Filed under: art, theatre | Tags: American, Broadway, Canopy, ecosystem, Emergent, Forest Floor, Fringe, Non-Profit, Off-Off Broadway, Rainforest, Regional, UK, Understory
I saw a big fancy Broadway show that lots of my friends and colleagues had been raving about. It’s a show that utilizes the skills, ideas, movement vocabularies and motifs of devised and physical theatre. I saw elements of Viewpoints, of Chorus Work, of Dance Theatre. For many Broadway audiences, this piece felt extremely innovative and experimental. I’d wager that 97% of the audience had never seen anything like it before.
I, on the other hand, have seen a LOT of things like it before, though not with that kind of budget and all those bells and whistles. For me, it felt like old news dressed up in fancy trimmings. I could draw a direct line from the motifs I saw in this show to the innovative independent theatres I’ve seen in the UK. This show was a UK production and, in it, I could see echoes of Kneehigh, Improbable, Complicite, Frantic Assembly, Shared Experience – to name a few.
This has made me think about how complex the ecosystem of theatre is. I think of it as a Rainforest. A Rainforest’s ecosystem features the Emergent Layer at the top, the Canopy is below it. The Understory (or Shrub Layer) is next and the Forest Floor is at the bottom.
There are similar layers in the Ecosystem of Theatre Making. Here in the States, Broadway is the Emergent Layer – the trees that grow high above everything else. They are the ones that get the most light. They are the most visible. But the Emergent Layer can’t grow without the support of the layers below. The life cycle of plants on the forest floor directly feed those emergent trees. The ideas, skills and innovations at the bottom, feed the trees at the top.
Unfortunately American funding structures don’t support the layers of the forest below the Canopy. Money flows primarily to the Emergent Layer (Broadway) with some diversion to the Canopy (Regional, Off-Broadway theatres.) But the Understory and the Forest Floor are starved of funds. This is not good for the ecosystem as a whole.
In a way, the American Emergent Layer has been feeding on the Forest Floor of the British ecosystem for the last decade or so. This may change once the Arts Cuts in England start to starve the Understory and Forest Floor there, as well.
The Broadway audience owes its new encounter with “experimental” work to the investment the English Arts Council made in non-establishment research and development in the previous 25 to 30 years.
Now that the Arts Council England has had its funding drastically diminished, Broadway may not be able to depend on getting its innovations from the ecosystem across the pond. Perhaps, I might suggest, it would be worth investing locally – in providing support for the Shrub Layer and the Forest Floor in the very soil that Broadway Emergent Layer is planted. That’s the way to a healthy ecosystem. Save our Theatrical Rainforests!
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