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No, Uh-uh, Oooh Noooo, NO, No Way

  • Posted on: 8 April 2009
  • By: Tony

 

"No, uh-uh, Oooh Noooo, NO, No Way." A random sampling of what I hear everyday as a parent. As anyone who's beenTony Jr. Says No. around a two year old can probably attest, "No" is the preferred response to just about any thing out there.

For Jenn and I, even under the daily barrage of no, sometimes the sheer dramatics involved in saying no are comical. The default mode for the terrible twos is no.

Now a lot of folks do everything they can to avoid children. Most parents parents love their kids. A lot of potential parents want nothing more out of life than to have their own children.  Dealing with other people's kids. Forget about it. No way.

There's a couple of easy reasons why we should pay far more attention to children than we often do. One, to make sure they don't rob us in ten years. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, so you can't be too careful. Two, watching children can give us an amazing insight to how adults behave.

No is the default answer for almost everything we do. Don't believe me? For one day try to track the amount of times you say no to something you see or are told no to something. It is our main mode of operation. Can't do it. Not possible. Costs too much. That's inconceivable.

Now in baseball, hitters are taught from an early age not to do this. As the pitch comes in, there isn't time to think about whether to swing or not. You can't stand in the box, watch the pitch come in and think "should I swing at this" and then still hit it. The default mode is Yes. Yes, yes-yes-swing. Or yes-yes-yes don't-swing-ball. One decision is all there is time for.  If you try to go the other way, "no-no-no-yes-swing" it doesn't work. You'll miss most of the good pitches to hit.

Sometimes no means yes. We get so used to saying no that we miss out on things we actually want. Tony Jr. does this all the time. "Do you want an apple," Jenn or I will ask?

"No way mommy-daddy," he'll respond. A couple of minutes later, "Mommy-daddy, apple please." He realizes he actually wants the apple. He's just so used to saying no it's a reflex.

We do this all the time, but as we get older we don't have the ability to just change our minds and get what we want, or hit the pitch, or get that job.

What could happen if we were to change our default mode? 

Institutional White

  • Posted on: 7 April 2009
  • By: Tony

 

Question. How do you think the theatre industry as a whole fares against accusations of Racism?

Black and White RainbowThere is no need to kid ourselves, the American theatre is overwhelmingly white. Chicago's theatre, ensembles, critics, playwrights, directors, designers, administrators, audiences, funders--all are predominately white. (The irony of a white alpha male talking about diversity is not lost on me.) Our theatre is also predominately made up of charitable organizations that receive public funding to function.

This has come up repeatedly, and the usual reply is: I'M NOT RACIST, followed by: not enough people applied or auditioned, or we have to look after our ensemble, or insert caveat here.

Institutional Racism is a pesky problem.

Institutional racism is defined as the differential access to goods, services, and opportunities of society. When this differential access seeps into our institutions, it eventually becomes common practice, making it that much harder to rectify. Eventually, this racism dominates our public bodies, corporations and universities, and is reinforced by the actions of newcomers and conformists. Another difficulty with reducing institutionalized racism is that there is no true identifiable perpetrator. When racism is built into the institution, it appears to be an act of the collective population.

No one in the body needs to be a bigot for this to happen.  And yet it does. Our theatres and ensembles are institutionally white, and often it is not out of malice or maliciousness. Hiring actors is one thing, doing co-productions is one thing. Having a significant part of your ensemble or organization look like your city is a whole different ballgame.

When I first started working in theatre I didn't even notice it. The township I grew up in (I'm not a city boy) is 97% white. I don't expect that to change anytime soon as there are not many jobs and no reason for someone to move there. I went to a small liberal arts college that was predominately white. So when I started in theatre it just seemed normal at first.

I was part of a company for a long time that was all white men. About six years in they added a couple of women to the ensemble. (Ironically, they worked with many female directors over the years.) Scripts were chosen primarily for showcasing the ensembles talents. It is a very talented group; however, if a show didn't have roles for folks it was not considered. So you get into a repetitive pattern that is very hard to break.

