Thursday, September 14, 2006

Informed risk taking and theatre development

Sorry it's been so long since the last post. Things got a bit out of hand with my paying career, but focus (and progress) has been picking up with regard to StageNEXT. I'll try to be more regular with these posts in the coming months.

I wanted to discuss the whole issue of theatre building in our community. I was at lunch earlier this week with a key influencer within Charlotte's arts community, when I heard a rather suprising perspective. The idea stuck with me and kept my brain whirring along on Puree well after I should have been sleeping. It was suggested that ultimately, someone is going to have to take a risk and "step off the cliff without a parachute" to get a regional-level theatre company going in Charlotte again. Something really bugged me about the statement, but I couldn’t really put my finger on it while we were sitting there. I think I’ve got a better handle on it now (hopefully!).

If we were in a traditional arts market, I’d say the statement was absolutely right: inspired risk-taking is how most new arts organizations are formed. However, it just doesn’t align with how I currently view our environment. There is such a huge gap between quality expectations (cf. the ArtsMarket study recently conducted for the ASC) and the overall capability of this theatre community to deliver a consistently high-quality product that anyone taking the risk in this environment is nearly doomed from the start. I had an extensive discussion about this last week with someone whose opinion matters a great deal to this theatre community, and their perspective (which I share) is that we are in a downward spiral—the dearth of talent results in substandard productions, resulting in additional audience discouragement and talent flight, resulting in even poorer productions. Any number of local directors and actors have expressed similar frustrations to me. There may be occasional flashes of brilliance, but the overall trend is negative. One of my core team members (a respected arts consultant) feels like we need to move to break the cycle within the next year or what remains of our theatre talent base will be irrecoverable (relocated or out of theatre entirely). In this environment, a “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” approach isn’t the solution; in fact, it could serve to make things worse.

So, we're not only trying to build a theatre…we're trying to create an environment in this community where theatre is trusted as an artform and can flourish. Of course there is risk involved, but it has to be measured risk: and, to the extent possible, risk that is managed and controlled for. That’s why I’m exploring partnerships with Blumenthal and local colleges and universities; why I’m pushing forward with a plan to conduct large-scale Community Forums in the spring; why I so often emphasize the business side of the equation (to the frustration of many of you, I know): to reduce the organizational risk as much as possible. It’s also why I’m talking with Triad Stage and NC Stage regarding collaboration and co-production; why I’m exploring with local universities how we could collaborate to develop or expand a robust undergrad theatre program and a professional actor training (one-year MFA) program; why I see ongoing actor training as part of our mission; why I’m exploring artist-in-residence grants with TCG: to reduce the quality gap as much as possible. Throwing more people in front of the train has been tried; we need a cultural organization committed to delivering production quality that exceeds the expectations in the market, and to acting maturely and responsibly within the theatre community and the community at large.

This approach takes resources…it takes a long-term view and commitment on the part of the community to implement. If I were only interested in producing (having my name in lights does hold a certain appeal), we’d be onstage by now. And, we’d be struggling like every other theatre organization in town. Because I’m trying to position StageNEXT and our theatre community for long term success, I am doing everything I can to lower resource requirements from an infrastructure perspective, raise the level of the talent pool and ensure sufficient operating capital to achieve the vision. People with talent, maturity and dedication are required to drive this forward. Many of them have already left town, and they won’t return "on the cheap"...they've been through the ringer too many times before.

So, there you have it. I hope this doesn’t sound like a diatribe, because it’s not meant to be. It’s just that, having lived this initiative for the past year, my perspective has changed a bit. Now is not the time to go jumping off of cliffs. Now is the time to figure out how to get to the bottom without severe injury or death.