The transcript of the May 1, 2006 symposium “Seeking Solutions to the Past Decade’s Radical Reduction in the National Touring of New American Plays,” sponsored by Roadside Theater and Pregones Theater in The Bronx, New York. Published by Community Arts Network (CAN).
For Roadside Theater and many other community-based ensembles, touring was once an inspiring part of the artistic process. Packing plays freshly minted at home, theaters from all points of the compass hit the road in a spirit of artistic and cultural exchange. Challenged by other artists and audiences, both plays and actors got better.
Sit down with any touring ensemble active in the 1970s and 80s and with very little prompting the road stories come tumbling out. Stories like A Travel Jewish Theatre's first visit to Roadside Theater's home in the rural Appalachian coalfields of eastern Kentucky in 1982. ATJT was bringing "The Last Yiddish Poet" and amidst a flurry of phone calls from San Francisco in the weeks leading up to their visit, Roadside noticed a growing apprehension, finally pegging at moderate panic. It began as gallows humor, cracks like the visit resulting in their becoming The Last Jewish Theatre. Things took a turn for the worse when several ATJT ensemble members checked out a video of the film "Deliverance."
To quiet their fears, we told them the old story of the only known Jewish settlers in our area, an eastern European pack peddler and his bride who stopped to open a store selling general merchandise. After the birth of their first child, the rumor went abroad in the community that the baby was born with two small but distinct horns. It wasn't long before this rumor landed on the young couple's doorstep. The next day, passers-by were surprised to see the newborn child cradled in the couple's shop window. For a week every day thereafter, from noon to 1:00 pm, this was the case, until the rumor was extinguished.
Our upbeat story somehow failed to provide comfort to our traveling guests; however I can report that their opening night performance had a special energy that surprised even them. The next day a big picture of "The Last Yiddish Poet" appeared on the front page of the Coalfield Progress with a story marveling at the electricity crackling across the stage and telling of the standing ovation that the company received.
Not only did touring broaden artists' experience and improve their craft, but for ensembles such as Roadside, it was the gateway to developing multiyear community-based residencies. The purpose of these cultural development residencies was to help communities become more aware of their local life and to display their unique cultural and artistic resources in public performances. This past decade's radical reduction in the touring of new plays has closed this gateway by dismantling an important framework of support for such work. As a result, the community-based arts movement in the U.S. has suffered a set-back. The following report explores the causes and searches for the solutions to this dramatic reversal of fortune. –Dudley Cocke
May 1, 2006
On May 1, 2006, 18 touring artists, managers, performing arts presenters and foundation leaders met at Pregones Theater in the Bronx to discuss solutions to the past decade’s radical reduction in national touring for new American plays.
Co-hosting the meeting were Rosalba Rolón (Pregones Theater, N.Y.), Dudley Cocke (Roadside Theater, Kentucky.), Michael and Theresa Holden (Holden and Arts Associates, Texas), Steve Loftin (Aronoff Center for the Arts, Ohio), Katherine Knowles (Zeiterion Theatre, Massachusetts), Diane Ragsdale (The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, N.Y/) and Sandra Gibson (Association of Performing Arts Presenters, D.C.) . Joining as participants were Cees deBever, Liana Velázquez, Alan Liddell, Virginia Louloudes, Jorge Merced, Donna Porterfield, Rory MacPherson, Ann Rosenthal, Jamie Haft and Alván Colon-Lespier.
10:15 – 10:30
10:30 – 10:50
Review of barriers/ additions, clarifications
10:50 – 11:30
Value of doing work
11:30 – 11:45
11:45 – 1:00
Strategies to pursue
Welcome and Meeting Format
Rosalba Rolón: Good morning and welcome everyone to Pregones’ new theater! We’re happy to be hosting this particular discussion, which falls under the broad heading of U.S. cultural policy. It is my hope that in our time together we can begin to articulate policy solutions to touring new plays which are made to reach a popular, not just a wealthy, audience. Our purpose is to discuss solutions to the past decade’s radical reduction in national touring for new U.S. plays.
Dudley Cocke: Let me give you an overview of what Rosalba and I are proposing we do and see if it suits. We thought we’d take a few minutes to go around so each person can introduce themselves briefly. Next we’d spend 20 minutes looking at the summary of "barriers" that we collected from you (see sidebar). The point of these 20 minutes will not be to go over these barriers, but to hear if there are any questions, clarifications, or if someone has an additional barrier to add. Then we wanted to spend about 40 minutes answering the question: Is touring new plays important? And if so, why is it important? What is it about touring new and experimental work that, for example, the commercial sector can’t take care of? Why is it important to the nonprofit sector? This gets at the cultural policy issue that Rosalba has introduced. I think it’s fair to take the question head-on and not presume that it necessarily is something that the nonprofit sector has to do. But if we feel like it is, then we should spend time talking about what are the values that are at the base of that judgment. Then we’ll take a break for 15 minutes and come back for an hour to focus on strategies. We are not going to solve this problem that has been created over a period of years, but perhaps we can get ideas about what we might pursue as some first steps.
