Sunday, December 18, 2011

Remembrances of Václav Havel


Sometimes, you are lucky.
William Niederkorn and Václav Havel

Sometimes, the man you meet is equal to the man you imagined.

I don’t remember the first time I heard Havel’s name.  Perhaps during a news broadcast.  Perhaps when I read Martin Esslin’s Theater of the Absurd.  I do know that I had read and fallen in love with his work by college, and I was overwhelmed by the idea that an absurdist playwright led a revolution and became the president of a nation.

His play, Audience was the first I directed in New York, the first New York production of my theater company.  For twelve years after that, I admired him from afar.

Then I came up with idea, called the Havel Festival.  My idea was, we would do every play he had ever written.  People now knew Havel the politician so well, I wanted to remind them about Havel the playwright.

I approached his agents.  We scheduled it for his 70th birthday.  By lucky chance, Gregory Mosher was planning a residency for Havel at Columbia at the same point, which meant he would be in town for the full length of the festival.

Havel with the cast and crew of The Memo


He came.

I met him for the first time at a reception being held by Columbia for his arrival.  I remember chatting with Oliver Sacks, another hero of mine, as I stood about four feet away from him, waiting to shake his hand.  Havel turned and graciously shook my hand.  I tried in the noise to introduce myself, and he nodded pleasantly, but seemed too tired to pick up exactly who I was.

Halka Kaiserova, the Czech consul general, explained it to him.  Suddenly, he beamed.  You don’t know what it means to an author, when you do all of his work, he told me.  Thank you.

I saw him at various functions over the next few weeks, and he would always greet me with a beaming smile.  He assured me he would be coming to see the production of the Memo I directed.  Some others, too, he said at the time, though I wasn’t sure what he meant.

Robert Lyons, me, and Havel at The Ohio
When he arrived at the Ohio Theater, he was surrounded by flashing cameras and attending by an entourage of secret service and dignitaries.  The flashing cameras didn’t affect him.  He was used to it.  He assured me his secret service members knew how to behave in a theater and would not disturb the production.

I remember when I watched him laugh.  It was early on, a small visual joke I had put into the script.  I sat anxiously in the back row and watched him with great relief.  And he kept on laughing, all show long.

He came back again, soon after, to see his plays Audience (which I had remounted) and Protest (directed by Robert Lyons, who runs the Ohio).  He was loved them both and was particularly taken with the actor Richard Toth, who appeared in Protest.

Havel and his wife Dasha with cast/crew of Temptation
He came back again.  And again.  And again.  Till he felt like a fixture in The Ohio and The Brick, where many of his other plays were being produced.

Throughout, he exuded a genuine warmth and a genuine enthusiasm about the work.  We had some celebrities who participated in the festival, but he was not impressed by celebrity.  He was as gracious and giving to every actor as he was to Kathleen Turner or Dustin Hoffman.  He did not care whether he was in a small theater or a large one.  He cared that we cared about the writing.  And we did, deeply.
Henry Akona, me, and Havel

On the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution he came again, and listened as Trey Kay’s band, Uncle Moon, did a tribute to the Velvet Underground.  He brought Madeleine Albright with him and they sat in the tiny Brick Theater and drank and celebrated with us.  At one point he same to the microphone and made a speech in Czech.  Halka Kaiserova translated:
Havel with Trey Kay of Uncle Moon
“There is no place I would rather spend the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution.” It was in a small theater like The Brick where the revolution started, after all.



Havel and me at Joe's Pub
We were able to spend the last evening of the Festival at Joe’s Pub together, as Uncle  Moon played again, and Havel regaled me with tales about Lou Reed and his early experiences in theater.  As we sat together it suddenly occurred to me anew that this was a man who I had idolized from afar, whose ideas and writing had changed a whole country.  But now, he felt like an old friend.

We saw each other occasionally after that.  In London, in Philadelphia, in Prague, and most recently in Brno, when he flew me out the see a production of his newest work (or his reconfigured old work) The Pig.  Somehow, every time I saw him, I suddenly had this fear that this time, I would be disappointed.  This time he wouldn’t live up to the ridiculously high expectations that I had for him.

Havel in Brno (in sunglasses) watching a production of Audience
But when he saw me and welcomed me with a beaming smile, those fears melted away.  For Václav Havel was more than a great leader and a great writer and a great thinker.  He was a true and kind person, who lived the philosophies he preached.  He was the man who would beam at me every time he saw me.  He was a friend.

I will miss him very much.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Playing Dreidel with Judah Maccabee, a Hannukah play: the intro essay


My new book, Playing Dreidel with Judah Maccabee (a Hannukah play), is out and available!  For those who want a sneak preview, here is the intro essay to the book:

            Who was Judah Maccabee?
            What was his world like during the time he led a war to take the temple back?
            How did that war become a holiday celebrated by lighting candles, playing dreidel, singing songs, eating latkas, and giving presents?
            When I decided to write a play about Hannukah, I started thinking about the fact that I never really knew the answers to any of those questions as a child.  I knew that Judah Maccabee was a hero, and that his name was mentioned in a few songs.  And I knew he had something to do with getting the temple back.  But beyond that, I didn’t know or really wonder much else.
            So who was he?
            Judah Maccabee lived in a time when most Jews believed that Judaism could not be practiced outside the ancient temple. Yet the temple had been taken away, so those Jews found themselves unable to observe Jewish rituals in the way they felt those rituals should be observed.
            This was before there were rabbis, or the Talmud.  The seeds of the rabbinic movement perhaps started in those days without the temple, but it would take 200 years for that change to truly happen.  In Judah Maccabee’s time, 165 BCE, there were only priests, and priests needed the temple.
            As far as Judah Maccabee was concerned, the survival of the Jewish religion was at stake.  In essence, Judah Maccabee was a soldier, a man driven to lead a rebellion against his Hellenistic rulers because he believed that otherwise, his religion would be destroyed.
            What is remarkable is that, against all odds, he won.  He regained the temple.
            Then, 200 years later, the temple was destroyed.
            So why the celebration?
            According to the Book of Maccabees, an eight-day celebration was held after the altar was rededicated.  This may have been a belated celebration of Sukkot.  There is no mention of lighting candles, or even the miracle of the oil lasting.  But in some ways, perhaps, the Maccabean celebration of their victory could be considered the first celebration of Hannukah.
            It wasn’t until 250 years later, after the destruction of the Temple, that we can find a passing mention of the holiday (just known then as “The Festival of Lights.”) And it was 600 years before instructions about how to celebrate Hanukkah appear in the Gemara (part of the Talmud).
            So perhaps Hanukkah is a reminder of what the Temple once meant to Judaism, rather than a simple celebration of a victory. After all, the menorah deliberately resembles the Eternal Light, a seven-pronged golden candlestick that once stood in the sanctuary. And the story of the oil lasting is certainly another reminder of days when the Temple was the center of Judaism.
            But the dreidels, the latkes, the songs, the presents: they all belong to a different, more modern tradition. A tradition that would be almost incomprehensible to Judah Maccabee if he saw it.
            Would it even feel like the same religion, I wondered?
            That was the question that inspired me to write this play. The answer I came up with involves a common theme, a theme that I feel connects Judah Maccabee’s battles with more modern Jewish struggles.
            In the end, there is no way to truly know who Judah Maccabee was, or what he would think of our world and Judaism today. When grasping at the tiny bits of information that still exist about a man who lived over two thousand years ago, all one can truly do is imagine. I based my tale on facts, but I also based it my own imaginings. Judah Maccabee the character may or may not be anything like the real Judah Maccabee who lived over two thousand years ago. But this is how I imagine him.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Director's note for Pangs of the Messiah


Theater is about building up and tearing down.  It is the most ephemeral of art forms, not just because it only exists live and in the moment, but because it must be literally destroyed after every production.  I have spent weeks upon weeks of 18 plus hour days building a set, only to have to tear it into nothingness when a production is over.

