Sunday, July 13, 2008

Indie Theater Convocation: Rochelle Denton's Welcoming Remarks

Here's the text of Rochelle's speech from the 2nd Indie Theater Convocation on July 12th. Rochelle is NYTE's Managing Director. Can't reproduce her inimitable delivery (or ad libs) here...but this is the crux of what she had to say:

Welcome to the 2nd Indie Theater Convocation. It is absolutely great to see so many faces out there. And each of you is sharing your seat with at least 3 other indie artists – Melle Powers is in rehearsal but wants notes, so Julie sharpen that pencil and write faster; Pam Butler is out of town but wants lots of pictures, Ryan start clickin’; Emily Otto has a gig in Boston; Leonard Jacobs is teaching at the O’Neill; Mike Daisey is performing in DC; Michael Criscuolo, Ian Hill, and a slew of others are rehearsing. And on and on. Each one is here in spirit and the response has been overwhelming. Thank you, thank you all!

And extra special thanks to some really great folks who immediately stepped to the fore and volunteered to help. The absolutely indispensible Jo Ann Rosen whom you met at the sign up table – our lists will be perfect thanks to her. The talented Daniel Talbott (with 2 t’s) who made sure all the techie stuff would work and it does and Denis Butkus, actor par excellence who assisted Daniel to make sure this stuff I know nothing about all came together. Also Julie Congress, Mitch Conway (up in the booth), Ryan Emmons, and Samantha Hooper-Hamersley from the new theater company known as No. 11 who eagerly volunteered and have been scampering around doing a multitude of jobs.

Now on to my completely extemporaneous, short speech that I have here in my hand and will refer to often. On Wednesday I quickly wrote a fantastic speech which combined the lyricism of Shakespeare, the humor of Twain, the incendiary activism of Odets and Brecht, the wisdom of Aristotle, the succinctness of Lincoln, and references to the words and music of Michael Jackson, Michael John LaChiusa, and The Boss. On Thursday, I metaphorically ripped it up – that is I pressed the delete key and now it is gone to the cyber-graveyard of lost masterpieces. Seriously, I did this because what I had written did not have the passion I was looking for, the ‘of the moment’ that was important to convey to you. So here goes the new version – a version with many co-authors.

Indie Theater! In the two plus years since the 1st Ever Indie Theater Convocation, it's become evermore commonplace to hear it used. Here’s one thing that happened as a result of the convocation and, you may not know about it. Right here in, The Best Plays Theatre Yearbook 2005-6 on pp. 261-2. In the Off-Off-Broadway section, essayist John Istel immortalizes our movement in between the covers of this, the bible for academics and theatre lovers. After some background material we read: “Playwright Kirk Wood Bromley suggested ditching the ‘Off Off Broadway’ handle and replacing it with ‘Indie Theater’. No longer tied to geography or Equity contract, Indie Theater could be found anywhere as long as it embodied a certain aesthetic.” The article then quotes from Kirk’s essay on indietheater.org and concludes by stating: “Bromley’s use of the term ‘Indie Theater” was subsequently picked up by critic Martin Denton who created the website…”

But what does it really mean? What is ‘Indie”? Old English Lit major that I am, I looked for source material. Much to my amazement I found “indie” in the dictionary. And here’s its definition -- "one, such as a studio or producer, that is unaffiliated with a larger or more commercial organization; an artistic work produced by an independent company or group." And that aptly describes most everyone in this room.

Recently, Jessica Davis Irons, artistic director of AndHow! Theatre Company, gave a speech at a fundraiser for her company. She and co-founder, Margie Stokley emailed me a copy of her speech. I believe she does a great job of making this definition even more personal:

"There is a magical community in NYC. Some people call it Indie theater. Some people call it off-off broadway, some people call it downtown. I think it is the heart of American Theater. New plays and playwrights are born there....The neat thing about this community, is that we exist not as a springboard to get to the great white way, although that sometimes happens. We exist because there is a want for off the beaten track stories, innovative theatrical moments, odd characters and a place where plays grow."

I was most taken by her use of the word "community" for that it is what indie theater is and should be. The diverse forms of theatrical expression come together to form a community that will provide theatergoers and theatre lovers an opportunity to partake of the creativity of individuality – the creativity of imagination springing forth from the hard work of talented, intelligent people whose artistic vision is unique and of today.

