Tuesday, May 01, 2007

stageNEXT: a bridge too far

One of the most fascinating military offensives of World War II has to be Operation Market Garden. In late 1944, the Allied forces in Europe were struggling to maintain the initiative because of resupply issues—all of the men and material coming into the continent were being channeled through the D-Day invasion beaches and the single port of Cherbourg. To address this issue, UK Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery proposed and planned a daring offensive to clear a supply route to Antwerp, a massive port held by British forces. Although military historians continue to disagree on whether the mission could have ever been successful, there is broad consensus that Market Garden failed because of a lack of effective situational awareness and planning. What is most surprising is that Montgomery was known as being a highly methodical (sometimes too methodical) planner. If all of this is ringing a bell in the back of your head, it’s probably because it was the subject of the movie “A Bridge Too Far,” one of the best movies of WWII (my opinion).

Ok, so I’m not comparing myself to Montgomery. But, I have to say that my efforts on stageNEXT over the last 18 months have felt, to some extent, like Operation Market Garden: early successes followed by a stall in progress, then a last-ditch effort to hold onto established positions until reinforcements could arrive. While I won’t implicate my planning for stageNEXT (there are some who would say that I did too much planning), I readily admit that my awareness of the local environment has grown dramatically over the course of my efforts.

What have I learned? I think I can effectively sum it up as follows: Charlotte isn’t ready for locally produced, regional-level, professional theatre. In order for regional theatre to re-emerge here, we need the following:

1) acknowledgement by the community that there is something missing from our cultural landscape;
2) willingness from the community to do something about it.

There is a lot of blame being heaped at the feet of the ASC, the BPAC, and various theatre companies for our current situation; this is (for the most part) misdirected. Until a critical mass of community members takes a stand and gets involved in the creation of a new company, the status quo will prevail. Even the ASC Theatre Task Force recommendations seem to acknowledge this; there is a clear focus on organic development and reticence to strongly back any single initiative.

Now, let me say that Charlotteans are certainly involved in this community—we’re a civic-minded bunch. However, the community doesn’t have a “deep bench” of civic leaders, which means that the leaders we have are all getting pulled 4-5 different ways and being asked each day to get involved in another dozen community efforts. As a Charlotte is a community that coalesces around its leaders, a nascent theatre company has to find the right core group of Charlotteans that will attract people to the cause.

A close associate (and respected arts consultant) told me last year that if a professional company didn’t emerge in the next year or so, that it would be 5-10 years before the window would reopen. I agreed generally at the time, but feel I now understand it better. The farther Charlotte Rep recedes into the past, the less awareness there is of what we have lost in this community.

Nationwide, there are ever-increasing challenges of establishing and growing a new company (e.g., increasing entertainment options, reduced giving to the arts, growing production costs), making it easy to understand why there have been no significant new theatre companies emerge in the US (excluding New York, Chicago and LA) in the last 10+ years. It would seem that the era of building institutions like the Guthrie, Actor’s Theatre of Louisville, Seattle Rep, CENTERSTAGE, Alliance Theatre, etc., may be over.

In Charlotte, the barriers to entry are further heightened by our corporate mentality towards arts giving (the cultural facilities campaign making the environment even more challenging). The regional theatre ideal is also challenged by the great success of the Performing Arts Center. As the PAC extends its programming reach into more traditional regional theatre formats (e.g., the recent tour of Doubt, last year’s highly successful Shear Madness), one has to ask “what could a regional theatre provide that we’re not already getting?” Please recognize that this is not a criticism of the PAC—they would be negligent if they failed to respond to the absence of quality professional theatre. While knowledgeable theatre-goers understand the distinction and its importance, much of our potential audience for theatre doesn’t distinguish between touring theatre and local professional theatre. To much of our community, touring theatre is professional theatre and local theatre is amateur theatre. This is borne out both anecdotally and through market research conducted in our community.

This brings me to the ultimate realization of my 18-month experience; without a strong base of community support (both visible and financial), it will be exceedingly difficult to produce theatre of sufficient quality to reshape community perceptions and create a new distinction (i.e., locally produced professional theatre). However, it will be exceedingly difficult to establish the “strong base” in the short-term without first producing work representative of the quality that an institution would deliver over time. Without such productions, it will take much longer for our community to acknowledge that there is indeed “something missing.” This is, of course, a Catch-22; I now understand that it is also the basis for my friend’s prognostication.

