Theater as a Collective Experience

When P. Carl asked me to write an article about The Workhaus Playwrights Collective for HowlRound, it started me thinking about the essential collective nature of all theater. Polly suggested I write about the origin and history of the Collective as we enter our fifth season as company-in-residence at The Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis.

So, to start: what exactly is a collective? In the course of nurturing and producing more than a dozen plays, Workhaus has become a true community of artists, but somehow just focusing on that seemed incomplete. Part and parcel of Workhaus’s mission is bringing new work to our audiences straight from the playwright—no administrative infrastructure chooses the plays or plans the seasons. The idea is to create a more direct and immediate conversation between the writer and audience. So any discussion of Workhaus is actually a discussion of two communities: the playwrights who make up the collective, and the audience that actually comes to see our plays.

Workhaus
I was born, raised, and spent most of my life in New York City. Perhaps coincidentally—perhaps not—the years following September 11 were particularly tumultuous for me, and I applied for a Jerome Fellowship to The Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis for the first time in my life with a specific desire to Get Out Of The City. My fellow Jeromes that year were Tory Stewart, Cory Hinkle, Alan Berks, and Jordan Harrison. Most of us are still part of Workhaus, and Jordan will always hold an honorary place on the roster. The Jerome Fellowship was an overdose of playwrights-in-community, typified for me by our roadtrip to the Humana Festival that spring in 2002, when an entire day of the festival weekend was bracketed by a brunch in the morning and a late night bourbon with playwrights who’d been through the Center’s various programs. There were close to twenty of us at each occasion. You might say the germ of Workhaus was born during that trip.

On the other side of the equation was a visit to The Playwrights’ Center the following year by The Royal Court Theater. There was a new crop of Jerome Fellows, one of whom, Trista Baldwin, would play an important role in Workhaus. The rest of us had become what the Center calls Core Writers—we were all invited to a workshop with members of The Royal Court, in town presenting Sarah Kane’s 4:48 Psychosis at the Guthrie Theater. At our first meeting, our guests passed around the original letter their founder, George Devine, sent the British government arguing for why a theater dedicated to new work needs public support. He said two things that stuck with me and greatly influenced the principles of Workhaus: 1) while an investment in truly new work is an investment in the future, new work is rarely—perhaps never—a commercial endeavor, and 2) as opposed to simply adding a slot for “new plays” in their season, a theater must create a culture of new work in order to educate its audience on the excitement of its failures as well as its successes.

 

Part and parcel of Workhaus’s mission is bringing new work to our audiences straight from the playwright—no administrative infrastructure chooses the plays or plans the seasons.

 

Those two principles were floating around my brain when Trista and I met at the Caffeto Coffee House on Lyndale Avenue to discuss starting a theater company. I’m not sure how that meeting happened or who invited whom, but we had both produced new work in New York City, we were both starting to feel like we might stick around Minneapolis for a while, and we were both wondering if “putting down roots” also meant creating our own work. As is not atypical for Trista and myself, the conversation degenerated into a shouting match when we touched on our version of Federalism vs. States’ Rights: should this new company we were creating go it alone, or should we seek out institutional partnership with the Playwrights’ Center, the Guthrie, or one of the many larger theaters around town that were being so supportive of the incoming Jerome Fellows?