According to Hamilton Clancy, artistic director of The Drilling Company, the roots of indie theater go back further than the ‘50s and ‘60’s, back perhaps to the founding of the Provincetown Playhouse and to the Group Theatre and the WPA. You can read more about this on his comment on Martin’s blog. Beyond its roots, Hamilton states there are other important points to consider and I quote:

"Throughout the history of theatre in New York, artists have been soldiering to create work with vitality. The reputation of the city, around the world, is renowned for attracting artists who were daring enough to start organizations like the Wooster Group or Richard Foreman downtown. This is what makes this a city worth traveling to if you are in search of modern culture either as an audience member or as an artist. The initiation and success of this organization are vital to the future of New York Theatre if it is once again to become a city where culturally relevant work is originated (rather than imported). If the independent theatre community commanded the press attention which the London Underground theatre commands, we would be churning plays to bigger audiences on a regular basis."

Yes, we are Indie Theater. I know it because so many of you have told me similar thoughts to what Hamilton and Jessica have said. I would like to read you one more email I received just the other day from Bryn Manion, co-founder with Wendy Remington of Aisling Arts. Here’s what she has to say:

"I think one of the most courageous moments in the evolution of artistic movements is when, independent of commercial purposes, people acknowledge that the current era is unique from those preceding it. The identification of the new moment, the naming of it, and the collective acknowledgement that, yes, it is a unique time, is an empowering and liberating experience. We live in a different era and make our work under different circumstances than our Off-Off predecessors.

"When Wendy and I first tapped into this "indie" community concept, we breathed a sigh of relief. For us Broadway was not the ultimate aspiration, in fact, it didn’t even register as an ambition of ours; nor did we arrive in New York to emulate other New York artists….. Our simple goal was to make the art we deemed worthy of the long tradition and history of our form, and forge significant/meaningful relationships with a wide variety of people along the way. We've paid largely for our work ourselves and never intend to bend it to someone else's wishes because of commercial needs…. We, sigh, were indie. We are indie. Pretty simple. To have a name for what we were changed our confidence level and our mission for our work. That dawning realization two years ago was a tremendous weight off our chests. Thanks for helping us feel at home as artists living in New York."

The Off-Off Broadway movement and its practitioners are to be revered by everyone who has an interest in theatre. Its importance can never be diminished. But, as Bryn states – indie theater is a new movement, a movement of the 21st century.

A theatre guy named Will asked hundreds of years ago “What’s in a name?” and then answered “that which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet.” I would respond to Will that a name is everything and really nothing. If you feel more comfortable calling your work off-off-Broadway or performance art or downtown theatre, or whatever, do so, because each of you is an independent artist and person with independent beliefs and leanings. But be an indie theater artist in addition. Support the indie theater movement. To continue my analogy, identify your art in your own unique way but more people will recognize us as a “rose” if we all use the same name.

13 comments:

virgodog said...

Indie Theater

some thoughts from my blog http://chrisharcum.blogspot.com/

I went to the 2nd Indie Theater Convocation yesterday. Going to that did what going to good theatre always does for me. It reminds me I'm not alone in this pursuit of human stuff. It was great to be in a room with people who make theatre from a place of passion, intelligence, humanity, and with craft. Huge big thanks to Rochelle and Martin Denton as well as John Clancy and the rest for hitting the metaphorical bottle of champagne against the ship setting us all off on the most amazing adventure.

(Side note: There was a lot of talk about Actors' Equity Showcase rules mucking us all up. As a member of Equity and this world of self-producing real work, I know we will push it ahead. We should call ourselves Progressive Members of Equity while we are in the wave of creating a sea change.)

I have a dream for The League of Independent Theater and will share with you the flashes, images, and crazy notions I would love to see come true from this.

1. A change in the mentality the public has about Indie Theater. I think we should stop using off-off for awhile and see what happens. What will off-Broadway do?

2. Gain respect through good marketing and branding. LIT should mean quality. A great image/logo. T-shirts, stickers, etc. Maybe cool League of Independent Theater trading cards. Kids will say, "I'll give you 2 John Clancy's for a Chris Harcum."

3. A League of Independent Theater TKTS booth in Times Square, Union Square, and with posts at the big schools here.

4. A LIT Development Center where work grows so we can move beyond some of the slapdash cramming of festivals. I'm not knocking festivals. I'm suggesting other choices besides festivals, showcases, and evenings of work.

5. A LIT connection with colleges. Internships. Field trips for schools with multiple shows in a weekend. Talkbacks. Workshops connected with productions to give the serious drama major across the nation insights into methodologies and real-world conditions. Wouldn't it be great if the Plays and Playwrights Series had a play going up at every college across America and worldwide? Scene study done with pieces by our colleagues and not just Williams, O'Neill, and Pinter?

