Friday, September 4, 2009

September 2009 - May Adrales


This year, we’re focusing in depth on what Lark community members have to say about where we’re headed as a society and the tools we’ll need to get there. Every month we are inviting a guest essayist—theater artists as well as people from fields outside theater—to share a unique perspective on some important strategic questions we’ve been asking ourselves lately about the purpose of live theater in the twenty-first century, what the field has to offer society as a whole, and what we can learn about how to shape the theater of the future.

May Adrales is an accomplished director and producer who has been part of the Lark community for nearly 10 years. She joined the Lark team in November 2008, after several years on the artistic staff at the Public Theater, as a recipient of a two-year New Generations Future Leaders Fellowship awarded by Theatre Communications Group with the support of the Andrew W. Mellon and Doris Duke Charitable Foundations. May splits her time at the Lark between hands-on work in the studio and deep thinking about the relationship between theater-making and civic engagement. She is contributing to the Lark’s capacity to support new ideas in the theater while helping us to open pathways among and between communities that have not customarily used the American stage as a forum for sharing their concerns and perspectives.

May is not alone in this pursuit. She is collaborating closely with eight peers in TCG's New Generations program across the nation who are also developing new visions and models for the theater’s role in America’s future. Her peers included Linda Bartholomai at The Play Company (New York City), Julieanne Ehre at the Goodman Theater (Chicago), Rodrigo Garcia at Teatro Vision de San Jose’s (San Jose, CA), Alison La Rosa at The Cleveland Play House, Vijay Mathew at Arena Stage (Washington, DC), Rehana Mirza at New Georges (New York City), Antonio Sonera at Miracle Theatre Group (Portland, OR), James A. Williams at Pillsbury House Theatre (Minneapolis). Together, they are dreaming of, writing about, and advocating for closer connections between theater and the communities they serve. In her essay, May asks us to reconsider our most fundamental assumptions about how we relate to art and the creative process.

We look forward to reading your responses to May–and to one another!


by May Adrales

Imagine a world in which the profound words you heard one night at the theater were repeated back to you in a conversation months later. That somehow that string of words had found its way from the writer’s imagination, to the lips of the actor, to the ears of someone who remembered them and spit them out into the world in another new context on a new day, long after the play’s run was over. It has happened before. Shakespeare’s phrases still color the English language today—so if you are "fashionable," or have a “spotless reputation,” or if you have gone “full circle,” or if “the world is your oyster,” you can thank Shakespeare who coined those expressions.

Pretty difficult to imagine that a writer could have that kind of impact today. But it must have been pretty unimaginable for Shakespeare, too, because the Elizabethans had only recently invented the printing press which suddenly made wide distribution of new ideas more possible than ever before. With so many new modes of communication available today on the internet and in the airwaves, and a relish for the written word no matter how truncated (i.e., nm if u dnt lol @ my gr8 tweet), you would think it’s even more doable now.

How did Shakespeare’s language weave its way into the vernacular of our culture? Can we continue to reinvent our language to serve our culture’s evolving needs? Will the theater play a role in this process?

Many present-day theater makers, like me, believe that our artistic vision is important and relevant to the society in which we live. We dedicate our lives to the theater; we believe that it is a medium that can affect, move and touch people’s lives, even inspire change and new ways of thinking. But when we consider the proportion of Americans who actually attend the theater regularly, (about 9.4 percent of the U.S. adult population in 2008 ) we have to question theater’s relevance. It is difficult to imagine how the beautiful words penned by present day writers would ever catch fire in our language.

What concerns me is how I can help to strengthen theater’s role in society. Is there a different way of thinking about how to drive audience demand? We can’t expect that audiences will arrive at the theater in droves based on a few email blasts, a Facebook fan page, or a few pay-what-you-can-nights. We have to build a deeper movement around the work that we do. We must engage with our community in a deeper and more profound way and weave theater into the very fabric of our culture.

There has been a lot of hand-wringing and despair about declining audience numbers. Producers wondering, “What will drive audiences?” Pushing to choose cash cows like A Christmas Carol to guarantee ticket sales. But imagine a world in which it wasn’t the type of theater that drives audience demand. That you didn’t have to produce well-known dead playwrights and popular musicals to save your bottom line. That we began to invest in building a broader audience base—bigger and more ambitious than our current producing models allow.

