Why We Wild Plan
We all know that period of adjustment when the rehearsal process transfers from the rehearsal room to the actual performance space, right? For several days (maybe always), in ways both subtle and overt, in the actors’ bodies, somehow, we sense the influence of the room in which the performance was developed.
We know also that there’s a difference between the “feel” of a production that’s been developed over many months or years and one that’s been rehearsed in three weeks plus tech. This isn’t to say that longer development periods are intrinsically “better”; there’s value (not more or less value, just different value) to, say, the work created through twenty-four hour play festivals, in which all aspects of the production (script, design, performances, etc.) are created in a sweaty marathon of work over the course of one calendar day.
In fact, I think that there’s potential value within any configuration of resources; every circumstance has its specific givens, its opportunities, and its limitations that shape the work. In a TED talk given in 2008 and in his book The Lucifer Effect, social scientist Philip Zimbardo says “context creates behavior” and contends that it’s not “bad apples” that are the problem. Given the preeminence of context, it’s the “bad barrel-makers,” those who create the system within which these individuals act, that are to be held responsible.
To think about this idea in terms of developing new work: No matter if the subject is Saddam or salami, if a play is rehearsed in a rehearsal room for four weeks, it’s going to smell like a play rehearsed in a rehearsal room for four weeks. It’s a very specific set of circumstances, our standard three to four week rehearsal process and its distinctive signature is writ large across the majority of American stages. And you know what?
I believe that this journal represents a sector of the theatre industry explicitly interested in assessing our means of new work development (and if the status quo was all hunky-dory there would be no need for this journal).
Yet many theatremakers remain invested (entrenched) in a kind of process for the development of new work that, structurally, inclines that work towards a standardized form. This standardization constricts the possibilities for live performance into the form which we are able to recognize easily as “theatre.” If I’m interested in creating performances that don’t scan quite so easily and readily as “theatre,” if I’m interested in creating performances that are more difficult to define and reconcile into neat categories, I need to invest my energy into working within a different sort of process.
“Why is the performance of this play the way it is?” Because of the decisions made in the rehearsal process: compromises and revelations arrived at along a path that winds between the interests and sway of the actors, the director, the designers, the stage-management team, and the technicians. The way these forces and personalities are allowed to act upon the work is very much informed by the structure of the process (in terms of time, use of resources, hierarchies of influence).
“So, why is the rehearsal structure the way it is?” Because of the decisions of the producers and administrators responsible for the allocation of resources, decisions made in compromise with the artistic staff, choices agreed upon within and influenced by the structure of a decision-making process of meetings and budgets, etc.
“Why is the resource-allocation process the way it is?” Because of the decisions of high-level administrators and a board of directors (or equivalent). These are the people who determine the priorities, who set the parameters within which decisions will be made and the rubric by which they will be judged.
To understand what happens on stage (and why), you need to go all the way up to the boardroom.
The local logic of the rehearsal room is one thing; the physics of the boardroom is another.
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1. Know what your customers want.
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Buy low, sell high. Find ways to be more efficient in creating your product. (Can the expensive aspects of production be outsourced? How can you produce more of your product, more cheaply?) Look for ways to package your goods as “premium”; articulate your product in such a way that your customer will feel privileged, successful, and secure in their social standing as a result of consuming your product.
3. Find your model, and then stick to it.
Once you’ve figured out what works, don’t keep tinkering, just do that.
This focus on the business of running institutional theatres, and the attendant administrative impulses towards standardization and optimization, tend to flatten the diversity of structures and processes that exist to create new work. In an ideal world, these structures are dictated by a focus on embodying a mission.
There are many varieties of worthy missions; missions that focus on supporting “visionary” artists, or “traditional” artists, or artists of a specific demographic background; missions that focus on serving communities identified by geography, demographic factors, or by their relative access to cultural resources; missions that serve to embody the vision of an individual or small group. I think that none of these articulations of mission are more intrinsically valuable than any other. Each has its own specific demands, limitations, and opportunities. Each has its own priorities, which should tend to lead to certain kinds of performances, different from the performances produced by other organizations led by different missions.
