The yin of living in America in 1992 is that we are assaulted daily in the papers and on television with news of the appalling state of the economy and the continuing attrition of our social infrastructure. The yang is our reaction of numbness and seeming incapacity to effect change.
In past times of social tension and crisis the theatre flourished. It served as both forum and sanctuary, as communities searched for places to provide companionship and interaction. Today’s society, with its fast pace and electronic marvels, seems to have reversed the trend: We have become more introspective as we huddle in isolation to hear the news. The airwaves increasingly form the marketplace of ideas—not the communal act of attending the theatre with others, or even reading the newspaper.
The recession is upon us. Next month we’ll be reporting on the finances and productivity of American nonprofit theatre in our “Theatre Facts 91” survey. It’s not going to be a “fun read.” The survey clearly reveals the ways in which the economy has exacerbated the already perilous conditions under which theatre artists ply their trade. Economic stress had forced producing companies to cut costs. And in this labor-intensive field, one of the few ways to cut costs is to cut “labor”—i.e., jobs and performance runs. When we read of prestigious universities eliminating whole departments and see new evidence of restrictions in arts activities, be they curtailed museum hours or fewer plays with smaller casts, we may well wonder what will happen to our country’s “soul.”
In these times of crisis, where the arts feel exposed and vulnerable, the atmosphere is further clouded by the absence of leadership—the sense that there is a champion or ombudsman, either from the political system or the private sector—who will give outside credibility to the importance of the arts in America.
In the present circumstances, the task for the theatre must be to energize the young—to put negativism behind us, ignore the lack of a hospitable environment, set our own agenda, and move forward in spite of it all.
It seems clear that the economic recession and politically conservative environment will both be with us for quite some time. Assuming this, how do we protect and support our artists, and where do we get the resources? Perhaps we need to consider actually restructuring the way theatre is produced in the nonprofit arena. Since the 1950s we have very effectively decentralized the theatre. What we have not done is decentralized the artist. In an art form that reiterates its communal nature, we continue to operate with “jobbed-in” artists. We play lip service to the concept of ensemble, but it’s in evidence at precious few institutions on any continuing basis. What would the Chicago Symphony sound like with drop-in first-chair players, or how would Paul Taylor’s company dance with pick-up dancers?
It’s no wonder artists complain of not feeling respected at theatres when their residencies are so brief. Meaningful discussions about production concepts or issues can only occur when rapport and familiarity have been well established. One-night stands have serious limitations—both personally and professionally. Important and essential discussions about repertoire or artistic direction involve time and continuity. Forcing artists into time slots compatible with airline schedules has very distinct limitations.
We probably will not regain the repertory companies we had in the 1960s, but in spite of the hostile economic climate, we must find alternate solutions that will embrace artists in ways similar to the automatic inclusion that existed in the repertory structure. That structure proved too expensive for many communities to afford and was rejected by many artists wanting more flexibility for their job opportunities. Surely a middle road can be found. Perhaps it’s worth exploring how visiting professors interact in the life of a university, or examining the relationship that exists when a physician divides his time between a staff position at a hospital and a private practice.
The New York Philharmonic Orchestra just concluded a lengthy contract negotiation with its musicians. It was reported that for the first time, a committee of musicians was formed to consult with the management on both repertoire and guest artists. Several theatres have done the same thing with small groups of affiliate or associate artists. It’s the kind of action that fuses an organization together. Absent artists cannot have a true stake in the institution. If it takes two to tango, it takes considerably more to effect a true theatre collaboration.
Thirty years ago we talked about starting structures that would serve (and be served by) artists. Thirty years later, we have the structures—but too often without the wholehearted collaboration of the artist. We need to find a new way to make us whole.
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