Hearing no objections to this format, let’s introduce ourselves, going around the table. I’ll start off. I’m Dudley Cocke, interim director of Appalshop and director of Roadside Theater, which is a part of Appalshop down in the coalfields of eastern Kentucky. The theater has been creating original work for 30 years, and Appalshop has been going for 36 years. Appalshop has made 189 documentary films and its audio wing (we have our own record label and radio station) has produced 97 music and spoken-word CDs. All of Appalshop’s work focuses on the Appalachian story and how that story connects to stories from other communities, particularly struggling communities, in other parts of the U.S. and abroad. We work some internationally, because if you follow the money, much of Appalachia is owned now by transnational corporations – central Appalachia has been experiencing the effects of globalization for three decades.
Cees deBever: My name is Cees deBever, director for performing arts at the Consulate General of the Netherlands in New York. My organization supports Dutch culture in the United States. Worldwide there are 13 priority posts. One thing we do is support tours of Dutch companies in the U.S.
Michael Holden: I’m Michael Holden. I’m the co-director of Holden & Arts Associates, a booking and producing organization that has been active for 25 years. Originally our client base was made up primarily of regional companies. We’ve also been producing work with Roadside Theater and Junebug Productions. In the last 15 years we’ve been very involved with youth and family programming.
Liana Velázquez: I’m Liana Velázquez, from the Alliance of Resident Theatres in New York. Previous to coming to New York, I’m from Nicaragua.
Alan Liddell: I’m Alan Liddell, director of the RVCC [Raritan Valley Community College, New Jersey]. I’m an on-campus presenter for the community, which includes very little touring.
Virginia Louloudes: I’m Virginia Louloudes, executive director of A.R.T./New York. I’ve noticed that the touring money has dried up. However, our members want to tour more.
Diane E. Ragsdale: Hi, I’m Diane E. Ragsdale. I’m the senior program associate at The Andrew Mellon Foundation.
Katherine Knowles: I’m Katherine Knowles, executive director of the Zeiterion Theatre in New Bedford, Massachusetts. I’m concerned about how we can be able to work in community and commission new works to tour.
Jorge Merced: I’m Jorge Merced from Pregones Theater. I’m here with an artist’s perspective. Also I find it interesting that we’re having this conversation on May 1st, with all of the dialogues going on in the immigrant community. I’m wondering how we bring different artists to our community.
Donna Porterfield: I’m Donna Porterfield. I’m the managing director of Roadside Theater. I’ve worked at Roadside for 30 years as an administrator, playwright and producer. An important part of my job has been working on audience development, audience diversification (according to race, economic class and geographic area) and developing new arts presenters in rural areas.
Rory MacPherson: I’m Rory MacPherson, senior program officer at The Wallace Foundation. I’m wondering how arts organizations can do the legwork to reach more audiences.
Ann Rosenthal: I’m Ann Rosenthal. I run Multi-Arts Projects and Productions here in New York. MAPP works in close partnership with theater, dance, music and multidisciplinary artists throughout the world to develop, create, premiere and tour new works. We primarily work with artists who are questioning conventions, raising alternative interpretations of contemporary society… and through their work they are bringing together arts, humanities and public dialogue. Over the past 12 years, we have developed 23 new multidisciplinary projects with U.S. and international artists, all of which were presented in public performances across North America. We produced more than 50 tours, which included two dozen that introduced music, dance and theater companies from eight countries in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Caribbean. It’s become a huge challenge to work internationally and with artists who are not in the “mainstream,” and in order to continue to be able to work this way in this current environment, we’re investigating restructuring our organization as a nonprofit.
Steve Loftin: I’m Steve Loftin, the president of the Aronoff Center for the Arts. I manage two facilities in Cincinnati, which have a three-theater complex. Our function is in facility management and presenting. We tour programs in the schools and present (sometimes partnering with Broadway). The composition in our community is interesting, so we’re always looking to find productions about diversity issues, ethnic/cultural challenges.
Theresa Holden: I’m Theresa Holden, co-director of Holden & Arts Associates. Something Michael left out of the first ten years of our work is that we noticed the difference between the companies with which we began working, and the other more culturally, regionally specific companies that we brought to our roster. We noticed that it took a different kind of energy and desire to work in community. We have a nonprofit arm to our organization, where we’ve spent a lot of energy doing educational and producing work with our culturally specific, community-oriented clients. The challenge we’re talking about today has really become apparent in our work. Especially in the past five years, it’s become a grave situation. We could look back and say, oh it’s just because there was so much funding for theater that our nation had such nice cultural activities. But I think it’s something more than that. I’m not sure that if we gave all the regions more money, we’d see a return in the incredible kind of work we were seeing in the '80s and '90s across the US. We’re talking about a much larger issue that’s about people’s understanding of theater. I do think the lessons we learned in those earlier years about community engagement, we can’t forget. We need to remember what we learned and where we were weak.