A heterogeneous field; a diverse constellation of performances of many kinds, developed through an array of strategies, calculated to best serve work that in process and in performance embodies the missions of parent organizations and companies. In theory, this is what results when the structures of development are designed with mission in mind.
And in fact, this constellation exists (and on a clear night, when the clouds part for just a moment, the view is breathtaking). But to be frank, the view is nearly always obscured; the spotlight (and the resources) focused elsewhere. The theatre industry is burdened with bad standardization. In fact, it seems that the larger the theatre, the more standardized the practices and processes.
This is bad news in terms of a) the diversity of new work in the field, and b) the ability of organizations/companies to pursue their missions in the most vital and robust ways possible.
Why a)? Because as we’ve seen above, context creates behavior. If the top-down priority tends towards “professionalism,” standardization, and reliance on structures borrowed from corporations, we end up with a set of procedures for developing new work that are static, hollow, and, frankly, obsolete.
And out of these procedures comes work that exists in an artificially narrowed set of possibilities. (For some of my thoughts about how the structures of large regional theatres came about and why they keep perpetuating themselves—and why they’re about to dissolve under our feet—you might check out my blog post about the Guthrie Theater’s 2011 season, which is, unfortunately, still relevant. The impoverished field of possibilities for what this work can look like, where it can take place, and who gets to see it are why b).
Thankfully, there are a number of badasses who have elected to create their work outside of these contexts. (Many of whom write for this journal.) These badasses have devised ways to develop and present their work so as to best embody their missions. In some cases, they’ve had to innovate new structures in order to support their work because of the unique demands their development processes present.
Some theatres are looking for ways to generate income outside of a buy low/sell high paradigm. (Honestly, can we pay theatre artists any less than we are, and charge more for tickets than we do?) Some artists are looking to get a kind of functionality from their work that necessitates a different kind of distribution of agency amongst artists and community members. (For example, Cornerstone Theater, Michael Rohd and civic theatre.) What these artists share is a willingness to embrace necessity, to jettison standard models of infrastructure, and to navigate without a map.
Some of these theatremakers and organizations enjoy outstanding notices in the press, respect amongst their colleagues, and large and loyal fan bases. But even when celebrated for their work, they are rarely acknowledged for the importance and significance of their organizational/infrastructural innovations.
Being a part of this largely underacknowledged community means taking a leap away from the shiny-but-hollow structures of corporatized (well-meaning, but corporatized nonetheless) 501(c)3 theatres. The untamed but fertile plain on which we land is often bizarre and full of surprises, but it is a rewarding landscape, and it is our future.
This is why we plan Wild.
In 2011, Eric Powell Holm and I founded The Wild Plan with the belief that flexibility and innovation in the realm of infrastructure are prerequisites for the same in the realm of performance. Eric and I are determined to bring the same level of creativity and “why not?” to our roles as producers and administrators that we attempt to bring to design meetings, workshops, rehearsal rooms, and performance stages in our roles as directors, performers, or writers.
We believe that the world can be made more exciting, healthier, and equitable for more people, by a reconsideration of our relationships to ourselves and each other and the ways in which we make meaning.
The Wild Plan is an instrument for dis- and relocating theatre’s role in the cultural lives of individuals and communities. When you invite your neighborhood to join your family in your backyard to be audience to original performances accompanied by artisanal cocktails designed to complement the shows, we believe that the possibilities contained in that experience are qualitatively different from the possibilities contained in the experience of attending a production of a Pulitzer Prize-winning play at a regional theatre.
It isn’t that one experience is inherently more valuable than the other (and part of an experience’s value will always be subjective, personal, and contingent). But as alluded to above, the possible experiences available within the context of theatre (particularly institutional theatre) have been constricted, especially from the viewpoint of popular culture. The Wild Plan means to broaden the field of possible experiences catalyzed by theatre.
This has been “Why We Plan Wild.” Next installment: “How We Plan Wild.”