Wednesday, February 18, 2009

PUBLIC FORUM UPDATES: what'd we miss?

I am thrilled to hear about the number of people that showed last night, and those of us that ran from set to rehearsal, or waited tables, or typed up meeting notes for our bosses or were stuck in tech owe you a huge thanks for representing the community.

Thank you.

So now, I'd like to call on the community to report back. Let us know your thoughts, questions, concerns: How was it? Do you feel as if anything happened? Did the number of attendees affect anything? Who spoke? How many people were there? It's up to us to keep the momentum going.

I dare you to report first. :)


  1. I wasn't there, but another representative from the Green Theater Initiative, Paige Welborn, was in attendance and gave me an overview of what was said.

    She spoke briefly and articulated a view that I believe to be very true -- theaters are facing a financial crisis, and one of the ways in which they can create a sustainable future for themselves in the midst of that crisis is by going green: doing everything from small projects like replacing lightbulbs and using less paper to the large-scale stuff like conducting an energy audit, staging plays that deal with climate change, seeking out fundraising opportunities for environment-related projects, and inspiring audiences with these actions.

    In these times, more and more money will be flowing to green projects -- be it foundational money devoted to projects that incorporate green items, or federal stimulus money devoted to weatherization projects. Theaters can benefit by working to tap into those funding streams.

    Moreover, theaters can continue to remain relevant by engaging with one of the most pressing issues of our time -- climate change -- just as they have engaged with other pressing social issues in times past. As Judith Molina said at the meeting

    We at the Green Theater Initiative are more than willing to consult with theaters to develop green action plans -- be it practical steps such as reducing your energy bill and instituting a green cleaning program or more ambitious ones such as seeking out grants for green funding. Feel free to contact us at and get a feel for what we're working to achieve at

    Gideon Banner

  2. That's great, Gideon. thanks for reporting:

    Did Ms. Welborn speak to the forum? Perhaps Ms. Welborn could give some insight as to how the green theater subject was received?

  3. Posting on behalf of Paul:


    I was there and commend the organizers for combining CB forces and generating a packed house and for putting together a great panel. Ben Cameron's speech was excellent and inspiring, as much as it threw down a challenge to NYC theatre people and all theatre people to understand the forces that rapidly are changing our society and culture.

    The sad part about the evening in relation to Cameron, Scott Stringer & Ginny Louloudes's comments, was the conspicuous absence of a multicultural presence on the panel and in the audience. And I mean CONSPICUOUS.

    This economic downturn is a political challenge but also, as Cameron noted, the evolving state of theatre also presents a sociological challenge: it's becoming mandatory in the new century that all theatre groups communicate their necessity and relevance to their communities, because of the pace of technological and lifestyle changes that affect people's ability and interest in participating in performing arts.

    So it's imperative that everyone - the whole group - involved in advocating and organizing for NYC theatre's relevance and economic importance to our community include theater leaders, politicians and artists from all the subcultures that make up New York if we are going to state our case effectively to powerbrokers, the funding community and the general public.

    We also need more diverse young practitioners, not just the Wagner School future managers, in the mix, because the strivings and yearnings and work of young artists represent the future vitality of the performing arts in NYC.

    Otherwise, in a city that attracts and trains legions of new artists, and with a growing majority nonwhite population, this organizing effort appears flawed and our community appears less relevant in our own city, which we all know is not the case.

    Otherwise, a very strong beginning, and again, congratulations all.

  4. Last night there seemed to be a divide between those who saw the issue of space in isolation and those who saw it as part of a wider problem. I am in the latter group, I think we are in the middle of the reinvention of our industry model as we have known it.

    We are going through a system wide change, where the non profit theater industry as we know it is no longer viable, and there is nothing to cut. The scenario is that audiences will now spend less on tickets, budgets will be less supported by grants, there is less effective demand for theater so spaces will close, actors who have fewer day jobs in catering or retail will be unable to stay in the city. This will have negative impact on tourism, and on urban creativity which the arts help nurture in other industries, and will have knock on effects on the tourism, film and tv and advertising industries. So we need to look at disappearing theater spaces as part of a much larger system wide problem---the shift in demand--- that impacts the entire business process value chain.

    Yes, as Brad Burgess at the Living Theatre noted the big blockbusters like the $40m Spider-man; the Musical attract the vast majority of the funding---like the blockbusters in any industry which attract a mass market—especially where there is a mass market brand imported from outside. We cant get there from here. The rest of us are mostly in the ‘long tail’ of start-ups in niche markets and minimal branding. But theater is hardly alone in this. We may find that helpful solutions are being developed elsewhere. For instance the NY Misnomer Dance company which is developing its audience engagement platform and has received a Leading for the Future grant. So we probably need a multi-industry approach.

