Photo by Michal Daniel. Pictured: Michael Maso.
A few weeks ago I gave a speech at the TCG Conference in Boston, and about ten days later ArtsJournal blogger Diane Ragsdale (“DR” from now on) posted a response to that speech with questions about my meaning and some pointed rebuttals. A few dozen people posted comments, most in general agreement with her criticism. (One of her commentators refers repeatedly to “the Michael Masos of the world” — as in “the Michael Masos of the world believe . . .” – a concept I have to admit I find rather endearing. Where are those other Michael Masos, I wonder? Do they ever get together without me?)
Though I was the target of the criticism I think much of the conversation it engendered is useful and serious, and so I feel obligated to try to address the questions raised. For those who want the original documents in order to follow the conversation, DR’s post andthe text of my speech are available online, as is a rough video of my speech.
(A warning: those who want to avoid my admitted borscht belt tendencies and get to the substantive remarks can avoid the first half of the speech. On the other hand, the first half is the only section that DR praised.)
First a modest correction to the post, but one with some meaning. DR quotes me as saying “I will admit my impatience with critics of our theatres, who seem determined to drive a wedge between individual artists and institutions.” I did say those words but without the comma or any pause in my delivery of that sentence. The comma (or a pause) would have meant that I was impatient with all critics of our theatres, which is not the case and not what I said.
DR also eliminated a small section in her excerpt of my speech, which I want to share since it will prove useful to those interested in understanding my intent. The full section, with the restoration bolded here, is:
“Over the next few days we will be engaged in an exploration of new ways to sustain our movement. I wholly endorse that exploration. We need new ideas. But we must not forget that this movement is one of the great success stories in the history of the American theatre. Over the past fifty years we have brought moments of transformation to millions and millions of theatergoers and new opportunity to tens of thousands of artists. We have not done that as a monolith, and there is no one right path. The ecology of our field is based on a wide diversity of institutional structures. Our job, each in our own ways, is to empower artists to make great art and share it as widely as possible. And in that fundamental task, our theatre has not failed America.
With those notes, let me try to address the questions that have been raised.
First is the title question of DR’s post: “When did being pro-artist make one anti-institution?” My answer is simple – it doesn’t, and nothing I said would lead one to that conclusion. I don’t know why DR thought I was talking about her. My only experience with her writing before this post was a speech I read that she gave in Chicago a few years ago (at one of those large institutional theatres) which I remembered being smart, thoughtful and comprehensive in scope. I went back to it the other day just to be sure, and as I remembered there is nothing divisive about it. In this post, however, she does recount a story about an artistic director who a few years ago called her “pro-artist,” a comment she says was meant as derogatory. Maybe it was, but I’m not sure what that has to do with me.
Second, DR comments that my “lament” reminded her of a talk she heard in which the speaker said that when institutional leaders are told they are obstacles, they pass through the famous Kubler-Ross stages of grief over dying: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. “It would appear Maso is somewhere between stage one and stage two,” she avers. (Ouch!)
It’s a nice rhetorical device, because it immediately associates institutions with dying, but it’s a poor analogy. If Kubler–Ross had written about the stages of cyclical economic distress or maybe the stages of mission creep, it would have been relevant. Even taken on its own terms I would still be firmly in stage one: denial, because there is no evidence that institutional theatres are obstacles to the art or the artists we serve. On the contrary, there has never been more opportunity for artists, employment for artists or a chance for success as a theatre artist in America as there is now. That does not mean I believe it is easy to be a theatre artist in America – I do not – but no objective look at the opportunities available 50 years ago compared to those available now can fail to see what we have accomplished.
Third, DR wonders what I meant by “fundamentalists.” Fair question, though I tried to indicate it early in my remarks (the restored section above) by saying that there is no one right path to creating a theatre. To clarify further, anyone who has been in the non-profit theatre for some time has heard complaints about how we have veered from one or another true path. One such catechism goes like this:
1) Mac Lowry and the Ford Foundation envisioned ten or twelve major repertory theatres with resident acting companies across the country;
2) Most of our theatres have no resident companies and don’t perform in rep;
3) Therefore, most of us are sinners who have lost our way.
To me, the really interesting question is why have our theatres not evolved the way that some (but not all) early supporters envisioned? Considering that there have been about a hundred institutional theatres created every decade for over forty years, and considering that most of those companies were founded by artists, why are there not more true acting companies or ensembles? A few companies found that the ensemble model or the repertory model allowed them to achieve their vision, but most did not. A fuller exploration of why that is so, and a discussion which does not dismiss those artists who pursued the more common institutional structures as sell-outs to corporate or management overlords, might prove instructive. One possibility we have to consider is that the structures that were created actually are those that best serve the artistic intentions of each theatre’s founders. I’m not sure we have had that conversation in this country.
Fourth, DR regrets my reference to those who seem to be determined to drive a wedge between artists and institutions, and asks if I am referring to those “who urge institutions to make deeper commitments to artists and bring them further into the institution.”
No, I am not. As I say in this very speech, I fully believe that we have a responsibility to continue to find ways to “more fully integrate artists into our institutions.” I also believe that the largest institutions have the greatest responsibilities and have to accept the greatest criticism.
