I had the distinct pleasure of traveling to Arena Stage two weeks ago to be part of one of the most important national new play convenings in recent history. In 2011, the very act of discussing new work means you’ve got to be rabidly thorough about inviting in as many of our visionary artists and supporters as possible, in order to match with a truly contemporary vision of the field; to examine, to debate and to search for the connections that now exist, despite this challenging economic climate. David Dower and his team couldn’t have worked harder to ensure that the 120+ participants at this convening included theater-makers of every stylistic approach, career range, and geographic influence (hip-hop festivals, Shakespeare theaters, LORT/regional theater new play leaders, devised-work ensembles, arts educators, etc.), and that the conversation was always presented through an artist-driven lens.

It is therefore more than mildly ironic that, in being asked to launch this convening, NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman immediately jumped into a discussion of “administrating and selling art” vs. creating it. We’re still such colonialists; we just can’t help ourselves anymore, can we? Even with an event as specifically curated as this conference was, there is an apparently inescapable pull towards telescoping the discussion surrounding the creation of new theater into a revenue-driven model—to wedge it into the very for-profit paradigm that nearly guarantees it will force theater into extinction.

New York Times theater critic Charles Isherwood put forward this notion in his ArtsBeat piece of 1/3/11, when he gave the thumbs-up to a “value-added” approach in the assessment of how new theatrical work is created. (Sadly for him, the stock in critical arts opinion continues to plummet in value when it comes to ticket sales.) She’s a sticky wicket, supply-and-demand-focused discussion, no? After having his response to Mr. Isherwood denied the posting on the New York Times website, Todd London recently replied via Facebook to this very oddly conflated bit of journalism, posing the question of when theater critics suddenly became the arbiters of statistical accuracy on the state of American theater.

It’s a different language, art.

It is.

I know that for those in bigger institutions it can be scary to own the thing on its own terms, but it just is.

It doesn’t mean there’s not a necessity for stronger business practices to be implemented in the support of creating new art, but when the two aims are in conflict, we end up forcing a map of rather diluted and tenuous work across our country, that the NEA (and certainly our allies—ahem—in Congress) say is in need of a good trimming.

Say what you will about his ideas (and much has been contested in the past 10 days), but Mr. Landesman has been diligent in continuing this discussion since the convening; he hasn’t dropped a bomb and run away. In the past week, he joined the prominent theater blogger Trisha Mead in an ongoing discussion of these issues, in addition to writing on the NEA website’s blog. And while there are a number of deeply concerning notions still on the table, the discussion is becoming more transparent and multifaceted as the days tick on. (Take a look at the great site to weigh in with your own thoughts.) The most compelling of it, I’d say, is the following statement he makes:

We all had some encounter with a work of art that left us a different person than we had been before. In the end, that trumps any other “metric,” any compendium of data, any instrumental benefit. The emotional effect is unmeasurable but it is profound. Sometimes the marketplace and non-profit funders look at work the same way with the same methods of evaluation: box office, attendance, reviews, and national validation. The whole impetus for the creation of resident theaters was to find a safe harbor protected from such exigencies. Within that protection, work could be riskier, longer-gestating, often counter to the prevailing culture. Chekhov, as always, put it best: “We must take the theater out of the hands of the green grocer.”

Landesman has much vital work ahead in Washington, D.C., and I’m glad we’ve got someone in the driver’s seat that’s not remaining static in the face of economic and political shift.

Given these discussions around how we measure success of artistic product, we must continue to examine the systems of process and support for getting us to opening night. My real problem with Mr. Isherwood’s essay is that it propagates the notion that the artists themselves still cannot be at the fulcrum of these processes because of the glut of administrators. But is there not an argument for this being an “and” solution rather than an “or?” Playwright Jeffrey Sweet again brings up (in his online response to the Isherwood piece) the idea of giving real jobs to playwrights.

Imagine how daily marketing meetings would change, not only in teaching a staff how to talk about connecting with an audience around the world premiere of a new Daniel Beaty or Carson Kreitzer play, but also around pieces by Ibsen, Chekhov, August Wilson & Lillian Hellman.

Imagine being able to impassion a development staff to think more deeply and work with even higher stakes around identifying and procuring funding to support a residency/commission/health care for Julia Jordan or Richard Montoya; a second-step production of a Luis Alfaro or Barbara Field play; or a bold new Tina Landau envisioning of Shakespeare.

Imagine clarifying a much clearer and more personal understanding of what playwrights truly need in terms of support: is a new play festival the most useful artistic expression of a regional theater’s limited funding, or is that more a function of what the theaters need in order to more deeply engage with their audience?
Imagine hearing a playwright speak from the core of their writing impulse and dramatic instinct as they go out into the community; speaking as an artist about the productions chosen for that theater’s season, rather than hearing it from someone perceived as a salesperson.

I can’t imagine a stronger model for supporting artists with salaries and health insurance, and restoring a meaningful connection with these truly crucial arts facilitators at theaters—and, of course, with the art itself. Without that vitality, we are simply reduced to the very model of supply and demand that it is being suggested we work in. Let there be a greater cohesion between the artists and folks working at the theaters, and let’s stop assuming that this model can’t be afforded or won’t be successful before trying it.

At the bottom of this discussion, currently haunting this entire language, there lingers a very creepy and powerfully patriarchal stench that implies that any one of us in these discussions will be tipping the scales so far that our omnipotence will be able to end art as we know it.

I dare you.

No really, let’s go there. Let’s just actualize this theory for a moment.

Because I’ve had the great honor of seeing some pretty rabid theater-makers in my day … but okay: I dare you, Anne Bogart and Les Waters and Kia Corthron and Jose Rivera and Craig Wright and Naomi Wallace and Young Jean Lee and John Guare and Cornerstone Theatre and Chris Shinn and Suzan-Lori Parks and Octavio Solis and Taylor Mac and Adam Rapp and Sean San Jose and Tony Kushner and Lisa Kron and Bill T. Jones and The Civilians and Kristin Marting and Will Power … I dare you to stop making work. (Oh wait, they’re not listening because they’re too busy never stopping making new work.)

I dare you.

JEREMY B. COHEN is the Producing Artistic Director of the Playwrights’ Center.

  • February 9, 2011
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