Having had the experience of starting a theater company in New York based on nothing more than a bunch of crazy kids wanting to start a company, I was hungry for institutional support. Trista felt any organization giving us the amount of support we needed would ask for too much in return. We decided to broaden the conversation. We invited a group of writers to a series of meetings based on two criteria: 1) they had gone through one of the various programs at the Playwrights’ Center, or 2) someone who’d been through those programs was willing to recommend them. Our basis for compiling our list of participants was more about laziness than elitism—the Center provided us access to a database of writers who’d already been vetted by an organization we respected. We got our list together and sent out the invites. There followed what can only be called “town meetings,” which I am sure I have romanticized in my memory of them. We sat around big tables and discussed big ideas, both practical and philosophical, all of which boiled down to: what do we need, and how are we going to get it? 13P had just gotten started in NYC (I think they were on their second P), and that injected fresh thoughts. By the time we were done, we had a name and a basic structure and we were ready to produce our first show. We settled the “federalism” question in favor of states rights—for now, we would go it alone. To say this first endeavor proved I was right about the necessity of institutional support would be unseemly, so I won’t say it. It was actually a pretty good production of an excellent play, especially for a freshman effort. But at the time it felt floundery and chaotic, and I think we all wondered if that would be the end of it. There came a new crop of Jeromes that summer, among them, Deborah Stein, who also happened to be interested in creating her own work. Deborah agreed that looking for institutional support might be vital to the viability of the Collective. Stein’s voice on the issue tipped the scales, and we decided to see what the Playwrights’ Center thought of the idea. Remembering what George Devine over at The Royal Court had to say about a culture of new work, I proposed to Polly Carl, who was then the Center’s Producing Artistic Director, a three-production season, all brand new works—Minneapolis premieres by Minneapolis writers. Dr. Carl not only went for the idea, she brought funding to the table. I was introduced to the world of individuals and organizations that stand ready to pour money into new plays (yes, even in the current climate). It’s not been easy keeping the flow of capital steady—and we’ve augmented individual donations with the generous support of several city and state programs—but the combination of what we raised and the Center’s in-kind support with theater space, rehearsal time, and an office to (almost) call our own, has indeed kept us alive and thriving. By the end of this year we will have produced fifteen new plays. Our budgets are shockingly modest by industry standards, but with very little overhead, and no staff, almost all that money ends up in the pockets of the participating artists. The Collective continues to be administered exclusively by playwrights. The writer who is “up” for that production chooses the play (of course) and becomes de facto artistic director for the entire run. Other members become producers (usually two), marketing, publicity, house management, etc. All the jobs overlap and sometimes there’s a dizzying whirl of voices and emails—but everything gets done. And decisions are made in a truly collective manner, where consensus is sought through discussion and debate rather than strict majority rules. We shepherd each other’s work artistically as well. Notes are offered not only on drafts of scripts, but after rehearsals, run throughs, and all through tech. Of course it’s always by invitation of the producing playwright, but having a team of your fellow writers each giving feedback in their own unique way can be invigorating to the process (and, believe it or not, has yet to cause a fight). Even more invigorating are the young volunteers we’re attracting in larger and larger numbers. It’s great to see students and artists just out of school get so excited about a model that challenges traditional institutional theater. Just as inspiring are the more experienced teachers and mentors that send volunteers our way. Perhaps with their help it won’t remain an experimental model for long.

There has been one attempt to export the experiment—West, to Seattle. A writer I worked with at Stage Left in Chicago reached out to me for advice and a brief period of mentoring to help get her group off the ground. But the unique combination that enabled our initial growth was missing and the effort faltered. I would articulate the formula this way:  at least a third of the group already has producing experience, there is dedicated institutional support, and initial funding can be found beyond the scattered contributions of friends and family. There's no question Workhaus is the product of a particular group of people in a particular time and place—but by securing or seeking out those three foundational supports the model could work almost anywhere.

The Audience
Now we get into a sticky area. If you asked me honestly whether Workhaus was serving the Twin Cities' audience, I would probably say, 1) what does “serving” mean? and 2) even if I pretend to know what it means, I’m not really sure what my answer would be. HowlRound posted an interesting discussion of the audience recently by Robert Kaplowitz that made some lovely points but also left me a little depressed. I’ve made several forays into the world of television and film—more and more I hear the theater’s relationship to our audience recast in terminology familiar from my time out there. Of course, I agree with Robert that we shouldn’t aspire to imitate film and TV (though that has history somewhat backwards, since from the beginning both industries have looked to theatrical modes of storytelling, and, indeed, a cineaste would probably say much of Hollywood filmmaking is still stuck in the theater)—we should also resist the urge to imitate their relationship to their audience, which sometimes veers from exploitation to pandering. I felt this especially in Robert’s discussion of the active versus passive audience member—not the first time I’ve been exposed to this line of thought. The idea seems to be as theatrical works move away from scripted stories toward concept-driven events, the audience will become more “empowered” and return to the theater in droves. After all, social media, technology, video games—life in the twenty-first century offers a great deal of control over the structures of the media we consume—why should theater be any different? Theater is, of course, a form of entertainment, but it’s also a ritual and an art—and while trickery is an important component of art, lying is not. Media in the twenty-first century offers the illusion of control to a population increasingly frustrated by a disenfranchising political process and the enormous role big-monied interests play in shaping our world. If I can’t really connect to the politicians and corporate leaders who create the framework of my reality, by God, I’ll choose my own ringtone and change my profile picture and that will make everything feel all right. I’m not so sure that pandering to this desire for a false sense of choice (read: control) is the best way for us to connect with our potential audiences. To evoke Hollywood again, it’s striking how often we can fall into the “3-D” fallacy: that a new form (or something perceived as new), is going to “save” the theater. You could just as easily argue that the proliferation of technology in peoples’ lives and special effects in their films will ultimately benefit a stripped down theater that relies more on what’s most unique about the experience we offer—the living artist. Being a producer makes you hyper aware of these issues—or perhaps makes them harder to avoid.