So what did I mean? I thought that would have been obvious because of the context of the speech, but clearly it was not. I was the first speaker at this TCG Conference. As a veteran of three decades of TCG Conferences I have experienced the very best and the very worst of internal debates. I have had my perspective rocked and my horizons expanded on a number of occasions, but I have also experienced what I can only describe as hours of internal bickering and scapegoating. And the specific impatience that I confessed to is for the conversation that I have heard far too many times at TCG and other forums, about how our theatres are filled with “bureaucrats” – meaning those whose self-interest rules all decisions, trumping the pursuit of a larger institutional vision – and how if we only got rid of some layers of bureaucracy we would be able to solve the problems of artists in America.
Yes, I used a bit of rhetorical excess by saying “Bullshit!” And I fully confess there is a disconnect between my saying we should speak to each other with respect and starting the conversation with an invective. But I was not saying bullshit to a person, even though it seems that more than one person thought it was directed at them. It was not. Rather I was saying bullshit to a line of argument that denigrates thousands and thousands of dedicated, hard-working and underpaid staff members (artists and non-artists) who are part of the bedrock of our movement. The people who work for our theatres make sacrifices every day, and the vast majority do so because they are deeply dedicated to our art form and to the artists with whom they have the privilege to work.
It is also true that, while each of our theatres has artists on staff, most of our artistic relationships are with free-lance theatre artists. That is the system we have created, and so instead of artists living within the economies of a single institution, they live in a much more complex and challenging economic system of overlapping structures. They work at multiple theatres, in both the non-profit and commercial fields, in radio and television, in colleges and universities. It is a hard life, and while it works well for many there can be little doubt that many others struggle. And yet, this system has enabled more careers for theatre artists in the past fifty years than our founding geniuses could have ever imagined.
I don’t believe that anyone can drive a wedge between our institutions and the artists with whom we work, many of whom have long-term relationships that are greatly valued on both sides. I recognize that there are artists who would love to be on staff at a theatre, but just as assuredly there are those who have no interest in limiting their professional lives to one organization, even for a season.
But for some of the many artists and other unaffiliated theatre workers who have no strong relationships with institutional theatres, there may well be an attraction to a line of thinking that denies the accomplishments of institutional theatres, labeling our staff members as bureaucrats and dismissing the many and diverse artistic relationships we do have as insubstantial. Those are the wedges I was hoping the conference could avoid.
DR’s opinion is that theatre artists “are unattached (in every sense of the word) to theatre institutions. How does one drive a wedge” she asks, “between two things that are not attached?” I think that statement is both wrong on the facts and untrue to the spirit of our relationships with artists. It may make some of those who aren’t being served well by the system feel better because they have someone to blame, but it does not help them or the field at large.
Nor will telling institutional leaders to throw off our lives of corporate hegemony and find our way back to the one true path. New ideas should be tested, and perhaps a baseline of information about the current condition of our artists would be a first step to a more productive conversation. I would like to base our priorities for change on facts, not frustrations, but how can we create that baseline? Large institutions do have a responsibility to lead, and they certainly must be open to criticism and change, but they are neither the bulk of the problem nor can they alone be the solution to the field’s needs. It will take many different models to create opportunities for those who are not being served.
My goal was not to shut off criticism, nor was my speech about maintaining the status quo. I began with the endorsement of change quoted above, and ended my remarks with another:
To those who came here searching for something better – we need you to succeed. Whether you are fighting for change from within an institution or building your own framework from scratch – break a leg! Go forth. Model the movement.
I believe that we have done great work and continue to do so. I also believe we have much more to do as individuals and as a field, and look forward to the serious work ahead.
Michael Maso has led the Huntington’s administrative and financial operations since 1982, producing more than 160 plays in partnership with three artistic directors and leading the Huntington’s ten-year drive to build the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, which opened in September 2004. In recognition of these efforts, he was honored by the Boston Herald as 2004′s Theatre Man of the Year. He received the 2010 Theatre Hero Award from StageSource, the Greater Boston Theatre Alliance. From 1997 to 2005, he served as president of the League of Resident Theatres (LORT), an association of 70 of the country’s major not-for-profit professional theatres. In 2005, he was named as one of a dozen members of the inaugural class of the Barr Fellows Program. He is the 2005 recipient of the Commonwealth Award, the state’s highest arts honor, in the category of Catalyst. In 2000, Mr. Maso was honored with the Norton Prize for Sustained Excellence at Boston’s Elliot Norton Awards. He has served as a member of the board of directors of the Theatre Communications Group (TCG), the national service organization for not-for-profit theatre, and as a site visitor, panelist, and panel chairman for the National Endowment for the Arts. Mr. Maso is also a member of the board of directors of ArtsBoston. Prior to coming to the Huntington, he spent three seasons as the managing director of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. He has also been the general manager of New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company, business manager for PAF Playhouse on Long Island, and an independent arts management consultant based in Taos, New Mexico. Mr. Maso is an associate professor of theatre at Boston University.