny, discussed audiences, funding and the future of small theater companies in the region.
The producers had assembled a panel of very intelligent, open-minded artistic directors to talk about the subject. The guests included Kent Nicholson of Crowded Fire, Molly Noble, of Porchlight Theatre, Shotgun Players' Patrick Dooley, and Sean Murphy, artistic director for Renegade Theater Experiment. The only non artistic director invited to speak was Trevor Allen, director of company services for Theatre Bay Area, the local umbrella organization that supports theater and dance in the region.

Although the panelists were very eloquent about the highs and lows of creating theater in the Bay Area, the show left me feeling rather embarrassed. The problem was that I felt like no one was listening. At least, no one beyond the narrow confines of the performing arts community in the Bay Area.

It's great that KQED, which tends to be very news focused, organizes these kinds of general discussions around the performing arts. In the case of this program, I was particularly impressed with the lengths that the producers had gone to include companies from all over the Bay Area, from San Francisco to Marin to Berkeley to San Jose. But these debates, though well-intentioned, usually end up being little more than parochial exercises in insider navel-gazing.

The producers are partly to blame. They probably think that they are fulfilling some kind of community obligation by devoting a show to small theater. Yet they don't seem to be able to think beyond the most obvious structure. You can't just bung a bunch of theater professionals in front of mikes and expect them to create scintillating radio that's going to appeal to anyone beyond the narrow confines of their own community. Krasny also ought to know better. A host as seasoned as he is ought to be able to find ways to steer the discussion beyond tired topics such as the financial difficulties of making theater and diversity issues. At the very least, he ought to find new ways of framing these topics.

One way of giving more thought to what listeners might want to get out of a discussion about small theater in the Bay Area (or indeed any other cultural subject), might be for the producers to take a broader approach to selecting panelists. Artistic directors usually make great thinkers and speakers, but at the end of the day, they are all cut from similar cloth. They all face the same opportunities and challenges. If everyone on a panel has the same job description, the discussion invariably goes around in circles. In the case of the small theater show, it soon started turning in on itself and felt more akin to a group of luvvies kvetching about their jobs over drinks at a pub than material fit for a public, on-air debate.

This clubby feeling was further compounded by the people who called in to make comments. Nearly all of the callers prefigured their calls with lines like "Hi everyone. It's great talking to you all again?" and "I think everyone on this panel knows me well." I half expected one of them to say "By the way, Trevor, you owe me ten bucks."

If I were to create a discussion group about small theater, I would include only one artistic director on the panel. He or she would be joined by a playwright, an actor, a stage manager, a producer, a critic and an ardent theatergoer with no insider experience. The mix would no doubt make for a much more varied and open discussion. It would do a lot to waylay self-ghettoization.

To listen to KQED Forum's small theater program, click here.

2 Comments:

  • You are right, your majesty, and it is sad.

    Yes. It was a little boring on the surface but, ah, the subtext. The self loathing, the unrequited love, the beauty contest betwixt small theatre's power brokers, the embarrassment of intrinsic passions granted an occational public crumb by those such as the queen. Oh, please, thank you for that mention on page 25 guzillion of your esteemed paper. The award parade. Please love me again in seven years.

    What do you expect, they are managers. Managers, mind you, not haunted artists fighting demons but captains of ships that are required to keep their aging actors (pirates?) happy, least they experience mass mutiny that threatens the very bouancy of the craft. Fuck the cannons, are there enough dowels ito keep the floorboards from exploding. Pretty mundane, but essential stuff.

    They've sold their souls to the mongers of sustanability. They lie to themselves and each other in order to get what they need to stay afloat. The art must wait in line, occasionally peering its ugly head above the white noise. Excuse me.

    Not unlike parents, they run their companies on paranoia and public opinion. A very inaccurrate compass to travel by. Public opinion.

    Public Opinion:
    A method which does not achieve results because two people generally have little in common, three people have even less, ten will have almost nothing, and what a hundred people have in common is something so negligible that it may be able to help sell certain things but it can certainly not contribute anything creative.
    By definition, creativity is the emergence of something which does not exist. And marketing, at least in it's narrowest and crudest form, consists entirely of trying to pinpoint that which already exists, therefore it is worth nothing.

    And, I suppose, your job, your highness, is to find out what they are really doing and call them on it. Yes, that radio show was deadly. They should have pulled and all nighter together, boozing and whatevering else opens them up to reveal the subbteranean truths, god forbid there is nothing there, and then flick on the mikes. Ready set go. Maybe some of them would remember why they weaseled into this god forsaken life in the first place. We might all learn something.

    And how dare you criticize them? They are trying so hard. What is so great about theatre is that what is beautiful is not called by the almighty dollar. But by you, and me, and whoever else is brave enought to tell someone what they really saw, heard, felt. Do they want to hear? Are you just a filter. A screen? (between them and the public?) I don't know.

    Maybe there is something about theatre people that doesn't really want to reach out farther than friends, family, and the occational fluff piece from a stranger. Strangle any outsider who calls what they do boring. And, I suppose, that is where the critic comes in. Your churn. Let's not let them be so safe. Who doesn't want to be called on their shit?

    With all due respect.

    mr. stick

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At August 24, 2007 at 9:13 PM  

  • Thanks again, Mr. Stick for your elegant parry. I don't follow the references to "25 guzillion of your esteemed paper" and "The award parade" and "please love me again in seven years." Am I being dense?
    Anyway, here's to more progressive, inclusive and, hopefully, listened-to discussions about theatre on the radio in the future. Queenie.

    By Blogger chloeveltman, At August 25, 2007 at 11:24 AM  

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