I hate the destruction.  I hate creating something that’s beautiful, that’s mine (or more correctly ours, as theater is also about that collaboration), and then having to demolish it at the end.  I know it will happen, from the time I begin creation.  But when that moment of destruction comes, it hurts.

How much more would that destruction hurt if it were the home I built, that I had lived in for 40 years?  Or my family had lived in for 200 years?  Or 2000?

The West Bank settlers are people who, for the most part, are living out their utopian philosophies.  They arrived believing that they are fulfilling a mission both political and religious, that they are bringing the Messiah and redemption by their very presence.

Some, probably most, still have that utopian hope.  But regardless of what might have brought them to the West Bank initially, houses that have been built cannot easily be destroyed.  It has happened—even recently, during the disengagement from Gaza in 2005.  But it wasn’t easy then, and should the West Bank settlements be abandoned, it will almost certainly be harder.

It seems fitting that one of the sticking points in the struggle for peace is about a much more ancient land dispute.  For if the Messiah is to come, it is believed, a new Temple will have to built, and it will be built on the Temple Mount.  Right now, another building stands there: the Dome of the Rock, built originally in the 7th Century on the advice of a former rabbi who had converted to Islam.  This too was both a political and religious act, and the relationship to the ancient Temple was no coincidence.

But whatever the circumstances under which the mosque was built, it is now a fact.  It is an incredible building, representing the work and beliefs of people going back nearly 1,400 years.  It is another utopia, one in which only those of the Muslim faith are allowed.

The Messiah waits for the rebuilding of the Temple because the wound from that destruction from 2000 years ago still hasn’t completely healed.   Here in New York, we are only 10 years away from the destruction of the Twin Towers.  That was enough to start a war or two, for us.

When this show is over, some pieces of it will disappear into storage.  And some will be destroyed forever.  It is expected.  My own utopian vision allows for it; I believe in the power of theater, and I know that part of that power lies in its ephemeral nature. 

But if I believed that the destruction of my set would also mean the destruction of my utopia, the destruction of my ability to work in the theater, I don’t think I could bring myself to allow it.  No matter what the general good.  No matter how strong the arguments for it.  I would not allow it.

Even if someone else’s utopia was destroyed instead.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

My day in the West Bank settlements


An account of my day in one of the West Bank settlements with Motti Lerner, the playwright of Pangs of the Messiah.  I decided to be deliberately vague about which settlement and the rep there whom we met—since I didn’t tell them I would be blogging, I think it would be unfair print a public account that mentions them by name.

It was an early morning for me and Motti, 6am so we could get to the settlement in time for our 10am meeting.  We drove to Jerusalem and took the bus from there; Motti had had a bad experience once getting lost driving in the West Bank and he thought a bus was safer.

The bus drive went through empty, dry dessert.  Motti said that it could be as green as the roads around Jerusalem if trees were planted, but aside from the occasional olive grove, there was no greenery.  There was also little sign of civilization after we passed the dividing wall.  The road deliberately avoided the Palestinian towns, to avoid creating  further tensions.  Still, the bus was heavy with protective armor and bullet proof glass.

Motti explained that we were on a “Jewish” road, and that Palestinians had there own roads.  Although I understood the reason for the separation, I must admit I found the designation of a road just for Jews disturbing—both for Arabs and in light of my own associations with Jewish history (This is a bit of another subject, but I have really come to realize how Israeli Arabs and Jews live in totally different worlds—different schools, different laws…this is a choice on the part of the Arabs as well)

After driving on the winding road for a while, we finally came to the settlement.  We were early, so we stopped at the gas station and Motti grabbed a coffee.  Four soldiers with machine guns were also on line for a snack.

We headed inside and got stopped at the gate by a guard who was suspicious of my camera. Motti explained...something to the guard, who seemed to eventually accept it.  Then we went in.

The first thing we encountered was basically a trailer park for settlers, making a small neighborhood.  These, I was later told, were settlers waiting to be allowed to build homes.  The government had halted construction, and indeed the Supreme Court had ruled that some recently constructed homes needed to be dismantled.

Then we hit an area of pretty little houses on paved roads.  They all looked exactly alike-- red shingles, white walls, white tile floors.  The song Little Boxes came to mind, and indeed it turned out that the first fifty houses has been ordered en mass, as pre fab housing.  They wanted something quick and utilitarian which also conveyed the idea that here, no one is richer or poorer than anyone else, we are all equal and in this together.

We went to the Community Office and said hello to the secretary there.  She showed us a map of the settlement and we saw that the file on Motti had been pulled; they had reviewed it before he came. The secretary said the whole settlement was in mourning—a  young man from there had been among those recently killed.  The funeral was set for Thursday.

We also saw an exhibit on the Indian immigrants who recently joined the settlement and were in the process of being formally converted.  This particular settlement, we were told, is full of immigrants.  Part of their mission is to bring Jews in from around the world.  These Indian Jews said they had ancient Jewish origins.  The government accepted that and gave them citizenship, but at the settlement they were converting them just to be sure.

We left the offices after that and went to visit J—, a settler activist and former head of the regional council.  The rabbi who had been our original contact had cancelled, using the upcoming funeral as his excuse. Motti suspected the rabbi had simply had second thoughts.

J— was very welcoming and eager to talk.  He reminded me, in an odd way, of the Mormons I recently encountered during my brief stopover in Salt Lake City.  He, too, seemed eager to spread the Word.  The word for him was that all Jews must work together in order for the Messiah to come.

J—’ s home was full of simple, pre fab furniture to go along with the pre fab house.  Utilitarian and modest, except for the many books, mostly religious, that filled the shelves.

J— eagerly grabbed a book and an article about a document that was found, dating back to 500 BCE.  That document seemed to him to predict the Messiah in our age, though God needed all Jews, not just some, to do righteous deeds, and then and only then would the Messiah arrive.

