Monday, April 13, 2009

All For One and One for All

It's old news by now that due to varying artistic and administrative differences between its ensemble, artistic director, and board, American Theatre Company has become divided and some of its former members will be forming (or rather re-forming) American Blues Theatre. I don't want to get into all the sordid details (Chris Jones and PerformInk have in depth coverage). Instead, I want to focus on the composition of theatre companies and what causes such rifts in artistic differences. What happened at American Theatre Company/American Blues is not uncommon - and is quite reminiscent of the third season of Slings and Arrows. But the question remains: who has the real power in a theatre company?

Let us first look at the corporate world and the model everyone else uses. There is the CEO - the Chief Executive Office. "Chief" means he's the one person in charge - he's the President. He is the one person who is accountable for the performance of the company and is the one person who has to answer to the share holders. We've heard a lot about CEO's in the past few months with the economic problems our world has been facing. The buck stops with them.

But in the theatre world it is quite different. First of all there are for-profit producing companies (like the ones who produce Broadways shows and finance national tours) and there are the not-for-profit theatres. For the sake of this argument, let us lump the for-profit (NFP) theatres into the corporate world and focus on the NFP's. NFP's will be governed by a board of directors - similar to the shareholders, except they don't get any monetary return on their donations. The day-to-day operations of the organization is handled by the staff whom the board has hired (and has the authority to fire). The trouble is that most theatre's essentially employ a "dual CEO" in their Artistic Director and Executive Director; both with equal power but different responsibility. The Executive Director will oversee the business, financial, marketing, and development ends while the Artistic Director will choose the season, network with big name artists, and sometimes help out with development and overseeing productions (depending on how large the company is.) This still it not necessarily the point of this discussion (for more on artistic leadership, read this speech by Ben Cameron).

The point of this discussion, and what may have ultimately lead to some of the problems at American Theatre Company, was the power given/denied to its ensemble of artists and designers. Very few major theatres across the country keep and ensemble of artists. And if they do, very few given them any real input into the operations of the company. Of course there are obvious exceptions that one might point out and one of the most notable being Steppenwolf Theatre right here in our city. And no matter how well a ensemble-based theatre functions, you have to admit that nationally it is not the norm.

However, here in Chicago, you might make the case that it is. While not prevalent in many of the major theatre, the majority of the Off-Loop theatres are comprised of companies of actors who have banded together out of a desire to work with people that they trust and respect. Chris Jones, in a follow-up article discusses the pros and cons of this method of organization. What he doesn't discuss in his commentary is the ability for a company like that to sustain themselves and grow to where they are heavy-hitters financially. Sure there will always be exceptions. Steppenwolf and Lookingglass are doing quite well.

But look at the multitudes of small companies that will fade away into obscurity before they've had a chance to grow beyond the struggling new-company phase and make an impact on the theatre scene here in Chicago. Many of these companies will never feel a national presence because their focus is serving their constituents and in this case those constituents are themselves. Rather than serving their audience or the advancement of theatre by trying to produce the best possible work that is the most cutting edge and the most innovative, ensemble companies are generally striving to make sure that everyone gets an adequate vehicle to showcase their acting skills.

This is the reason why Chicago's theatre scene is often described as a series of isolated towers whereas in New York people are always looking out for the next big thing. It's a different mentality and a different focus. This doesn't make one better than the other - and certainly great theatre has come out of ensembles: The Group Theatre, Moscow Art Theatre, and Berliner Ensemble come to mind. But the question of how you balance the ensemble vs. the company can sometimes be a hard question to face. It sometimes can lead to big rifts and dissolve companies like The Group Theatre or other smaller companies that we may never even have heard of.

A follow up PerformInk article has some very good perspective.

Happy Birthday: Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) & Sir John Geilgud (1904-2000)

1 comment:

  1. An interesting argument, but I think there are a few key points being glossed over. First, a commitment to an ensemble does not necessarily indicate that the group is not committed to the advancement of art. Sure, there are several groups in Chicago that are only interested in themselves that will fade away, but I think the same is true of several non-ensemble groups that will also fade away because of lack of direction from the board.

    Even the bastion of doing the cutting-edge work isn't an escape clause from falling by the wayside. Many artists in many mediums have delivered heartstoppingly beautiful work or work way ahead of its time, only to become a minor footnote in the annals of history.

    One could also argue the lack of theatre space in Chicago is a much larger hurdle than artistic intent. With an ever-shrinking list of places that are affordable to do theatre, the failure of companies start to become not of artistic intent. A lot of companies have a commitment to their audience to not be an art that only well-to-dos can afford, so ticket prices are always precariously places against mounting costs.

    Chicago has a few monoliths of theatre with a lot of small-timers, yet that breadth of opportunity produces a lot of possibility. New York searches for the next big thing, but does so out of a business perspective. Theatre is a business there, and by running like a machine it can sometimes sacrifice a lot. There is a reason a lot of the big shows in NY start in Chicago. Much of the national stage doesn't want it unless they think it can be profitable and is tested.

    In the end, theatre has to serve all involved or it fails, and so the needs of the artist will always be a part of the equation. How artistic direction is chosen is up to personal tastes, and the outcry over the ATC seems more aimed at the coup-like nature in which everything played out. Business is business, but when loyalty is put out to pasture, even businessmen call foul.