Imagine if theater was more like fashion, music or sports—you might gravitate to or like one designer, musician or sports team over another, but you are aware of all the major players. Because all the players are an integral part of the popular culture, part of the daily conversation. Movements are created not just by the final product, but by the buzz, excitement and anticipation of the very event. What if each performance of theater was simply part of a larger, more participatory conversation with theater artists and the community at large? What if advocacy and audience engagement occurred throughout the process, not simply around the final product?

Change starts with the artists themselves. What if artists advocated for their work directly to the communities that would be changed most? That artists passionately articulated a vision of their work with the aim of rallying a community of people behind the work? What if they partnered with organizations, community centers that had direct links to the community they were trying to reach? And a domino effect occurred—more people, more communities talking about and advocating for the play.

What if there were fewer barriers to experiencing the theater? What if you could read a brand new, never-been-produced-before play for free on-line? So those that can’t afford the subway or a plane ticket to New York to see the show for its two-week in a small downtown theater could experience the work anyway. Or even better, you could see a simultaneous live broadcast at your home computer? Or share the experience with a large group at a screening in a park or movie theater? Think about the movements that would create—passionate fans organizing theater clubs, rallying around writers and their plays, writing impassioned blogs, quoting memorable lines in daily conversation, tracking the writers’ progress on-line, advocating for their work in their own communities.

These new goals would require institutions to change how they think about producing—and how they define success. That it’s not always about how many butts are in the seats, but how many people in our society are affected by the work. What if we counted in our audience figures those who are reading plays, watching videos about them, engaging in conversations about the issues within those plays and following the work of artists, even without having set foot in the theater? Would that make the work any less valid? It doesn’t mean that live theater will cease to exist, but hopefully it will play to full houses. The mounting excitement around the plays may lead to audiences full of theater-newbies who are chomping at the bit to see the live performance of a play by Lisa Kron, Katori Hall or Rajiv Joseph, instead of something someone may do if there were free tickets.

What if producers of theater made their process completely transparent? What if rehearsals were broadcast on internet radio, interviews with the creators were podcast? What if conversations and dialogue were generated about the theme and content of the play in a series of blogs, roundtable conversations? We invite our audiences to participate in deeper more thought provoking ways than writing a check or buying a ticket. We also help them understand the process of making theater itself, a process that is foreign to most.

To go a step further, what if people were deeply invested in the “major players” of the theater, like in sports? What if the process of casting were open and public? What if we knew about the process of actors auditioning for various roles so that people could be invested in their favorite actor’s success? This kind of transparency is scary to imagine (would it become Theater Idol?), but I think transparency allows for stronger and more respectful communication. It opens the dialogue not only between the actors and the creative team but also with the community at large. My colleague Vijay Mathew even went as far to suggest at the Baltimore TCG conference in June that producers should make their play selection process completely transparent. That producers should make it public knowledge what plays they were choosing from and why? And through that process, communication between writers and the producers became even more respectful and open, rather than closed door and seemingly random.

Funders and granting institutions would then have to rethink their strategies to support this change. Say they expanded their granting to support innovative audience engagement strategies? What if they diversified their funding to support more artist residencies in non-theater institutions? Imagine the conversations between a group of resident artists and leaders and experts at a think tank organization like the Council on Foreign Relations? What if every local government in America hired a full-time resident artist in a community, whose job was simply to create art in that community? Imagine the difference that local theater artist would make within that underserved community. Imagine the impact of theater if this happened all over this country.

Are they these ideas do-able? Sure, but not without some serious advocacy, sheer will and determination, and community building. I falter a bit as I write this as I think about my own show which had its first public performance last night and will have its last performance on September 26th. On September 27th, the set will be long gone, the actors will have dispersed, and I will also be starting rehearsals for my next project. Seems difficult to create a movement in the midst of such a hectic schedule. But now is exactly the time for me to work towards the world I imagine and write about it. By starting to think about audience engagement in my own creative process, rather than leaving the challenge for the marketing department to wrestle with alone while I work in an isolated rehearsal hall and direct the play.

Our society needs artists’ vision and theater’s spirit of collaboration now more than ever. So we must respond with more effective ways to engage our society in a deeper, more profound way. We must redefine who the “audience” is, and be bold about engaging people not normally considered within our reach. Make theater truly accessible. Open the doors, allow people to become stake holders in our art and our vision.