This is why, he explained, it was so important to him to reach out to all aspects of Israeli society.  Some settlers had become isolationists he said, they refused to even pray for Israel, because they were so angry about the disengagement from Gaza.  But he sees things differently—in fact, he has become deeply involved with the general housing crisis.  He thinks the same technique used to build in the settlements could be used to create cheap housing—it is 300,000 to buy a home (was he referring to dollars or sheckels?  I wasn’t sure—take the number and divide by three if it’s sheckels), but it costs only 100,000 to build a new home, he calculated.

What he was suggesting sounded to me sort of like the projects, Israeli style.

Motti asked him what he would do if he had to abandon his settlement, because of a peace accord.  I would leave, said J—, the unity of the Jewish people is more important to me than the settlement, the most important is that all Israel feels like one.  And what, Motti asked, if part of the agreement would be allowing 40,000 Arabs the right of return (this number comes from the agreement Ehud Barak was ready to sign at the summit with Clinton, though ultimately Arafat refused).  40,000 would be too many, J— said at first.  But then he relented.  The unity was all, he said.

But then, he continued confidently, it won’t happen.  The Arabs will never agree.  He hoped instead that Jordan’s King would be overthrown and that the people, who are 70% Palestinian, would make Jordan into a Palestinian state.  Then, why would any Arab want to go to Israel?

There was another solution to the whole problem, of course.  If the Messiah came, it would all be moot, anyway.  But Jews had to be unified and righteous.

J— got a call, one of the unending series of phone calls he was fielding as he spoke to us.  He had to leave, but wanted to drive us back to Jerusalem.

We accepted.  He took the Jewish road, of course, but took a quick detour to a winery in the midst of the West Bank.  I made this, he told us proudly.  My last act as Head of the Regional Council.

It was a beautiful winery, stuck in the middle of the dessert.  He took us down to see the barrels.  Even Motti lit up, with all his doubts (he will not buy any products made in the West Bank, on principal),  Motti’s family has a history of working in wineries, and being in one was exciting for him.

Then, J—’s assistant switched on a film for us to watch.

It was the sort of propaganda film that verged on parody.  Stirring music played, the ancient history of Samaria and Judea was recounted (these being the regions of the West Bank), then the modern history of pioneers who have reclaimed and tamed the land into producing wine grapes was extolled.  Jews toiled—hard work, but so fulfilling.  The future never looked brighter for this land.

The film ended.  That was a bit ridiculous, said Motti.  Yes, said J—.  But he was beaming.

Where were the Palestinians?  Motti asked.  You had a whole film about the history of the region, and you didn’t mention the Palestinians once.

I guess we should have, said J—.  Maybe you’re right.  It didn’t occur to us.

Later, Motti commented, who would believe this film, anyway?  Not even those who support them.

They believe it, I said.  Couldn’t you see how much J— and his assistant loved it, how proud they were?  This film is not to convince others.  It is to convince themselves.

Motti agreed.

After the film, J— asked if we wanted to have a wine tasting.  Motti said he was too sleepy and would have to drive later.  So instead, J— drove us into Jerusalem and offered us a warm goodbye.

Such a nice man, said Motti.  Really nice.  But this is the paradox.  All his life, he has been doing nothing but building settlements  Such energy and leadership.  But he has done more to destroy Israel than anyone I know.


Saturday, August 20, 2011

Impressions from a day in Israel

I am staying at the house of Motti Lerner, a playwright and the author of Pangs of the Messiah, which I am directing in October/November.  Staying here is very different than being a tourist.  I haven’t seen any sites, I haven’t done anything I would usually do while traveling.  I have been working on the play.  I have been meeting Israelis.  And my experience so far has made me feel like I have a different understanding of what it is to be a country involved so deeply in war.

Of course, I am investigating political issues and working on a very political play.  Which heightens my awareness of that aspect of the Israeli experience.  When I was last in Israel, that was far from my mind.  I was 13, celebrating my bar mitzvah, and excited to be out of the country for the first time in my life.  I felt like I was on the set of a movie, I could hardly believe that Jerusalem was an actual place.

It was also a different time, perhaps.  So I have been told, and true, the issues facing Israel were different at the time.  Though looking at the overall history of Israel, I wonder how different.

Motti is a peace activist, but to understand what that means here requires also to understand context.

My room (in Motti’s house) is a safety room.  It is legally required here that every house has one.  So in essence, I am living in a bomb shelter.

Yesterday, while in London, I heard the news about the terrorism attack in Eilat (in southen Israel).  It registered, but very abstractly.  After all, terrorism is an occasional fact nowadays, even outside of Israel.  I also heard about the bombing reprisals in Gaza, and the Egyptians killed.  Still, that didn’t seem like a major escalation.  When I look at cnn or msnbc online, I get that same impression.  An event, but not a major event.

Yet the response at Motti’s dinner table was to the news was: well, the war is starting at last.  I had the feeling that sentence had been said before.  But it didn’t mean that in some ways, it wasn’t believed, each time.  For one of these days, it’s sure to be true.  Perhaps this time.

Motti’s son and daughter are soon entering the army, as required.  Motti’s other son is just finishing his service.  And even though Motti considers himself a peace activist, he too served in the army.  He chose the artillery, as he would have been required to spend more years in the non-combat divisions.

As it happens, the end of service was set for a week before the Yom Kippur War.  He was recalled, and because of his experience, given a position of authority.  For many days, he thought they had lost, that there would be no state of Israel anymore.  He was in charge of setting up headquarters in the Sinai for phase two of the war, should Israel survive that long.

The war ended before the headquarters in the Sinai was necessary.  Israel survived.

Today, work with Motti consisted partly of revising the script, partly in taking a crash course in the history of the settlements.  We talked the messianic ideals that led Hanan Porat to become a settler.  We talked about how the local government there worked, interior politics, and I got to marvel (and envy a little) that even vets are socialized in Israel.

Then we had dinner with former settlers, a married couple and friends of Motti.  The wife had been the Secretary of the Community Council, basically the mayor of the settlement town.  The husband came from a very far right family; his parents had a poster of  Yigal Amir on their war—the man who murdered Yitzchak Rabin. The settlement leaders eventually forced them to take the poster down, it was too much even for them.  His brother had been a member of the Jewish Underground, the group who, under the leadership of Yehuda Etzion, had planned to bomb the Dome of the Rock.

He himself had left the settlement years ago.  He was a writer with radical, or at least secular, ideas.  He wrote an article once, blaming God for the Holocaust.  To Yehuda Etzion, that was too much.  He wrote a letter in code, using a quotation that referenced a passage in the Torah, in which a heretical man was killed. Motti’s friend’s parents contacted Yehuda Etzion, and asked him to remove the hit, for essentially that’s what the letter was.  Etzion agreed to withdraw it.

The couple left the settlement soon after.  The husband said, it was uncomfortable for people to overlook their secularism.  He wasn’t exactly left wing, still.  He considered himself independent, but found it hard to connect to the settlers anymore.

