The 1st Ever Indie Theater Convocation

On April 9, 2006, NYTE hosted the 1st Ever Indie Theater Convocation at the Players Theatre Loft.players-e1497620313641.png

The idea was to bring artists from the world of NYC indie theater together into a room to explore common concerns and challenges. One of the things we discovered as nytheatre.com evolved was that while we (Rochelle and myself) were getting to know hundreds of indie artists quite well, they very often didn’t know each other at all. So we figured it would be beneficial to give all these people that we respected so much an opportunity to meet and get to know each other.

We had no idea if anyone would show up for the Convocation. More than 100 people did (I list them all at the end of this piece).

Playwright Rich Orloff could not attend the Convocation, but he wanted to be there in spirit. So he contributed an “Invocation for the Convocation,” which represents the ideas underlying this event quite beautifully and succinctly:

A prayer to the gods of theater:  Dionysus, Shakespeare, and box office.  We, the practitioners of New York’s independent theater (that’s “e.r.”), whose identities are many but who are united in our quest to transform imagination into living theatrical experiences, we come together tonight in the hope that you will forgive our trespasses and discount passes and hear our humble prayer.  Although the needs of our theatre groups (that’s “r.e.”) are many – including but not limited to the desire for affordable theater space, affordable rehearsal space, affordable advertising, roach-free dressing rooms and free roaches – and although our individual prayers may be numerous –including but not limited to wishing Equity gave us permission to charge enough to break even, increased government funding for the arts, or even for that matter, a government worth funding – we won’t bother you with that now, although some individuals may follow up with you at a later date.

Tonight our focus is but one and is about becoming one.  We wish to become a community, a community defined not by who we are not but by who we are:  resourceful, perseverant, deliciously diverse, and profoundly unpredictable.  Bless our desire to become a community.  Give us strength to build a community.  And give us wisdom to appreciate community.

If you grant our prayer, oh gods of theater (“r.e.” or “e.r.”, your choice), we promise you no more and no less than art and entertainment that represents the full spectrum of human creativity.

We’ll also gladly comp you, with proof of divinity.

And let us say, Amen.

At the Convocation, I delivered some prepared remarks (also at the bottom of this post), and then we opened the floor for discussion. LOTS of discussion. It turned out that our indie theater artist colleagues had lots of common areas of concern: real estate, the showcase code, branding and marketing, the showcase code, and real estate.

It turned out that the most important thing we accomplished that day was bringing them all together. As I’ll explain in a future post, the League of Independent Theater was essentially conceived that day. In a world before Facebook (remember that?), the blogosphere exploded with activity following the Convocation. I think we made a bit of a leap forward on April 9th, and I am extremely proud of what we made.