6. Seeing a great show run for 8 months in a LIT space because it can.

7. A reclaiming of important theatre spaces. I never was here when the Caffe Cino was the Caffe Cino or the Theatorium was the Theatorium. They should get historic designations. LIT spaces should have 80/20 rent. I know this is also a problem with rock clubs. Maybe we can start a revolution here.

8. A working relationship with the Producers League so the people who want to learn how to produce theater can do it with LIT shows. Or have them help LIT peeps learn how to produce work better. Or an exchange/learning center so you don't have to kill yourself to mount your first Fringe show (or your third). I put up a bunch of shows I still have an existential crisis when I have to sit down to make a budget for a production.

9. Volunteer hours as part of yearly membership. I think we would all benefit if we gave 10-20 hours a year helping shows in which we aren't directly involved. We would learn from how other artists work and they wouldn't have to cry into a bowl of despair cereal at 2am because the show opens Thursday and they are too busy to eat a real meal. It would be great if being with LIT got rid of the "I'm all alone here/no one gives a shit/why am I doing this" syndrome. Or some of it anyway.

10. A code of ethics. We're in this together. Don't push aside someone else's postcards on a table for your own, etc.

11. LIT teen series. Wouldn't it be great if kids around this theatre mecca city started doing indie theater early? How many voices are we not hearing? How many hearts are wandering in silence?

12. Get on tourists' radar. Have deals with tour bus companies to drop them in nice, safe areas where great indie theater is done. Get listed in Lonely Planet and other tour guide books. Get connected with hotel theater desks.

13. A LIT Majors Revival Series. What if 3 shows a year were chosen to have 10 week runs the next year?

14. No awards ceremonies. No divisiveness. You mount a LIT production, you get to be certified officially. Maybe a post on Gawker or Wikipedia but no awards. New generation, new rules. You want competition go play chess boxing.

15. A place to post needs and jobs like a LIT craigslist.

16. Performances captured and preserved on video. Great LIT on PBS?

17. A great slogan. "If it ain't LIT, it must be $^!+." Or something better.

18. A brochure to explain to our parents we haven't thrown away our lives.

19. A street named after Rochelle and Martin Denton. Preferably while they are living.

20. Have it be noted in Theatre History books that July 12, 2008 is when LIT started a revolution.
Posted by virgodog at 8:25 PM

John said...

Well fucking hell, virgodog.

You need to take my job when I'm done with it.

Yes and yes and up to 20 yes.

Exactly.

Let's have breakfast and then maybe lunch.

John

parallelexit said...

John,

Seriously, can you make every one of virgodog's ideas an agenda item for the League? Amazing, clear, ambitious, yet totally achievable. To borrow a phrase, "YES WE CAN."

Mark Lonergan
Artistic Director
Parallel Exit

John said...

Mark,

Virgodog and I are supposed to have breakfast tomorrow. And yeah, I think LIT and NYTE working together can make all of those agenda items and can make real progress on all of those fronts.

Like I said at the Convocation, we've built a ship that we're pretty sure floats, but the members will tell us where we're going.

Land ho and all that.

parallelexit said...

A second post. Virgodog, you've inspired me. Some additional items, building on your flashes, images, crazy notions:

1. If not a separate ticket booth, be part of TKTS booth, in our own category.

2. Once the Showcase videotaping issue has been resolved, the League purchases 2 or more high-end cameras available to members to rent at very low rates, or partnering with a company that already does this, and negotiating a deal for discount rates for members.

3. Membership cards.

4. Any contact the League has with people outside the organization (funders, realtors, tourist organizations, et.) – communicate the legitimacy of the members – e.g. John Clancy, Obie winner, Parallel Exit, Drama Desk nominee - to immediately attract their attention, interest, and respect.

5. You may already be pursuing this - funding for the League from NYSCA, DCA, NYFA, individual donors.

6. Asking for pro bono service to the League in any and all areas - set this up with organizations such as the Arts and Business Council – website designer, graphic designer, printer, lawyers, etc.

7. Do an annual benefit for the League – huge – on the scale of Broadway Bares – and with that kind of outrageous and/or attention-getting concept and content.

8. Partner with organizations that sell theatre packages to tourists, school groups, etc. to simply add an indie theatre package as part of what they offer – an alternative for people who want to go beyond Broadway.

9. Define what it is that is appealing about indie theatre – to locals, American tourists, foreign tourists – in succinct, electrifying language – “Theatre beyond Broadway” – and then get that message out in any and every way possible – ads, websites, TKTS booth, tourist guides, etc.

