As they are wont to do, the guys over at 5 Useless Degrees have been exploring the seamy, dank, always interesting underside of the theatre world. And this time their probing and prodding has led to one of the more interesting stories in the Northwest theatre this year.
You may recall back in March a story by Brendan Kiley in The Stranger about the new play SEVEN WAYS TO GET THERE by Bryan Willis and Dwayne Clark at Seattle’s ACT Theatre. Read that article for the backstory.
In a nutshell, businessman Dwayne Clark approached Willis about writing a play partially based on Clark’s life and experience in group therapy. They did it, Clark bankrolled the entire operation, and the play went up at ACT and sounds to have been pretty darn successful, both financially and critically.
And then, of course, the theatuh peanut gallery, which so often sounds like a mob of emaciated crows fighting over a roadkilled mouse, went into overdrive weeping and wailing how unfair it was that only rich playwrights get produced, and how wrong it was for Clark to use financial influence to get his play done.
There are many, many threads you could draw out in this saga, but probably the most relevant one is Clark’s observation on how broken the regional theatre is financially:
“Why do you do this? How do you stay in business? This seems like a broken economic model.”
Poor Clark, you can hear the simple disbelief in his voice. What’s going on here? Any business person would have the same reaction if they got a chance to look at the books of a major theatre. No one told Clark that lots of mainstream theatres have become loss-making organizations that crank out tepid product the audience does not want at alarmingly low ticket prices – that’s their mission. And then wealthy patrons and supporters are asked to contribute millions to prop up the house of cards so that the “artists” can keep doing their “work”. It’s the stuff of theatre.
Of course, we’re talking about the non-profit theatre world here, which is not intended to support itself solely on ticket sales. But an extremely unhealthy dynamic has emerged where theatres chug along inside their bubbles cranking out crap, and taxpayers, cities, and zillionaires make up the difference. The crucial reality check of the market – if you make a product no one wants, you will go out of business – has been removed.
So just about the best thing anyone could ask for in this broken theatre model is a patron like Clark who is directly involved in creating a new show. But apparently Clark’s sin was that he did not simply hand over his idea to an “artist” – he actively shaped the story with playwright Bryan Willis. And that appears to be the breach of the Chinese wall that the theatuh people cannot abide. Because – you know – one of those brilliant playwrights in the mail room waiting for their big break just missed out on destiny.
Well in the din of all this, one voice was conspicuously missing – that of playwright Bryan Willis.
It’s essential listening.