His ambivalent feelings were clear.  When the settlements were dismantled in Gaza, he went for a vacation in Vienna, because he couldn’t bear to watch.  Then he went to Switzerland, which was experiencing some student protests.  He was warned it might be dangerous to travel, which made him want to laugh.  When I asked him if he would trade the settlement he lived in for peace, he said yes, of course.  If the peace were the same sort of peace as between the United States and Canada.  If the Arabs could be trusted, which they probably could not.

He talked about joining the settlement.  I wanted my life to mean something, he said.  I wanted to change the war, so that Israel was no longer being attacked, so that all the animosity would be directed against the settlements.  And we did that, he said, a bit proudly.

Tonight, when I arrived back at Motti’s we heard that 60 rockets had been sent from  Gaza.  Someone had been killed.  Motti shook his head.  It will just escalate from here, he said.  Netanyahu has to negotiate.  But no one trusts anyone.

Tonight, back in the safety room for some sleep.  Tomorrow Tel Aviv.  Between meetings, I'm hoping to be able to drop by the beach...

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Translator's Note for The Pig, or Václav Havel's Hunt for a Pig



            This is not a play, exactly.  Nor is it an operetta, exactly.  It is a collage.  An adaptation of an adaptation.  A multimedia and multidisciplinary work culled from two different cultures and three centuries.
            Originally a short dialogue from 1987 and printed in a samizdat or underground magazine (often photocopies of photocopies), the piece is a shaggy-dog tale at heart; a comic (and true) story of Havel’s attempt to hold a pig roast for his friends.
            In 2010, Czech director Vladimír Morávek, of Theater Goose on the String, rediscovered the dialogue and decided to stage it.  He began by giving lines to characters only mentioned in passing, but then made a more radical choice: he added sections from of one of the most beloved Czech works, The Bartered Bride.  This new version was the centerpiece of a theater festival in Brno last June.
            I was invited to attend the festival yet knew nothing about the piece before I arrived. Like many of Havel’s plays, I see it as a veiled critique of the Communist system; however The Bartered Bride adds another layer to the story.  The operetta was written at a time (the 1860’s) when the act of speaking Czech was in itself a nationalistic gesture. Spoken Czech had died out and Smetana, among others, wanted to restore it as a living language (and gain independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire).  In the context of The Pig, the celebratory music foreshadows the Velvet Revolution, the overthrow of Communism, and Havel’s election to the presidency.
            Indeed, near the end of the piece, Morávek slips the words “truth and love” into the lyrics; a reference to Havel’s most famous quote, “Truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred.”
            Upon seeing the production, I asked whether I could translate The Pig for a production here in New York.
            I cannot speak Czech.
            I have taken classes and done my best to learn it, but Czech, especially spoken Czech, eludes me.  The sounds are very difficult for my ear, and I’m sure when I speak it my accent is terrible.
            And so the title of translator seems a little suspicious to me.
             But what I did was this:  I worked with a native speaker, Katerina Lu, until I was relatively certain I understood every nuance of the original.  I then took my notes and attempted to find ways to not only convey not only the meaning of the lines but also Havel’s rhythms and wry humor.
            And then I started writing my own dialogue, particularly for the Journalist.
            The Journalist was written in “English” in the original, though I often found myself correcting the often technically correct lines for ones that would seem natural to an American.  And as I wrote, I realized how much information Americans would lack that is simply common knowledge for most Czechs—from the plot of The Bartered Bride to the events of the Velvet Revolution.
            So I began adding lines that helped set up the play for American audiences.  And then, as I started working with the director, Henry Akona, I started adding some silent characters, partly so we could utilize the video capacities of 3LD, partly for the flavor that those silent characters give to most of Havel’s plays.
            And then I played with the placement of choruses, added a few more lines, and…
            In the end, this is a work that takes what was presented in Brno and enhances it with our own creative imaginings, as Havel’s original was enhanced by Morávek.  To me, it has now become something of a cross-cultural dialogue.  What better way to express a work whose two main characters are an American and a Czech?
            But primarily, it is Havel himself who was the main inspiration behind my efforts. The Pig is the only Havel work in which he appears on stage as one of the characters.  My challenge was to convey Havel’s voice, which is witty, wise, sometimes a little testy, but always compassionate and humane.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

A moment from my Czech travels

Last year, I was invited to Brno to see a festival of theater there that included The Pig, or Václav Havel's Hunt for a Pig (the show UTC61 is presenting at the end of this month).  I found my old travelogue, which I had presented on Facebook but never put up here, for some reason.  Here is the entry from June 12, the day I saw The Pig (interesting how my impressions of the show are so different now then they were then):

Andre Krob's daughter plays, a busker watches

Yesterday afternoon was all about seeing shows and finally meeting up with everyone. It started with the three Vaněk plays, being held in a small courtyard at the Castle. They were directed by Andre Krob, whom I had met briefly a few years ago. He had been Havel's stage manager back in the days when his shows were first being produced (before they were banned), and after the Velvet Revolution he became a director and staged a number of Havel's plays. There were three little stages set up, and a table with snacks (and lots of beer), so the performances moved from one stage to the next, with Andre's daughter playing in between shows.

Paul Wilson, one of Havel's translators, was there, as were a number of the people organizing the festival, who I had the opportunity to meet at last. One, Petr Oslzlý, who runs Theatre Goose on a String, pointed out my name in an interview with Havel in the program--he had said he was inspired to do the fest because of me.

Paul Wilson
This morning I sat down and struggled my way through a translation of that interview, with the help of  Google Translate at a few key points, and realized that is was Havel talking about the experience of the Havel Festival, from his perspective. Fascinating what his impressions were and what he thinks to note in particular.

It was sort of a smallish crowd at the Vaněk plays, but the in crowd really--I think most people had ignored these plays, which everyone has seen before, choosing instead to attend the more hyped events. But that made the whole thing much more intimate.

This was particularly nice when Havel decided to show up. It is unusual to be able to talk to him without a swarm of people surrounding, and there were some of the usual distractions--a news team came and interviewed him, he was constantly being filmed by a documentary crew, and of course there were the Czechs thrilled to see him in person, many of whom asked for autographs. But despite all that, everything seemed much more relaxed.

Adre Krob does not really speak English, so most of the conversation was in Czech, which was hard for me. Havel scolded me a little for not having learned more, or at least I felt like he was scolding me when he commented that surely I had picked up some more Czech in the last few years (it may have been just an observation, but since I was getting lost in the conversation, I took it as a scold). I have learned some, but I wish I had picked up more...  Reading Czech is still much easier for me than understanding spoken Czech.
A scene from Unveiling

In any event, the first show started (Unveiling) The sun was almost unbearably hot--they found an awning for Havel and the director but I decided to sit in the shade on the grass instead and take a few photos. I know the Vanek plays well enough that I could sort of follow in Czech, using my limited language skills as markers. I was a little disappointed with the production, but enjoyed the atmosphere.

The, after a break and more beer/chatting, then we all moved seats to watch Audience. I began by sitting with Havel in back but then someone from the fest rushed to get him out of the sun again and placed him next to a woman who was thrilled to have her former president find room on her bench. I once again moved to a side perspective and took a few photos.