10. A serious Board of Directors and Advisory Board for the League, with heavy hitters from the industry - especially people who have their roots in our territory.

And I won't just talk - I'll help do it. Anything I can. I promise. See you on the 22nd.

Mark Lonergan
Artistic Director
Parallel Exit

chance d. muehleck said...

I heartily agree with these points. And I'll add one more, which may relate to both #2 and #5 of Virgodog's list: some form of context for the audience. That is, material that could be read pre- or post-show that briefly places the League and indie theatre in the history of off-off B'way. Such material could also be tailored to a specific show's aesthetic by a producer or director.

This touches on an idea made before in the blogosphere about theatres taking a cue from museum curators. If done well, it could develop an entirely new kind of audience.

RLewis said...

I'll just jump in to 2nd everyone's appreciation for the Convocation. It's a terrific thing to do and should be done more often.

As I am more interested in the NYTE developments than Indie Theater, I wish there had been a Q&A after the Denton's presentation rather than just after the LIT one. While I appreciate community more than most, I still think that marketing upgrades hold more promise for real change than organizing the unorganizable; and with all the great work that Martin and Rochelle have done, taking IT visibility to the next level is change that I can believe in.

If I were a LIT leader my head would be spinning from the volume of great suggestions that I've already read here. Since all cannot be done at once, I look forward to some clarification of the organization's priorities.

Our community perinnially confronts wheel-reinvention issues, so I hope that, going forward, there is a committee, or some evaluation, of which issues effect the most of us and which issues are the most effectable. I understand that nothing is absolute, and there are always exceptions, but for the most part some hills are higher and harder to climb than others.

i.e. getting college students to buy tickets to IT has been tried again and again. It has not appeared to have ever worked; and I assume it's because students have their own productions as well as cheap/free tickets to Broadway and other local theater.

i.e. quality control rarely works in an open society. If anyone can join IT, then IT will not have a rep' for quality. Why try? I think anyone should be able to join, so I'd focus more on building a rep for Cool, instead of quality (not that there's anything wrong with it).

i.e. Tourists come to the City to see Broadway shows. Every IT generation has vowed to get tourists into their seats, and in 25 years here, I just haven't seen it happen. We have great loyal friends, neighbors and family who fill most of our houses: why not treat them better? Maybe next time they'll bring a friend. Word of mouth is singularly the most effective marketing IT has ever had, not a ticket booth. Wouldn't a unique word-of-mouth campaign be new and different, rather than more dreams of strangers at your show?

i.e. I hope we do not need a League to get us to help our fellow producers get a show up. My company and myself, individually, make it a point to help our theatermaking friends. But it is soooo hard. Mostly, I'm happy just to see their show. With all the administration necessary to run my company, I continually cry about not having the time to write and/or direct my own work (moreless have a personal life). I take pride in offering my help whenever I can, but I'd hate to be required to do so.

i.e. Watch just a lil' MNN and you'll see enough live performance on video to make you cringe. I've never seen one that didn't make me think that it will surely keep anyone who hasn't been to IT from ever going. Forget the problems of editing, movement, pov, and clarity - just listen. Sound quality is always a turn-off. The only way to make it work is to re-stage it for the cameras and mic actors, but then it's not theater anymore.

i.e. As an AEA member I'm more open to videotaping shows than most, but I would never vote for it. And I know from attending OOB meetings that AEA's lawyers would never allow it. Imagine one clip mashed up to make a union actor look stupid and put on You Tube so millions see it. If it were me, the union couldn't afford that lawsuit. Look, even the Daily Show and Colbert have pulled all their content from open source sites - permission to video a showcase is getting less likely, not more so. It's a bargaining chip at best for other great changes that already seem to be in the offing.

i.e. I'll leave Awards to Shay and reclaiming theaters to Leonard. And although I'd love to see any IT show run for 8 to 10 weeks, I wouldn't want my membership fee to pay for it (please don't tell me it'd make money. what planet?)

I don't mean to rain on parades, but I've heard too many simple solutions to complex problems. I hope that focus and strategy will win out over an everything-in-the-pot approach. It's so hard to do what we do and still come together to do more. Pace yourselves, and learn from the successes and failures of those who tried before (believe me, ever thought I've read here so far, I've read before). I like that LIT picked advocacy (501-h?) over arts service (501-c?), something like that, and that sticking to those guns will make for the best effectiveness.

John said...

I hear you, rlewis.