Sandra Gibson: Sandra Gibson with the Association of Performing Arts Presenters, which is a national organization with a world-wide membership. Our organization is involved with every professional and organization in the presenting and touring industry – those that connect an artist and his/her work with an audience and engage communities in the live performance experience. As a service organization we have an obligation to talk about the burning issues and to find some way into the solutions. We do a number of activities year-round and offer a full array of services to our members and the wider field. We’re best known for our performing-arts market and members conference that goes on in New York every year. We also do a lot more year-round, and provide professional development, research and information and advocacy on behalf of our constituents. Over the years we’ve made financial investments to provide partnership development, to look at practices of building audiences. Also, how do we get institutions to feel a responsibility to welcome tours of new works? I agree with Theresa, though, there is a larger issue here. As a field, we need to ask about will and commitment. Dudley set it up provocatively at the start, why should this exist in the nonprofit realm at all? I’m looking forward to being able to work at some of the solutions today.
Jamie Haft: I’m Jamie Haft. I’m an NYU student and also the scribe, taking notes. I’m studying cultural policy and community-based performance, which connected me to Dudley; I visited Appalshop in March.
Alván Colon-Lespier: Good morning and welcome to Pregones. My name is Alván, and I work for Rosalba. One of the things I find very curious: how it is we get our elected officials involved in the process of artistic production? It’s an arduous, educational task for us. But we have to undertake it because nobody else will. Sometimes we think, well they won’t come forward. But the times they won’t come forward are due to a lack of understanding that the benefit of artistic and cultural engagement is beyond the economics. Once you get to explaining it to them, I think you can have success. We have had success, but only due to that persistence. It’s not about just coming to the shows – if they want to come, great. But I want them to be more engaged in the dialogue about supporting art throughout their communities. It should be of interest to them; it does benefit them. That’s one thing that interests me particularly these days.
Rosalba Rolón: I’m Rosalba and I work with Pregones. We are now going into our 27th year. We like to think of ourselves as a tree with very deep roots and broad branches. In addition to working in a neighborhood, we like to believe that we are connected to the rest of the world. We do have an international program connected to the Netherlands, actually. That exchange has now become an eight-country collaboration. One of the goals is to try to establish a virtual theater school. Our organization also is dedicated to Latinos in the U.S., because often mainstream theaters and theaters that are connected with the movement of theaters of color, would bypass using Latinos in the U.S., because it is more provocative to bring people from Latin America, rather than listen to our voices. It’s a big political issue, and today is May 1st. Pregones has been working for many years in advocacy as well, which is a big issue because we don’t have a national cultural policy; we have had to create it ourselves.
Dudley Cocke: Thanks everyone. Now we’re going to look at the barriers to see if there are any additions, clarifications, questions. Let’s look under the first category, financing and public policy. Does anyone want to ask for a clarification or add something under that category? The categories are somewhat loose, but they generally capture your responses.
Diane E. Ragsdale: On the second point, we hear from a lot of artists that there is funding for new work, but that the funders don’t understand the timeline or the process of creating new work. I mean, is it enough to just develop a piece, and then for it to exist in a vacuum, and then go away and never be produced again?
Katherine Knowles: Well as a presenter, after the creation of the work, we need to create the support structure for the work to mature and have a life. It takes three to four years to develop an audience for a new piece of work.
Virginia Louloudes: For mainstream theaters, we need to ask, what does it mean for a new play to be a success? What is the definition? Especially this is an issue in New York. Can it be a success if it is crucified, if the New York Times trashed it?
Sandra Gibson: We talk about needing a new language – we need new metrics. We have a set of success metrics that are not suited for what we are trying to do with new work, that are based on a different environment and marketplace.
Virginia Louloudes: A lot of our writers are in workshop hell, where the play can never move from the small stage to a large stage.
Cees deBever: This is something I’m thinking about actually. In workshop hell, the piece never gets to real audiences. Or it is presented once, and that’s it. We need some kind of grant incentives for presenters, to get the work to go to many places.
Virginia Louloudes: I was thinking of this recent review in which the critic wrote, “Do playwrights have to write new worlds, and if so, why do they reach so high if they can’t achieve them?” And then there were letters to the editor that never got published. It was so discouraging. We would never tell scientists that!
Diane E. Ragsdale: We’ve taken new-play development and put it into large theaters. As with the critics, that is because funders often don’t value smaller organizations. When we do this, the critics show up expecting something greater.
Sandra Gibson: I don’t think we value process. You can prepare an audience for a work in progress, but there is less of a commitment to the process of creation. People underestimate their audience, too, and that’s a piece of it.
Michael Holden: How much have we candidly examined how the source of the funding has influenced our process? Alván’s point about looking to elected officials offers us the opportunity to find money and resources with a broader base, I hope. Right now we are in a culture of corporate funding and foundation funding, which actually only represents the corporate interest.
Sandra Gibson: Even public funding is restricted. It’s increasingly gone the direction of project-driven corporate and private funding; where one gets general support to create the infrastructure of development, who knows?