A scene from Audience (Havel to the left, in blue)
Audience was really interesting, a very good performance. I really feel like seeing the play in Czech completely changed my perspective on the work. First of all, the little set and costume elements were greatly helpful, I had never been sure how to interpret the stage directions, because it was hard to know what a brewery in Communist Czechoslovakia looked like. But also it was interesting hearing when everyone laughed--and they laughed throughout. The two biggest laughs were at untranslatable moments--a Holub/Kohout pun (too complicated to explain) and one time when the Brewmaster mocked Vanek's formal mode of speech. Of course, he speaks exactly the way Havel does, so having Havel there may have added to the laughter.

Then a break again--I was going to miss the third performance and change before the night's events, but with everyone there I realized I couldn't walk out. So I stayed for Protest, which was fine, but much more of a talky enterprise so much harder to watch in pure Czech.

Still, a wonderful afternoon. I should have probably just stayed in what I was wearing for the evening and watched the puppet performance of Mistake as we waited for the main event at 7pm, but instead I ran back to the hotel (which meant, in practical terms, a 15 minute descent, as my hotel is just at the bottom of the hill on which the castle sits), a quick change, then a 15 minute ascent.

When I returned everything was much more crazy--the main courtyard of the cast was completely filled, and the ticket taker was incredulous that I wanted to see the show when I obviously didn't know enough Czech. A festival worker helped and found me my tickets--or rather, found me new tickets, because unbeknownst to me I had tickets waiting for me back in the hotel.  The unfortunate ramification of that mistake was that instead of sitting next to Havel I was sitting on the other side of the audience.

A scene from The Pig
The performance used a choir of 100 singers, but the main part of it involved an interview between "Vaclav Havel" and an "American" A very strange show, sort of fun to watch. It was based a Socratic dialogue Havel had written during the Communist years. The "American" occasionally spoke English, which was helpful for me (though I felt like I wanted to help them with English grammar) He was a smarmy MC type who obviously was being portrayed as being a bit clueless regarding whatever they were talking about onstage.

The Havel character looked nothing like Havel, but his speech patterns were exactly right, a very funny imitation.

As for everything else--I have no idea. It seemed political, and it was a huge spectacle, with bright costumes and lots of singing. Havel was constantly matched with one woman or other (a commentary on him?), there was a pig, the pig was slaughtered, then at the end Havel was sort of dressed as a pig...who knows. I am hoping Paul Wilson can explain more when I see him next.

The opera was Smetana's The Bartered Bride.

NOTE/UPDATE: Paul just explained that the original text was an anecdote in which Havel searched for a pig to roast for a celebration at his summer house, and ran into an ever mounting series of complications. He imagined explained these events to a (confused) American journalist. Everything else was the director's invention.

In the audience, I secretly fulfilled the role of the confused American.

The deluge
After the show, Havel spoke, and then the deluge--a sudden, huge thunderstorm that sent everyone into another corner of the castle grounds. Confusion reigned, and here my lack of spoken Czech really got in the way--I had no idea where to go and what I was supposed to do. Nobody near knew me or spoke English--and my English was met by much amusement (perhaps because of the clownish American in the show?) And my Czech was either too bad to be understood or the confusion made it difficult to communicate in the halting way I have.

I finally just followed a rush of people through the pouring rain, and we ended up wandering through the catacombs of the castle where the former prison used to be. But we had gone the wrong way, and though I was sort of enjoying the adventure in one sense, I have to say stuck in endless narrow corridors with a crowd I couldn't communicate with was activating my claustrophobia.

Party in the dungeon!
Finally, we ended up at a party, also in the dungeons. This was the "Bash" I had been invited to, but because of circumstances I think everyone who had lasted through the rain and could find their way had been invited by default as well. there was plenty of food and drink for all, but little lighting or space. I still had a hard time finding anyone, so it was a bit surreal.

Havel finally arrived and then a concert that had been rained out was moved inside as well. This was a bit crazy. The singer stood at one end of a the very long, very then main passageway, some people crowded in to see her, but it was much too packed and much too crowded for many people to get near.

I decided to give up for the night and go home--my jet lag made me exhausted, and I just couldn't last through the party/performance in that crowded space.

The rain had just let up, but there were no lights (the storm had knocked out all the power), so I made my way back to the hotel by walking through dark, slippery paths down from the castle...a bit unnerving. This morning there are downed trees everywhere, sort of glad I didn't get knocked in the head. But home safe and ready for more adventures this morning.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Economics of Theater, Part VI: The Gamble, a Dream

 I am the proprietor of a restaurant, called The Gamble.  I explain the name comes from 18th century British establishments called gambols.  These “gambols” were filled with liquor, dancing girls, and games of chance.  It is from these old “gambols” that in fact we get the word gamble, I claim.

This is untrue.  But in the dream, I believe it.  That history, along with black and white woodcuts of the old gambols, is printed in the menus.

The place is beautiful, with antique wood tables and vintage taps and vintage gambling tables in the back.  Dealers are ready to play, not for money (because of the gambling laws), but for chips that can lead to free food and drink.  In the next room, women dance the can can.  At alternative times, it features modern burlesque.

I sit with my friends, and around us are emptied bottles of fine wine.

It is a wonderful place, on the top of a tall skyscraper.  I have put all my money into this Gamble, and it is my dream, exactly as I envisioned it.

The reviews have come out, and they have been good.  But somehow, that hasn’t translated into customers.  The place is mostly empty, except for my friends.

Soon, I will be bankrupt.

I realize as I am sitting there, that looking at the money the restaurant is bringing in, there is no way that we can survive. There is no way that I can survive, or avoid personal bankruptcy, short of a miracle, short of something, anything, that changes my fortunes at the last second.

I can’t fold up shop either.  I have put every cent into it, spent my whole life building it.  If I closed, it would amount to financial ruin, regardless, with less hope of last minute salvation.

So, I think…maybe I should just enjoy it.

Maybe I should just look around and think, how amazing it is to be here, now, at this very moment, at a place I love, with people I love.

I wake up.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Economics of Theater, Part V: Actor, Director, or Playwright

Actor, Director, or Playwright: Which is the worst financial idea?

In a recent New York Times article, Charles Isherwood scooped me (did I ever expect to say that) by writing about the economic difficulties of being a stage actor.  He wrote that stage actors need to supplement their incomes from other sources—namely, shows like Law and Order or other small television and commercial acting gigs.  Because the money made from acting on the stage is so small.

He was being too sunny in his outlook.

What his article overlooked is the great majority of stage actors, who are not working on a salary and who are not receiving significant outside acting income.  They are supplementing their acting habit with their day jobs or by running through their savings.

Using my copy of Theater World, season 2004-2005 (which I have only because it is the year I had my Off-Broadway show, Fairy Tales of the Absurd, but I think it can be at least somewhat representative), I found these statistics:  32 new Broadway productions.  78 new Off-Broadway productions.  Based on those stats, I am going to say that there are about 600 – 1000 working stage actors in the city in a given season.