As I moved farther into my adulthood, the trend became more and more noticeable. Finally, I left the old company that I had been a part of for years and Jenn and I started Halcyon. Here's the thing. The  old company is the very definition of institutional racism. The company members are all really good people. Those two things unfortunately are not mutually exclusive. br />
Not too long ago Adam over at Mission Paradox wrote about Diversity in the Arts. In the comments someone asked, "What are your suggestions for avoiding this situation when you're seeking to diversify your theater company?"

I took a moment to give my two cents:

I can only speak from my experience in Chicago; however, the only way to do so is to be aggressive about it. It needs to be part of everything you do.

If you sit back and wait for it to happen, it won't. Putting out an audition notice ad waiting for actors to come to you won't work.

Go out and find people; talk to other companies; ask for recommendations; go to shows of culturally specific orgs; see their work and scout their talent.

So many companies say they encourage minority actors and don't reflect that on their stages. So few actually show any diversity in their work, that most actors of color won't go to an audition and waste their time so they can be offered the "ethnic role".

Thirty seconds on a company's website will tell someone if it's worth their time or not. If the company is homogeneous, and all previous shows have been filled with artists who all look the same, you need to prove you're not just providing lip-service.

Once actors see that you are in fact following through with your words, not only casting inclusively, and casting actors of color in good roles, you will start to see a vast difference in who is coming to auditions.

Once everyone sees that the theatres across the country and in Chicago start following through with their words and diversifying themselves, you will start to hear fewer charges of institutional racism. How do you think the theatre industry as a whole fares?

image courtesy of Nicki Varkevisser

Email Fail

  • Posted on: 7 April 2009
  • By: Tony

As more and more comes out about the breakup over at Lincoln and Byron, the more it looks less like a dysfunctional marriage and more like a microcosm of a huge swath of problems facing many companies, blown up and put on display.

computer crashingReading Kerry Reid's excellent take in Performink, two items caught my eye. Both were failures via email. I know email has become a primary form of communication for many of us. There are some things that should never be done via email. Last fall, I got a pretty good reminder of one of them: Policy Changes.

Militant Language was by far the most difficult show to get up that I have ever produced. It took quite a toll to be honest. Now, it was a script I believe in from a writer whose talent is huge; an incredible cast--each person's work I am eternally fond of; a director who, in time, I firmly believe has the potential to be one of the greats in the city.

It started to go downhill from there. Finding a space, even a non-traditional one we were looking for, was proving difficult. Interest in the Iraq War was waning--no one seemed to want to see films or plays about the war. Then the economy imploded. Fundraising was rocky at best. We weren't meeting any of our benchmarks. Some of them were so far from being met, you could barely see them through the fog.

I had a tough choice.  I could try to keep a lid on it and hope it didn't implode (which worked so well for Wells Fargo, Lehman Bros and AIG) or I could be open and honest with everyone involved and let them know what was up. I rightly went with being honest.

I walked into a room full of artists I respect and had to tell them essentially: we don't currently have the money to put this show you're rehearsing up. None of our planned funding has come through and if we don't raise it by the end of the month we'll have to pull the plug.

It was a tough thing for all to swallow, myself included. I think if it were a different set of circumstances, we would have leaned more heavily towards postponement. However, the last show Juan had begun to direct for Halcyon had been pulled. For last year's Alcyone Festival, one of the planned productions was La Hija de las Flores  (The Daughter of Flowers) by Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda. It was to be presented in Spanish with projected super-titles. There aren't many actors in the city who can perform in classical Spanish, the Goodman was doing their Latino fest, a  couple of actors over-committed themselves and then bolted from Hija. There was no way to recast so we had to pull it.

The last thing I wanted to do was pull the plug on Juan (again) and the cast whose work I love. We needed help. It was not the world's biggest morale boost, but the cast and our company rallied, and in a short span of time, we were able to raise the funds through small contributions, program ads and a bowl-a-thon that DeRante graciously put together.  Due to the cast and crew's hard work and dedication, (far and above what is normal) the show got up and had a great opening. Things were back on track.

