Songs for the Struggling Artist

What I wish American Theatre Would Learn from the Brits (# 7)

More Egalitarian Structures

The job I found in London was in the cloakroom at the Battersea Arts Centre, during the run of Punchdrunk’s Masque of the Red Death. It was a bottom of the totem pole job and I worked a few nights a week for not very much money. (Side bar of shocking info re: minimum wage type jobs – I got paid Holiday wages even though I wasn’t anywhere near full-time. Oh yeah and that National Health Care thing. So benefits, too.)

In an American theatre, only my immediate supervisors would have recognized me or known my name. In London, I was invited by the Theatre Manager to participate in an organizational meeting (a meeting for which I was paid, by the way) wherein all parties involved in making the theatre go were invited to discuss the future of the organization, to evaluate what it is and where it had been. My voice, as the recently hired cloakroom assistant, was just as valuable and heard with as much weight as the voices of the Artistic Director, Education Director or the Marketing Director. I have worked for many many arts organizations and business over the years and I have never before had anyone really truly ask me what I thought. Periodically, I’m asked to fill out an evaluation of a project I worked on (which I can rarely be fully honest about given my precarious positions in these jobs) – but nobody ever asks me, or anyone involved in the everyday workings of the organization, for participation in it on a big picture level.

I think this is a great loss. Sometimes the people who are on the periphery know things, important things, about the goings on in a company and his/her wisdom is lost because everyone thinks of the janitor as “just” a janitor. Arts organizations, more than any institution, should understand the value of everyone’s voice being heard.

As the lowest woman on the totem pole at that meeting at the Battersea Arts Centre, I felt more valued and heard than I have ever felt in any of my Arts jobs here in the US. Despite the fact that I was working in a low wage position when I’m highly qualified to do many other things, I would have stayed on in that company for a long time, had the law allowed. (Immigration laws are a bitch.) All it took to invoke my sense of loyalty was to ask me once, at one meeting, for my opinion and to truly listen to it.

In all my Arts in Education jobs here, the program managers and the middle men (my direct supervisors) change every year. I suspect that no one asks them what they think either and so they move on to jobs where they have some sense of contributing to the big picture. It’s so simple –  but find me one American arts organization that does it. Please. I’ll go check coats there.


What I wish American Theatre would learn from the Brits (#6)

#6 Openness for Writers

Anyone can send a play to almost any theatre that does new writing in the UK. Mostly, they’ll also write you back and tell you what they thought. They will not send you a standard rejection letter. They will reference specific things in your play that indicate that they have actually read it. Just try that at an established American theatre.

You absolutely have to read this article by Allan Katz about this. It’s genius.\”Just Dying to Get that Play Produced\”

What I wish American Theatre would learn from the Brits (#5)

#5 – Develop a culture of mentorship

My friends in London complain that they need to help each other out more because the jobs that they’ve gotten have always come form older artists giving them opportunities. I think we need to help each other out more, too,  but we also need to add this element of mentoring so those farther along can give a hand to those below.

It sometimes seems to me that we’re all in competition with each other here so that instead of looking down and seeing people we can help along, we see the younger folks eye-ing our positions and scheming to replace us. I don’t know how we fix this. The only thing I can think of as an individual is to be conscious of it and look for who we can give a hand to sometimes.

Institutionally, I think there’s a lot that could be done. In my short time in London, I joined a group for young directors sponsored by the Young Vic and a writer’s group at the the Royal Court. The young directors program provides opportunities to attend workshops, discussions and talks with more established directors, as well as ongoing training, networking opportunities and space grants. My group at the Royal Court wasn’t even an official writers group there (they have their own) but they donated the use of the room for our monthly meetings anyway, just to help us out.

There’s a mentorship network connected to one well-respected independent theatre company. Others seem to be constantly looking for how to give back to the community.

The supports for artists at all stages of a career are many there and most are open groups, in that anyone could apply. There are certainly groups here as well, but the spaces available are so few that entry becomes highly competitive and before too long, that group becomes another wrung on the ladder to success rather than simple support. Those that do not fit the criteria are left flailing and unsupported.

Maybe I’ll change my tune when I am no longer flailing and unsupported but I doubt it. Hopefully I’ll put my hand out and give someone behind me a boost up the ladder.

What I wish American Theatre would learn from the Brits (#4)

This goes without saying. But I’m going to say it anyway. This is really number 1, I’d say, in order of importance – but my fear is that it’s so far away from being possible that I pushed it farther down the list.

#4 We need governmental support for  the arts. No duh, right? Hey, maybe with this economic downturn, we’ll finally get some again. New WPA anyone?

That’s all I got. I can only state the obvious for so long.

What I wish American Theatre would learn from the Brits #3

#3 Expand our standard Theatrical Categories and Vocabulary

In the UK, there is an accepted form of theatre called DEVISED THEATRE. It’s essentially actor-created (or actor-designer-director-writer-etc created) work. Some companies that have become well know for it (that I love) are Complicité, Improbable Theatre, Told By An Idiot and Kneehigh Theatre. We have some companies that devise work here in the States, too. The Wooster Group, Mabou Mines, The Siti Company – but we don’t call them devised. I’m not sure what we call them.

