Songs for the Struggling Artist

What I Wish the American Theatre Would Learn from the Brits #10

# 10 – Creating Welcoming Theatre Spaces

On my last trip to London, I revisited some theatre institutions I’d spent a lot of time in back when I lived there. I hung out at both the Battersea Arts Centre (BAC) and the National Theatre. Funny thing was, I didn’t see a show at either one during this trip. I walked in and out of the front doors of both places dozens of times – sometimes to meet friends, sometimes to write in the cafe, sometimes to see what was playing. I felt welcome.
At the BAC cafe, for example, I saw new mothers with their babies.It made me think about how those babies would grow up with the theatre – how that theatre would always be part of the fabric of their lives. Not just the shows they saw but the hours they spent in its walls. I saw design meetings for shows both at the BAC and elsewhere. I saw people of all ages from all ends of the neighborhood. You can feel how these are PUBLIC institutions. Like a library. Everyone is welcome.
There is no American Institution (that I know) that has this kind of atmosphere. American Theatre Institutions are consumption experiences. You come in, you watch the show, you maybe get a quick drink at intermission and you’re out the door.
You can’t just walk into Lincoln Center and feed your baby. You need to be there to buy a ticket for a show. There are cafes in Lincoln Center but you will need to purchase something (expensive) to sit in one. At BAM, where I used to work, there is a restaurant (an expensive one) but it only opens before certain shows and closes by the time the show is over. Furthermore, if you wanted to try and walk into the building, to say, visit someone in an office, you would need to get written or verbal permission from someone upstairs who would have to either come down and get you or call the security desk to let you in and then you would need to show your id. I worked at BAM for over 10 years before I had an ID that actually got me in without having someone come escort me to the office.
Having a truly public theatre spaces means that more people are likely to feel comfortable in them and that only benefits the work – even if someone never actually buys a ticket for a show. If we find ways to make our institutions more welcoming, we increase our audiences, we diversify our audiences, we probably even sell more tickets.

Battersea Arts Centre Cafe - where you can just hang out

Battersea Arts Centre Cafe – where you can just hang out

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Divorcing the Art
November 3, 2013, 7:58 pm
Filed under: art, education, Shakespeare, theatre | Tags: , , ,

There’s been a divorce. It’s not as public as Catherine Zeta-Jones’ but for me it changes everything.
For the last 14 or so years, I’ve worked for a major arts institution as a teaching artist. I’ve seen managers come and go. I’ve seen programs bloom and fade but I have hung in there because I am a fan of the work that happens on the stage. Some of the best work in the world ends up there and the quality of that work was what kept me coming back there even when I’d been treated with disrespect.

I did the bulk of my work for them with the Shakespeare program. In it, students would see a world-class Shakespeare production on the theatre’s stage and we, the teaching artists, in collaboration with the classroom teachers, would teach that play, helping to provide context and depth for the work they’d see. This has meant that we’ve taught Comedy of Errors, Merchant of Venice, Julius Caesar and Coriolanus in addition to the some of the more commonly taught plays like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet or Macbeth. It meant that, every year, the students got a full-on engagement in a work of art (one they probably wouldn’t see otherwise) and then got to enact a bit of that play themselves. It has been a full on engagement with art. The most profound moments of insight and transformation for the students have happened in response to what they saw. I know because I saw it happen.

Now, I am told the institution is “divorcing” the program from the production. The students will study one of two plays, pre-selected and not see any live theatre. They’ll go see a Shakespeare film but no theatre, even though there is still a great deal to be seen on the stage. And I think it is a giant mistake.
Listen, I don’t run arts education, (see here what I’d do if I did) I know no one in the Big Chairs at these places gives a damn what I think. But when we start divorcing the actual art from young people’s arts education, we’re getting on a fast train to irrelevance.

One administrator I spoke to about my concerns told me that the same thing happened at another arts organization where she’d worked. She told me there was a lot of outcry and protest when this happened there but now the new program (the one divorced from the art) is super successful. And I can’t argue with that. Of course it all depends on what you mean by successful. I’m gonna guess that successful means lots of people signed up for these programs and they make money from them either from schools or funders and believe me I understand the value of those things.

But there is another kind of success and value to be had, one that is less predictable and that isn’t easily described on a grant application. This kind of success involves transforming experiences with a work of art, in engaging with something you see on stage and letting it move you. When education can enable that experience, I’m all for it. Divorced from that possibility it is simply Education Business As Usual. It’s something I (or any capable artist) could do in a classroom without an affiliation with a major arts institution. It’s something very good classroom teachers do everyday. I know. I’ve seen them at work. And I have trouble believing that funders aren’t interested in sharing a theatre’s work with students.
So since this institution has divorced the art from its arts education program, I am divorcing the program. That is, I quit. I spoke my piece (multiple times, believe me) and my voice was ignored and I quit.

I recognize, given my position as a cog in the works at a major institution, that my divorce made no difference to anyone but me (and possibly to my colleagues who were left to soldier on without me.) It’s a stand that has likely gone un-noticed by anyone with any authority to consider what is happening. I did it a few months ago and I haven’t heard a thing about it since.