***

Here are the attendees at the 1st Ever Indie Theater Convocation: Jesse Alick (Subjective Theatre Company), Kyle Ancowitz (Blue Coyote Theatre), Gyda Arber, Mark Armstrong (The Production Company), Robert Attenweiler (Disgraced Productions), Jay Aubrey (Themantics Group), Jesica Avellone (CollaborationTown), Scott Baker (TheDrillingCompaNY), Paul Bargetto  (East River Commedia), Kevin Bartlett (FringeNYC), David Beukema, Shannon Black (Spiral, Inc.), Kathleen Blake (Spiral, Inc.), Arian Blanco (Hudson Exploited Theatre Co.), Manny Boccieri  (Feed the Herd Theatre), Yuval Boim, Jason Bowcutt (New York Innovative Theatre Awards), Brendan Bradley (Impetuous Theatre Company), Kirk Bromley (Inverse Theatre), Raphael  Brown, Tara Brown, Cris Buchner (Six Figures Theatre Company), Mark Canistraro (Empower PR), Michele Carlstrom (breedingground productions), Todd Carlstrom (breedingground productions), Maggie Cino, Geeta Citygirl (SALAAM), John Clancy (Clancy Productions), Tara Clancy, Michael Colby, Curtiss I’Cook (Tupu Kweli Theatre Company),  Wendy Coyle, Michael Criscuolo, Tim Cusack (Theatre Askew), Guensley Delva,   Christopher Eaves (eavesdrop), Tim Errickson (Boomerang Theatre Company), Bubi  Escudero, Sharon Fogarty (Making Light Productions), John Gideon (Inverse Theatre), Steven Gridley (Spring Theatreworks), Jack Hanley (eavesdrop), Elena K. Holy (The Present Company/FringeNYC), Joshua James, David Johnston, Avner Kam (FringeNYC), Kevin Kittle, Adam Klasfeld (One Armed Man Productions), Julie Kline (Rising Phoenix Repertory), Frank Kuzler (Boomerang Theatre Company), Larry Loebell, Mark Lonergan (Parallel Exit), Jeni Mahoney (Seven Devils Theatre Conference), Elisa Malona (Subjective Theatre Company), Bryn Manion (Aisling Arts), Ian Marshall (United Stages), Larry Myers, Nick Micozzi (New York Innovative Theatre Awards), Rob Neill (NY Neofuturists), Loren Noveck (Six Figures Theatre Company), Owa, Eric Parness (Resonance Theatre Ensemble), Douglas Paulson (breedingground productions), Ross Peabody (Feed the Herd Theatre), Anthony Pennino, John Pinckard, Craig Pospisil, Janis Powell (Spiral, Inc.), Michael Puzzo (LAByrinth Theatre Company), Robin Reed, Rachel Reiner (Resonance Theatre Ensemble), Wendy Remington (Aisling Arts), Jonathan  Reuning (United Stages), J. Scott Reynolds (Handcart Ensemble), Timothy McCown Reynolds (Inverse Theatre), Stan Richardson, Kiran Rikhye (Stolen Chair Theatre Company), Alex Roe (Metropolitan Playhouse), Kate Rogers (breedingground productions), Jo Ann Rosen, Katie Rosin (Kampfire Films Marketing & PR), Robin Rothstein, Tom Rowan, Kori Schneider (The Production Company), Jordan Seavey (CollaborationTown), Stephen Speights (Blue Coyote Theatre), Tony Sportiello (Algonquin Productions), Akia Squitieri (Rising Sun Performance Company), Jon Stancato (Stolen Chair Theatre Company), Saviana Stanescu, Justin Steeve (breedingground productions), Daniel Talbott (Rising Phoenix Repertory), Tomi  Tsunoda (breedingground productions), Ken Urban (The Committee), Ed Valentine, Chris Van Strander, Dana Viltz, Thomas Weitz, Jamal Williams, Jill Wirth, T.J Witham (CollaborationTown), Rachel Wood (Boomerang Theatre Company), Shela Xoregos (Xoregos Performance Company).

[Note: This is the official sign-in list; any omissions are inadvertent!]

***

Here is my kick-off address at the Convocation (emphasis added; edited for length):

Indie Theater is real.

In New York, where I have been watching and documenting at least some of it for the past decade, it’s a movement that takes in hundreds of playwrights, directors, actors, and other artists, most (but by no means all) of them in their 20s and 30s, creating theatre that seeks to speak to the world we live in, to redefine the experience of theatre for the audience and the performer, to express fundamental truths with urgency and wit in a contemporary context.

This is theatre born in the information age. It’s theatre that acknowledges technology. It’s theatre that’s created for generations of Americans that probably don’t have a substantial theatre-going tradition. It’s theatre that’s affordable and accessible to everyone; that doesn’t cost a lot of money to buy a ticket for; that speaks many languages and speaks to the issues that matter to the diverse groups who make up its audiences.

It’s the laboratory for new American drama and the starting-off-place for young talent. Some will move on to film or TV; some will break in to “mainstream” theatre off- and on Broadway. Many will quit, uncompensated, overworked, undiscovered. The rest will continue to create theatre that deserves to be acknowledged as the cutting-edge of the art form, that will and should have influence over future artists.

Indie theater is where it’s happening, where it’s at. It’s the most exciting place to be if you’re a theatre-goer, theatre creator, or theatre critic, as far as I’m concerned. It’s the place within the theatre community where consistently—not always, but a great deal of the time—you are surprised, you are challenged, you are confronted with new ways to tell stories. Indie theater is a place where there’s energy, innovation, imagination, enthusiasm for the art. It’s not the only place where these things happen, but it’s the place where they happen with the greatest frequency. The very best theater that money can buy happens on Broadway, on the West End, wherever; the thrilling raw new stuff almost always happens on the edge, where Indie lives.