Rory MacPherson: The question is the time frame. In the past five years, production has declined, not audience. TCG reports a rise in touring productions in five years, but a steep decline immediately before then. Was 2002 the year of the NEA Shakespeare touring?
Sandra Gibson: 2004?
Dudley Cocke: Today, we’re comparing post-1997 to pre-1997. 1996-1997 marks when the NEA switched from discipline to thematic programs, a change which, for multiple reasons – some direct, others indirect, negatively affected both the creation and presentation of new plays.
Donna Porterfield: We did a lot of work developing rural arts presenters, and in the past decade, we lost them. And, there are no more presenters that we know of dedicated to working-class audiences. At one time, there was at least a nominal federal mandate to serve diverse, multicultural audiences. Roadside started touring in Kentucky in the '70s, and worked quite a bit with new, rural and small-town arts councils. A year ago, I did story-circle training with these same presenting organizations. They had just had a generational change-over, and the new, younger leaders told me they felt hamstrung by the large, decaying presenting spaces and conservative boards they inherited. They too often found themselves having to program things they weren’t interested in either because their board insisted or they needed to sell tickets to pay high overhead. They said they were going to use their story-circle training on their board members!
Sandra Gibson: I just want to add as a bullet, how important boards are, because they make policy and decisions that affect the life of the organization and the work.
Steve Loftin: Yes, I think that’s a barrier — boards' understanding.
Rosalba Rolón: I wanted to address the whole idea of touring from an actor’s point of view. A lot of it has to do with what you do when you are in a community that doesn’t have a local theater space. In the field of presenting, those presenters are not validated. They are secondary in the field of presenting. Could there be a conference, Sandra, of not just traditional presenters, but those nontraditional presenters, like people in churches – the people that host us and treat us like kings and queens when we come to their communities. They are the ones that enable the professional artist to do great art, because they are trusting in the artistic process. Then we have pleasant experiences, because these nontraditional presenters prepared the community to really be open and ready for us.
Sandra Gibson: Yes, different presenters, those volunteer arts presenters have a practice of getting their community involved. I think that’s a valid point. There is a much larger sector and series of opportunities outside of the traditional presenters.
Dudley Cocke: Are there any more barriers? We’re just going to take five more minutes.
Theresa Holden: I think it’s important that we look at the difference between mainstream presenters and presenters who present diverse, new work in the U.S. The barrier is the lack of understanding about process, the whole process of developing plays, building an audience for them and touring them. Whatever the end result is, we have to recognize that it’s a different artistic and management process than the TCG-type regional theater that stays at home. They’ve built in a product-driven outcome. They have a model set in place that says, this is how long you have to develop a play, we already have the audience, etc. But when you take small companies, they don’t have that same home base.
Katherine Knowles: A real dialogue about theater other than what is commercially viable is needed. Some of the presenters don’t have a working knowledge at all.
Diane E. Ragsdale: I just wanted to say that on TCG’s side, this past year (compared to pre-9/11), there has been a 30% increase in the number of organizations posting deficits. There have been increases in audience and touring, but there has also been exponential growth in the number of seats because of new buildings and the number of arts organizations. Yes the statistics are going up, but when factored against the increase in capacity, it’s not enough. We have a huge supply that we’ve built up, and not sufficient demand.
Jorge Merced: How are we as artists forced to buy into this model? Artists not only have to create work, but now, have to broker it too. Artists don’t have that type of mechanism in place. We spend so much time negotiating with presenters, and that takes away from creation.
Virginia Louloudes: For Siti Company, health insurance is a barrier. They’d like to book more tours, but need more health insurance for participants. Are lifestyles a barrier to touring?
Sandra Gibson: It’s the supply versus the demand. From the artist’s point of view, presenters aren’t producers. Maybe we’ve tried to stretch the capacity and responsibilities of this group of professionals - presenters, who have been the distribution network first and foremost for many years. There is a difference between producing and presenting, and most presenters aren’t producers. I’m anxious to have that conversation, because maybe we need realignment of roles — presenters more as facilitators — and a realignment of resources. We aren’t having the conversation about what the system would look like if we co-located all the resources for an artist to create and disseminate work in the U.S.
Dudley Cocke: So as more barriers occur to you, make note and send them to us, and we’ll bring them onto the list. But I want to shift gears for 20 minutes to ask what is the value of touring new and experimental plays? I’ll frame this part of the conversation this way: I’ve been looking at audience surveys for a number of years. The Wallace Foundation did a major tracking in the '90s; they tracked the nonprofit performing arts audience of their performing-arts grantees for five years. The last national survey I saw compared the Broadway audience to the nonprofit audience, and they were almost identical: 81% white and something like 84% from the top 15% economically …
Virginia Louloudes: They hired someone to get the results they wanted.
Dudley Cocke: … but I have often compared the commercial theater numbers to separate surveys done for the regional nonprofit theaters, and they are consistently very close, as I stated. So here’s my question: If it’s the same upper-middle-class, white audience attending both the profit and the nonprofit theater, why do we need the nonprofit sector to subsidize touring? Why shouldn’t it all be market-driven and commercial?