I was in a lot of those meetings back in the early morning of the day as well, not as many as you, I think, but certainly enough to take a lot of the reform talk with a fistful of salt.

We built the framework of LIT as an advocacy organization for exactly that reason.

That's different. It's not just a coalition or a group of concerned folks or a group of producers or anything like that.

It's an advocacy organization, existing only to advocate for its members.

I'm not promising a thing and we've all had enough pep talks to go out and beat the Cornhuskers single-handed.

But I will say this. The only time anything gets changed in this country, for the better, is when the disenfranchised get organized, ask for what they want in clear terms and then weather the storm.

It won't happen by January 2009. Things may not change, in a real way, by January 2010.

But if we stick together and make our case, and providing our case is a good one, which I believe it is, then it will change.

That's the only way things change.

Invested, committed, stubborn people change them.

So don't worry about raining on the parade, it's already gale-force weather out there.

But rain a little bit on the garden as well.

Green things are growing down there.

virgodog said...

It's great to see so many ideas flowing so far. I like what RLewis said about cool over quality. I guess no one can really guarantee quality. Look at Glory Days on Bway. I do think the way to get people from America to come to our shows is to invade the colleges and universities who are wanting to do this kind of stuff. Maybe not the colleges here. I'm not sure I haven't really tried. I know when I've done a show with a student from any school in NYC, the house is usually very full of young faces. I don't know if a word of mouth campaign can be that new and different. People are beyond postcards and email blasts so we have to move on to the next thing. If you are a successful producer yourself, you could use your volunteer hours to help teach others who aren't. We will have to alive and interactive on the internet to be so in person. Our TVs are going digital in Feb so they can become our computers. Content will be sloshing all over the place but that's a bigger enchilada. I do hope instead of working on the wheel we're pushing towards a better renewable energy source with LIT.

Aisling Arts said...

Just want to give a little "right on" to Ralph's comment about treating our loyal friends, neighbors and family as best we can. For my money, you PWP folks are just about the best damned example of how to treat people well. You all are aces, and our community stands to learn alot from the integrity and generosity you put out into the great big world.

Two thoughts I keep coming back to:

1. In my travels abroad I notice that people go to theatre simply as something to do. Rather than being An Event, it's just part of regular get-out-of-the-house-and-see-people entertainment. Relatively inexpensive. Not really for tourists. I like that way of seeing things alot.

2. In New York, I always feel a little overwhelmed by the perception that this is where you go to "make it." Be your own best publicist. Take another marketing workshop. Do an industry mailing. Combine that with the ultra-expense of making plays in this town, and we have a rather neurotic culture. It can be a little spastic and paranoid. Most times, I'd rather go to the Living Room, buy a drink and see some cheap live music. So much less pressure as an audience member!

What I'm trying to say (and I doubt how well I'm doing it!) is that a little loosey goosey is good too. A little informal is good. A little messy and accidental is ok. And making connections with non-theater folks without marketing to them could really help our theatre culture here in the city.

Oh, and I'd also like to start an Indie Theatre Olympics! Companies sign up, make uniforms, meet at a park, compete in a wild array of stupid human tricks, monologue recitations, obstacle courses, dramaturgical quizzes and rigging blitzes. Make it a charitable event. Anyone game?

John said...

Excellent way of looking at it, I think. I know that I don't like being hustled, just invited casually to see a band or an exhibit or whatever.

And hell yes to the Olympics. My boy Matt Oberg can balance a chair on his chin. You can see him do it tonight, tomorrow and Saturday, actually, at 52 Church Street, 7:30.

See how I casually slipped that in there?

Anonymous said...

Hi Everyone -
It's so great to see all these postings! I'm sorry to be a bit behind in adding to this.

I'm all for a relationship with the Producers League. More knowledge is better!

But I also think we have as much - or maybe more - to share with each other (perhaps in roundtable type formats). I think it's important for us to figure out how to have an identity and a mission that is different from the big guys, and how to make that attractive to funders and real estate folks.

Just a thought...
Jeni

virgodog said...

The more I think about it, Jeni Anonymous, I agree about LIT Producing Classes, etc. I'd like a LIT Learning Annex for this sort of thing. Following the Rich Dad cue, we can work together to raise our producing IQ so we continue to grow and thrive. Some economists are predicting this downturn to continue for 1-2 more years. We could spin what we do and lead the way for the country in producing on little or no funding. The Under $1000 Club. Ingenuity and financial wizardry should be applauded, not looked down upon. We should take pride in being able to do this rather than feeling like the broke ass mutant children.