Ideas on the fundamental nature of dance/theatre orgs, derived from the writing of Reginald Nelson

My ongoing research has focused on the relationship between fundamental ideas in producing performance art across the board (theatre, dance, etc). This includes taking ideas from certain disciplines and seeing how they cross-apply to other disciplines. I’m re-reading Reginald Nelson’s book How to Start Your Own Theater Company with the slant of seeing how his ideas apply to dance and other performance forms, not to mention the possibility of a mulch-disciplinary arts group. Just from the initial chapters’ ideas on philosophy, artistic vision and the roles of a non-profit I have the following divergent ideas:

– Scratching itches to get paid: Most artists are little more than cultural masseuses. Most theatre delivers no profound messages. They fabricate dramaturgy to pose their self indulgence and itch-scratching as profound, but the reality is that the piece is getting made because it sells tickets by scratching an itch. Nobody *needs* to see The Glass Menagerie on stage. The decades old play from Tennessee Williams has been made 1000 times and multiple copies of scripts as well as recordings of prior productions are freely available to anyone at any time.

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with re-making an old play in a vacuum. In the big picture, however, it doesn’t add to the public canon: It simply rehashes what was already there, to scratch an audience’s itch and to indulge those producing the work. It’s one thing for such orgs to be a novel niche (e.g. Greenstage: They only produce classical + Shakespearean work, but also only do so twice a year, once during the traditional summer park show season and a special one-off Hard Bard show in the fall; their work is that of annual tradition more so than artistic progression). It’s another for that practice to be the norm in our culture, to re-produce off-Broadway work and classic plays you’ve been conditioned to look up to, to produce the kind of dance you’ve been conditioned to value, etc. New and relevant voices don’t get to be heard because we’re too busy rehashing old work and henning people into traditional roles, discarding those who backgrounds, appearance and abilities don’t fit those roles and archetypes.

A key reason Seattle keeps losing artistic talent to NY, Chicago and SF, despite the excessively competitive nature and artistic overpopulation of those metro locales, is because those cities provide vast opportunities for those new voices to be heard. Meanwhile, Seattle’s arts communities remain obsessed with self-indulgently scratching itches, whether those of the elderly higher class audience that provides most of their ticket revenue or those of an egotistical director.

– Reginald Nelson claims that theatre is a form where artists can communicate new ideas and challenge olds one, free from government or corporate censorship. But if corporations, governments and their benevolent leaders are funding performance art, then by the specter of offense are they not censoring and filtering our content? If you feel putting particular people or work on your stage threatens your sponsorship or donation money from Boeing or the Seattle Mayor’s Office to the point where you will decide not to promote someone’s work, are they not in effect censoring you and that someone?

– It takes more than being able to sell a show. Your ensemble has to genuinely believe in what it means to the community, to the point where they can rationally, concretely, unwaveringly defend it. “Why are we doing this show and not something else? Why this piece and not some other piece?” Who is doing it (name value) is irrelevant. Who we can sell it to is irrelevant. Your self indulgence and ego are irrelevant. Relevance and connectivity to your community sells your work on its own, indulgences our deepest needs on its own, eliminates the need for name value because that connection needs no name to create value.

– As a dancer or choreographer working on a project, what is it you’re looking to do? And, much more importantly, why is it important to us as a community that you do it and why is it important for people to see it? You could always rent a space and do it privately for yourselves, not subject an audience to watch it. If it’s shown to an audience, it must provide positive, meaningful value for the audience. This is non-negotiable.

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