When I tell people I create devised work or that I’m interested in devising, very few people have the slightest idea of what I’m talking about (unless they’re in Theatre in Education, interestingly.) I don’t know why this is but I think it’s time for a change. I think there’s a way where, by not naming this very established and important form of theatre making, we are continuing to marginalize it. Now, the Wooster Group is certainly not suffering for lack of recognition and I don’t think they hurt for ticket sales – but only in certain circles. What they do is still called Avant Garde and experimental, despite the fact that they’ve been an established company for decades, inspiring many other devisors behind them.

For the average American, theatre means only Broadway or musicals or both and we need to expand our categories and allow for physical theatre, devised theatre, verbatim theatre, promenade theatre  (all legitimate recognized forms in the UK and mostly unmentioned here despite their presence) and give them a proper place at the table.

What I wish American Theatre would learn from the Brits (#2)

#2   Ticket prices

Ticket prices in London can be just as large as New York, it’s true. However, there are a lot more options to see something for less.

Much has been said about the escalating ticket prices here in New York but no one seems to be able to solve it and I figure until we HAVE a National Theatre (see “What I wish American Theatre would learn from the Brits # I’m not even going to bother to write  down since it’s such a pipe dream”) we won’t see it shift too dramatically. I think, though, that we can easily adopt techniques that many a London theatre uses to attract an audience.

Example #1: At the beginning of a run, say in the first 2 weeks when the buzz needs building, ticket prices can be as low as £7 and as the run builds so do the prices. What this meant for me when I was there was that I could afford to see really stellar work that I would never have taken a chance on otherwise.

Example #2: By choosing to sit in the back, I could see MOST theatre in London for £10 last year.

Basically, I want theatre to be cheaper here in NY so I (and my other poor friends) can actually go to it!

What I like about this sort of option is that, as a producer, I could implement this sort of pricing schema if I wanted to. It would actually be in my hands to think about ticket pricing differently. We’ll see if I managed it the next time I do a show!

What I wish American Theatre would learn from the Brits (#1)

#1) Put a bar/restaurant/cafe in every theatre and keep it open even when there isn’t a show. This is such a fixture in British theatre that people will say to each other, “I’ll meet you in the bar” without ever having seen the place. There are many many benefits to this teeny tiny gesture. It builds community and good will around the theatre like you wouldn’t believe. It can also introduce new people to a place they wouldn’t otherwise attend. I saw this in action at the prestigious Young Vic Theatre, where a super hip bar/restaurant called The Cut occupies the lobby. As I walked through on my way to a show, I heard a man say to his friend as he passed a poster, “Oh! There’s a theatre here?” Now there’s no way of knowing if that guy will ever come back to see something at the Young Vic, he might just drink there on the weekends, but he’s much more likely to come back to see something at the theatre since he knows where it is and that he likes to hang out there.

Having a bar in the theatre is wonderful for both sides of the stage. As a patron, I love this about British Theatre. I can meet my friends in the bar before the show, chat with them and say hello to other people I’ve met at other theatres during the intermission and after the show, we can have some food and discuss what we’ve seen. When the artists emerge, I can let them know that I enjoyed their work, or just watch them interact with their friends and audience which has the effect of investing me more in their performances. Having an experience surrounding the show makes an evening at the theatre feel like a complete experience instead of just another thing I consume. (I buy a ticket, gobble up that show and I’m on to something else.) Having a bar/cafe to sit in before, during and after extends that experience and makes it breathe. I also like having a reason to go to the theatre when nothing is playing. I find this increases my likelihood of seeing something there, either because I’ve seen the artists loading on a break or something or because I’m seeing the publicity in a much more focused space.

As an artist, I love it because it means that people who’ve come to see me have a comfortable place to wait for me while I take off my make-up! It also means that more people will wait to greet me after a show because they have a place to do it – in that the bar is their space as much as mine as the artist. This is so much better than hanging around in some hallway feeling like you’re in everyone’s way.

Meanwhile, on the theatre’s side, it  is STILL making money even after the show. Having a bar in the theatre saves that horrible decision moment of where to go after the show. There’s not much question, you stay at the theatre. You save the fifteen minutes of debating where might still be open and the half hour spent walking there (by which time you’ve lost half of your friends.)

It’s also very convenient for networking.  While I was assisting on a show at the Arcola Theatre, in the bar I was introduced to many of the fancy-pants people who’d come to see the star. I had conversations that I might never have had the opportunity for otherwise but could because we were conveniently able to stay in the bar after the show.

There are a few theatres in America who have bars in their buildings, I know, and I salute you. However, I’m not talking about one or two theatres doing this. I’m talking about building a culture of going to the theatre and for culture and community to build it needs space and food and drink. The theatres I know that have bars in this country close them up after intermission and quickly usher their patrons out of the building leaving them to discuss what they saw out on the street or in the bar down the road or not at all. Fundamentally, this just seems like a waste of good will and energy. The performance has generated something in its audience as a collective and it seems to me that by offering them a collective space can only help the theatre where they’ve had the experience. That audience will tell its friends who haven’t been there about it and they will come and have a drink with them and the audience will grow. Rather than being a room full of individuals coming to consume a little show, we become a community. This might allow us to not only value the show that we see (which let’s face it, is not always brilliant) but value the theatre as a whole.

Please can we do this? Please?

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