For Rudolf II, the last show for which I had an open casting call (for two parts, one a young man, one a young woman), I received 600 resumes.

It is conceivable that I could have cast every paying role in the city with those actors alone.  OK, every show would have had nothing but young actors.  And OK, many of them would not be very good.

But some were very good.  I had only time to see 50 – 100 of those actors.  I’m sure there were talented actors I never saw.

If even I eliminated 80% of those applying from even attending my Equity Showcase auditions, what chance does a stage actor have to get paying work?

Of course, the Isherwood’s article does present an upside to being an actor.  There is some supplemental work available.  Even I have done some acting work, and acting is not my main focus.  Most recently, I pretended to have OCD for the sake of some rabbis in training at Yeshiva University.  And yesterday I went for a callback on a non-union commercial gig.

In other words, one can pick up a few bucks here and there.


And I do know some actors who pick up more than a few bucks, who actually make a living at their work.  Maybe from voiceovers, maybe from commercials, maybe from regional theater, but they have managed to make it, in some cases, a well paying career.  Maybe not from the stage work, but from supplemental acting work.


Even if that isn't achieved, one can, conceivably, work at a job full time and also have time to act.  It’s hard, but it’s doable.  I have jokingly referred to my time acting onstage as being on vacation.  One’s main responsibility is oneself.

Which brings me to directing.

Alex Timbers, I have heard, once said that to be a director in New York, one has to have a trust fund.

That is partly because being a director in New York, almost always, is not just being a director.  It is being a director/producer.

I do not have a trust fund.  But I am fortunate in some ways.  My father passed away relatively young, which was not fortunate.  But since he was a lawyer, I inherited some money.  Not by any means a huge amount, but enough that I have been able to use it, over the last ten years, to supplement my sometimes meager income so that I have been able to continue to work.  I would trade it in an instant to have him back.  But it has helped me get through some rocky financial times.  Furthermore, for many years I lived in a family apartment, which meant a relatively modest rent, at least by New York standards.

My money has dwindled, over the years.  Many in my position might have put the money towards retirement.  I have no pension, and since I have mostly worked freelance, I’m not even sure if I will be eligible for Social Security one day.  But instead of the more conservative approach, I have chosen to use the inheritance to help me continue my career.  What will that mean for me one day?  I’m not sure.  What will that mean for me when, sooner rather than later, I run though my savings?  I’m not sure about that either.  Part of what inspired this series is the impulse to stave off that reckoning.

But that inheritance has allowed me to work as a director.  I’m not sure if my father, who was much more conservative in his approach towards money, would be happy about the implicit risk in that decision.  But then again, I think he would have been pleased to see what I’ve accomplished.

The problem with being a director is, of course, there are many fewer jobs in that field than the field of acting.  Using those same Theater World stats I referenced above, there are probably slightly over 100 directing jobs a season.  And many of those directing jobs are taken by the same people over and over again.

The reason why is clear.  One can’t exactly audition to be a director.  Directing jobs happen because one is associated with an institution.  Usually, the institution finds people whose work they know, in some ways.  Whose they’ve worked with at that same institution or, in a rare case, that they’ve seen outside the institution and want to bring in.

With the busy schedule of all theaters, there is not a lot of scouting going on.  But then again, there doesn’t need to be.  There aren’t many open positions, anyway.  Certainly, if a show gets attention, it’s possible that some institutional theater may arrive,. And by attention I don’t mean a rave review in the New York Times, I mean a rave review on the front page of the New York Times, hopefully by at least the 2nd string reviewer.

And the current 2nd string reviewer, the above mentioned Charles Isherwood, is not doing much scouting himself these days.

An alternative is to form a theater company, as I have, and make that big enough to either sustain oneself.  A difficult feat.  Possible, but I hope, but very difficult.

I am not just a director, of course, I am also a playwright.

This may be the worst idea of all.

The one advantage of being a playwright, is there is a correlation to the audition process.  One can submit a script.

When I was just out of college, I took a few jobs as a reader.  I worked for New Dramatists, on a prize they handed out at the time.  I worked for the Williamstown Theater Festival.

What I learned was, it is very easy to say no to a script.  And very difficult to say yes.

At the age of 22, my job was to read as many plays as I could and either say no or pass it on.  I couldn’t say yes, of course.  No one would trust a 22 year old to say yes, it had to be passed through many levels to get to that stage.  But I could say no to almost anyone.  I said no the Joyce Carol Oates and Stephen Disch and a number of other playwrights whose names I recognized.

No one second guessed me, when I said no.  There was too much to read.  They second guessed my yeses, though.  Why did you say yes to this, I was asked a few times.

Because I’ve read 30 scripts and I want to say yes to something, I said.

Only say yes if it is definitely, definitely a yes, I was told.

There are a lot of bad plays.  But after a while, my eyes began to blur, and I couldn’t tell what was good or bad anymore.  I couldn’t write anymore, either, my head was filled with other people’s words.  I couldn’t even keep reading.

I quit.

Rather than submitting to slush piles, one can, like me, form one’s own company and use it as a forum for one’s own work.  In publishing, that would be called a vanity press.  But in theater, it is more accepted, because frankly, it’s the only way a lot of new work can be seen at all.  It’s the same in the film world.  If you raise the money and actually are able to mount a show or film your film, there is something of an assumption that maybe it deserves to be seen.

Or one can try the slush pile.  Despite the quantity of slush, theoretically, an unknown writer can have his work win the lottery, get through all the hoops, and get his or her work onstage.

But if there were 110 productions in that Theater World season, and many of them were revivals, and many of them were old playwrights having their newest work mounted, how much room is there for new playwrights?

Ironically, of course, I was officially an Off-Broadway playwright and director that year.  By my analysis, I was one of the few, the elite.

The production lost so much money I wasn’t able to pay myself that year for either job.

There is one upside to being a playwright.  Royalties.  I have gotten royalties a surprising amount of times, most frequently from my translation of Lysistrata, which seems to have gained a cult following of some sort.  It’s not made me rich.  But $500 arriving unexpectedly every, upon occasion, is always a welcome sight.

And sometimes I’ve thought, if I decided to just be a playwright, I could get a day job and still write.  Or…theoretically…I could sell out to tv, which a lot of the more successful playwright seem to do (because, as I may not have mentioned, even the successful ones have a hard time living on a playwright’s wages).

So then, it’s not so bad, right?

And there’s always teaching work, whichever of the three you are (or better, if you are all three at once.)

So then, which is the worst idea?  I know less about the design and stagehand economics, anyone want to chime in on why one those is a terrible idea as well…

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Economics of Theater, Part IV: A Pause for Art

And now, a pause for Art.