Houses were light at first, and we had to cancel a couple of performances. Our cancellation policy was: if there are less than six paying audience members, the cast can choose whether or not to perform. It's a pretty widespread policy with small companies, so Jenn and I had never really questioned it. A couple of things happened, and we heard negative feedback from someone who had made plans to come to a show that was canceled. After talking to folks in and around the show we decided to change the policy.

If there are any paying customers who have traveled to the performance space and want to see the show, we need to perform the show for them.

Instead of the cast choosing, the audience has a say. I sent the change in policy via email and my plan was to talk to the cast and crew that night before the show. I just had to pick up Tony Jr. and head over to the space.  When we got there, Tony Jr. threw a fantastical two-year old tantrum. We had to go, and I wasn't able to talk to the cast until later. The cast was incensed. They felt disrespected and thought we didn't care what they felt. They had done all this work to help get the show up and tempers flared as they felt we were taking advantage of them.

The policy change is very much for the better. It gives more respect to the audience who has trundled through the city to go see a show. During The Other Shore there was one night that three women were the only ones there for the show. I asked them if they would still like to see it. They said yes, and enjoyed it so much, they then came back again to see it with more people. The Other Shore ended up being the highest attended production we've done to date. Those three women were telling everyone they knew about the show. I know because when I asked folks at the door how they heard about it, a lot of folks said the same thing.

Back to the Militant cast . . . they were incensed. Threatening to walk. I got many angry emails and a couple of calls. It would be 24 hours before I could talk to the cast in person. That was a long 24 hours. Once I was able to talk to the cast, apologize for the change, and explain the rationale, things were somewhat smoothed out and the show went on. Over time morale seemed to pick up. 

I screwed the pooch. They weren't angry about the change. In fact, some of the cast told me they completely agreed with it. They were pissed off about how they were told. They were incensed that they were notified via email instead of being told to their faces. I think it is the single biggest mistake I have made as a producer. I should have told them first, then followed it up with an email to confirm it. I had meant to talk to them before I had to take Tony Jr. home that night, but I shouldn't have hit send until I had talked to everyone about the change in person.

Normally I know better. I knew better then, but I was running late and I didn't think too much of it. I'd just talk to them that night in person and things would be fine. I f-ed up. In doing so I took a rocky road and instantly turned it into a tempest. It is something I won't do a second time.

I thought of this when I was reading Kerry's article. There is a reason staff and ensembles shouldn't talk to board members about policy. That is for times when folks might try to convince them to overturn a leaders decision and undermine their ability to run an institution. An ensemble member emailing board members to try and override programming is an email fail.

The second email I noted--Good Lord. The board dismissed an ensemble member via email? Sweet jebus, I thought to myself, a few months ago the cast of Militant Language was threatening to walk because of an email I sent out about changing the cancellation policy. The board of ATC dismissed an ensemble member of 22 years via email? Holy email failure. . .

image courtesy of Waffler
UPDATED: Fixed a couple typos

Happens to the Best of Them

  • Posted on: 2 April 2009
  • By: Tony

Over at the spiffy new Clyde Fitch Report, Leonard Jacobs posts the announcement of the 2009 ATCA Osborn New Play Award for and Emerging Playwright. This years winner is Yussef El-Gundi for Our Enemies: Lively Scenes of Love and Combat. While I wasn't a huge fan of the Silk Road production--it is a really good script. So congrats to Yussef El-Gundi!

Then something at the bottom of the ATCA's press release caught my eye.

"Prior Osborn Award Recipients
2008 Gee’s Bend, EM Lewis, Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Montgomery, AL" 

EM Lewis won the ‘08 Primus award for Heads. Which, incidentally, we are producing as part of the Alcyone Festival 09.) Gees Bend was by Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder.

A mistake in their press release?  If the ATCA has mistakes in a press release, us little people probably shouldn't feel so bad if we have typos from time to time, right? (Do I get one credit for slack from our fine critics if need/a typo arises?)