So, all this to say that I am suspending my efforts on the stageNEXT initiative. I know that many of you will be disappointed—I am too. It was a difficult decision to make, but in the end I realized that I would rather not linger too long onstage—audiences dislike belabored endings. I could not find a way forward that addressed the risks and allowed the opportunity to flourish—therefore, it is my responsibility to clear the deck and allow other people and ideas to bubble to the surface.

Many of you met Chris Rennolds, who made several trips here from Los Angeles to see how she might be involved. From Chris, I extend thanks to all who took the time to provide insight and feedback. It was an incredibly useful process—cementing my awareness that now is not the right time to move forward. While Chris is still looking to “come home” (she’s a Durham native), she has determined that the situation here does not lend itself to working independently of a pre-existing initiative. Therefore, Chris has decided to remain in LA while exploring other opportunities in NC.

I want to thank all of you who have been willing to listen and provide input over the past 18 months. I have learned so much from you, and feel like I have established a number of great relationships that will extend beyond the end of stageNEXT. Your support has kept me going as long as I have, and has enabled me to maintain a positive outlook in the face of numerous challenges. Again, thank you.

Finally, if I can be of any assistance to you in the future, please do not hesitate to contact me. I would love to be able to return some portion of the support you have provided to me.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Spirit Square and the Mecklenburg County Commission

<The following message was sent by stageNEXT to the County Commission as input to the public forum on the future of Spirit Square to be held on 07 March.>

Legitimacy…it’s a basic building block to the success of any business. Any company, whether multi-million dollar corporation or small proprietorship, must first establish legitimacy with its intended customers. If not, the consequences are dire as those same customers look elsewhere for institutions perceived as more reliable, more trustworthy…more legitimate. Consider two companies offering identical widgets at similar prices; the company that wins the most customers is the one better able to convince customers of its overall consistency and quality.

Although a theatre company exists to create art, it is (at a fundamental level) a business. In this regard, theatre producers face the same basic requirement as any other company: to establish legitimacy. That’s why performance space is such a critical issue; theatre companies can achieve great heights of artistry in their performance, but may never gain sufficient momentum to grow beyond their roots. This results from their inability to establish appropriate legitimacy in the eyes of their potential audience. Why? Because just like every other “bricks and mortar” business, location and quality of space are critical to young performing arts companies in attracting and sustaining a customer base.

While this is true everywhere, the issue is even more critical in Charlotte. Cultural participants in this community are highly place-conscious. While other cities (such as New York, Chicago, Seattle) have, through time and effort, developed experienced cultural audiences that evaluate theatre and other artforms based primarily on the quality of the end product, Charlotte audiences are still highly sensitive to the environment in which the product is presented. So, for instance, in Chicago a large and diverse audience might trek into transitional areas to see great theatre produced in non-traditional spaces; while in Charlotte, our community expects that legitimate theatre will be presented in safe, familiar venues. This is not to criticize our Charlotte performing arts audience; it is simply to say that this audience is at a much younger stage of development. However, the net result speaks volumes to the importance of spaces like the Duke Power Theatre in the ongoing development of theatre and other performing arts (with their inherent, well-documented community benefits—cf. Richard Florida) in Charlotte.

Without the ready availability of spaces like the Duke Power Theatre for use by developing performing arts companies, great performances are relegated to warehouses, cafes, parks, hotel rooms, grocery stores, etc. While these spaces are often invaluable in the creation of specific works, theatre companies struggle to create a public identity and sense of legitimacy without a location that their audiences perceive as “home.” In addition, the very areas where performing arts companies might establish a safe, welcoming, “storefront” performance space and attract a diverse Charlotte audience are experiencing rapid increases in rental costs, effectively pricing most young performing artists interested in establishing new companies out of the community. South End and NODA both come to mind in this regard.

In order to support the continuing growth of theatre and other performing arts in Charlotte, more spaces like the Duke Power are needed, not less. The Duke Power provides an important transitional space from community-based work (e.g., cafes, parks, warehouses) to self-managed production space (e.g., Actors’ Theatre’s Stonewall St. theatre). Without Duke Power, small theatre companies lose the imprimatur conveyed by being able to produce in Uptown Charlotte, in a well-known facility, using a reasonably well-equipped production environment. These factors are critical in establishing the legitimacy of theatre and other performing arts in the minds of Charlotte cultural audiences, thereby creating the opportunity for these audiences to develop a deeper appreciation of performing arts (independent of their physical location). Without Duke Power and similar spaces, the basic challenges of establishing legitimacy and developing audiences will overwhelm most young performing arts companies, reducing the diversity and energy of our arts community and (as a consequence) our community in general.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Well, isn't that interesting!