Diane E. Ragsdale: I think it’s criminal with some theaters, that they have nonprofit status. We, the nonprofits, need to consider identifying ourselves in a different industry, not the commercial entertainment industry. Maybe the community-building industry, or the enlightenment of the soul industry. In other words, I think we’ve lost sight of what the value of the nonprofit theater sector is; but we definitely need such a sector.
Theresa Holden: I agree with that, but I also think we are caught in a hard place about that in the U.S. There are so many presenting organizations using the resources from the commercially viable part to do community building. We work with a lot of folks who do serious political work, and can do it, only because they are operating a commercial theater.
Diane E. Ragsdale: But it has increased, six out of seven plays in a season are commercial.
Virginia Louloudes: I worked for Roundabout, so I’ll just disclaim that I have a bias here. But they’re selling tickets to people who never go to the theater. I moved to Bay Ridge, and I’m living in a multicultural neighborhood, and there’s this woman who just started listening to Philip Glass on a CD. So I recommended she go to BAM — she had never been there. We need to connect people with what they will like. We should do this on Amazon! If you like this, go here. We need to take people’s interests through the food chain and connect them to theater that they’ll like. They may not like PS 122 for their first experience, but they may like Classic Stage, for example.
Ann Rosenthal: It used to be that Broadway-type shows were presented by nonprofit performing-arts centers because those shows supported the other noncommercial work. But now, I think those profits are just going towards operation costs, not to new work. The leading presenters in the country are programming very conservative seasons. There is an assumption that you have to be very careful with an audience. There’s a disconnect. Sometimes presenters don’t know who the right audience is for particular work, so they don’t program for them. But that doesn’t mean that the audience does not exist that will support new, innovative work. We need to do partnership-building in how we get a broad audience, and market towards them.
Alan Liddell: One thing is that we’re increasingly living in a pop society that is driven by thoughts of the moment. Somebody said that people used to be popular because they’re interesting, but now they are interesting because they are popular. For me, all of this comes down to finances. We need to figure out some way of sharing the risk. If we’re going to do something that may speak to new groups of people, take a risk, we need to share the possible loss. It’s about showing more people more work, all the time.
Sandra Gibson: We did some research with The Urban Institute in 2002 which showed that 7,000 professional presenters said they are mission-driven. The far second priority was finances. Large institutions felt they had enough capacity, but there’s a tension around being mission-driven and market-savvy. I think we’re seeing that play out now, and people are succumbing to the market forces. I think it’s OK for nonprofit programming to be commercially viable, by the way, but if we are a 501(c)3 we should also have a charitable purpose – a mission and a vision and a set of values. We may have lost our way a little bit on that front.
Alan Liddell: Just really quickly, we shouldn’t lose track of the fact that we are not the only nonprofit sector that’s lost our way! Look at the Red Cross.
Sandra Gibson: Yes, I agree! It’s a national dilemma, and our policy-makers have forced it upon us. It goes to the mission, and I think it goes to this whole thing of metrics. We’ve got to find new ways of building a language around what is successful. How do you support yourself and support these commissions? At the end of the day, the nonprofit sector philosophically is the supporter and connector of contemporary culture. We’re building our national legacy. That’s why we’re here. We need a new set of rules to do business.
Steve Loftin: Looking broader, it’s the issue of mission. When is presenting new work an organization’s first priority? It never is, but it should be. Presenting new work falls into what’s important, yet there are all these other things to pay for first. Presenters need a mission that believes in the artist, the process, the development of new audiences and the expansion of diversity. The project needs to hit as many of those as possible, because otherwise, we can’t pour money into a new piece.
Sandra Gibson: To what end do we do this?
Steve Loftin: Well I know why I do it, on an individual basis; what got me up this morning. But the tricky thing is convincing my board to do it.
Cees deBever: From an organizational point of view, wouldn’t it be easier to present new work if there was a long-term, multiyear funding structure in place? Government does it on a yearly basis, as most other funders do.
Virginia Louloudes: Many of our theaters which are not getting any grant funding shouldn’t be a 501(c)(3). They’re functioning as a production company, but a nonprofit one. We call them nonprofit production companies. What I’m hearing from this table is that the whole model needs to be turned on its head. The world has changed so much. Do you still need a board? Let me raise an endowment and just get a chairman. People on boards have changed. That statement you gave is so true. Our subscription model is a problem, ticket prices are a problem, high utilities bills are a problem.
Sandra Gibson: Do your small theaters survive? When you say they don’t need to be nonprofit.
Virginia Louloudes: Yes. Young companies work with these guerrilla presenters that buy week sales for them.
Katherine Knowles: In the ecology of the presenting field, maybe there is a level or a size at which the presenting organization is closer to the ground. In terms of where I am, I can’t afford not to serve the community, because I won’t exist if I don’t. The dialogue and education amongst presenters, boards, ourselves is critical; sitting at this table, we have a wealth of knowledge about what this work is, and that knowledge needs to go out into the world.