I have been thinking for a while of writing a play dealing with economics.  My idea, right now, would be to write a series of sketches, each based on another economic theorist: Keynes, Smith, Marx, Rand, etc.  Of course, my struggles with my own personal economy have been partly the inspiration for that, but one thing that I’ve learned from the recent fiscal troubles is that the field of economics is truly fascinating.  I have started reading whatever I can, listening to Planet Money, Freakonomics, etc.

Or perhaps I will write some and ask some other playwrights to write some of the other sketches.  I’m not sure.  And takers?

Will this idea lead anywhere?  Perhaps.  But since I am writing these essays and theater and art, I felt I might as well try out one, for kicks.  This one’s based on Keynes’ theory that in times of economic hardship, employing someone, even to just dig a ditch and then fill it back up again, is an overall economic good. 


I’ve definitely had day jobs that have felt like I was doing just that…

THE DITCH DIGGER, by JOHN MAYNARD KEYNES

PERSON
What are you doing?

DITCH DIGGER

Digging a ditch.

PERSON
Why?

DITCH DIGGER
For the sake of the country.

PERSON
What are you going to do with that ditch when you’re done?

DITCH DIGGER

Gonna fill up the hole.

PERSON
With what?

DITCH DIGGER

Dirt.

PERSON
What dirt?

DITCH DIGGER

Same dirt I took out.

PERSON
Why?

DITCH DIGGER
For the sake of the country.

PERSON
How does that help the country?

DITCH DIGGER

I dunno.  Just does.  Wanna dig?

PERSON
Why would I?

DITCH DIGGER

Pay’s good.

PERSON
How good?

DITCH DIGGER

Good enough.

PERSON
I don’t like digging.

DITCH DIGGER

Nor me.

PERSON
Why don’t you do something else?

DITCH DIGGER

They won’t pay for that.

PERSON
How come?

DITCH DIGGER
Some man came along and told ‘em that ditch digging would save the economy.

PERSON
Just ditch digging?

DITCH DIGGER

He didn’t say.  They’re keeping to the ditch digging.  Just in case.

PERSON
What would you like to do?

DITCH DIGGER

Me?  I’m a clown.

PERSON
A what?

DITCH DIGGER

Clown.

PERSON
Like…with the big shoes, and the red nose?

DITCH DIGGER

Sort of.  Don’t use the shoes or the nose though.

PERSON
Then what makes you a clown?

DITCH DIGGER

Clowning.

PERSON
Is that worth more than ditch digging?

DITCH DIGGER

Makes people laugh.  Sometimes.  Makes people think.

PERSON
People like to laugh and think.

DITCH DIGGER

Some do.  Some like to dig ditches.  Some don’t like much of anything, at all.

PERSON
Clown for me.

DITCH DIGGER

What?

PERSON
Clown for me.

DITCH DIGGER

Can’t.  I’ve got a job.

PERSON
But you’re just going to fill up this ditch later.

DITCH DIGGER

That’s what they’re paying me for.

PERSON
What if you didn’t dig at all?  Would they even notice?

DITCH DIGGER

Not sure.

PERSON
Clown for me.

DITCH DIGGER

How much are you paying?

PERSON
I don’t have much.

DITCH DIGGER

Me neither.

PERSON
Don’t you miss clowning?

DITCH DIGGER

Yes.

PERSON
Don’t you want to clown?

DITCH DIGGER

Yes.

PERSON
Then clown for me.

DITCH DIGGER

Can’t.  Got a job.
(Pause.)
What do you do?

PERSON
I paint pictures.

DITCH DIGGER

Does anyone buy them?

PERSON
I’m afraid to show them to anyone.

DITCH DIGGER

Do you think anyone would buy them?

PERSON
Maybe.  Not many people have money, though.  And there are a lot of people who paint pictures.
(Pause.)

DITCH DIGGER

Want a shovel?

PERSON
Yes.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Economics of Theater, Part III: Theater Companies


Once, there was only Broadway.

This is not true.  But it is a commonly believed untruth, and a convenient starting point.  Of course, there has always been something besides Broadway, even in its earliest days.  But.  Essentially.

Once, there was only Broadway.

Slowly, a new movement formed, a movement for less traditional, more alternative theater.  The movement grew.  It called itself Off-Broadway.

Those shows were less attended, and less press paid attention, but some did.  Enough.  And the people who did the work grew their theaters, though grants and patronage and box office, so that a core group could make a salary for their work. They became institutions.  Like all institutions, they tried to emulate their own successes. 

Others saw those institutions and rejected what they stood for. Slowly, a new movement formed, a movement for less traditional, more alternative theater.  The movement grew.  It called itself Off-Off-Broadway.

Those shows were less attended, and less press paid attention, but some did.  Enough.  And the people who did the work grew their theaters, though grants and patronage and box office, so that a core group could make a salary for their work. They became institutions.  Like all institutions, they tried to emulate their own successes. 

A new generation arrived, and it saw huge commercial theater on Broadway.  It saw non profit institutions as well that had grown large enough to also be on Broadway.  It saw other large institutions that were the bulk of Off-Broadway.  And it saw institutions, mostly set up during the 60’s wonderful companies like LaMama or P. S. 122 or the Wooster Group or the Ontological.

Slowly, it grew other institutions, which crowded in besides the old.  HERE managed to add itself to the mix  Soho Rep.  The Ohio.  Tiny theaters smaller than the other institutions that still managed to work at least a few salaries out.

But people kept coming.  And the city was crowded.

Even smaller theaters appeared, sometimes just to disappear.  Nada.  Collective Unconscious.  The Present Company.

The Present Company still exists of course, in theory.  But it has, in essence, disappeared into the behemoth of its own making, the New York Fringe Festival.  Which in itself created a model for how a modern theater company could find a way to pay its administrative staff.  By grouping hundreds of smaller theater companies under one giant umbrella.

And still more theaters appeared.  But now there was Broadway.  There was Off-Broadway.  There were the Off-Off-Broadway institutions.  There were festivals. 

How can a new theater get noticed, among all that?  How can it get press attention? How can it get grants?

How, essentially, can it make the money to at the very least pay the people spending their lives running it.

And really, with all the other theater going on, is it even needed?  I barely have the time or money to keep up with a fraction of the theater I want to see, and it’s my passion.  Maybe there’s just too much.  Too many plays I can’t see.  Too many books I can’t read.  Too many art exhibits I can’t attend.  Too many artists.  Period. 

Rocco Landesman said recently that there was a supply and demand problem.  He’s right, of course, though his statement that there are 5.7 million administrators and only 2 million artists is insane, of course. 

What he may have meant is, only 2 million that seem to be able to make any money at it, just as pure artists.

But there is a supply and demand problem.  Too much theater.  Too few audience members.  No wonder it’s so hard to make a living.  EVERYONE ELSE, GO AWAY!

Even in the mythical utopia we know as “Europe” this is a problem.  But in the American reality, and in particular in New York, it has gone out of control. 

