Friday, March 19, 2010

You Are Here To Learn

You know who's cool? Nasty Canasta. She was almost in "Day 2" but can't do it.

She must have the most awesome wig collection on the planet.
What Theater Theatresource?

(I'll update this if I've gotten any of the facts incorrect.)

So those who remember Jim Lawson's Writer's Forum from a couple years ago will see now a "new" writer's forum at Theatresource. I'm the only one calling it "new" but I think most everyone would agree it's a kind of "reboot" of the Writer's Forum as it was.

A couple things happened in the intervening time betwixt its original formation and now. One is that there is now a production committee which oversees the process of determining which works are produced. The system is more complicated than that, but ostensibly workable, and has a pre-existing model in the way the Estrogenious Festival plays are produced by majority vote among a few.

The present theory is that
  • writers are in effect "vetted" by the membership committee to become members and
  • the members vote on which plays to produce, which then gets filtered by the production committee in a way I don't quite understand or that hasn't been formally agreed to (I don't know which)
This is an interesting solution to the "no artistic director" problem. It does do a couple things which are unprecedented at Theatresource though. One thing is that it creates a "club" or "company", a selected group: the members of the Writer's Forum. This is unusual as we've typically shied away from having that sort of exclusivity in the volunteer - run organization that is Manhattan Theatre Source. Typically festivals, or any sort of "Theatresource" production was open to any volunteer.

That being said, having a clear and transparent process regarding becoming a member and getting one's play produced through the Forum does have some advantages over having one person (like an Artistic Director) make the decisions or (like it was in the old days) some maneuvering by a Director to get Theatresource to produce his play.

But here's the thing: one odd thing about Theatresource is that traditionally we've been able to be both very open and inclusive while being incredibly elitist. Maybe we just had really good friends. But two of our best works: Mac Rogers' Universal Robots and Mozz Mendez' Thoroughly Stupid Things were written by incredibly hard-working volunteers who put in tremendous hours at Theatresource. I don't know whether that's been a coincidence (after all, one of our finest actors, Ben Thomas, was a volunteer for a year before he was even asked to audition for anything, but there he was, and he's amazing) or whether there's some sort of iteration between how reliable and tireless you are as a volunteer and what kind of work you do.

And now we're kind of starting a club wherein you gain "membership". (Well, honestly, this process has been building up for a while but certainly at the very beginning anybody could be part of the Writer's Forum although Jim pretty much decided which plays would be read on a given week.)

And I could see that going one of four ways.
1. It could be cool and groovy, or
2. it could get moribund and clique-y. Or
3. it could become like the "official" salon and someone opens a Writer's Forum of those who couldn't get into the Writer's Forum (which I would take great delight in.) Or
4. it might actually remove the aspect of openness and inclusiveness which has been a real mark of Theatresource over the years.

The one title I have which I've taken great delight in not meaning anything is that I am a "Founding Member" of Theatresource. It shouldn't mean anything and, in fact, it doesn't. The only advantage to being a founding member is that I might possibly remember why we don't kick the radiator pipe in the theater (it causes a torrential flood and you must abandon the building) or why we don't attach an electric heater to the overhead gate over the front door (if it doesn't get turned off one night and comes down to touch the floor it will start a fire which will not burn down the entire residential building if the firefighters get there right away because the upstairs neighbor called them as he saw it when he came in). So yeah, before doing any stuff like that you might want to check in with a founder to see if they remember anything so we're not making the same mistake twice.

But other than that, if you're a recent volunteer, or maybe have only been there for a year or two, you have as much right as anyone else to shape and push and pull Theatresource as a whole or whatever project you want to do at Theatresource as anyone else. But you won't with this particular thing: the Writer's Forum. For that you need to be "elected" or "selected" or vetted by a process (which might be as simple as a majority voting you in) which might not exist just yet.

And that's... unusual.
Theatresource has traditionally behaved as a collective with a set of "principles"
  • Practice Generosity of Spirit
  • Share Your Information
  • Principles Before Personalities
  • Clean Up After Yourself**
Which, I think, are pretty easy things to get behind (and which to my frequent complaint have mostly been pushed to the wayside for the past year.) But note that although Theatresource has mostly behaved that way it technically has never been a collective. It's a straight-up hierarchical organization with a Board and everything and always has been. There is/was a Board of Directors (yes, at one time years ago the Board of Directors was essentially a rubber-stamp for the "Directors" which was where the actual decisions would/could be made. Now there is no separate layer of "Directors" in between the Board and... well anything else.***)

But we've never had a "company". Not a company of actors, not an artistic company. Having a company was indeed discussed early on in Theatresource's life. Andrew Frank, the originator of Theatresource, I recall being the most adamant against a company. He felt (if I recall correctly) that producers and directors should have the freedom to cast whomever they wanted. I think he felt even stronger about this than he did about not wanting to have a resident theater cat.* I think Mitchell Riggs, who had just come off of two years of really successful producing pointed out that it's a bad idea to just cast your friends because you'll make bad theater that way, and it's a bad idea to try to match the theater you do to who you have in your "company". I might have added that last bit what with my experience with the Wooster Group.