Michael Holden: Briefly, one area we’ve been working in, in which the mission-driven part comes into play: youth and family programming. Many of the larger institutions have a commitment to continue this youth and family work. In the case of school shows, it brings the whole community into their theater. This is a little twist in the model that we’ve been discussing. That’s one area which – it is under enormous commercial pressure still – that at least for awhile the institutional model is still willing to assume the welfare for the young people in their mission. Now, whether that could be expanded to include diverse new plays is the question.
Diane E. Ragsdale: The focus is on self-preservation. Where are the organizations that are looking out for community? The mid-size, small community-based organizations are. I just started reading Thomas Friedman’s "The World is Flat." There is a huge shift to “bottom-up” innovation and creativity now, across the world; “top-down” is not where it’s happening anymore. There could be ensemble-to-ensemble exchange where organizations don’t have to go through a presenter. It’s got to go beyond the presenter looking for the audience; it’s the ensemble group that has the audience. If you take large institutions out of the picture, these small organizations could cultivate audiences together.
Sandra Gibson: Maybe we just need a new model. We’re forcing something that doesn’t work very well. Even with this ensemble program that we’ve put together, this project, "Betsy," was ensemble-to-ensemble. I think we do need to try to move out of the squares we are in.
Dudley Cocke: Let me check our time now, because I think we should move on to strategies. Let me start us off. I’m going to recommend a strategy: there needs to be a resurgence in funding for the folk arts. In 1997, the NEA's discipline programs were scotched – under political pressure – in favor of broad thematic funding areas such as creation, presentation, etc. Prior to this reversal, synergy between the NEA's Expansion Arts discipline program and its Folk Arts discipline program were leading the NEA toward realizing its founding mission of serving all Americans. Of all the NEA discipline programs, Expansion Arts and Folk Arts were the ones essentially concerned with reaching a broad, non-elite audience. Both programs promoted cultural equity and a multiplicity of voices across a national landscape intentionally viewed as variegated and local. It’s just striking to me how little funding is now available for folk arts — and there is no Expansion Arts program. Another reason for my recommendation goes to Allen’s remark about the overwhelming role that pop culture now plays. The House Manager at Pregones, who is from Venezuela, told us last night that she enjoyed "Betsy" so much because in her experience of U.S. art, there are so many layers, but no base. In "Betsy," she felt the base, which brought her to tears. I think this question of a base in this era of globalization is going to continue to be a critical issue for a lot of communities and a lot of audiences. That’s my recommendation, and I open it up now for us to think of other strategies that can address what we’ve laid out so far this morning.
Rory MacPherson: Brilliant. In traditional arts, older American’s predominate; the baby boomers are the large demographic. We need to reconnect with values. Evaluate the whole array of arts benefits – test scores, cognitive development, as well as the intrinsic benefits.
Donna Porterfield: Traditional arts aren’t class-bound. This way we won’t cut out a huge part of our potential audience. Traditional artists recognize that their art has to honor tradition by being recreated, made new.
Diane E. Ragsdale: The idea is strong because there’s specificity. The successful organizations that have grown audiences have focused on specificity, really knowing who their audience is and why they need or want to come. And what we are learning lately is that people want to participate, not just be passive spectators. There is this trend from Norway called larping: which stands for Live Action Role-Playing. Civilians go to a theater for two weeks, adopt a character and “make theater” for themselves. Of course theaters would need to put meaning into an idea like this so that it’s more than just gaming, so that it’s art. But the point is this: the arts need to begin to look at the fact that we need to be the providers of the opportunities for participation. Even if it’s just allowing our spaces to be used in a more community-inclusive manner.
Theresa Holden: Here’s the red flag. In our country, especially around the arts, we are so eager to classify. Then we have to write grants and proposals to defend the classification. We need to make sure everyone understands what we mean if we use the word folk. We don’t want to leave people out – our impulse at this table today is to broaden and reach to other groups. A classification might limit us.
Sandra Gibson: It is an all-scale situation where things have to be in place. Dudley and I were talking this morning, that it’s not just participation; folk arts and culturally specific organizations are not as well represented – they aren’t at the same level of capacity. This idea of the base is an important ingredient. Today in the 21st century, with those organizations struggling to sustain themselves – most African-American theaters are in peril, for example – do we have some obligation to support culturally specific organizations as part of our overall arts ecology? All the government and institutional funding from the '80s for these purposes is basically gone.
Alván Colon-Lespier: There is an acceptance of the term traditional or folk arts in society. As far as I am concerned that doesn’t define the work that Pregones does. That’s one thing, a totally different thing. I thought we were talking about the work we all do, which is theater work. I’m confused. Are we mixing lettuce and tomatoes here? Not that I don’t support that it has to be done, but it doesn’t have much to do with the work that I do.
