November 22nd, 2011 § 7 comments

Once upon a time, perhaps 15 or 20 years ago, I read a really fascinating article which posited that the arts would get more coverage in the media if they opened themselves up and provided greater access to the media. It suggested that the arts were working too hard to “control the story” at every possible turn and that as a result, we received only perfunctory coverage. Why, asked the article, which I believe had been presented as a speech at a conference of arts journalists, couldn’t the arts be more like sports, which gave the press access to practice sessions, to the locker rooms, in addition to the game itself?

Now I’m remembering this article (how I wish I still had it) at a temporal remove, so it would do no good to try to refute many of the points that made up its argument, which was perhaps hyperbolic, or even tongue in cheek, in the first place. But the issue of access remains with me, as someone who used to be one of the guardians who sought media coverage yet attempted to control every interaction between the artists at work in my theatre and those who would write about them.

I’m singing a somewhat different tune these days, although I’m no longer a publicist. While I never placed theatre in an ivory tower, I did respect that the artistic process shouldn’t be constantly opened up to scrutiny at every turn, and that to do so might well be detrimental. But I was doing my job in the very earliest days of the internet, and certainly before blogs, Facebook, Twitter and the like transformed every individual in a given production, and on the staff, into a broadcaster of news, gossip and personal opinion, readily accessible to not just the press, but to audiences as well. Consequently, the issue of access has fundamentally changed, in both positive and negative ways.

Several weeks ago, my Twitter sparring partner Peter Marks took exception to the fact that Arena Stage was holding a summit of some three dozen industry leaders to explore the issue of new play production in America. Prompted by a press release announcing the event, which listed the theatre notables expected to attend, Peter sought to report on the two day “convening” but was rebuffed. After protracted discussions, he did not attend; he subsequently set down his thoughts about access in a piece for The Washington Post.

When first made aware of the situation, I stood squarely (but silently) with Peter, assuming that the November event mirrored Arena’s January convening, where the participants numbered over 100, the public was invited and panels were streamed live. But the recent event was by invitation only and, had it not been announced by press release, might have actually taken place unnoticed.

The January meeting, for which a summary report was just issued, became infamous for remarks about supply and demand in the theatre industry as voiced by NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman. News of those comments came fast and furious onto my Twitter stream as he spoke and, I confess, I called the theatre desk at The New York Times to suggest they might want to read what I was seeing (of which they were unaware), fueling what became an industry furor. To the best of my knowledge, no such news came out of the more intimate November convening, perhaps because of a shared commitment to privacy among the participants, but more likely due to the lack of tweeters and bloggers amongst our artistic and management leaders

While trying to keep any conversation in this day and age from reaching the public is difficult, I do believe that there are some conversations which can be most productive when people can speak in complete candor, which public or press presence can immediately mitigate. No one should interpret every closed-door meeting to be nefarious, nor should they cease because of pressure for unfettered inclusion (I should note that I know of several in the non-profit community who resent not having been invited as well). I’m not advocating exclusion, but privacy has its merits. TDF new play study, Outrageous Fortune, was not discounted upon its publication because it emerged from private conversations and used unsourced quotes, after all.

On the other hand…

Recently, a theatre in New York held a public panel on the arts, an event to which the public was invited to attend for a moderate price. Although I am not a journalist, I inquired about whether I might attend and “live-blog” the discussion, in the interest of sharing the conversation with a wider audience. I was rebuffed by the press office, being told that the theatre wanted to keep its event intimate and quiet. Because I have many personal relationships at the organization and because I am not a journalist, I did not pursue this further.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have asked. After all, this was a public event and anyone there could have tweeted or written about what took place. If I hadn’t wanted to bring my laptop and access a wi-fi connection for contemporaneous reportage, surely nothing would have stopped me from reporting via iPhone tweets (save for an eagle-eyed usher, perhaps). If I did not consider myself part of the theatre community, if I didn’t have friends I might offend, I might well have barreled ahead and, having seen no reports of the event, maybe I should have. I do consider it disingenuous to label something as a public forum and then suggest that only those physically present should have any access to what occurs. A very different case than what transpired at Arena.

All of this brings me around to the buzzword “transparency.” In both of the examples cited, the events were not fully transparent; I agree with one company’s position, while I’m mildly resentful of the other’s. I think transparency is, overall, positive, but it isn’t necessarily an all-access pass. Indeed, some may question why in my latter example, I’m not naming names — in the interest of transparency. I do so because I know the company in question will see this, may well be prompted to consider their future approach and I don’t wish to embarrass them or reveal private communications; I name Arena because the incident is already part of the public discourse.

