Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Rocco Landesman: What does an 'over-supply of theater' really mean?

By Barry Johnson

Rocco Landesman, the chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts, made a number of inflammatory  comments at last week's new play conference in Washington, DC, enough to create quite a little firestorm. Most of the discontent among the theater professionals at the conference was channeled toward Landesman's contention that since American theater couldn't increase demand, it would have to limit supply. Which everyone rightly interpreted as close some theaters down. Needless to say, if you're running a theater company, these aren't the words you want to hear tripping lightly from the lips of your NEA chairman.

That wasn't the worst part for me, which arrived in a follow-up interview by the New York Times, when Landesman suggested that foundations and government agencies might have to decide to re-allocate their resources, directing their money to fewer institutions. The implication of this remark is that agencies and foundations will work together to pick winners and losers in order to correct the oversupply. (If they didn't, they'd be working at cross purposes -- if Meyer Memorial Trust cut off Portland Center Stage and the Oregon Arts Commission didn't, then Center Stage might survive to create that nasty oversupply of theater stuff, for example.)

I instantly reached for most inflammatory term I could think of for this concerted action -- Theater Death Panel. Hey, when Rocco's fireballs fill the sky, I reach for my own Molotov cocktail. Fair is fair.

Now I've had a little more time for reflection and research, and I've decided that Landesman was conflating two different critiques of American theater. Yes, one is that whole oversupply issue (which I personally think is crazy -- a "binary" reduction of a complex situation, as Travis Bedard suggests on the 2AMt theater blog). The other is his belief that the great regional non-profit companies have grown too ambitious financially and in reaching for the gold of Broadway (where Landesman has been a significant force for the past few decades) have become less ambitious artistically -- and less connected to their communities.

These are contradictory enough to generate almost any response from the audience. The first argues from a market-based analysis of supply and demand. The second argues that the market has been too important for the country's largest non-profit theater companies. So which is it?  Do we want our non-profit theater companies to be cold-blooded capitalists, filling their theaters with as many suckers as they can? Or idealistic theater flower children chasing their rainbows and butterflies and following their own artistic bliss? Because you can't have it both ways.

We'll deal with the second part first.

Bob Hicks tipped me off to the New York-centric nature of Landesman's viewpoint, both in his comments here and then in a post on Art Scatter (my old stomping ground). I don't think Bob has it exactly right, because his presumption, inferred from Landesman's previous infamous "Peoria" comments (in which he suggested that the quality of Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago should trump the geographical diversity of some random theater in Peoria when it came to getting an NEA grant), is that Landesman thinks the big guys should always get the money. Landesman's comments to the new play conference argue against that line.

Here's our own Trisha Mead's summary of Landesman's remarks along these lines:
He [Landesman] declared, "The founders and funders of the great institutions [regional non-profits] wanted to work outside the exigencies of the box office. They wanted a protected environment to do work that otherwise wouldn't exist." Some time in our recent past, he feels, we have moved from a culture of "opposition" to a culture of "success." We've become obsessed with our metrics of success... ticket sales, Broadway transfers, reviews... We are losing the impetus to create work that is chosen deliberately because it is unsuitable for commercial production.
The analysis on Parabasis, though, supported the New York-centric part of Bob's observation, and then explained the reason for Landesman's criticism of those profit-thirsty, fame-hungry non-profits. Mostly, it's that the non-profit theater companies can develop a play and plant its flag on Broadway for far less money than a commercial venture can, primarily because it pays its directors, actors and designers far less, at least in the developmental phase. Like the Roundabout Theatre in New York, which has moved many of its shows straight to Broadway. Oh, and also the reasons he cited, which are perfectly plausible, I suppose, though I would argue that sometimes a company such as Steppenwolf (just to use an example previously cited) can slip something "oppositional" right in the middle of mainstream Broadway (August: Osage County, say).

Parabasis noted the obvious "bile" that Landesman displayed in his comments. I have a similar critique of the regional companies (they do the same plays the same way, employ the same directors and designers, rarely take a chance on new work, etc.), although I think that's changing. Like Landesman, I think theater companies should be more attuned to their local communities (unlike him, maybe, I think that's a strategy for success, not an idealistic position), and I think it's "scandalous" that theater artists working at our prominent theater companies can't make a living wage from their work. Crazily, he blames this on the oversupply of theaters: Surely, the more theaters out there competing for competent directors, the higher their wages will be, according to orthodox economics.  (Just for the record,  I've about decided that Landesman's use of Econ 101 terms is metaphorical, not literal -- more about that in a moment.)

But my point is this: If we discussed regional theaters and their discontents, I don't think you'd detect any "bile" in my conversation. That's because I don't now nor have I ever had a specific, personal stake in the matter. Landesman has. As NEA chairman, he should recuse himself from discussions that involve the interpenetration of non-profits and Broadway theater, or do the self-analysis necessary to approach things more dispassionately.