Dudley Cocke: I’m not suggesting that the traditional arts are the strategy, but a strategy – and I wish that there was an Expansion Arts-type mandate. I’m trying to understand why our national, nonprofit arts ecology now seems so unhealthy. For example, what has happened to the value of “first voice,” expression which is deeply rooted and reflective of a particular community. I agree with Theresa that we don’t need another funding category that becomes an exclusive silo. Implant a rigid, noncooperating silo in any ecosystem, and one will soon witness the degradation of that ecosystem. As for what might be regarded as folk art, I accept a broad definition: the learning and training of the artist occurring in the community as opposed to the academy. Within that broad definition, Roadside simultaneously received NEA Folk Arts grants and Theater program grants as a professional ensemble.
Cees deBever: Who is going to take responsibility, and who has the capacity, to push something like this through? Is there a possibility, like in Europe, where the government can contribute more? In Holland, the government shapes a particular vision and then also makes alliances. Who are the most powerful players at this moment? Are they able to do something substantial together? Maybe some major funders should team up and develop a strategy to increase government’s role and support. We need to have someone at the state and city invited to something like this to listen into the conversation. Every time we have meetings like this there should be someone from the state and city involved, listening.
Alan Liddell: Fifty years ago there was this idea of community concerts. I like that idea because it involved the artist and the presenter. It was a network where classical artists got recognized out into communities who never would have expected to have such great artists. The Dutch government has been working on an exchange program, to bring more people with dance and theater, but it looks like that funding is soon going to diminish. We know that art is where presenters are. We need to do the dirty thing and talk business. Somehow, we need to talk to presenters: call this a new theater festival, which would come to your community once every six weeks or for eight months. It would create compact tours that we could offer to communities. Then we say to our community, we want you to look at all the voices from around our country.
Theresa Holden: It’s interesting you brought up the community connections. Recently the national Network of Ensemble Theaters started to talk about that model, though they don’t realize they are talking about that older model. But, the strategy I’d like to throw out is the importance of “American Dialogue.” Could we take what we’re doing here, and broaden it out and make it action-oriented? That’s why the Wallace Foundation’s Arts Partners worked so well. The idea is this: Have SOME funding to engage dialogues across the U.S. that would be action-based. Not just seeing the performance as the only product. The action research, or study, would be around the artistic work, the residency work, the audience development, and the ability to tour that work. The dialogues would have to have audience, presenters, educators and multiple theater-arts partnerships in place – studying a project. The project would engage around the question we are talking about today. Just imagine if the Duke Foundation extended two years – extended from this day forward, had people committed to create and later tour a piece, which would continue to ask this question along the way; using the created play as laboratory for discovering how important theater can tour in the U.S. This is something that needs to happen in multiple places. IT IS not just product-driven, we need to turn the model on its head! We are not taking the time now for reflection and decision making, we’re just touring work, and noticing the failures along the way. We need to engage the audience, the public, and the policy makers in answering the question – but around actual projects being attempted.
Rosalba Rolón: My one addition is that the last time we got people together to think – Lila Wallace, Pew, Joyce Mertz Gilmore Foundation – the field lost all this funding.
Diane E. Ragsdale: I just started reading "The First Resort of Kings," about cultural diplomacy. Back to the beginning of time (until our recent political times), tribal leaders and kings and presidents used cultural diplomacy (essentially learning about the culture of “the other”) to avoid war (the “Last Resort of Kings”). We say that the arts are critical to building a civilized society. I think that’s true, but I don’t think we are doing it. And while it’s critical to look at the need for reviving cultural diplomacy between the U.S. and foreign countries, it is also critical to look at the need for us to understand “the other” in our own country. Touring connects one community with another community, one type of ethnic group with a different group. It crosses boundaries; it builds bridges. That’s something with which the government is increasingly going to have to concern itself, and touring is a possible way to begin this.
Ann Rosenthal: I like your strategy, Dudley, although I do think we need to broaden out –not limit it only to folk arts. What I found from our previous discussion is we need alternative voices to be heard. The work we’re talking about, new work, is about engaging a community, not just seeing it on stage. We need money, but the work also needs to have value. If we have all the money and the work has no value, we have nothing. Arts Partners was a great program, because even if you didn’t get the grant, the group had to start thinking in alternative terms.
Michael Holden: My comment is predicated on the collapse of our ecology. Things that are radical, things that are mainstream, everything is under pressure. I’m wondering, in terms of a direct but simple solution: What if we put on the table the goal for all of the work that is being done to be offered to the public at 40% less than the ticket price. What would the response be? What would our outcome be? I was in Toronto last week, and Toronto Youth Theater actually did this in their subscription work. Overall, they had a 30% increase in income by reducing tickets by 40%.
Diane E. Ragsdale: At City Center they do $15 tickets and they sell out fast – I mean, in five hours! The first day they go on sale, they are gone.
Sandra Gibson: Well they have raised huge subsidies to be able to do that.
Michael Holden: But you’re subsidizing the audience, not the institution.