    Innovation and creativity should be something we know something about---if we could apply the innovation that we take in productions and apply it to the rest of our operations. That value chain now needs to be restructured across multiple organizations. It means as Virginia Louloudes said, thinking outside the box, restructuring the industry, how material is created, delivered, the entire business process, and how it is paid for, where the audience is recruited, what motivates them. The good news is that other industries have gone through exactly this sort of restructuring---it can be done.

    In my view we need to begin with asking what added value does theater create, what worth can it demonstrate that people will prize, what segments of value are there. As niche suppliers we can be nimble and fleet of foot and respond to specialized customer needs, including customers who want highly customized performances. We can make a living from niches that Disney cannot even see, if we can find ways to connect to their customer needs. We cannot provide mass entertainment, but there is other value we can provide. Suppose our performances make people smarter, or make them have new ideas, or help them solve problems? What is the value of that? What is the value of teaching people to increase their imagination? How can we monetize that? How does it change who we would try to attract as our audience and how we would reach them? How does it change who we would partner with? And most fundamentally of all, how does it impact our approach to the work? Are we willing to really re-invent everything we know and challenge every assumption? As a member of a small theater company that has been doing exactly that for the last two years, I can say that for me that is the most exciting theater of all. Having spent much of my life re-inventing the telecoms and internet industries, and creating new innovative industry models, before finally turning to theater, I would be very interested in working in any task force that wants to explore these issues.

    John Hudson

  5. I was also at the meeting. I believe one the most important suggestions came from Ben Cameron. He posed several questions which in essence asked companies and theatres to figure out not what we need or what can we get but what can we give. What value do we have to our communities? How will my community be damaged if I (my company) went away? How are you unique? How are we part of the solution?

    Giving: In the end it comes down to giving which I believe is the very basic nature of live performance and really all art. What can we give to our communities and to each other. How can we become vital to the fabric and survival of the areas in which we live and work.

    Collaboration: Our future lies in collaboration within the arts community and beyond. I believe that we need to reach out to other theatre artists and find musicians and scluptors and scientists. We need to reach out to the other non-profit sectors. If we are all connected to eachother then one cannot exist without the other.

    Choosing: We are creatives so let's get creative. It's waking up and choosing not to envy what other's have and instead choosing to take action (many of us do this already)

    Opportunity: I believe we have an opportunity to really inspire change and growth and to reimagine what it means to be an artist. Perhaps I am too optimistic and obviously, we are facing a tremendous challenge which will certainly get worse before it gets better but we will survive. We always do.

    Jen Browne
    Purple Threads Theatre Ensemble and
    Rebellious Subjects Theatre

  6. The most striking thing to me about the event was the extent to which the gathered public officials - community board leaders, our Borough President - understand the core of the problem we face and are eager to help. The fundamental crises in our sector over the last ten years was one of real estate gentrification.

    Continually inflating real estate values and rents forced many of the small theaters out of the spaces they had colonized. One need look no further for an example of this process than the wholesale destruction of the once thriving theater scene on Ludlow Street in the Lower East Side. Ludlow Street in the early nineties was a dangerous open air drug bazaar with boarded up buildings and depressed real estate values. Then the theaters moved in and took over empty store fronts - House of Candles, Toto Con Nada, Piano Store, Collective:Unconscious, the NY International Fringe.

    Very quickly the bars and restaurants followed, buildings were renovated, or constructed on empty lots, luxury boutiques opened, the drug dealers moved away, and the theaters began to struggle to stay open as the rents rose. Ironically, the energy and audiences and value they brought to the neighborhood sealed their doom. The sweat equity artists poured into these spaces was capitalized on by everyone but the theater makers. The city did nothing to preserve this oasis of culture, and we did not organize ourselves to force them to.

    That process is now in a historical reversal. Real estate values are falling, spaces are starting to open up and rents are declining. Our elected officials now realize how valuable we are to the economy and how small theaters are incredible assets that bring life, economic activity, and positive value to the surrounding real estate in their neighborhoods.

    We are now in a perfect place to negotiate with the city and with landlords for new spaces with long term or permanent leases. We have the unprecedented opportunity to lock in our artistic homes before the inevitable process of rising real estate values returns. We did not do this in the eighties and early nineties when we had the chance, lets not miss it again this time. I cannot think of a time when the stars were better aligned to turn our vast pool of sweat equity into real assets. The government recognizes our value, real estate values are declining, and we are much better organized as a community than ever before.

    Paul Bargetto
    League of Independent Theater