Thanks to the Ann Arbor Independent Newspaper which is now including me (semi-regularly) as an arts and culture contributor. My first piece appeared last week as part of their “Culture Vulture” series. A scan of the article is captured below, and the text follows. Enjoy!
noun, often capitalized \ˈshä-dən-ˌfrȯi-də\
: a feeling of enjoyment that comes from seeing or hearing about the troubles of other people
By now, we’ve all digested the news that beloved, award-winning Ann Arbor-theatrical mainstay The Performance Network abruptly shuttered its doors (and fabulous floor to ceiling windows) on May 22. Possibly between the time this glib little opinion piece was composed and when you are holding it in your hot little hands, more info has come to light, but, right now, we are woefully in the dark, other than one cryptic press release and some social media nervous breakdowns that I will be courteous enough not to repeat here for all parties involved.
(Does PNT not have a PR person worth their salt to manage this situation? ‘Cause there are a lot of accusations flying about the interwebs, hot-blooded musings from troubled artists … the kind of things that make lawyers either shudder or salivate and leave the rest of us just shaking our heads in collective sadness.)
Here’s the official word: “The board of directors of Performance Network Theatre has determined that the theater is not currently financially viable and suspends all operations, effective immediately. The board wants to thank the community, actors, directors, designers, donors, and subscribers for their long-standing support of the theater.”
This is not a lot to go on, and it certainly leaves the stage door wide open for theatre pros and amateurs across the land to conjecture all kinds of tomfoolery and Shakespearean intrigue.
In the spirit of disclosure, I’m one of those rubberneckers. I’m not one of the theatrical “cool kids” in Southeast Michigan. I’m not one of the 12 performers who always get mentioned in Encore (the weekly newsblast that goes out summarizing local theatre) and I will never be nominated for a Wilde Award (especially not now). It sounds like I’m bitter. I’m not. At least not much.
However, I respect deeply the work of those 12 performers. We have such talent and such creativity in the theatre community here. It needs to be cultivated and supported, and these are folks who have given their life’s blood (quite literally) to create some beautiful things in Southeast Michigan.
But, here’s the thing that happens with all artists at the local level, and I’m seriously armchair quarterbacking as someone who has helped found a theatre company, has acted in a lot of amateur and semi-professional productions, and who writes frequently about the arts here: artists talk a good game about supporting each other, but they still tend to behave as if they are all chasing after the same last scrap of bread.
The very profession lends itself to this cutthroat behavior: audition for a role, show up and there are 100 other talented people all wanting it, give it your best shot, dig at the other performers, shake their confidence, get the part (or don’t). And, even when you do get the part, subsist on little to no compensation, give it your all, get knocked around by critics, perform for non-existent audiences, rinse, and repeat.
I can’t speak to the business decisions at the Performance Network or what debts were racked up or how unforeseen calamities (like a burst water pipe) may have been the proverbial straw. But I do wonder about what creative hubris may result from living in perennial fear that some other artists will come along and eat your box office lunch.
A successful creative enterprise must know the audience and be sensitive to changing tastes and styles. I saw a number of shows at Performance Network, and I was always so impressed technically but I also always felt like I was outside looking in. The proceedings felt a bit hermetically sealed … like being assigned really interesting homework.
And I’m enough of a plebian that, ultimately, I’d probably rather spend my entertainment dollars to go see The Avengers than an avant garde treatment of Richard III. That is totally unfair, and really crappy of me to type … but it’s a market truth. Was Performance Network actually competing against The Avengers? Of course not, but did the company reach a point of insularity, inaccessibility, and cliquishness? Possibly.
There does seem to be some hope ahead as a new venture is rising from the ashes – something called Theater NOVA, the mission statement of which (according to their Facebook page) reads: “Creating a more sustainable model of non-profit theatre, through innovation in production/administration, commitment to artists, and true accessibility.” It’s that last word that rings truest. And I hope they mean it – accessibility … of content, for talent, for audiences. That is key. I wish them luck and hope that this momentary crisis has blown out the cobwebs, popped the pretensions, and lit a fire for improved business management. [Check out the latest developments – all seemingly positive – here. And the final resolution from the board as reported here.]
The preceding opinions are not likely to make me very popular in Southeast Michigan’s theatrical community. In fact, they may get me banned for life. I hope not, but, from monitoring social media, I seem to be alone in this perspective. That’s depressing. Successful artists know how to set up the “big tent” and invite everyone in. A closed ecosystem that just cycles through the same resources will always stagnate.
Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.