Sandra Gibson: That goes to a question about values. We were a part of a Pew research survey that asked audiences what they value most, and the first value was time. I know of families and I participate with families that will spend hundreds of dollars to see soccer. So I have to press the values question on this one, because I don’t think it's ticket prices. But how do you connect theater to value? Especially regarding festivals. We don’t have a culture of festivals in the U.S. "Fresh Terrain" at the University of Texas at Austin picked up college funds for a festival to rotate to campuses. I asked the theater department, what if you did this every other year? What if you circuited the event and the new work created on campus, and toured it to different campuses? We need to think about those kinds of systems.
Rory MacPherson: Real Art Ways had a pay-what-you-can night, which ended up generating more money than the nights when they sold tickets. People don’t necessarily want to be members.
Virginia Louloudes: We jumped from new models to funding. Why does the funder have to lead the initiative? Why not the artists? Or let a celebrity introduce a new artist. There could be an equal amount of power brought and an equal amount of funding brought. I’m nervous about relying on funders so much, because we have more groups asking for money now than ever before. Artists who create the work – whether it’s a community artist or a cross-over artist – whenever I bring an artist to lobby, it works. Artists are so sincere, they are communicators. We can’t take them out of this mix.
Alan Liddell: The whole idea of a third place is interesting – home and work being the first two. One thing that struck me when I came here last Sunday afternoon to see "Betsy" is that Pregones is a third place for people: there is art work in the lobby, a new mural, and the artist was in the lobby talking to people about his art. There is a sense of community here at Pregones. Whatever we develop must include some food and pre-performance conversation that relates and some post-performance conversation and some artwork. I don’t know what all, but it has to be an environment. The presenter has to be more of a community connector. This could create a whole new art – I’m hoping it will create a whole new art.
Katherine Knowles: I think it needs to be a national conversation, but also a local conversation. I agree with you; I am concerned about sustainability. How do I really think through what I have to have in place to continue this community work? The dialogue has to start with funders at the local level.
Theresa Holden: The local conversation could happen in multiple places. How do we then connect funding?
Cees deBever: We’re talking about the nonprofit sector, though. You wouldn’t go to a hospital and ask them to bring in celebrities.
Virginia Louloudes: Well, it’s about being entrepreneurial.
Cees deBever: There is a strategy in Holland: When an organization gets funding from the government (on a national, state and city level), it must present a certain percentage in its community and a certain percentage outside. This is top-down.
Sandra Gibson: Regarding adjusting ticket prices and pay as you go, perhaps that’s a strategy that could work in some circumstances. In the U.S., funding is mostly from individual engagement. We need to think of a variety of different strategies to engage people. Maybe we need to make individual, personal connections – so that individuals support the work. It could be a multiple strategy, but we should develop a big network of various types of funders and supporters.
Diane E. Ragsdale: The Heather Hitchens/Meet the Composer model is interesting. Going back to Dudley’s strategy, if we want government to support the arts, I think we need to go back to first-voice, so the work is coming directly from their constituents.
Alván Colon-Lespier: First-voice — it’s we who speak for ourselves.
Virginia Louloudes: Politicians would have to go for it because it’s their constituency. It’s representative.
Rosalba Rolón: I don’t think it’s a lack of creativity about how to get people in. I think it’s about how we energize the audience when we tour projects. From the get-go, we strategically designed "Betsy" knowing we are going to tour it. The model of support needs to include some mentoring and guiding. Not all artists have the touring, community-connection skill set, but they need it to energize audiences. Artists need to be involved actively with presenters. Then there’s the issue of mentorship. One of the biggest issues in this country is aging, we don’t know how to help artists age. I’m trying to think how we can include that in these conversations.
Theresa Holden: I just want to go back to this idea of dialogues across the country. Even though I said the initiative might come from funders, the funding source doesn’t create the outcome. It’s the partnership and the dialogue during the process that comes up with the answer to the questions. You could actually figure out some way to do this where you don’t even need the funder. We need to just energize people, engage the community and inspire them to sit down and have a conversation. Again, the funder didn’t drive the outcome of conversation in “American Dialogue.”
Sandra Gibson: Nor did they draw participants.
Michael Holden: And people had an equal place at the table. It was a broad, diverse group of people invited.
Theresa Holden: It’s this partnership triangle. With this new four-year grant in Montana, the grantee must name and engage government (state and county officials) over the four years, beyond giving them free tickets. The presenter or the arts organization has to commit to having real conversations and involving their local government in the projects in various ways.
Rory MacPherson: Recognizing they talk to every legislator, the grantees ask politicians what it means to be a good citizen. In Montana, the arts council created this book called “Montana: The State of Creativity.” It was a brilliant political strategy.
Dudley Cocke: We’ve come to the end of our time, but not the end of this conversation. E-mail us any additional thoughts. I’d like everyone to think about what next steps we might take to move some of these strategies forward. We’ve thought of some ideas that merit further consideration. I thank each one of you for making the effort to be here. Our conversation today would not have happened without Pregones. Thank you, Pregones.
Original CAN/API publication: June 2006