Back to Parabasis (the post was written by 99 Seats -- theater insiders may know his or her real name, but I don't): When Landesman talks about defunding and eliminating theater companies, 99 Seats infers that he's talking about the big boys, not the alternative theater companies. Support comes from Landesman himself, in his interview with the Times: “There might be too many resident theaters — it is possible.”  Here's how Parabasis put it:
"But, I think, when you add up what Rocco was saying, it seems less like he's aiming at taking the little guys out of the equation and more like he's re-evaluating his funding priorities on the basis of what kind of work a theatre is doing. If a theatre is effectively a commercial producer, but still needs the NEA to survive, it's doing something wrong."
That's not how the "little guys" took Landesman's supply and demand comments, though. That's because they know how the funding world works. If Landesman managed to convene a Death Panel in Oregon, let's face it, Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Portland Center Stage, our two largest theater companies, would not be at risk, even if they deserved it.

Travis Bedard is from Austin, and his post is a great case in point (and you really should read it in full -- smart, passionate, personal):
"Mr. Landesman, I know it feels like giving NEA pocket change to small communities who aren’t making art you would fly to see (though you should come down for Fusebox – queso’s on me) is throwing it away when development venues are strapped and laying people off.

But I urge you to come back over this weekend and remind yourself that that pocket change is being given to the most resourceful artists your hard-working staff can find. And those artists are turning those resources into stories, and beauty and art, and creating more artists.

You keep fighting the fight to keep us supplied and let us worry about creating demand."
Let's look more deeply at that supply/demand equation as Landesman describes it: "Look. You can either increase demand or decrease supply. Demand is not going to increase, so it is time to think about decreasing supply." Where to start. Let's see "You" can't do anything about it. The market as a whole takes care of the problem. You are inevitably part of the market taking care of the problem. And it's really not a "problem"; merely an imbalance. If demand is low, then supply will shrink, the market theory says. In the arts, we've already seen a lot of organizations go out of business, big and small, as the recession sent them into the Red Zone.

Presumably, Landesman wants the NEA to bet on winners, right?  Winners are successfully maintaining market share. But if he's going to use this rhetoric, he's going to have to abandon his critique of the Big Boys: "We are losing the impetus to create work that is chosen deliberately because it is unsuitable for commercial production."  Because if the NEA gives money against the grain of the market, it risks losing it. Demand will continue shrink and supply will shrink along with it.

Now we are back around to my original post, which argues that non-profit theater is in a mixed economy. A theater gets money from the box office, sure, and that's critical for every company in Oregon that I know about. It gets money from individual donors, sponsors, foundations and government agencies, too. And because that money isn't sufficient to pay a reasonable, living wage to many of the artists involved, in most cases, the company receives a great, often unacknowledged investment from the artists themselves.

So the supply/demand equation of the specific entertainment marketplace isn't absolute. If I have sufficient funds and I believe in the work of a particular company, I can fund it, regardless of how big an audience it attracts.  My foundation may decide to fund a theater because the company meets its criteria for grants or my government agency may fund it because the selection panel decided the quality of its work warranted support -- whether it is popular or not. And finally, the artists can continue to support it for their own individual reasons, which may have nothing to do with the logic of the market.

Landesman and the NEA should fund work they think is important. That's fine. If they want to use all their theater money to micro-finance every theater start-up in the country for the next year, I might be stunned and I might argue for a slightly different course, but vaya con dios. It would at least be interesting to see what that looks like. It's a good thing to have lots of people "voting" on theater companies, ultimately, because they expand the range of funded theater experiments, and the wider the range the more likely one of them fits my particular needs.

The NEA shouldn't be attempting to enforce its decisions (whether I think they are good or not) on everyone else in some misbegotten effort to fix a mythical "over-supply" problem. That course leads to the monoculture that Landesman says he opposes.

As I said, Landesman is probably using supply and demand in this context metaphorically, as a handy tool to make his basic point, which has to do with the behavior of the larger non-profit theater companies more than it does some imbalance in the economics of theater companies in general. That's the Parabasis point, though I disagree with them that there's any possibility that Landesman's economic rhetoric could actually lead to useful decisions about... well, anything.

One last citation that underscores the "irrationality" of artists' investment in theater. It's from Adam Thurman's Mission Paradox blog:
"Even if you agree entirely with his point, I think that what Rocco is saying is True But Useless. The arts are a passion business and all the economic arguments in the world aren't going to stop people who feel like they must (for reasons both noble and foolish) create art through an organization."
Exactly, and that's a form of demand, isn't it? And then he concludes:
"In a way Rocco is right, generally speaking there isn't enough demand for a lot of art forms. But I could use that same reasoning to persuade you from almost any career path. There isn't enough demand for lawyers, coffee shops, etc.

What you have to do - and this isn't easy - is carve a path separate and distinct from what's already out in the world. You have to engage the world differently and hope that leads to new sources of demand."
This is pretty good advice, when you think about it. It's not a public policy or anything, but maybe Landesman should keep it in mind when he starts describing the arts world and thinking about how to make it better.