Let me share a third example, in which the media plays no role. At Hartford Stage in the late 80s, a benefit for donors of a certain level, which proved quite popular, was the opportunity to observe tech rehearsals. With as many as 75 donors at the back of the theatre, the rehearsals proceeded, but a flaw in the plan was quickly discovered: the attendees were bothered that they couldn’t clearly hear the director’s instructions to the actors, the designers and the crew. As a result, the director was fitted with a body mic, to be turned on and off at will, which would allow everyone to hear directives more clearly. While it may have saved on vocal strain, and was perhaps incidental, it did have the effect of transforming that rehearsal into a sort of performance, where with every booming pronouncement, the show’s production team and company were reminded of the patrons at the back, whose presence had impacted upon process, whether imperceptibly or fundamentally we’ll never know.

Smart phones, ever-smaller computers, social networks, the rise of the citizen reporter and critic, the persistence of the mainstream media all promise to insure that we are living in an ever more transparent world. We have seen the impact upon politics and governing (not always the same thing) and every day we see society evolving to address the new openness, whether cultivated or abhorred. While our dressing rooms may remain off limits, we may well be reaching a point where little else in the creative process can be protected, and where surely the field will benefit from broader, open conversation in so many instances.

Perhaps rehearsal rooms will be fitted with the one-way mirrors employed by police dramas (and presumably the actual police), so that rehearsals can be observed, but with those rehearsing none the wiser. Perhaps every pre-show and post-show discussion, every panel and forum, will be streamed or recorded for public consumption. Perhaps the inspiration of first rehearsals and the very first table read of a script will be opened up either live or through technology. Perhaps we can demystify the process of theatre so that more people can appreciate its magic (and no, that’s not an oxymoron).

Let’s face it: we’re heading in a direction where transparency is unavoidable. Would we do better to hold on to the shutters from the inside, waiting in fear for outside forces to rip them from our hands, or to open them (and the doors) as often as we can, perhaps supporting the argument for those times when a little privacy may be of value? The way may not be completely clear, but only with unobscured vision will we succeed in managing this transformation.

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  • Great post. Any arts organization that succeeds in being interesting to the public, but that doesn’t seriously and proactively handle these issues, is going to find themselves embroiled in them, all the same, and not on their own terms.

  • George Hunka

    Interestingly, I recently sat on a grants panel for playwriting (where or when is irrelevant), and due to the laws in that state governing the use of public moneys, our deliberations about these plays were in fact open to the public — the press, the applicants, or anybody else was welcome to sit in to listen to these deliberations. (Our own identities, we were told, would remain anonymous to guarantee the openness of our conversation, which was recorded.) While, as it happened, no observers appeared to watch us work, I don’t think the conversation was any less honest than it would have been otherwise.

    Ultimately what is of most importance is what happens on these stages, whatever the conversation off-stage. As a dramatist I’m keeping an online journal of my creative process as I write a new play, but I don’t believe this is hindering my creativity; quite the opposite, perhaps. The play that emerges itself will end up on a stage somewhere (it is my hope), and in the end anything I will have written ABOUT that play will ultimately not matter. There is transparency about institutional process, but there should also be transparency about aesthetics itself. So long as we’re asking artistic directors how they’re spending their money, perhaps they can discuss how they make their aesthetic decisions as well.

  • Peter Marks

    Howard — Since you feel compelled to revisit Arena’s bizarre handling of the recent “convening,” and my observations about it, I’m going to say I remain unpersuaded by defenses of having kept the public out. This may be of little consequence to others, but I happen to think that most big institutions still try far too hard to “control the story”–or even at times let us know what the story might be. I don’t think, in the long run, this is a winning strategy for an art form that still craves attention from the mainstream media (at least as indicated by the imploring publicists on my voicemail and email). This event has taught me to be even more skeptical about motivation especially as I try to parse the difference between events I’m not given access to, and those I am.

  • Provocative, as usual, and in a good way. I am reminded, however, of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. How much will being observed affect the process and the product of the art being created if that process is made completely transparent? Your Hartford Stage example touches on this.  If the rehearsal room is made transparent, will actors feel the safety they need — especially early in the process — to explore the emotional life of their characters?  In asking this question, I draw the conclusion that transparency should be at the discretion of the artist(s) during the creative process.  During the policy process, however, transparency should be required.  
    Just my two cents.

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  • Julie Hennrikus

    Thanks for this post Howard. So much to think about, and consider. There is a real paradigm shift going on right now, and all of us need to be nimble. Looking forward to more conversations.

  • I wonder if this could be looked at as an opportunity. People ARE interested in the processes behind the arts, such as rehearsals, development, forums, discussions etc… that artists and artistic organizations are involved in. Could being more transparent with the media about these things not only engage audiences more but instill in them a greater appreciation for the work that underlies the art? Something to contemplate.

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