So we've never had a company before. And although we've had festivals and the like, the process of being a volunteer and becoming a producer and such was fairly straightforward.

But now we do/will have a company -- a company of writers who control a festival and the hiring of producers and directors and the makers of a bunch of decisions which, if you're not a member of the company, you don't get to.

This is sort of decision and power structure is fairly typical in Theater in general. But it's relatively new to Theatresource. I'm kinda on the fence about it, it could go either way. Ultimately I suspect the direction it goes in will have a lot to do with what the members of the Writer's Forum think about them principles above.
*You know that damn cat would find its way on stage every night and turn each show into a comedy. But it sure would solve the rodent problem.
**Over the years two more principles were informally added:
  • Take Your Meds
  • Do Not Put Juice On the Roof
The first of those is self-explanatory and the woman for whom it most applied was gone in fairly short order. The second is a complicated story about many cases of Fresh Direct juice stored on the roof in February but not discovered again until August by which time rats and the warm sun made them quite less than thrilling to remove from the roof in order to throw away.

***Well, that might not be true. I doubt anybody really knows but it probably goes something like:
Board of Directors
Executive Director
General Manager
With the majority of the committees reporting to the ED. But that's just my guess and really I doubt anyone as formalized this structure.


Montserrat said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Montserrat said...

Hey Drew,

Maybe it's because I'm bored, having just been mugged on friday and sitting here with a broken Jaw at home in New Jersey, looking for something to direct my anger at.

But, wow, angry much.

While i see many of your points, the fact that you keep trying to deify an artistic director that i found lacking is driving me crazy, all he had were ideas but the fact is he had a very poor way of implementing them simply because he was all talk and no action. (and by the way, the Writer's Forum was my idea, which he then took over and invited a bunch of has been playwrights to join, insuring that none of my work was ever read. He was always most of all willing to take credit for other people's work.)

The "artistic director" also bailed on two productions, on HomoGenius 2008, which he produced, he left the managing director and I in charge, though i found out i was in charge of it, 24 hours before he left to do a play. And was gone for all of INGENIUS 2009, leaving three volunteers in charge.

The only thing he did for INGENIUS 2009, was dump a better play by a unknown playwright to include a crappy play by a known writer. Yes, because Artistic directors care about quality most of all.

One of the reasons i stopped volunteering at the source, was because the "artistic director" did nothing, but spout a bunch of hooey and never follow through on his word. Though, he talked a good game. I had never felt as used by a person as when he directed his gaze upon me.

Now, maybe, i'm just pissy, but, dewd, you keep saying that my play came out of the source like i didn't pay my rent. I paid my rent, and we had other theatres to go to, had not the source "had an emergency opening" because someone walked out on their contracts. Then some other theatre would have been taking the credit for it.

And i suggested they take a more elitist track to finding playwrights, why, because i'm tired of being surrounded my mediocrity. l continue to be one after...

Which was exactly what the "artistic director" opened the door too, when he dumped all his duties on the managing director, which he burned out, while endlessly talking of all the angels hovering which never materialized, because they didn't even have respect for him.

I'm certainly not saying things now are perfect, and that while the managing director was not overburdened the source was GREAT, but you keep giving credit to someone who didn't earn it. That Artistic Director did nothing, the artistic direction of the source, was done by both the managing director, and the managing director, while he took credit for everything that was done, and i mean everything.

Do i think the source needs an Artistic Director. YES. But let's bring one in that can actually follow through, and not take credit for other people's work.

Andrew Bellware said...

Hi Mozz,

1. I feel very bad about your attack. I wish you a speedy recovery. I love you and hope all goes well.

2. I don't think I really deify the previous artistic director. I think I say what's what as far as what worked and what didn't (but I very much respect your disagreement.)

3. Really when I'm talking about the previous administration I'm talking about both the General Manager as well as the Artistic Director. I think they both had to do with that amazing year of work.

4. That's not saying that you wouldn't have created Thoroughly Stupid Things wherever you might have been at the time. It's just part of that amazing year and my... well... my feeling is that both Lanie and Jim had much to do with that amazing year.

5. I'm more than the first to say that many, many, mistakes were made by Jim. Heck, Jim would say he made many, many mistakes. And sure, balls were dropped BUT some things really worked.

6. My point about this whole thing is that we should be cautious about going into a system where we're an exclusive club. That's all I'm sayin'.

7. I do think the AD does indeed deserve some credit -- Any Day Now, for example.

8. I'm not dissing the former GM at all. I think Lanie did an awesome job. I think that a LOT of the artistic direction came from her.

9. You are awesome!

I think that's everything. Feel better!