And yet…we don’t go away.  Because somewhere in the midst of this mass of work, many somewheres, multiple times over, good and important work is being created.  Important only if you accept the premise that art is important, that theater is important, that creation and thought expressed on stage makes us, as individuals and society, better in some way.  Helps our ideas evolve.  Fulfills one of our most primal instincts, for I do believe that drama is a basic, ancient instinct, and that from those dramatic enactments have sprung humanity’s greatest social and moral advances.

And if you believe that, as I am cursed to, then you can’t go away.  Not if you believe you have something you must contribute to that conversation.

I have run my theater company for almost 20 years now.  In about a year and a half, it will be the 20th anniversary of our first show, which I produced immediately out of college.

I should be excited about that fact.  I am told that it is a milestone to be proud of.  But I also dread it.

Because we should have a bigger budget.  We should be getting more grants.  We should be bigger.  I should be paid a full salary.

Sometimes, I feel as though I have failed. When Havel flew my to the Czech Republic this summer and I met theater artist after theater artist and he praised me and talked about my theater company and my work, I smiled and thought, if only you know.  It’s a house of cards.  It’s a sham.  It’s something I made up, and it’s only real because I pretend that it’s real, and a few people, actors, designers, The New York Times, they all pretend with me.

And yet…we are getting grants.  And we seem to keep getting a little more each year, despite the economy.  We seem to be recognized a little more each year.  Really, I didn’t devote my time in full to the theater company until 2001, the year of our Ionesco Festival.  And since then our budget has increased, we have received a lot more press, and I would even say the overall quality of our work has consistently improved.

Or at least we’ve had a little more money to realize our dreams.

And it is doable.  Despite all the other theaters, I do see, somewhere, the bright and shiny possibility.  Or maybe because of them, because I realize that some of the companies that I work with, side by side, are able to get just a little more funding.  Not much more.  But enough.

In another business, those people would be enormously wealthy.  The top of their profession.  Which means, in theater, they get by.

Getting to that level of funding will mean more time devoted to grant writing, and, ironically, probably less time devoted to art.   That is the conundrum of running a theater company.  Sometimes it feels as if you can either make good work or fund good work, but not both.

It helps when you have some people helping out, and recently, I’ve had that too.  Board members.  My friend and fellow theater delusional Patrice Miller.

And if I can just find the time to write all the grants, put together all the shows, do all the accounting, solicit all the donors, then I do think that I may be able to reach that point.

I am quite sure we are able to do impressive work with people who are impressive artists.  And yes, in magical “Europe,” money would already be flowing.

Now if only I didn’t also need to look for a little money on the side…

Oh Europe, oh Europe.  How I love the utopian vision I have created for myself about you.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Economics of Theater, Part II: Funding


My theater is shovel ready.

My theater is ready to beat the Russians to the moon.

I was going to write today more about matters more personal, but the recent budget released by the Obama administration has moved me to talk about the economics of theater in a political sense.  And of course it is personal, for at the same time my theater company is trying to expand, politicians are once again treating theater like it’s a frivolous indulgence.  It is not.  It is an economic engine.  My theater is more economically efficient than infrastructure, more educational per dollar spent than education.

Do I have the studies to show it?  There are a few.  Every impact study done has shown that the return is much greater than every dollar spent.  Google the words “impact” and  “economic” and “theater” or maybe the “arts” and you’ll find them.  Many were done in England or in Canada or elsewhere overseas.  But the ones from the U. S. show the same thing.   The arts give back more than they take.  Much more.

Let’s examine one reason that it’s true.  The so-called shovel test is truer for theater than almost any stimulus around.  Give any of the thousands of theater companies the money now, and you will see that money ready to be put to work.  There are people waiting to create.  And you will not only see every dollar in the work, it will seem like, magically, each dollar has become ten.

My theater is ready to make this country great.

So why does my country hate her so?

Give theater the money, and you will find workers who are willing and eager to work well beyond the amount that they are paid.  You will find diligent, industrious workers and entrepreneurs, small businesses that feed businesses big and small.

Do you want a man to dig a ditch and refill it, Mr. Keynes?  Put an audience member in front of us and we’ll go all night.

I don’t ask this country to invest in theater because it is the right thing to do.  I think it is, but put that aside.  I don’t ask because it feeds our country’s soul.  It think it does, but put that aside as well.  I don’t ask because art can create a bridge between nations.  I think it can, but put that aside.

I ask because it is a good investment.  One of the best around.  I ask you not to do it out of the goodness of your heart, but for the sake of your own bottom line.  Art pays for itself.  Art feeds the economy.

This may seem confusing, because artists, as a whole are poor.  This is because, when the transaction happens, we take most of our fee in fulfillment, rather than just cash.

The cash is great, don’t get me wrong.  But we are willing to do much more work for much less because of the economic value we place on following our passion.

Perhaps we shouldn’t.  That is another subject.  Perhaps we should be like investment banks that take the cash, and a lot of it.  Perhaps our transactions should create nothing in and of themselves so that we need the cash in order to justify the time.

Or perhaps we should be somewhere in between.

But as it stands, we are ready to be exploited for the cause.  Give us the money, and we will work.  Just a little of it.  Just enough so we can manage, and we’ll do it.  We can’t help it, God help us.

And then Hell, we’ll pay it back from the after show drinks alone.  Sometimes quite literally.  Between the cast and audience, just the business created for the bars and restaurants may pay our tiny tab.  The rest is extra.

No rational economic theory, not one, can show why cutting funding to the arts helps the economy.  No rational budget, not one, can show any real impact on the overall debt gained by cutting our already tiny budget more than it has been.  President Obama, you made a plea, an impassioned one, about the need to invest in our country.  The need to invest in our future. .  The need to invest in jobs.

Invest in mine.  Invest in ours.  Invest in our economy.

We need to begin making people more aware it’s true.  We need to place the information on our programs, on our websites, on our blogs.  3LD has told me that from now on they are putting the number of people who worked on the show right in each program.  That’s a start. 

For my show Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, which recently played at 3LD, there were over 30 people working on the show.  We would enter between 9 and10am.  We would leave sometime between 11pm and 1am.  That excludes the nights when we worked on the set through the night.  Usually, there would be 5-6 people during the day there, then 15-20 in the evening.

People traveled in to see us.  Hotels, airfare.  People ate and drank before and after.  And though UTC61 was not able to afford paying people much, we paid at least a small something to everyone.

And we created something.

How much did we receive from the state?  A little over $4,000.  We had other funding, from foundations and donors, but if you take away box office, you can say we relied on about $15,000 worth of giving, including the state funding.

How much did we give in return?

We can try to reach out, but we cannot reach out alone.

We need an advocate, more than one.  We need to help out by changing perceptions.  But we need to bridge the gap.  We need to make someone believe, enough to speak out not just in whispers in crowded rooms and not just our of sense of duty but out of a sense of passion, out of a sense that every dollar spent does the work of ten.  We need studies, more than we can fund ourselves.  We need editorials.  We need a speech in Congress.  We deserve one.

Well somebody, anybody, stand up and speak for our cause?