One of my favorite books is Benjamin Zander’s The Art of Possibility. It falls into that deadly category of "personal improvement," but it is one of the most inspirational books I have read (and re-read when I need a lift!). The book is full of Ben's experiences creating life and art as conductor of the Boston Philharmonic. One of my favorite anecdotes is one he relates of a young violinist in his performance class at the New England Conservatory; whenever the violinist learned something new from a mistake during rehearsal, she would smile and exclaim, "well, isn't that interesting!" I have had many such moments over the course of my efforts to establish stageNEXT--opportunities to celebrate and learn from my errors, then move forward.

In a broader sense, it's now time for me to celebrate what I've learned from my experiences of the past year and move forward. Don't get me wrong; my desire to pursue stageNEXT has not been in error. Not only do my efforts continue to be motivated by both my personal passion and my civic commitment, but I remain convinced that Charlotte needs and wants exceptional, local, professional theatre.

What I have learned over the course of the last year is that the approach I have pursued--raising significant funds up-front to build a theatre institution--does not resonate with a "critical mass" of community leaders and donors. I think there are several reasons why I have not been able to achieve sufficient support for this idea, namely:

  • Lack of visible artistic leadership: I have known for some time that there were concerns regarding the lack of a compelling artistic leader, but have been committed to the belief that only when we are able to demonstrate local success as a producer (i.e., building and sponsoring talented teams to tackle specific projects) will we be able to attract the artistic talent necessary to mature and sustain the arts institution Charlotte deserves.
  • Lack of ready funding resources: It has become clear that ASC is not in a position to provide substantial funding. Beyond small grant programs, ASC does not maintain funds or processes for "incubating" promising new ideas--it has no mandate for such activities. There is also no "reserve" of funds; contributions (less overhead) from the annual fund drive are completely redistributed. Further, with the ASC Facilities Campaign and other large donor solicitations currently in play, there is a definite sense of "donor fatigue" developing in the community.
  • Lack of trust for theatre institutions: This is perhaps the most unreasonable of the three, yet also the most difficult for a nascent organization to address. While the visible wounds of the Charlotte Rep debacle have faded, scars certainly remain. It will take time and visible success to create an environment where theatre is consistently respected and trusted as a worthy cause.

So, where does that leave us? According to the arts leaders with whom I've talked, now is the time to "put up or shut up." In other words, I have been strongly encouraged to begin productions under the stageNEXT banner and mission, and gauge the local response. This approach has always held appeal, but I have waited because of my desire to maintain focus on building a strong institution.

I am now working with a number of artists (both local and national) to explore how we might be able to demonstrate the stageNEXT vision on a small scale. This approach certainly makes the institutional component of the stageNEXT vision (i.e., engaging our community and developing new audiences) more difficult in the short term, but there is still much we can do. The key challenge will be in maintaining continuity of presence and "mindshare" on a limited budget.

So, there you have it. The profile of stageNEXT is changing; short-term focus is shifting from institution-building to production-creating. To make the transition successful, I'm asking for your help. I need the involvement of people who want to be "hands-on" in building a young theatre and defining/executing a growth strategy that will result in long-term success. If you or someone you know fits this description, please let me know. Your committed participation is crucial to our efforts.

In addition, a topic I have not previously raised is that we will be seeking donor funding for stageNEXT’s gala launch production (tentatively planned for late September). I am proud of what has been accomplished over the past year without having to "pass the hat," and I hope you are as well. Now, in order to transform ideas into action, I will be reaching out to you and other stageNEXT allies to request your financial support. More details will follow on our gala launch event; for now, suffice it to say that we want it to be the "buzz" of the fall social calendar.

One final word: a perception issue regarding stageNEXT has been brought to my attention. There is a sense that I have attempted to position stageNEXT to somehow monopolize access to resources for creating theatre; and, that stageNEXT will somehow be designated as the leading theatre within this community. Over the past few months, I have developed an appreciation for the misinformation that has resulted in the development of this meme, and I hope I can set the record straight.

Let me state clearly that my intent with stageNEXT has been to develop new resources: to recover funds and attendance that evaporated with Charlotte Rep, and to seek new resources and attendees from individuals and companies new to Charlotte or new to theatre. I have not asked for any special consideration from the ASC or the PAC, and have always expected that stageNEXT would follow the same path to Basic Operating Grants as any other arts institution. While I have asked for ASC's support of my fundraising efforts in the community, their response has always been to provide general support and encouragement--no "stamp of approval" has been granted. This is generally consistent with their treatment of any other Charlotte arts institution.

