March 1st, 2004

Thinking Like a Director

is a book by Michael Bloom, which I found very interesting. I have been directed a bit, but I have never done directing, so it was interesting to try to see the process of creating a theatrical production through the director's eyes. (Alan Ayckbourn's book, *The Crafty Art of Playmaking*, also has a section on direction.)

One thing that irked me a bit was when Bloom writes about the government role in funding theater. He is in favor of it, and sees it as responsible for the vibrancy of American regional theater.

It is doubtless true that many regional theaters fill a large part of their budgets with government grants, another chunk with private and corporate contributions, and last of all come the paying customers.

Is such a structure really necessary? Does it really make for a vibrant theatrical scene?

Theater people, like artists in other fields, often like government money because they think it frees them from having to make money by churning out crassly commercial productions of no artistic merit. Once they get government money they believe they are free to pursue their own artistic goals. But my impression is that the freedom is illusory, that one set of "masters" (the customers) have been replaced with a new set, namely Arts Councils and Corporate Giving Departments, who need to be impressed with the importance of your work, to prove which point you end up trotting out critic's reviews and... drumroll... attendance figures. After all, how vibrant an arts scene can you claim if you don't get an audience?

Still, from what I hear, getting an audience is often a challenge for small theaters in Chicago. An acting teacher of mine once told the class that he had been to many local plays where the actors on the stage outnumbered the audience. Personally, I haven't seen that very often. But I am fairly choosy about the plays I see, and it may be that my own tastes correspond to some large portion of the theater-going public.

Anyway, I believe the theater scene would be better with no government funding. First, the government has no business selecting some productions over others. Second, the government has no business being involved in entertainment in any way, except possibly 4th of July parades. But in terms of what is produced, the problem is that the government is not a discerning patron and never can be. The government is a rule-following bureaucracy trying to avoid embarrassment. You do not want it making aesthetic choices of any kind. (I might make an exception for memorial statues.)