The myth of Indie theater—of off-off-Broadway, as it has frequently been called—is that it isn’t any good. That it’s wacky and well-meaning, but not serious…. We know that bad art is the exception in indie theater, not the rule. But the rest of the world doesn’t seem to know this….

The fact is, off-off/indie theater is marginalized. Badly marginalized.

The Best Plays series, which is pretty much the de facto reference on American theatre, provides spotty coverage at best. Theatre World, the only other print annual that I’m aware of, is even spottier. And there isn’t any website that provides comprehensive archival info about the indie theater movement—sure, the data is out there, spread all over the web, but it’s not easy to get to. That particular situation is something that we can correct, by organizing the facts about the movement and making them easily accessible, online, to everyone who wants and needs to find them. This is an important first step in getting the word out about indie theater. [Note: This is, finally, what we are going to achieve with the nytheater indie archive!]

But more is needed. Coverage of indie shows is insufficient…. All theatre is marginalized in mainstream media; it’s time that the indie theater community recognizes that the coverage that will help build audiences and provide artists with constructive feedback comes not from the established sources but from new ones (yes, like nytheatre.com; but others too).

So a second goal is to provide a place where indie theater gets talked about intelligently, consistently, and at length. Not 300-word reviews by people who may or may not have any idea what they’re talking about. No, what’s needed is a forum where practitioners, academics, students, reviewers, and audience members can contemplate the art in a serious, informed, leisurely manner. Textbooks don’t talk about indie theater—yet. There’s a textbook and then some just waiting to be written about the movers and shakers of indie theater’s first decade. Here’s where it starts.

Off-off-Broadway has long been regarded as a place that artists want to get away from, I think. That needs to change. Indie theater is, can be, must be, an end in itself. There’s an audience for populist theater—cheap art, as our friends at Bread and Puppet Theatre like to call it. Theatre shouldn’t cost $110. That’s unconscionable. Indie theater provides an important commodity to the public. Don’t think of the art you make as merely a stepping-stone to somewhere else in your career. This art is valuable all on its own. And even though it sometimes feels like there’s 20 million tiny theatre companies in New York, indie theater is much more scarce than it needs to be.

Now that said, the work created by indie theater artists deserves to be seen by larger audiences. Not all of it, obviously; but a good deal of what’s produced in NYC’s indie theaters rivals, if not exceeds, the work presented on Broadway and in the large institutional nonprofit theatres—perhaps not in terms of production values, but certainly in terms of quality of writing, directing, acting, design, ideas.

But indie theater shows don’t, as a rule, move on to other productions. Some do; the Plays and Playwrights books we’ve published have helped, and efforts of other groups like Algonquin Productions and FringeNYC have helped. But for every Urinetown—and that show is the only really big success story that’s emerged from indie theater so far—there are hundreds of worthy shows that haven’t had an opportunity to make their mark.

So here’s my third and final goal—to create a nexus for information that will actually be used and relied upon by producers, by theatre departments at colleges and universities, by theatre festivals, by agents, by funders, and by others in a position to make tangible things happen for emerging theatre artists. We need to find ways to get these people to understand and respect the work being done by this community, and to back up that understanding and respect with dollars and other meaningful support. We’ve got to move the mainstream nonprofit theatre community away from a development mentality and toward a stewardship mentality. Indie theater doesn’t need to be “developed.” It needs to be produced. It needs to be seen.

Ok, I’m basically done with my little speech now….

My final thought is this: all of this can be done if the people in this room, and hundreds of our colleagues, agree to work together to make this happen. There will be power in numbers. All of the things I’ve talked about are already being done somewhere, by someone. But not in unified fashion; not in a way that says, hey, this is a real artistic movement that deserves acknowledgement and respect because it is so large, so pervasive, so powerful. So the initiatives I’ve described here—and others that this group will identify in the future—are achievable only if we stay focused on the big picture. I’m excited to be leading the march and eager to work with this community to bring about significant change.

I am looking forward to discussion here about how much of this we think we’ve accomplished in eleven years, and what still needs to be done. The nytheater indie archive is in so many ways the culmination of all that I was hoping to do at the Convocation. I am eager to talk about what the community needs, a decade on. So please comment!

3 thoughts on “The 1st Ever Indie Theater Convocation

  1. At the time, folks were still calling it Off-Off Broadway, but now Indie Theater is a real thing of which OOB is one small part. You saw the bigger picture… w/ KWB.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s