Five actors on stage
A Short Play About 9/11 written and directed by Dominic Orlando at the Workhaus Collective

In our five-year history, the most successful plays, in the blunt reckoning of butts in the seats (BITS) can each be explained in terms that have very little to do with the plays themselves. The sobering truth is a good marketing angle leads to BITS, more so than good reviews, especially in Minneapolis. In The Twin Cities, a mysterious combination of word-of-mouth and what can only be called “brand loyalty” is the defining BITS-factor. Has Workhaus succeeded in creating “brand loyalty”—George Devine’s “culture of New Work”? We struggle with this question as much as any (I hope) larger institution. It comes down to the core mission of an artist—do you generate your work and hope to find your audience, or do you tailor your work to what the audience is already looking for? What does it actually mean to “serve” a community? Like politicians who realize they must get reelected in order to accomplish their goals, we struggle with the difference between finding a genuine definition of service and obeying Barnum’s dictum to just give the people what they want so we can keep our jobs. As it stands, we are operating under the delusion that we serve the community best when we do the work that is closest to our hearts. Not that we are blind to marketing —in fact, my own piece, which we closed on September 24, A Short Play About 9/11,was ingeniously recast by our more marketing-oriented members as “a play about the healing power of laughter.” Which is completely accurate, and much neater than me stumbling through a half-assed synopsis of the characters and themes whenever somebody asked me a question (though that happened a few times anyway). We’re constantly framing our mission as a more direct communication with our audience—maybe marketing the work in a way that reveals the core of the piece to them, rather than trying to trick, bully, or pander them through the door. In trying to build a bridge between a community of artists and the broader community we live in, it is fitting that language points the way. We are, after all, writers.

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Hey, Dominic: Well, that was an inspiring piece for a playwright to read! My thanks for your making the group's history and your ruminations about what it means to make and produce new work public.

Our small theater ensemble (which I crazily launched with 4 colleagues at the tender age of 59) struggles with many of the issues you identify. Our state and local funders love to ask a lot of questions about "what audience do you serve" - because creating and producing new work in the service of artists is just not good enough. Do we serve our large Mexican American community? Do we serve young people who wouldn't dream of going to a production of a live performance unless we find some tricky way (or tricky title) to draw them? On and on - you can imagine.

We've produced a completely new, never-been-seen before play in each of our three seasons. The most recent - by a Philadelphia playwright - is the production I'm most proud of. Our audiences were small but the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. In fact, I was so proud of the production that I - literally - don't care that the company lost money on the show. Oh - and we certainly served the playwright, who loved the production.

We're fortunate to have a hard-working Board whose members have no interest in interfering in the artistic choices (how does that happen? pure luck I think) and so, despite our commitment to new plays, we are still afloat.

Blah blah blah. What I intended to say was we're cheering for you here in Tucson.

(And - should Winding Road have the good fortune of staying afloat long enough to produce a play with its cast size - I'm still determined to get "Danny C." up in this community.)

Toni

Great thoughts! I'm sorry if what I wrote depressed you... 

I hope you understand that I was not calling for an end to linear storytelling, but investigating both a means of re-envisioning the way plays travel from the page to the audience, as well as embracing the exploration of alternative tools and structures for telling a story.  And it sounds like you at the Workhaus are doing just the first of these brilliantly - making plays as a collective, with many artists (in your case, writers) working together on a piece. I'm thrilled by the idea that every member of the collective is engaged in the productiin process.

Do you work with directors? If so, what is their role in your process? What about the rest of the creative team? How empowered are they in the growth of the play?

As to the audience - you raise the very important question of, "If you build it, will they come?" I, myself, believe the answer is, "Yes, if they know about it," (your very wise points about marketing), "but only if they are engaged."  If Workhaus is offering productions (not texts, mind you, but productions) that engage the audience, in whatever tradition, then it has a much stronger chance of continuing to put BITS.  I think a major factor in the shrinking subscriber base at tradtional theaters is that they may well be creating work that is less relevant to their audiences than it was 30 years ago. Workhaus is, wonderfully, and by default, bucking that trend by creating new work, which is, in its immediacy, that much more likely to connect to an audience of its contemporaries.

I also feel it's a bit unjust to suggest that theater which eschews traditional storytelling structure is, by default, a gimmick to give the audience a false sense of control. There are many brilliant pieces of writing and many visionary productions in our history that engage the audience in  ways that exploded the notion that they should sit back in their seats and be fed our art.  What I am pursuing is, indeed - the antithesis of 3D Film. I want to stop spelling it all out for the audience, stop bringing it all the way into their laps. Stop making work that is so pat, so completely singular in its vision, that the audience has simply experienced a very entertaining lecture.

I met a woman who grew up in  Korea, and moved to the States in the late 70's. One of her first American theater experiences was going to see "The Elephant Man" on Broadway. She told me that the reason the play was burned in her memory was that, "The man playing Elephant Man was beautiful - I got to see him through his own eyes, and the words of the other characters created his disfigurement;  I got to imagine it for myself. They would never have done that in Korea." You could call this a trick - I call it visionary, and suggest it as a major difference between theater and film; indeed, there was plenty of prosthesis in the movie.   Jack and Bernard created a work of art that demanded something of its audience, and made at least one woman a devoted theater-goer.