Art Works Blog

My Dog in this #SupplyDemand Fight

Austin, Texas

by Kirk Lynn, Co-Producing Artistic Director, Rude Mechanicals

Paul Soileau in a scene from the workshop production of Rude Mechanicals' I've Never Been So Happy, one of the plays featured at Arena Stage's #NewPlay Festival. Photo by Stephen Pruitt, courtesy of Rude Mechs

Chairman Landesman spoke beautifully about many things at the new work convening at Arena Stage: about regional theaters returning to their founding ideals, about the strength of the performing arts when partnering with other industries to educate and inspire our nation, and about the possibilities for increasing demand for art throughout the U.S. But I want to aggressively oppose his promotion of the concept that the United States is oversupplied with theaters. While the idea may seem provocative, I don’t believe it’s ultimately very useful to any discussion about the future of the performing arts.

Write down a list of all the theaters with which you’re familiar. Now write down the names of the artists and the administrators who work there. Now draw a line through as many as you need to in order to reach whatever percentage of theaters by which you imagine America is oversupplied. Let’s say that the crossed out theaters are shut down for good. Is our nation served by these losses? Let’s pretend that the people are unemployed. Is that good for the economy? Where do we imagine they go? Do they file for unemployment? Do they simply disappear, a problem for someone else’s thought experiment?

Luckily, for a lot of the people we crossed off our lists, the theaters we just shut down weren’t their only means of income. For these passionate few who worked two jobs, there is a day job to fall back on. They’ve lost very little monetarily, but they’ve also lost their life’s passion. They could start making theater in the break room during their lunch hours, charging five bucks a show to pay for the costumes, but then we’d be right back where we started. It’s cruel, but for the sake of this argument, it’s best if they just give it up and content themselves with their more profitable work in order that we might balance the market.

The benefit of their sacrifice is that each of us who didn’t get crossed off the list get a pay raise, right? Not necessarily. Capital isn’t that rational. In fact, a lot of those whom we just kicked out of their theaters are going to refuse to stay out of the performing arts sector and we’ll have more people competing for fewer jobs, further driving down wages.

But with fewer theaters, patrons can now spread themselves evenly throughout the remaining houses across the country, filling up all the empty seats, right? Again, it’s a risible picture. The twelve people sitting in a weird garage theater on the east side don’t necessarily want to go see “The 39 Steps” downtown. And vice versa. The individual performing arts “show” is not fungible.

And nowhere in this thought experiment is there any reason to believe that support from the government and foundations will now be distributed efficiently in this newly balanced market. It is not the mission of the NEA, or any other foundation that I love, to seek fairness or balance. Instead they promote excellence. And the pursuit of excellence doesn’t necessarily require or even prosper in a balanced market.

For me it boils down to this: if we are asking ourselves if there are some theaters that should fail as businesses, the answer has always been yes. They do. They have. They will.  No one I know in the arts sector is operating under any other assumption.

So then the argument begins to require a strange miracle that will allow theaters to fail at the exact rate by which demand rises or falls. But that’s not the way it works. And no one wants the government or private foundations or even a really intelligent iconoclast to start closing ‘bad’ theaters in sync with any decrease in demand and opening ‘good’ ones in sync with any increase. That’s almost crazy enough to be entertaining if it weren’t so depressing.

In the end, I don’t see the utility of this idea that the United States is oversupplied with theaters. Where does this thinking get us? It’s one of those memes that masquerades as an unpleasant truth no one is willing to discuss, but in fact, it turns out to be an accepted fact that doesn’t really add much to the conversation.

But instead of just pooh-poohing this idea without risking any conversation starters of my own, here are a few what ifs in support of Rocco’s commitment to increase demand for the performing arts:

What if the NEA...

...let audiences write the grants for the art they want to see? Then local theaters would apply to their audiences to make the work.

...began again to give money directly to artists. It’s a good way to work on the ratio of arts administrator to artists and to make sure artists make a living wage.

...paid underserved audiences to see shows. What work would be funded if you focused your support on underserved audiences? Would more or less money go to big theaters? Do underserved audiences want to see ballet and opera? Or slam poetry? I dunno. But it seems to me like the audiences at certain posh theaters could afford to support their own desires.  This would test that thought and even if I’m wrong, it would reward those who are right.

Supply and demand in the arts may be a stickier wicket that anyone is admitting. Unlike the market for petroleum products, in the art-market consumers can be wrong. Chekhov’s The Seagull was a flop at first. Marlowe was considered the greatest playwright in his own time. And Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring caused a riot the first time it was played, depending on who you ask.

Today’s bad art may turn out to be a good investment. But regardless, I want more art. Not less. I like some of it. And in the end it’s the theater’s anarchic tendencies that serve us best. You say the data is clear: demand is falling and yet the response of the performing arts sector is to open more theaters. Awesome. It’s not unlike the actor in Shakespeare, who in the face of all rationality walks out onto stage and announces his “lanthorn” to be the moon and himself the man in the moon. The court can mock however it likes, let the data say what it will; the Rude Mechanical is right in the end because passion makes unassailable logic. This dog is my dog.

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