If you know of potential theatre developers or producers in the community that have considered stageNEXT to be an impediment to action, please encourage them to move forward. After all, the more theatre we have in this community, the better it is for everyone! I am glad to sit down and talk to anyone regarding my hopes and aspirations for stageNEXT, and to seek out ways in which this theatre community can work together.

I want to thank all of you for your support and feedback over the past year. I hope that you will stand by stageNEXT in our journey towards the vision of "creating great theatre, engaging audiences with artistry, celebrating our diversity, and voicing the ideals of a 21st century American city." And, as we embrace what we learn along the way, we can exclaim boldly from the stage: "well, isn’t that interesting!"

Monday, February 12, 2007

Topdog/Underdog @ Davidson

Back in December when I was in a serious rut with regards to stageNEXT, I asked Elise Wilkinson from Collaborative Arts: "How do you do it?" Elise is someone that has found a balance between "workwork" and "theatrework," and I was really struggling to understand how to make the two complimentary instead of combative.

Elise's answer (paraphrased): "Do theatre." She observed that, while I've been trying to build a theatre, it had been ages since I had actually been involved in the creative act of putting work onstage. While this may seem fairly apparent to you, it was a big "aha" moment for me. After all, the ability to do theatre has been my primary motivator for trying to start a new professional theatre here in Charlotte. How better to regain focus than to get out there and get my hands dirty?

So, I accepted the opportunity to design lighting for Davidson College's production of Topdog/Underdog. You may have seen some of the press coverage in the Observer on the two brothers that took on S-LP's script (under the directon of Scott Ripley). It turned out to be a remarkable production, all the more amazing given the 3-week production schedule that we faced. It took a bit to shake the rust off, but I was really pleased by what I was able to contribute to the production; overall feedback has been overwhelmingly positive as well.

It also helped to get my creative energy going again for stageNEXT, and reconnected me to the fundmental reason I started pursuing a new professional theatre in Charlotte in the first place. There is something about great theatre that engages me and activates my perception unlike anything else I've experienced. So thanks, Elise, for the great advice!

(left) Production Photo from Topdog/Underdog: Scene 2, Booth and Lincoln in Booth's apartment.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

New year, new resolve...

It's interesting how momentum ebbs and flows, especially around an initiative such as stageNEXT. We conducted our kickoff event in November to much excitement (and press coverage), and it began to feel as if we were reaching a position where our progress would begin to demonstrate some level of critical mass: people would start be drawn to stageNEXT based on the energy and visibility being generated by my efforts. Then came December, with its setbacks, putting me in a rather Scrooge-ish mood for the holidays. However, a hiatus with my family gave me the perspective to realize that my passion for the ideas of stageNEXT has not waned; I believe that what I set out to accomplish remains critically important to this community. And, I believe that there is a sufficient base of individuals within this community that recognize this as well.

Robert Falls is celebrating his 20th year at the helm of the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. Very few people have had such a dramatic impact on American theatre in the last quarter century as Falls, and I consider it a real privlege to have been in Chicago and witnessed his work when he was starting to develop a national profile in the early 90s. His production of Lear last fall was as compelling and thought-provoking as anything I have seen onstage in my lifetime, having based his vision on the simple but rarely-answered questions (my intrepretation): "what kind of man is Lear at the beginning, to set in motion the tragedy that unfolds?" and, "how is the environment of the play and the actions of its inhabitants proscribed by who Lear is?" His viewpoint implicates the brashness of Lear, but not in the context of a single, tragically flawed decision. Rather, Falls wants us to understand that the brashness came from somewhere--from a life of wantoness and amorality. So, while we can hate Regan and Goneril, their sins clearly originate with the parent; and, Lear's struggle against the storm resonates with the transformative power so often lacking from the play.

One of the things that I admire about Falls is his understanding of the importance of rooting a theatre within the context it inhabits. In an interview (USA Today: 13 Dec 2006), Falls states:

"I don't think you can have a major regional theatre in this country without being responsible to the whole community. That's particularly true in Chicago, where there's so much richness from African-American culture and the emerging Latino culture."
I believe the same can easily be said of Charlotte; in order to establish a successful, professional theatre presence in this community, we must commit to engaging the entire community with our work. The underlying dynamics of racial diversity are no different here than Chicago--what distinguishes us is time and scale. As the voice of a community, theatre serves to call out both the wonderful and the difficult, and to embrace that which we can become.

So, I'm still here, and stageNEXT still moves forward. I welcome you to join us in our journey.