The spectrum of commentary in your special section “The Artist as Entrepreneur” (Jan. ’13) was provocative. I fear, however, that looking at theatre training through the lens of entrepreneurship has led in these pages to the kind of oversimplification that undermines the specificity, nuance and depth of understanding on which training in our art form depends.
First, undergraduate and graduate theatre training are worlds apart. On one hand, to the extent that undergraduate programs emphasizing entrepreneurship are promoting values of personal empowerment and expression, relationship building, risk-taking, innovation and life-long learning and flexibility, they are preparing students for every meaningful human endeavor. Moreover, such programs may hedge against the biggest risk of undergraduate theatre training: encouraging 18-year-olds to specialize too early in life. On the other hand, graduate schools are often in a position to select and train students who are already empowered, expressive, risk-taking, innovative, relationship-building, flexible, life-long learners. We can continue to support and develop these qualities and habits (which so many of your respondents spoke of as belonging to the entrepreneur and the artist), especially because these are the kinds of women and men who can maximize the unique opportunities of outstanding conservatories, where the key strategic competitive advantage—to borrow another market term—is artistry among both faculty and students.
Sure, the artist always values the art, as Jim O’Quinn mentions in his commentary. But the real question—in entrepreneurial terms—is why does the market value the art? Contrary to popular belief, barriers to entry in the professional theatre are very low: Unions are more welcoming than ever, and even a sophisticated high school student understands crowd-sourced financing. You can get your stuff out there, and you can get it seen. When you do get it seen, it had better be good, because there are so many substitutes for going to the theatre that people aren’t likely to give mediocre work a second look. So the most influential conservatories will continue to be those that train their students most effectively in crafts and habits that maximize their artistic potential.
In addition, the current and foreseeable hegemony of market thinking means that business knowledge is, and will be, readily available via thousands of other outlets throughout our culture, at lower cost, and specifically tailored to the needs and schedule of each artist. Ironically, should more and more people spend time sharpening their entrepreneurial skills, artistry will become increasingly precious in the marketplace for which we are preparing our students. In this regard, those who shift time away from the most vital artistic curriculum, to business practices that can be learned as well or better outside the conservatory, will actually be weakening graduate theatre training.
Most disturbing is the evidence nationwide that programs emphasizing entrepreneurship are capitulating to the market forces of higher education, rather than investing in art and artists. University departments offer comforting marketing messages (many, ironically, about marketing), in order to attract greater numbers of students paying tuitions that grow much faster than the rate of inflation. These students go further and further into debt, for training of more and more questionable efficacy. If we want young artists to be savvy entrepreneurs, we should encourage them to look critically at that value proposition, as well as to ask themselves whether the school they hope to attend operates a sustainable—or ethical—business model.
Thinking for Ourselves
The American theatre has always been entrepreneurial (“The Artist as Entrepreneur”). How else could it have survived the many assassination attempts it has faced? We just called it something different: “STFU and get it done.” As artists, we have been asked to drink the corporate Kool-Aid, to become savvy managers and innovative leaders, equally capable of writing an original opera and consolidating financials in QuickBooks. That has its benefits. Artists should have control over their modes of production.
But the imposition of benchmarks, sustainability, development, risk assessments, SWOT analyses—and many other examples of MBA jargon—bleeds into the creative process. We begin to describe our work using these concepts. We begin to quantify the value of our art. We use metrics that don’t capture the essence of what we do. This is partially responsible for the streak of conservatism running through American theatre today. We shouldn’t be stupid about these things, but we need to evolve our own language and measurements.
Ralph B. Peña, artistic director
Ma-Yi Theater Company
New York City
What You Really Want
Re: Your extremely useful issue on entrepreneurship. My career has mostly been in television. I’ve found that creative people tend to be passive when it comes to guiding their own careers, in the hope that an agent or a manager or a partner or a guardian angel will look out for them and get them where they want to go. But one day, eventually, you wake up to realize that no one cares more about what happens to you than you do. The most successful creative people are often extremely effective self-promoters. I’ve produced three TV specials with Barry Manilow, and on one of them he said something to this effect: “I have learned that nobody knows better than you what you really want. And nobody is going to be sorrier than you if you don’t get it.” That’s why you need to become your own entrepreneur.
I am pleased you listed university-based programs in your special section “The Artist as Entrepreneur,” but I was dismayed that the Arts Management Master’s Program at American University was not included. I understand you wanted to concentrate on programs that are available for theatre students, and you included the standard “this is not meant to be a comprehensive list” language. That said, AU’s program has many students who come from a theatre background, and it enjoys an outstanding reputation nationwide. It is well connected to governmental agencies and Washington-based national and international arts organizations. A full members’ list of Association of Arts Administration Educators graduate-level programs can be found at www.artsadministration.org/grad. These member programs have a designated director, a published curriculum and at least three years of graduates.
Nancy Roslyn Rappaport
Who’s That Again?
American Theatre sets a good example by identifying actors in images. But the ads for teaching institutions are distressing. Almost always, images of actors are presented nameless. Emory University and University of Idaho were exceptions among dozens of ads in the Jan. ’13 issue. I’m startled that schools don’t afford student actors the basic courtesy that Equity would demand for any professional. Shouldn’t theatre schools proudly lead the way in acknowledging the contribution of the artists they’ve trained?
Kansas City, Mo.
Count the Ways
Things I love about Carey Perloff’s article (“The Perloff Years: Part 1,” Jan. ’13): It’s a personal story with real stakes. She actually includes her screw-ups in the story. She isn’t afraid of talking about other people’s motives with honesty. Great piece.
Chris Coleman, artistic director
Portland Stage Company
A Writer’s Hook
Never has an article (“torn from the pages of today’s newspapers,” as the old Hollywood flack copy used to scream) affected me as much as the piece written by the great South African playwright Athol Fugard in your Nov. ’12 issue (“Appointment with Despair: Pages from a Writer’s Notebook”). The small but electrifying newspaper blurb, about a South African woman and her three children killed by a train, was not only horrific, it painted powerful images in my mind, images that obviously resonated with Fugard as well. It takes great courage to tackle such an incident—suicide by stepping in front of a moving train—and turn it into a play. I found his “playwright’s hook,” on the life of the train engineer who has taken four lives through no fault of his own, both intriguing and a necessary exploration in the healing process of such unfortunate incidents. I look forward to attending a performance of The Train Driver when it hits the West Coast.
Jack Lyons, theatre and film critic
Desert Local News
Desert Hot Springs, Calif.
New Plays, Long Haul
I liked the article by Bob Hedley and Harriet Power (“Over There,” Dec. ’12) very much. As a playwright and writer for film and television, I have to say that I’ve always felt very much the same about getting new American plays produced—that’s why I started my own theatre company in Los Angeles, Zeitgeist, and dedicated it to producing only original work. We built our following—an audience ranging from early twenties to late eighties—based on works that had never been seen and not the names of established playwrights. The prevailing wisdom was that seniors preferred established works, but we found it just the opposite.
I always believed that audiences don’t go to theatre to deconstruct plays or to be taught a life lesson—they go to be entertained, first and foremost, and fresh, original plays that are good (even if they are flawed) satisfy that need. Many companies feel that doing original plays is too much a risk; but I contend that putting up new plays and sticking to that practice will develop a supportive audience base. Early on that involves more risk, but in the long run it proves rewarding.
Kudos for putting the message out there. One hopes this article will move theatre people on this side of the pond to take more risks in producing new plays.
John Benjamin Martin