Speaking of winners EM Lewis took home LA Weekly's award for production of the year this week for Song of Extinction.

El-Gundi (Our Enemies: Lively Scenes of Love and Combat)  and Lewis (Song of Extinction) are also both finalists for the 2009 Steinberg/ATCA Award for Best New Play--replete with a $25,000 prize--along with Lee Blessing (Great Falls), Steven Dietz (Becky’s New Car), Octavio Solis (Lydia) and Tracy Letts (for that "minor play" Superior Donuts.) Winners will be announced this Saturday April 4th. 

On Runaway Boards

  • Posted on: 1 April 2009
  • By: Tony

Over the years, I’ve heard a lot about runaway boards: how they take companies, buildings and decision making ability away from the poor artists who created it. The recent break up at ATC and the selling off of the Greenhouse are two recent examples, but it is a far reaching problem. Usually this is blamed on the 501c3 model, the corporatization of the arts, How Theatre Failed America, or whatever the latest target of blame is.

Now, there are a lot of problems inherent with the not-for-profit model. Those problems are usually accepted as a trade-off for funding and not having to pay taxes on revenue related to the core mission and activities of the organization. Corporate and foundation grants along with the occasional government buck is how many think of funding arts organizations. You have to be a 501c3 organization to be eligible for the majority of those sources--if you want them.

Far more important, and typically more steady, are individual donors—those who have a relationship with the organization and give money in support of it. A nice side-benefit for donors is a tax write off they get for their donation. Indeed, this is such a crucial part of funding for most non-profits that charities are often the most vocal opponents to changes in the tax code that would effect write offs for charitable contributions. Their thinking is that if people don’t get a write-off, they won’t donate.

Boards are legally responsible for governing an organization. If the board is made of corporate big-wigs, the organization will eventually reflect a corporate big-wig mentality. This is how a lot of large organizations function. Art is left at the door for the sake of the institution.

But how did we get there? How can a board run an ensemble off? How can they take away a beloved space? It’s quite simple really. They control the organization and its assets. They also have the power to hire and fire the leaders of the organization. The Artistic Director and Executive Director usually serve at the behest of the board.

Conventional wisdom will tell you that artists are too dumb to know how to run a business. That’s not true, but many don’t want to learn. Conventional wisdom will also tell you that most business folks are ignorant of all things artistic. While that’s not necessarily true either--few artists I know take the time to teach what makes this art, this organization, different than all the others. The keys are handed over without instructions, so people do what they know how to do.

Now if, for the sake of argument, artists can’t run a business and business people can’t make art—why would it make sense to anyone to have no artistic representation on the board? IE: "I'm sure that a season of The Odd Couple, The Music Man and that new Sarah Ruhl play everyone else is doing might get asses in the seats, but it has nothing to do with our mission or why we've been able to build this incredibly loyal audience that supported the building of the institution. If we turn our backs them, they'll turn their backs on us, and probably stop donating too."

Why would it make sense to anyone to have no business voice in the artistic endeavors? IE: "that sounds awesome. How do we pay for it so we can ensure the company doesn't go up in a ball of flames after this great production?" Some people do things better than others, but that is no excuse for willful ignorance of half of what it takes to make an organization run.

Usually, as an organization grows the artist/founders tire of the business end of it. They bring on folks to do it for them. After a while, they’ll step farther away and wipe their hands of all of that business nonsense so they can concentrate fully on the art.

The only way to ensure that boards and organizations do not run away is for artists and ensembles to have a say. There's absolutely no reason artists can't be on boards, or that bylaws can't specify that a certain percentage of seats on the board are reserved for ensemble members. But most artists do not want that responsibility.

Normally as an organization grows, boards don’t take power. It is willingly handed to them. If artists create an organization and then abdicate all responsibility for governing that organization, I don't see how that is a problem with the NFP model. Not that there aren't problems with the NFP model, there's a lot of them;  however, if the keys are handed over carte blanche, some responsibility for the car driving away needs to rest with those who handed over the keys. Abdication of responsibility will always have repercussions.

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