Those that are my intermediaries between the Big chairs and the Medium size chairs tell me that they are simply responding to mandates coming from above. So let me just speak to those who are above for a moment (even though you’re surely not reading this): Take a second to THINK. You care about the work on your stages. That is why you do what you do. You care about your audience. And you likely care about your future audience. You will not cultivate future members of your audience by bringing them to see films they could watch at home or in their classrooms. You will not spark an interest or enthusiasm or future patron by sending artists into classrooms to teach stuff they could get anywhere. I can name at least ten other arts organizations who already do that and those are just the ones I’ve worked for. If you’re interested in giving students a unique and significant experience in your theatre, you have to re-marry your artistic work with your education program.

But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe actually seeing art is something no one cares about anymore (Please, please, don’t let this be the case!) Maybe all anyone wants is to fit more easily into the Department of Education’s structures, to have lesson plans align with the Common Core and have an easier time writing those funding applications.

Me? I’m an artist because I care about the ART. And I’m a teaching artist because I care about giving young people an opportunity to engage with art.

I’ve taught in over 300 schools over the years and the majority of the students in those schools had never seen a play before someone brought them to see something. It breaks my heart to consider that instead of giving students that magical first experience, this institution will now just give them some education stuff. It’s like telling someone what it’s like to see the ocean instead of letting them swim in it.
No, no, it’s like teaching someone to swim in the desert. You can take them through the motions and they could learn all of the moves but it will be irrelevant until they see the water. I don’t think I’m naïve in assuming that the best way to teach someone to swim is in the water and the best way to teach someone about theatre is in the theatre. But what do I know? I just swim in the water every day.

British Invasion

Did you notice how much work was over from Britain last year? Almost everything in BAM’s spring season came from the British Isles. Likewise, St Ann’s Warehouse. On Broadway: Jerusalem, Brief Encounter, Billy Elliot, Pitman Painters. The two big theatrical events of the year,Warhorse and Sleep No More, are British imports with new American casts. The RSC was in residence this summer. It’s a wonder there are any Brits left in Britain at this rate. Am I upset about this invasion? Absolutely not. I’m grateful that I get to see the work I most want to see without getting on a plane. However, I do find it very discouraging.
I’ve done my damnedest to be in the UK myself to no avail so I have reconciled myself to making my work here. But I see that even to work here, I really ought to be coming from Great Britain. It’s a wonderful thing that New York Theatres are presenting good British work. If I were in charge of one of these presenting organizations, I would do exactly the same thing. If I’m charged with presenting the best available work, of course, I would import it from the UK.
But why is the work so much more worth presenting?
1) Governmental support of the arts – the Arts Council supports theatres of all sizes (Now that the new government has slashed the Arts Council’s budget so ridiculously much, we’ll see if that quality can be maintained)
2) Support for a variety of theatres means a variety of work and an opportunity for innovation and most important to me, the opportunity to do Research and Development, in other words the opportunity to fail. In other words, one can take risks in one’s work and make discoveries without risking one’s survival.
3) See reasons 1-9 for what I wish the American Theatre would learn from the Brits.

In light of their severe cuts, the British Arts Council is counseling its suffering theatre artists to follow the example of their American cousins. But I say, “Beware, cousins, beware.” I have seen a lot of work that moved me this year and all of it came from your shores. I can’t remember the last time I was moved by a piece of American theatre. Sorry my American friends – maybe I’m forgetting something – but it’s true. Some of us manage to create exciting moments or an element or two that really works against all the odds. We keep trying, bless us, but I fear we are fighting a losing battle. But then, I so very rarely get to see high quality American theatre. That’s partly because our “Art” Houses are too busy presenting British work, for which, I am grateful, but also furious because it feels as if there’s no space for American work and no structures in place to create it.

Let’s look at Black Watch, for example.
1) They put Research and Development resources into it. They paid a writer to investigate something. Gave him an expense account to buy a bunch of vets a lot of drinks. They hired a creative team and actors to experiment and explore the ideas. Additionally, they hired a consultant.
2) The creative team they brought in was highly skilled in innovative, devised, physical theatre. They developed those skills in smaller companies throughout the years, honing and discovering new ways to create highly theatrical work.
3) Public moneys created a production then sent it around for more people to see. Find me an American production that has that amount of public support behind it. Something beyond “I liked that show. Those people are very talented.”

I’d love to make something as good as Black Watch one day. Or as good as Brief Encounter or The Red Shoes or Beautiful Burnout or Warhorse or Sleep No More or Jerusalem or any of the Shakespeare at BAM last season or the RSC last summer. Can I imagine an American Theatre that could support me getting that good? I’m trying. I’m trying to imagine it. Every day.

It feels like an invasion, yeah, like the British Invasion of the 60s and like that Invasion it is most welcome. I just hope it leads to a renaissance of American Theatre in the same way.

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