Letter to the Editor of American Theatre Magazine

I believe the title of Teresa Eyring’s article “How Theatre Saved America, Part I” is misleading. “How Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble saved Bloomsburg, PA,” would have been entirely more appropriate. I applaud Eyring for highlighting BTE, but this topic is too massive to be covered in a two-part, two page article. To highlight only one of seven listed theatre ensembles and then tell readers that the American theater is “saving America” is incredibly insufficient. If American Theatre magazine and TCG are truly concerned about this problem they should devote an entire issue to it. Interview both sides talking with everyone involved including board members, artistic directors, actors, playwrights, etc. A good place to start is the blogging community as there are many artists, practitioners and educators sharing their struggles and points of view. Also highlight more theaters outside the major metropolitan hubs showing how they are accomplishing ensemble work and providing a living wage for the artists. As well, if permission is granted, the issue should also include Mike Daisey‘s monologue How Theatre Failed America, which would serve as an additional source for this contentious issue.

Contrary to its title, in Part I of her article, Eyring does not explain how theatre has saved America. Instead, she attempts to hold on to the ill-conceived notion that nothing is wrong and thus believes we should “stay the course”. Conversely, in his monologue, Daisey asserts that the regional theater has sold out. Its focus and cash flow are directed to the creation of buildings instead of using resources to support an ensemble of actors, directors, playwrights and technicians. An even bigger problem is the issue of fundraising and donation. The American public would not give money to a theatre company attempting to raise money for an ensemble of artists, but plenty of wealthy donors are willing to give money if it ensures the placement of their name on a theatre’s toilet. As Daisey states, a more apt title for his show would be: How American theater has become America, signifying a capitalistic model that places the value of things over the value of people.

At the roundtable discussion following Daisey’s final show at the Barrow Street Theatre, Oskar Eustis, Artistic Director of the Public Theater, said that ideology will always trump experience. Current ideology runs counter to the possibility of ensemble artists making a living in regional theatres across America. However, as Eyring points out, experience shows that it is happening. Therefore, we need to work to change the ideology that rules both the American public and the boards of regional theaters who approve the spending. This is an extremely complex issue that can be examined from many different angles. So let’s concentrate on dissecting this topic; lets continue to talk and write articles from more than just one perspective.

As Eustis emphasized at the roundtable, we should applaud the gains of the American theater and give it some respect. Currently we have many more theater buildings than fifty or sixty years ago and so the public undoubtedly has more options to see and experience theater and artists have more spaces to work. We must also concentrate on how we can change the ingrained perception of what is considered important. How can we make the public understand that the people they are most willing to overlook, the theater artists, are the life and soul of the theater. My generation will soon be taking over the leadership of the American theater (and the nation as a whole) and for us to implement effective and meaningful change the ideology shift needs to begin now.

*UPDATE: Nick over at Rat Sass make an additional observation that I missed. Again, another reason that shows that this article did not live up to the title.

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    10 thoughts on “Letter to the Editor of American Theatre Magazine

    1. dennisbaker

      Thanks for the comment Scott. Love to hear your thoughts once you digest it. Wanted to include the comment from the convention about actors and no one asking them to be in the field, but it did not flow.

    2. nick

      Dennis,

      “From The Executive Director” is an established one-page comment at the front of every issue American Theatre magazine, not “Teresa Eyring’s article” as you call it. I believe former head Ben Cameron wrote this TCG comment every issue during his tenure. Usually he spoke generally to the “state of the nation” of not-for-profit theatre. Eying’s post here is of a similar nature. This “TCG page” is probably the only page not under editorial of Jim O’Quinn. So your “letter to the editor” is misdirected in this instance.

      That said you are right on about Teresa Eyring’s Pollyannaism. But she probably feels that’s her job. TCG in its collective of theaters working under the non-profit model, for all intents and purposes started the conversation and the action of regional theatre years ago. And it still essentially owns that conversation and action and money, even now as its model miserably fails. Mike’s performance has a great deal of insight and with gentle good-natured humor (no “bitch slapping” administration staff as in his essay) makes fun of the failures of regional theatre. A relevant piece of theatre entertainment that is as least as germane as any breakout session that a TCG conference might throw at the subject. So it’s ironic and interesting that this piece of theatre became the same TCG conference breakout session that it mocks. And of course it would be the complete and most beautiful irony to have, as you suggest, Daisey’s script now published in American Theatre.

    3. dennisbaker

      Thanks for the comment Nick. Whether its a letter to the editor or letter to the Executive Director is really beside the point. Its written to the editor because most comments about the articles in a magazine is traditionally written to the editor.

      Hopefully the job of anyone working in TCG would be to speak honestly about the “state of the nation” of American Theater. It is a question of whether that can happen, as you pointed out, since TCG essentially owns the conversation, action and money. Eyring made the opposite argument to Mike Daisey’s show to a readership whom most of them probably did not see the show. That is why his monologue should be included in an issue that presents both sides of the issue. While that may be ironical I also think that is good reporting and coverage of all sides of an issue.

      I think the irony is not lost that the show that critiqued the theater conferences and break out sessions also became one. I also would say that all the administrators that were at the conference are the people that need to see it the most.

    4. nick

      Dennis,

      I am curious. What in piece do you think is instructive or prescriptive to administrators or their staffs? In other words, they need to see it so that…(fill in the blank)

    5. dennisbaker

      As written by Walters over at the Artsjournal blog said during the talk back for Daisey’s show one attendee made a comment that reflected a sense of entitlement to insist that theatre artists be allowed to lead a reasonably stable life, stating “nobody asked you to go into the theatre, and so don’t expect anything but the most marginal existence”. In the final Barrow Street Theater talk back Daisey commented he was the only artist in a room full of administrators. There might have be more artists there than just Daisey, but I think it is fair to say the majority were theater administrators. The above mentioned way of thinking is the reason why HTFA should be seen my administrators. As stated in the article I think the biggest theme to come out of the show is the idea that the most important thing about the theater is the people, yet they are given the least amount of money. The administrators are the the middle men between the board members and the artists. They are the ones who should be the first to fight for needs of the artists. The above comment and the stories from HTFA tell me that this has not been happening for a while.

      Also I think the other side of this coin is that artists needs to create and not become dependent on board members, administrators and current system to give them jobs. This too is also a huge topic. How Daisey now chooses to perform as an artist and how he came to that decision speaks to this issue. Work between administrators and artist should be done to find a balance between these two ideas.

    6. nick

      Dennis, you say the instruction is that administrators need to “fight for needs of the artists.” The old adage “Be kind to strangers” would be more apropos. But the estrangement between art and business is too extreme. There is no prescription for administrators on how to fix things. The contention of the piece is that regional theatre model discussed is hopelessly broken.

    7. dennisbaker

      You are right there is no current prescription. I think there can still be hope for change among the brokenness. First people need to realize that the current system is broken, which I think is the current faze we are in now. Then once the current model is deconstructed the next faze is to start thinking about how it can be changed and thirdly try to put those ideas into action. This cycle is apart of life. Birth, Death, and Re-Birth. In a way we need regional theater 2.0, maybe a bad metaphor, but you get the idea.

    8. Pingback: Rat Sass » How Theatre Failed/Saved America

    9. Pingback: Response to Teresa Eyring's Response | DENNIS BAKER LLC

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