“I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.”Peter Brook, The Empty Space: A Book About the Theatre: Deadly, Holy, Rough, Immediate
Yes, it’s time to remind ourselves of the terms of this discussion. There are three parts to Brooks’s description:
- “I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage.” (where is the space, how is it shaped, and what fills it?)
- “A man walks across this empty space…” (who are the artists involved?)
- “…whilst someone else is watching him…” (who is the audience and how does your work relate to them, and to the other arts organizations in proximity?)
I’ve been focusing on the second element–who are the artists , what are their characteristics, and what are the expectations connected to their involvement? To summarize:
- They have bought a share in the company.
- They bring multiple talents.
- They must extend the income of the company.
- They do not receive a set salary but a percentage of income according to their share.
- The company is for profit.
- It is wise to consider making a playwright part of the company.
It’s time to move on.
I think it is time to explore the questions implied by the first element in Brook’s definition: where is the space, how is it arranged, and what is in it? This topic has many subtopics: geography (in what part of the world is your company located?), performance space (where will your performances take place–indoor/ outdoor, rented/owned, traditional/nontraditional, neutral/site-specific, online/in-person?), shape of the space (proscenium, thrust, arena, flexible, digital, audio), and what is in the space (what elements of performance–actors, scenery, costumes, lighting, props, multimedia, sound–are emphasized, what minimized or excluded entirely)?
When you started reading this blog, I asked that you start from a blank slate and then add elements consciously and intentionally. For the past week or so, I’ve been describing a new/old way of thinking about the relationship between the theater artists and the startup business that is a new theater company. I suspect that many of you found my suggestions surprising in some way. (Because if not, then I’m not doing it right!)
It is important to note that each decision–about the company, the empty space, and the audience–has both aesthetic and economic ramifications. For instance, the decision concerning the shape of the space can affect what kind of company members you include and what your budget will be. An arena stage traditionally (another dangerous word, so turn up your crap detector) puts more emphasis on costumes and props, whereas a proscenium traditionally puts more emphasis on scenic elements and lighting. If you think that a theater must be in an urban area to be financially viable, you need to see that “must” as a red flag requiring close attention and deep questioning.
Let me give an example from theater history to illustrate this latter point. As I mentioned in my posts about the rise of the Theatrical Syndicate, it was the small towns that assured their dominance because the “jumps” between urban areas were too long to go without making money. So companies would perform for a week or two in an urban area, then leave and do one-night stands in a handful of small towns between the previous urban area and the next one. What happened, however, is that once the Syndicate established dominance, and once the train system made travel faster, they sold off their holdings in the small town theaters and only performed in urban areas connected by train, leaving the rural towns to fend for themselves. This opened the door for theater people to create a different model, one of which was called “circle stock.”
In Circle Stock Theater: Touring American Small Towns, 1900-1960, Landis K. Magnuson describes how these companies operated as “a wagon wheel with spokes.” “The basic formula,” Magnuson explains,
“involved a circuit of six towns (seven if the company played on Sunday)….One town…served as the ‘base’ or ‘headquarters’ for the troupe. Here company members established living quarters–in hotel rooms, in rental apartments, or occasionally in entire houses, complete with hired help who performed light housekeeping.
“Having established a base, the circle stock companies toured to outlying communities arranged roughly in a circle around their headquarters….The system established in a circle stock provided each outlying community the opportunity to see a performance by the company on the same day of the week on a weekly rotation of the circle. Because the one-way distance from the base to each venue normally ranged from only 20-40 miles and rarely over 50, the company could return each night to its headquarters following the performance. With such a ‘one-week circle’ established, the company performed the same bill six or seven times in a week, each night in a different town, while rehearsing a new show for for the following week’s rotation.Circle Stock Theater: Touring American Small Towns, 1900-1960
Circle Stock became particularly important during the Depression, when the number of productions out of New York plummeted and peformers became desperate to do anything to make ends meet as performers. Maude Gentry, a performer who did circle stock in the 1930s, explained why they turned to circle stock: “Simple answer–to eat. It was Depression time and we were not trained for much else….Get six people or so together, with a few scripts, a car and a circle usually paid our expenses. We loved what we were doing, so that is all we needed.”
The point is not to suggest that Circle Stock would be viable today (although who knows?), but rather to show once again, as was seen in Robert Porterfield’s creation of the Barter Theater, that breaking out of preconceptions about what is “possible” can open up new ways of making a living. If Porterfield or Maude Gentry had stuck with the TINA preconception that the only way to make a living as a performer was to be in NYC standing in the soup kitchen line for actors at St. John the Divine church and trying to get an audition, then they never would have ventured out. Instead: “We loved what we were doing, so that is all we needed.” What a great philosophy!
How much is it true for you? If you could pay your expenses by doing theater, how much more would you need to be happy? Put another way, how much is having all the bells and whistles of a traditional middle-class life a compensation for not doing the thing you love? (This, by the way, is the overriding theme of Shannon Hayes’ Redefining Rich.) Don’t misinterpret me: surviving in poverty is not a pre-requisite for having a career in theater, nor is it desirable. At the same time, how might a rich life be measured as much according to life satisfaction as income, and how would that change the way you approach things?
<– forming a company (part 5): why a playwright should be part of the company
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